Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Monster Maker – Acromegaly Deforms Famous Pianist

By Steve D. Stones

This 1944 poverty row cheapie was directed by Sam Neufeld and stars veteran actor J. Carrol Naish. Naish plays a phony glandular doctor named Igor Markoff who becomes infatuated with the daughter of a famous pianist – Anthony Lawrence. Markoff continually sends flowers to the Lawrence’s daughter Maxine in an attempt to court her. This forces Lawrence to confront him.

After an argument and a fight, Markoff injects Lawrence with acromegaly virus, causing him to become a deformed monster. Lawrence takes the advice of Maxine and sees a doctor named Adams. Adams recommends that Lawrence see Markoff for treatment, since he is regarded as an expert on the subject.  Lawrence of course wants nothing to do with Markoff, but is forced to see him again.
Markoff baits a trap by luring Maxine to his home to check up on and comfort Lawrence. When she arrives, Lawrence has progressed into his most hideous state yet. Maxine demands her father’s release and cure, but Markoff refuses unless Maxine agrees to marry him.

Lawrence is bound to a bed, but is able to escape while getting into another fight with Markoff. He struggles with Markoff to force a gun away from him. The gun fires in the struggle, killing Markoff.
The film ends with Lawrence being cured of acromegaly, and returning to his piano for a public recital.

Like many poverty row films of the 1940s released by PRC, The Monster Make barely clocks in at about 61 minutes. The film may have been inspired by the true-life story of Rondo Hatton, a World War I veteran who developed acromegaly following combat duty. Hatton starred in a number of low-budget films of the 1940s, such as The Brute Man, House of Horrors, The Jungle Captive and The Spider Woman Strikes Back. Happy viewing.

Monday, November 25, 2013

'Universal Horrors' is an incredible piece of research of a golden black-and-white era

By Doug Gibson

"Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946," 2nd Edition, from McFarland, is a simply incredible work of reference from genre writers Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas. Eighty-six films from Universal, spanning 15 years, are covered in so much detail that I can't imagine what can be added. Every film, whether "Frankenstein" or "The Spider Woman Strikes Back," receives near equal consideration and analysis. The authors deserve full credit for spending what must have been thousands of hours working on a project that likely yields more kudos than dollars.

I read the book over a two-week period and at times had to stop, frankly overwhelmed by the details in every film. The $55 book is meant as a reference guide, to be perused at one's leisure. Its use to prepare one to view a Universal film is invaluable. I recently watched and reviewed "The Old Dark House after re-reading the extensive research on the film provided by Weaver and company.

If one does spend a great deal of time with the book, one notes the gradual decline in Universal products, that begins more subtly in the late 1930s, gains steam in the 1940s and eventually leads to the studio that produced "Bride of Frankenstein" turning out films such as "House of Horrors" and "The Brute Man," efforts that were akin to poverty row studios. One notes the gradual decline in budgets from the 1930s monster films to under $100,000 efforts in the 1940s such as "Man Made Monster." In between the years it's interesting to see the studio's original, classic monsters slip into second-tier status in the 1940s' Kharis Mummy films and the "House of ..." monster-fests. Or watch its stars move from Lugosi and Karloff to Chaney Jr. and Carradine and eventually Rondo Hatten.

Highly regarded directors, such as Tod Browning, James Whale and Earle C. Kenton were eventually replaced with by-the-numbers guys such as William Beaudine or Jean Yarbrough. It's also interesting to track the reviews through the 15 years. The earliest classic Universal monsters received grudging respect by the major newspapers (think New York Times) but gradually over time the reviews became -- appropriately -- pans. It's amusing to read the deliberate snide pans over the years from one New York Times film critic, the amusingly named Bosley Crowther!

