Friday, June 26, 2020

Sea Monster Month Quick Picks and Pans

The Monster that Challenged the World (1957) Technically, this isn’t a sea monster movie, since it’s set in the Salton Sea (a saltwater lake located in the Southern California desert), but I’m not going to split hairs with this one. An earthquake creates a rift on the lake floor, unleashing a deadly prehistoric creature that sucks its victims dry. The monster, which is supposed to be an ancient mollusk but resembles an overgrown centipede, is one of the more frightening creatures to emerge from 1950s genre movies. The production rises above the pack, thanks to a solid cast, including Tim Holt as a determined Navy commander, Audrey Dalton as a widow, and Hans Conried as a puzzled scientist. Also, watch for a wonderfully eccentric performance by Milton Parsons as an over-eager museum worker.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Horror of Party Beach (1964) Radioactive waste dumped in the harbor creates bloodthirsty, googly eyed sea monsters that terrorize the population of Stamford, Connecticut (Hey, I’ve been there. This is probably the most interesting thing that ever happened in that neck of the woods). True to the title, expect scenes of reveling “teens” gyrating to the tunes of The Del-Aires, and a generous helping of frivolous butt-wiggling shots. After a series of grisly (mainly offscreen) deaths, it’s up to a scientist and a determined biology student to find a way to stop the monsters before they kill again. As long as you’re not expecting Creature from the Black Lagoon, it’s a hoot.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon Prime and Tubi

Slithis (aka: Spawn of the Slithis) (1978) Radioactive leakage from a nearby nuclear power plant creates a new life form, which threatens the residents of Venice Beach, California. A bored high school journalism teacher (Alan Blanchard) decides to investigate the rampaging creature. Performances range from surprisingly good (Mello Alexandria as a Quint-like boat captain) to terrible (I’ve seen police in H.G. Lewis movies that were more believable). Writer/director Stephen Traxler wisely holds back on showing too much for most of the film, providing just enough suspense to keep you intrigued. It’s a fun throwback to ‘50s rubber-suited monster movies, marred by an all-too-abrupt ending.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (Out of Print), Amazon Prime and Tubi

Blood Beach (1980) Something is lurking under the sand of an L.A. beach, gobbling up anyone that enters its domain. It’s up to a harbor patrol officer and his ex-fiancée (David Huffman and Marianna Hill) to find out what’s behind all the seaside mayhem. We don’t see the creature until the end, which isn’t a damning thing in itself. Unfortunately, writer/director Jeffrey Bloom spends too much time with the bland leads, and a whole scene is wasted with some boring secondary characters. Burt Young plays an unappealing, oafish police detective, and John Saxon (playing his superior) isn’t in it nearly enough (He has the film’s best line though, which was also its tagline: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, you can’t get there.”). Blood Beach has a fun premise that never quite delivers. It could have worked, but the tone is too deadpan for its own good, and the script should have been fleshed out with more interesting characters.   

Rating: **½. Available on DVD (Out of print) and YouTube (for the moment)

The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959) This Creature from the Black Lagoon knock-off, set on the California coast, skimps on the action, with plenty of talky scenes to pad out the thin story. A mysterious creature (looking like a cross between the Gill-man and a pig) terrorizes a coastal town. Meanwhile, a curmudgeonly lighthouse keeper (John Harmon) harbors a terrible secret about the monster, while keeping a close watch on his grown daughter Lucille (Jeanne Carmen). Our nominal protagonist Fred (Don Sullivan, of Giant Gila Monster fame) is eager to study it, teaming up with Dr. Sam Jorgenson (Les Tremayne). The film livens things up a little with a few gory bits (explicit for the time), and the monster is pretty cool, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Nevertheless, it might be worth a look if you keep your expectations sufficiently lowered.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Reptilicus (1961) Oil workers recover the tail of a gargantuan prehistoric reptile. When the tail is brought to a lab in Copenhagen, scientists discover the cells were only dormant. Somehow, the giant creature (appearing as a poorly articulated puppet) regenerates from the tail and threatens the city. Other than being (to the best of my knowledge) Denmark’s only giant monster movie, there’s not much to distinguish this by-the-numbers flick from other genre movies. There’s an extended sequence that features a tour of the city (and famous amusement park Tivoli Gardens) to stretch the running time. If this scene was intended to bolster tourism, it wasn’t very effective. On the other hand, it’s a surefire cure for insomnia. You’ve been warned.

