May 16, 2020

When Genre Worlds Collide: Crooks vs. Creatures, Part Two

Poster - The Astounding She-Monster (1957)
Now Playing: The Astounding She-Monster (1957)

Pros: The whole crazy concept of the She-Monster (if you’re a fan of bad movies); there’s some fun banter between the kidnappers.
Cons: The whole crazy concept (if you’re not a fan); the action scenes are repetitive and dull.

Remote places in the countryside have been such a staple of horror movies over the years that urban settings seem almost as rare and out-of-place as RuPaul at an Amish barn-raising. More specifically, the venerable Cabin in the Woods has appeared so often that it inevitably became both the setting and the star of its own meta-horror film that hilariously lampooned several decades worth of the subgenre.

While ostensibly representing rugged self-sufficiency and a sanctuary from the rat race, the remote cabin is the perfect place for the movie monster to ply his or her trade. Potential victims are cut-off from easy communication with or access to the outside world, including police and medical care. And once the monster gets them trapped inside, the cramped quarters combined with high anxiety can get the victims fighting among themselves and make them even easier to pick off.

In The Astounding She-Monster, the titular creature has her victims nicely trapped in a remote mountain cabin, but this being a late-50s B movie, instead of being a psycho or an in-bred mutant hillbilly, she is a sci-fi menace from outer space. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your affinity for bad movies), the She-Monster is an astoundingly odd duck.

The creature (portrayed by Shirley Kilpatrick) is like an antimatter version of Vampira with thick, pointed eyebrows that make a dramatic V on her face, but instead of a black Gothic outfit, she wears a shimmery bodysuit that hugs her like a second skin. She’s almost as slow as Universal’s mummy, carefully putting one foot in front of the other as if she’s making her way through broken glass. She’s also mute like the mummy, and has about as much personality.

Composite stills - Maila Nurmi as Vampire and Shirley Kilpatrick as the She-Monster
Separated at birth, one chose the path of darkness, the other, the path of spandex bodysuits.

To add to the strangeness, the movie employs a double-exposure process in the She-Monster’s scenes to simulate a sort of radioactive glow, but the wavering, undulating effect reminds me more of trying to look at someone through the haze of an all-night drinking binge (not that I know about such things first hand, but I’ve heard stories).

Lastly, her touch means instant death, but owing to the production’s cheapness and its amateurish direction, this “feature” isn’t nearly as dramatic or suspenseful as it could be. Several characters (and unfortunately two animals) get the She-Monster’s fatal touch, but their deaths have all the impact of a joy-buzzer handshake: the touch, a short, muffled scream, and bam, they’re done.

The She-Monster rambles around in a plot made super-simple by the exigencies of producer-director Ronald V. Ashcroft’s super-low budget and super-fast shooting schedule. A trio of kidnappers led by gruff, hard-boiled Nat (Kenne Duncan) nab wealthy socialite Margaret Chaffee (Marilyn Harvey) in broad daylight. On their way to a hideout in the San Gabriel mountains, the driver Brad (Ewing Brown) swerves to avoid a bizarre, shimmering figure in the road and wrecks the car.

In the meantime, lonesome geologist Dick Cutler (Robert Clarke) is talking to his dog Egan (played by Egan, Clarke’s stepsons’ dog) about the apparent meteor he saw crashing nearby, and what an opportunity it would be to find pieces of it. He gets a nasty surprise when Nat barges into the mountain cabin, demanding the keys to Dick’s decrepit jeep to make their getaway.

Unfortunately for the crooks, night has fallen, and the jeep’s headlights are broken. Dick warns Nat that the road back to the highway is treacherous, and they’ll never make it without lights. Of course, we know that the meteor was no meteor, the weird lady on the road was no lady, and before the night is over, they’re going to get an unwanted visitor, and it won’t be Avon calling.

Still - Close-up of Shirley Kilpatrick as The She-Monster (1957)
"Hello, are you the lady of the house? I'm wondering, have you had a
chance to sample our fine line of beauty products?"