As mentioned, there are scores of films. The authors are liberal in their selections, including comedy farces, Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes series and Lon Chaney Jr's Inner Sanctum soap operas. But more is a plus here, as each film contains a treasure chest of genre facts for the reader. Weaver & Co. can be snarky at times, particularly at Bela Lugosi fans (they suffer from a syndrome that prefers John Carradine over Lugosi as a screen Dracula) but these matter nothing, Universal Horrors is far too valuable a tome to refuse over a few critical differences. I loved it and will use it as a reference for a lifetime.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Damnation Alley is classic low-budget '70s apocalyptic science fiction

By Steve D. Stones

This 1977 feature should be of some interest to Utah residents because scenes from the film were made in Salt Lake City. Damnation Alley stars Jan-Michael Vincent and the cigar smoking George Peppard from the hit 80s TV show The A-Team. The film is a post-apocalyptic thriller that takes place as a result of a nuclear holocaust that causes the earth to tilt on its axis. The holocaust wipes out most of the human race.

After the nuclear holocaust, a few remaining survivors in a U.S. Air Force bomb shelter in the Mojave Desert decide to head east towards Albany, New York. The group is able to pick up radio signals coming from Albany. Vincent and Peppard leave the bomb shelter in giant armored vehicles called Landmasters that are equipped to withstand any unforeseen elements of nature.

Along the way, they encounter giant desert scorpions and flesh eating cockroaches in Salt Lake City. On a stop in Las Vegas, the group encounters a Las Vegas showgirl in an abandoned casino and latter a wandering teenager. The teen and showgirl join the group. They also encounter a number of violent sandstorms across the desert.

Forget what film critics have said about Damnation Alley over the years. It’s a fun and exciting post-apocalyptic feature that still holds up well today. Some of the special effects are dated, but nevertheless, it is still a worthy effort destined to be on any film fan’s list of guilty pleasures.  The film is in keeping with other post-apocalyptic themed features such as: The Last Man On Earth, The Omega Man, Logan’s Run, Mad Max and many others. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Old Dark House is James Whale at his creepiest, and wittiest

By Doug Gibson

“The Old Dark House,” James Whale’s 1932 take on what happens when travelers stop at a dreary, tomb-like mansion, with creepy occupants, on a dark and rainy night, is not as well-known as Whale’s other Universal offerings, such as “Frankenstein,” “The Invisible Man,” or “Bride of Frankenstein.” That’s probably because it was considered lost for about 30 years. We’re lucky it’s a found film, because it’s a crackling good, creepy horror/comedy.

The plot: Squabbling husband and wife Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) are driving through the Welsh mountains, thoroughly lost late at night during a brutal rainstorm. In their back seat is their relaxed, witty friend, Roger Penderel, (brilliantly played by Melvyn Douglas). In a superb special-effects scene, the Waverton car barely escapes a massive mudslide. They spot a mansion and stop, requesting shelter for the night. The door is answered by a brutish, very fearsome looking mute servant, Morgan, played by Boris Karloff. Later we learn that Morgan has a drinking problem. Eventually, the trio is greeted by an odd brother and sister pair, Horace Femm, (Ernest Thesiger), and his dourly religious sister, Rebecca, played by Eva Moore. The Femms inform the guests that they have a 102-year-old father, Sir Roderick Femm, bedridden upstairs, Interestingly, a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon, plays Sir. Roderick, although the actress’ sex was kept from audiences in 1932.

Early on there is a very creepy, pre-code scene where Margaret Waverton, very scantily clad in her underwear, is intruded upon by the religious fanatic, Rebecca Femm. While lambasting Margaret for her immorality, Moore’s Rebecca forces her hand on Margaret’s exposed upper chest, just above the breasts. It discombobulates Margaret, who is now very wary of the house. She has good reason; later a drunken Morgan attacks her on the stairs.

Later a couple more travelers seek refuge in the mansion. They are the garrolous, obese, somewhat crude, but wealthy Sir William Porterhouse, played well by Charles Laughton, along with an unemployed chorus girl, Gladys DuCane Perkins, (Lilian Bond), who is Porterhouse’s girlfriend, although there’s no real love between them. He has money, and she has a pleasing body. In one scene, Laughton effectively conveys the inner sadness and tragedy of Porterhouse, a man whose wife is died, feels empty and is no longer attractive enough to obtain love. Eventually, Penderel (remember him) and Bond form an attachment and fall in love, without too much consternation from Porterhouse.