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Tubi

Tentacles (1976) Other than speculating why an all-star cast of seasoned actors (including Shelley Winters, John Huston and Henry Fonda) would agree to do this this Jaws rip-off (besides collecting paychecks), there’s not much reason to recommend Tentacles. Based on the dialogue, the filmmakers couldn’t decide whether the title creature was a giant octopus or squid. The scenes are a collection of tedious moments that go nowhere, leading to a confusingly edited finale. Most of the characters, including the protagonist, played by Bo Hopkins, are unlikable. If you’re like me, you’ll probably be rooting for the octopus (or squid) before the movie’s over – that is, if you can stay awake long enough. Skip it.

Rating: *½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Humanoids from the Deep

(1980) Directed by Barbara Peeters; Written by Frederick James (aka: William Martin); Story by Frank Arnold and Martin B. Cohen; Starring: Doug McClure, Ann Turkel, Vic Morrow, Cindy Weintraub, Anthony Peña and Breck Costin; Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Shudder and Amazon Prime

Rating: **

“First, as far as I can tell, the species has only just appeared. But there has to be a reason that a humanoid creature evolved so quickly.” – Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel)

“He (Roger Corman) offered to all the boys, but the boys turned it town. It was a terrible script. So he offered it to me.” – Barbara Peeters (excerpt from article, “Barbara Peeters – Don’t Ask her about Humanoids from the Deep,” by Alan “Rosey” Rosenberg)

The golden age of monster movies, in the 1950s and early 1960s, featured countless damsels in distress being carried away by fiendish creatures. More often than not, the virile male protagonist (or more likely the censors) would save the day, preventing the heroine from befalling a fate worse than death. In the ensuing decades, this tired formula was freshened up for modern audiences. The heroines were no longer defenseless, and whatever was formerly left to our demented little imaginations was front and center for all to see. Executive producer Roger Corman and New World Pictures pushed the boundaries further with its oversexed, bloodthirsty titular creatures in Humanoids from the Deep.

The film’s original title, Beneath the Darkness, implied a more psychological story, with thrills that were mostly implied rather than explicit. Barbara Peeters’ film, as originally shot, was not the picture Corman wanted to make, lacking the requisite blood and guts and T&A to satisfy audiences looking for more exploitive fare. As a direct result, Corman enlisted second unit director James Sbardellati (later promoted to first assistant director) to film additional footage. The film was re-titled Humanoids from the Deep (or in some overseas markets, under the more generic title Monster), and the rest was history.

Like many Corman productions that preceded it, the crew was a virtual who’s who of Hollywood talent, before they became household names. James Horner’s*/** energetic score is better than it had to be. The makeup effects team included future effects gurus Rob Bottin (two years before his groundbreaking work for The Thing), Chris Walas (four years before Gremlins), and Steve Johnson (who also appears as a humanoid). Future James Cameron producer/partner Gale Anne Hurd (the Terminator films and The Abyss) was a production assistant.

* Fun Fact #1: Per Horner, “…Ultimately, the music was the final sort of piece of clothing on the film. So the film might be schlocky to begin with, but all the craftspeople that would put their layer on, I think were trying really hard to make the story as good as it could be…”

** Fun Fact #2: According to Horner, the filmmakers hired union musicians to play at night for non-union wages, in a studio in Venice, California.

In the Northern Californian coastal community of Noyo, there’s a feud brewing between a planned salmon cannery and a Native American reservation, led by Johnny Eagle (Anthony Peña). When Eagle stands in the way of pro-cannery fishermen led by Slattery (Vic Morrow), he’s roughed up and his house is destroyed. Meanwhile, something malevolent is lurking in the ocean depths ready to lay siege to the residents on land. After a series of attacks (particularly against lustful young people)* by the mystery creatures, Eagle teams up with charter boat captain Jim Hill (Doug McClure) and biologist Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel) to find the origin of the beasts and save the town.

* Side Note: This movie features what has to be one of the weirdest cinematic depictions of foreplay, involving a ventriloquist and his dummy (Actual line of dialogue: “Hey honey, wanna see my woodpecker?”).