Actually, the kidnappers barging into Dick’s humble abode is the liveliest part of the movie (that’s not saying a lot), with the crooks barking sarcastic zingers at one another and at the hapless geologist. Nat is especially fond of hard-boiled one-liners. When he first pushes his way in and Dick demands to know what he wants, Nat sneers contemptuously, “Well pardon me, I’ll write you for an invitation next time.” Moments later, when he learns that the jeep’s lights don’t work, he tells Dick, “Don’t worry my partner will fix ‘em, he did post-graduate work at San Quentin.”

Nat’s alcoholic girlfriend Esther (Jeanne Tatum) is also along for the ride, and together with her caustic boyfriend and nervous Brad, they bicker and jab at each other like they're auditioning for a boozy, noir version of I Love Lucy. Later, when the She-Monster shows up outside the cabin and Brad and Nat leave one after the other to investigate, Esther gets her turn in the spotlight.

Esther, alone in the cabin and with a gun trained on the captives, drains the last bottle of booze and then asks Dick if there’s any more. Realizing they have a slim opportunity, Dick and Margaret start playing mind games with the soused moll. First Dick offers to fetch a bottle from the bedroom, then Margaret, then the two suggest that Esther get it herself. When the phone rings, Dick tells her that it’s probably his friend the fire warden, and if he doesn’t pick up, the warden will think something’s wrong. The flummoxed Esther mutters to herself, “If I had a drink I could think better…”

Still - Robert Clarke, Jeanne Tatum and Kenne Duncan in The Astounding She-Monster
Esther examines the bottom of her bottle as Dick and Nat discuss options.

At least Esther’s scene has a little pathos going for it. By contrast, there’s no pathos and little suspense in the action scenes with the She-Monster. Characters dutifully tromp out into the woods at night, shoot their guns, try to avoid the death-touch, get spooked and retreat to the cabin -- and do this more than once. Viewer patience is mightily tested, as the scenes are flat and amateurishly directed. The biggest problem is the She-Monster, who is mute and expressionless throughout, and about as scary as a mime-in-training.

The scenes featuring the kidnappers and the captives without the She-Monster are interesting enough, and the dialog snappy enough, that one wonders if producer/director Ronald Ashcroft and writer Frank Hall would’ve been better off doing a straight crime flick.

But this being 1957, with distributors crying out for more atomic mutants and assorted space-age threats to feed into the voracious maw of the teen market, straight crime would not have been nearly as easy a sell. So, in addition to a deadly, radioactive space-babe, Ashcroft and Hall dressed up their bargain basement crime thriller with a pre-titles tour of outer space complete with a portentous narrator to get the ball rolling, and a “Day the Earth Stood Still”-type message to wrap things up.

Still - Marilyn Harvey and Robert Clarke in The Astounding She-Monster (1957)
"Hurry Margaret, we're going to miss The Andy Griffith Show!"

In Robert Clarke’s memoir To “B” or Not to “B”: A Film Actor’s Odyssey (with Tom Weaver, Midnight Marquee Press, 1996), the actor related a couple of amusing examples of how the cheap production prompted some “creative” improvisation:
“To give [the She-Monster Shirley Kilpatrick] an unearthly appearance Ronnie [Ashcroft] also gave her pointed eyebrows and he focused a bright light on her in the outdoor scenes so that she would look like she was glowing with radioactivity. … Mostly it was the tight, shiny suit that gave her the look of a weird yet appealing kind of alien -- but the first time she moved in the doggone thing, it split right up the back. The outfit was so skin-tight that there was no way to properly repair it, and so what they did was use safety pins to hold it together in the back. That’s why, in the movie, she never leaves a scene in any way other than backing away from the camera -- it added to the weirdness of the character, but the real reason she did that, if she turned around, she’d be showing the camera her backside!

