Tag 50s Sci-Fi

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.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Abominable Snowman, The (1957)

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

See It With Someone Brave! — A Timeless Terror to Freeze You to Your Seats!

An English botanist and an American scientist lead an expedition to the Himalayas to search for and prove the existence of the Yeti.

 

One of Hammer’s early sci-fi/horror films is yet another prime example of just how good their output was during their early years before they hit it big with Gothic horror. The Abominable Snowman had a badly timed release shortly after Hammer’s breakthrough film, The Curse of Frankenstein. With that pushing the boundaries of on-screen blood like never before and bringing horror to life in vivid colour, this intelligent, low-key black and white film seemed rather outdated. The Abominable Snowman tends to get overlooked and it’s a shame too because it’s a quite brilliant film.

Like The Quatermass Experiment before it, this owes it’s excellence to yet another amazing script from Nigel Kneale. Not a line of dialogue is wasted as Kneale uses every moment he has to add something to the story or the characters. Kneale loved writing about the unexplained mysteries of this planet and conceives all manner of weird and wonderful explanations for their existence. Here he has given the myth of the Abominable Snowman a whole unique spin – what if they were an undiscovered species waiting patiently in the Himalayas waiting for man to destroy itself?

I loved the characters of Dr Rollason and Tom Friend – the two sides of man that come out in the face of scientific discovery. Rollason is the scholar who wants to learn things for the good of man and to further man’s progression in evolution. Friend is the entrepreneur, taken over by greed and the desire to make a name for himself at the cost of these advances. There’s no middle ground between them. It’s no coincidence that the rest of the cast are expendable enough to leave these two men bickering and squabbling until the very end. Even the whole characterisation of the Yetis are done in way so that we don’t know what to expect from them when they appear – they could be a Rollason and use their hunger for knowledge to further their existence or they could be like Friend, out to destroy all that is alien to them. Not knowing whether the Yetis will be the rampaging monsters they are usually depicted in film or peaceful and enlightened is one of the highlights of the film.

Peter Cushing is excellent once again. I get sick of writing this statement in my reviews but it’s true – the man is arguably the finest actor I’ve had the pleasure of watching in a horror film, in fact any film period. He just brings so much depth to his roles, even the ones which are badly underwritten. Cushing was able to bring to life any dialogue and make it sound like the most brilliant speech you’ve ever heard. Forrest Tucker is also excellent in his role as the American, Friend. He has all of the qualities you would expect from a brash American and plays this to advantage. The two men excel in their roles, providing humanities duelling nature amidst the harsh environment of the Himalayas.

Val Guest’s direction also helps the film. There are some wonderful shots of the Pyrenees (doubling quite nicely for the Himalayas) which create the sense of isolation that is needed and the sets that are used aren’t too bad – black and white certainly helps them look better than they probably should do. Guest manages to build tension up gradually and once the expedition starts, it’s just constant suspense as you know that the group are being watched all of the time. The Yetis’ wails of misery are just some of the most haunting sounds I’ve heard and thankfully the Yetis themselves aren’t shown until the finale. Once more, ‘less is more’ and the less we see of the Yeti, the greater the mystery is. Looking at some of the recent depictions of the Abominable Snowman on film (including Snowbeast and Yeti), it’s clear that the old ways were the best for keeping things hidden for as long as possible to increase the audience’s anticipation of their eventual unveiling. Men-in-suits they may be, but by the time they grace the camera with their presence, you won’t care because the script has done such a good job in building them up as intelligent, living and breathing creatures.

 

Another intelligent, thought-provoking and superbly-made gem from Hammer, The Abominable Snowman is highly recommended to anyone looking for classics from the past.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956)

Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956)

Before You Scoff at Flying Saucers – See the Greatest SHOCK Film of All Time !

Operation Sky Hook is a project which is tasked with sending rockets into space to prepare for future space travel. However numerous rockets have been vanishing without explanation and it turns out that there is a fleet of flying saucers from a dying world ready to take over the planet. The aliens want a peaceful settlement but mankind responds the only way it can with gunfire and soon an intergalactic war is triggered. Traditional weapons have no effect on the seemingly indestructible flying saucers and so a team of scientists must find another way to stop them before the Earth is destroyed in 60 days.