What keeps the film from being good harmless fun is its unfortunate raison d'être, featuring rapist sea creatures preying on women. It’s a given that the graphic depiction of sexual assault by one person against another would never be considered entertainment for entertainment’s sake. If the perpetrator is an inhuman beast, however, the filmmakers would have you believe it’s suddenly perversely titillating (a dubious trend that continued the following year with New World’s Galaxy of Terror and its infamous giant maggot rape scene.). Barbara Peeters reportedly wasn’t pleased with the changes that Corman ordered for the film, but considering Corman’s requirement for monsters that killed the men and raped the women (see “The Making Of Humanoids From The Deep” 2010 Shout Factory DVD featurette), the odds were stacked against releasing anything resembling what she envisioned. At any rate, considering the time that’s transpired and Peeters’ subsequent disavowal of the film, we may never know what her original cut looked like.

In its defense, Humanoids from the Deep features a couple of female characters whose deeds outshine most of the males by a substantial margin (likely a holdover from Peeters’ vision), Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel) and Jim’s wife Carol (Cindy Weintraub). When Dr. Drake’s research inadvertently leads to the creation of the humanoids, she takes it upon herself to find a way to hunt and destroy them. Once Dr. Drake is introduced, Carol goes missing for a significant chunk of the movie. Carol finally has her moment in the spotlight for a climactic confrontation with the humanoids near the end, but it’s too little, too late. It’s too bad that her triumph over the beasts is undermined because we’re not sufficiently invested in her character.

The high point of Humanoids from the Deep is the effects work. The humanoid creatures* are the unlikely byproduct of coelacanths that ingested DNA-altered salmon that were accidentally released in the wild. Dr. Drake theorizes they must now mate with humans to reach their “final” stage of evolution (which puts into doubt her veracity as a scientist, since evolution is an ongoing process). The aforementioned creature effects team took a ridiculous premise and gave it their all, bringing the creatures to life as slimy fish people with enlarged heads and freakishly long arms.

* Fun Fact #3: Although we’re led to believe (through clever editing) that there’s an army of humanoids, the low budget production only allowed for the creation of three suits.

Humanoids from the Deep juggles multiple plot elements and characters, but fails to weave them together into a cohesive whole. Like several other characters, star Doug McClure’s character is severely underwritten – outside of driving his boat around, getting in a fistfight and getting the characters from point A to point B, he doesn’t really add much. The subplot about the battle between the cannery and Native American fishing ground is merely a half-hearted attempt at social consciousness.* Other than Johnny Eagle, we never see the rest of his tribe or his reservation. This could have been another instance where more was filmed but not included in the final cut, but since there’s no resolution to this conflict, this element remains little more than window dressing. The scenes added for shock value update the ‘50s monster formula, but at a price. We can accept the dubious science and gory monster hijinks, but the misogyny is less defensible. The end result is a film that wants things both ways: its strong female characters are contrasted with passive characters that exist solely for the purpose of being monster victims.

* Note: The social/ecological themes beg comparison to the 1979 film The Prophecy, which (although admittedly less than perfect) handles these elements with more thoughtfulness.

Sources: “The Making Of Humanoids From The Deep” 2010 featurette; Article: “Barbara Peeters – Don’t Ask her about Humanoids fromthe Deep,” by Alan “Rosey” Rosenberg 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

It Came from Beneath the Sea

(1955) Directed by Robert Gordon; Written by George Worthing Yates and Harold Jacob Smith; Starring: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis and Ian Keith
Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“It’s just like the basic concept of Mickey Mouse. He only has four fingers… So why animate an extra one that you’d hardly ever show? Nobody counted them. I didn’t think anybody would count them… Unfortunately, one time I was interviewed by a certain magazine (Famous Monsters of Filmland), and I let it be known that the octopus was actually a sextopus.”
 – Ray Harryhausen (excerpt from 2007 DVD commentary)

Thanks to Quiggy from The Midnite Drive-In and J-Dub from Dubsism for hosting the Disaster Blogathon, a three-day exploration of calamity in its myriad forms. Since this blogathon coincides with Sea Monster Month, I present for your approval Ray Harryhausen’s sea monster spectacle, It Came from Beneath the Sea.

