In horror cinema, nothing so much becomes a character’s life as the leaving of it. It is de rigueur to see screen victims beaten, bitten and bled out, clawed and jawed, decapitated, eviscerated, and even evaporated. These fates are not reserved merely for the anonymous extras (the equivalent of STAR TREK’s red-shirted bit players) who walk on long enough to serve as the monster menu’s crunchy appetizer before the main course arrives; at least since George Romero grimly dispatched Ben in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1960), the audience identification figure has not been exempt from untimely termination. Generally, these dreadful demises are portrayed as tragic twists of fate or unexpectedly ironic outcomes; too often today, there is an arbitrary air of attempting to thwart expectations, as if a dramatically satisfying (i.e., “happy”) ending were somehow suspect, requiring a last-minute zinger to alert the audience to the filmmaker’s hip detachment. “Life’s a bitch, and then you die” seems to be the message reverberating in the auditorium after the curtain goes down and the lights go up. Or is it?
Although it may be easy to overlook, the history of horror provides us with many exceptions, characters who died not as victims but as heroes, martyrs to cinematic mayhem who act as on-screen surrogates for the better angels in our nature, sacrificing life and (most definitely) limb, proving that death, whenever it comes and in whatever guise, need not be synonymous with despair.
Exhibit A: Gordon Zellaby, artfully embodied by George Sanders in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960), director Wolf Rilla’s adaptation of John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, which portrays a stealth invasion launched from a small British village, where unconscious women have been impregnated, giving birth to eerily aloof blond children with alien abilities. (“Cuckoos,” in case you did not know, are birds that lay their eggs in the nest of other birds, which then unwittingly raise the hatchlings as their own.) WARNING: Major spoilers ahead.
The scenario has the local population understandably perturbed, especially when the strange children begin using some form of hypnotic mind control to force their victims to kill themselves. The intellectual Gordon, however, believes that the children are reacting defensively. Acting as their teacher, he strives to reach them on a human, emotional level but finds himself coming up against a metaphoric “brick wall,” even with his “son” David (Martin Stephens).
As the children’s power swells to ever more disturbing proportions, and as word comes that an Eastern block country has dealt with a similar situation by nuking an entire village, Gordon eventually realizes that his truce with David is only temporary, that no permanent accord can be reached, and that the fate of humanity will be imperiled if the children ever manage to leave Midwich. But how can Gordon stop an enemy that can reach into his mind to see any plot he may concoct?
The answer, ironically, is another brick in the wall- this one an image on which Gordon focuses his mind, creating a mental block that hampers the children’s mind-reading powers. On the evening when young David expects Gordon to provide a plan to spirit the children out of the village, Gordon instead packs a bomb in a suitcase, sets the timer, and contrives an excuse to get his wife Anthea (Barbara Shelley) out of the house.
Sanders’ performance here is subtle and spot-on. While putting on a happy face, he displays enough resignation – just a touch – to register with the viewing audience, without overplaying to the point that would make us wonder why Anthea cannot see it.* Sanders also lends a wonderfully sentimental touch to what could have been a very cornball moment – when Gordon instructs his pet dog to “look after your mistress,” underlining the fact that, very soon in the future, Gordon himself will no longer be there to look after Anthea himself.
After Anthea is safely on the road, Sanders enters the lecture room, places his briefcase (with the hidden bomb) on the desk, and begins to deliver his lesson. David, eager to leave before the British military can take action along the lines of what happened in Eastern Europe, soon realizes that Gordon is not thinking about his lecture. David and the other children focus their minds on Gordon, chipping away at the mental image of a brick wall until – too late – they see the ticking time bomb that is truly at the center of Gordon’s attention.
Fortunately for humanity, the bomb goes off, obliterating Gordon and the “Midwich Cuckoos.” Anthea, who has grown suspicious over Gordon’s behavior, returns – but only in time to see the explosion from a distance. Standing in for the audience, her sense of loss becomes our loss; the fact that she survives tells us that the loss has not been in vain. Triumph and tragedy intermingle; the ending cannot be considered “happy” in any conventional sense, and yet it is thoroughly satisfying – an emotional catharsis as profound as any ever recorded on celluloid.