 

It sounds a lot like another version of War of the Worlds and plays out almost the same way – indestructible aliens laying waste to everything in their path and a team of scientists desperately trying to find a solution before we become extinct. I’m always a sucker for this type of film no matter when they’re made. Countries around the world are too obsessed with building nukes and finding new ways to destroy each other and as a race we’ve always been excellent at destroying each other. We put so much trust and faith in our military to keep us safe from foreign threats. But just suppose that aliens do arrive on Earth one day with hostile intentions and our weapons become useless. What then? They’re clearly more advanced than us because they’re the ones who’ve come to our planet, not the other way around. We become helpless and vulnerable. Throughout mankind’s existence, we’ve always been too obsessed with fighting over small pieces of this planet and never looked to the bigger picture of the universe. These 50s films tap into that fear of society that we may be dominant with each other but what happens when we become the dominated? Anyway that was a bit of a rant and doesn’t have a lot to do with this review!

Earth Vs The Flying Saucers is a b-movie at heart and thus the budget is obviously struggling to match the ambitious project. Special effects are costly and time consuming and this film packs most of its pay-off into the finale which leaves little excitement for the rest of the film. These 50s sci-fi films are remembered for their iconic monsters or infamous screen shots but we forget just how dull and tiresome the rest of the films can be. Earth Vs The Flying Saucers is probably a bigger culprit than many. It’s filled with scientific jargon in an attempt to make everything credible and delivered by the actors as if their lives depended on it. It’s got the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ military who always end up getting their asses kicked and thus uses the ability to recycle plenty of military stock footage. It’s got a really pointless love story at the heart of it too – come on we’re dealing with the end of the world, not marriage problems. There’s a narrator who explains what’s going on as the film skips over the course of a few days in the lead-up to the eventual invasion.

The bottom line is that humanity will see itself through at the end of the day (although more specifically America in this film). Good old fashioned American ingenuity and guile saves the day! I can see the positive messages being echoed throughout the film in clear attempts to gee the audience back then into rallying behind the country during the early days of the Cold War. The context may be extremely dated now but the overall story has been done so many times since (Mars Attacks! and Independence Day probably the two most high profile).

It was only early in his career but Ray Harryhausen was already making a name for himself with his special effects and people went to see these films for them, not for the actors or story. Tim Burton once famously quipped when he held one of the flying saucers, “you get more personality out of this than some of the actors” and he is true. Harryhausen pulls out all of the stops once again with some great stop motion animation and the rousing finale with the flying saucers unleashing hell on America is amazing. Stock footage, stop motion, location shooting and miniatures are all mixed together to create the wonderful illusion that these aliens are really taking apart America. Amongst the many famous landmarks that Harryhausen destroys are the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. We’re so used to seeing famous landmarks being destroyed in film nowadays that one can’t help but wonder just what the reaction to these scenes of destruction were like back in 1956. The saucers themselves are marvellous pieces of animation – spinning and rotating slowly enough to allow us a good look at them and brought to life with eerie sound effects.

 

It’s not a classic as in the same vein a sWar of the Worlds but some quality special effects keep the last third of Earth Vs The Flying Saucers quite intense and exciting. B-movie pulp at its 50s best.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

X the Unknown (1956)

X the Unknown (1956)

NOTHING CAN STOP IT!

A bizarre spate of horrific burns in a Scottish village prompt scientists to think that it’s the work of a radioactive creature which has come from the Earth’s core and broken through the crust.

 

When The Quatermass Experiment, proved to be such a commercial success, a follow up was inevitable and Hammer set about trying to make this happen. However writer Nigel Kneale wouldn’t let them use the character of Professor Quatermass due to what he felt had been a weak adaptation of his BBC serial for the big screen in their original smash hit. Not being put off by his decision, Hammer went ahead and made this Quatermass-style science fiction film anyway and just changed the main character’s name. X the Unkown follows the Quatermass blueprint almost to a tee and so much so that anyone who had missed the title could easily mistake this for Quatermass.

