Tag 1950s

It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)

It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)

IT CRUSHES! KILLS! DESTROYS!

A nuclear submarine on its maiden voyage is attacked by a mysterious object from the depths. A large chunk of rubbery tissue is pulled from one of the vessel’s propellers and examined by two marine biologists, who conclude that it came from an enormous octopus. The military dismiss their findings, until the creature begins sinking ships and making its way toward the west coast of the United States.

 

Well in 1950s America, a giant radioactive monster wouldn’t go anywhere else, would it? (Well, maybe except for Godzilla!) This was a decade dominated by ants, locusts, grasshoppers, spiders, scorpions and space monsters all growing to enormous size and attacking America. The nuclear monster era was here, in a time dominated by the very real threat and fear of atomic bombs being used by the Soviet Union. Capitalising on this fear and paranoia, cinema churned out a ridiculous number of varying quality B-movies during this decade, spanning the likes of Earth Vs The Spider, The Black Scorpion, Beginning of the End, Them! And The Deadly Mantis to name but a select few entries. Devastating attacks on mankind weren’t just confined to the land and air though and It Came From Beneath the Sea stands up in the corner of the sea monsters to make a name for itself.

Cult stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen had made his first solo effects feature film two years earlier with classic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the earliest of the 1950s atomic monster B-movies. Seeing how popular these films had become, he jumped at the chance to make another one when approached by producer Charles H. Schneer. This was Harryhausen’s first collaboration with Schneer and it was to be the making of a fantastic partnership which would change the way cinema looked at special effects, with the two men pioneering work in classics such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts within the next ten years. Schneer was fully supportive of Harryhausen’s talents, often exceeding budgets in order for the maestro to finish his work to the best possible standards – you just wouldn’t get that level of trust in today’s film market.

With only one man producing the special effects, it was clear that the octopus wasn’t going to be on screen for a lot of the time and so other filler was needed to keep audiences hooked. Sadly, It Came From Beneath the Sea fails to engage the viewer when the monster isn’t around. There’s a really awkward romantic love triangle sub-plot between the main characters and it’s so tedious that you don’t care who gets who by the end. The usual military types spend plenty of the film bickering about the best course of action to prevent disaster from happening and there’s a team of scientists racing to find a way to stop the monster before it’s too late. I’m all for a bit of plot development but seeing the same faces standing around talking isn’t a great use of time. The addition of a news reporter-style narration to proceedings adds nothing to the film except a few extra minutes of running time and a cheap way to provide the exposition that the boring dialogue fails to get across.

When the scenes of destruction arrive, they are pretty good but are over far too quickly. The octopus only has six tentacles (an infamous fact down to Harryhausen not having time or money to animate eight) but this doesn’t stop it from doing some damage, taking out ships before arriving in San Francisco for a very famous attack on the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s more action than the majority of the aforementioned giant monster movies provided but still seems somewhat lacking. Sadly the final confrontation with the octopus doesn’t deliver a knock-out blow when it needs to and the film ends on a rather a weak note.

Kenneth Tobey was a familiar sight in the 50s, starring in two of the decades greatest sci-fi films in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and The Thing From Another World and lends his usual gung-ho schtick to the military role he is required to play again. Co-star Donald Curtis also popped up in another Harryhausen film a few years later, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and portrays the same military role. You’d think that everyone back in the 50s was in the army with the way they get all of the main roles in these films! They’re both bland in parts that require nothing more of them but to regurgitate military mumbo jumbo to each other.

 

It Came From Beneath the Sea is never built up as one of Harryhausen’s best and there’s a good reason for that – it’s not. Whilst the animation is excellent, the excitement is lacking and there’s not enough action to keep the film from sinking. However, it was another learning curve for Harryhausen and another showcase to craft his art, which he would refine over the coming years.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Land Unknown, The (1957)

The Land Unknown (1957)

DEEP IN THE ANTARCTIC WILDERNESS!

Four members of a major Antarctic expedition find themselves stranded in a remote area when their helicopter is forced to land inside a volcanic crater some 3,000 feet below sea level. They find themselves trapped in a tropical environment which has survived from the prehistoric era and is home to a variety of large carnivorous dinosaurs. It is here where they encounter Dr Carl Hunter, the lone survivor from a previous expedition that went missing years earlier and were presumed dead.

 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World is one of the most famous literary texts of all time. It has been adapted time and time again for film and television and will no doubt continue to do so for years to come. Published over one hundred years ago, the book tapped in man’s fascination with the Earth before we arrived on the scene as a species and just what things had been like during the time of the dinosaurs. The book influenced many others including Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Land That Time Forgot. The birth and development of film as an art and entertainment form at the turn of the 20th century gave rise to a number of films which brought this world to life. From 1925’s The Lost World right up to King Kong’s exploits on the island, exotic and tropical lands beaming with dinosaurs had become the norm. The Land Unknown was a little late to the genre party but it came amidst a flurry of atomic monster movies or alien invasion films during the 50s.

