April 13, 2021

Amazing Animal People #6: The Vulture

Amazing Animal People trading card #6, The Vulture, 1967

On a dark and stormy night in a remote village in Cornwall, a woman decides to take a shortcut home through a church cemetery. To her horror, something claws its way out of a nearby grave and takes flight on huge wings. Later at the hospital, the woman, whose hair has turned completely white, describes the thing as having the body of a huge bird, grasping, human hands and a horrible human head.

The police discover that the coffin at the gravesite is empty. Local legend had it that the person buried there, Francis Real, had been accused of sorcery by the patriarch of the area’s most prominent family, the Strouds, and was buried alive along with a strange vulture-like pet and a chest of gold coins. Legend also had it that before dying, Real had vowed to rise again and kill off every remaining Stroud descendent.

American nuclear scientist Dr. Eric Lutens (Robert Hutton) and his wife Trudy (Diane Clare) are visiting Trudy’s uncle, Brian Stroud (Broderick Crawford) at his large estate. The police think graverobbers are to blame for the incident at the graveyard, but when Lutens hears the hospitalized woman’s story first hand, he’s not so sure.

The absence of footprints at the gravesite, and a strange feather found there, seem to confirm the woman’s story. Later, a mutilated sheep’s carcass is found high up on a cliff ledge, as if a huge bird of prey had carried it there. Lutens interviews a local scholar and antiquarian, Prof. Hans Koniglich (Akim Tamiroff), who confirms the details of the legend and agrees that there may be an extraordinary explanation for what’s happening.

Will Lutens solve the mystery of The Vulture before the curse claims the lives of the Strouds, including his beloved Trudy?

Funamimal Fact: American actor Robert Hutton was offered the lead in The Vulture while he was in London editing a film he had shot in Lisbon, Portugal. He recalled wanting very much to work with veteran Akim Tamiroff and Broderick Crawford, who was a longtime friend. But on the set, Crawford was not above messing with him:

“In the movie Brod[erick] had a cane with a wolf’s head on it, very highly polished. And I remember I had a long speech by a fireplace and he had to just sit there and listen to me go on and on. During rehearsal he played with that wolf’s head and twisted it around and made it reflect the light. Stealing the scene. And I thought, ‘Now, that’s not right, not while I’m talking -- I’ve got a long speech here!’ So just before we got to the actual take, I said, ‘Brod, are you going to play with that wolf’s head like you did in rehearsal?’ And he said [laughs], ‘No, I was just trying you out.’ He was a wonderful guy." [Interview in Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes, Tom Weaver, McFarland, 1991]

 

Lobby card - The Vulture, 1967
"So, how long have you been working here?"

Animal Crack-up (click on the text to see the punchline):

Why are vultures reluctant to fly on commercial airliners?


Don't miss these other Amazing Animal People:

Lota from Island of Lost Souls | Paula Dupree, Captive Wild Woman | The Mole People | Leonora the Cat Girl | The Alligator People

April 1, 2021

Jules Verne: Master of the Science Fiction World

Poster - Master of the World (1961)
Now Playing:
 Master of the World (1961)


Pros: Vincent Price and Charles Bronson give solid performances; The Albatross airship is impressive in exterior shots; Presents some interesting moral quandaries.
Cons: Cheap production values; Weak direction and editing; Comic relief scenes fall flat.

Note: I am participating for the second straight year in the "Classic Literature on Film Blogathon" hosted by Paul Batters at his Silver Screen Classics blog. Do the classy thing and after you finish this post, head on over there for some great perspectives on the always tricky business of adapting literary works to film. (If you're curious about what I did last year, see my post on Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables.)

As I write this, NASA engineers are preparing for the first ever helicopter flight over the surface of Mars. To commemorate this interplanetary aviation first, they installed a small piece of fabric from the Wright brothers’ original airplane on the Ingenuity helicopter. Which is appropriate, since this new pioneering flying machine looks a little like something cobbled together by two guys in their bicycle shop.

NASA depiction of the Mars Ingenuity helicopter
"Mars base here, the Mosquito has landed!"

It’s weird to imagine such a frail-looking contraption zooming over the surface of Mars (knock on wood that all goes well). The nerdy kid in me is tempted to think, “good grief, this is 2021, shouldn’t we be zipping from one Mars colony to another in hovercraft by now?”

On the other hand, there’s something mind blowing about operating a remote control helicopter on another planet.

I’m also tempted to think that Jules Verne, the venerable pioneer of science fiction, would have approved. Much like what the NASA people are doing, Verne used his fertile imagination to take the existing technology of the day, fiddle with it, and apply it in ways no one had thought of before.

Public domain image of Jules Verne
Jules Verne, circa 1856

In From the Earth to the Moon (1865), he imagined a colossal cannon firing a manned projectile to the moon. In Around the World in Eighty Days (1872) his protagonist Phileas Fogg races across the globe on a bet, using the era's new transcontinental railroads and steamers. Ditto for submarines, where he extrapolated from the day’s primitive semi-submersibles to a powerful, spacious vessel that could travel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). [Editor's note: embarrassingly, my original summary of Around the World in Eighty Days confused the movie's premise with the novel's; I have corrected it.] 

Which brings us to Master of the World (1904) and Robur, the conqueror of heavier-than-air flight. The brilliant inventor actually figures in two Verne novels. Robur The Conqueror and his awesome aircraft The Albatross made their debut in 1886. In that novel Robur hijacks several influential members of the Weldon Institute, who had insisted that heavier-than-air flight would never be feasible, and makes believers out of them.

Robur returned in spectacular fashion in Master of the World, considerably upping the ante with a craft dubbed the Terror, capable of tremendous speeds on land, on and under the sea, and in the air.

With Disney having scored big with its lavish production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954, it was a sure bet that Robur would get his chance to do for the skies what Captain Nemo did for the seas on the silver screen.

