Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Quatermass Xperiment – British Sci-Fi At Its Best

By Steve D. Stones

This intelligent sci-fi feature produced by Hammer Studios and based on a hit BBC TV serial was also marketed as The Creeping Unknown in the U.S. in 1956. Brian Donlevy stars as Dr. Bernard Quatermass – an American scientist who launches a space rocket experiment that goes terribly wrong.

Three astronauts are sent into space. Their rocket crashes in England near where it was launched. Only one astronaut survives the crash. The other two are not to be found inside the rocket. Their space suits are still strapped to the safety seats inside the rocket.  Quatermass is determined to figure out what happened to the two men and why the rocket crashed.

The surviving astronaut, played by Richard Wordsworth, is in a catatonic state, unable to communicate with anyone. A bizarre growth begins to cover his body. He is isolated in a hospital ward so doctors can monitor his condition. The growth consumes his right arm.

A film thought to be damaged from the crash is discovered inside the rocket.  Quatermass and other scientists viewing the film determine that an unseen force somehow destroyed the two astronauts.  
The surviving astronaut’s wife manages to sneak him out of the hospital. He kills a man trying to help him leave the hospital in an elevator. His wife carries him away in a car, but he flees on foot.  

In a scene that may intentionally pay tribute to Frankenstein (1931), the astronaut encounters a little girl playing with a doll near a river.  Luckily, the girl is not harmed, but her doll is destroyed by the astronaut.

A chemist is later killed by the astronaut at a pharmacy, and animals are found dead at the local zoo.

Meanwhile, scientists find a strange plant like growth in the hospital room of the astronaut. A strange growth of giant proportions is also discovered at Westminster Abbey on top of a scaffold. The squid looking growth with tentacles is electrocuted and killed. The film never explains what happens to the astronaut, but we assume he has become the giant squid creature found at Westminster Abbey.

The film gives the suggestion that perhaps space travel is not worth the risk of the dangers that could happen to mankind. Dr. Quatermass is an emotionless, stubborn character who will not allow anything to get in the way of science and experimentation, even if it means risking the lives of astronauts. The film ends with Quatermass launching another rocket into space.

Don’t miss the excellent sequel – Quatermass II : Enemy From Space. In 1967, Hammer Studios also made another great Quatermass film – Quatermass & The Pit, which also had its title changed for American audiences to - Five Million Years To Earth. An American film with a very similar plot to The Quatermass Xperiment was made in 1958 entitled First Man Into Space. Happy viewing!

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Phantom Ship sailed for Bela Lugosi in England

By Doug Gibson

This British 1936 film is a treat for Lugosi fans. He is Anton Lorenzen, a broken-down one-armed sailor who inspires a pity as part of the doomed crew of the Mary Celeste, a ship that in real life in the 1870s was discovered in the Atlantic sans crew.

This film, released in a much longer -- unfortunately lost -- version as The Mystery of the Mary Celeste in Britain, is an entertaining murder mystery. It sort of plays like a rough version of Agatha Christie.

The plot: A captain and his bride (Shirley Grey) set sail with a ragged, rough, sinister ship's crew, including Lugosi, who inspires pity. One by one people start to die. The captain and his wife disappear. Finally only Lugosi's Lorenzen and the sadistic first mate are left. At that point, Lugosi, acting like a 30s version of The Usual's Suspect's Keyser Soze, announces he is the killer, there to avenge a previous wrong. He kills off the first mate but then is hit by a beam of wood and falls into the sea to his death.

Before he dies, Lugosi brags of killing the captain and his wife. That scene appears clunky though. It almost sounds as if Lugosi's voice is dubbed. This is important because the ONLY remaining print is the 62-minute U.S. version, The Phantom Ship. The longer, lost 80-minute version, The Mystery of the Mary Celeste, apparently had an epilogue where the captain and his wife are discovered alive on an island, having escaped death on the Mary Celeste via a raft. It sure would be fun to locate a copy of the lost version. Lugosi biographer Frank Dello Stritto has located director Denison Clift's original shooting synopsis for the film and it includes the island epilogue.

Lugosi is great in The Phantom Ship, which used to be rare but in today's digital world can be found easily and in fact watched for free on the Net. He inspires pathos and pity and then effectively turns cold-blooded killer. He did this very well also in the 1930s The Black Cat, the Monogram Black Dragons and even Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster. Rest of cast is capable and the ship scenes are quite effective for the low budget. Co-star Shirley Grey later teamed up in an enjoyable co-starring role with the Saint, Simon Templar, George Sanders in The Saint in London. The Phantom Ship is definitely worth a buy. One of Lugosi's best mid-1930s films.

