Universal Pictures would follow up their 1955 science fiction feature This Island Earth, with another larger than life science horror tale.
This time the focus would be a monster creature feature and developing one of humanity’s greatest fears, the spider, more specifically the tarantula. It would take on one of the popular themes of the time, by increasing the size of creatures (or in some cases, shrinking the humans) to maximise the threat factor on screen.
Set in the fictional town of Desert Rock, Arizona, Tarantula! Is essentially your science gone wrong, film, and picks up with a deformed man emerging out from the vast landscape before dying. The man in question was biological research scientist Eric Jacobs, and we later find out that it was his research that was his own undoing.
Our lead protagonist and local town doctor, Matt Hastings (John Agar) is intrigued by Jacobs’ strange deformity and is compelled to find out the truth. His investigations naturally lead him into danger when he finds out just how life threatening Jacobs’ research has gone. The research laboratory is in the back of beyond, where Jacob’s colleague Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll – Strangers on A Train, North By Northwest) resides and appears to be continuing with the experiments. It also turns out that part of the formula that is being tested on the animals in the lab, speeds up the growth rate, including the titular Tarantula who escapes following the initial fire outbreak and is now growing at an alarming rate and consuming all the local cattle… before taking a fancy to human flesh!
It’s all b-movie material with close ups of the victims as the tarantula descends upon them and they meet their end.
Of course it wouldn’t be a 50s sci fi horror without a love interest thrown into the mix, which is where lab assistant and student, Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday) enters the scene and into the spider’s lair, so to speak, to become the damsel in distress but with smarts.
By the film’s conclusion, humanity has to resort to some heavy duty firepower to rid the world of this menacing creature, and it comes from the Air Force, carrying napalm and piloted by a certain cameo by Clint Eastwood.
Tarantula is currently available at Umbrella Entertainment as part of a double bill blu-ray with The Incredible Shrinking Man.
My Universal horror retrospective chronicling the transition away from the genre that made the production company famous throughout the 30s and 40s and into the sci-fi realm continues with This Island Earth.
At the time of its release the movie was noted for its state-of-the-art effects and use of Technicolor but it would later be famously ridiculed in Mystery Science Theater 3000, showing just how far the film had fallen in the public’s eye.
For me, it will always conjure up the image of the Metaluna Mutant, once a rejected choice for It Came From Outer Space (1953)It’s an iconic character that probably deserves a little more screen time than it actually receives than the short scare towards the film’s climax.
Upon closer scrutiny, TIE does suffer with minimal plot narrative to bind it together; a case of more style than substance. So you can understand the mockery that it fell subject to in more recent years,
The story essentially follows Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) who is mysteriously rescued when his jet almost crashlands with the aid of a strange green glow. He is then gifted a set of instructions to build a complex machine; a test to see if he has the smarts to be selected for a special research project run by the equally mystifying Exeter (Jeff Morrow).
Before long Cal is recruited by Exeter and meets up with old flame Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) and a few other hand-picked scientists. The film quickly develops from a proposed science espionage flick into an intergalactic war when Cal and Ruth are whisked away to the planet Metulana, a planet under attack from the unseen Zagons.
There are great leaps in the imagination here from a screenplay based on the novel by Raymond F. Jones, and one needs to give in to the mindless direction it takes you in and not pay to close mind to the obvious flaws within.
It remains a film with some great images for its time, despite this, and is indicative of the b-movie sci-fi flicks that would swiftly follow suit and one that would capture the imagination of cinema-goers in the mid 50s.
On the other side of the pond however, Britain’s Hammer Films were offering up an alternative spin on the science fiction scene with… The Quatermass Xperiment.
Despite some reluctance from the stars, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s light was starting to wane in the public eye, and along with their contract through Universal were tied to another outing; one that would preserve their initial encounter with the Production house’ monsters into the National Film Registry for its historical significance. That film would be…
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Here would mark a turning point for Universal, who had made a great deal of success through the 1930s for their Gothic line of Universal films. This notable change would occur at a time when the inkwell was running dry, and the Production house would be looking for alternate ways to capitalise on their winning formula by subverting the genre from horror to comedy. This transposition would not be treated in kind, especially from Lon Chaney Jr, who would proclaim “Abbott and Costello ruined the horror films: they made buffoons out of the monsters…” His words would hold deeper meaning for the future of Universal’s horror genre, which by the end of the 50s would be all but non-existent. Despite this and during the time of its release, the film would go on to be one of the most successful of the Frankenstein franchise.
In Meet Frankenstein, the comedy duo would be pitted against The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr), Dracula (Bela Lugosi – who would actually speak favourably of the depiction of his most known character), and The Monster (Glenn Strange) to keep alive the buzz generated from their monster universe. It even boasts a cameo from The Invisible Man in the film’s climax, voiced by Vincent Price.