 Ah, 1950s America… McCarthyism, the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation, and growing social unrest. If that wasn’t enough to make you question the “good old days,” every manner of super-sized radioactive creature was out to kill us. Okay, maybe that last threat was fictional (as far as we know), but that premise was enough to keep audiences glued in their seats and ready to come back for whatever new terror awaited them. It Came from Beneath the Sea was the brainchild of producer Charles H. Schneer, who after watching The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, wanted to collaborate with Ray Harryhausen on a movie depicting a creature destroying San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

The movie begins with some unnecessary voiceover narration (don’t worry, it’ll be back to annoy us) before we’re introduced to the crew of a U.S. nuclear submarine as they narrowly avoid a disaster, escaping the sticky clutches of an unknown aquatic beast. This prompts the navy and the sub’s commander, Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey) to lead an investigation, recruiting two top marine biologists, Professor Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) and Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis).

Amidst the sea monster plot, there’s a tepid love triangle between Mathews, Joyce and Carter. At least on the surface, the two scientists appear to have much more in common, which should have created more friction with Mathews. Carter seems to be a genuinely nice guy, recognizing her for her accomplishments and respecting her credentials. Instead, the script chooses to place the alpha-male Mathews as victor by default (I suppose the heart wants what the heart wants, but I have to question Joyce’s judgement in this case). Joyce isn’t that easy, however, as illustrated by an innuendo-laden scene that sneaked by the censors. When Mathews comes on a bit too strong, she teases him, embracing a graduated cylinder in a way that seems a bit too familiar (wink, wink).

It Came from Beneath the Sea takes a reasonably progressive stance toward women, at least by 1950s standards, albeit through mixed signals. In an early scene, pompous Navy officials dismiss Joyce’s theory about a giant octopus. Domergue effectively communicates her character being shut down through body language, displaying a combination of devastation and barely suppressed anger. In a later scene, when Commander Mathews tries to convince her to leave, it’s clear that he’d rather have her out of the way than concede her superiority in her field of expertise. Dr. Carter reminds Mathews that his colleague Joyce is smart, independent and capable, yet somehow manages to be condescending (“…there’s a whole new breed that feel they’re just as smart, just as courageous as men.”). Less than a minute later, his speech is undercut when the title creature makes a dramatic appearance on the Oregon coastline, causing Joyce (in typical ‘50s fashion) to scream her head off.

Because the film was a low budget production, the filmmakers relied on ingenuity* to tell their big fish (uh, cephalopod) tale. One trick was the abundant use of stock footage. Most of it blends in quite well, especially introductory shots of the atomic submarine Nautilus (the real one, launched in 1954). Subsequent shots don’t match up, as when we see the crew on the deck of a conventional World War II era submarine,** which misses the clean lines of the vessel that was established in the opening scene. Cost-cutting measures carried over to the music score from Mischa Bakaleinikoff, consisting of music sourced from other film soundtracks in the Columbia Pictures library.

** Fun Fact #1: The filmmakers couldn’t get cooperation from the City of San Francisco to shoot within the city, necessitating the crew to shoot location footage (including the famous bridge) covertly.

** Fun Fact #2: Likewise, the submarine interior was filmed inside a real (non-nuclear) Navy sub in dry dock, adding to the authenticity of the cramped scenes. However, it’s easy to see, even by 1955 standards, that this is not the interior of a state-of-the-art modern submarine.

Despite some penny pinching, Ray Harryhausen works his stop-motion magic with the giant octopus.* Due to time and budgetary limitations, it proved cost effective to animate six tentacles instead of eight, although Harryhausen joked that the radioactive beast would have been reduced to a tripod if the budget had been much smaller. The interior metal armature was provided by Harryhausen’s father, a longtime collaborator on his film projects. As with many of his creations, Harryhausen added signature touches, such as a subtle flick of a tentacle, which infused the creature with a lifelike eccentricity. Whether it's sinking a ship, tearing down the Golden Gate Bridge,* or wreaking havoc on the San Francisco waterfront, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of perverse pleasure from the trail of destruction caused by the mutant octopus.

* Fun Fact #3: To create the texture of the octopus’ skin, Harryhausen used crumpled tin foil and made a cast.

** Fun Fact #4: Harryhausen built a replica of a section of the Golden Gate Bridge out of lead, which would crush easily. Where’s the replica now? According to Harryhausen, it once belonged to science fiction editor/collector Forrest J. Ackerman, but has since been acquired by filmmaker Peter Jackson.