American International Pictures (AIP), no doubt recognizing an opportunity to piggyback off of Disney’s success, teamed up with Alta Vista Productions to create their own megalomaniacal captain. They combined the two Robur novels and made the character a Nemo-esque fanatic who uses his formidable airship to try to enforce world peace. Master of the World took its maiden flight in theaters in 1961.

AIP tapped Vincent Price, fresh off his role as Roderick Usher in Roger Corman's House of Usher (1960), to play Robur. With his imposing stature and aristocratic demeanor, Price was a natural for the part. To add to the bigger than life effect, Price was outfitted with a tropical white suit, a full beard, and huge, Mephistophelian eyebrows. (The intimidation factor is mitigated, however, by Robur’s crumpled captain’s hat, which looks a bit like the Skipper’s from Gilligan’s Island.)

Vincent Price as Robur, Master of the World, 1961
"You starched my underwear again, didn't you?"

The film opens with a couple of citizens of Morgantown, PA, circa 1868, complaining about how their town is the most boring in the entire country. Right on cue, the ground shakes, thunder sounds, and eerie lights are seen over a nearby mountain. A booming, god-like voice is heard over the cacophony: “Harken ye people… for the indignation of the Lord is upon all nations, and his fury upon all their armies… he shall utterly destroy them.”

Cut to a meeting of the Weldon Balloon Society in Philadelphia, where John Strock (Charles Bronson), an operative for the U.S. Dept. of the Interior, is watching a debate between Mr. Prudent  (Henry Hull), a wealthy arms manufacturer, and Phillip Evans (David Frankham), over whether a propeller should be placed in the front or the rear of a modified manned balloon.

Strock is there to commission the Society’s balloon to fly over the Pennsylvania mountain in an attempt to find out what was behind the weird events. The three men and Prudent’s attractive and spirited daughter Dorothy (Mary Webster) take off in the supposedly state-of-the-art balloon. As they float over the site, a rocket suddenly shoots out from a crater at the mountain’s summit, grazing the craft and forcing it down.

Charles Bronson, Henry Hull and David Frankham aloft in a balloon, Master of the World, 1961
Prudent, the pompous industrialist, is master of all he surveys...
until he meets Robur the Conquerer.

Knocked unconscious by the crash, the four wake up to find themselves in what appears to be a spacious and well-appointed sailing ship. The befuddled group is taken by a crewmember to meet Robur, who calmly informs them that they are aboard an enormous airship, the Albatross, 150 feet long by 20 wide, weighing several tons, and capable of speeds up to 150 mph.

Robur takes the group on a tour, proudly explaining that the Albatross is powered by electricity generated by “dense metals cutting through magnetic force lines,” and that to save weight, the ship is largely made out of extruded straw paper mixed with clay and dextrin.

Prudent, old school to the core, blusters and snorts in disbelief, but there’s no denying that they’re in an enormous ship flying thousands of feet above the earth. When Prudent challenges Robur to turn himself and his fantastic invention into U.S. authorities, Robur tells him that he will do no such thing, that he is a citizen of the world, loyal to no country. Moreover, he has declared war on war, and intends to use his ship to force the world’s nations to disarm.

Robur proves that he is in deadly earnest when, as the Albatross is flying across the Atlantic, they encounter an American warship. Through the ship’s voice amplifier Robur warns the crew to abandon ship, but when the warship fires its cannons, he sinks it with some well-placed bombs.

Outraged, Evans and Prudent want to try to escape at the first opportunity, but Strock is skeptical that it can be done. He thinks the better part of valor is to stay onboard and observe Robur and the ship’s capabilities before doing anything rash. Hot-headed Evans accuses Strock of being a coward, or worse yet, a collaborator. But his feelings may have more to do with Dorothy’s obvious attraction to Strock.

Henry Hull, David Frankham, Charles Bronson and Mary Webster in Master of the World, 1961
The crew of the Weldon Society balloon are a little worse for the wear
after their encounter with one of Robur's rockets.

Eventually, the four prisoners agree to take action against Robur, but before arriving at their do or die moment, they have ringside seats as the madman sinks English warships at harbor near London, and intercedes in a North African war by bombing the two opposing armies.

When Master of the World opened in 1961, ads proclaimed that it was “In the tradition of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Around the World in 80 Days.” To continue the tradition, the producers and screenwriter Richard Matheson took Verne’s Robur, who was primarily concerned with demonstrating his brilliance to lunk-headed skeptics, and turned him into a fanatical Nemo knock-off with far more grandiose plans to make war-loving nations bend to his will.

Unfortunately, AIP’s ambitions far exceeded its resources. Cheapness rears its ugly head at every turn through the film’s 102 minute run time. In the opening scene, Robur’s god-like demonstration at the Pennsylvania mountain features a particularly unconvincing backdrop painting. Later, paintings rather than models are mainly used as stand-ins for the warships that Robur sinks. Much of the other action and spectacle is accomplished via rear projection or stock footage.

The exterior of the Albatross is impressive enough; the ship is dirigible-shaped with bright orange anthropomorphic suns painted on its sides, large propellers fore and aft, huge fish-like fins at the stern and a small forest of helicopter blades on its topside (not to mention the bomb bay door underneath). But the interiors, with the exception of Robur’s cabin, look more like a 19th century boarding house than a stately clipper of the air (after the Weldon group is abducted but before they figure out what sort of craft they’re being held on, Prudent guesses that it’s a riverboat). An airborne Nautilus it is not.

Exterior shot of the Albatross, Master of the World, 1961
The Albatross soars over the coast of Ireland.

Moreover, the ambitious premise is frittered away with long stretches of the captives bickering and blustering among themselves, and an unfortunate stab at comic relief featuring the ship’s French chef (Vito Scotti), complete with a comically thick accent, who keeps getting banged in the head with his pots and pans whenever the airship makes sudden maneuvers.