A lot of the movie revolves around pantomime tricks and scares but brought to life by the comic timing of Costello who falls prey to the “cry wolf” syndrome, despite his cries being genuine, combined with Abbott’s straight man routine. Despite my ambivalence towards the movie, as in heart I echoed Chaney Jr’s sentiments, the film would still holds a strong position. The looks to camera breaking the fourth wall was a joy to watch, and the formula would generate s further four movies for Abbott and Costello in the Universal Monsters universe. The first of these would be…
Abbott and Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff (1949)
Rounding out the 40s, Boris Karloff was the only notable star absent from the previous movie, although he was paid to promote it, and was also reluctant to watch it. Karloff was hired only five days before shooting began, the role originally a female called Madame Switzer, and would play that of a swami with mysterious intent. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, a whodunnit where Costello’s bellboy Freddie becomes the prime suspect in a murder. And when the body count starts to pile up, he can’t seem to get rid of the corpses to clear his name. This would lead to a hilarious scene where Costello and Abbott (supporting him to prove his innocence as detective Casey) play a game of cards with some of the cadavers.
Lenore Aubert is also brought in to support, as the femme fatale Angela Gordon. This continues a theme from Meet Frankenstein where the female costar attempts to seduce Costello, much to Abbott’s chagrin.
Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man (1951)
Having dangled the imperceptible carrot in Meet Frankenstein it was inevitable that Abbott and Costello would come face to face with the Invisible Man. This time our anti-hero is played by Athur Franz as Tommy Nelson, a boxer who is framed for the murder of his manager after refusing to throw a fight. Out to prove his innocence, Tommy steals the invisible formula from scientist Dr. Gray (Gavin Muir) who warns him of the dangers of the serum and the effects that brought about the ruin of Jack Griffin.
Abbott and Costello enter the scene as private detectives by Tommy during the investigation and become embroiled in the mystery leading Costello’s Lou Francis to go undercover as an underdog in the boxing scene aided by the invisible Tommy to help him win the fights.
Sandwiched between this feature and the next Universal confrontation would be Abbott and Costello Go To Mars, another indication of Universal’s departure from the horror scene and into the world of science fiction, which would be in tune with the popular zeitgeist of the time.
Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)
Abbott and Costello’s fourth outing in the Universal Monster scene drawing inspiration from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel and are cast as American detectives in Edwardian London following the pursuit of some murders that have taken place, allegedly by Dr. Jekyll, played by Boris Karloff. The Hyde counterpart would be portrayed by stuntman Eddie Parker.
Interestingly, there would be no transformation scenes, instead depicting both Jekyll and Hyde individually, and fuelling the idea that there is no good at all in Dr. Jekyll, who yearns for the misdeeds performed by his alter-ego.
The film itself would also show the cracks beginning to form in Universal’s marriage with the comic duo, with signs that the humour was running dry, resorting to slapstick performances. There would however, be one more feature before Abbott and Costello would bow out of the comedy / horror scene…
Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy (1955)
28 movies into their working partnership for Universal-International, Abbott and Costello would play against the last of the production house monster’s, the mummified Klaris (Eddie Parker). The comedy duo find themselves in the midst of an archaeological feud between Semu (Richard Deacon) and Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor) for the treasures of Princess Ara and control over Klaris.
Abbott and Costello would continue their usual comedy schtick but here it sits well as they bumble around Cairo. It is somewhat fitting that they could lay their comedy horror routine to rest amongst the Egyptian tombs. Their routine by this time is becoming stale and trying. They would eventually part ways in 1957 albeit amicably.
This is the movie where Rondo Hatton’s (The Spider Woman Strikes Back) shambling frame comes to the fore and I personally think that it works in this instance. There are some critics that felt at the time and retrospectively feel otherwise, and that the giant killer concept is awkward and laughable.
For me, there is a similarity to Of Mice And Men with the Lenny and and George characters, two misfits in society, outcasts if you will. The Lenny character in this case aligned with Hatton’s character, The Creeper, instead of a good heart, misguided by those around him, he’s a malicious cold blooded killer seeking to please he’s supposed friend, Marcel De Lange (Martin Kosleck – The Mummy’s Curse, The Frozen Ghost).
Marcel is an art sculptor and the subject of ridicule among his community. Tired of being savaged by critics, he seeks his vengeance and just when all seems lost he has a chance encounter and saves The Creeper from drowning.
Now Marcel has a human killing machine at his beckoning call, to carry out his demands on those who’ve wronged him.
The only person who could potentially stand in his way is a female reporter, Joan (Virginia Grey) who Marcel is also infatuated with.
But will love or vengeance lead to ruin for the scared artist?