  One of the big ‘scare’ scenes in the picture was going to be a shot of the She-Monster unexpectedly crashing through a window and into the geologist’s cabin. A candy-glass window and frame were made at a cost of one or two hundred dollars, which is a big outlay for a single prop when you’re working on the sort of budget Ronnie was. But as some of the guys were trying to get the thing into position, they dropped and broke it. … Ronnie very resourcefully had them put some of the bigger fragments back into the frame of the window and then had Shirley jump through. Later, when he edited the film, he cut that shot in such a way that it actually worked pretty well.” [pp. 174-5]
Still - The Astounding She-Monster confronts the earthlings (1957)
"Dagnabbit! Somebody's paying for that window!"

In spite of a bottom-of-the-barrel monster held together with safety pins, there seems to have been little doubt that Ashcroft would sell the thing for distribution. Clarke again:
“Ronnie decided to offer the picture to AIP [American International Pictures} for distribution, and he showed it to Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff at Nicholson’s house. After the movie was over, the three of them were in the projection room and Nicholson was rewinding the film. Arkoff, puffing on his trademark cigar, made the offer.

  ‘Well Ron, I’d like to buy it,' Arkoff told Ronnie through a cloud of blue smoke. ‘You know, you’re going to tell me that you’ve got $50,000 into this, but I know you’ve only got 40 so we’ll give you 60.’

  Ronnie grinned and told him, ‘You’ve just bought a picture.’

  … What Arkoff didn’t know was that the cost of Astounding She-Monster -- which Ronnie had originally projected at around $50,000 -- had come to just $18,000.” [p. 176]
Clarke was sufficiently impressed with the financial return on Ashcroft’s shabby She-Monster that he decided he would produce his own, higher quality independent creature feature, and The Hideous Sun Demon (1958) was born (see my review here).

Still - Shirley Kilpatrick at the climax of The Astounding She-Monster (1957)
"Oh crap, I split the seat of my bodysuit again!"

I doubt that Ronnie Ashcroft could ever have guessed, even in his wildest dreams, that the picture would be remembered beyond a single drive-in season, much less be touted over 60 years later as a “schlock classic,” with a long list of TV broadcasts and home video releases on its resume.

Even though it exudes cheapness from every pore, She-Monster at least tries to do something different by pitting wisecracking gangsters against one of the more oddball alien menaces of the era. If you haven’t seen it, it might be worth a look if only for curiosity’s sake (and it’s only a little over an hour long.)

Where to find it: The She-Monster is streaming on demand right here.

May 1, 2020

When Genre Worlds Collide: Crooks vs. Creatures, Part One

Poster - Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)
Now Playing: Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)

Pros: The mash-up of crime-thriller, sci-fi and horror genres works surprisingly well; A couple of the actors shine with the snappy, noirish dialog; The creature concept is unique and eerie.
Cons: The crooks’ “brilliant” heist seems particularly looney; Makes you wonder what might have been if the budget had been a tad bigger.

When I first saw From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), I remember thinking how clever it was of the filmmakers to get things all revved up with what looked like a hard-charging crime-action-thriller, then, like a crazy cab ride in Hell, take a hard turn down a dark and bloody horror detour. If you don’t like getting whiplash from colliding genres, then you probably don’t seek out movies like that in the first place. However, enough people were intrigued rather than annoyed by the bait-and-switch that the film did decent box office and went on to become a legitimate cult favorite. And of course, director Robert Rodriquez and screenwriter (and actor) Quentin Tarantino would become kings of genre filmmaking.

Kings usually owe their positions to their forebears, and Rodriquez and Tarantino are no different. Tarantino in particular is an unashamed B/exploitation flick nerd-geek, and has made a wildly successful living mining vintage sleaze for films that, love ‘em or not, are like nothing else coming out of Hollywood. As he famously said in a 1994 interview, “I steal from every movie ever made… Great artists steal, they don’t do homages.” Ironically, Tarantino’s stealing from earlier film eras makes his films seem wildly original compared to the endless stream of remakes, reboots and CGI-infused comic book movies the industry spews out. 