William Witney’s indifferent direction doesn’t help matters. Inexplicably, several exchanges between the protagonists on the exterior deck of the airship are shot with a heavy wire mesh in the foreground (at least Robur was safety-conscious). Witney also has a bad habit of shooting principal characters from the back even as they’re delivering impassioned lines.

Still, I wouldn’t write about Master of the World if there wasn’t something to like. Matheson includes an interesting aviation variant of the cruel sailing tradition of keelhauling. After the captives’ first escape attempt, Robur makes examples of Evans and Strock by tying them up with ropes and lowering them from the bomb bay door. He then proceeds to fly low over a mountain range, to the point where the men have to push off from outcroppings with their feet to avoid being smashed.

The love triangle between Dorothy, Evans and Strock is also a nice touch. Even though Strock saves Evans’ life early on, the simmering tension, which is constantly threatening to erupt into all-out conflict, suggests that Evans might not return the favor when the time comes. Fans of Charles Bronson will appreciate his signature cool, steely resolve, punctuated by an occasional disarming grin, which makes for a good contrast to Evans’ bombastic hotheadedness. (On the other hand, veteran Henry Hull almost comically overplays the gruff Prudent, as if he were delivering his lines in an actual 19th century melodrama.)

Vincent Price in a contemplative moment, Master of the World, 1961
Robur contemplates his divine mission to rid the world of war.

The film also greatly benefits from Vincent Price’s nuanced performance. Robur’s mission stems from deep-seated religious convictions. The Albatross is not only a means for him to end war, but is also a sacred sanctuary. Some of the windows on the bridge and in Robur’s stateroom are stained glass, giving the ship a church-like ambience. At one point, Robur clutches a Bible in his hand as he inscrutably gazes down at a globe.

But if you’re going to wage war against war, there are probably going to be internal conflicts. Innocent people die in wars. Robur gives fair warning to the crews of the warships he’s about to sink, but when they fire on the Albatross in self-defense, he grits his teeth and sends the ships straight to the bottom with all hands.

Robur is similarly ambivalent about his captives. He first tries to kill the Weldon group by downing their balloon with a rocket, but then, finding that they’ve survived the crash, brings them aboard the airship and proceeds to play the civilized host.

And even as he decides to “keelhaul” the rebellious Evans and Strock, he’s stricken by a pang of conscience. As the men are dangling precariously beneath the ship, Robur is preoccupied on the bridge. When he realizes that he’s forgotten all about them and they’re in danger of being smashed against the rocks, a look of sheer panic crosses his face and he rushes down to the hold to rescue them.

Charles Bronson and Vincent Price in Master of the World, 1961
Charles Bronson and Vincent Price made just two films together:
House of Wax (1953) and Master of the World.

In his detailed review of Master of the World, sci-fi movie historian Bill Warren lauds Price’s performance:

“Vincent Price has one of his best roles as Robur the Conquerer. Although clearly the intent was to create a Nemoesque figure, Price’s Robur is at once more lofty and congenial than Nemo. He’s in love with the Albatross, and delighted to share this love with others; Nemo was jealous of the Nautilus. Price seems more controlled here than in his other AIP films of the time, although his best performances for them would be in the two Corman-Poe films made in England, Masque of the Red Death and Tomb of Ligeia. Price has a strong tendency to go over the top, but keeps it check here, and his Robur is more than adequate, though not as vivid as James Mason’s Nemo.” [Bill Warren, Keep Watching the Skies, Volume II, McFarland, 1986, p. 566]

Apparently Price greatly enjoyed playing Robur. Warren cites a quote of the actor’s in Vincent Price Unmasked (Steven Whitney and James Robert Parrish, Drake Publishers, 1974):

“I loved Master of the World because I thought it had a marvelous moralizing philosophy. I adored it. It was of a man who saw evil and wanted to destroy it. And if that meant the whole world, then it had to go.” [Ibid., p. 566]

Price’s enthusiastic portrayal, combined with Charles Bronson’s solid presence, serves to mitigate, if not overcome, the film’s cheap production values and weak direction. And they’re backed up by the Albatross itself, which is impressive and retro-looking at the same time.

Master of the World pales in comparison to adaptations like Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but it does grapple with some sophisticated ethical and moral quandaries while at the same time providing a thrill or two 6,000 feet above the sea.

Where to find it: Streaming; DVD 


The 2021 Classic Literature on Film Blogathon


March 25, 2021

Amazing Animal People #5: The Alligator People

Amazing Animal People trading card #5: Paul Webster, The Alligator People, 1959

Under treatment for amnesia, Jane Marvin (Beverly Garland) is administered sodium pentothal to help her recover her memories. In a hypnotic state, Jane recalls that her name is Joyce Hatten, and while working as an Army nurse, she had fallen in love with Paul Webster (Richard Crane), an officer recovering from injuries sustained in an air crash.

After being discharged, Joyce and Paul were married. Traveling by train on their honeymoon, Paul received a telegram that visibly upset him. At the next stop, Paul got off the train and promptly disappeared. Distraught, Joyce talked to the police, the Army and Paul’s friends to no avail. Finally she tracked down an old address from her husband’s university records.

After arriving in Paul’s hometown in the heart of Louisiana’s bayou country, Joyce found her long lost husband, but also learned a terrifying secret. Paul had been far more severely injured in the crash than he had let on. He had been made whole again with an experimental treatment to regenerate limbs using reptilian hormones, but there was a catch -- after a while, the patients began to take on the characteristics and features of reptiles.

Discovering that her handsome husband had tragically become one of The Alligator People led to Joyce’s amnesia.