Once again, Universal were trying to champion a new horror series in The Creeper, but after receiving fairly low reviews, unlike it’s antagonist failed to unleash the horror into the world and the third strike out would leave them stumbling towards the end of the decade.
Unfortunately for the sixth and final instalment of the Inner Sanctum Mystery feature films produced by Universal Pictures starring Lon Chaney Jr. I found that the delivery was incredibly formulaic and as such all I wanted to do was reach for the snooze button. Upon reflection, my opinion may have been marred from watching each instalment within close succession and it may have warranted a little bit of space between each viewing to allow each film to strike up its own identity. Without wanting to give too much of the plot away, the one strength that Pillow of Death has over its predecessors is the twist finale, going against the grain of our expectations.
This time around Chaney Jr. stars as an attorney, Wayne Fletcher, whose heart belongs to his secretary Donna Kincaid (Brenda Joyce – Strange Confession), who also happens to be from a fairly wealthy family.. Bound by wedlock, Fletcher is in the midst of filing for a divorce so that he can be with Donna when his wife is found murdered, suffocated by the titular weapon of choice. This makes Fletcher prime suspect number one and must now fight to prove his innocence.
The one person standing in Fletcher’s way is a fraudulent medium, Julian Julian (J. Edward Bromberg) a man who despite his charlatan ways is intent on pointing the finger at Fletcher for his wife’s murder. What makes the task for both parties is the rise in the body count whilst staying at the family mansion one evening.
The film takes on a slightly lighter tone in comparison to the other Inner Sanctum Mysteries, much like other Universal outings such as The Mystery of Marie Roget. One can almost sense the doors opening for Abbott and Costello to march into the mansion and infuse it with satire at any given moment. That direction was not long off for Universal and the tide is certainly changing away from that darker edge that they had been synonymous for over the past decade and a half. It’s a shame as I feel that if they were willing to push the boundaries of dread, their films would have marked an altogether different experience and been much more rewarding, but they were hindered by their times and one must remember that world was going through its own dark times, carrying the burden of a Global war on its back. The stark reality is that people were needing an escape from the world and a need for humour to step in and poke fun at the grim and dire circumstances that humanity had to endure. For Universal, Abbott and Costello would provide that alternate formula… but that’s for another retrospective.
By the time Universal were producing their fifth instalment of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries starring Lon Chaney Jr., the fizzle had run out in this writers’ mind.
Strange Confession sees Chaney Jr. as chemist Jeff Carter, who has been running tests to find a cure for influenza.
One could argue that this film could be viewed with the lens of all the horrors that Capitalism can arise. Carter works for an egocentric tycoon, Roger Graham (J. Carroll Naish) who is always eager to gain a profit by any means even if that means cutting corners. When Carter grows wise to Graham’s ways he initially resigns, and works at a local store. Once married to Mary (Brenda Joyce) and raising a son, their fiances take a strain and Carter finds that he has no choice but to work once more for Graham. It is here that he potentially finds the influenza cure and is encouraged by Graham to go to South America to perfect his findings. Unbeknownst to Carter however, Graham has eyes on rolling out the formula despite not having a 100 percent success rate, and also to prize Mary away from Carter while he is away.
Tragedy inevitably strikes when Carter’s son is fatally struck down by the killer virus. Once Carter learns of this, he only has vengeance on his mind.
It takes the final reel before this film hits home and true, but the lead up to its conclusion is slow and cumbersome. Stand out performance goes to Lloyd Bridges as the bright and cheery friend to Carter, Dave Curtis, and potentially the only real spark in the film.
When I came to casting a retrospective of the Universal Inner Sanctum Mystery movies, I decided to watch them all fairly close together. As such, due to the similarity in style and substance, combined with the fact that Lon Chaney Jr. starred in all sic of the, a blurring of the narratives came about.
In the case of The Frozen Ghost, I found that I struggled to bring to mind what actually occurred without looking it back up again. This is surely an indicator that the movie had little or no impact on me, which says a lot about my connection to the movie.
When I did research back into it again, the visuals soon sprang to mind and I was left pondering about why it didn’t resonate so well.
My resolution comes down to that the film was just a bit messy in its delivery.
The tale presents Chaney Jr as mentalist Alex Gregor, who is provoked by an intoxicated non-believer in his audience that he is a fake, so out of anger, hypnotizes the individual spurring a heart attack that leads to the man’s untimely death.
Gregor is now consumed with grief and then turns within himself, ending his relationship with assistant Maura (Evelyn Ankers in a subdued performance, albeit still a strong one) and runs away to work as a lecturer for an old friend, Mme Valerie Monet (Tala Birell).
Trouble creeps up once more however when Valerie also turns up dead and Gregor becomes prime suspect number one.