Despite’s it’s obvious flaws, The Land Unknown is a solid, imaginative sci-fi film which brings to life a prehistoric valley filled with hot geysers, tropical flora and deadly dinosaurs with reasonable success. This must have been one expensive film to make back in the 50s, with these elaborate and intricate tropical sets looking vast in scope (and miniaturised versions for the dinosaurs to stomp around in too). Some of the detail will be lost through the black and white film but you still get the idea. You would assume that this is where the majority of the cash went, though rumours are rife that the budget mainly went on the mechanical dinosaur and so they couldn’t shoot in colour as was originally planned and had to cast B-rate actors instead of the A-list celebrities that they wanted.

From what I can see, the T-Rex is just a guy in a suit stomping around miniature sets and not a mechanical creation, the plesiosaur is a wind-up bath toy (I guess this was the expensive dinosaur that blew the budget) and the other dinosaurs are simply normal lizards standing in for dinosaurs. On their own, the effects don’t hold up very well but taken into consideration with the scope of the film, it’s nice to see a bit of variety in the monsters and the way that they’re presented. Had they all have been brought to life in the same manner, there would be problems. After all, not every film could afford to splash out on expensive stop motion effects like King Kong or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. There’s some decent rear screen projection in some sequences, particularly that of the T-Rex chasing one character. But in other scenes, specifically the water-based ones with the plesiosaur, the rear projection is blatantly obvious. The effects are laughable and cumbersome today but understandable given the time period.

The Land Unknown does have a fair bit going for it so it’s not all cheese. The initial set up is well done and pacey enough to get us right into the heart of the action as soon as feasibly possible. The scene in which the characters inadvertently discover this world on board their helicopter is well-crafted and the descent down through the misty volcano is rife with tension and suspense. Though the cast isn’t very big, there’s enough of them to interact with the hostile environment on a regular basis. The Land Unknown has plenty of decent ideas but either no creative way to show them or simply no money to put them into practice. When the dinosaurs aren’t on screen, the film drags its feet through the swampy mud like no man’s business and even when they are on screen, they don’t do much except chase people and roar.

Where The Land Unknown veers into slightly more dangerous territory is with its portrayal of Dr Carl Hunter, a survivor of a previous expedition who has been marooned in this place for ten years. Though he’s supposed to attract our sympathy for surviving on his own for so long when the rest of his team died, it turns out that he’s a homicidal rapist who just wants to get rid of the three men and be alone with Maggie (played by Shirley Patterson).

 

The Land Unknown is a high concept film with a budget that doesn’t even come close to realising the potential. There are hints of a great film in here with the imaginative setting and effective recreation of a prehistoric ‘lost world’ but with all of the money being spent on one silly dinosaur, the producers and director were always going to be up against it.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Thing From Another World, The (1951)

The Thing From Another World (1951)

Where Did It Come From? How Did It Get Here? WHAT IS IT?

Scientists at an Arctic research station discover an alien space ship buried in the ice along with its frozen pilot. They take the body back to the base but when it thaws, the crew find themselves struggling for survival against not only a massive alien life-form hungry for human blood, but the science department who insist that the creature must not be harmed so that they can study it.

 

One of the earliest and most influential science fiction films to come out of the 1950s, The Thing From Another World is the one that most critics credit for the rise of the ‘alien invasion’ flicks that were to follow in number. It’s the prototype for the ‘base under siege’ formula that has been replicated so often in films since. Not only that but it’s a damned fine film on its own merits, forgetting the legacy that it has built for itself in the meantime. In a paranoid era of Cold War and the worries over nuclear weapons, the film taps into this vein of unease and plays off it. The final lines of dialogue “Watch the skies, everywhere. Keep looking, keep watching the skies” are a chilling reminder of the 50s and of the fear that people had. What would come out of the sky? Nuclear missiles? UFOs? Giant monsters?

Based on the classic novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, The Thing From Another World is light years ahead of its 50s compatriots. Coming before the slew of sci-fi films that were to follow gives this an original slant and it isn’t bogged down by clichés. In fact rather the opposite as the film establishes many genre staples that we’ve come to know and love (or hate) today. You’ve got to remember that science fiction as we take for granted today was still in its infancy during this era. Whilst horror dominated the 30s and 40s, science fiction took off after the Second World War and never looked back. The Thing From Another World laid down an early benchmark for the genre to follow. We’ve obviously got the ‘base under siege’ plot and alien invasion theme with isolation being a key factor, right down to the meddling scientists who believe that they can reason with or understand the creatures they come across (before meeting a horrible demise).