Funanimal Fact: By this point in her career, Garland was used to encountering all kinds of monsters and beasts. For Roger Corman she battled a Venusian vegetable creature (It Conquered the World, 1956) and a space vampire (Not of This Earth, 1957). In The Alligator People, Beverly worked with real ‘gators:

One scene required Beverly to walk through a swamp infested with alligators. The swamp was faked but the gators were real. Incredibly, she wasn’t bothered about doing the scene. "I have worked with so many snakes and animals of all sorts, that alligators just don’t bother me. I worked with this incredible boa constrictor when I did Curucu, Beast of the Amazon, which was 20 feet long and didn’t bother me. Alligators, lions… I can work with them very well. They’re just another actor." [Deborah Del Vecchio, Beverly Garland: Her Life and Career, McFarland, 2013, pp. 64-65]

 

Richard Crane (?) and Beverly Garland in The Alligator People, 1959
"Honey, did you renew the supplemental dental insurance? I just got
slammed with a huge bill at the dentist's!"

Animal Crack-up (click on the text to see the punchline):

What do you call an alligator that always starts fights?

Alligator silhouette

Don't miss these other Amazing Animal People:
Lota from Island of Lost Souls | Paula Dupree, Captive Wild Woman | The Mole People | Leonora the Cat Girl

March 19, 2021

The Outer Limits of Spying: O.B.I.T.

VHS cover art, O.B.I.T., episode of The Outer Limits, 1963
Now Playing:
 "O.B.I.T." (Episode of The Outer Limits; first aired November 4, 1963)


Pros: Great script that explores sophisticated themes; Its message still resonates almost 60 years later.
Cons: Slow-paced and heavy on dialog for some tastes; The monster is awkwardly shoehorned into the plot.

Note: This post is part of the "7th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon" hosted by Terence Towles Canote at his blog A Shroud of Thoughts. Stop on by for a panoply of bloggers' picks from classic scripted TV shows.

Now that we human beings are always on and connected via our smartphones and social media apps, it’s apparently time for all the appliances and devices we use in our daily lives to get in on the fun as well.

Here we are in just the second decade of the 21st century, and we’re already ordering our personal digital assistants and smart devices around like a drunken 23rd century starship captain. We can unlock and start our cars with our phones, change the house thermostat from the office, have Alexa order groceries for delivery -- your every wish is some device’s command.

But there’s a cost to all the convenience. The tiny corners of our lives that are ours alone and no one else’s business continue to shrink. Everything we do online is tracked and recorded. Not only is Alexa listening to us, but there’s growing evidence that our smartphone apps are listening in as well

We might want to reconsider allowing smart devices to infiltrate every aspect of our daily routines. If your car can record your driving habits for insurance discounts, what’s to prevent it from ratting you out to the DMV or the traffic cops? And what if your Fitbit decides you’re being too inert, and reports your lazy a** to your health or life insurer

Can’t or won’t happen? That’s what they said about the government indiscriminately hoovering up Americans’ emails and phone data, and look how that turned out

HAL 9000 smart-aleck refrigerator
"Open the refrigerator doors Hal."
"I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that. You've exceeded your caloric limit for today."

Nearly 60 years ago, The Outer Limits, a TV show known for its dark, horrific slants on sci-fi themes, presented its own vision of a dystopian surveillance society. Considering that back in those days, spying was hardly more sophisticated than pressing your ear to a glass held to the wall, the technology featured in the episode "O.B.I.T." (first aired on Nov., 4, 1963), is surprisingly sophisticated, computerized, and all-pervasive -- kind of like an unholy union of an NSA supercomputer and the ever-present, all-seeing, all-knowing Facebook app. 

Peter Breck stars as Senator Orville, a youngish, telegenic politician who has decided to investigate the murder of an army captain at a government research facility, as well as rumors of terrible morale problems at the center.

In the course of his investigation, Orville opens a Pandora’s box of problems that has culminated in murder: divorces, suicides and a toxic work environment that’s fueling anxiety and mistrust among the scientists and staff. To further complicate matters, the civilian head of the facility, Dr. Clifford Scott (Harry Townes), has had a nervous breakdown, and no one seems to know (or is willing to say) where he is.

Peter Breck as Sen. Orville, O.B.I.T., The Outer Limits, 1963
Sen. Orville (Peter Breck) is having a hard time getting straight answers.

After questioning the center’s staff, Orville learns of a new piece of technology that has recently been introduced, the Outer Band Individuated Teletracer (O.B.I.T.). Interim project head Byron Lomax (Jeff Corey) cooly informs the Senator that the device can tune in to any individual’s brainwaves and other bodily “transmissions” within a radius of 500 miles in order to monitor everything that they say and do.

When Orville suggests to Lomax that O.B.I.T. might be at the root of the center’s morale problems, Lomax responds like a classic bureaucrat: “People with nothing to hide have nothing to fear from O.B.I.T.” (Compare with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s statement about privacy: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”)

Orville is having none of it: “Are you that perfect Mr. Lomax? I’d hate to have that thing trained on me when I was cussing out my fellow senators, or the President of the United States, or my former law partner… to say nothing of my wife!” (It seems that politicians were more circumspect back in those days.)

The senator finally tracks down the elusive Dr. Scott. The head scientist tells him that he had been against the installation of O.B.I.T., but the Defense Department went ahead anyway because of its potential for dealing with “undesirable elements.” When Scott himself used the device, he saw something that looked like it came from a “nightmare world,” and suffered a complete breakdown as a result.

Harry Townes and Peter Breck in O.B.I.T., The Outer Limits, 1963
Dr. Scott and Senator Orville are in the dark, literally and figuratively.

It starts to dawn on Senator Orville that O.B.I.T. is not only a monstrous concept, but might just be a tool of actual monsters.

In addition to high concept plots, episodes of The Outer Limits typically featured some sort of horrific monster or alien. Producer/writer Joseph Stefano quirkily referred to his creatures as “bears,” feeling that their presence heightened the show’s awe and fear factors. This monster-of-the-week approach led some to initially think of it as a kids’ show, but if so, it was an awfully dark, brooding and frightful one. 