Like the Quatermass films, the plot is believable and the science is plausible and this makes it all the more interesting to watch. Screen writer Jimmy Sangster, who would go on to pen some of Hammer’s most famous films, makes his Hammer debut here and although the plot isn’t as tight without Kneale’s involvement, Sangster makes the best he can of literally being saddled with the task of recapturing the essence of what made The Quatermass Experiment as successful as it was.

X the Unknown has a good mood and, with it being set mostly at night, there is a distinct sense of ‘what is really lurking out there?’ especially since we don’t see the radioactive creature for a long period in the film. There’s also a real attempt to make this more disturbing and horrific than anything Hammer had done before it as we see a man get dissolved in grisly detail. It would look revolting even in today’s film market but for 1957, this is really X-rated stuff.

One aspect of the film which it manages to nail perfectly is the monster. This pre-dates The Blob by a few years and but the glowing, jelly-like monster looks more realistic and definitely scarier because it’s been filmed in black and white. There are some dodgy-looking scenes involving miniatures but the monster is used sparingly and is effective enough when it’s used. It’s hardly a memorable screen monster but infinitely better than the cheesy 50s science fiction monsters that America was churning out around this time in the 50s. Composer James Bernard is back to give us another creepy score to add to the mood of the film and it’s amazing just how much atmosphere and mood is built through Bernard’s use of sound. He’s an unsung hero of the Hammer days.

Dean Jagger makes for a convincing scientist in the same mould as Professor Quatermass, just not as brash or arrogant. However I liked those traits about Quatermass being the pompus scientist and the cold way in which he would treat his colleagues with contempt. You knew he could make tough decisions for the benefit of his work and that is not the case with Dean Jagger’s Dr Royston. He’s a solid replacement but just not memorable in the role and his unemotional, rather bland performance gives us no one to really root for. Michael Ripper makes his Hammer debut in this one. Ripper would be a mainstay of the Hammer films for over twenty-five years, usually in minor roles such as innkeepers or gravediggers.

 

X the Unknown is still a good science fiction film from Hammer, proving that when they did sci-fi well, they did it excellently. Those people, like me, looking for a regular fix of a Quatermass-style film can be rest assured this is as close as you’ll get to the real thing.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Quatermass 2 (1957)

Quatermass 2 (1957)

A horrible enemy from the unknown strikes terror across the earth!

Professor Quatermass follows a trail of meteorites that are crashing down into in a remote part of rural England. His search leads him to a destroyed village and a huge chemical plant in it’s place which “officially” produces synthetic food. But Quatermass uncovers something far more sinister: it is being used as a landing point for aliens who are using the huge domes to acclimatise themselves to Earth’s atmosphere. However no one will believe him as the aliens have infiltrated every form of government and authority. He has to take action himself to see that they are stopped.

 

There’s an age-old debate that sequels aren’t as good as the originals. The likes of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Aliens and The Godfather Part II all prove that sequels can be as good, if not better than the original but there are people who would argue otherwise. But forget those more recent films – this debate about sequels could easily have started back in 1957 with the release of Quatermass II. The original The Quatermass Experiment was Hammer’s first major foray into the world of science fiction and aliens, which had become hugely popular across the pond in the States with the likes of War of the Worlds, The Thing From Another World, etc. It became Hammer’s first international success and was proof that a sci-fi film could work well with horror elements mixed in.

In my opinion, Quatermass II kicks its ass right from the start. There’s no ‘bigger and louder is better’ theory here that there is with today’s sequels. This one simply has a better story and a lot better pace which makes all of the difference and no doubt would have made more of a difference to the original. Sharing many similarities with the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Quatermass II gives the whole alien invasion plot a very English spin. Just to clear things up though: Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released a year earlier but in fact Quatermass II is a film version of a radio broadcast on the BBC in 1955. Anyway, the similarities between the two films are limited and this one goes in a completely different direction without the whole ‘anti-Communist’ message.

It does it for the better as well because this film is great and for its age, it’s theories about conspiracies and cover-ups are well ahead their time. The film had me hooked all of the way through and was only let down by a below-par finale, which clearly showed off the low budget that this film had. The final uncovering of the aliens is pretty weak and just like its predecessor, the make-up for the aliens are the elements that spoil the film. The giant blobs at the end look silly but this was 1957 after all – this was a truly a case where the vivid imagination of the writer was limited by finance. It is fascinating to watch as the plot uncovers though and the script writers deserve credit for working such a detailed, intelligent plot together. There are some great little touches such as the whizzing of the meteorites as they crash to Earth, especially when you hear one single meteorite fall at the beginning of the film in the background and then contrast it towards the end of the film when hundreds of them are falling and whizzing past in the background. It’s just the little things like that which happen and aren’t the main focus of the current scene but can still have a profound effect on the atmosphere.

Attention to detail is fantastic. The plant itself (it was actually filmed at a Shell Oil refinery) is great for notching up the tension too with its sparsely populated, almost labyrinth-like maze of pipes, tunnels and structures. It’s also surprisingly violent too with Quatermass callously running down a soldier with scant regard for the human left in him. There’s also a scene in which a group of workers holed up inside one of the buildings watch their plans to gas the huge domes end abruptly when the pipes become blocked with “pulped” human bodies. It’s pretty disturbing stuff for the time.

Brian Donlevy reprises his role as Professor Quatermass and again brings the same brash, abrasive qualities as he did before. But I like those qualities, especially when he is supposed to be a rather arrogant scientist. His ‘me-first’ attitude serves him well because he wants the human race to achieve greatness and he’s prepared to go to any lengths to see that it does. He even saves himself at one point instead of helping a poor woman whose fate we never know (but can assume is taken over by the aliens). Such an attitude would never find itself in a modern day film with the hero required to save everyone and sacrifice himself. Quatermass never read those rules!

Carry On regular Sid James pops up in a small role here but its unusual seeing him without his cackling laugh and leering demeanour. Loads of famous faces round off the stock characters cast including Hammer regular Michael Ripper and Percy Herbert. And one last note before I round off the review is the score. It may be loud and ear-piercing during the title credits but the James Bernard’s score is just as good at setting the mood for the film as anything else.

 

If you think about a lot of the other science fiction films released around this time, they were mainly trashy giant insect/UFO films. This is an inspired, intelligent, and sometimes scary film which is leaps and bounds ahead of its genre. You’ll never forget the scene where the government inspector stumbles down the steps of the white dome, covered in black substance. It has lost little of its impact in over 40 years. Quatermass II is highly regarded by many but unfortunately never seems to garner the mainstream credit it rightfully deserves. A classic in every sense of the word.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Monster That Challenged the World, The (1957)

The Monster That Challenged the World (1957)

Crawling up from the depths to terrify and torture

Following an earthquake in the Salton Sea area of California, a strange number of people are turning up dead in and around a US naval base. It turns out that the earthquake ruptured a fissure in the deep depths of the sea, releasing a swathe of huge blood-sucking molluscs.

 

Let me first clear up that at no point do any of the monsters challenge the world. There’s a brief mention that if uncontrolled, they could reproduce and pose a threat to mankind, but the actual monsters are too content with terrorizing the Salton Sea area of California along a few canals and the military base as opposed to having any major plans for world domination. That nit-pick aside, The Monster That Challenged the World is a hugely underrated 50s sci-fi atomic monster flick which deserves a bit more praise than it gets.

The Monster That Challenged the World does run very much like your run-of-the-mill 50s sci-fi flick and there’s little change of course during the film’s running time. You know what you’re going to get: square-jawed military heroes, old school damsels-in-distress and self-assured boffins joining forces to take on mutated monsters in old school black and white glory. Variety of monster aside, there’s not a huge difference between this and the likes of Them!The Black Scorpion, The Deadly Mantis et al. The plot runs almost the same, the characters may as well have walked off one film into the next without so much as a hiccup in the script and the end results are near identical – avoid atomic testing (though it has to be said the molluscs here are never explicitly referred to being ‘mutated’ by radiation but the link is pretty easy to make).

