April 27, 2023

2024 Lies in Wait Beyond the Time Barrier

Poster - Beyond the Time Barrier (1960)
Now Playing:
Beyond the Time Barrier (1960)

Pros: Creative location shooting and use of repurposed state fair exhibit halls; A fairly unique explanation for its dystopian setting
Cons: Gets bogged down with a lot of pseudo-scientific dialog; Some of the principal actors are as stiff as dept. store mannequins

Many thanks to Barry at Cinematic Catharsis and Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews for coming up with the Futurethon event and inspiring their fellow bloggers to explore the future through movies. If you haven’t already, check out their sites for links to more cinematic prognostications.

So here I am in the futuristic year 2023, and I’m only now getting around to reviewing the film that provided the name (in part) for this blog. All I can say is that it’s about time. 2024, the year in which Beyond the Time Barrier is set, is almost upon us. If there is even the slightest possibility that the events depicted in the film are prophetic, then there is precious little time to prepare.

As a public service, Films From Beyond is breaking through the time barrier to present our near future as envisioned in the 1960 movie. Are these events highly improbable? Perhaps. Impossible? You be the judge.

Robert Clarke stars as Major William Allison, an Air Force test pilot who has been assigned to fly the X-80 rocket-plane to the edge of outer space. After firing the rocket engine and soaring to an altitude of 100 miles, the plane accelerates uncontrollably, and Allison loses contact with the base.

Lobby card - Robert Clarke in Beyond the Time Barrier (1960)
Put your tray tables up and fasten your seat belts -- 2024 is going to be a bumpy ride!

Once Allison gets control back and brings the plane in for a landing, he’s amazed to find that the base is completely deserted and in an extremely dilapidated state. Off in the distance he spots the ruins of a city, and next to that, weird structures, including huge towers with blazing lights illuminating the landscape.

As Allison approaches the structures, he’s hit with a paralyzing ray, whereupon figures in radiation suits trundle him off to an underground lair.

The major soon finds that he’s not in Kansas anymore. After being decontaminated in a giant glass enclosure and getting into a shoving match with some guards, he is introduced to the elderly leader known as The Supreme (Vladimir Sokoloff), his second-in-command, the Captain (Boyd “Red” Morgan), and The Supreme’s granddaughter Trirene (Darlene Tompkins).

Allison learns from The Supreme that he is a “guest” at The Citadel, a subterranean complex built as a haven from the hordes of violent mutants that roam the contaminated surface. The Supreme and the Captain are the only members of the Citadel that can hear and talk -- all the others, including Trirene, are deaf mutes as the result of a mysterious plague (although Trirene has the extrasensory ability to read minds). The major is mightily confused, not understanding how so much could have happened in the short time he was aloft in his rocket plane.

Screenshot - Major Allison (Robert Clarke) meets the rulers of The Citadel in Beyond the Time Barrier (1960)
"Excuse me, but I seem to have taken a wrong turn at the ionosphere..."

Allison’s troubles are compounded by the Captain, who is suspicious that he is some sort of spy. The major is thrown into a dungeon reserved for captured mutants, but is released a short time later when Trirene, who has taken a shine to the handsome pilot, convinces her grandfather that he’s no threat.

After gaining The Supreme’s confidence by way of Trirene, Allison is allowed to meet three other “guests” of the Citadel: Gen. Kruse (Stephen Bekassy), Prof. Bourman (John Van Dreelen) and Captain Markova (Arianne Ulmer), who, conveniently, can also hear and talk. It’s this crew that clues the major into the fact that he’s traveled into the 21st century -- 2024 to be exact.

Kruse explains that the notorious plague was caused by radioactive dust from above-ground atomic tests breaking down the atmosphere’s protective layers, allowing deadly cosmic radiation to blanket the earth. Much of the planet’s population was killed off, with most of the survivors ending up either sterile deaf mutes or ravening bald-headed mutants.

Like Allison, all three accidentally broke the time barrier traveling in spaceships that approached the speed of light, and ended up prisoners at the Citadel after crash landing. The Captain, not wanting to let their knowledge and expertise go to waste, put them to work developing a solar energy plant. Markova cattily suggests to the clueless major that his job is now to mate with Trirene, one of the few women left who isn’t sterile.

When the group learns that Allison left his plane at the base intact and ready to fly, their eyes light up. Bourman excitedly explains that there’s a chance that they can send Allison back to 1960, where he can prevent the plague from ever happening. The professor lays out a deceptively simple formula on a chalkboard: take the rocket-plane’s escape velocity and add the velocities of earth’s rotation, its orbit around the sun, and the solar system’s movement through space, and voila!, you’ve got the near-light speed you need to enter the fifth dimension and travel back through time! (Uh-huh...)

Screenshot - A lecture on time travel in Beyond the Time Barrier (1960)
"Pay attention class, there's going to be a quiz later."

Standing in the way of the plan is the paranoid Captain, who has surveillance devices everywhere and is not likely to just sit back and let his prisoner jet off to parts unknown. And then there’s the Kruse crew -- one or more of them may have plans of their own for the plane. Finally, there’s Trirene -- who wouldn’t be tempted to stay put and regenerate civilization with such a special, beautiful girl? (And that doesn’t even take into account the mutants, who are itching to burst from their confines and wreak vengeance on their cruel masters.)

