Sunday, June 27, 2010

Giant From the Unknown

GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN: A small movie with a big heart.

I can’t begin to tell you how much I love this film. I wish I had been alive in the 1950s to see it on the big drive-in movie screen. It may be small on budget and talent, but it makes up for it with big fun, excitement and eerie atmosphere. This may be director Richard Cunha’s best film. Cunha helmed such schlock drive-in masterpieces as: Missile To The Moon, She Demons and Frankenstein’s Daughter. His producer-partner, Arthur P. Jacobs, went on to bigger projects in producing the Planet of The Apes films. The working title for this film was: The Giant From Devil’s Crag.

Professional fighter Buddy Baer plays the giant murdering Spanish Conquistador, who is revived by lightning from his three hundred year grave to attack local natives and livestock in the small town of Pine Ridge, California. The opening sequence of this film is a bit confusing to me because it depicts the sheriff, played by cowboy serial star Bob Steele, and locals glancing at a corpse in the back of a pick-up truck. The locals comment that a monster is killing people and livestock in Pine Ridge. This sets up the idea that the giant is already on the loose and killing locals. However, it is not until much later in the film that we see the giant revived and crawling out of his grave as lightning strikes it. Does the giant return to his grave every evening after his killing sprees, or is he revived just this one time in the film? This is the confusion I have always had with the film. Nevertheless, I love it just the same.

Actor Ed Kemmer, star of TV’s Space Patrol, and pretty blonde actress Sally Fraser also star in the film. Both actors would team up once again for Bert I. Gordon’s The Earth vs. The Spider. Fraser also starred in Gordon’s War of The Colossal Beast, sequel to The Amazing Colossal Man.

It should also be noted that make-up genius Jack P. Pierce created and applied Buddy Baer’s Spanish Conquistador make-up for the film. Pierce is best known for his make-up work on Boris Karloff in the 1931 version of Frankenstein. It is unlikely that Giant From The Unknown ever appeared on Pierce’s resume. The real star of the film, however, is the eerie atmosphere and sense of isolation you feel when you view it. Giant From The Unknown is not to be missed by any fans of low-budget 1950s horror films. Don’t miss it! Don’t forget the popcorn!!

Steve D. Stones

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Laurel and Hardy in The Big Noise

The Big Noise
by Doug Gibson

"The Big Noise," a 1944 Laurel & Hardy feature from Twentieth Century Fox, directed by Malcolm St. Claire, is generally panned by Laurel and Hardy enthusiasts. In fact, it was listed as one of the "50 worst films" in the Medved brothers book that was popular 30 years ago. But that's all nonsense. "The Big Noise" is not a great film but it's a passable way to spend 74 minutes with a classic comedy team. It's certainly not among Laurel & Hardy's best films. To see those, buy the Hal Roach feature "Sons of the Desert" and the Roach short "The Music Box." But in "The Big Noise," the boys' genius still works at times.

The plot involves Stan and Ollie as bumbling janitors working in a private detective's office. A scientist named Alva Hartley (Arthur Space) calls the agency asking for detectives to guard his bomb, called the Big Noise. The bomb is so powerful it can win World War II for the allies (how prophetic!). L & H want to be detectives, so they pose as such and take on the assignment. Next door to the Hartley live a pack of criminals, who want to steal the bomb and sell it to the Nazis. Somehow a pretty young lady (Doris Merrick) is also there (she's innocent of the plot) and Hartley takes a small fancy to her.

Eventually Laurel and Hardy take off with the bomb with the crooks in hot pursuit. Incredibly, the whole shebang ends in the ocean!

This is just an OK film. L&H fans will be more tolerant. Those unaccustomed to the pair should watch a better entry. The boys were starting to age in 1944 and the physical hijinks suffered. There are funny scenes, though, of L&H trying to relax in a bedroom with beds that come out of the walls and tables that rise out of the floor. A scene where the pair eats food in pill form is flat and unfunny, though.

One scene that works is the pair trying to sleep in a Pullman train compartment. Another unfunny part of the film is an annoying brat in the Hartley house who plays pranks. He's played by child star Robert Blake, who later gained fame as an actor and then earned notoriety after being accused of murdering his wife (he was acquitted). Also, Veda Ann Borg overacts as a chunky matron who has eyes for Ollie. One trivia bit in the film is that Stan, on his accordion, played the popular song "Maisey Doats." According to the film's press book, the pair deliberately cut back on wasteful gags to help with the WWII effort.

To sum up, it's an OK way to kill 74 minutes and should be watched by completists, but there are better L&H outings. Again, though, it's not as bad as you might think.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Frankenstein 1970 - low-watt Karloff

By Doug Gibson

"Frankenstein 1970" is pretty bad. And that's a shame, since the 1958 independent film, directed by Howard Koch, stars Boris Karloff as Baron Victor Von Frankenstein, last descendant of the infamous Dr. Frankenstein. Von Frankenstein, who suffers torture wounds received at the hands of the Nazis, allows a film crew to his castle to make a movie. Wih the cash, they give him, he uses an atomic reactor to, after killing him, turn a former servant into a reanimated monster. More murders follow.

This film is just flat, more soap opera and corny interludes from cliched characters -- film crew, Dr. Frankenstein's solemn colleague -- than terror. The monster is a huge letdown. It just has a box on its head with slits for eyes. Even Karloff isn't that good. His languid, tired appearance seems like he is just phoming in his performance. His salary -- $26,000, was more than a fifth of the entire budget. Despite the futuristic title, is never clear if it really is 1970. In fact, the film's settings look like its late-'50s timeframe.