Between the scenes of monster mayhem, there are some pacing issues, but it’s a small price to pay for the dividends we receive, courtesy of Mr. Harryhausen’s mesmerizing effects. After all, we’re not here for the scintillating dialogue, smoldering romance, or pseudo-scientific conjecture. We’re just here to see a malevolent creature from the deep tear the crap out of the Golden Gate Bridge and cause wholesale destruction on land and sea. I’m happy to report that It Came from Beneath the Sea more than delivers on that account.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Mad Scientist May Quick Picks and Pans

The Alligator People (1959) Beverly Garland plays Joyce Webster, a woman searching for her missing husband Paul (Richard Crane). Her search ends up at an estate in bayou country, where Paul is part of an experiment to restore bodies that have been horribly injured. It’s too bad the process (using properties from alligator DNA) starts turning the test subjects into human-alligator hybrids. The final alligator man stage is hokey, but the makeup for the transitional phase (by Ben Nye and Dick Smith) is surprisingly effective.
Lon Chaney, Jr. also appears, as a hook-handed Cajun (sans accent) who holds a grudge against the giant reptiles. It’s a surprisingly enjoyable creature feature that deserves to be mentioned more often.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Attack of the Puppet People (1958) John Hoyt stars as Mr. Franz, a kindly dollmaker with abandonment issues who discovers the secret to shrinking people. Bob and Sally (John Agar and June Kenney) are among his unfortunate victims, reduced to doll size and stored in plastic tubes. It’s all entertaining Bert I. Gordon nonsense, full of oversized props, rear projection mayhem, and shameless self-promotion, featuring a scene at a drive-in showing (What else?) Gordon’s The Amazing Colossal Man.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

The Awful Dr. Orlof (aka: Gritos en la Noche) (1962) This film marked the horror feature debut of prolific director Jesús Franco. The Spanish-French production borrows the basic plot from Eyes Without a Face (1960), while eschewing most of the artistry. A ruthless doctor (Howard Vernon) is obsessed with restoring his daughter’s beauty at any cost. He employs a dead-eyed assistant who kidnaps young vivacious women for his experiments, while some obtuse police inspectors draw out the proceedings fumbling through clues. It’s never boring, and certainly worth a look.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy

The Devil Commands (1941) Grieving scientist Dr. Blair (Boris Karloff) attempts to find a way to speak with his deceased wife after she dies in a car accident. He repurposes his brain wave-measuring equipment to pick up messages from the dead, catching the ire of his university employers. After he’s fired, Blair moves his experiments to a secluded house, accompanied by his brain-damaged assistant and an unscrupulous medium. The Devil Commands takes a mostly by-the-numbers approach, with the usual message about tampering with things people were not meant to know, and I’m not quite sure how the title fits in. It does contain one creepy scene, however, with corpses seated around a table, connected to Blair’s equipment.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Die, Monster, Die! (aka: Monster of Terror) (1965) This very loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Colour Out of Space” takes ample liberties with the original story, moving the setting from New England to England.  Nick Adams plays Stephen Reinhart, an American who travels to the U.K. to visit his girlfriend (Suzan Farmer). He’s instantly met with hostility and suspicion from the people of Arkham. His situation scarcely improves when he arrives at her father’s (Boris Karloff) estate and is told to go away. Meanwhile, her mother is suffering from an unknown disease, which seems to be linked to a meteorite that crashed on the property. A locked greenhouse hides a menagerie of creepy crawlies, created through the mysterious meteorite substance. The performances are reduced to Adams yelling at everyone, Suzan screaming at every provocation, and Karloff glowering. Any resemblance to Lovecraft’s story in this plodding mess is purely coincidental.

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Voodoo Man (1944) Ho, hum… In a role he could have likely done in his sleep, Bela Lugosi plays Dr. Marlowe. With the help of his cohort, Nicholas (George Zucco), he attempts to revive his wife, who’s been dead for 22 years. They capture young women for his ongoing experiments, which inexplicably involve voodoo rituals (call me skeptical, but I don’t think anyone involved with this movie ever bothered to research voodoo). One bright spot is John Carradine, hamming things up as Marlowe’s dimwitted assistant Toby. With a running time of 62 minutes, it’s mercifully short, so it won’t demand much of your time. On the other hand, you’re better off getting your Lugosi mad scientist fix from The Raven or The Devil Bat.

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime