Tag 1950s

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.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The (1953)

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

You’ll see it tear a city apart!

A prehistoric monster is thawed out of its frozen state by atomic testing in the Arctic and then proceeds to go on a destructive rampage in New York.

 

The first of the wave of 1950s ‘atomic monster’ movies which featured radiated monsters going on destructive rampages throughout various cities across the world, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a landmark film in the genre. Marshalling the paranoia about atomic weapons that had festered itself in society since the end of the Second World War, the film goes about setting up a series of tropes which would become the norm by the end of the decade.

Thinking about the rest of this genre, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms would have just been another generic 50s B-movie if it weren’t for the superb stop-motion effects by the maestro of modelling, Ray Harryhausen. The film plods along quite slowly and follows the usual structure to the letter: a few small incidents and reports about a monster; scientists sent in to investigate; monster reveals itself; army is called in to try and stop it; scientists struggle to come up with alternative as monster arrives in populated areas; monster caused chaos; leading to the final confrontation between science and nature.

It seems to take ages to go anywhere but at least the monster is revealed almost straight away so there’s no partial reveal or slow burn. There’s too much padding and character development and the scenes of characters discussing and arguing about the monster are drawn out for way longer than they need be. After all, we’ve come to see the giant monster on the poster, not hear about how Scientist A is falling in love with Scientist B. The whole thing didn’t cost too much money to make and Harryhausen’s techniques were notorious for taking a while to finish (not his fault, just the way stop-motion worked) so the film needs to pad itself out as much as it can without showing anything expensive.

But back to the special effects since they are what this film is more famous for than anything else. This was Harryhausen’s first solo film so he’s a little rusty here but the monster is one of his most memorable (and he would base the dragon from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad upon the model he made here). He conjures up some fantastic images of the monster, particularly a great silhouetted shot of the creature as it destroys a lighthouse. The monster’s rampage through New York in the finale and then the final showdown inside an amusement park are sterling work. Black and white really gives the creature a film noir vibe and use of lighting and shadow inside the park at the end is a real testament to the genius that was Harryhausen. The scene where it attacks the rollercoaster still looks great to this day.

Like the other 50s monster movies, the cast matters little to the eventual outcome as the scientists are old actors, the males are square-jawed heroes, the females are there to fall in love with the hero and give us a tepid romantic sub-plot, and the military guys are there to shoot first and ask questions later. It’s the standard make-up of characters that would become the staple of this genre for years to come. Here, main actor Paul Hubschmid is a Swiss actor speaking English so his delivery is garbled at the best of times. Keep watching out for a young Lee Van Cleef as an army sharpshooter.

Director Eugène Lourié would visit the giant monster movie well a few more times in later years, bringing the world Gorgo and The Giant Behemoth, virtually the same film as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms only set in England. But this is his best work.

 

The special effects are the sole reason why The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms has become such a ground-breaking film. Still, it’ classic monster movie making at its 50s finest and Harryhausen would go on to bigger and better things in the field of special effects.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)

Massive Blood Sucking Monsters!

Alcoholic trapper Lem Sawyer sees a creature in the swamps but no one will believe him. That is until people start disappearing and local game warden Steve Benton gets involved. He searches the swamps and finds it inhabited by giant leeches, mutated by the local radiation at Cape Canaveral, and hungry for the taste of human blood.

 

Limping along in the doldrums of the ‘atomic monster’ movie decade, Attack of the Giant Leeches is a late entry into the field but is rightfully never even mentioned in the same breath as Them!, Tarantula or The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Even though the title monsters are hardly the size of houses like the aforementioned critters, they’re still a by-product of atomic radiation even if the film borrows more from Creature from the Black Lagoon than anything else. Produced by Roger Corman’s lesser known brother Gene and featuring some of the worst production values I’ve ever seen, Attack of the Giant Leeches sucks in more ways than one.