One of the most positive aspects to The Thing From Another World is how pacey is it. This is spot on and the film is tightly edited, flows smoothly and contains enough peaks and troughs to put people through the emotional ringer. It doesn’t really waste too much of its screen time trying to explain anything or do anything which doesn’t further the story or add some tension. I’ve only got to rack my mind at a handful of other 50s sci-fi films to remember how slow, drawn-out and sluggish they were, taking a lifetime to get to where they needed to be.

Despite being based on the novella, the film ditches most of the material, keeping only the wintry setting and the idea of a crashed spaceship (John Carpenter’s later remake was much more faithful to the source material with its assimilations and overt paranoia). I can understand the cost necessities of trying to create a complex film like that back in the 80s but they could have done a bit better than their eventual output: a big stuntman with a boiler suit and a large head piece. Still, the sets used for the Arctic are quite convincing and it’s good to see the film actually shoot some footage ‘outside’ as opposed to many other films at the time which just kept its horror based indoors. Though they’re still on a soundstage, at least some of the shots look like they were filmed in the snow.

The most disappointing aspect of the film is the alien itself. Special effects (and budgets) in the 1950s would never have allowed for the film to stay faithful to the source material, portraying the alien as a shape-shifting assimilator with all of the gooey transformations and absorptions that followed. So what we eventually get is just a big guy in a suit. It’s a tad feeble at first but once the initial disappointment has been overcome, the director (be it the credited Christian Nyby or Howard Hawks, the producer whom everyone thinks really directed this because it has plenty of his style in it) certainly does his best to create the illusion of an alien life form. The first glimpse we see of the creature tossing the huskies away during a snowstorm is chilling and there’s another infamous shot of the creature when it bursts through a door and is set on fire by the crew, all set within a dark environment and only illuminated by the raging fire which is engulfing it. Keeping it relegated to the shadows is a smart move because it does make the creature all the more scary when it eventually attacks. Of course when the creature is seen in close-up, you’ve just got to laugh a little bit – and the notion that this is a killer vegetable that craves human blood is also a bit comical. Credit to the film for making this idea pan out with deadly serious consequences.

On a final note, that title intro is still fantastically creepy to this day.

 

It might seem harmless and hokey nowadays and its shock value had diminished greatly over time, but The Thing from Another World is a landmark science fiction film which is perfectly accessible for any generation of science fiction fans and a completely different type of film from it’s superior remake in 1981.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

Roasting Anything In Its Path!

A spotter plane pilot for a Japanese fishing fleet crash lands on a barren island where he witnesses two giant monsters fighting each other before falling into the ocean. He reports his findings to the Japanese government as soon as he is rescued and their worst fears are realised. Another giant monster, similar to the original Godzilla, is alive and well and there is also another giant monster. Without the oxygen destroyer weapon that killed the original Godzilla, the Japanese people must find another way to stop these rampaging monsters before they destroy Japan and each other.

 

Within six months of Godzilla smashing Tokyo to pieces in Godzilla, Toho had this sequel ready to go to ride on the success story that the original had turned out to be. Considering the special effects sequences involved in this one, that’s a staggering turnaround in such a short space of time. Like Son of Kong was to its predecessor, so too does Godzilla Raids Again suffer immensely from being too much of the same too soon.

The rushed production schedule is evident in the lack of a real story to the film. Yes, Godzilla films are hardly known for their intricate plots but this one literally just dumps a pair of giant monsters into Japan and has them fighting each other for a bit. At least the later Godzilla films introduced all manner of weird alien (who all looked Japanese anyway) races trying to conquer Earth as their human subplot to fill the human screen time. This has nothing of the sort and as a result, barely squeezes over the hour mark for running time. Given that there’s also some flashback footage from Godzilla, the whole thing smacks of being a quick cash-in.

Godzilla Raids Again introduces what would become the staple of the Godzilla film for many, many, many years to come – that of Godzilla fighting another giant monster. It’s perennial fan-favourite Anguirus who makes his debut here, giving him the distinction of being only the second kaiju to appear in the long-running Toho franchise. Anguirus would later go on to become one of Godzilla’s most faithful allies (and would regularly get his ass kicked by King Ghidorah or Mechagodzilla). Whilst later fight scenes between Godzilla and his giant monster opponents were more drawn out affairs, the fights, or I should say scraps, between the two monsters are pretty timid affairs. They claw and scratch at each other a lot, more primeval and animalistic than the later tag-team cheese fests, and the fight scenes are strangely filmed at a faster rate, giving the impression of a Benny Hill sketch. The monster suits also look a bit cheap and nasty, especially Anguirus. But the first fight scene between the monsters is a historic moment marking the first time that any two monsters did battle in a Japanese kaiju flick.

It’s clear that everything was done quickly and some of the effects look really dated, even in black and white. But I’ll give credit to the miniature makers as the city sets look fairly detailed and there’s plenty of buildings being smashed to bits. A common failing of later Godzilla film was that the monsters started fighting in the city but conveniently ended up in fields and hills where the studio set consisted of little more than a grass floor. Here, the monsters tussle with each other right in central Osaka, making sure that no buildings are left in their wake.

