Admittedly my only entry into this feature for my retrospective journey into Universal Horror movies of the 1950s, would be through the comedy review series, Mystery Science Theater 3000. The fact that the object of said show is to ridicule the subject under scrutiny didn’t bode well for my viewing experience, but I tried to do so with an open mind.
The Thing That Couldn’t Die would be helmed by Will Cowan for what would be his last feature film as a director. Based on an original screenplay by David Duncan (The Monster on the Campus) entitled The Water Witch, where a young psychic woman, Jessica (Carolyn Kearney) discovers a mysterious box from the 16th century. The contents of which contain the head of Gideon Drew (Robin Hughes), a man executed for sorcery 400 years ago and begins to use telepathy in order to control people. This far-fetched tale is hard to connect with, much like Drew’s plan to reunite his head with his body. Even if you are willing to bow to the whims with a suspension of disbelief, there is little substance beneath the melodramatic telling on show.
It is inevitable that an achilles heel be placed to set up Drew’s downfall, and this comes in the guise of an amulet that Jessica is in possession of. The mold may have been set but it’s a struggle to find any glowing elements to give it praise for. It doesn’t help that upon its release, TTTCD was billed alongside Hammer’s The Horror of Dracula, a film marking significant changes on the celluloid screen. The years have not been kind and with little availability out there, most cinephiles have to resort to the comical observations that MST3000 as its only source to survey with.
As we close in on the end of the 50s and my introspective look back at Universal Pictures shift away from the horror genre in contrast to the rise of Britain’s Hammer Film Production, I cast my gaze upon the 1958 feature, Monster On The Campus. The focus of the American film distribution was to scrutinize the subject of evolution and devolution from the perspective of University Professor, Dr. Donald Blake (Athur Franz). Written by novelist David Duncan, MOTC would be directed by alumni Jack Arnold (Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man) who would go on record to state that this wasn’t his finest work; an opinion which I’m inclined to agree with.
The story would find Blake becoming infected with a partially-thawed coelacanth. This produces a transformation in his cells into an ape-like creature that causes havoc through the campus, drawing inspiration from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It takes the player involved some time to work out the cause of this mayhem however, allowing for anarchy to reign until the inevitable dramatic conclusion and the reveal of the cause to the effect. The tragedy however is a little bereft of any real impact and the viewer never really grips or raises the tension out of the scenes as it unfolds.
The film itself would be somewhat dwarfed by the more colourful British feature, Blood of the Vampire, which it shared billing with on the cinema circuit. It does boast solid supporting roles in the mix, with Joanna Moore cast as the women in peril figure Madeline; Judson Pratt as Lt. Mike Stevens; and Troy Donahue in one of his earlier performances, here playing local boy Jimmy Flanders. From a modern perspective it is hard to shift away from the make up effects that are a little less than desired, especially compared with today’s standards, but stuntman Eddie Parker does a convincing job of portraying the ape creature when in its fits of rage. Some scholars have also used this feature as a subject on conformity, and the need to fit into society when one feels constantly on the periphery. For this, it is a bold story and deserves your attention. It does fall foul to the more impressive and grand features that were rising up at the time in contrast and suffers as a result across the ages.
As 1957 drew to a close, so did Universal’s stories around monsters, giant creatures, and supernatural events in the science fiction realm.
It wasn’t that the production company was short on ideas, and Monolith Monsters is a testament to this, pushing the envelope away from the known and into the unknown. When a meteorite crashes and its material then grows to epic proportions once exposed to water and turns anyone that crosses its path to ash.
Grant Williams who had already starred in the successful The Incredible Shrinking Man would star as the everyman turned hero, Dave Miller. Dave happens to be the head of San Antonio’s geological office, so he’s a man with smarts and just might have the answer to saving humanity from these monumental blocks of stone.
Joining Millar is his girlfriend and teacher Cathy played by American singer Lola Albright who supported Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds in The Tender Trap and was only a few years away from acting opposite Elvis Presley in Kid Galahad. For Monolith Monsters though the lead characters Dave and Cathy would use their combined knowledge along with college professor Arthur Flanders (Trevor Bardette) to find a solution to stop the threat expanding into their town.