With horrendous underwater photography – the kind where someone shoots footage from behind a glass panel in swimming pool – and perpetually murky cinematography above ground, one of the first things that will grind on you is just how you’re meant to see anything here. A crackly soundtrack and plenty of scenes where no one actually says anything will have you checking your volume settings to make sure all of your speakers are plugged in. It is almost as if they dunked the microphones underwater with the cameras. I can understand that the production was a ‘lowest price possible’ sort of venture but still, there are certain levels of production that any film should have before they’re even considered for release. When visuals and audio aren’t up to scratch, it doesn’t bode well for anything else.

Maybe it’s best that you don’t see everything as well as you’d have liked. The title monsters look like stuntmen wrapped in bin bags with suckers taped to their faces. I don’t know whether the intention was to make them humanoid in appearance but that’s how they turned out, especially during a hilarious blood sucking scene in their cave domain. Hardly scary back in the 50s I’m sure, they look even more ridiculous in the 21st century. The leeches work slightly better when they’re partially concealed by the water but even this requires a fair dollop of disbelief.

The leeches never venture out of the swamp to attack so you won’t find any city-invasions or even threats to small towns like the rest of this sub-genre. In fact pretty much the entire film is based at the swamp – I counted a sum total of about three different sets used across the film. At a very slender sixty-two minutes, the film is almost over before it has chance to begin which is probably a relief more then anything – the leeches don’t even get called that until about three quarters of the way. The same characters seem to pass through the same bits of the swamp in a never ending circle. Above all the film is just so uninteresting and bland because there’s nothing to keep your attention. The countless scenes without dialogue and loads of characters on-screen who look and sound the same as each other mean you won’t have a clue what is going on for the best part and when you do, you won’t care. This is with the exception of the purposefully-slutty Yvette Vickers, starring in a rather suggestive role for 1959.

 

Attack of the Giant Leeches is wretched. Just plain and simply one of the worst films ever made. Even genre fans who like to punish themselves by subjecting them to the worst material available will be hard-pressed to find anything of enjoyment here.

 

 ☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Rodan (1956)

Rodan (1956)

Most horrifying hell creature that ever menaced all mankind!

A mysterious spate of deaths down in a Japanese mining pit turn out to be the work of large monstrous grubs which are living in a huge underground cave. But what is worse is that the miners also discover a giant egg. With the cave disturbed, the egg hatches and a giant prehistoric monster is released, feeding off the grubs first before breaking free of the cave and heading to Toyko, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake.

 

With the phenomenal success of Godzilla and its sequel, Toho saw a licence to print money in the giant monster market and started designing new monsters to destroy their country with varying levels of success (Varan anyone?). Rodan was the first of these monsters to get its own film and what follows is one of Toho’s best monster films and arguably the second best solo outing for any monster behind Godzilla himself. It was the first kaiju film released without Godzilla and the first one it ever shot in colour.

Stripping away much of the nuclear messages that Godzilla carried, Rodan plays it more like the traditional monster movie. Well at least when you’ve finished watching, it does. You wouldn’t think that you’re watching a film about a giant monster for the first part. The scenes in the mine with the grubs are more akin to the cheesy 50s American atomic monster movies like Beginning of the End and The Giant Mantis. There is a reasonable amount of suspense and dread built up at the start and these scenes are surprisingly scary and effective. The grubs look creepy and a bit similar to the giant molluscs from The Monster That Challenged the World. In fact it’s almost a disappointment when they do discover the giant egg because you know that this portion of the film will be coming to an end. Rodan quickly shifts into kaiju mode and the change is sudden and a little jarring, going from a more horror-orientated outing to an all-out action fest within the space of ten minutes.