Still - George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino, From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
"It's okay George, your career is going to be fine after this.
Just take the money and buy something nice for yourself."
I doubt that Beast from Haunted Cave (1959) was a direct influence on Tarantino, but who knows? Beast certainly shares a good bit of celluloid DNA with From Dusk Till Dawn: a criminal gang escapes into the remote countryside after a big heist, only to jump from the frying pan into the fire as they encounter a horrific, bloodthirsty creature that wreaks the ultimate Karmic justice.

I know I sound like a broken record, but Beast from Haunted Cave is yet another creature feature that had a big impact on me when I was a kid. I first encountered Beast at the bowling alley, of all places, when I was about 10 years old. My parents bowled in a Friday night league, and instead of getting a babysitter they often took me along.

That was okay by me, because the bowling alley had a lounge with a TV. The lounge was usually empty, so it became my TV den away from home. Better yet, there was a creature feature show that aired on Friday nights, so I was in heaven with the movie and a soda and candy from the machine.

The Friday night show specialized in ‘50s and ‘60s sci-fi like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Killers from Space, and the early Roger Corman cheapies. I remember being excited on one of those bowling league nights about seeing Beast from Haunted Cave for the first time. But the excitement dissipated when it started out looking like some boring crime caper, with jaded adults snarling and shouting and roughing each other up.

CAUTION: SPOILERS HIDING IN THE SHADOWS AHEAD, WAITING TO JUMP OUT AT YOU!

Photo - rental bowling shoes
Even more frightening than the Beast from Haunted Cave:
shoes you share with hundreds of other people!
I managed to stick with it long enough to get a jolt. It was a scene in which a character investigates weird cries in the night, and shines his flashlight on a gaunt, spectral-looking woman, half-conscious, who is wrapped in a huge web and suspended in a tree.

That got my attention. I remember checking in a lot with my parents the rest of the evening, which was not my usual practice, and I slept pretty fitfully that night. Like any resilient Monster Kid, the next time Beast aired I made sure to catch it, determined to see it all the way through. I enjoyed it well enough, making allowances for the boring crime caper parts, but I also remember ultimately being disappointed with the monster, which seemed spindly and slow and not very scary.

But man, it was the monster’s work that was the scary part. I’d not seen anything quite like it up to that point: humans pinned against trees or cave walls by giant webs, weakly crying for help as the thing lumbers toward them.

I didn’t have a word for it back then, but having recently watched Beast again, “uncanny” fits nicely. It’s the kind of feeling that some phobic people get when they just think about big, fat spiders (not to mention human-sized ones). It’s also on par with the dread generated by the shock ending of the original The Fly (but done with a fraction of that film’s budget).

Still - Beast from Haunted Case (1959) claims another victim
It suddenly dawned on Natalie that she had forgotten to get bug spray at the store.

Experiencing it again with adult sensibilities, I have a better appreciation for the “boring” heist sequences. Like Rodriquez’s and Tarantino’s hybrid horror-thriller, the juxtaposition of gangsters with a whole ‘nother level of otherworldly evil serves to sharpen the suspense, keeps the viewer guessing, and even draws a little extra humanity out of criminal characters that might otherwise be all-too-familiar cardboard cutouts.

Beast’s odd coupling of genres was apparently born more out of economical improvisation than artistic inspiration. Always looking to shoot pictures as quickly and cheaply as possible and tired of their usual locations in southern California, producers Roger Corman and brother Gene arranged with the town of Deadwood, South Dakota, for some picturesque winter location shooting. To get the most for their travel money, they planned to shoot two pictures there back-to-back using the same cast and crew: Beast, a horror quickie, and Ski Troop Attack, a lower-than-low-budget war picture.

Even the story was recycled. Roger’s go-to screenwriter Charles B. Griffith dusted off an old script from an earlier gangster/heist potboiler (Naked Paradise, 1957), added a monster, and bam, they were good to go. (Griffith scripted the best known of Roger Corman’s early cult favorites, including Not of This Earth, Attack of the Crab Monsters, A Bucket of Blood, and The Little Shop of Horrors.)

