Friday, October 31, 2008

The Universal MUMMY movies (1932-1944)

What the comedians say about the Mummy is true: he is the classic monster who would seem least likely to actually harm you since he moves so darned slowly, shuffling and limping along with trails of raggedy wrappings which could trip him at any moment. Still, the image of the lumbering, undead, wrapped-up figure is enough to bring a chill, and I can imagine being stopped dead in your tracks if confronted thusly. Anyway, suspension of disbelief is such a major part of being a horror movie fan, what's one more detail to take with a grain of salt? The first movie in the series, THE MUMMY (1932) with Boris Karloff, has very little footage of Karloff in his mummy outfit; just the spooky opening sequence in Egypt in which a mummy from a plundered grave comes back to life. We don't even see the mummy move, but we do see a young archeologist (Bramwell Fletcher) go mad from witnessing the mummy get out of its sarcophagus and, in Fletcher's gibbering words, take "a little walk." Months later, the formerly mummified Im-Ho-Tep winds up in England as Ardeth Bey (Karloff in excellent old-age make-up), and the film becomes a gothic romance as he tries to seduce a young lady (Zita Johann) who is the reincarnation of his long-lost love from ages ago. Two cast members from the 1931 DRACULA, Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, essentially repeat their roles from the earlier film as men engaging in "wild work" to save a woman from an undead creature. The film is rather slow-moving but the atmosphere helps a great deal. It has almost nothing in common with the 1999 Brendan Fraser remake except the vague general theme of transmigration of souls over centuries.

In the early 40's, Universal made a series of four B-movie sequels and these films are where the stereotype of the slow shambling Mummy monster come from. 1940's THE MUMMY'S HAND sets up the template for the rest, with an Egyptian high priest (George Zucco) put in charge of keeping watch over Kharis, a mummy who can be brought back to life with a potion of tanna leaves when he's needed to stop outsiders from defiling a tomb. The movie is enjoyable, though it relies a little too much on the comic touches of its heroes, Dick Foran and Wallace Ford, who very nearly become Abbott and Costello; Cecil Kellaway as a befuddled magician is more fun. Western star Tom Tyler is Kharis, always fully wrapped up, so he doesn't exactly get to stretch his acting abilities. In 1942 came THE MUMMY'S TOMB, a direct sequel set several years later; it has the same basic plot, this time playing out in America, where the high priest (Turhan Bey) has brought the mummy (Lon Chaney Jr.) to life to punish the tomb raiders.

1944's THE MUMMY'S GHOST sticks with the same outline, but re-introduces the concept of the reincarnated lovers from the first film. It has a rather startling ending involving the damsel in distress, who apparently really is the reincarnation of the Princess Ananka, and would have been a nice endpiece to the series, but one more followed the same year, THE MUMMY'S CURSE, set apart from the rest by its setting, the Louisiana Bayou; its heroine is Virginia Christine, known several years later as the kindly Mrs. Olson in a series of ads for Folger's Coffee. Technically, all four films follow one long storyline, but the plotholes are way too big in terms of time passed (60 years between HAND and CURSE) and locale (how did Kharis get from Egypt to New England to Louisiana?). Despite the slight changes in each one, they are difficult to tell apart unless you watch them all together in one sitting--which I do not recommend. But taken separately, a few days or weeks apart, the series remains highly watchable. The DVD "Legacy" collection from Universal is a very nice package, though lacking in any extras above and beyond the commentary and featuette on the first Mummy film--both of which are well worth your time. [DVD]

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Though made five years after the Bela Lugosi DRACULA, this sequel begins in the immediate aftermath of the 1931 film, as Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) has a bit of explaining to do to Scotland Yard when he admits to killing Count Dracula by staking him through the heart. His friend at the yard, Sir Basil, allows Van Helsing to get psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) to defend him, but when Dracula’s body vanishes from the morgue, there is no corpus delecti. We know that the Countess Zeleska (Gloria Holden), a vampire herself, has stolen the body and burned it, hoping to break vampirism's hold on her, but it doesn't work. When Zeleska meets Garth at a party, she asks for his help in breaking the "influence" from beyond the grave, something he thinks can be done through will power, but of course, it's not that easy and, with the help of her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel), Zaleska continues hunting down victims and putting the bite on them. The film climaxes in Transylvania with a kind of love "rectangle" after Zaleska kidnaps Garth's secretary (Marguerite Churchill), hoping to get Garth to sacrifice himself and spend eternity with her, although the jealous Sandor may have something to say about that.