Rodan was the first of Toho’s many famous flying monsters and the monster suit is designed with this in mind. The scenes of the monster flying over and then landing in the middle of Tokyo are rendered with some great special effects. In the air, Rodan is a puppet but when he’s upright on land, he’s the more traditional guy-in-a-suit. I always thought Rodan looked like he needed a good feeding and the skinny and scrawny nature of the puppet in this one makes me smile with relish knowing he’s proven my point. It’s for this reason that Rodan seems to lack the genuine physical presence that Godzilla or his many alien opponents had in future films. Apart from flapping his wings and causing huge gusts of wind, Rodan is pretty useless.

However there is plenty of good old fashioned city-stomping as TWO Rodans attack Tokyo in what may be one of Toho’s best monster attack scenes. For the first time in colour, the extremely detailed miniature sets are brought to life and look surprisingly good, buckling under the gusts of wind from Rodan’s wings. Not only that, but the Japanese army is out in full force too, failing to stop the monsters with their array of tiny toy tanks and stock footage. Some of these scenes were that good that they were re-used time and time again in following Godzilla films – the scene with the soldier being blown in the wind was a common sight in a lot of the series. In comparison to the earlier night time black and white scenes of devastation in Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again, these scenes look apocalyptic and highly realistic.

To top it off, the ending is one of the most emotional in the entire Toho canon as legendary director Ishirô Honda gets us to empathise with the monsters as they are caught up in a volcanic eruption. One has the chance to flee the scene but decides to stay after the other one is killed. It’s a touching moment and one which is rare to see in a kaiju film, giving the monsters sentience and character like never before.

 

Rodan is one of Toho’s best films, featuring some of the most impressive monster action that they ever filmed and with some great special effects to bring it to vivid life. Dare I say it but at times Rodan is more exciting than Godzilla was! Rodan would prove to be so popular that the monster was brought back for a further three films in the original Godzilla run as well as sporadic appearances in the later years. Not bad for a spin-off.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Them! (1954)

Them! (1954)

FANTASTIC MONSTERS ATTACK EARTH!

Atomic testing in New Mexico causes normal ants to mutate into giant man-eating monsters. Tracking the queens, a team of scientists discover that the ants are nesting in the sewer system of Los Angeles and with the way they are multiplying in number, could threaten the world within weeks.

 

One of the earliest of the 50s ‘atomic monster’ movies, Them! was the first one to feature mutated insects as its main threat which would become the genre norm in the years following (with the world having survived the onslaught of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms in 1953 and Godzilla in 1954).Spiders, a giant mantis, locusts and giant antimatter space buzzards would all start to terrorise the world throughout the rest of the decade but it is with Them! that the roots of the genre are sown. The first one is also the best one by a country mile.

Them! is rightfully heralded as a sci-fi classic and it’s easy to see why. Director Gordon Douglas creates a suspenseful film in which its success is based upon how well you stomach the notion of giant mutated ants running amok in the desert. Thankfully the first-rate script does a fantastic job of building everything up nicely throughout the opening half: the appearance of the traumatised girl, a local store found destroyed, giant footprints in the sand, a state trooper goes missing off-screen. It all gives credible evidence to a serious threat and the ants are nowhere to be seen – but at least heard. The ants are given an effectively eerie high pitch shrieking noise which indicates their presence even if they aren’t sighted. And that they won’t be for a good portion of the film. This can get dialogue-heavy at times but that doesn’t detract from the quality on show.

It is the film’s cast of characters that have to keep driving the film forward and with the strong cast, they do just that. James Whitmore and James Arness make for likeable leads with Edmund Gwenn providing the scientific jargon with his elderly scientist. Gwenn steals the show with some seriously downbeat lines but he’s also there to throw in some minor comic relief from time to time. Watching him boss about the two younger men during action sequences is quite funny with the doddery old Gwenn leaving the physical side of the film to his co-stars. Also of note is Joan Wheldon who plays what would be considered the female love interest although the film is less concerned with providing a soppy romantic sub-plot than it is having Wheldon’s character at least attempt to portray some intelligence and self-control.