At the core of Griffith’s recycled plot is a tension-filled love triangle that develops when a gang pulls off a heist and enlists an innocent, unsuspecting third party to help them make their escape. In Naked Paradise (with its tropical island setting), the dupe is a for-hire boat captain (played by Richard Denning). In Beast, the gang hires lodge owner and outdoorsman Gil Jackson (Michael Forest) to lead them in a cross-country ski trek to a cabin where, unbeknownst to Gil, they plan to be picked up by a bush plane.

Naturally, complications ensue for the gang. First, when they set off an explosion in a nearby mine to divert attention while they clean out the mining company's stash of gold bars, the blast awakens a prehistoric monster that is royally pissed that its lair has been blown up. The creature proceeds to stalk the gang as they take off for the remote cabin. (To add insult to injury, the criminal geniuses don’t seem to have considered how hard it is to lug heavy gold bars cross-country on skis, or how quickly the weather can change in South Dakota hill country.)

Still - Heist scene in Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)
"So Marty, how many bars have you got? No, not on your phone you idiot!"

Second, the gang leader’s moll, Gypsy (Sheila Noonan), becomes mightily disillusioned with her vicious, self-absorbed boyfriend (Frank Wolff) as she falls for the hunky, free-spirited Gil. Both complications eventually converge to create the perfect storm at the film’s conclusion.

It’s tempting to say there’s something for everyone in Beast -- snappy, noirish dialog and a tense love triangle for the adults, and a blood-sucking humanoid spider-fly creature for the kids. Conversely, there’s plenty for either audience segment to be bored with. The latter seems to have been the prevailing reaction, as, in spite of its wide release on DVD and streaming platforms, Beast has never been a nostalgic favorite like Attack of the Crab Monsters or Little Shop of Horrors.

Re-visiting Beast after a couple of decades or more, it occurred to me that, absent the monster, this could have been a decent little low-budget noir. Certainly screenwriter Griffith had an ear for Chandleresque dialog. Take for example this exchange between Gypsy and Alexander at the lodge’s tavern:
Gypsy (commenting on the other bar patrons): "Look at all the happy little people enjoying their freedom. Dosey doe and round we go."
Alexander (looking peeved): "What kind of freedom is that? They’re all tied down to their petty futures."
Gypsy: "It might be nice to have a future, even a petty little one."
When he’s not being vicious and controlling, we see flashes of what attracted Gypsy to Alexander. He knows what he wants, wears cool shades indoors, and his cynicism could easily be confused with sophistication by naive young women.

Still - Frank Wolff and Sheila Noonan in Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)
Alexander smokes, drinks and wears his sunglasses at night.

But once Gypsy has gotten a taste of Gil’s life of the great outdoors, fresh air, and true freedom to do as you please, Alexander’s constricted, bitter life of never being satisfied, endlessly moving around and endlessly planning the next big job, looks a lot less attractive.

Rather than undercutting Gypsy’s poignant story, the addition of the beast punctuates it. Gil’s great outdoors contains more things than are dreamt of in a gangster’s philosophy, including weird bloodsucking monsters that get coughed up from the bowels of the earth by ill-considered explosive charges. Next to such ancient evil, Alexander looks petty and small. It’s fitting that, while the local authorities are apparently powerless to apprehend the crooks, Nature is there to step in and deliver ultimate justice.

If you’re willing to keep an open mind and not judge it by contemporary special effects standards (and if you’re reading this, you’re no doubt very open minded), then the beast does have some effectively eerie moments delivering Nature’s justice (and admittedly, a few that don’t work so well). It certainly is unlike anything else in sci-fi/horror before or since.