This sequel can't compare to the original; it is more smoothly made and has better acting, but it tends to bog down in talky scenes and has nothing like the wonderfully creepy opening sequence of the 1931 version to compensate for the overall blandness of the movie. Holden has the right look for an icy vampire countess but is rather one-note in performance, and she can't hold a candle to Lugosi. Kruger is fine, but Churchill has to shoulder the burden of some silly comic relief. The best scene is Holden's seduction of the lovely but homeless Lili (Nan Grey); because of this brief scene, the film is often written about for its homoerotic aspect, and it remains a striking moment. After the first 15 minutes, Van Sloan has little to do. Familiar supporting faces include Hedda Hopper, Halliwell Hobbes, and the ever-effeminate Claud Alister. A must-see for fans of classic horror, but not really essential for those just delving into the genre. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


In post WWII Asia (that's as specific as the title credit gets), a group of GIs, including Marshall Thompson and Richard Long, looking for some cheap thrills gain entrance to a secret religious ritual of the Lamians, a sect in which some members can supposedly change into snakes. During a rather sexy dance routine involving a slinky, barely dressed woman slithering in and out of a snake basket, one of the drunken soldiers (James Dobson) tries to take a picture and the crowd chases them out, but not before Dobson winds up with a snake bite. He's on the mend in the hospital, but mysteriously winds up dead from another bite the next day. Months later, back in New York City, the men begin dying one by one, of snake bites. Could this have something to do with the mysterious, exotic Faith Domergue, a woman who has moved in across from roomies Thompson and Long?

I'd never heard of this film at all until it came out as part of a Universal sci-fi DVD collection. It's not so much sci-fi as an attempt at a "Cat People"-kind of horror movie. It starts out well with the nicely atmospheric "Asian" sequence, but when it moves to New York, it becomes just another B-movie thriller with sparse sets and uninspired acting. There are some interesting plot and character details presented but not much is done with them: for example, Long and Thompson are both vying for the affections of Kathleen Hughes, and eventually it's Thompson who gets dumped, but the whole affair winds up playing no part in the proceedings. The soldiers are all sturdy and handsome (especially William Reynolds as Pete) with Thompson doing the best acting. Domergue is fairly wooden, but that befits her character. Unlike in CAT PEOPLE, there is no ambiguity about whether or not the supernatural is involved—we see her change into a cobra at least once (done cleverly in shadow), and that takes some of the suspense out of the film. I did enjoy this on its own B-movie level, though the DVD set itself (Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection, Volume 2) is disappointing. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


A decent horror film which I found interesting to view as a prelude to the Hammer and American International shockers which would follow just a couple of years later. If it were in color, I would swear that it was, in fact, a lost Roger Corman film from the early 60's, which perhaps means that it was ahead of its time. In 1872, a doctor (Herbert Rudley) is about to be executed for murder, though we understand he was framed. His mentor, Basil Rathbone, visits him in his cell and gives him a drug which puts him in a deathlike state (the Black Sleep of the title); Rathbone then takes his body and revives him so he can assist with some unorthodox experiments on human brains. At Rathbone's mansion, Rudley meets Mongo (Lon Chaney Jr.), a violent hulking brute who can only be controlled by the housekeeper; Rudley soon discovers that Chaney was once a respected doctor who assisted Rathbone until he became one of the doctor's experiments and wound up the senseless brute he is now. Sure enough, the cellar is full of poor souls who have been turned into slobbering monsters due to Rathbone's handiwork; the doc is messing around in the brains of others in order to find a way to save his wife, who has fallen into a coma due to a brain tumor. Rathbone believes that anything is justified in the interest of science, and Rudley is with him to a point until he finds out that Rathbone is the one who framed him, and that the man he supposedly killed (Tor Johnson) is still alive in chained up in the cellar. When Rathbone decides to put Chaney's daughter under the knife, Rudley decides to fight back, leading to a climactic revolt of the "freaks," which, though it suffers from being done on such a low budget, is still worth sticking around for. The film has the look and feel of a Hammer period piece or a Corman Poe film, though the sets here are not as elaborate. One brief sequence of brain surgery is fairly graphic for the era. Rathbone is in fine form. Poor, tired-looking Bela Lugosi, in the last film he completed before his death, plays a mute butler. John Carradine has a small but juicy role as one of the damaged freaks, a bearded religious fanatic who thinks he's at the Crusades. Akim Tamiroff has his own subplot as a gypsy tattoo artist who supplies Rathbone with subjects using the Black Sleep drug. The make-up for the deformed freaks is quite good. At times, between the sparse sets and the sketchy script, the movie feels only half-finished, but it's not nearly as bad as its reputation would indicate. Just don't expect much out of Lugosi or Chaney. [TCM]