Finally when the ants do appear, all of the talk, the jargon and the plot hints have been building up nicely so that their impact is immediate. The ants are brought to life through the use of giant mechanical creations and although they may look a little dated nowadays, they still cause quite a stir whenever they’re on screen because at least there’s a physical presence for the actors to interact with, fending off mandibles and claws in desperation. Even then, Douglas tries to mask the failings of the ants, hiding them in the dark for the finale or battering the camera with sandstorms in a bid to cover everything up.

The final climax in the storm sewers of Los Angeles is a barnstorming way to end the film. Using the cramped and dark location to good advantage, the cinematographer creates an ominous setting where it is literally a struggle for survival between the army and the ants. Whilst other films were content to show famous landmarks being destroyed above ground, Them! proves that it could portray such an out-of-sight struggle and still be as effective in delivering an exciting spectacle. This finale in particular seems to be a prototype for any number of modern classics where people go looking for monsters in dark, labyrinthian settings.

 

Them! is classic 50s sci-fi at its most thought-provoking and entertainingly ludicrous. Why settle for second best with The Giant Mantis or Tarantula?  Watch Them!, the pinnacle of 50s atomic monster movies and a real gem of a long-lost genre of cinema. Giant bug flicks should never be as good as this.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Trollenberg Terror, The (1958)

The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

A man dissolves…and out of the oozing mist comes the hungry eye, slave to the demon brain!

A series of unexplained deaths in the Swiss Alps leads investigator Alan Brooks to the Trollenberg mountain where the nearby observatory has been tracking a strange radioactive cloud that doesn’t seem to move. Joining him in his travels to Trollenberg, a couple of English psychics claim to be mysteriously drawn to an alien presence on the mountain. It is revealed that aliens from a dying planet have made the icy cold peaks their new home but are now moving down the mountain towards the village.

 

Another of Britain’s entries in the 50s science fiction genre, The Trollenberg Terror isn’t one of it’s greatest but still manages to deliver some eerie goods. Jimmy Sangster, the man who penned some of Hammer’s finest films, was given the task of writing and, fresh off completing a similar sci-fi tale with X the Unknown, comes armed with a wealth of ideas that would make Quatermass happy. Back in these days, the stories had to be top notch because everyone knew that the special effects were never that convincing. A good story and solid build-up would alleviate many of the weaknesses of the special effects – if the film did such a good job of making you believe in the existence of aliens and the science around them, it hardly mattered what they looked like because you were already sold on the idea. Such is the case with The Trollenberg Terror. A good story, some eerie moments and a gradual sense of impending doom keep the film ticking over until the disappointing aliens are revealed.

The plot, adapted from a BBC serial a couple of years earlier, is your routine story about mysterious goings on in a small town. You know the sort of film I’m referring to and the set-up is formulaic. There’s the pre-credits victim. The opening scene is really good and because you don’t actually see what is happening with the person off-screen, it’s a lot more effective. Local people then try and deal with the situation themselves. More disappearances. The townspeople call in some external help since their local experts don’t know what the problem is. Eventually this leads to a pivotal ‘reveal’ moment mid-way through the film in which the threat is uncovered. It’s the same routine with the scientific ground that it tries to cover – aliens coming from another dying planet and choosing Earth to be their new home, etc. The Trollberg Terror adheres to this template to perfection, casually going about its business with the minimum of fuss. It’s never overly boring but there are many occasions where you wish the pace would pick up just a little bit.

One good point is the use of the radioactive cloud. Every time the monsters go to attack, the cloud moves position on the mountain. Earlier in the film, this is a useful tool to create a bit of mystery and suspense. You know something is inside the cloud but you’re not sure what is lurking there. I guess it’s the imagination kicking into overdrive thinking about all of the weird and wonderful (and deadly) things that could be lurking in there. Regrettably, the monsters massively disappoint when they get their big reveal about half-way through and it is at this point the film loses its mystery and suspense. With everyone trapped inside the observatory, you’d think there would be some Night of the Living Dead-style barricade where the survivors fight off the monsters. But that doesn’t happen and the finale is a bit of a damp squib, with the blame solely lying at the feet of the special effects.

The monster designs are very good so it is a pity that they’re unable to do much on-camera and make themselves look like a threat. The fact that the monsters are giant brains with a big eyeball is no secret due to the fact that they’re plastered all over the front cover. They get a great debut late on the film when a character opens up the door of the hotel to see one peering in. Sadly, whenever they’re required to move or attack, they look like the models being pulled across miniature sets that they are. The humans either have unconvincing fights with rubber tentacles that don’t move or the monsters simply attack clay figures on the model sets. There’s a rather infamous attack during the observatory finale where one of the monsters grabs an unlucky chap by the throat and lifts him up off the floor – the following scene of a model man being pathetically hoisted up by the cheap monster makes me chuckle every time. At least they tried.

 

Typical of standard 50s sci-fi, The Trollenberg Terror isn’t anything special when you consider what else was out around the same period (I’m thinking of the Quatermass films here). It would have been better had the finale been more exciting and the special effects been more convincing. Even the Japanese were managing to do decent miniature work at this time with Godzilla and his giant monster friends.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

How to Make a Monster (1958)

How to Make a Monster (1958)

See the Ghastly Ghouls in Flaming Color!

Acclaimed monster make-up man Pete Dumond has worked for American International Film Studios for years and loves creating new monsters to scare people. But he is soon sacked when new bosses take over and tell him that they are not making any more monster movies, focusing on musicals instead. Pete decides to extract his revenge using the very monsters they have condemned to the scrapheap.

 

I first saw the‘re-imagined’ version of How to Make a Monster as part of a modernised collection of some of Samuel Z. Arkoff’s most famous B-movies. Despite not being great, it made me want to go back and check out the original films to compare the two. This was the first of those films I decided to check out and to date, the last one! The similarities between the two end in title only. Surely a case of a story which sounds better on paper than it does in execution, How to Make a Monster is a cult film but one which is hardly exciting or entertaining.

What we have here is clearly a story that was conceived and made whilst other films were being filmed. Saving on sets, props and even actors it seems, How To Make a Monster contains so many things ‘borrowed’ from other films it almost becomes a ‘guess the film’ piece where you have to name the film from where the items have been taken. Spot one of the aliens from Invasion of the Saucer Men. Or the creature from It Conquered the World. I can understand the logic behind it – Hammer used to do it in the UK and shoot two films back-to-back using the same sets and principally featuring the same actors. Financially it makes perfect sense. But from a critical point of view, it gets annoying to the point where you wonder how many more references they’re go throw towards their films and whether or not this is just a long plug for some of their more famous work.

How To Make a Monster is pretty rubbish. It’s got a feeble running time of seventy three minutes which means that the film is over almost as soon as it gets going. Not a great deal happens in that time and, although the idea of Pete’s creations killing people off is novel, you have to remember that in reality it’s just a couple of hypnotized teenage actors wearing his masks strangling people. The monsters don’t come to life or anything. They don’t go on a bloody rampage. It’s all very low key and very dull. This is what I mean about the story sounding better on paper than in reality. A couple of murderous teenagers with cheap Halloween masks on does little to scare the viewer.

Robert R. Harris is good as Pete Dumond but his sudden transformation from mild-mannered make-up artists to a snarling, devious psychopath is a bit unbelievable and it spoils the final act in the film. You never buy this character change for a second. There are a lot of unnecessary characters floating around the film too and the police investigations are pointless – it wouldn’t take a brain surgeon to spot the link between a disgruntled ex-employee and murdered old bosses. Another point is that around an hour into the film, it suddenly bursts into glorious Technicolour! There seems to be no point to this whatsoever except to sell a few more tickets with colour stills from the film gracing the promotional posters.

 

How to Make a Monster is pretty poo but given that it was 1958 and garbage like this sold seats back then, I can tolerate it to a certain degree. Almost.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Return of the Fly (1959)

Return of the Fly (1959)

Blood-curdling giant fly creature runs amuck!!!

Fifteen years after his father conducted a disastrous matter transportation experiment, Philippe Delambre attempts to create a similar device with the help of his assistant Alan Hinds. Alan has other motives and wants to sell the plans to the highest bidder. When Philippe finds out, Alan throws him into the device along with a fly, one of Philippe’s biggest fears after what happened to his father. Philippe rematerializes with the head and claw of a fly whilst the fly comes out with his head and hand. This time the creature has revenge on its mind.

 

Filmed in black and white as opposed to the lavish colour of the original, Return of the Fly is a far cry from the classic science fiction story that came before it. Now a watered-down cheap schlocky B-movie, Return of the Fly attempts more of the same with lesser production values and thus lesser results. We know where the film is heading and we know what is going to happen when human and fly are melded into one so any element of surprise is lost from the onset.

Return of the Fly leaves behind all of the ‘man losing his humanity’ character development of the original. Instead of being character-driven, this sequel opts for the more gratuitous monster-on-the-loose route, utilizing a series of then-grisly moments to lure the audience in and leaning towards cheap thrills instead of intelligent sci-fi.

I suppose you can’t be too hard on something like this. It’s old school. It’s rushed. It’s low budget. It’s the sort of throwaway sequel that the likes of The Sci-Fi Channel make nowadays so nothing much changes over the years. Return of the Fly contains little to get excited about, especially if you’ve seen the original. If you can buy the notion that Philippe shares the same fate as his father, then you’re off to a winner. Let’s face it, it’s a million-to-one accident which happens to the same family within the space of fifteen years – did they not think about making the machine fly-proof? Or did the writers not think about potentially changing the insect to a spider or something? Something to add a bit of originality to the story was needed but the film just rehashes more-or-less the same story as the original without the intelligence and without the drama and human connection. On the positive side, at least sets from the original were re-used and it adds a nice touch of continuity to proceedings. But after the brief nostalgia trip wears thin, the film ups the cheap thrills to compensate. Worst of all is when the police inspector is trapped in the machine with a guinea pig which ends in similar results to that of the fly. The little guinea pig is then squished underneath a big boot with a sickening squelching noise. This also means that the fly is shown a lot more than before, as the rule of sequels dictates.

In a silly move, the film dramatically increases the size of the fly’s head to ludicrous proportions. Explained in the film as a side effect of ‘gigantisim’ the head looks ridiculously over-sized and will cause spontaneous bouts of laughter as opposed to the desired shock-and-horror. The actor inside struggles to remain upright as the weight of the head would topple him if he made any sudden movement. He virtually walks around holding onto this papier-mâché head and desperately tries to act intimidating when there’s no doubt he can’t see what the hell is going on around him!

The short running time also means that the pace is a little too quick and events seem to be rushed and forced through. It’s eager to get to the transformation scenes and neglects to build its players up so that they can be knocked down. There’s little time for character development, a real pity considering Philippe is supposed to be the main focus of the film. How are the audience supposed to care for the character when he is transformed into the fly when we know as much about him as we do Alan and his cronies? Thankfully the thinly-written role suits Brett Halsey well. The hero of the piece can’t really handle the role so adding more depth and character to the part would have made things worse.

Vincent Price has more of a part to play here. No longer a supporting character like he was in the original, his role is fleshed out a little more, no doubt to give the film some credibility on the acting front since Price’s stock was rising considerably at the time. He didn’t do an awful lot in the first one except mope around with his raspy voice and unfortunately he does little more here. It’s hardly a challenging role and there’s no wonder Price was unhappy with the final script. It even lacks a decent finale although it would be near-impossible to top the original’s “help meeeee!” moment, surely one of the most iconic and memorable finales in history.

 

Return of the Fly has it’s moments but they’re too few and far between. Without the heart and soul of the original, this just becomes a generic 50s sci-fi flick with tacky special effects, weak characters and a criminal misuse of Vincent Price. Get out the fly spray because this is one insect you’ll want to eradicate before it has chance to ruin your day.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

Monster from outerspace runs wild!

The first spaceship to Venus crash-lands off the coast of Sicily on its return trip but the crew have unknowingly brought an alien egg back with them that hatches and the small creature inside escapes. In no time at all it grows to enormous size and only asserts its physical presence when threatened, which naturally occurs when the military try to stop it from encroaching the city of Rome.

 

One of special effects legend Ray Harryhausen’s earlier films, 20 Million Miles to Earth would just be any other 50s ‘monster-on-the-loose’ science fiction B-movie if it wasn’t for the presence of his magic. The plot is nothing new if you’re familiar with these 50s films and the film runs like clockwork. In fact most of these 50s sci-fi films have no hidden meanings about atomic testing or space exploration, they’re simply special effects vehicles where a film has simply been constructed around set pieces. Harryhausen’s films are no exception and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone to argue against that. I don’t know of any other artist in Hollywood who has ever dwarfed the rest of the film in such a way as Harryhausen did. Audiences didn’t care for the director or the cast or the story – they’re simply playing second fiddle in these films. They were there to see the master at work and bring to life whatever creatures he had to.

20 Million Miles to Earth is bogged down with the same sort of wobbly scripts, laughable acting and sci-fi jargon that the rest of its 50s brethren were hindered by. Take away Harryhausen’s special effects and you’ve got a rather lacklustre affair which doesn’t really get going until the final third. There’s not an awful lot of interesting plot developments to keep the audience gripped until the creature finally shows itself. There’s cheesy 1950s love plots where you know the only female character will fall in love with the male scientist. Expect token scenes of the military talking about the creature. Recycled scenes of various scientists talking about the creature. Then there are scenes with both the military and scientists talking to each other about the creature. It’s a wonder the audience ever made it to the end of some of these films because they’re dull, talky affairs.

The acting is all square-jawed heroic nonsense. Characters are almost flawless and the way they react to situations is as if they have to deal with alien monsters every day of the week. Speaking of which, the Ymir, the Venusian alien creature, is one of Harryhausen’s most interesting creations, not least because you can see elements of some of his more famous monsters in the mannerisms of the creature (I can see the cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and the Kraken from Clash of the Titans to name but two). It’s these mannerisms and the way in which Harryhausen animates the creature, which makes it more like-like and believable than any of the human actors involved. There is something unique about it which makes you root for the creature – a real sense of humanity and life. He gave all of his creations little characteristics which make them stand head and shoulders above anything else. Marvel at the sight of the small creature hatching out of from its shell and then rubbing its eyes as it struggles to adjust itself to Earth’s atmosphere. Little touches like this make all of the difference. But of course, part of the reason for sympathising with the creature is that the human cast are so dull.

Not only does the creature come alive in glorious detail but it partakes in some impressive set pieces. There’s an engrossing fight between it and an elephant in the streets of Rome and the finale inside the Coliseum is outstanding for it’s time. It’s sort of an alien version of the finale of King Kong where a frightened creature climbs atop an infamous landmark in a futile attempt to stay alive but is shot down in cold blood by the humans below.

Unfortunately all of this happens too late in the film and although the monster is fleetingly glimpsed early on, it’s only the second half of the film in which it really springs to life. Before that time, be prepared to endure a never-ending assault of clichéd characters cheesy dialogue. In one of the film’s most laughable lines, the creature is standing on top of the Coliseum and the hero of the piece looks up and simply states ‘there he is’ as if no one had noticed the gigantic creature climbing on top of one of the world’s most iconic landmarks.

Originality doesn’t seem to be the order of the day for the script, both in dialogue and plot developments. The army runs out of ideas to defeat the monster after trying to blow it away with rudimentary weapons. Will cinematic armed forces ever learn to stop wasting their time with shells and projectile weapons when going up against aliens? Fifty-five years later and you’ve still got daft generals trying to take on extraterrestrial threats with pop guns and tanks!

 

20 Million Miles to Earth is a decent film for fans of this genre but nothing more as it’s too bogged down with dull exposition. Harryhausen’s special effects deserve better and thankfully he did with his next film – the eternally superb The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1953)

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1953)

All New ! All Wild ! All Fun !

Two Americans cops visiting London to study police tactics find themselves drawn into the hunt for the murderer of a prominent physician. Their search leads them to Dr Jekyll, who can transform himself into the murderous Mr Hyde after injecting himself with a serum he has invented.

 

When Universal had exhausted the rehashing of their classic monsters after pitting them against one another in a series of ever-diminishing horror films, the studio only had the comedy spoof option left and they allowed their popular duo of Abbott and Costello the chance to goof around with them instead. Starting with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948, the bumbling pair also crossed paths with the Mummy and the Invisible Man. Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is arguably the least of their antics with the Universal monsters but features plenty of their trademark humour.

Like the other Abbott and Costello films, the plot is simply a flimsy excuse for the comedy duo to go through their usual slapstick motions. So if your tolerance for old school shenanigans isn’t high, then maybe it’s best to skip this one. But I’m a sucker for old school and some of the silly, juvenile comedy hits the right notes from a time when you didn’t have to rely on crude humour or gross-out gags to entertain an audience. The duo opt for the more physical slapstick comedy route in this one as opposed to the witty verbal exchanges of the previous films and it’s this lack of sophisticated comedy which hurts the film in the long run. There’s only so many times you can see people tripping up, falling over, bundling themselves around and running around like silly devils before it gets tiresome.

The highlight scene of the film involves ‘Tubby’ (Costello) accidentally injecting himself with the serum which then leads to all manner of mayhem as the main characters get the real Mr Hyde and the fake one mixed up. This leads to a sometimes-funny, sometimes-groan worthy chase through the streets and across the rooftops of London.

There’s also plenty of annoying burlesque dancing which Abbott and Costello films are unfortunately full of. It’s a bit out of place in turn-of-the-century London but when the streets are stereotypically fog-drenched and there are fish and chips shops on every corner, you could be forgiven for a few historical inaccuracies. To be fair, the Gothic sets do a good job of portraying Victorian London and there are moments when the film does strike a chord into the hearts of traditional Universal horror fans. But then the silliness starts up again and the good atmosphere and Gothic vibe is blown away with a series of childishly funny gags and routines.

Horror legend Boris Karloff stars as the sinister Dr Jekyll. Unlike other versions, Jekyll is just as dangerous as Mr Hyde. He’s a schemer who is madly in love with his young ward and is overcome with jealousy when she attracts the attentions of a dashing journalist. Jekyll actually likes turning into Hyde here – it’s not so much of a dangerous side effect to the drugs he’s experimenting with, it’s as if he turns into Hyde simply to get away with his lusts for murder. Karloff is completely wasted in the role and seems very restrained. Thankfully the character doesn’t degenerate into camp but it’s a pity Karloff’s considerable acting talents weren’t put to better use.

The transformation scenes do the convincing job that they need to do on the budget that the film has to offer and Mr Hyde looks more than a little monstrous when he’s decked out in his make-up. But this film is played strictly for laughs and any true horror elements are watered down to insignificant proportions. He might as well have been dressed as a clown for all the good it would do in the long run.

 

You’ll either love Abbott and Costello or hate them so Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is going to be a weird one for most. I’d suggest watching the far superior Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein if you want to see the duo in their crossover prime. This one is strictly for fans.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