Okay, rather than spoil the ending, let’s see what Beyond the Time Barrier got right about life in the roaring 2020s:

✔ The ruling elites live in luxurious enclaves surrounded by bleak ruins and decaying infrastructure.
✔ Xenophobia runs rampant.
✔ Draconian security measures and omnipresent surveillance keep everyone in line.
✔ The general rule is to shoot your ray gun first and ask questions later.
✔ Society’s undesirables (the mutants) are consigned to poverty and prison.
✔ Much of the population is mute and goes along with whatever the elites say.
✔ A well-meaning but doddering old man nominally rules over the whole mess.

And on the bright side:

✔ Solar power is an up-and-coming energy source.

What it got wrong:

✔ The Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 prohibited all above-ground nuclear tests, which were the cause of Time Barriers’s cosmic radiation plague. (However, the plot point does prefigure the depletion of the ozone layer that became an issue in the ‘70s.)
✔ Interior design predominantly based on the equilateral triangle never caught on.
✔ Jumpsuits that made everyone look like 1950s gas station attendants never became mandatory work attire.

Screenshot - Futuristic landscape in Beyond the Time Barrier (1960)
Beyond the Time Barrier also predicted the advent of 5G cell towers... or maybe not.

The man responsible for Time Barrier's prophecies was Arthur C. Pierce. In addition to Time Barrier, Pierce wrote a number of B sci-fi scripts in the ‘50s and ‘60s, including The Cosmic Man (1959), Invasion of the Animal People (aka Terror in the Midnight Sun, 1959), The Human Duplicators (1965), Women of the Prehistoric Planet (1966) and The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966), among others (see my reviews of the first two films here and here). 

While Pierce never penned any true sci-fi classics, he had a knack for writing scientific-sounding dialog and tweaking familiar themes in unique ways (i.e., atomic testing degrading the earth’s protective atmosphere). On the downside, Pierce was a bit too enamored with pseudo-science; his movies were often bogged down by characters laboriously mansplaining cracked science concepts (like Prof. Bourman’s chalkboard lecture on time travel and the speed of light).

While working on Time Barrier, Pierce created one very tense, dramatic scene that never made it into the script. In his memoir, Robert Clarke (who produced the film in addition to starring in it) recalled a story conference between the screenwriter and director Edgar G. Ulmer that became overheated:

“One day in the office at General Service Studios, Art [Pierce] turned in the umpteenth rewrite of one particular scene and once again Edgar seemed to be displeased, and he said something that provoked Art. I don’t remember Edgar’s comment, but it was like lighting a firecracker under Art. Edgar was seated at a desk and Art was sitting in a chair, doodling with a long yellow pencil. Something snapped in this poor, tormented writer’s mind: He jumped up out of his chair and leaned across Edgar’s desk and broke the yellow pencil in half right in front of Edgar’s nose. …
  It was a very dramatic moment, but later on, one could see the lighter side of it. Art was a conscientious and resourceful sci-fi writer who knew the necessary nomenclature and had done his homework on the technical aspects, but his dialogue wasn’t what Edgar was seeking and finally Art got fed up with Edgar’s goading. … The incident seemed to bother Edgar a little bit; I remember that later on, Edgar in his heavy Hungarian accent referred to Art as ‘This wrrriter who brrreaks his pencil in front of my face!’ But Edgar’s resentment soon passed; he was the type who let everything roll off his back.” [Robert Clarke and Tom Weaver, Robert Clarke: To “B” or Not to “B”, A Film Actor’s Odyssey, Midnight Marquee Press, 1996, p. 202]

No one, especially Ulmer, had time to hold a grudge. Beyond the Time Barrier and The Amazing Transparent Man were shot back-to-back at the same Texas location over the course of only two weeks (neither Pierce or Clarke were involved in the latter production).

These would be the last films Ulmer would direct on American soil. Savvy fans know Ulmer as one of the great B movie directors, with a resume that includes such cult classics as The Black Cat (1934; with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff), Bluebeard (1944; with John Carradine), Detour (1945; the low budget film-noir masterpiece with Tom Neal and Ann Savage), and The Man from Planet X (1951; also with Robert Clarke).

By the time Time Barrier and Transparent Man rolled around, Ulmer’s best work was behind him. As hinted by the story conference fracas, Ulmer was probably not greatly inspired by Time Barrier's script; he was content to shoot long, plodding scenes of dialog in stationary medium shots and call it a day. On the plus side, the veteran director managed to get his daughter Arianne the part of the duplicitous, femme-fatale-ish Capt. Markova.

Screenshot - Darlene Thompkins and Robert Clarke in Beyond the Time Barrier (1960)
Trirene and Major Allison relax after a hard day listening to incessant technobabble.


The film manages to break through the boredom barrier at the climax, when Markova has treacherously let loose the imprisoned mutants and Allison is desperately trying to escape and get back to his plane. In the scenes where the maddened mutants chase down terrified Citadel dwellers, it’s obvious that the bare-bones production could only afford to outfit a handful of mutant extras with ratty clothes and ill-fitting skull caps. The extras are supplemented with mismatched stock footage of scruffy dungeon dwellers from Fritz Lang’s 1959 costume potboiler The Indian Tomb.