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Philip Terry is an endocrinologist who has been experimenting with ways to keep his female patients looking young. His wife, Coleen Gray, who is several years older than he, has taken to moping and drinking because he is unhappy with her looks, so they're on the verge of divorce when a elderly patient of Terry's (Estelle Hemsley), who claims to be 140 years old, gives him a substance from her native African tribe which can bring back youth. Unfortunately, there is a second secret ingredient which she won't reveal, so Terry and Gray get a guide (John Van Dreelan) to take them into darkest Africa to find the tribe. It turns out that the substance, a powder from a rare orchid, has to be mixed with a secretion from a man's pineal gland, and that involves killing the man. Gray kills Terry (and eventually Van Dreelan), turns young, and gets back to the U.S., posing as her own young niece, where she gets the hots for her young lawyer (Grant Williams). Two problems: the continual need to kill men to stay young, and Williams' pissed-off fiancée (Gloria Talbott) who soon comes after Gray with a gun.

This is a pretty bad movie and I didn't realize until halfway through that I'd seen it mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000 some years ago. The story has potential, especially since an overt theme of the film, that aging men are treated with respect but aging women are ignored (clearly articulated by Hemsley) is still relevant today. Gray and Talbott give decent performances, Terry does OK as the hissable villain, and Williams is his usual wooden but handsome self. There is too much obvious stock footage in the African sequences and the climax is almost totally botched. But for me the biggest problem is that Gray never, ever looks older than Terry, who looks rather seedy and every bit of his fifty years. Gray, not quite 40, looks like a rather dowdy 40 with what passes for old-age make-up on. When she's taken the serum, she looks great--it seems to mostly take away her dark eye circles and give her hair some kicky freshness--but because she never really looked that bad to begin with, it's hard to buy into the movie's central premise. The DVD print is pristine, but it's an plain and ugly-looking movie. [DVD]

Saturday, October 25, 2008

KRONOS (1957)

Chintzy little SF thriller with little to make it rise above the average late-50's alien story aside from the title, er…, character, a gigantic metallic block creature, a cross between a robot and an ultra-modern office building. In an opening that feels like a scene from the later Close Encounters, a man driving a truck on a desert road one night is attacked by a Tinker Bell-like light flare which possesses him to head over to the nearest astrophysics lab. The flare leaps out of him and into scientist John Emery, who then communicates with more blinking flares outside his window. An object that scientists believe is an asteroid plummets into the sea just off the Mexican coast, at which point Emery passes out. Colleague Jeff Morrow and his totsy assistant Barbara Lawrence head off to Mexico where they kiss on the beach, then see the boxy metallic monolithic Kronos rise up out of the water. Guided by whatever extraterrestrial intelligence has possessed Emery, Kronos starts walking around (on cartoon-animated legs) sucking up energy to take back to its dying home planet. Bombing it just gives it more power, but when it heads to Los Angeles, Morrow comes up with a plan to destroy it by overloading it with energy. Kronos is a fairly nifty creation; Morrow and Lawrence actually land on it, enter it, and investigate a bit, and it seems more like a space ship than a sentient creature, but it's still an impressive "character," and it certainly makes more of an impact than any of the human cast. Morrow is stolid and drab, and Lawrence is kind of a zero; there's a room-sized computer named SUSIE, which has about as much charisma as those two. Emery looks constantly constipated, and the only other cast member to register is George O'Hanlon (later the voice of George Jetson) as a comic relief sidekick. Sadly, the DVD has no extras but it is letterboxed--I can't imagine this would be worth seeing at all in a pan & scan version. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