The best scene is the opening scene, where a terrified young lovely is pursued to her doom by a monster in a lake. Unfortunately, a "director" yells cut and we learn that it's the movie company. That's about if fright-wise. The 83-minute feature also featured Norbert Schiller, Jana Lund, Donald "Red" Barry and Charlotte Austin. Watch it only for Karloff. Even at his most lackluster, he still has worth for cult films fans. Watch the trailer below!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Outlaw Riders! '70s kitsch


"Outlaw Riders" is a 1971 film that belongs in a time capsule marked Hollywood 1970s derivatve biker film. It was produced by Tony Cardoza, who gave us "The Beast of Yucca Flats" and it's a low-budget mix of "Easy Rider" and "Born Losers." It's a motorcycle gang/hippy cliche-fest. The riders spout words like"split," "make the scene," "fuzz," "crash" etc.

Plot involves an outlaw motorcycle gang headed by two couples (Bambi Allan, Jennifer Bishop, Bill Bonner and Bryan West). The gang is badly hurt by a botched robbery and the four stars, the only survivors, eventually head to Mexico, where they have to combat a gang run by a sadistic Mexican (Rafael Campos). Campos is the only "name star" in the film, although he was far away from his better days in "West Side Story."

I like this film for all its low-budget shortcomings. The mostly outdoor American West setting with long dusty cycle treks give it a nostalgic, time-capsule feeling. Cult film fans will enjoy the short cameo from Ed Wood star Valda Hansen as a nun who treats one of the injured bandits. Rumor as it that Hansen was a paramour of producer Cardoza. Film has the same type of downbeat ending as "Easy Rider."

I have no idea what exposure or success "Outlaw Riders" had in 1971. The color, 86-minute Tony Huston-directed film has a lot of violence but little sex, which might have cut down on its grindhouse potential. It's fairly hard to find today, but not impossible. My video copy is in great shape. It would make a nice DVD offering for a multi-disc set of biker films.
-- Doug Gibson

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Guy Kibbee as Babbitt

Kibbee is Babbit but too many liberties taken with novel

By Doug Gibson

I too, have waited years to see the screen adaptation of my favorite novel. I am grateful TCM aired the film. Overall, though, the film adaptation fails because it veers too far away from the plot in the second half of the film.

First, the good: Kibbee captures Babbitt almost perfectly as Lewis describes him. The scene where his fellow lodgers/businessmen play a practical joke on Babbitt may be apocryphal, but it is true to Lewis' novel. For a half hour, the film is more or less faithful to the novel. The bad: Once Zilla is shot by Paul, Lewis' novel is thrown away for an ego-trip script devised by a ham screenwriter.

I don't know how Lewis stood watching it. It is ridiculous to have lonely widow Tanis Judique blackmail George, and even more ridiculous to have Babbitt's wife and son come to his rescue. That is far away from the novel as can be.

Also, the film discarded the real reason for Babbitt's alienation, which was political, and sparked by Babbitt's disillusion after Paul's arrest and jailing. Still, I enjoyed the film. I agree that a remake would be a good idea, but I would prefer a period piece set in the 1920s, rather than making it current. The political and social obstacles Babbitt dealt with don't exist today.

Also, it was nice to see Hattie McDaniel in the film. Why was she uncredited. Was she subtly Jim-Crowed? I also notice there is a 1924 silent Babbitt considered lost. That's a shame. Final grade: 6 out of 10

The New York Times reviewed Babbitt in 1934. The reviewer accurately described it as a "liberal" version of the book and noted that the filmmakers, First National Pictures, chose to make the serious dilemmas facing Babbitt in the novel as "broad-humored entertainment." Reviewer Andre Sennwald wrote, "Although the cinemized "Babbitt" lacks the remorseless irony of the printed page, it is in its own right a skillfully managed motion picture which regards the immortal George F. with a human and sympathetic eye. As a comedy of commercial manners, it succeeds in being an enjoyable entertainment, and it is performed by the excellent Guy Kibbee with his customary humor and veracity."

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Black Cat -- Classic Universal terror!

By Doug Gibson

The 1934 Universal Studios' The Black Cat is a magnificent film, the best pairing of stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. It is masterfully understated, both rivals mad but possessed of grace, dignity and impeccable manners. Lugosi is the good guy, but he's also crazy enough to skin the bad guy (Karloff) alive at the end.

The plot involves an American mystery writer, and his fiance (Julie Bishop) honeymooning in Hungary. They meet a courtly gentleman, Dr. Vitus Werdegast, who is traveling to meet an old nemesis, Hjalmar Poelzig, played by Boris Karloff. It reminds me a bit of the famous Hungarian novel, Embers. The tone of the film has a classic Hungarian fatalism.

While traveling to a city, a coach overturns. The young couple and Lugosi seek shelter at Karloff's forbidding castle. It is built on the site of a prison, where Werdegast was once held. He seeks his wife and daughter, who were in Poelzig's care. Karloff's Poelzig is the soul of courtesy, but that masks a truly terrifying evil. There are dark secrets in Castle Poelzig, and once Werdegast learns them he's driven to righteous madness.

Stuck in the middle of this is the young bride (Bishop) who becomes an object of desire to Poelzig. Naturally, that puts her husband in danger too.

This brisk, 65-minute horror film is well directed by Edgar Ulmer, who later hamstrung his career by winning the heart of a Universal executive's wife. The plot moves at a dignified pace, and what is literally a cinematic chess game grows more sinister until suddenly the horror of Karloff's character bursts out to the audience.

Lugosi excells at his role, that of a decent man with decent gestures who can't suppress his bitterness and longing. His final rage is memorable. There's little of Edgar Allen Poe's tale, just a cat that Lugosi's Werdegast has a phobia of and Karloff sometimes puts to use.

Horror fans, and Universal afficianados will love this black and white classic. Watch it in a single setting, marvel at the skill of horror experts Lugosi and Karloff. They deserve such respect.