Watch the film below:

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Crawling Eye – It’s looking for you!

By Steve D. Stones

Guilty pleasures don’t get much better than The Crawling Eye (1958). The film was originally entitled The Trollenberg Terror, and is based on a popular six part television series.  The success of the film owes a great deal to the popularity of the Quatermass series in the U.K.  Some film critics suggest The Crawling Eye emulates the Quatermass films of the 1950s.

Two young women – Sarah and Ann Pilgrim - are traveling to Geneva, Switzerland aboard a train when Ann suddenly gets the urge to stop at the town of Trollenberg near the Swiss Alps. Ann is a psychic who is immediately drawn to the mountains. She is able to see into the past by mentioning the death of a climber who was found decapitated on the mountain.

Sarah and Ann check into a local hotel and are accompanied by Alan Brooks - an American United Nations science investigator – played by veteran actor Forrest Tucker. The Hotel Europa is normally booked full this time of year, but the guests cleared out after the death of the climber. His death has made many of the local villagers nervous and superstitious.

Two villagers decide to make a climb up the mountain, despite the recent accident. One of the climbers is attacked inside a mountain shack by an unknown, unseen presence. The other climber is thought to be lost on the mountain. He later shows up at the hotel and tries to attack Ann. Brooks kills him with a gun.

A search crew heads up the mountain to find the two missing climbers – led by Brooks.  When they arrive at the shack, they find the decapitated body of one of the climbers lying on the floor under a bed. The entire shack is frozen. The men are puzzled to see that the door and windows were barred from the inside.

Brooks later meets a science research team working at the top of the Swiss Alps in a giant observatory. The research team has been monitoring a radioactive cloud on the mountain that occasionally moves, but mostly remains static. One scientist suggests that the cloud is controlled by some alien force from outer space.

The cloud eventually moves up the mountain to the observatory. It first moves to the hotel and unleashes giant eye creatures with tentacles. The hotel guests take a cable car up to the observatory to be protected from the eye creatures.  Brooks orders military planes to bomb the creatures, which destroys them.

The special effects of The Crawling Eye are outdated and laughable, but this just adds to the enjoyable charm of the film. The giant, slimy eye creatures with long tentacles are high camp at its very best.  Actor Forrest Tucker once mentioned that The Crawling Eye and another British feature he starred in – The Cosmic Monsters (1958) were both made for peanuts.  The two films make a great double-feature to see together. Happy viewing!

Friday, April 18, 2014

'The Brute Man' marked a pathetic end to Universal's golden age of horror

By Doug Gibson

I love the 15 golden years of Universal Studio horror films, starting with Dracula and adding Frankenstein, Igor, The Wolf Man, two Mummies, various Invisible humans and assorted mad scientists, creatures and tortured professionals (think Inner Sanctum). But the final film of the genre, "The Brute Man," stinks. 

Rondo Hatton was a truly tragic figure. Universal's last "monster," he was "The Creeper," except he didn't creep. He more or less staggered. He suffered from acromegaly, which disfigured his face and badly affected his health. In fact, he died of a heart attack a couple of months after "The Brute Man" wrapped at Universal. It was eventually sold to Producers Releasing Company, not due to quality; Universal, in the midst of a merger, was shedding its B-film productions. 

"The Brute Man" involves a series of murders committed by "The Creeper," an ugly, tall figure who apparently can slither through the city and kill at will. The police, doing nothing, are badgered by the mayor to catch the Creeper. Meanwhile, in a risible plot development, the Creeper orders groceries to his shack by the waterfront and then kills the delivery boy when he gets too curious. 

Finally, the police gather that The Creeper is an embittered former college football star who was disfigured in a lab accident. He's getting revenge on his ex-college pals whom he blames for his predicament. One of the ex-pals is wealthy Clifford Scott, played by Tom Neal. Now, Neal is usually an interesting actor to watch; anyone who has seen "Detour" or "Bowery at Midnight" can see he has some screen presence. But not in this film. Befitting the boring story and drab direction from Jean Yarbrough, Neal is a bore sans charisma who is killed by The Creeper.