A particular highlight is the cameo performance from William Schallert as a benign meteorologist, happily carrying out his day without the slightest notion of the impending danger that is facing humankind. Also keen viewers will note a young Troy Donahue in one of his earlier roles playing a dynamite expert.
Whilst noted for its production design and special effects plus some noteworthy performances Monolith Monsters suffers with execution. It presents a unique story but fails to manifest or produce anything out of this grain of salt idea. As such the sands of time have been unkind over the years, left as a forgotten relic from a decade of dwindling success.
– Saul Muerte
Monolith Monsters is currently available as part of a double feature blu-ray with The Deadly Mantis at Umbrella Entertainment.
As Hammer Films were reinventing Gothic horror with The Curse of Frankenstein and awakening old myths with The Abominable Snowman, Universal Pictures were still venturing into humanity striving against gigantic creatures in the sci-fi adventure films. This time around, the exploration would take them into the heart of Antarctica to unleash the fears upon our central characters.
The Land Unknown, directed by Virgil W. Vogel from a screenplay by László Görög would suffer immensely from its low budget, putting men in dinosaur suits or shots of monitor lizards to subject our audience with fear. The result would have a poor effect and the film struggles to lift out of the realms of quality, shifting our ability to connect with it. Even retrospectively speaking, there is little substance here of worth.
In essence we join an expedition crew consisting of Commander Harold Roberts (Jock Mahoney), helicopter pilot Lt. Jack Carmen (William Reynolds), machinist Steve Miller (Phil Harvey) and reporter Maggie (Shirley Patterson). Maggie is the token female in the movie and is symbolic of the times playing the reporter, as it gave women a hard-boiled, intelligent edge whilst still needing to be sexually alluring, something that doesn’t go amiss among the male members of the crew, particularly the Commander. Often, there are comments in the script about the differences in the gender of each species they encounter, where each plays a significant role in the survival of their terrain. When the helicopter is forced to make an emergency landing this is put to the test when they find themselves in mysterious volcanic land beneath the icy surface and one that is rich in jungle life, including the aforementioned jungle.
Not only do they have to manage this unknown topography, but they soon discover another living soul who has adapted to life there since they crashed there. Dr. Carl Hunter was the sole survivor and has been used to life on his own, making him a gruff and unapproachable man, His intimidating demeanour softening only towards Maggie.
The rest of the film centres more on these conflicts, along with the volatile land and its inhabitants to play through to the conclusion. One that is a neatly tied bow and as such fails to flicker with the audience. Looking through the retrospective lens, this is definitely one of the lesser films that Universal produced at the time and much like the land in which it is set, has been forgotten over time.
1957 would turn out to be one last hurrah for Universal (for the time being at least) as they produced a number of movies that year. Some were better than others and I would name The Incredible Shrinking Man as one of their more successful outlets, looking back at it for the Surgeons of Horror retrospectives.
Part of this appeal, I believe, is down to the penmanship of Richard Matheson, who would go on to write I Am Legend; A Stir of Echoes; and Hell House, to name but a few. TISM would be his first venture into screenwriting duties, and as such, would share the screenplay credits with Richard Alan Simmons; a gun for hire at the time.
The latter would prove to have its merits as once again our protagonist would come up against a giant from which to defed himself.
Our protagonist in question is Scott (Grant Williams) who is coated one day in a mysterious mist; a macguffin for the film and serves as the agent of Scott’s mysterious shrinking. At first, it’s the small things, such as his waist size, and losing a few inches of height which he notices when standing next to his wife, Louise (Randy Stuart). Over time things get steadily worse, and Scott becomes smaller and smaller, at one stage living in a doll house and fighting off the house cat, before being swept away down the basement and presumed to be dead.
The smarts behind this feature come from the psychological trauma that this has on Scott and to some degree Louise. Scott battles constantly trying to deal with his bizarre affliction, even straying away from Louise at one point when he meets a ‘circus freak’, Clarice (April Kent), who has dwarfism, seeking solace in someone who may understand him. His ailment continues however and he must once again face up to his torment and try to make peace with his woes. It is this rather gloomy aspect to the film that would hang heavy on cinema goers at the time, but one that smacks of a realistic portrayal of the ‘what ifs?’ Scenario that is presented. I am often drawn to movies that leave you feeling disconnected and a star reminder of how small we are in the grand scheme of things, and TISM is the epitome of this example and why I believe it ironically stands head and shoulders above its equivalent features of the late 50s.