Over 50 years after its premiere, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED remains remarkably effective, thanks largely to its low-key, convincing approach, but what truly elevates the film to classic status is the self-sacrifice of the conclusion. Personally, I cannot separate Gordon Zellaby, the character, from George Sanders, the actor. Not that the two personalities overlap in any meaningful way; rather, I am referring to Sanders’ at least partially self-molded images as a rogue and even a cad. His roles in such classic films as THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945), THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR (1947) and ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) showcase a certain selfish, cynical disdain, suggesting a man who cared little for the world around him except insofar as it provided him with personal pleasure – an attitude that seemed to match Sanders own, as evinced in the title of his autobiography (Memoirs of a Professional Cad) and in the text of his 1965 suicide note:
Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.
Sanders’s real-life suicide was far from the heroic self-sacrifice of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, but that contrast, for me, only underlines the effectiveness of the film. Great drama galvanizes our collective psyche with the prospect of personal evolution, often though not necessarily in the form of redemption. A good guy who remains a good guy is not compelling; however, our souls are stirred when a character who has fallen from grace (as have all of us, to some extent or other) rises and returns to the fold like the Prodigal Son.
On some level, that evolution exists in the screenplay, with Gordon Zellaby shifting from protecting the children out of personal scientific curiosity to destroying them out of concern for the world inhabited by his loved ones,particularly Anthea. For me, the transition is much more powerful in the context of Sanders’ previous roles. On the cinema screen of my mind, it is as if this man who never cared for anything but himself finally found a cause that brought out the best in him, urging him to do a “far, far better thing” than he had ever done before.
Fortunately, most of us will never be forced into a situation demanding such noble action. But should the occasion arise, Gordon Zellaby has set the bar, in our minds – as have the many other Fallen Heroes of Horror, whose exploits I hope to share with you from time to time… FOOTNOTE:
As a matter of fact, she does see it, but doesn’t realize its significance until – fortunately for Gordon’s plan – she has gotten too far from home to be jeopardized by the bomb.
Image Entertainment’s new 14-DVD set of 67 episodes of THRILLER is quite a marvelous treat, and it fits in perfectly with Cinefantastique’s celebration of movies released in that seminal year for terror, 1960.
Among the impressive authors who wrote episodes for THRILLER were Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Donald S. Sandford and Barre Lyndon. The directors included such experienced hands as John Brahm, Laszlo Benedek, Ted Post, Douglas Heyes, Ray Milland, Herschel Daugherty and Ida Lupino.
Yet, what I find truly amazing about the series is the cornucopia of great Hollywood character actors who were featured on the show. Actors who were never “stars.” As Boris Karloff notes, “Isn’t it quite wonderful to use actors instead of ‘stars’ ” Indeed, it is and Thriller featured among many others, these fine actors, nearly all of whom had important roles in at least one classic horror movie:
John Carradine, Torin Thatcher, Beverly Garland, Vladimir Sokoloff and Martita Hunt
Jack Carson, Estelle Winwood, Everett Sloane, Edward Andrews and Mary Astor
Jeanette Nolan, Guy Rolfe, Judith Evelyn, John Williams and Hazel Court
Jane Greer, Henry Jones, Oscar Homolka, Warren Oates and Patrica Medina
Otto Kruger, Nancy Kelly, Eduardo Cianelli, Richard Carlson and Jo Van Fleet
Sidney Blackmer, William Windom, George Kennedy, Ann Todd and Henry Daniell
All of these people were truly wonderful character actors, but none of them were ever really “stars” so it was no surprise to find not one of them listed among the 20 actors featured on the back of the THRILLER box set. I guess the PR “experts” think Donna Douglas, Tom Poston and Natalie Schafer are more exciting to genre fans, than John Carradine, Mary Astor and Henry Daniell!
Of course, since Henry Daniell nearly stole the show from Boris Karloff when the two actors appeared together in Val Lewton’s THE BODY SNATCHER, I’d like to make a special note of Daniell’s work on THRILLER here.
Mr. Daniell made five memorable appearances on Thriller, playing among others, Count Cagliostro, Vicar Weatherford and Squire Moloch. Sadly, Daniell and Karloff were not reunited in any episode of THRILLER, but since both Karloff and Daniell appeared in five episodes, it’s interesting to note that Daniell’s episodes are of better quality than Karloff’s! That certainly doesn’t mean the five episodes Karloff appeared in were bad, simply that most of them were less exciting than such classics at The Cheaters and The Well of Doom.
Actually, all of the five episodes Karloff appeared in were quite good. They included, The Prediction, The Premature Burial, The Last of the Sommervilles, Dialogues with Death and The Incredible Doktor Markesan.Dr. Markesan was beautifully directed by Robert Florey, who ironically, had been scheduled to direct Frankenstein before he was replaced by James Whale. If Florey had directed Frankenstein, it’s quite possible he might easily have cast an actor other than Karloff as the monster!
To introduce Boris Karloff’s comments on THRILLER, here are some of Stephen King’s remarks from his book Danse Macabre. King calls Thriller the best horror series ever made for TV, but in reading his comments, anyone with knowledge of the genre may notice the staggering number of factual mistakes he makes, which tend to mar his otherwise intriguing observations: STEPHEN KING on THRILLER:
Probably the best horror series ever put on TV was Thriller. It ran on NBC from September of 1960 until the summer of 1962—really only two seasons plus reruns. It was a period before television began to face up to an increasing barrage of criticism about its depiction of violence, a barrage that really began with the JFK assassination, grew heavier following the assassinations of RFK and Martin Luther King and finally caused the medium to dissolve into a sticky syrup of situation comedies—history may record that dramatic television finally gave up the ghost and slid down the tubes with a hearty cry of “Na-noo, na-noo!”
The contemporaries of Thriller were also weekly bloodbaths; the time of The Untouchables, starring Robert Stack as the unflappable Eliot Ness and featuring the gruesome deaths of hoodlums without number (1959-1963); Peter Gunn (1958-1961); and Cain’s Hundred (1961-1962), to name just a few. It was TV’s violent era. As a result, after a slow first thirteen weeks, Thriller was able to become something other than the stock imitation of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that it was apparently meant to be (early episodes dealt with cheating husbands trying to hypnotize their wives into walking over high cliffs, poisoning Aunt Martha to inherit her fortune so that the gambling debts could be paid off, and all that tiresome sort of thing) and took on a tenebrous life of its own. For the brief period of its run between January of 1961 and April of 1962—perhaps fifty-six of its seventy-eight total episodes—it really was one of a kind, and its like was never seen on TV again. Thriller was an anthology-format show (as all of the supernatural-terror TV programs which have enjoyed even a modicum of success have been) hosted by Boris Karloff. Karloff had appeared on TV before, after the Universal horror wave of the early to mid-thirties finally ran weakly out in that series of comedies in the late forties. This program, telecast on the fledgling ABC-TV network, had a brief run in the autumn of 1949. It was originally titled Starring Boris Karloff, fared no better following a title change to Mystery Playhouse Starring Boris Karloff, and was canceled. In feeling and tone, however, it was startlingly similar to Thriller, which came along eleven years later.
…Karloff was sixty-four at the beginning of Thriller’s two-year run, and not in the best of health; he suffered from a chronically bad back and had to wear weights to stand upright. Some of these infirmities dated back to his original film appearance as Frankenstein’s monster in 1932. He no longer starred in all the programs—many of the guest stars on the Thriller program were nonentities who went on to become full-fledged nobodies (one of those guest stars, Reggie Nalder, went on to play the vampire Barlow in the CBS-TV film version of ‘Salem’s Lot)—but fans will remember a few memorable occasions when he did (“The Strange Door,” for instance). The old magic was still there, still intact. Lugosi might have finished his career in misery and poverty but Karloff, despite a few embarrassments like Frankenstein 1970, went out as he came in: as a gentleman.
Produced by William Frye, Thriller was the first television program to discover the goldmine in those back issues of Weird Tales, the memory of which had been kept alive up until then mostly in the hearts of fans, a few quickie paperback anthologies, and, of course, in those limited-edition Arkham House anthologies. One of the most significant things about the Thriller series from the standpoint of the horror fan was that it began to depend more and more upon the work of writers who had published in those “shudder pulps” …the writers who, in the period of the twenties, thirties, and forties, had begun to guide horror out of the Victorian-Edwardian ghost-story channel it had been in for so long, and toward our modern perception of what the horror story is and what it should do. Robert Bloch was represented by “The Hungry Glass,” a story in which the mirrors of an old house harbor a grisly secret; Robert E. Howard’s “Pigeons from Hell,” one of the finest horror stories of our century, was adapted, and remains the favorite of many who remember Thriller with fondness. Other episodes include “A Wig for Miss DeVore,” in which a red wig keeps an actress eternally young …until the final five minutes of the program, when she loses it—and everything else.
Miss DeVore’s lined, sunken face; the young man staggering blindly down the stairs of the decaying bayou mansion with a hatchet buried in his head (“Pigeons from Hell”); the fellow who sees the faces of his fellow men and women turned into hideous monstrosities when he puts on a special pair of glasses (“The Cheaters,” from another Bloch story)—these may not have constituted fine art, but in Thriller’s run, we find those qualities coveted above all others by fans of the genre: a literate story coupled with the genuine desire to frighten viewers into spasms.