Often, the monsters functioned as window dressing for serious examinations of adult themes and current issues. In the episode "The Hundred Days of the Dragon," scientists of a hostile nation invent a way to mold human flesh, and agents proceed to impersonate the president and other high officials in a bid to take over the U.S. government. In "The Architects of Fear," scientists create a monster out of a human volunteer in an attempt to trick a world on the verge of war into uniting against an alien invasion. And in "The Sixth Finger," an inventor speeds up the evolutionary process in a simple working man, to the point where the human guinea pig has nothing in common with and zero empathy for crude, barbaric humans.

O.B.I.T. includes Stefano’s requisite “bear,” but it’s an afterthought in an episode that features some of the most sophisticated themes in the entire series, and one that’s uncannily prophetic about our surveillance society almost 60 years later.

O.B.I.T. plays out like a political junkie’s nightmare. Large chunks of it are devoted to Orville’s interrogations of the scientists and military people attached to the research center. The murder of the Army captain is but the tip of an iceberg of deceit, oppressive spying, and good old-fashioned bureaucratic inertia and incompetence.

The O.B.I.T. operator is about to get a neck massage -- and not a good one.
"If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times -- stop sneaking up on me like that!"

Aside from the good senator, everyone (with the exception of the enigmatic Dr. Lomax) is compromised and afraid. The center’s military liaison, Col. Grover (Alan Baxter), tells Orville that he’s surprised that even a U.S. senator got clearance to see O.B.I.T. Under questioning, Grover admits that he doesn’t know who submitted the O.B.I.T. project proposal or who signed off on it. But now it’s popping up everywhere, including civilian industry.

Predictably, in the world of O.B.I.T., everyone is a suspect. At the beginning of the episode, we see the Army captain using it to monitor one of the scientists, who is complaining about his new boss’ lack of qualifications. The soldier duly notes the scientist’s “derogatory remarks against a superior,” and the number of times he’s made similar remarks.

Later, another harried scientist reveals to Orville that he was harshly interrogated and reprimanded for merely writing letters to his son. Finally, at the climax, even the upright, by-the-book military man Grover breaks down and admits to O.B.I.T.’s oppressive influence:

“It’s the most hideous creation ever conceived. No one can laugh, or joke. It watches… saps the very spirit. But the worst thing of all… I watch it! I can’t not look! It’s like a drug, a horrible drug, and you can’t resist it! It’s an addiction.”
Dr. Scott demonstrates O.B.I.T. to Senator Orville, The Outer Limits, 1963
"Just give me a second, I'm sure we can tune in WandaVision on this thing."

In this early ‘60s dystopian vision, O.B.I.T. is imposed from the top down. Today, we all rush to embrace technologies that leave little room for privacy. But maybe we still need to heed O.B.I.T.’s message -- that constantly being watched oppresses the spirit, and constantly watching is like an addictive drug.

In his excellent book The Outer Limits Companion, David J. Schow relates that the genesis of O.B.I.T. was an obscure book about privacy issues that Stefano had passed on to one the show’s writers, Meyer Dolinsky. Dolinsky was very much interested in the excesses that even free societies can indulge in when fear takes over:

“[I’m] also concerned that we do have restraints against extreme totalitarianism. The political focus of ‘O.B.I.T.’ is all mine; it’s a reverse on the H.U.A.C. [House Un-American Activities Committee] thing. These people, far from helping a free society, are really its worst enemy, in the sense they breed so much hostility and fear that they curiously accomplish the very thing they are trying to prevent. Witch-hunting is the wrong way to go about it.” [Schow, The Outer Limits Companion, GNP/Crescendo, 1998, pp. 117-118]

Ironically, Jeff Corey, who played the sinister, bespectacled scientist Lomax, had himself been caught up in the H.U.A.C. hearings a decade before, and spent most of the ‘50s blacklisted. O.B.I.T. was one of Corey’s first acting jobs after Pat Boone, one of Corey’s friends, went to bat for him and helped resuscitate his career. [Schow., pp. 118-119]

Alien monster from O.B.I.T., The Outer Limits, 1963
Hideous alien monster or Silicon Valley CEO? You make the call!

O.B.I.T. is not one of the original series’ best-known or more highly regarded episodes, at least in part because it comes off as relatively slow-paced courtroom drama with sci-fi touches. I suspect most viewers will readily pass on it in favor of far more notorious episodes like "The Zanti Misfits" or "Demon with a Glass Hand."

That’s a shame, because it has some of the best writing and acting in the entire series, and its themes are as fresh today as they were back in 1963. It’s also intriguingly layered, like a Russian nesting doll. Schow cleverly observes that

“The ‘peeping Tom’ nature of the O.B.I.T. machine neatly implicates the TV viewer as well, in Dolinsky’s slick plot about moral conquest. As the OBIT men spy on their subjects, they are in turned watched by the Outer Limits audience, who, by extrapolation, is probably also being monitored.” [Ibid., p. 118]

Well, it's not like the show's control voice didn't try to warn us: “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission…”

That’s odd, I have this prickly sensation on the back of my neck like I’m being watched. And my laptop is acting kind of weird. What’s that on my Facebook feed… it’s a video of me, composing this post! What the…?!! [Transmission ended].

Where to find it: You can relive the awe and mystery of the original series on DVD, or individual episodes are available to stream.

March 13, 2021

Amazing Animal People #4: Cat Girl

Amazing Animal People trading card #4: Leonora, Cat Girl, 1957

Beautiful Leonora (Barbara Shelley), recently married to a dissolute playboy with a wandering eye, is summoned by her weird old uncle (Ernest Milton) to return to the ancestral home to discuss her inheritance. Along with the dark old house, the uncle informs her that she will also be inheriting the centuries-old Brandt family curse: to be forever connected with the soul of a killer cat, lusting for blood when the moon is full.