Meanwhile, in what film historian Tom Weaver has correctly tagged as a grotesque homage/parody to the superb "Bride of Frankenstein," the Creeper becomes infatuated with a beautiful blind piano instructor, played by minor starlet Jane Adams, (best known for being a hunchback nurse killed by mad doctor Onslow Stevens in "House of Dracula.") Despite the Creeper's declarations that he's wanted by the cops, Adams invites him to visit her as often as he can. Also, for a little while, the Creeper is unaware she's blind ...

Eventually, The Creepe" kills a pawnbroker and gives the blind woman, named Helen Paige, diamonds to pay for an operation to restore her sight. Naturally, when she tries to redeem them, the police inform her they are stolen. (This is as boring to write as it was to watch).

Eventually, the languid cops use Helen, having her publicly confess-- via the press -- that she knows who The Creeper is. (Why they wouldn't keep it secret and wait for another Creeper visit, when he wouldn't be angry and ready to kill, is beyond me.) Anyway, the Creeper learns that Helen "turned" on him and hurries to her apartment to kill her. There, he's intercepted by the police and captured. End of story.

"The Brute Man" runs under an hour. It's strikingly underscores how Universal's chiller Bs deteriorated in the last couple of years, with Spider Woman and The Creeper. Everyone attacks Rondo Hatton for his poor performance, and it is bad. He whines rather than talks and his attacks are poorly staged. But has anyone considered that poor Rondo Hatton was in the final months of his life. He was dying! I'm sure he could use the money in the final few years of his life but the use of him as The Creeper is creepy and exploitative.

Ironically, Hatton's grotesque visage has become very iconic. The now defunct Cult Movies magazine used it on its cover for years and the Monster Kid Classic Board, or whatever it's called, has annual "Rondo" awards for excellence in the genre. I supposed the iconic status of Hatton justifies using his face today, and I don't doubt the good will or sincerity of the fans today. But it still seems like one more bit of exploitation toward a man who suffered from a truly tragic disease that caused him great pain during his life. If any screen visage should honor excellence in the genre, it should be Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera. Watch "The Brute Man" below, via MST3K.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Crawling Hand – Five Fingers of Terror!

By Steve D. Stones

Alan Hale, who starred as the skipper on Gilligan’s Island, plays the sheriff of a small west coast town in this 1963 low-budget sci-fi feature - The Crawling Hand. The film features the song “The Bird’s The Word” by the Rivingtons. Producer Joseph F. Robertson also produced another cult classic from a year earlier in 1962 – The Slime People.  Robertson was an army buddy of cult director Ed Wood.

A Swedish curvy cutie named Marta and her James Dean wanna-be boyfriend Paul find the severed arm of an astronaut washed up on the shore of a small coastal town. Paul returns in the night to retrieve the arm in a shower curtain. Paul later finds his landlady dead – strangled to death by the hand of the astronaut.

The sheriff suspects Paul of killing his landlady. When he arrives at the scene, he discovers a recently fired handgun lying on the floor next to the dead landlady.

While making a telephone call to the Florida space program where the astronaut was launched from, Paul is choked by the crawling hand. Paramedics arrive to treat Paul, but he flees the vehicle. The paramedics inform the sheriff of his strange behavior.  This makes the sheriff even more suspicious of Paul.

The fingerprints taken from the scene of the murder of the landlady reveal that an astronaut named Lockhart committed the crime. The sheriff still thinks Paul is responsible.

The crawling hand exhibits a strange control over Paul’s thoughts and behavior. He refuses to see Marta ever again and becomes violent and out of control. He chokes the owner of a local malt shop, then attempts to do the same to Marta.

Paul captures the crawling hand and stabs it with broken glass at the city salvage yard as the sheriff arrives to arrest him. Two cats chew up the hand and eat it. The curse of the crawling hand ends, and Paul and Marta ride off into the sunset - sort of speak.

Some critics have suggested that The Crawling Hand is an anti-space travel, anti-space program propaganda movie when really the film is just a straight-forward sci-fi feature aimed at the teenage drive-in market of the 1960s. Happy viewing!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ed Wood the paperback novelist -- Death of a Transvestite

Death of a Transvestite, by Ed Wood Jr., 172 pages, Four Walls Eight Windows Press, 1999. Originally published by Pad Library in 1967 under the title Let Me Die in Drag.