It's superbad B-minus-movie day here at the Moviepalace with two deadly dull sf films whose titles promise much more that the filmmakers could deliver. I'm reviewing BEAST because it was one of the first "monster" movies I remember seeing in a theater (probably at a Saturday kiddie matinée in the mid-60's). Like a lot of other poverty row sf films of the era, it's about a powerful creature from outer space which begins its takeover of planet Earth with a tiny handful of people who live out in the middle of nowhere, in this case, a desert. It's also a dysfunctional family movie masquerading as a horror film. Paul Birch's ranch is failing, and his wife, Lorna Thayer, is none to happy about that, or about using money they need to send their daughter (Dona Cole) off to college. I imagine she thinks that if life with a middle-aged dumpy loser in the middle of the desert is good enough for her, it's good enough for Lorna. But Lorna wants more, including deputy Dick Sargent (yes, the second Darrin from "Bewitched," who wasn't bad looking in his mid-20s). To complete the picture, there's a mute brain-damaged farm hand (Leonard Tarver) who, my partner reminded me, comes off like a less sinister Jud Fry (Rod Steiger's brutish character in OKLAHOMA!). In the middle of all this household tension, the outer space Beast arrives, shooting over their house one afternoon, landing in a small cave, and starting its planetary takeover by possessing animals, such as birds, chickens, dogs, and cows, and making them attack the humans (the sight of a rampaging cow is quite laughable, and even the dog attack is ineptly handled, though the bird scene is moderately effective, except that the same shot is repeated 6 or 7 times). Then it aims for the weak-minded Tarver, but Birch soon figures out what's up, and also figures out that when they band together, they can fight off the influence of the Beast. Yes, the moral of the story, almost literally, is, in the words of the Beatles, all you need is love. If you look at it as a precursor to later "animals gone wild" movies such as THE BIRDS or FROGS, you might get some enjoyment out of this film. The acting is pretty bad and I assumed that most of the players aside from Sargent were non-pros, but Birch and Thayer both had decent careers (Birch has over 100 roles listed on IMDb). The music is terrible, sounding like randomly chosen snatches from educational or industrial films. It’s not really much fun, even as a bad movie, even though one of the producers was Roger Corman. [TCM]

AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN is the work of renowned on-the-cheap auteur Edgar G. Ulmer (DETOUR, BLUEBEARD and many other sub-B movies). This was one of his last films, and he seems to have completely lost whatever creative spark he had by this time. Crook Douglas Kennedy breaks out of jail with the help of girlfriend Marguerite Chapman, and she takes him to the desert home/laboratory of crazy Army Major James Griffith who is forcing old guy scientist Ivan Triesault to work on a method of making living beings invisible. They want Kennedy to be their guinea pig and, once invisible, to go off and steal some radioactive material which is needed to keep the machine functioning. Of course, the stupid major never stops to think that a transparent man could get the upper hand fairly quickly and that's what happens. After he gets the stuff, Kennedy robs a bank but discovers that he can't control when he turns visible again, which causes problems. The actors don't act particularly well, but they do a nice job of pretending to get beaten up by the Transparent Man. The fx are so-so, but bare minimum. The unexpected nuclear blast climax is almost worth sticking around for, but you'll probably be sound asleep by that time. [TCM]

Sunday, October 19, 2008


A decent modern (as in, not set in the creaky past) vampire movie, and maybe an important transitional one from the old-fashioned one-dimensional Bela Lugosi type to the more romantic Frank Langella/Brad Pitt version. In current-day (70's) Los Angeles, the Bulgarian Count Yorga (Robert Quarry) holds a séance with Donna and her friends so she can contact the spirit of her dead mother, who had recently been hanging out with Yorga. Donna becomes hysterical and while calming her, Yorga secretly puts her under his supernatural powers. Donna's pals Erica and Paul wind up with their van stuck overnight in the mud on Yorga's property; after a long make-out session, Yorga attacks, putting the bite on Erica who soon begins eating live cats. Yep, Yorga is a vampire and Donna and Erica are on their way to similar fates unless their boyfriends, with the help of a Van Helsing-ish doctor, can help. As in the Stoker and Lugosi Dracula narratives, the men go about their "wild work"; one woman (Erica) becomes a full-fledged vampire and can only be saved by the stake and the cross, while the other (Donna), being drained more slowly, might be saved before her full transformation. This B-film doesn't look very good, but the plot and some of the actors make the proceedings tolerable. Quarry is fine as the mysterious count, alternately vicious and seductive; Michael Murphy, a Robert Altman regular, is good as Paul, and familiar TV face Roger Perry is OK as the doctor. The women seemed to have been hired more for their looks; there is a much-repeated rumor that this film was originally intended to be a soft-core porn movie and the filmmakers changed focus along the way, but I've also heard that's just a Hollywood urban legend, though there is a seemingly truncated scene involving some woman-on-woman action between a couple of Yorga's vampire "brides" which is sometimes cited as evidence of the porn story. 40's and 50's character actor George Macready (the bad guy in GILDA) provides some opening narration. [TCM]