But the mutants' screams and shouts as chaos ensues are truly jarring, and you feel sorry for the poor Citadel denizens whose only fault was to blindly (and mutely) follow inept leaders. On top of that, the back stabbing comes fast and furious as various characters jockey to see who gets to ride on the rocket-plane back to their original time period.

For these and other scenes, Clarke and crew made great use of ready-made locations. The futuristic Citadel consisted of structures and exhibits left over from expositions held at Fair Park in Dallas, Texas. Carswell Air Force Base near Ft. Worth stood in for Major Allison’s home base, and a nearby abandoned WWII-era Marine Corps Air Base was utilized for the deserted 2024 ruins. [IMDb trivia]

When Clarke made Beyond the Time Barrier, he was hoping to become a B movie mogul. After appearing in the micro-budgeted sci-fi thriller The Astounding She-Monster (1957), he was astounded by how much money the threadbare production made at the theaters. He told himself he could do even better, and the result was The Hideous Sun Demon (1958), which Clarke wrote, produced, directed and starred in (see my reviews of She-Monster and Sun Demon). 

He took a print of Sun Demon to American International Pictures (AIP) in the hopes of securing a multiple picture distribution deal, but was turned down. On the rebound, he signed with a small outfit, Miller Consolidated Pictures, to do Beyond the Time Barrier. It wasn’t long after Time Barrier hit the theaters that the overextended company went under, and ironically, AIP ended up taking over distribution of the picture. After the dust settled, Clarke never saw a dime of profit from either Sun Demon or Time Barrier; all he had to show for his efforts was his $1,000 salary for acting in Time Barrier.

Screenshot - Major Allison (Robert Clarke) is taken captive in Beyond the Time Barrier (1960)
AIP executives hold Robert Clarke hostage while they run off with all the profits from Beyond the Time Barrier.

But Clarke was nothing if not resilient. In a interview with film historian Tom Weaver, Clarke insisted that he was grateful for his experiences behind the camera:

I would never say I was sorry because if I had not done it, I think I would have been sorry and would be saying that I wish I had tried it. It was an interesting experience. I wish, of course, that it had turned out more profitably and that it had led to other things that would have been more mainstream. With Roger Corman, pictures like these were stepping stones to bigger productions. But I took such a terrible bath with the bankruptcy on both Sun Demon and Time Barrier that I just felt there was no way to make another one and come out with anything. [Tom Weaver, Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers, McFarland, 1988, pp. 90-91.]

If you decide to check out Beyond the Time Barrier, here’s hoping you’re as resilient as Robert Clarke and don’t regret your decision. Because, Prof. Bourman’s theories notwithstanding, most physicists insist that traveling back in time and undoing past actions is impossible.

Where to find it: Streaming #1 | Streaming #2 | DVD

April 14, 2023

The Northern Arizona Field Guide to Bigfoot: Special Lance Henriksen Edition

Poster - Devil on the Mountain (aka Sasquatch Mountain, 2006)
Now Playing:
Devil on the Mountain (aka Sasquatch Mountain, 2006)

Pros: A quartet of grizzled character actors led by Lance Henriksen steals the show from the younger cast members; Features a clever reveal at the end
Cons: Due to budget limitations, the production doesn’t take full advantage of the shooting location; Much of the film looks like an 80s-vintage MTV music video; Rife with characters doing stupid things for the convenience of the plot

This post is part of The Seen on the Screen blogathon hosted by Rebecca at Taking Up Room. Rebecca's challenge: Review a film or TV show that is set in your hometown or some other very familiar place -- what does it get right (or wrong) about the place you know so well? See her site for more great locales!

Lance Henriksen, the great, gruff, gravelly-voiced actor with over 260 acting credits to his name and counting, has blazed quite a trail over the years in the deep woods of horror and sci-fi.

By the end of the ‘80s, Henriksen had made indelible, unsettling impressions in such cult favorites as Aliens (1986), playing an android science officer, Near Dark (1987), as the leader of a band of itinerant vampires, and Pumpkinhead (1988), as a grieving father who unleashes a mythic monster on the teens who accidentally killed his son.

By the end of the ‘90s, he’d wrapped up three seasons of the award winning series Millennium (1996-99) portraying Frank Blank, a haunted former FBI profiler who has a knack for getting into the minds of serial killers and assorted lunatics (another cult hit from X-Files creator Chris Carter).

In the early 2000s, the shadow of Bigfoot began looming over his career. In 2002’s The Untold (aka Sasquatch), Henriksen appeared as a wealthy entrepreneur who leads a search for a company plane that has gone missing in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, along with his daughter. After finding the plane and the mutilated remains of the crew, the search party has to battle a homicidal Sasquatch to get out alive.

2006 was the year of the Bigfoot for Henriksen. In Abominable, he had a supporting role as a local who joins a hunting party to track down a mysterious creature that is killing cattle, and finds more than he bargained for. But it would be in Devil on the Mountain (aka Sasquatch Mountain) that the actor would score a more affecting and sympathetic role as a Bigfoot hunter.