Bizarrely, the big fight between the two monsters, usually the epic finale of these films, comes at the halfway point in the film which means that for the rest of its running time, Godzilla Raids Again plays out like a poorer retread of the original with Godzilla getting back to finishing the job he started on Japan. Osaka is the target this time around, presumably because Tokyo was still in such a mess from before. That said, Godzilla than handily hops across to a couple of remote islands in order for the finale on top of a glacier.

Like the original Godzilla, Godzilla Raids Again was re-edited for American audiences and released under the strange moniker of Gigantis, the Fire Monster. Taking away Godzilla’s name took away the fact that this was a sequel. I don’t get the logic in that but hey, I’m not a producer. Either way, the film still serves little point in existing. There’s no new story to tell, the nuclear messages have been toned down and the monster fights are grossly underwhelming.

 

Make a sequel that’s virtually the same as the one before it with less money and told to do it in six months is no mean feat so it’s a good job at least something managed to click with Godzilla Raids Again and it stumbled upon the template for many Godzilla films to come. Few fans would regard this in their top five Godzilla films with the opposite being more likely. It’s the weakest of the first few films in the series by a long way.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Quatermass Xperiment, The (1955)

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

It’s coming for YOU from Space to wipe all living things from the face of the Earth! CAN IT BE STOPPED?

A experimental space rocket, designed and launched by Professor Quatermass and his team, crash lands back to Earth. However two out of the three crew members have mysteriously vanished during the mission and the surviving member, Victor Carroon, is in bad shape and taken to a local hospital. As Quatermass and his team try to fathom out what happened to the rocket, Carroon slowly undergoes a horrible metamorphosis. Quatermass realises that he has been taken over by an alien being which absorbs everything is touches and increases itself in mass.

 

Greatness has to start somewhere and here we are with the true birth of the Hammer Films studio. Hammer, which became synonymous with horror and would reinvent the genre in the late 50s with a series of groundbreaking films, had been making film noir since the early 50s. The Quatermass Xperiment was their first major breakthrough in horror and science fiction and was seen as a gamble by the studio at the time. Originally a serialised TV play shown by the BBC in 1953, the story caught public attention and the rights to a cinematic adaptation were soon snapped up by Hammer. The film received the dreaded X certificate by the BBFC and Hammer slightly re-worked the title to play on that fact (hence the Xperiment bit). The film was a resounding success at the box office and established Hammer as a big player. It proved that there was an appetite for horror from the British cinema goers, an appetite that Hammer would satisfy two years later in The Curse of Frankenstein.

That’s not to say that The Quatermass Xperiment is an outright horror film. The science fiction elements dominate this one and though it may be a landmark British film, time has not been too kind to it from the horror viewpoint. Looking rather quaint and antiquated nowadays, it’s rather difficult to identify just what caused the BBFC to give it the X rating. Carroon’s mutated hand and the eventual appearance of the alien at the end look rather tame today but I guess back in the 50s when fear of the A-bomb and Cold War paranoia was running high, the more psychological elements may have hit a raw nerve. Looking at it now, everything happens in a rather procedural fashion, evidential of Hammer’s earlier film noir output, and it plays out more like a crime thriller for the first half.

Given the slew of sci-fi monster movies being churned out in America during the 50s, one would have expected The Quatermass Xperiment to go down the same route and the change of approach comes as a bit of a shock. But legendary screen writer Nigel Kneale, who was one of the finest sci-fi writers ever to pen a script, made his name with the BBC television play. The adaptation by Val Guest pays faithful attention to that, expanding the scope of the play for feature film length and, in turn, crafting a more thoughtful, haunting film instead of the generic gung-ho popcorn filler than the Americans were making in the same era. This is “thinking man’s science fiction” which, in some quarters, can mean that the film is rather slow. It is, there’s no question of that. The slow, methodical build-up to the finale does plod along merrily in old school British fashion. But Guest’s intelligent script keeps the mystery level high (Kneale had no involvement in the cinematic version) and, as he also directs, he’s in full control of the interesting direction that the film takes.

This is down, in no small part, to the great performance by Richard Wordsworth who plays doomed astronaut Victor Carroon. Wordsworth, who I’ve only just found out was the grandson of the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth, makes for a sympathetic and tragic character, almost Frankenstein-like in his silent portrayal (he even encounters a little girl and everything goes wrong from then onwards). We know that something is seriously wrong with Carroon but we don’t know what. The blank expressions and pain-stricken eyes hide something deadly and the film takes its time to drip-feed the audience hints as to what that could be. It’s not pleasant, that’s for sure.