It certainly heralds an impact worthy enough to hold discussions about a potential remake. John Landis himself had one in production which unfortunately didn’t manage to see the light of day.
Its resonance is still strongly felt though in the genre community and I wouldn’t be surprised to see something of similar ilk come about eventually.
Unlike Scott, the film is unlikely to disappear into uncertainty, especially among film scholars and science fiction lovers.
Ever since I saw Kamacuras stalking around in the Kaiju movie Son of Godzilla, I’ve had a deep dread of this (let’s face it) fairly timid mantises. Whenever I watched the movie, I must have been at that impressionable age where this triangular headed insect embedded into my mind. Its essentially one of the things that initiated my aerozoophobia.
So imagine my trepidation upon learning that amongst Universal Pictures scifi horror canon during the mid fifties is movie entitled The Deadly Mantis.
Set in the South Seas, a volcanic eruption unearths a 200 foot long praying mantis that has been frozen in ice for hundreds of years.
When one of the remote Canadian outposts fails to return any calls, Col. Joe Parkman (Craig Stevens) is sent into investigate. Upon his arrival, Parkman discovers no sign of life and strange marks imprinted in the snow.
Later, an Air Force plane is grounded by the giant insect and Parkman notices the same slash marks he’d witnessed from the outpost. Only this time who also finds a five foot long spur. Fuelled by curiosity, he hires his top scientist to work our its origin but without success. So, in steps paleontologist Nedrick Jackson (William Hopper) who traces it to the praying mantis species.
When another attack happens at an Inuit village in the Arctic, the press become interested and magazine editor Marge Blane (Alix Talton) talks her way into joining the expedition posing as a photographer.
Its indicative of the time when Marge turns up to the base, all the men are instantly smitten by her presence, but its out hero Parkman that is the most taken by her, and the feeling is mutual between them. As with most trauma based narratives, these events often draw people together and as the the story unfolds between military and mantis attacks, their bond becomes further united.
The films conclusion smacks of earlier giant creature movies, most notably King Kong and Them, where the military bombard the monster with aero dynamic arsenal, this time forcing the Deadly Mantis into the Manhattan Tunnel. Trapped inside, Parkman takes a number of troops inside to kill it once and for all, armed with rifles and chemical bombs.
The feature didn’t live up to its gigantic proportions in the box office however, and failed to ignite massive interest. Looking back at it now, one can’t help but identify with this reaction as i struggled to connect with the plight, nor any fear that it tried to invoke, despite my own animosity.
Much like other sci-fi features of the era it would find itself subject to ridicule in Mystery Science Theatre 3000, a symbol of how these movies were received and the fall from grace that Universal was starting to find itself in.
Universal Pictures would round out 1956 with another sci-fi horror entitled The Mole People, which these days may evoke visions of The Underminer from The Incredibles.
The production house’s only other genre feature that year was the final instalment to the Creature series, The Creature Walks Among Us. Retrospectively looking back now, I find that The Mole People has little residual effect on my cerebellum. This says a lot about the feature and it’s slow demise from horror into science fiction, a mantle that would give way to upcoming British horror production outfit, Hammer Films.
Loosely based on the concept of a hollow Earth where an alternate human race has evolved and existed deep beneath our planet’s surface.
Part of its dissociation from the audience stems from the narration at the beginning of the movie, detailing the premise of life underground, by Dr. Frank Baxter to add weight to the theory and ironically ground the movie in a hypothetical truth. Instead it just distances us from the story with an unnecessary breaking of the fourth wall.
When the story does pick up however, we follow John Agar as Archaeologist Dr. Roger Bentley who along with his associate Dr. Jud Bellamin (Hugh Beaumont) discovers a Sumerian albino race. This ancient race keep mutant mole people as slaves to harvest mushrooms to er ahem.. serve as a “food source”. Yeah right.
