Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Snow Creature and Man Beast – Two Yeti-inspired movies of the 1950s

Article by Steve D. Stones

In my hometown of Ogden, Utah - the Union Station train depot located on Historic 25th Street and Wall Avenue hosts a Yeti Bash event every year during the first Friday of February. At this event, you will find art vendors and small local businesses selling their art and products, interactive art events for children and grown men dressed in Yeti (aka the Abominable Snowman) costumes. A beard contest is also a part of the event in which contestants are awarded cash prizes for the best categories of beard. Beer is also severed with plenty of food vendors outside Union Station to choose from while you enjoy the evening's festivities.

As an art vendor participant of this event every year, I get pumped up for this event by watching two of my favorite low budget Yeti films from the 1950s – The Snow Creature (1954) and Man Beast (1956). I even suggested to the person who invites me to this event every year, Josh Smith, that both these films should be screened somewhere inside Union Station during the event. The two films were not shown this year, but I am hopeful that in future Yeti Bash events to come, the two films can be shown as a fun double-bill for patrons of the event.

As a fan of both films, and after having viewed both films several times, it is hard for me to pick one over the other as my favorite of the two. Although both are of a very low budget and directed by unknown, not-so-famous directors, both films have something to recommend to any fan of obscure, low-budget science-fiction films.

From the stand-point of story and plot, I feel The Snow Creature is the most believable of the two films, but not necessarily the best of the two. The actual Yeti creature in The Snow Creature is not the most believable. He looks like a cross between Chewbacca of Star Wars and a Muppet from Jim Hanson's Muppets TV show. The actor who plays the Yeti creature is covered in hair except for his facial area, which makes for a hilarious looking Yeti. The Yeti creature in Man Beast, played by Rock Madison, is much more convincing.

The Snow Creature

A botanist named Dr. Frank Parrish, played by Paul Langton, travels to the Himalaya Mountains to collect plant samples for the Corey Foundation in the United States. Parish is accompanied by his field photographer Peter Wells and a group of natives who serve as porters for the trip. The entire group is led by a guide named Supra who is very familiar with the terrain.

A few days into the trip, Supra's wife is kidnapped by a Yeti creature. Supra's brother Leva travels to his location in the nearby town to inform him of this. Supra insists that Parish and the photographer Wells deviate from the planned trip and go after the Yeti to rescue his wife. Both Parrish and Wells are not convinced of Supra's claim and both deny the existence of any Yeti creature.

Determined to save his wife, Supra empties the guns in Parrish's tent one night and later forces him and Wells to help him and the rest of the natives find his kidnapped wife. Having no choice but to follow Supra, Parrish and Wells go further up the rugged mountain in pursuit of Supra's wife.

While taking shelter in a cave from the brutal weather outside, Parrish, Wells and the group come across the Yeti creature. Frightened, the Yeti causes a collapse of the cave, killing a female Yeti and her child. Parrish and Wells force Supra and the natives at gunpoint to tie up the Yeti creature and take him down the mountain to Supra's hometown.

Eventually the Yeti creature is flown to Los Angeles, where he escapes from a refrigerated container and ends up in the storm drains of the city, similar to how the giant ants end up at the ending of Them! (1954). Parrish and the Los Angeles police chase after the Yeti in the storm drains after he has committed a series of murders.

Connie Hayward, played by Virginia Maynor, arrives in a Himalayan town with her boyfriend Trevor Hudson. Connie seeks the help and guide of a local native to take her up the mountain to find her brother Jim who left days earlier with a scientific expedition led by Dr. Erickson. Jim has been diagnosed with a condition that demands that he return to the United States for a series of injections to save his life.

Connie and Trevor enlist the help of Steve Cameron as their guide up the Himalaya mountains to find Jim. Cameron informs them that another guide named Varga is the only guide who takes groups up the mountain, but with every expedition Varga participates in, at least one person is killed during the trip.