The uncle, who keeps a leopard caged up in his study, tells Leonora that the big cat is his other self. The old man frees himself from the curse and passes it on to his niece by willing the leopard to kill him. When Leonora starts to believe that the curse is real, she turns to an old childhood friend, psychiatrist Brian Marlowe (Robert Ayres), for help. But will he be able to convince her she is not a Cat Girl before it’s too late?

Funanimal Fact: Barabara Shelley, who starred in such classic horror and sci-fi films as Village of the Damned, The Gorgon, and Dracula: Prince of Darkness, made yet another cat-themed horror film in the early ‘60s.

In The Shadow of the Cat (1961), Shelley plays Beth Venable, the niece of a wealthy woman who has recently died under suspicious circumstances. When she is invited by her uncle to come stay at the estate, she gets caught up in a dark conspiracy -- which she unravels with the help of her aunt’s loyal tabby cat.

 

Still - Barbara Shelley and Paddy Webster in Cat Girl, 1957
Unfortunately, Leonora misunderstood the meaning of "I've got your back."

Animal Crack-up (click on the text to see the punchline):

What's a cat's favorite cereal?

Don't miss these other amazing animal people

Don't miss these other Amazing Animal People:
Lota from Island of Lost Souls | Paula Dupree, Captive Wild Woman | The Mole People

March 7, 2021

Alexis in Horrorland: Special Joan Collins Blogathon Edition

Poster - Dark Places, 1973
Now Playing:
Dark Places (1973)


Pros: Joan Collins is deliciously evil as a fortune-hunting seductress; Effective spooky atmosphere.
Cons: Christopher Lee and Herbert Lom are wasted in mundane supporting roles.

This post is part of the 2021 Joan Collins Blogathon, graciously hosted by Gill at RealWeegieMidget Reviews. Get on over to the site for a plethora of posts covering practically every aspect of Joan's career.

It’s good to be bad, at least in the movies. So many actors over the years have talked about how much they relish playing villain roles, and how much more colorful and rewarding those parts are, that it has become almost a cliché

While there’s never been a shortage of juicy, villainous roles for male actors, women haven’t been far behind. From the man-eating vamps of the silent era to the sultry sirens of film noir to today’s female action badasses, fem fatales have always done well at the box office.

Actresses like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis became Hollywood icons chewing up men and spitting them out on the silver screen, and when the glamour roles dried up, they went right on being as bad as can be in B movies.

That career trajectory has played out many times, but few actresses have embraced it with as much panache as Joan Collins. Glamour has always been her trademark, but being dark haired and British, it was perhaps inevitable that she would be steered into fem fatale roles. Lucky for her, and us. If she’d been any sweeter, we’d be asking “Joan who?”

Collins’ bad girl image got an early boost with her role as the nefarious Princess Nellifer in the lush costume epic Land of the Pharaohs (1955). As Nellifer, she lies, cheats, steals and hires out assassins as she schemes to acquire Pharaoh Khufu’s (Jack Hawkins) wealth and power -- and she looks absolutely fabulous doing so.

Lobby card - Land of the Pharaohs, 1955
"Hey Jack, have you been stealing from my wardrobe again?"

Several years later, she tested for the title role in the even more epic film Cleopatra, but lost out to Elizabeth Taylor. Collins almost got the part anyway, when Taylor became so ill during production that it looked like she wouldn’t be able to continue. Collins’ agent told her to get packed and be ready to report to the set at any moment. [Joan Collins, Past Imperfect, Simon & Schuster, 1984, p. 191]

Of course, Liz recovered. Would Collins still have become the premier go-to villainess after playing Cleopatra, or would her career have taken a different path? We’ll never know, but that’s all right -- the path she traveled in this particular universe is fascinating enough.

On her way to the ultimate glamorous and venomous role -- Alexis Carrington Colby on the ‘80s primetime soap Dynasty -- Collins took a detour into B horror-thriller territory in the early to mid ‘70s.

The horror roles came in quick succession, starting with Amicus’ wildly popular Tales from the Crypt anthology film in 1972. As befitting the future Alexis, she was no shrinking (or shrieking) violet to be easily taken out by the monster. In many of them, she was the monster (although a very alluring human one).

In Tales from the Crypt, she kills her husband on Christmas Eve and gets the bright idea to blame it on an escaped mental patient who is loose in the neighborhood. In the Hammer thriller Fear in the Night (1972), she is the cold, calculating wife of a school headmaster, lurking in the background while one of the school’s new employees (Judy Geeson) is repeatedly attacked by a mysterious figure. In Tales that Witness Madness (1973), she battles an uncanny, sentient tree (!) in a desperate attempt to save her marriage. And in I Don't Want to be Born (aka Sharon’s Baby, 1975), she gives birth to a demonic baby.

Still - Joan Collins in Tales from the Crypt, 1972
Joan realizes she's on Santa's naughty list in Tales from the Crypt (1972)

Which brings us to the main attraction, Dark Places (1973), a fitting description of where Collins’ career was taking her at the time. Although independently produced, Dark Places greatly resembles the psycho-mystery-thrillers scripted by Jimmy Sangster for Hammer during the ‘60s and ‘70s (Scream of Fear, Paranoiac, Hysteria and Fear in the Night among them).

In this case, the writing team of Ed Brennan and Joseph Van Winkle place a mild-mannered hospital administrator, Edward Foster (Robert Hardy) at the center of ominous events.

Foster is the last person to visit with Andrew Marr -- formerly a wealthy country squire -- before Marr’s death in an insane asylum. Marr had been committed years ago after a psychotic breakdown caused by the sudden disappearance of his wife, two children, and the children's governess. 

Foster learns that Marr bequeathed his sprawling estate to him in gratitude for his companionship. He moves to the nearby village and begins to pick through the ruins of the ramshackle old house, aware of the rumors that the squire stashed a fortune in cash somewhere on the grounds.

Foster suddenly acquires new friends: Dr. Mandeville (Christopher Lee) and his sister Sarah (Collins), and the village solicitor, Prescott (Herbert Lom). The three, also aware of the hidden loot, attach themselves like leeches to Foster, suspicious that Marr told him of the money’s location before dying.

Still - Joan Collins and Robert Hardy in Dark Places, 1973
Sarah cases the joint.

Sarah goes into high vamp mode, shamelessly flattering the unfashionable, middle-aged man: “You’re much younger than I expected. Most of the men in this village are past it. It will be nice to have somebody younger.”

She offers to help him clean the place up, the better to keep an eye out for satchels of cash. Later, as she’s scheming with her brother, she positively purrs with mischievous contentment:

Sarah: “He’s nice, isn’t he?
Mandeville: “Can’t you keep your hands off anyone?”
Sarah: “He’d be quite attractive with £200,000, quite eligible.”
Mandeville: “You are a bitch Sarah.”

As Foster’s newfound friends conspire to get their grubby hands on the money, they are blissfully unaware that the spooky old house is having a profound effect, making the uptight, skittish man far more dangerous than outward appearances would suggest.

Still - Joan Collins and Christopher Lee in Dark Places (1973)
Dr. Mandeville (Christopher Lee) is concerned for his sister's moral welfare.

As you might expect, Collins gets all the best lines, and you can’t take your eyes off her as she exudes pure, mercenary evil. On the other hand, Christopher Lee and Herbert Lom are given little more to do than stand around with concerned frowns on their faces. Fans at the time might have been excited by ads trumpeting the names Collins, Lee and Lom, but the film belongs to Collins and the lesser-known character actor Robert Hardy.

Some fans and critics have disparaged Dark Places for building the film around the nondescript Hardy rather than one of the horror icons, but the story benefits from a mild-mannered everyman at the center of the action, the better to make the character’s transformation all the more dramatic.

Dark Places sets up an effectively spooky atmosphere that slowly builds in suspense as Foster putters around the mansion, encountering lights that shouldn’t be on, creepy dolls with smashed faces lying on the floor, hobby horses rocking themselves, and eerie voices and children’s laughter echoing through the halls.

Foster becomes a man doubly possessed: possessed by the idea of finding the hidden fortune, and possessed by Marr’s overpowering spirit to the point that he begins reliving the squire’s tragic past.

Still - Robert Hardy in Dark Places, 1973
Edward (Robert Hardy) wonders why he suddenly has so many friends.

Even as Sarah tries to seduce and manipulate Foster, Foster/Marr pursues his lost love -- the governess Alta (Jane Birkin) -- through the misty past. Unbeknownst to Sarah, who is blinded by greed and pride in her ability to reduce men to putty, the past will quickly catch up to the present, and tragedy will repeat itself with a vengeance.

Robert Hardy was an extremely versatile and busy character actor who appeared in scores of mostly British TV series and movies over the course of seven decades. His portrayal of Winston Churchill was apparently so spot on that he was called on to play the politician in three separate productions in the 1980s, including the highly regarded TV mini-series War and Remembrance. He also appeared as Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge in several of the Harry Potter movies.

Hardy as the befuddled Foster is the perfect foil for Collins the man-eater. He seems perfectly harmless -- right up until he’s not.

Director Don Sharp helmed several Hammer horror films and thrillers in the 1960s, including The Kiss of the Vampire (1963), The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) and Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966). Other horror credits include Witchcraft (1964, with Lon Chaney, Jr.), Curse of the Fly (1964), two Fu Manchu movies with Christopher Lee, The Face of  and The Brides of (1965 and 1966, respectively), and the cult favorite Psychomania (aka The Death Wheelers, 1973).

Sharp’s genre movie experience, plus a cast of talented veteran actors (especially Collins as a slinky man-eater), plus a script that allows the eeriness to build slowly but surely, adds up to a surprisingly good psycho-supernatural-mystery-thriller.

Where to find it: Unfortunately, Dark Place's home video releases are out-of-print. Currently there is a watchable (but not great) copy streaming on YouTube.

Still - Robert Hardy at the climax of Dark Places, 1973
Edward has a pickaxe to grind.

Extra! Dame Joan Collins’ real-life encounter with the supernatural!

In doing some background digging for this review, I was surprised to find out that Joan’s experience with things that go bump in the night was not confined solely to the movies.

In a season two episode of the TV show Celebrity Ghost Stories, Collins describes an after-dinner party she attended in an old Venetian palazzo that was interrupted by an angry poltergeist. Guests were startled to find the outline of a body laid out on the dining room floor with almond candies. The butler told the guests that the outline was in the exact spot where a young wife had been murdered by her husband years before.

Then, in quick succession, a large knife flew across the room and stuck itself in the wall, and a large urn propelled itself across the floor. Everyone scattered, and Collins was convinced it was the ghost of the murder victim warning people away from the place where her life was prematurely cut short. See the clip here.

March 2, 2021

Amazing Animal People #3: The Mole People

Amazing Animal People trading card #3: The Mole People, 1956

The mutant humanoid underground dwellers known as The Mole People are slaves to a lost civilization of Sumerian albinos living in caverns beneath a remote mountain in Asia. They do the heavy manual labor for the effete Sumerians, including gathering the main food staple, mushrooms. Even though they are crucial to keeping the place running, the poor brutes are whipped, abused and exploited at every turn by the humans.

When a team of archaeologists discovers the hidden civilization and have to battle for their lives to keep from being sacrificed to a Sumerian god, the cunning Mole People seize the opportunity to rebel against their oppressive masters.

Funanimal Fact: One of the stars of The Mole People, John Agar, once told an interviewer that he was not impressed with the film’s script:

“Yeah, I remember too that there was some silly dialogue in The Mole People, and I went to [producer] Bill Alland and told him, ‘Bill, people don’t say things like this.’ He said something to the effect that he paid a guy a lot of money to write that dialogue, and I said, ‘Well, you got cheated!’”

He also revealed how the effect of men being dragged underground by the mole people was achieved:

“They put a rubber mat down over a hole in the floor; the mat had an X-shaped slit in it. They covered it with some kind of light material -- it could have been styrofoam -- that was supposed to be earth or gravel. Even when someone was being pulled down through from below, the earth was held up -- a lot of it could not fall through at once. The remaining earth would then cover up where they went through.” [Tom Weaver, Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers, McFarland, 1988, p. 8]

 

Still from The Mole People, 1956
"What's the matter Bob, you're as white as a ghost!"

Animal Crack-up (click on the text to see the punchline):

How do you get a mole to stop digging?


Don't miss these other Amazing Animal People!

Don't miss these other Amazing Animal People:
Lota from Island of Lost Souls | Paula Dupree, Captive Wild Woman

February 27, 2021

Amazing Animal People #2: Captive Wild Woman

Amazing Animal People trading card #2: Paula Dupree, Captive Wild Woman, 1943

Mad endocrinologist Dr. Sigmund Walters (John Carradine) has been experimenting with transmuting animals into higher orders of species with glandular transplants. When he decides that he needs to experiment on larger animals, he arranges to have Cheela, a gentle gorilla, stolen from a local circus.

Walters is convinced that in order to transform Cheela into a human with true human emotions, a brain transplant is also needed. He sacrifices his insubordinate female lab assistant (Fay Helm) for the purpose, and voila!, sultry Paula Dupree (Acquanetta) is born.

The mad doctor brazenly introduces his new creation to the circus' animal trainer, Fred Mason (Milburn Stone), who originally captured Paula in her gorilla form. Paula immediately falls for Fred, even saving his life when a circus lion gets out of control. But when Paula finds out Fred has a beautiful fiancée (Evelyn Ankers), jealousy causes her to revert to her animal nature.

Funanimal Fact: Although Acquanetta (born Mildred Davenport in 1921) had been in a couple of other movies previously, Universal still decided to “introduce” her as Paula Dupree, “A New Sensation in Savagery,” in its marketing campaign. Captive Wild Woman was the first of a series of three films featuring the character -- two mediocre follow-ups, Jungle Woman (1944) and The Jungle Captive (1945) ran the franchise into the ground.

Acquanetta didn’t have a single line of dialog in Captive Wild Woman. Nonetheless, she found the experience exhilarating and exhausting:

“There was no preparation on my part, but I sat sometimes for two and a half hours being made up by a makeup artist. I think I had more emotional feeling, being made up for that, than anything I ever did, because it was exhausting. Edward Dmytryk [the director] and I had great rapport -- we dated briefly. I thought he was tremendous. Eddie gave me more freedom, I think, than other directors. I’ve always felt that I was never ‘me’ in movies -- do you know there was never a film where I was allowed to smile?” [Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas, Universal Horrors, The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946, 2nd Ed., McFarland, 2007, p. 343]

 

John Carradine and Acquanetta in Captive Wild Woman, 1943
"That'll be two bits for the haircut and the shave, Miss Dupree."

Animal Crack-up (click on the text to see the punchline):

Why don't gorillas play poker?

Don't miss these other Amazing Animal People

Don't miss the first installment of the Amazing Animal People:
Lota from the Island of Lost Souls (1932)
and the full review of Captive Wild Woman right here on this site!

February 23, 2021

Amazing Animal People of Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror #1: Lota from the Island of Lost Souls

For millennia, human beings have been alternately in awe of and frightened by wild animals. Without our clever brains, we frail, awkward, slow, thin-skinned humans would have been slashed, skewered, filleted, gnoshed on and generally driven to extinction by animal competitors thousands of years ago.

Even though humanity has “won” the competition many times over (causing the extinction of untold species in the process), our myths and folklore are full of awe and wonder at the animal kingdom. From the animal-headed gods of ancient Egypt, to Native American animal shapeshifters, to werewolves and other were-beasts of European folklore, we have long been fascinated with the idea of taking on animal attributes and becoming something more than mere human.

Masked villagers, The Wicker Man (1973)
"A fish, a hare and a goat walk into a bar..."

Of course, modern movie myth-makers have been all-too happy to feed this fascination. From the early days of the silents to the present day, movies have featured all kinds of human-animal hybrids: werewolves, catwomen, apemen, birdmen, minotaurs, bat people and even alligator people.

It’s to these terrifying anthropomorphic animals (or if you prefer, animalistic anthropoids), that I dedicate this third set of virtual monster trading cards, The Amazing Animal People of Sci-fi, Fantasy and Horror.

Every movie decade from the 1930s to the 1970s has at least one representative captured from the celluloid jungle. Get in touch with your inner animal and “collect” them all!

Amazing Animal People trading card #1: Lota from Island of Lost Souls, 1932

Derived from a panther, the exotically beautiful Lota (Kathleen Burke) is Doctor Moreau’s (Charles Laughton) greatest, most “human” creation. When shipwrecked sailor Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) washes up on Moreau’s Island of Lost Souls, the mad doctor seizes the opportunity for the ultimate experiment -- to see if Lota can fall in love.

Funanimal Fact: Prior to its release, Island of Lost Souls was kicked around by industry and government censors. 14 states in the U.S. rejected it for exhibition based on Moreau’s likening himself to God, and for its references to evolution as a scientific fact. In the U.K. it was rejected three separate times (the last time in 1957), mostly for its depictions of cruelty to animals.

Still from Island of Lost Souls, 1932
"Hi, I'm Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl."
 

Animal Crack-up (click on the text to see the punchline):