Besides making some of the most ridiculous, unique films ever produced, Ed Wood produced a lot of writing. He may have written more than 100 novels, and perhaps 1000 short stories. Friends recall that the prolific Wood could wake up, sit down in front of a typewriter and finish an entire screenplay by the evening. Wood's second career writing novels and stories, however, took off in tandem with his alcoholism. He wrote exploitation novels for the cheap paperback market, receiving only a few hundred dollars a book and no royalties. Many of his books have pseudonyms, and by the end of his life, he was writing mainly pornography.

In Nightmare of Ecstasy, Rudolph Grey's excellent oral biography of Wood, the author points to Killer in Drag and Death of a Transvestite as Wood's strongest literary efforts. He's probably right. Death of a Transvestite, a sequel to Killer in Drag, was written before Wood had more or less entirely gravitated to porno. It's a sleazy but entertaining tale of Glenn, a hit man for the Mafia who is also a transvestite, albeit a heterosexual one. The story begins with Glenn in prison, facing execution, relating the story of his life to the warden. In return, the warden will allow Glenn to be executed in drag.

It's actually better than it sounds. Wood was too lazy a researcher to produce a great book, but he captures the underbelly of the characters and settings. Cliches, sleazy prose, sex scenes, violent deaths and hyperbole abound in Death of a Transvestite, but the novel has heart. You root for Glenn. Try to imagine Elmore Leonard producing a first draft of a novel written in a couple of days without spell checks and, presto, you have Death of a Transvestite.

Most of Wood's books are out of print of course, and they command a very high price (in the hundreds of dollars) when an original can be found. However, Four Walls Eight Windows Press, a publisher with offices in New York and London, has reintroduced a few of Wood's novels. (Some were introduced in England in the late 80s) Death of a Transvestite and Killer in Drag can be found at most bookstores, and another Wood re-release, an earlier previously unpublished novel called Hollywood Rat Race, can be purchased via Amazon. I wrote this review several years ago; since then, Ed Wood books are getting harder to locate, but they are worth the search for their unique style and syntax.

-- Doug Gibson

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Mummy's Ghost is a lean-mean Universal programmer from long ago

The Mummy's Ghost, 1944, Universal, 61 minutes, B and W. Directed by Reginald Le Borg. Starring Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis, John Carradine as Yousef Bey, Ramsay Ames as Amina Mansori, Robert Lowery as Tom Hervey, Frank Reicher as Prof. Matthew Norman, Barton MacLane as Inspector Walgreen, and George Zucco as Andoheb, High Priest of Arkan. Schlock-Meter rating: Eight stars out of 10.

The Mummy's Ghost is pulp horror at its finest. I confess to loving this lean, mean never-a-wasted-minute B programmer from Universal. There's no excess fat to trim from this film. It's like watching a good comic strip -- every scene is key to the horror tale. The film never takes itself too seriously, but at the same time does not descend to camp level. It's a damn good hour's entertainment. Film students who want to see how a good B film could provide fun to 1940s movie-goers should make The Mummy's Ghost required viewing. It would have been great to view this in a theater with say, House of Frankenstein.

Here's the plot: Egyptian cult disciple Carradine is commanded by a high priest (Zucco, in a wonderful small part)to revive mummy Kharis and find the long lost princess Ananka, Kharis' love who was taken from his tomb. This leads them to a small university community (Mapleton) where a professor of Egyptology revives Kharis with boiled leaves of tanna. The professor is murdered for his troubles, and soon Kharis and Carradine narrow their search to a pretty coed (Ames) with Egyptian blood, who it is suspected, is the reincarnated Ananka. Her boyfriend (Hervey) tries to protect her from both the mummy Kharis and suspicious townfolk who suspect she's part of the latest round of mummy murders. The ending is dark, which is surprising for a horror film of that era, but still very effective.

The Mummy's Ghost is one of a several-part Universal 1940s series offering that featured the mummy Kharis and his search for revenge and his lost love. Ghost was the second-to-last of the series. Chaney was Kharis in all but the first film, The Mummy's Hand (in which Tom Tyler was an effective Kharis). Surprisingly, Chaney is the weakest link in this otherwise tight, effective thriller. He shambles around awkwardly and inspires few shivers. Carradine and especially Zucco are very good as cult disciples. All in all, a great little film and definitely worth owning as an example of entertaining by-the-numbers B-movie filmmaking. Warch the trailer below.

-- Doug Gibson