The continuing theme involved with the Inner Sanctum Mysteries centres around mystery, intrigue and in the case of the movies, a wronged man troubled with murder most foul.
The Frozen Ghost has to shift and change on numerous occasions to accommodate the plight of its lead protagonist, who tries to figure out if he truly is responsible for the death of these individuals through the use of paranormal abilities.
The road isn’t a straight one to the conclusion and the perpetrators are all too obvious, so the attempt at clever deception is lost much to the detriment of the film.
The performances are still strong regardless, but unfortunately the executions is just too weak.
By the time Universal delivered their third Inner Sanctum feature starring Lon Chaney Jr., it felt like the production house had hit their stride. I for one, really enjoyed this entry and felt that Chaney Jr. was comfortable wearing the shoes of the troubled lead, artist David Stuart and really amplifies the plight of his character to the benefit of the viewer.
All appears to be well for Stuart, who is settled down with his fiance, Heather (Jean Parker) and is marrying into a fairly wealthy estate. Tragedy strikes however when Stuart is blinded by his assistant, Tanya (Acquanetta – Captive Wild Woman) in a fit of jealousy. Believing his career as an artist to be over, Stuart is offered some salvation when his father-in-law, Capt. Drury agrees to donate his eyes in the vent of his death. Fate takes a wicked turn once more though when Drury is murdered and Stuart becomes the prime suspect as he benefits from the victims eyes.
There are a number of twists and turns to this short running time which makes the film standout and is fuelled by a love quadrangle in Stuart, Heather, Tanya, and Stuart’s best friend Dr. Alan Bittaker (Paul Kelly), all of whom provide strong performances and add to the intrigue and mystery of the tale, keeping you guessing as to who the killer was until the final reel.
For their second outing under the Inner Sanctum Mysteries umbrella, Universal would turn their attention to a novel by Fritz Leiber called Conjure Wife. The novel has since been adapted a further couple of times with Night of the Eagle (1962) an Witches Brew (1980) and tells the tale of Professor Norman Reed (Chaney Jr. once again taking lead duties) who falls in love and marries with a woman, Paula (Anne Gwynne) who he meets while abroad. When they return to the Professor’s hometown, the couple receive a somewhat frosty response from the community, especially as Paula associates herself with the tribal beliefs and voodoo associations that she had been accustomed to during her time on the islands of the South Seas.
These negative views turn sinister once stage things begin to occur, including the death of one of Professor Reed’s colleagues.
All eyes are on Paula, the outsider, but is she really to blame or is there something else kicking the hornet’s nest?
Weird Woman doesn’t necessarily strike as strongly as the previous Inner Sanctum feature, Calling Dr. Death, playing a fairly simple plotline with some questionable choices under today’s standards, but the highlight for me was Evelyn Ankers who was often paired with Chaney Jr. in Universal films around this time including The Wolf Man and Ghost of Frankenstein. Here she plays the jealous Ilona, infatuated with Professor Reed and longs to be by his side. Ankers taps into this character drive with such conviction that it elevates her amongst her costars and provides an enjoyable watch to a fairly mediocre movie.
Launching off the success of the popular radio series, Universal scored the rights to produce a series of films based on The Inner Sanctum Mysteries, an anthology of mystery, terror, and suspense. Initially, the film series had been intended as a joint venture for stable actors Lon Chaney Jr., and Gale Sondergaard to be cast in the lead roles, but for reasons unknown to this writer, the latter didn’t end up being involved. For Chaney Jr however, he felt that this would be the perfect vehicle to break his horror monster mould that he had been typecast in of late.
The first in the film series, Calling Dr. Death casts Chaney Jr. as a neurologist, Dr Steele, who is also a dab hand at hypnosis. Unfortunately he is caught in a bitter marriage, where his wife, Maria (Ramsay Ames) displays no feelings towards him and clearly is only invested in his money and the status that comes with it.
So, when Maria turns up dead, Steele becomes the prime suspect, clouded all the more by his sudden amnesia with a lack of recollection for the last few days.
Steele decides to call upon his assistant, Stella (Patricia Morison) to put him under hypnosis and uncover the truth before Inspector Gregg (J. Carrol Naish) pins the murder on him.
Could it be Maria’s lover Robert (David Bruce), Robert’s jealous wife (Fay Helm) or is he really responsible for wrongdoing?
Calling Dr. Death uses a fairly standard voiceover device, (apparently on the insistence of Chaney Jr. and used throughout the series, which sometimes works but often grates) to gain the insights of Dr. Steele. There is enough of a plot here to intrigue the viewer, with plenty of suspects to fuel the mystery and keep you guessing, marking the movie as a strong entry into the series and worth checking out to see Chaney Jr without getting his wolf on.