This primitive race is devoted to Ishtar, Goddess of Love, Fertility and War, and it is to this divine presence that they sacrifice young women from their tribe. This also paves way for the love interest in the movie when Bentley falls for intended oblation, Adad (Cynthia Patrick), a fair-headed damsel in distress.
Apart from their blind devotion, these underground dwellers are also addled by any source of light. Their choice of abode, in the darkness, has led them to be afflicted, and it is through the archaeologists’ flashlight which keeps them at bay; at least until the High Priest (Alan Napier) discovers the use of this tool and that their Godly pretence is a falsehood.
It is the film’s climax however that potentially leaves the biggest mark of ambiguity, when fleeing towards freedom and life above ground, Adad who has chosen to joining Bentley and Bellamin, is suddenly stuck down, when she begins to question her intent. A feeling of unease swiftly follows when the realisation that there will be no happy ending, and the wonderment around the exact purpose of the film.
The Mole People is currently available as part of a blu ray double feature alongside, The Land Unknown at Umbrella Entertainment.
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.
…would symbolise the bridge between Universal’s golden horror era and their move into the sci-fi genre. It also marks the last of the iconic monsters to be born out of the giant film production house. Directed by Jack Arnold (who also helmedIt Came From Outer Space (1953)), The Creature would follow a group of scientists who uncover an amphibious humanoid known as the Gill-man in the heart of the Amazon.
Released in 3D at the point of its decline in the early 50s, and also in the traditional two-dimensional format, managed to capture over $1m in Box Office takings but was overshadowed by its predecessors.
Among the scientists are Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams), the latter forming the object of affection for Gill-man. The film was reported to been inspired by the tale Beauty and the Beast, which is evident at least in the creatures pursuit for love among humankind, fascinated by the beautiful Kate, leading to a similar conclusion to King Kong, where the monster kidnaps the female lead and ends up riddled with bullets. In this instance, though, the monster doesn’t fall a great height , but instead sinks to the depths of a supposed watery grave.
The story is a simple one enough, and is entertaining despite treading in familiar territory, carving out the usual horror movie tropes. It’s appeal lies mainly through the underwater sequences and the cinematography captured to instil fear and create atmosphere. The Gill-man would be portrayed by Ricou Browning for these water scenes, who had the gruelling task of holding his breath under for minutes at a time to deliver the strenuous fight scenes. On land, this task of donning the creatures mask fell to Ben Chapman, who had to wear the costume for 14 hour stretches in the heat and with minimal visibility at best. Considered a success by Universal, a further two instalments would come in the franchise with…
Revenge of the Creature (1955)
Jack Arnold would be charged with directing the creature once again, only this time the Universal monster is far removed from its native Amazon landscape and confined in captivity where it is studied by Professor Clete Ferguson (John Agar) and his student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson). The film follows a familiar trajectory though of unrequited love as the creature pursues and captures Helen, only to be shot by police in his escape for freedom. Ricou Browning would once again return for the underwater segments, and Tom Hennesy filling in for the above ground sequences. Revenge though would be something of a forgotten entry other than to be mocked in Mystery Science Theater 3000, and for boasting Clint Eastwood as an uncredited role as a lab technician. This didn’t stop the creature from returning to screens however three years down the track with…
The Creature Walks Among Us (1958)
The creatures final feature length appearance for Universal would see a different director with John Sherwood but would still see Ricou Browning in full Creature make up (Don Megowan would take on the on-land duties), although now the look had altered slightly. This follows its rescue and surgery after being burned in a fire, the creature becomes physically more human looking and loses its gills, developing lungs to breathe.
The villainy and fear factor falls more in human terrain this time with the abusive and mentally unstable Dr. Barton (Jeff Morrow). The creature sided with a tale of what it means to be human or beast? When we go through such psychological stages, can we truly rid our genetic make up, or in the creatures case, would the call of the ocean prove to be too great?
Our last shot of the iconic creature would see it on the beachfront, walking into the great sea.
The Creature’s cultural impact would still hang in the minds and inspirations of film creatives for years to come however, with several attempts at a remake and appearances in films such as The Monster Squad, and the more recent Creepshow series on Shudder. It’s most affection nod tough comes in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, eager to give the creature one last shot at love.