Screenshot - Lance Henriksen in Devil on the Mountain (aka Sasquatch Mountain, 2006)
Lance takes a moment to reflect on making two Sasquatch movies in one year.

Henriksen plays Chase Jackson, an auto mechanic living in rural Northern Arizona, who, as we see in the film’s prologue, lost his wife to a freak auto accident the same night that Bigfoot decided to make a dramatic appearance.

Cut to the present, where we see Chase living modestly with his 20-something daughter Raquel (Melanie Monroe) in the same little town. For years he has been carrying guilt and regret over the accident, not to mention the community’s suspicions about the strange circumstances of the tragedy. Raquel, who is lively and intelligent, is reluctant to leave the nest because the old man is so lonely and pitiful. But Fate is about to arrange a second encounter between Chase and Bigfoot, and a chance for redemption.

Erin Price (Cerina Vincent) has recently broken up with her longtime boyfriend, packed up her car, and headed out on the open road for a new start. She makes a pit stop in town, and chats with Raquel before resuming her journey.

Unfortunately, her shortcut through the Northern Arizona forest takes her right into the path of a van full of desperate criminals who have just pulled off a bank robbery in town. Their vehicles collide, and both are totaled. When Sheriff Zeff (Rance Howard) and his deputies show up, a gunfight breaks out, after which the robbers take off into the deep woods with Erin in tow.

Screenshot - Karen Kim in Devil on the Mountain (aka Sasquatch Mountain, 2006)
Northern Arizona travel tip #1: Be sure to brake for Bigfoot, but don't brake too hard.

With the state police and their helicopters already committed to another emergency, the sheriff enlists the aid of a friend and expert tracker Eli (Tim Thomerson) to flush out the miscreants. When Eli mysteriously disappears, Chase, who years before had applied for a deputy position and been turned down, comes to the rescue.

But before long Chase, the cops, the gang and their hostage will be banding together to fight off a common enemy -- Bigfoot, who is aggressively defending his territory from the human incursion.

And now for a personal note:

In the mid-2000s I was living in Flagstaff, Arizona, a beautiful mountain town sitting at the base of the majestic San Francisco Peaks some 7000 feet above sea level, and surrounded by the Coconino National Forest, home to one of the country’s largest stands of towering ponderosa pines.

Flagstaff, located just 80 miles south of the Grand Canyon and 30 miles north of the beautiful red rocks of Sedona, and with Interstate 40, historic Route 66 and the Amtrak Southwest Chief rail line running through the center of town, is a busy hub for visitors from all over the world wishing to partake of Northern Arizona’s scenic wonders.

Some people who’ve never been to the state, and have mental pictures of a mostly featureless desert sprinkled with saguaro cacti, get discombobulated when they see miles of dense woods and snow capped mountain peaks. While the Pacific Northwest may be Bigfoot’s natural home, it’s not hard to imagine one or two of the creatures tromping around the Coconino Forest, scratching their backs on the tall ponderosas.

The San Francisco Peaks as seen from Flagstaff, Arizona (photo by the author)
Now that's a sight for sore Sasquatch eyes! Alas, no scenery like this made it into the movie.

Michael Worth, who wrote Devil on the Mountain and starred as one of the robbers, was one of those taken by surprise by the Northern Arizona scenery. In an interview in Flagstaff’s Arizona Daily Sun newspaper published around the time of the movie’s premiere on the (then) Sci-Fi Channel, Worth explained how they settled on the location:

“I drove up just before we shot and I was just like, ‘Holy mackerel, I didn't know there were so many pine trees in Arizona!’ Because I'm used to shooting in Tucson and Mescal and used to the desert. It was just so great, but first as a joke, on the way back south, I was sending photos back to the director of the landscape right where the forest starts to dwindle and it starts to get more deserty, with like three or four trees in a picture. I'd just say, ‘Here it is, here's where we're gonna shoot the bigfoot movie!’ And he'd be like, ‘Well, it looks OK but…’ and I'd say ‘No, it'll be great! There's like five trees in this section, we'll shoot around it.’ But no, we looked around at all the locations, and sometimes it's just a question of getting the vehicles out there. And even in Flagstaff, there were a lot of great sites that we liked but we just couldn't get everyone in and out of there.” [Jeff Reeves, “Sasquatch Flick Filmed in Area Debuts this Saturday,” Arizona Daily Sun, September 8, 2006.]

Months before, the newspaper had published a blurb about a Sasquatch movie starring Lance Henriksen that was about to be filmed in Flagstaff. The city being relatively small, I thought there was an off chance I’d spot the crew and possibly Lance himself, but no cigar. Then I thought, “At least scenic Flagstaff will be featured in a major (sort of) TV movie, and it will be fun to pick out the landmarks when it premieres.”

Also no dice. Apparently there were problems getting permits for shooting in town, or the logistics were problematic, because the bank robbery scenes were filmed in Williams, AZ, 35 miles west of Flagstaff. The crew did stay in Flagstaff for much of the shoot, but my beloved town was MIA in the final cut.

Screenshot - Bank robbery scene in Devil on the Mountain (aka Sasquatch Mountain, 2006)
Northern Arizona travel tip #2: If you see something like this, it's probably not Bigfoot.
The creatures rarely travel in groups, and they have no need for banking services.

Well, at least there’s the Coconino forest. Except that, as Worth indicated in the interview, the logistics and the limited budget dictated that they film at the edge of the forest, the end result being that much of the awesomeness of the ponderosa pine-rich backcountry is also missing.

Some nice establishing shots of the majestic San Francisco Peaks would also have been nice, but no luck there either. It also doesn’t help that they chose to shoot the film like a music video, complete with shaky cam and a purple-tinged color palette.

However, there is some redemption. The quartet of scruffy old farts led by Henriksen steal the show. Lance gets some genuinely affecting scenes with his dying wife in the prologue and later, his daughter (although for some reason they set up the engaging daughter character only to shove her off-screen mid-way through).

Rance Howard as the sheriff is dependably laconic and stoic through harrowing gunfights and Bigfoot attacks to the point of being almost comical; he’s the classic western Everyman who’s hard to get a rise out of, but implacable when finally motivated.

Screenshot - Bigfoot hunting party in Devil on the Mountain (aka Sasquatch Mountain, 2006)
Northern Arizona Bigfoot hunting tip #1: Wear layers, bring plenty of water,
and never hold your gun like the gentleman in this photo.

Fans of ‘80s and ‘90s B sci-fi will likely recognize Tim Thomerson. Among Thomerson’s multitudinous credits, he appeared in Full Moon’s Dollman movies and five (count ‘em) Trancers flicks in which he plays Jack Deth, a futuristic bounty hunter. Thomerson’s role in Sasquatch Mountain is a small but wryly amusing one, playing a mountain man who can take a licking and keep on ticking.

And then there’s Craig Wasson, whose biggest claim to fame was appearing in Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984) as the claustrophobic protagonist and intended fall guy. In Sasquatch Mountain, his last film credit, Wasson makes the most of one of the film’s quirkier roles -- that of Travis, leader of the misfit bank robbers and would-be get-rich-quick day-trader. With a bluetooth headset stuck in his ear, Travis keeps interrupting the bank heist planning, barking out orders to his stockbroker. Then, after the Bigfoot scat has hit the fan, he seems more irritated with the lack of cell service than the fact that the cops are shooting at them and a hairy humanoid is tossing his cohorts around like rag dolls.

Lastly, as the movie builds to the climax, there’s a clever reveal that explains why Bigfoot is so pissed off (other than the tired premise that he’s just a monster that likes to kill for the heck of it). The final confrontation humanizes everyone, cops, robbers and Sasquatch included. It might just bring a tear to your eye. And, as if that isn't enough, in the epilogue there’s an exchange between the sheriff and one of the robbers that ends the film on just the right note. 

Screenshot - Sasquatch makes an appearance in Devil on the Mountain (aka Sasquatch Mountain, 2006)
Northern Arizona Bigfoot hunting tip #2: Before you shoot, make sure it's really
Bigfoot and not some hairy mountain man with questionable hygiene.

Where to find it: Streaming

April 2, 2023

It's a Wrap! : Day 3 of the "Favorite Stars in B Movies" Blogathon

Blogathon banner - Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor in The Night Walker (1964)

All good things must come to an end, but this first-ever blogathon at Films From Beyond has been such a wonderful experience that I will definitely bring it back next year!

Many thanks to the talented bloggers who have highlighted such an entertaining mix of performers and films. They creatively illustrate how B movies have jump started, nurtured and extended so many acting careers over the decades.

If you’re a blogger and need more time for your post, I will be happy to add it to this page when you’re ready. Contact me by email, brschuck66@yahoo.com; Twitter, @brschuck66; or use the comments below.

If you haven’t already, check out the excellent contributions from the previous two days:

And now for the final act…

Marianne at Make Mine Film Noir celebrates Gene Kelly's dance-free performance in Black Hand (1950).

Screenshot - Gene Kelly in Black Hand (1950)

John at tales from the freakboy zone believes that some things are better left unknown, like when Rock Hudson discovers how to make Barbara Carrera from a test tube in Embryo (1976).

Screenshot - Rock Hudson in Embryo (1976)

Sally at 18 Cinema Lane takes a bird's-eye view of Vincent Price's performance in The Raven (1963).

Poster - The Raven (1963)

Barry at Cinematic Catharsis shines a spotlight on the ubiquitous, yet often overlooked character actor Michael Ripper.

Screenshot - Michael Ripper in The Reptile (1966)

Rebecca at Taking Up Room makes friends with Courtney Cox, He-Man, and all the other Masters of the Universe (1987).

Screenshot - Courtney Cox in Masters of the Universe (1987)

Kayla at Whimsically Classic chronicles the reign of Lucille Ball, "Queen of the Bs."

Yours truly at Films From Beyond the Time Barrier blames society for Jack Nicholson's delinquent behavior in The Cry Baby Killer (1958).

Screenshot - Jack Nicholson in The Cry Baby Killer (1958)

Jack Nicholson's Big Breakdown: The Cry Baby Killer

Poster - The Cry Baby Killer (1958)
Now Playing:
The Cry Baby Killer (1958)

Pros: Generally solid acting; several good moments of suspense and psychological drama; good jazz score
Cons: One of the more interesting characters disappears midway through; too much talk from the adults and not enough teen delinquency

This post is part of 'The Favorite Stars in B Movies' blogathon hosted by yours truly. Please check out the contributions from my fellow bloggers on a wide array of stars who appeared in B movies on their way up or down the career ladder, or who made Bs their own personal domain.

Superstars have to start somewhere. Sports stars typically prove themselves by grinding through a long succession of school, amateur and/or minor league programs. The path to movie stardom is more circuitous and subject to luck (that is, if you’re not part of an established Hollywood family), but over the years, B movies have helped serve as the minor leagues for aspiring stars.

“King of the Bs” Roger Corman has been producing movies since the mid-1950s. Once he perfected the art of making films quickly, cheaply and profitably, he reinvested the proceeds and leveraged his knowledge to become a sort of Hollywood minor league commissioner and film school director rolled into one.

The list of high-powered Hollywood icons who learned their craft on Corman productions is a long one. Among directors, such household names as Peter Bogdanovich, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, and Martin Scorsese, among others, got invaluable early experience from “The Roger Corman Film School.” 

Actors who got career boosts working for Roger include such luminaries as Charles Bronson, Sandra Bullock, David Carradine, Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones and Sylvester Stallone.

In 2010 Corman received a long overdue honorary Academy Award for his “rich engendering of films and filmmaking.”

One of Roger’s most successful “engenderment” projects is Jack Nicholson, a 12 time Oscar nominee and 3 time winner. Although Corman helped jumpstart many acting careers that were already spluttering along, Nicholson was only 20 and had just one small TV part to his credit when he was picked for the title role in The Cry Baby Killer (Corman was executive producer and financed the film).

Screenshot - Jack Nicholson in Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
Who knew this man would go on to collect all those Oscar statuettes?

Cry Baby wasn’t the most auspicious of debuts -- the movie is only an hour long, and Nicholson spends most of his screen time pouting, scowling and waving a gun around. But it was the start of a productive relationship that saw Jack appearing in seven more Corman productions. In addition, under Roger’s tutelage Jack secured a producer credit for the western Ride in the Whirlwind (1966) and two writing credits, for Ride and the groundbreaking psychedelic exploitation film The Trip (1967).

Jack later summed up his work with Corman in typical Nicholsonian fashion: “He saved all of our careers. He kept us working when no one else would hire us. For this, we are all eternally grateful. For the fact that he was able to underpay us, he is eternally grateful.” [Philip di Franco, ed., The Movie World of Roger Corman, Chelsea House, 1979, p. 134.]

Corman may have wished he’d paid the cast of Cry Baby Killer even less -- it was the frugal producer’s first movie that failed to make a profit in its theatrical release (although it eventually recouped its costs with sales to TV).

Certainly all the elements of ‘50s drive-in popularity were there: a title character with James Dean-like angst, teen gang fights, gunplay, a tense stand-off with the cops in a hostage situation, and of course, adult squares looking on disapprovingly of the whole mess.

Screenshot - Roger Corman cameo as U.S. Senator in The Godfather II (1974)
Roger Corman (center) holds hearings on why Cry Baby Killer didn't earn more at the box office.
(Or is this his cameo as a U.S. Senator in Godfather II? Hmmm... I'll get back to you...)

It’s hard to imagine in our current age of ubiquitous smartphones, social media and video games, but back in the day teens spent much of their free time engaging with the real world, and as a result had a lot more potential for getting into trouble.

Although the U.S. emerged from WWII more prosperous and powerful than ever, Americans spent much of the following decade finding things to be anxious about, from supposed communists in Washington and Hollywood, to the Bomb, to -- you guessed it -- teenagers that spelled Trouble with a capital T.

The “Greatest Generation” was resentful of youths who had the audacity to enjoy the freedoms and prosperity that had been bequeathed to them. Teenagers were the new anti-Boy Scouts: Untrustworthy, unhelpful, unfriendly, unkind, disobedient, sullen, cowardly and definitely not reverent.

Congress set about investigating the baleful influence of comic books, and religious zealots across the country denounced rock and roll as the Devil’s music designed to lead kids astray. 

Hollywood jumped on the juvenile delinquent bandwagon with pictures like The Wild One (1953), The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The problem, at least from the censorious adult perspective, was that in trying to maximize ticket sales, the studios made bad kids, exemplified by the likes of James Dean, positively glamorous (okay, maybe not so much in the screenshot below).

Screenshot - James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
James Dean paved the tearful way for teen anti-heroes like the Cry Baby Killer.

Bad kids were so good for business that movie screens exploded with Untamed Youth (1957) Running Wild (1955) and committing Crime in the Streets (1956). And it wasn’t just the boys who were leading the charge into delinquency and degradation. Hot Rod Girl(s) (1956), High School Hellcats (1958) and various Girls on the Loose (1958) competed with the males to Live Fast, Die Young (1958) or else pay their debts to society as Reform School Girl(s) (1957).

Roger Corman was never one to let a hot topic go unexploited, and indeed, he dove into it with a vengeance, producing four teen-oriented films in 1957 alone: Rock All Night, Teenage Doll, Carnival Rock and Sorority Girl.

The next year Corman rode the crest of the teen wave with Hot Car Girl, Teenage Caveman (playing off the popularity of I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein that had come out the year before), and of course, Cry Baby Killer.

Somehow, Jack Nicholson’s big screen debut ended up being the box office weakling in this gang. It may not have helped that the teen delinquency movie market was thoroughly saturated by this point. But Cry Baby has its share of problems beyond the obviously miniscule budget.

Jack plays Jimmy Wallace, an average teenager who gets beaten up in the opening scene by the school alpha male Manny (Brett Halsey) and his cackling cronies Joey (Ralph Reed) and Al (James Fillmore). Of course, the fight is over a girl, Carole (Carolyn Mitchell).

Jimmy’s friend Fred helps him get back on his feet while Manny takes his crew to the local diner, where he meets up with Carole. Manny holds court in the diner like the King of Teenland, and he has a cruel streak to match. He browbeats Carole into denouncing poor Jimmy as a punk while Joey eggs everyone on.

Jimmy shows up at the diner with Fred in tow to reclaim his girl Carole. When things look like they’re getting out of hand, the diner owner, Pete Gambelli (Frank Richards), barks at everyone to take it outside.

Screenshot - Confrontation at the diner, The Cry Baby Killer (1958)
Jimmy confronts Manny as he holds court at the diner.

When the simmering confrontation turns into yet another fight, Jimmy grabs the gun that Al was wearing in his waistband, and off camera, shots ring out.

Policeman Glen Gannon (John Shay), who has been outside flirting with Julie (Lynn Cartwright), a waitress at the diner, confronts Jimmy, who is still holding the gun. At just the wrong time, a young mother with an infant (Barbara Knudson as Mrs. Maxton) exits the restrooms, and oblivious to the drama unfolding, walks into the standoff.

From the adjacent storeroom, Sam, the kitchen assistant (Smoki Whitfield), sees the woman’s dilemma and stealthily pulls her to safety into the building. Confused and scared, Jimmy refuses to throw down the gun and instead slowly backs into the storeroom and shuts the door.

Now Jimmy’s in a real fix -- he thinks he’s killed Manny and Al, and he’s backed himself into a corner as an accidental hostage-taker. The lives of an innocent man, woman and baby hang in the balance as the panicky young man grapples with what to do next.

Screenshot - Jack Nicholson takes hostages in The Cry Baby Killer (1958)
"Will somebody please tell me today's diner specials?!"

One of Cry Baby’s biggest problems is that its title character isn’t all that interesting. All we know about Jimmy is that he’s infatuated with Carole and he’s willing to get beaten up in desperate attempts to claim her as his girl. He’s somewhat scruffy looking and not all that bright. In the climactic standoff, he alternates between pouting and yelling at the woman to shut her baby up. Ultimately Nicholson would score a true breakout role in another low-budget youth picture, Easy Rider.

In contrast, Brett Halsey’s Manny is handsome, stylish (he wears a jacket and tie to his fights!), and self-assured to a fault. He has his own retinue of lackeys, and commands people and places with ease. He’s a mafia don, or maybe a Fortune 500 CEO, in the making. Even the middle-aged diner owner sucks up to Manny and looks the other way as he spikes his friends’ drinks with alcohol. He’s the privileged, amoral character you love to hate.

Instead of setting up a dramatic climactic clash between underdog Jimmy and his alphadog nemesis, Cry Baby dispenses with Manny mid-way through the film (we don’t even see him get carted off to the hospital after the gunshots), and introduces Jimmy to a new nemesis, a crying baby (which, come to think of it, gives a disturbing new meaning to the title -- don’t worry, no babies were harmed in the plot or filming of this motion picture!).

Screenshot - Brett Halsey chats up Carolyn Mitchell in The Cry Baby Killer (1958)
"Of course I wear Pierre Cardin to all my gang fights - why do you ask?"

During the standoff, it’s the adults who steal most of the scenes. Upright, serious-as-death Lt. Porter (Harry Lauter) takes over the crime scene (and several of the film’s scenes) delivering fatherly advice to the innocent and a good old-fashioned throttling to the guilty, specifically Joey, whose smartass attitude is too much for the exasperated cop. Porter even reads the riot act to the slimy diner owner Gambelli, who he finds out was allowing Manny and his friends to sneak alcohol into the establishment.

But it’s Julie the world-weary waitress who delivers the film’s most searing indictment of youth culture. We learn from her conversations with patrolman Gannon that Julie is a widowed single mom who is barely scraping by. Mid-way through the stand-off, when she sees that Carole is only thinking of herself and whining about the possibility of going to jail, she delivers a zinger:

"I’ve been working in this dump for six months and I’ve seen a lot like you. You think because you’re 16 the world owes you something… well it doesn’t. You get what you work for, and you work to get Manny Cole! You’ll wind up in the gutter before you’re old enough to vote!"

It’s a powerful scene, but the film spends too much time on adults standing around bemoaning the “youth of today," slowing things down and distracting from the very real drama of the hostage situation.

In addition to the overly-long scenes of Lt. Porter interviewing witnesses and Julie chatting up the lonely bachelor cop, there’s a lot of business around the carnival atmosphere that develops as the standoff plays out. Several of Corman’s regulars show up as onlookers. Ed Nelson, who plays a TV reporter, had already made a half dozen Bs for Corman, including Rock All Night, Teenage Doll and The Brain Eaters, and would make several more before becoming a fixture on TV. (Corman himself makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance as the TV truck flunky).

Two other Corman regulars, Bruno VeSota and Leo Gordon, appear intermittently as a pair of chuckleheads kibitzing with the crowd and impatiently waiting for something bad to happen. Gordon, who is credited with Cry Baby’s story as well as co-writer on the screenplay, has a couple of choice lines, including a rant as he grabs the TV reporter’s microphone:

"I’ll tell you what I think mister, they oughta take these punk kids, throw ‘em in jail and throw away the key! My old man, if I did something wrong, he’d really sort me out!”
Screenshot - Leo Gordon and Bruno VeSota in The Cry Baby Killer
Leo Gordon and Bruno VeSota do their poor man's Abbott and Costello routine.

The line is especially ironic, considering that Gordon, who ended up with a couple hundred acting credits and dozens for writing, was an authentic tough guy (and presumed juvenile delinquent) who had served five years at San Quentin for armed robbery before getting his first acting break. One of his directors, Don Siegel, called him “the scariest man I have ever met!” [IMDb]

But apparently Gordon wasn’t scary enough to prevent his script from being messed with. Corman recalled being unpleasantly surprised when, upon returning from an overseas trip and checking in on the production, he was informed by his assistant that everything was great and they had “licked the script.”

"I said, ‘What do you mean, licked the script? It was a fine script. There was nothing wrong with that script.’ He [the assistant] said, ‘It had all kinds of problems. We’ve rewritten it totally and we solved all those problems.’ Well, they had wrecked the script, but were to begin shooting in two days. We put back a few things, but it was too late. The only good thing about the film was that Jack Nicholson made his debut in the picture and did a very nice job. … Leo Gordon, who wrote the original script, had one good line. Playing a bystander, he said, ‘Teenagers -- we never had ‘em when I was a kid.’ I think that was true.’"  [The Movie World of Roger Corman, p. 17]

Roger was definitely proud to have given Nicholson his feature film debut, but he’s a little too hard on the film. In spite of its problems, the acting is generally solid, and it has several good moments of suspense and psychological drama. Plus, the brass jazz score by Gerald Fried livens things up considerably (also of note is the title song "Cry Baby, Cry," which is quite an anthem for the bottom half of a drive-in double bill.)

Screenshot - Close-up of Jack Nicholson in The Cry Baby Killer (1958)
Jack was on the verge of tears when he finally saw his paycheck for Cry Baby Killer.

Cry Baby Killer could have been improved with more backstory for Jimmy (admittedly difficult for a 60 minute movie), and more of Manny, who is so delightfully bad that we’re sorry to see him get shot and disappear midway through. But hey, it was Jack’s party, and he got to cry like he wanted to.

Where to find it: Streaming 1 | Streaming 2

April 1, 2023

The "Favorite Stars in B Movies" Blogathon: Day 2

Blogathon banner - Jack Nicholson in The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

Happy April Fools’ Day, and welcome to Day 2 of the blogathon! Today is the day for practical jokes, but don’t worry, we won’t bait you with a tantalizing link to a notable B movie only to redirect you to an online discussion of microscopic fungi instead (apologies to any mycologists who may be reading this).

Here at Films From Beyond we’re serious about having fun with B movies, and the purpose of the blogathon is to showcase the talents of bloggers who share that philosophy.

Day 1 of the blogathon featured a plethora of actors and actresses in a variety of genre roles, from mind control victims (Ian Ogilvy), to post-apocalyptic death-racers (Sylvester Stallone), to mad scientists (Joseph Cotten), to accused murderers (John Garfield), to family men battling juvenile delinquents (Alan Ladd), to cops and star witnesses running from the mob (Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor), to “ham” actors just being themselves (John Carradine). (See also the great posts from Day 3!)

Day 2 promises to be just as diverse and fun-filled, so on with the show!

Dustin at Horror and Sons profiles the stars you should know, the ones you might know, and others you probably don't know in the alien invader film Without Warning (1980).

Screenshot - Ralph Meeker and Neville Brand in Without Warning (1980)

Terence at A Shroud of Thoughts delves into the backstory of how Rory Calhoun ended up making Farmer Vincent's Fritters in Motel Hell (1980).

Poster - Motel Hell (1980)

Andrew at The Stop Button analyzes Michael Landon's anger management issues in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957).

Still - Michael Landon in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

Grand Old Movies enumerates all the guilty pleasures to be had watching Joan Crawford bond with a primitive cave dweller in Trog (1970).

Screenshot - Joan Crawford in Trog (1970)

Andrew at Maniacs and Monsters keeps score on Roy Scheider's performance in the baseball-horror mashup Night Game (1989).

Screenshot - Roy Scheider in Night Game (1989)

That's not all folks! Stay tuned for Day 3 of the blogathon, right here at Films From Beyond!