Ms. Hayward, Hudson and Cameron catch up to Dr. Erickson after a few days of aggressive climbing. Erickson informs them that Jim Hayward turned up lost one evening, and no one has seen him since. This makes Ms. Hayward even more determined to find her brother Jim.

The entire group eventually meets up with Varga, and Connie and Trevor become suspicious and mistrusting of him. Their suspicions prove to be correct when Varga kills Dr. Erickson after he reveals to him that he is part Yeti. Varga's goal as a guide is to kidnap women for breeding purposes for the Yeti creatures.

A large part of what makes Man Beast so unbelievable is that all the scenes of the actors climbing up the mountain for several days show them carrying small packs on their backs and nothing else. Every time they stop to make camp somewhere, large cabin sized tents seem to magically appear. Any camper and climber will tell you that when you climb up a mountain for several days, you better carry large packs full of food for several days and adequate shelter and cooking supplies.

The Snow Creature does not suffer from this same problem. The actors carry large packs full of supplies in every scene shown in the film as they journey up the mountain. Although the Yeti creature in The Snow Creature may not be as believable as the Yeti in Man Beast, the plot is much more believable, at least the first forty minutes of the film. 

Once the Yeti creature is captured and brought to Los Angeles in The Snow Creature, the viewer must suspend all matters of disbelief. How a creature from the climate of the Himalaya mountains can survive the warm climate of Los Angeles is something the viewer cannot help but ask as the last 30 minutes of the film unfolds. His desire to hide out in the cooler temperatures of the Los Angeles storm drains does not seem believable enough.

As flawed as both films are, The Snow Creature and Man Beast make for an interesting and entertaining double-feature on a cold winter's night. Happy viewing!

Monday, February 18, 2019

Happy birthday to Angelo Rossitto, cult film star

By Doug Gibson

Happy birthday to Angelo Rossitto, (seen at top in Spooks Run Wild) who was born in Omaha, Neb., 111 years ago. The 2 foot 11 inch actor appeared in almost 100 films over half a century. From Seven Footprints to Satan to Freaks, to March of the Wooden Soldiers, to Spooks Run Wild (he made a few films with Bela Lugosi) to Picture of Dorian Gray, to Dementia, to The Magic Sword, to TV, to Dracula versus Frankenstein and finally Max Mad Beyond Thunderdome. We salute this ubiquitous figure in our favorite films. Just recently Angelo is seen again in the release of the Orson Welles film The Other Side of the Wind. Angelo had a newstand in Los Angeles that made him a familiar figure beyond his films. Late in his life, I recall reading an interview of him in Cult Movies magazine. He seemed like a good man. We reprint one of our favorites with Rossitto, "The Corpse Vanishes," in honor of his birthday.

I have been watching "The Cult Vanishes" a lot recently. The 1942 thriller starring Bela Lugosi is no weirder than many of his other Monogram flicks, but it has -- as my colleague Steve D. Stones has pointed out -- some similarities to Lugosi's later Ed Wood flicks, particularly "Bride of the Monster." Lugosi whips one of his henchmen (Frank Moran), just as he does Tor Johnson in "Bride ...," and there is a very cheesy basement in both films, where the bizarre doings with young lovelies take place. Both "Corpse" and "Bride" have very very fake bricks painted on the studio walls.

Steve has done a great job summarizing "Corpse ...," so go to his review (here) to read it. I'll just say that Dr. Lorenz (Lugosi) lives with his wife in a remote area. She is kept young by Lugosi kidnapping brides who fall "dead" at the altar and taking fluid from their necks, which he gives to his wife (Elizabeth Russell). Lugosi sends the brides a rare orchid flower that renders them senseless and then with the help of his henchmen (Moran) and Angelo Rossitto, take them back to the remote home. A young reporter (Luana Walters) tries to get the story and solve the crime. (I also long ago wrote a review of "The Corpse Vanishes" for this site, (read) but I think I like the film better now.)