Brian Donlevy seemed like a rather awkward choice to play the lead role. Donlevy was an Irish-American actor who was cast in the role in an attempt to breakthrough into the US market but in his later years he was known for his alcoholism and was troublesome to work with. Ironically it’s these qualities that make his Professor Quatermass click. Donlevy plays the role with a gruff, no-nonsense approach and turns his Quatermass into an arrogant, obnoxious, single-minded character. Given the nature of Quatermass’ almost-obsessive determination to succeed, Donlevy makes the right call to play him this way. His lack of compassion in the face of such tragedy is uncannily realistic.

It’s of no surprise to see that the finale is the part of the film which hasn’t aged well. The appearance of the rubbery alien in Westminster Abbey gets decent build-up and would have looked alright back in the 50s. But nowadays it’s a bit of a dud creation and the finale is a let-down given the build-up it had received. The alien worked so much better in the human guise of Carroon but the story dictated that the it reveal itself at the end. If it had done so earlier on, I wonder how many people would have kept watching. The finale doesn’t really spoil the rest of the film but it feels like a waste. Hammer’s budget wouldn’t stretch too far and the special effects are adequate but unconvincing.

 

The Quatermass Xperiment is one of the most influential genre films ever made and definitely one of the UK’s most important contributions to cinema. Without this film’s success and the identification of a niche market for horror in the UK, Hammer may never have decided to make The Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula, two landmark films which changed the horror genre as we know it forever. Though some of its elements lack the impact they most undoubtedly did upon its original release, The Quatermass Xperiment is one of the most intelligent and ambitious science fiction films of its era, ambitions that were challenged further in its two sequels Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit, both of which (in my opinion) are far superior. I would have loved to have seen what else Hammer could have done in the science fiction genre but they chose to focus their efforts on the horror market. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Target Earth (1954)

Target Earth (1954)

You’ll be paralyzed with fear!

A young woman who attempted to take her life with an overdose of sleeping pills wakes up the next day to find that the city in which she lives, Chicago, is deserted. The streets are empty. Cars won’t start. Electricity is off. And there are people lying dead all around. She encounters three other survivors who have no idea what is going on and decided to stick together in order to get out of the city. But their plans are thrown into disarray when they come across the reason why Chicago is deserted – killer robots from outer space have landed and commenced an invasion of Earth.

 

Made on a shoestring budget in the midst of the “alien invasion” films of the 50s, Target Earth is a film where the premise is actually a lot scarier and more effective than the eventual execution. Who wouldn’t be more than a little concerned and afraid to wake up one day and suddenly find that everyone in your town or city was gone? And even worse at the fact there are killer robots roaming the streets hunting down human survivors. It’s a scarier thought than it is realised in this middling sci-fi film. But I can’t go too hard on it. After all, this was a decade in which anything and everything from outer space decided to land and have a go, with varying quality and budgets. It will have worked back in the 50s, not in the 2010s.

Target Earth starts with great mystery – the eerie shots of a deserted Chicago will have you thinking of the likes of later films The Omega Man, Day of the Dead, 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and many more. Clearly some inspiration has been drawn from Target Earth in this respect. As the young woman, Nora, explores the city and eventually finds fellow survivors Frank, Vicki and Jim, the film keeps up its level of mystery. We know something has happened. We know something is loose in the city. But we’re not quite sure of what. Being out in the streets, we get the feeling that they are only one block away from finding out. So the film manages to keep its audience on edge, makes guesses about what has happened.

Unfortunately the whole film then crashes into the wall once the alien invaders are revealed to be killer robots and the first robot is first shown. More about that later but it’s at this point where the film sheds its mystery and paranoia. The characters then settle down into a hotel to wait it out for a bit and see what happens. And that’s pretty much where they spend the rest of the film. No searching the streets. No attempting to piece together what has happened. They just take refuge in the hotel, encounter a murderer and then the robot appears again. If one major criticism can be levelled at Target Earth is that it’s just too sparse. Hardly anything happens, though when it does it offers promise that the film could have been a whole lot better with a bit more action or problem-solving.

A secondary plot thread runs alongside the main one from the half-way mark, featuring a bunch of scientists and army guys trying to figure out how to stop the robots and conducting tests and experiments. It’s dull, adds little to the narrative and is only included to pad out the running time (and provide a suitably convenient ending for the film). Like most of these 50s sci-fi films, these scenes are so uninvolving and distracting, taking you out of the fantasy elements of the monsters and aliens and transplanting you into boring melodrama.

The budget would only stretch to building one robot and so you’ve got to suspend your disbelief and assume that this is just one of a massive invasion force. At its first appearance, the robot looks rather laughable – well basically any appearance, let alone the first. But there’s something unsettling about it – with no real ‘face’ to speak of, little in the way of clanking when it moves and a single-minded determination to hunt down the survivors. The robot is really only in two scenes but makes an impression in them both. I guess the film tries anything to keep itself away from showing us the robot. The addition of the scared Otis, who panics, cries doom and then inevitably is the first on-screen casualty, and then later the killer, Davis, who adds a cartoony villain presence and meets a fitting end, serve as nothing more than temporary stop-gaps to pad out the human-human conflict.

In the mid 60s, long-time horror director Terence Fisher would make a very similar-themed film in The Earth Dies Screaming which featured a post-apocalyptic England being overrun by killer robots. It’s the better film of the two but there are so many similarities between the two, it’s obvious that whoever wrote it had seen Target Earth.

 

Like many a 50s science fiction flick, Target Earth saw its best days many decades ago but that doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t some merit still lurking around. Though the story is a little threadbare and is pushed about as far as it can go without a bigger budget, there is still enjoyment to be had in a “pretty much nothing exciting happens” sort of way.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)

AS PRIVATE EYES…they’re getting an Eyeful!

Boxer Tommy Nelson is accused of killing his manager and injects himself with an experimental invisibility serum in order to hide from the police and find out the real killer. He enlists the help of two bumbling private detectives, Bud and Lou, and with their help, he devises a plan to trap the real killer by having Lou pose as a boxer, aided by his invisible punches.

 

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was such a popular hit that the much-loved comedy duo were regularly paired off against some of Universal’s classic gallery of monsters. The seeds for Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man had been sown at the end of their first horror outing, as the Invisible Man (voiced by none other than Vincent Price) introduces himself to the duo at the end of the film. Price sadly does not return in this one but maybe he saw what was coming. The result is a film which grossly fails to live up to the potential shenanigans that Abbott and Costello should have been getting up to with an Invisible Man.

I really don’t get the love for this one. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man is nowhere near as funny as some of their other ‘Meet’ films yet it has received way more critical praise and was financially more successful than their horror outings. This one is hardly played for the horror factor as the character of the Invisible Man was never really meant to be in the same league of monstrousness as Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man. It’s perhaps this which doesn’t do the film any favours. The character of the Invisible Man, Tommy Nelson in this one, is played seriously and there are attempts to give him some sort of story with the warnings of becoming psychotic after being invisible for too long. But unlike the horror elements of their previous outings, the drama doesn’t really click here. Abbott and Costello don’t really seem out of their element as they did when they were up against Dracula and Frankenstein and everything happens as a matter of fact. The duo go along with Nelson’s plan from the beginning, taking on board the notion of an invisible man with little apprehension.

The highlight set piece of the film is the boxing bout at the end where Lou is to go up against tough boxer Rocky Hanlon, with Tommy providing invisible punches. I’m sure it all sounded a lot funnier on paper and what we get is an overlong sequence of Lou pratting around in the ring in his shorts and pretending to fall over, slip, trip and stumble like the buffoon his character is meant to be. The physical comedy just isn’t funny and I always preferred the verbal sparring that Abbott and Costello did with each other, most notably their variations on the “Who’s On First?” routine. They manage to hit a few decent home runs with a couple of scenes but there’s nowhere near enough material to keep the film consistently funny. Lou Costello was always the stooge and his clowning around can get pretty tiresome as he looks at the camera with that knowing look to break down the fourth wall with the audience. One of the highlights of the other ‘Meet’ films, even the worse ones, was that Costello spent the majority of the film trying to convince Abbott that there were monsters lurking around. This lead to all manner of mishaps with bodies appearing and disappearing, chases around corridors, castles and tombs and Costello trying to hold it all together before he thought he was going crazy. But here, Abbott learns of the existence of the Invisible Man quite early which strips away most of the comedy potential. Seeing the two work hand-in-hand with the monster of the movie isn’t as entertaining as watching Costello fall apart on screen as Abbott reprimands him.

The true star of the show is the invisibility special effects. Truly excellent for 1951, we get to see scenes of Bud and Lou playing cards with the invisible man and taking him out to dinner where he eats spaghetti. The invisibility aspect plays host to a number of sight gags throughout the film as various characters don’t know where Tommy is. In the film’s best effect, the Invisible Man receives a blood transfusion and begins to visualise, with his veins materialising first as the blood is pumped in followed by the rest of his body. The effects were great for their era and still hold up extremely well today. It’s a pity that the comedy doesn’t.

 

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man is an undignified end to Universal’s Invisible Man series and a run of five previous films featuring H. G. Wells’ classic character was to come to an end. Abbott and Costello would be back to face more Universal monsters but this is not one of their better efforts and doesn’t hold a candle to the classic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Tarantula (1955)

Tarantula (1955)

Even Science was stunned!

A tarantula, which has been injected with experimental growth hormones, escapes the secret laboratory and grows to enormous size, causing havoc across the Arizona desert.

 

Tarantula is one of the 50s giant monster movies more famous entries and is not to be confused with the later 50s film, Earth Vs The Spider, also about a giant spider on the rampage in a desert town. But whereas that was attracted by rock and roll music, the spider in this one is simply hungry. Jack Arnold, fresh off legendary status with Creature from the Black Lagoon, brings his considerable talent to the table but unfortunately ends up with a throwaway science fiction movie which just so happens to have a giant spider running amok in.

Tarantula runs according to the well-embedded 50s atomic monster formula but a formula done reasonably effectively when the film wants to put the effort in. In this case the cause of the problem isn’t atomic radiation but an early form of genetic experimentation. It matters little in the long run though – either way there is a huge hungry spider on the loose. The film runs almost entirely without the spider as the plot regarding the scientists and the experiments takes the majority of the screen time. It’s a race against time for Professor Deemer to find a cure for his acromegaly which killed his partner and is now starting to kill him. It’s nowhere near as exciting as it sounds, if it sounds exciting anyway. At least there is some decent make-up effects on both characters as the slow effects of the syndrome begin to take their toll.

But we didn’t come for guys in make-up, we came for giant spiders. Tarantula is dreadfully dull. It’s almost fifty minutes into the film before you get a look at the giant spider. That said, the first shot of it climbing over the hill in silhouette form is pretty spine-tingling and there is another awesome shot of it slowly creeping up behind a couple of prospectors sitting by a dawn campfire. I may have lambasted special effects in similar 50s giant bug movies but here they look like they’ve had some time and effort devoted to them. The spider even casts a shadow across the background that it’s been superimposed onto. I mean its hardly groundbreaking stuff but the effects at least manage to make the spider look like its real, even if it seems that plenty of the shots are re-used. I just wish they’d have made more use of the spider instead of relegating it to background duty.

The spider doesn’t do an awful lot except toddle around the desert. Many shots of it walking across highways, climbing over rocks or traversing hills are inter-cut with the rest of the film. Nothing flash, just a ten second clip of it walking around to make you remember that it’s still out there. It doesn’t really get well fed (if you don’t take into consideration a herd of horses that it snacks upon) but then it hasn’t really done much to get its appetite worked up. When it does get around to attacking people, it’s the same scenario over and over: close-up of the spider bearing its fangs and going in for the kill and then a zoom-in shot of the unlucky victims(s) covering helplessly on the floor with some super-imposed legs either side of them. Hardly the most exciting attack scenes you’ll see.

On a final note, Clint Eastwood makes an uncredited appearance as one of the pilots who bomb the spider in the finale. Well, even greatness had to start somewhere.

 

Tarantula gets way more acclaim than it deserves but is still a fair way to spend time. There are far superior examples of the 50s monster movies but when this film wants to show off, it does so in style with some excellent special effects.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Beginning of the End (1957)

Beginning of the End (1957)

Filmed in New Horrorscope!

As the remains of a crushed car are found with no sign of the occupants, the police also receive a report that the nearby town of Ludlow has been completely destroyed. Reporter Audrey Ames is driving through that part of the country when she reaches an army road block which prevents her from going to Ludlow, or where she thinks it still is. Sensing a big story, she decides to investigate further and finds out that radioactive material at a nearby government testing station has caused vegetables to grow to enormous proportions – and the local locust population has been feasting upon it, in turn making them grow to gigantic proportions.

 

Bert I. Gordon, famous for some atrocious (some would consider cult) sci-fi films he made in the 50s (The Amazing Colossal Man and its sequel War of the Colossal Beast, Earth Vs The Spider) and then later in the 70s (Empire of the Ants, The Food of the Gods), is the man at the helm of this one, a late and wholly feeble entry into the 50s ‘atomic monster’ movies. They were all the rage back in the decade, as fears of atomic testing and what damage radiation could do to our planet were the talking point on everyone’s lips.

After the success of Them! in 1954 with it’s giant ants, everyone quickly tried to find the next best thing: scorpions (The Black Scorpion), spiders (Tarantula, Earth Vs The Spider), praying mantis (erm, The Preying Mantis), molluscs (The Monster That Challenged the World) and wasps (Monster from Green Hell). Yeah granted molluscs was pushing it a bit, though to be fair the film did a reasonable job of turning them into a threat. Perhaps the least frightening of the lot is the sound of a horde of giant grasshoppers which, let’s face it, sound about as scary as a giant mushroom.

Gordon does little to convince the audience that these grasshoppers exist in the same universe as everyone else, let alone turn them into some sort of threat. His notoriously appalling special effects are in abundance here (he does them himself) and the sad thing is that over the years with his later films, they never really got better either. The grasshoppers consist of a copious amount of magnified stock footage clips and some lousy low-budget rear projection. This is all fine and good when the stock footage army is trying to destroy them in the middle part of the film (even this gets boring because there’s no interaction between either humans or bugs at any point). But when the grasshoppers finally get stuck into Chicago, the special effects consist of little more than real grasshoppers crawling over photos of the Windy City! You heard that right – photos! The effect is as terrible as it sounds. Gordon couldn’t even be bothered to make a model of anything to allow his grasshoppers to crawl over.

Having said all of this, dialogue is the most devastating weapon that Beginning of the End has in its arsenal. Instead of showing things like the destruction of Ludlow for instance, the film resorts to dialogue and the shocked reactions of the actors to convey what it is happening. At first, you think that the whole film could end up going this direction and not show anything at all but thankfully (or maybe not considering the quality of the special effects) the grasshoppers do eventually show up and at least the pace is picked up after a dreadful opening. Beginning of the End fails to grab hold of your attention at any point, monotonously trotting out the usual array of scientific jargon, forced love interests between hero and heroine and lots of military guys running around telling people what to do.

Peter Graves, who would later go on to find fame in the TV series of Mission: Impossible and even greater fame as Captain Oveur in Airplane!, plays it deadly serious as the scientist. In fact Graves’ stern delivery makes everything else seem all the more silly. He’s not alone in this respect. Try and keep a straight face when regular rent-a-general Morris Ankrum suggests that the only solution to the crisis is to drop an atomic bomb onto Chicago. Talk about over-reacting!

 

I shouldn’t feel aggrieved about watching a film with giant grasshoppers that features special effects as bad as this – some would say I get what I deserve and that is correct. Beginning of the End is a low budget Z-film which clearly and ineptly cashes in on the atomic monster craze of the 50s. Maybe if you have a grasshopper fetish or want to see how not to create special effects, there might be something of interest here otherwise you’re better off sticking with the more famous 50s monster movies.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)

Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)

SEE! The Fantastic Binocular Murder! SEE! The Vat of Death!

Crime writer Edward Bancroft secretly owns a private ‘black museum’ full of deadly implements and torture devices. When London is gripped by a series of sensationalist murders, Scotland Yard have no clues as to the identity of the killer. Bancroft has hypnotised his assistant into committing these acts of murder so that he has something lurid to write about for his fanatic audience.

 

From the opening scene in which a woman uses a pair of binoculars with brutal and bloody consequences, you know that Horrors of the Black Museum is going to hold little back in the way of garish shocks. Much like the story featuring a spate of sensationalist which grips London with fear, Horrors of the Black Museum serves up a macabre meal of as much visual horror as the late 50s would allow.

Horrors of the Black Museum would no doubt work well in today’s horror environment, albeit with more gore and nudity. It’s virtually a collection of horrific set pieces strung together by the flimsiest of the plots – on the DVD cover and in its TV listing write-ups, the fact that Bancroft is the one behind the murders is blatantly stated. And if you hadn’t read any of that, the film promptly reveals this to you before the twenty minute mark is up. This isn’t meant to be a murder mystery or ‘whodunnit.’ This is quite literally a slasher for the 1950s or a Saw-esque film in which story matters little, how bloody and outrageous the film can be matters a lot. As well as the gruesome opening with the booby-trapped binoculars, there is a bedroom beheading which was definitely well ahead of its time in the gore stakes. In my favourite moment of the film, a recently-murdered body is lowered into a vat of acid and reduced to a skeleton. Tame today, yes. For 1959, I bet people were throwing up in sick bags. Throughout the film, the blood is a vivid scarlet colour and it certainly looks the part. You can imagine audiences never seeing sights so ghastly back in the day!

As the film progresses, its early grounding in reality gives way and it gets ever more preposterous – the idea that Bancroft is controlling his young assistant through hypnosis; the physical transformations that he suffers as a result; the super computer that Bancroft keeps in his basement; and much more. At this point, we, like Bancroft, are one step ahead of the police and it’s only a matter of time for them to play catch-up. Though the film provides a number of solid set pieces, you get the sense that there’s no real overlying story to keep it all hooked together. We never find out Bancroft’s real motives and there are too many unanswered questions. The finale at an amusement park provides a limp pay-off given the brutality that the previous hour had shown.

I’ve always thought that the late Michael Gough looked decidedly dodgy. I’m sure he was a nice enough fellow in real life but in his films, most particular his early work when he still had a full head of jet black hair, he’s got this snivelling, odious look to him. Perfectly cast as the villain, Gough chews the scenery up like mad, going from calm and collected gentlemen to a ranting and raving murderous lunatic. Gough lets rip with some excellent monologues and cutting barbs about journalism and human nature and his portrayal is of a man who believes that he is a cut above everyone else. The notion of his character having a massive Bond villain-style super computer in his basement is just taking everything too far though. Apparently the role was meant for Vincent Price but he wanted too much to do it. I could see Price hamming it up perfectly as Bancroft but Gough makes an excellent alternate. The rest of the cast are insignificant – this is a show for Gough and the gore only.

 

Horrors at the Black Museum is a solid, if overly dated, British chiller worth watching for a malicious tour-de-force performance from the great Michael Gough.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