Friday, October 17, 2008

I, MONSTER (1971)

In London at the turn of the century, a psychologist (Christopher Lee), an early follower of that Freud fellow, believes that good and evil can be separated in humans and he's come up with a serum to do just that. When he gives it to his gentle cat, it goes wild and he has to kill it. He gives it to a young female patient to help her shed her inhibitions and she indeed does that, as well as shed her clothes. Soon he decides to restrict experimentation to himself; at first, the serum gives him a silly grin and makes his smash a beaker (and he thinks about slicing off a mouse's head). Later he grows big teeth and strolls around town committing petty crimes. At first, he always returns to normal, but soon his bestial self begins to take control; after he kills a whore, he vows not to continue the injections, but his transformations happen anyway, and his looks get uglier and more primitive. His friend (Peter Cushing) soon figures what's happening, leading to the predictable climax. Not quite "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," produced not quite by Hammer but by their chief rival in British horror, Amicus. Actually, as most critics point out, this version, which gives the main characters the names of Marlowe and Blake rather than Jekyll and Hyde, is more faithful to the Stevenson story than most other film adaptations. The Freud connection is interesting, and Lee is OK, but otherwise the film is unremarkable, looking quite B-ish in execution and visually unexciting. Search out the excellent 1931 version with Fredric March which has not been equaled (and since it's on a disc with the lesser 1941 Spencer Tracy film, you might as well watch that one, too.) [DVD]

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Nicely cheesy Italian sci-fi film, complete with garish colors, chintzy special effects, and dubbed dialogue. It plays out like an episode of a TV series, with little context set up for our characters and their situations. When a military station in the Himalayas is destroyed and the staff killed, and there are rumors of snow monsters in the area, Commander Rod (Jack Stuart) and his buddy Frank (Rene Baldwin) are sent to investigate. It turns out that there *are* snow devils in the area; dog-faced, Prince Valiant-haired, Superman cape-wearing aliens want to melt the polar ice caps in an attempt to take over the planet. Rod and Frank wind up setting our for the moons of Jupiter to do battle, though the cut-rate effects take some of the edge off of the action. This is apparently part of a series of "Gamma 1" movies that the director, Anthony Dawson—real name, Antonio Margheriti—made in the 60's. I think Gamma 1 is a satellite, or maybe it's the name of the global organization for which Commander Rod works. In any case, this movie does work up some cheap MST3K-type fun, with a few fabulous shiny outfits for the men and women, a big Ken doll hairdo for our hero, and fisticuffs and ray guns galore. Despite the plastic-looking hair, the actor playing Rod, whose real name is Giacomo Ross-Stuart, is handsome and hardy. The hero's love interest is Amber Collins (what a perfect soap opera name!). The opening sequence at the Himalayan weather station is quite well done, though nothing after lives up to it, especially the abrupt and silly ending. [TCM]

Monday, October 13, 2008


In England during WWII on a violently stormy night, a group of train travelers get stranded at a railway station in the middle of nowhere. The stationmaster (Herbert Lomas) insists that they can't stay, but as their connecting train won't be by until morning, they have no other choice. Just before he leaves, Lomas tells them a local legend about a mysterious train that supposedly rolls through on an otherwise unused set of tracks in the middle of the night, a "ghost" of a train which crashed off a bridge years ago. The travelers include an annoying vaudeville performer (Arthur Askey), a star athlete and his attractive female companion (who turns out to be his cousin), a doctor who likes a nip now and then, a stuffy older lady with a parrot, and an anxious couple who are to be married the next day. During the height of the storm, Lomas staggers back in the station and drops dead, the lights go out, and a highly-strung woman (Linden Travers) and her brother arrive with more stories about the imminent arrival of the train. The body of the stationmaster vanishes, and soon there's no doubt that something is about to come roaring through on the ghost train tracks.