Luana Walters is a tragic figure. A rodeo star who was mainly in westerns, she was a beautiful woman and a good actress. She easily out-acts the male romantic lead, Tristam Coffin, who defines wooden. Unfortunately, Walters' career faltered while Coffin managed to do well in the business for 30-plus years. Her husband's death in 1945 further depressed Walters, and she suffered from alcoholism, a disease that would eventually destroy her liver and kill her in 1963 at the age of 50. In 1956, after being out of films for 7 years, she made her final two films, one of which was "She Creatures."

Rossitto has a great part as Lorenz' main henchman. He goes out with him to kidnap the brides. His plaintive cries for help after being shot, and then abandoned by Lorenz actually inject chills into the Monogram programmer.

The very low budgets of Monogram are easily depicted in the cramped sets and amateur bit part players, such as the first groom of an afflicted bride (who is only capable of a goofy stare) and a police operator (who drips through some cool lines with the emotion of a fat lizard.) Supporting players (at Lugosi's home, including Moran, Rossitto and the cool Minerva Urecal (who had her best role in "The Ape Man," are better. A casting coup for "Corpse .." is Russell as Lugosi's insane wife. She was a favorite in Val Lewton's RKO thrillers, including "Bedlam,"and I recall her also in a Universal "Hidden Sanctum" film, "Weird Woman," with Lon Chaney Jr. Less impressive is Kenneth Harlan as Walters' Editor Keenan. He's gruff, but the lines he's forced to utter also make him appear stupid, and unable to sense a good story. Lou Grant he's not. Joan Barclay, who was Lugosi's co-star in the Monogram effort "Black Dragons," has a small part as an afflicted, kidnapped bride.

"Corpse" has a great twist ending, with Urecal's character letting out frustration on Lugosi's "Jeckyl/Hyde" Lorenz. I agree with Lugosi biographer Arthur Lennig, that "Corpse..." would have been much better if more action had focused on the strange relationships between Lugosi, Russell, Urecal, Moran and Rossetti than the plodding romance between boring Coffin and Walters, but it's still a fun film to watch, often and oftener. Watch it above!

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Stan and Ollie a soul-inspiring tribute to Laurel and Hardy

Review by Doug Gibson

I wasn’t going to post a review of Stan and Ollie, the recently released film on the comedy team Laurel and Hardy, but two weeks after I saw it, it still resonates with me. It’s a wonderful, soul-inspiring film of the love and respect the two comic geniuses had for each other, and exemplifies their efforts and dedication to prevail over tough professional odds and poor health.

The film starts with the pair at the height of their fame, making “Way Out West” in the late 1930s and then segues to 1953 in England, and the aging pair’s last tour together. It starts as a disaster, but rallies to success after both subject themselves to a physically grueling publicity campaign. Both harbor a hope, based on flimsy promises, that a film version of Robin Hood awaits them afterward.

The secrets to the film’s success are the stars: Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver “Babe” Hardy. They are perfect. These are not imitators; they have captured the spirits of the comic legends. After a few minutes you feel you are watching Laurel and Hardy. The classic routines seem as well done as the originals. Coogan has received BAFTA recognition. Reilly, who I think captures Hardy even a tad more than Coogan captures Laurel, deserved an Oscar nomination he did not get.

A couple of scenes help to capture the poignancy of this film. Reilly’s Hardy, desperate to buy his soon-arriving wife a nice jewelry gift, bets on a longshot horse in a shoot-the-moon ploy to gain the money. He rushes to a newsstand for the results. His face falls with dejection as he learns the horse lost. Totally dejected, he spots a group of young fans staring at him. He breaks into character, delighting the fans with his iconic antics.

In another scene, Coogan’s Laurel, is sitting in the office of the producer who had claimed he would fund the Robin Hood film. He’s been rebuffed repeatedly but soldiers on, hoping to achieve a goal he knows in his heart is likely hopeless. The producer disrespects him, keeping him waiting for hours, and eventually sends him a flunky to tell him the deal’s off. Despite his despair while waiting, Laurel still has the moxie and enthusiasm to do skits for a cold secretary who doesn’t appreciate the efforts.