As the weather stays dangerous outside, events inside the old, dark house get more perilous. I don’t want to give away the plot except to mention that we get a chance to see the very feminine-looking 102-year-old Sir Roderick Femm, who informs the guests that there is a third younger Femm, named Saul, who is by far the most dangerous inhabitant of the house. This all leads to a pretty thrilling, and witty at times, conclusion.

“The Old Dark House” is great gothic comedy/horror. It’s based on a long-ago bestselling novel, called “Benighted,” by J.B. Priestley. Whales stuck pretty faithfully to the plot, but omitted a lot of philosophic sophistry from the novel and focused on the action. The director looked for droll, humorous lines in the midst of chaos or fear. Thesiger’s Horace Femm has the best lines, such as “We make our own electric light here, and we are not very good at it. Pray, don’t be alarmed if they go out altogether,” and, when picking up some flowers, says, “my sister was on the point of arranging these flowers,” and then tossing them into the fireplace.”

The film is about 71 minutes long. It pops up on Turner Classic Movies but can be seen at YouTube above.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Rat Pfink A Boo Boo ... a title only a Steckler could create!

By Steve D. Stones

Low budget director Ray Dennis Steckler is best known for creating the first so-called “monster musical” – The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living & Became Mixed Up Zombies (AKA Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary). Like most of Steckler’s films, he cast his wife Carolyn Brandt in a leading role in Rat Pfink A Boo Boo (AKA The Adventures of Rat Pfink A Boo Boo).

As campy as the title may be, the person who created the opening titles for the film forgot to put a letter N and D after the letter A so that the title would read: Rat Pfink And Boo Boo. To further complicate matters, a letter P was placed in front of the word Fink, likely to not confuse the Rat Fink character in this film with the famous Rat Fink character created by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth in the 1960s. Confused yet? Perhaps this was Steckler’s way of avoiding copyright infringements?

A group of hoodlums is constantly harassing Ceebee Beaumont by calling her on the telephone. Ceebee is the beautiful girlfriend of rising rock singer and teenage heartthrob Lonnie Lord, played by Vin Saxon (AKA Ron Haydock). The group follows and kidnaps Ceebee, played by Steckler’s wife at the time – Carolyn Brandt, and demands a ransom of $50,000.00 from Lonnie.

Lonnie and his gardener, played by Titus Moede, thrust into action by dressing up in costumes similar to Batman & Robin, but instead they wear ski masks. They call themselves Rat Pfink & Boo Boo, in case you haven’t guessed by now. The two catch up with the hoodlums and save the day by rescuing the girl and avoiding a confrontation with a giant ape named Kogar.

Various interesting scenes in the film use colored filters over the black and white photography, such as an opening night sequence in blue of the hoodlums attacking a young woman to steal her purse. Other scenes use a red filter over the black and white.

The DVD and video print of Rat Pfink A Boo Boo, sold by Sinister Cinema in Medford, Oregon has a short introduction by director Steckler. Steckler’s films have gained a strong following in recent years, and have even been featured on Turner Classic Movies, a cable network that screens classic films.

Steckler spent the last few years of his life living in Las Vegas running a video store. He passed away in January of 2009. May his films live on forever for cult movie fans to enjoy for many generations to come!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Iconic kitsch horror -- Bela Lugosi as The Ape Man

By Doug Gibson

The Ape Man, 64 minutes, 1943, Monogram, Directed by William Beaudine. Starring Bela Lugosi as Dr. James Brewster, Louise Currie as Billie Mason, Wallace Ford as Jeff Carter, Henry Hall as Dr. George Randall, Emil Van Horn as the ape, J. Farrell McDonald as Police Captain O'Brien and Minerva Urecal as Agatha Brewster. Schlock-meter rating: Seven stars out of 10.

This is a screwball horror film, but a lot more entertaining than most viewers will expect. It's sheer pulp horror that doesn't take itself too seriously. The plot involves a scientist (Lugosi) who for unexplained reasons accidentally turns himself into an ape man. Not trusting his sanity, he frequently locks himself up with an ill-tempered ape (Van Horn in a campy performance). Lugosi's ape man needs human spinal fluid to have even a chance to regain his former appearance and posture. This involves murder and when a colleague (Hall) refuses to help, Lugosi literally goes ape, and commits several murders. Dressed in evening clothes, Lugosi is an iconic caricature of kitsch. An alternate title to this film is "They Creep in the Night," and Lugosi's ape literally does this in the film. He's encouraged by his creepy sister (Urecal) a noted spiritualist who records the groans of ghosts. Lugosi's nemesis are a reporter/photographer duo who soon become wise to all the creepy occurrences.

Of such bizarre plots were Monogram cheapies of the 1940s created. It's a lot of fun to watch, even if the production values are predictably bottom of the barrel. Lugosi, as usual, acts far above the product he's pitching, and he manages to make the audience feel some sympathy for his plight. His ferocious temper tantrums are effective. He nearly strangles his sister in one scene. Urecal, by the way, is great as the slightly creepy sister. In an Los Angeles Times review (the paper actually liked the film) the reviewer suggested Urecal be given her own horror film to star in. So far as I know, it never happened, although she was also very good in the Lugosi vehicle The Corpse Vanishes. Currie and Ford as the wisecracking journalists have strong chemistry. B movie veteran actor McDonald is also an asset to the film. The film is slightly marred by a truly goofy character who acts as a red herring, cutting into scenes for no reason and offering cryptic comments and warnings. At the end, he reveals himself to be the author of the tale. As The End is flashed on the screen, he remarks "Screwy, isn't it?" His presence, though, underscores that Monogram did have its tongue in its cheek when it made its horror cheapies. It's an observation many reviewers miss when they slam the films for poor horror elements.

Like any low-budget film, there are amusing contradictions. Why does Lugosi have an accent, and his sister doesn't? Also, why doesn't anyone seem to notice the ape-like Lugosi and his pet ape traipsing through the city? Of course, suspension of disbelief is a requirement to fully enjoy a Monogram film. So just sit back and take in the show. It's a fun hour of escapism and a great treat for those who enjoy the old C and B horror films. Notes: As mentioned, the film's shooting title was They Creep in the Night. In England, it was titled Lock Your Doors. There is a nostalgic reference to the times when Currie chides Ford for being 4F, and consequently not serving in World War II. He retorts that he's scheduled to enlist at the end of the month. I enjoy those references in films. Others I have seen of that era include pitches to buy war bonds and have Victory Gardens. Watch the film below!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Giant fireballs and panic on the earth -- The Cremators

By Steve D. Stones

Harry Essex, director of the 1971 classic Octaman, brings us this low-budget gem. Essex is also credited as a co-writer responsible for the 1953 classic Creature From The Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space. The DVD of this film is distributed by Retromedia, and has a “Bikini Drive-In” introduction by Fred Olen Ray and his sidekick Miss Kim. The film stars Maria De Aragon, who went on to star in Star Wars episode IV in the costume of Greedo the bounty hunter. As an added bonus, the DVD contains an interview with De Aragon.

The film opens with a local native Indian being chased by a giant fireball, which apparently has come from outer space. The fireball rolls over the Indian and burns him to the ground, reducing him to ashes. The opening narration sounds like the voice of Arch Hall Sr. from Eegah. Later sequences in the film show the same stock shot of human ashes being blown into the air after the fireball attacks victims.

Meanwhile, Ian Thorn, a local scientist, is studying the waters off the local shoreline. It is never clear throughout the entire film where it takes place, but we have to assume it is Florida or any small coastal town, since many of the shots show an ocean shoreline. Director Essex shot Octaman in Florida, so this is why I also suspect The Cremators was also shot there.

Thorn finds strange, small glowing crystals in the local waters. He takes some of them back to his lab to be studied and places one in a package to be mailed to a colleague in Michigan for further investigation.

While delivering the package to a local post office, Thorn gets the feeling he is being chased by something. He gets out of his truck, but finds nothing. He delivers the package to a postal carrier. The carrier is later chased in his vehicle by a giant fireball and burned to death. Ian and the local sheriff later investigate the burned remains of the postal carrier’s vehicle. Ian’s package is found but not completely destroyed in the remains.