The Monster That Challenged the World pushes the boat out for its time with some grisly moments involving two dead bodies being found with all of their blood and bodily fluid sucked dry. The make-up effects look a bit laughable nowadays but I’m sure that back in the 50s, they’d have caused a bit of disgust. There’s also some inspiration for Jaws here with the beaches being closed at the first sniff of something dodgy and the scene in which a female bather is pulled underwater will instantly bring back memories of the opening scene from Spielberg’s classic.

Considering we’re dealing with here basically equates to giant snails, the film does a terrific job of turning them into a nasty threat. The monsters are a bit feeble in scale (when compared to the rest of the humungous 50s sci-fi creations which tower over buildings and famous monuments) but they’re a creepy sight, all done with the use of a $15,000 hydraulic prop monster. It may move a bit mechanically and slow but at least we get a couple of sequences in which we see the damage it can do, grabbing hold of its victims by their heads and necks in its pincers. You do get to see a lot of them as well – practically from the first attack, though I’m not sure whether this was a good idea as a bit of a slow-reveal approach would have given the film some added intrigue. However there are some great attack scenes and time is spent in building the tension up a little bit first – the one along the canal is ‘Spielbergian’ with some false tension first and then a brilliant ‘out of nowhere’ moment which always makes me jump. I’d hasten to say it’s one of the best scares I’ve ever had.

 

The Monster That Challenged the World will play out very familiarly to anyone with a fondness for 50s atomic monster movies but there’s more than enough here to warrant it being given a tad more acclaim in the genre than it gets. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover and the sound of killer snails may not be too appealing but trust me, if these critters were in your garden munching your plants, you’d be best advised to call in the army!

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

It Breathes. It Hunts. It Kills!

In 1973, the first manned flight to Mars is marooned and by the time the rescue ship arrives, there is only one survivor. He claims that the crew were decimated by an alien life form but no one will believe his story. That is until the life form stows away on the rescue ship for the voyage back to Earth.

 

Don’t let the title fool you into thinking this is just some cheap and trashy 50s sci-fi flick. It! The Terror from Beyond Space is clearly the monster movie blueprint on which Ridley Scott based Alien – trapping a group of people aboard a space ship and letting a deadly alien loose amongst them. It lacks the shocks, the nightmarish creation by H.R. Giger, the great characters and above all, the budget, of Scott’s classic but considering the sort of company that It! The Terror from Beyond Space was keeping at the time it was made (the never-ending scores of atomic monster movies) it was like a breath of fresh air. Just think of how many times this plot has been rehashed and copied over the years. It had to begin somewhere.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space must have one of the shortest running times I’ve seen for a feature film and it’s a pity because I reckon this had plenty more mileage in the tank. Thankfully with the film being so short on length, time isn’t wasted and it’s not too long before the alien begins to kill off the crew. The sets are small and cramped, letting loose with the claustrophobic atmosphere and keeping everything in close quarters. The ship itself isn’t very big and only consists of a few small levels so it’s not like the characters have to play and hide and seek with the alien for too long. It’s this sense of proximity which adds imminent danger to everyone involved. There’s only so many places that they can keep retreating to on the ship as the alien keeps closing in on them and you get the real sense that the alien is within touching distance of the characters at every point during the film.

There is a great deal of suspense to be had when you don’t actually see what is doing the killing. The less you see the better. For instance, the scene inside the air vent is way ahead of its time in terms of suspense and horror and with a bigger budget and a better looking monster, you saw this air vent scene live up to its potential in Alien. The use of lighting, shadows and smoke is also excellent throughout so that we never really get a good shot of the monster for quite some time. In the brief moments you do get a glimpse of it, the creature looks terrifying. It uses its physical strength to smash down steel doors and kills people by breaking their bones and sucking their bodily fluid dry. I remember being scared by this alien as kid.

Unfortunately any sort of fear factor the alien may have had is instantly lost when it finally emerges from the shadows and shows itself in full. I’m guessing it would have looked scary in the 50s but looking back now, it’s one of those ‘look you can see the zipper’ alien costumes that a lot of modern people fondly remember from this era. Once it has been revealed to the audience, the creature obviously likes basking in the limelight because you can’t get rid of the thing off the screen. Less was definitely better and certainly more frightening.

 

It! The Terror from Beyond Space looks extremely dated now but it still manages to deliver the goods and for it’s time, it’s pretty atmospheric. You can’t knock its influence on the sci-fi horror genre, that’s for sure.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Monster from Green Hell (1957)

Monster from Green Hell (1957)

Atomic mutations with an appetite for flesh!

When a US experimental rocket stays in space longer than it should do, the test wasps aboard are exposed to unhealthy levels cosmic radiation. The rocket crash lands in Africa and soon there are strange reports of monsters from a region known by the natives as “Green Hell.” The scientific team responsible for the testing go to Africa to find out the truth.

 

One of the last of the giant radiation-mutated monster flicks to come out of America in the 50s, Monster from Green Hell is one of the worst and lesser known efforts. This sci-fi genre was on the slide and it’s embarrassing to think that this was released in the same year as Hammer was revolutionizing the horror with The Curse of Frankenstein in all of its glorious Gothic colour.

It’s not really the fault of the monsters that the film is rubbish – the giant wasps don’t look that bad. It’s just the film is so talky and you hardly get to see them. A good half of Monster from Green Hell is spent with the science expedition trekking across Africa, stumbling across hostile tribes and poisonous rivers, losing porters and dying of thirst. You’d have thought the fact they had to travel on foot for 27 days to reach their destination would have spurred some editing and maybe some sort of ‘travel montage’ of the actors in various poses and scenes to show us in brief that they were walking. I would have bought it. That would have freed up plenty more screen time for the monsters. But instead of just skimming it over and making the audience believe they’ve travelled that far, we actually have to sit through it and watch every painful footstep.

In reality this is just a cheap ploy to cram as much stock footage in here from other films to save the cost and pad the running time. There’s plenty of shots of elephants stampeding, footage culled from Stanley and Livingstone of the hostile tribe chasing the expedition (the characters in this one even dress the same so that it looks like the footage is freshly shot) and they even throw in some vultures for good measure with a pointless poison river which isn’t explained nor mentioned for the rest of the film.

Finally the expedition get to the village but then it’s another ten minutes before they set off to ‘Green Hell’ meaning there’s a gap of at least forty minutes before monster sightings. Then there’s a random stop motion wasp fighting a stop motion snake scene (if the characters were worried about the giant wasps, then why the hell aren’t they worried about the giant snake which is just as big and deadly?). I get the idea that the plot was driven by the type of stock footage that they had to use and so the characters do things accordingly.

Eventually they find the wasps’ nest and you’d think this would lead to some big wasps versus humans finale in which two of the minor characters would be killed and the two heroes survive and get the girl. But you’re completely wrong and the group find themselves trapped inside a cave away from the wasps. Cue another ten minutes of fumbling in the dark trying to find a way out. And as soon as they do, the volcano erupts and kills off the wasps. This ‘finale’ simply involves all of the preceding shots of the wasps being double exposed into the picture and it looks ridiculous. One of these double exposures is jet black and moves only vertically, sticking it out of the screen like a sore thumb. It’s such a cop out ending and a complete kick in the ribs to anyone who has suffered the indignity of watching the rest of the film. The monsters are probably on screen for a total of five minutes and simply consist of a really static giant head model which is rolled out onto the set from the background props. At least they’ve got some original sounds and the buzzing that they make is memorable, even if you never see much of them.

 

Monster from Green Hell is a bog standard monster movie which offers little excitement and monsters and lots of boredom and stock footage. Some examples of this genre manage to pull it off quite well (Them! for instance) but this doesn’t.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