Director John S. Baird creates effectively the London of the early 1950s. It’s a great period piece and one appreciates the stark contrasts between the early, cheap digs and theaters of the tour compared to grandeur of the London hotel and West End theater later in the tour. Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle of Harry Potter films), as Hardy’s wife Lucille Hardy, and Nina Arianda, as Laurel's wife, Ida Kitaeva Laurel, are both very good in their roles. They share tender scenes with their husbands that show the love and support in the marriages. Rufus Jones is also strong as the supportive, but also flaky and kind of weaselly, producer of the stage tour.

Of course, the bond between the comics as portrayed by Coogan and Reilly seals the deal for this film. I won’t give too much away but Laurel and Hardy fans will shed a tear near the end as the comics gamely try to make it through the grueling tour. Some historical license is taken; a decision by Hardy to act with another partner many years ago supposedly causes Laurel lingering resentment. That resentment didn’t actually happen, but, hey, dramas need conflict, and this apocryphal bit doesn’t wound the film. Danny Huston and Richard Cant have small roles as Hal Roach and comic Harry Langdon, who made the aforementioned film, Zenobia, with Hardy.

This is a beautiful memoir of two iconic stars, with wonderful performances and recreations of classic acts. I’m so happy it’s an unexpected hit in England and even here. Laurel and Hardy more than deserve it. Memo to the BBC: make a similar film about then-faded star Bela Lugosi's final tour of Dracula earlier in the 1950s, which also occurred in England. There's already a fascinating book on it.

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Black Room, Boris Karloff, distinct personalities

By Doug Gibson

Boris Karloff is pretty darn good in The Black Room as Gregor and Boris, evil and good twin brothers in Columbia's 1935 mystery/horror "The Black Room." It seems that there's a curse with the landowner's family that whenever twins are born, the younger kills the older in a part of the castle called "The Black Room." To end this fate, the Black Room is sealed off and the younger twin, Anton, is eventually shipped off to Budapest (Anton, by the way, has a paralyzed right arm) and the older twin, Baron Gregor, is left in charge.

Well, you guessed it, Gregor is an evil psychopath and serial killer of women as well. Just before the peasants are about to overthrow his authority, he sends for mild-mannered, kind Anton, eventually ceding his power to Anton and promising to leave. But, just before he does that, he takes Anton into the Black Room (Gregor has a built a secret entrance) and reveals his evil and murders to his brother before killing hapless Anton and taking his identity, complete with a faux paralyzed arm. He fools everyone except a faithful dog which knows he's not Anton.

Subplot involves a gorgeous colonel's daughter, played by Svengali star Marian Marsh, who is lusted after by Gregor. Her dad is opposed to Gregor pawing his daughter but would love Anton to marry her. You get what's happening. The colonel's daughter has a fiance, a lieutenant, but Gregor manages to kill the colonel and frame the lieutenant, which leads to a proposed marriage with the young lovely, while her intended awaits an execution date. Meanwhile, the dead Anton rests at the bottom of a pit in the Black Room, with the sharp end of a knife sticking out of his chest. At the marriage climax, the faithful pooch attacks Gregor, which leads to a wild chase toward the Black Room and a fulfillment of the family curse.

Karloff is excellent playing dual roles. As author Greg Mank has noted, his "Grinch Who Stole Christmas" voice almost 30 years later sounds eerily like Gregor. Katherine De Mille, wife of Anthony Quinn, has a small role as one of Gregor's murder victims. Starlet Marsh was still a big name in the mid '30s, but by 1940 her A studio days were over and she was on Poverty Row toiling at Monogram and PRC. Her last feature was "House of Errors" with Harry Langdon as a co-star.

All in all, a great film, highly recommended as among Karloff's best non Universal 30s work.