Later, a local native brings his dead cat to Thorn to try and discover what killed the cat. Thorn conducts an autopsy and discovers a fragment of one of the glowing crystals inside the belly of the cat. He also discovers another crystal fragment inside the belly of a dog he finds by the side of the road. Somehow local animals are eating the glowing crystals found in the local waters of the town.

Although I greatly enjoyed viewing this film, I find some of the plot points a bit confusing. For example, what does the glowing crystals being eaten by local animals have to do with the giant fireballs attacking local citizens? I suppose the connection is that many of the victims find a glowing crystal just before they are attacked and burned by the giant fireballs.

However, this still adds some confusion. Are the giant fireballs attracted to the glowing crystals, or are they a result of the glowing crystals? Plus, why don’t the giant fireballs attack the animals who eat the crystals, and why do they only attack when someone picks up a crystal? These are all questions that enter into my mind as I view the film.

The film certainly leaves more questions to the viewer than it answers. At the end of the film, Thorn arranges a small circle of crystals on the ground in an attempt to attract the giant fireball. Like a hen looking for her newborn hatchlings, the fireball comes for the circle of crystals. Thorn is able to destroy the fireball with an explosion.

If you are familiar with It Came From Outer Space, it is easy to see some similarities to this film. However, It Came From Outer Space is a much better scripted and well-produced film. Fans of Octaman are encouraged to see The Cremators, if only to see what director Essex made after Octaman. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Octaman -- a low-budget take on Creature From the Black Lagoon

By Steve D. Stones

A small ecological scientific expedition, headed by Kerwin Matthews, star of such great 1960s classics as Jack The Giant Killer and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, travels to a small Latin American fishing community to study radioactive contamination in the water. Here they take blood samples of local villagers, since their diet consists mostly of foods found in the sea. One member of the expedition, Mort, discovers a strange, small creature similar to a small octopus. The creature looks like a cheap rubber toy for kids.

Matthews decides to return to the United States to seek more funding for his research and to continue the expedition. He presents his findings to Jeff Morrow, star of This Island Earth and The Creature Walks Among Us. Morrow is not convinced of Matthews' hypothesis that the small octa-creature is a result of contaminated water, so he decides not to fund the rest of the expedition.

Matthews then turns to a wealthy rancher named Johnny Caruso to fund the remainder of the expedition. Caruso is not a scientist, so his interest is mostly in finding his next sideshow attraction and to profit from its discovery.

After returning to Latin America, the expedition learns of a local myth of a giant half man, half sea creature, who attacks and murders local villagers. If any of this sounds familiar, that's because it was written and directed by Harry Essex, a screenwriter for the 1950s classic: The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Some viewers have described Octaman as a low-budget version of The Creature From The Black Lagoon.

There are some similarities. For instance, there is a scene where the expedition is trying to leave the local area in their motor home. They encounter a fallen tree that blocks their path on the road, making it so that they cannot leave. This is similar to when the creature in The Creature From The Black Lagoon moves a fallen tree in front of the boat expedition.

It is important to note that the unique Octaman creature was an early creation of makeup wizard Rick Baker, who has gone on to have a very successful career in many big-budget Hollywood films, such as: American Werewolf In London, Star Wars and The Howling. Baker won an academy award for his work on American Werewolf In London and The Nutty Professor. His earliest work was Octaman and in assisting Dick Smith in make-up effects in The Exorcist. The female lead in Octaman, Pier Angeli, died of a barbiturate overdose while the film was in production.

The film was never released theatrically in the U.S. and went straight to television and later video.

What makes Octaman so interesting is the fact that it is a summation of so many earlier monster movie creatures from the 1950s. As I watched Octaman, I couldn't help but think of the creature in Monster of Piedras Blancas, the tree creature in From Hell It Came, and of course The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Octaman is worthy of a viewing, if not only to see an interesting reference to so many classic monster movies of the 1950s and 1960s.