This is based on a play which was adapted to film in 1931 (and which seems to be lost). It's essentially a British version of the American films of the era which featured comedians like Bob Hope or Abbott & Costello in spooky surroundings. In almost all such cases (Hope's THE GHOST BREAKERS, Kay Kyser's YOU'LL FIND OUT), the comedy overwhelms the spookiness, and the same thing happens here. These are good movies but I do wish that the comedy/horror balance had gone the other way on occasion. The star of this film, Arthur Askey, was a well known comic with his straight-man partner Richard Murdoch (here playing a train passenger who woos the athlete's cousin, Carole Lynne). Askey is rather annoying, but as his character is supposed to be, it's difficult to judge his performance. He and Murdoch don't show much chemistry, but they are serviceable. The relatively light mood shifts effectively to a much creepier tone with the arrival of the unbalanced woman and the last 20 minutes or so move along nicely to the predictable non-supernatural explanation of events. Among the cast, Kathleen Harrison is a standout as the tee-totaling older lady who takes some brandy from the doctor, strictly as medicine, and winds up drunk. I also like the low-key performance of Stuart Latham as the nervous groom-to-be. Askey's high point is an amusing novelty tune, "The Seaside Band," which he never gets to complete. Some of the early antics in the train compartments look like they might have influenced the Beatles' similar antics in A HARD DAY'S NIGHT many years later. Like YOU'LL FIND OUT, this could be a good Halloween viewing choice. [TCM]

Saturday, October 11, 2008

PHASE IV (1974)

This was part of a 70's resurfacing of the "animals-as-monsters" genre which first hit in the mid 50's. The first time around, it was largely triggered by fears of the atomic bomb; in the 70's, it was more explicitly about nature striking back due to pollution and growing ecosystem damage. This film is unusual in several respects: 1) the animals here, ants, do not grow to giant size but remain tiny, though possessed of some alien intelligence; 2) the cause of the change in the ants does not seem to be due to any ecological threat or a reaction to the ornery wickedness of mankind--in fact, the change is never really explained except for some unusual cosmic occurrence which is never clearly identified--a comet? sunspots?; 3) the only substantial special effect technique used here is a kind of micro-cinematography which is effective at rendering the tiny ants as genuine menaces. It's essentially a three-actor show: Nigel Davenport is a scientist who has set up a metallic dome in the desert to study the mysterious behavior of the ants, who seem to be able to communicate with either over large areas and in sophisticated fashion, and are attacking their natural predators in increasingly effective ways; Michael Murphy is his younger assistant; Lynne Frederick is a teenage girl caught by circumstance at their outpost when Davenport sprays the area with a foamy yellow poison (excellent visuals are used in this sequence). The ants are driven underground but retaliate by building, in one night's time, large pillars of sand with shiny, reflective tops aimed at the dome to catch the sunshine and cause the heat inside to rise. There is a computer and electric power in the dome, but the ants manage to get inside and cause havoc with the air conditioning and eventually, the computer. It's a little slow getting to the climax, and it's not a very exciting one, but it is satisfying.

The film seems to have been a low-budget affair (a bite that Davenport gets on his hand could have used a better makeup job to be more ghastly), the plot details are sloppy to say the least, the writing is bland, and, though the men are fine, Frederick isn't very good, though admittedly she is saddled with the worst dialogue in the film. The director, Saul Bass, is best known as a designer of titles and credits (PSYCHO, VERTIGO, WEST SIDE STORY, GOODFELLAS), and he gets away with glossing over important plot points by making the movie always interesting to look at. Frankly, the ants (photographed by Ken Middleham), though their intentions are enigmatic throughout, feel more important as characters than the people. The best scenes in the movie involve no humans: in one, a ball of poison is rolled and carried to the queen by a succession of drones who all die along the way. In another, the ants use a praying mantis in their plan to short-circuit the dome's power. The creepiest shot is one of rows and rows of dead ants, placed that way carefully by other ants. There are sly references to 2001, with opening shots of cosmic bodies in and out of alignment, and the glowing red eye of a computer is glimpsed occasionally. This is no tense nail-biter, and the climax could have used a bit more oomph, but it is a memorable quirky little artifact of its era. [DVD]

Friday, October 10, 2008


I believe I first saw this movie when I was 13 or 14, when weekend movies were occasionally shown at my junior high. I was a monster movie fan, so I was serious about wanting to see it, but everyone else was there just to be away from their families for an afternoon, so mostly I remember lots of chatting and paper airplanes and running out of the auditorium to get snacks. The film has a "bad movie" rep, but I think that is mostly due to its outrageous title; it was definitely done on the cheap and its look and acting are about on a TV-movie level, but if you know what you’re getting into, it's sort of fun. Dr. Maria Frankenstein (Narda Onyx--fabulous name!) and her brother Rudolph (busy character actor Steven Geray) have left Vienna to continue their grandfather's experiments in an abandoned monastery in the American old West (lots of lightning storms, you know). Juanita (Estelita Rodriguez), a local who has worked for the family in the past, is understandably upset that these experiments have been claiming the lives of many of the nearby village's young men (including her own brother) and she's ready to leave the area for good. From what I could figure out, Maria is killing the boys, then trying to reanimate them by means of artificial brains from her grandfather’s original inventory and a gaudily colored helmet. Obviously, it's not working (and unknown to her, Rudolph is subverting her plans when he surreptitiously puts the victims out of their misery when it's clear the day-glo device isn’t working), but Maria has one more brain, though she's run out of local boys. Lucky for her, the outlaw Jesse James (John Lupton) and his beefy sidekick Hank (Cal Bolder) show up on the run, with Hank seriously wounded from a recent shootout. Juanita takes pity on them and takes them over to the Frankenstein place for doctoring. Juanita is sweet on Hank, and Maria gets a bit of a thing for Jesse, but that doesn't stop her from deciding that Hank is the perfect specimen for her final experiment. In fact, the pretty bicycle helmet does its job and Hank (complete with stitched-up shaved head) becomes Igor, a servant completely under Maria's power. Throw in a lawman (Jim Davis, probably not the creator of Garfield) on the trail of the bandits and you've got the makings for a good ol' western/monster movie climax. Onyx is appropriately dastardly, Bolder is hunky enough, and Lupton, though bland, bears a resemblance to William H. Macy, and when things bog down, it's fun to imagine what Macy might have done with the role. Maybe the Coen Brothers will remake this some day? [TCM]

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Sunday, October 05, 2008


Vincent Price is a maker of magician's illusions who works for overbearing boss Donald Randolph. When he tries to break out and become a stage magician himself using a new buzz saw trick he invented, Randolph stops the show with a legal injunction claiming that anything Price makes is Randolph's property, and Randolph wants to give the trick to established magician John Emery. If that isn't enough to royally piss off Price, his ex-wife (Eva Gabor) ran off with Randolph some time ago. Price goes bonkers and buzzes off Randolph's head, then uses his gift for mimicry and makeup to disguise himself as Randolph. Price gets rid of Randolph's body by tossing it on a college bonfire, but Gabor shows up looking for Randolph; when she realizes he's really Price, he kills her and runs away, leaving the police to assume that Randolph is now a killer hiding from justice. Price soon comes up with another grand illusion, a glass crematorium, and when Emery comes around to take it from him, Price kills again. Eventually, Price is hunted down, thanks in part to the new science of fingerprints.

This movie, originally shown in 3-D, was made a year after Price's first big 3-D hit, HOUSE OF WAX. Both films share a producer (Bryan Foy) and a screenwriter (Crane Wilbur), though they were done at different studios by different directors, this one from Columbia and John Brahm. Though this plays out much like WAX (including some gratuitous 3-D gimmick shots), it also has elements from Brahm's earlier classics THE LODGER (the landlady) and HANGOVER SQUARE (the bonfire). Price is good and his disguises look fine, though his mimicked voices are too clearly dubbed in. A vague romance plot is thrown in courtesy Price's assistant (Mary Murphy) and her boyfriend (Patrick O'Neal in his first film role); it neither adds nor subtracts anything from the film. Lyle Talbot has a cameo as a man selling programs which he thrusts at the camera in a 3-D moment. Though not made in color, and lacking the spectacular set pieces of HOUSE OF WAX, this is still good October viewing. [TCM]

Friday, October 03, 2008


One reason I started this blog was to cover the older films that don't get a lot of critical attention: mostly the Hollywood A-films that didn’t become timeless blockbusters and the B-movies that tend to fall through the critical cracks. It's always amazed me that you can find lots of information out there about almost any film in the horror or SF genres, even the bottom of the barrel stuff, yet it can be difficult to dig up any comments at all about an average William Powell movie (except anything with "Thin Man" in its title) or any light comedy that doesn’t fall under the screwball rubric. This film must be one of the worst-made movies ever, and yet a few seconds on Google will turn up reams of material about it. And here I am, adding to that pile. This Mexican monster movie, produced by and starring Abel Salazar, is terrible, but in that campy way that many fans find endearing. In 1661, a devil-worshipping baron (Salazar) is tortured by the Inquisition; when he laughs at the worst they can dish out, he is sentenced to be burned at the stake. In his last minutes of life, just as a comet flies through the sky, he puts a curse on the judges, saying he will return when that comet returns, and take revenge on the judges' descendents. Sure enough, in 1961, when the comet returns, a huge chunk comes loose, lands in the Mexican desert, and transforms itself into a dreadful (and dreadfully cheap looking) monster with a demonic face, ridiculously silly pincher appendages, and a very long and floppy forked tongue. He takes human form to find the descendants by inviting them to a party, then tracks them down and sucks their brains out by plunging his tongue prongs into their necks. Eventually, the police bring him down with flamethrowers just as he's about to kill a Mary Tyler Moore look-alike.

In most ways, this is just as bad as Ed Wood's PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, though it feels more like professionals who persevered despite realizing they had no budget, rather than amateurs pretending to be professionals who are persevering. Though film stills make the monster look scary, he's not. Aside from the droopy tongue, there's the pulsating face (achieved with air being sucked in and out of the mask) and the aimless claws and the flashlight that flicks on and off right beneath the monster's face. The comet effect is a still picture of a comet that barely moves. The sets are threadbare and all the exteriors are shot in front of very bad rear projections. The one moment worth seeing is Salazar eating brains out of a bowl. The DVD from CasaNegra (a company which, sadly, I hear has gone out of business) is in lovely condition and even has an audio commentary which, despite being given by a dyed-in-the-wool Brainiac fanatic, gets tedious fairly quickly. Don't bother. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


It's October, which means another month of horror and sci-fi reviews around these parts. I'll start with one of the better late 50's atom-age monster movies, though the title is misleading; the beast is actually the Monster that Challenged the Southern California Canal System. At a navy research base on the Salton Sea, a salt-water lake southeast of Los Angeles, a small earthquake registers but no one thinks much about it until a Navy flyer on a parachute-testing run vanishes in the lake. The two sailors sent to retrieve the pilot also vanish. New hard-ass commander Tim Holt, assigned to investigate, finds a sticky white goo sprayed all over the boat and two corpses, one dead of a stroke (diagnosed as being caused by fright) and one bug-eyed and horribly desiccated. Navy scientist Hans Conried orders the beaches closed (shades of JAWS), but one night, a young woman and her sailor boyfriend take a moonlight dip and wind up dragged under the waves by something (again, shades of JAWS, this time with a direct visual that may have influenced that film's opening). Divers find a huge gelatinous egg, which they take back to Conried's lab for study, and a gigantic sea monster which they keep referring to as related to the Kraken, a mythical sea beast which the movie's writers seem to believe actually existed, though it's also referred to as an oversized mollusk creature. Conried's theory is that the earthquake may have disturbed some prehistoric eggs which hatched and grew into these ravenous beasts--there is also radioactivity associated with them but that tie to the atomic threat is at best half-heartedly pursued.

Holt and his men hunt down these monsters, concerned that if even one manages to cross land and infiltrate the canal system, it could multiply rapidly and leave us humans in a world of hurt. A romantic subplot has Navy widow Audrey Dalton falling for Holt, who is eventually softened up by Dalton and her 10-year-old daughter (Mimi Gibson). The little girl is the catalyst for the climax when, after all the monsters seem to be killed, the one left gestating in the lab is actually "born." There are a few too many scenes of police racing from lock to lock, but the black and white film has a clean, better-than-B-movie look. The monsters' faces, with their pinching, slobbery jaws, are effective, but when they're actually moving around on land attacking people, they're not really all that. Holt is puffy-faced and wooden, and the romance plot is equally wooden. The only supporting character of interest is a slightly daffy archivist named Lewis Clark Dobbs, possibly as an in-joke reference to the Bogart character in TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, in which Tim Holt co-starred. Joel McCrea’s son Jody (who looks just like his dad) has a small role as one of the first sailors to bite the dust. [TCM]