In his epic survey of American sci-fi films of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Keep Watching the Skies! (McFarland, 1986), Bill Warren recounts how the Beast was born:
“[T]he beast, which he [actor and special effects artist Chris Robinson] called ‘Humphrass,’ … was seven feet tall with eleven-foot arms. He based the design on that of an insect he discovered in a book on unusual animals, the wingless hanging fly. ‘To one plywood base, I added a thin aluminum stripping to create the skeletal form. I then covered the skeleton over with chicken wire. After that I wrapped it in sheets and muslin, sort of like I was making a mummy. … The head was fashioned out of quarter-inch aluminum wire, with steel wrapped around that and then once again in muslin, forming a sort of shroud…’ Robinson completed Humphrass by adding spun glass to give it an appropriately cobwebby appearance.” [Warren, p. 233]
While Warren acknowledges that the beast is “not realistic,” he does call it “eerie and unusual” and singles out the scene that had such an impact on me as a kid:
“The film, in fact, has one great shudder scene, the shot of Natalie, encased in webbing, opening her eyes. Our first glimpse of her has a peculiar impact; it’s so unexpected that you have a hard time adjusting to what you are seeing. And the image is beautiful. About the time you recognize it as a corpse caught in the branches, the ‘corpse’ opens her eyes. It’s an imaginative, almost poetic moment, at once both conventional and unusual, like the film itself.” [Ibid., p. 234]
Still - Linné Ahlstrand as the Beast from Haunted Cave's first victim (1959)
This beautiful, poetic moment scared the crap out of me when I was a kid.

Getting back to the human characters, Sheila Noonan (credited in the film as Sheila Carol), is especially good as Gypsy, whose character, fittingly for her name, has been wandering around for too long in the criminal underworld, clinging to a sociopath incapable of love. Surprisingly, Noonan only appeared in a handful of films -- Beast, Ski Troop AttackA Bucket of Blood (with the inimitable Dick Miller), The Incredible Petrified World (a stinker with John Carradine) -- and a single episode of Gunsmoke; all between 1957 and 1960.

Michael Forest as Gil is as wooden as a tree (pun intended), but then, as a buff icon representing clean living and the complete antithesis of Alexander’s urban decadence, nothing more is really required of him. In contrast to Noonan’s brief career, Forest, born in 1929, is still acting today (!!), with literally hundreds of credits and a new film slated for this year. Fans of vintage sci-fi TV may remember his stints on the original Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, and Star Trek series.

The third member of the triangle, Frank Wolff as Alexander the gang leader, brings just enough cynical humanity to the role to make it conceivable that Gypsy might have once had a thing for him, regardless of the character’s disregard for human life. Wolff got his start in films doing the two South Dakota shoots (Beast and Ski Troop Attack) and Atlas (Corman’s mediocre attempt at sword and sandal), but in the early ‘60s he moved to Europe and racked up a considerable number of credits in low-budget potboilers, especially spaghetti westerns. Tragically, he committed suicide in 1971.

Still - Sheila Noonan and Michael Forest in Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)
"Hey Gypsy, I'll bet you didn't know that many parts of a pine tree are edible!"

Beast was Monte Hellman’s first directing job (Gene Corman is credited as Producer and Roger as Executive Producer). Unlike other directors who got their starts with Roger Corman (e.g., Joe Dante, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ron Howard), Hellman never managed to break into the big time, but he does have the distinction of having directed Jack Nicholson (pre-superstardom) in five films; two westerns (The Shooting, Ride in the Whirlwind), a war picture (Back Door to Hell), a crime-thriller (Flight to Fury), and a horror picture (The Terror; he was one of seven credited directors to take part in that chaotic production).

Beast deserves more of a cult reputation than it’s gotten over the years. To echo Bill Warren, it is one of the more unusual “conventional” sci-fi/horror pics of the 1950s, and includes one eerie scene that is almost “beautiful” in its frightfulness. Add Charles B. Griffith’s stylishly noir dialog and an unconventional love triangle, and you’ve got a B picture that is much more than the sum of its economical parts.

Where to find it: Thankfully, you can throw a stone in any direction and likely hit a DVD copy or a stream.

Coming Soon: More crooks vs. creatures mayhem as a gang of kidnappers do battle with a beautiful but deadly alien in The Astounding She-Monster (1957)!