____________________________ BORIS KARLOFF on THRILLER: These comments were compiled from various interviews Boris Karloff has given over the years for a special tribute program I put together in 2006 for a retrospective program of Karloff films, for which Sara Karloff was the guest of honor. The Karloff retrospective was organized in San Francisco by Gary Meyer, currently the director of the Telluride Film Festival.
How do you determine what parts you’ll accept?
BORIS KARLOFF: I am quite shameless. If I am offered a part, I’ll have a go at it. I do not go seriously around trying to pick my own parts. That is dangerous. I could fancy myself playing all sorts of things. I could read a book and think, “I would be great in that,” but I don’t think you know what is best. I think it’s much better for somebody outside of yourself to choose the part. You can always say no, if it’s a bad part. You did a TV series in which you played quite another type or role, didn’t you?
BORIS KARLOFF: Oh, yes, that was Colonel March of Scotland Yard. It was made in England during the winter of 1953 and ‘54. Were they made for American audiences?
BORIS KARLOFF: Yes, they were made for the American market.
Did you enjoying making the TV series Thriller?
BORIS KARLOFF: Very much, indeed. The man who produced it, Bill Frye, is a very good friend of my wife and I. I have great respect for him. I think he’s a wonderful producer and it’s a great loss to television, because he’s gone to Columbia to make films. How did you initially get involved in doing Thriller? BORIS KARLOFF: I just happened along, and they made this test film, which was called The Twisted Image. I do hope you won’t confuse me with the title. I wasn’t in it, I just did the emceeing. I appear as myself, which is a frightful thing to do to an audience. They do it quite simply. I sort of intrude into the first scene and explain for example, that this nice looking couple is really in for quite a terrifying day, as you shall soon see and then I quietly slip out again. The producers then suggested that I might like to appear in some of the episodes, to which I was most agreeable, because it has been set up quite sensibly I think, as there is no set number of shows which I must do, you see. And it is quite wonderful to use actors instead of “stars”—that abused word that has ceased to have any meaning. It is a sad thing—the awful waste of potential talent you find today.
You have actually done quite a range of things outside of the horror category, haven’t you?
BORIS KARLOFF: That’s a dreadful word… it’s the wrong word… What term besides “horror” would you like to be applied to the films you work in?
BORIS KARLOFF: Well, I think the trapping was, in the early days when they first made these films, they were trying to get one word to express it, and they chose the word “horror.” But the word “horror” has a connotation of revulsion. That’s what the word really means. Well the aim certainly is not to repel you, or to revolt you. It is to attract you. It’s to excite you. It’s to alarm you, perhaps. It’s excitement. I think the word should be thriller, really, or shock, but certainly not horror. So I think “Thriller” is quite the best word for this sort of thing, as the word “horror” has come to mean something else altogether. I mean, if it’s to be a horror show, they put some guts in a bucket and show it to you. That sort of thing, but a thriller, you see, can go anywhere. It’s not tied down to pure mystery, or violence, or murder. That’s one thing you won’t find on Thriller—violence for the sake of violence, shock for the sake of shock. The two skillful men who are in charge of this operation are going to prove that you can have all the suspense, mystery, adventure and excitement you could want, without resorting to violence. I’m quite delighted with the whole thing. You don’t live in Hollywood now, do you?
BORIS KARLOFF: No, I live in London.
In London, that’s right.
BORIS KARLOFF: And in airplanes! (Laughs).
Oh yes, commuting across the Atlantic.
BORIS KARLOFF: I flew a total of 12,000 miles (on a round-trip from London to Hollywood) to do one day’s work filming six of the lead-in’s to Thriller. I thought it would take at least three days, and I must say I was flabbergasted that it only took one. It was filmed at Universal, on the same lot where 30 years earlier I played Frankenstein’s monster. In a way, it was like coming home again. The first season I only appeared in one episode, but it was a little tiresome to fly 12,000 miles just to read the teleprompter, so during the second season I appeared in four shows.
In 1953 you made an Italian film on the island of Ischia, called The Island Monster.
BORIS KARLOFF: Oh God, yes.
Do you remember much about it?
BORIS KARLOFF: No, I haven’t the least idea what it was like. Incredible! Dreadful! No one in the outfit spoke English, and I don’t speak Italian. Just hopeless. I had a very good time, but that’s beside the point. Most of your recent films have been done for American International Pictures. How do you like working for them?
BORIS KARLOFF: Oh, they (James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff, the heads of AIP) have been extremely considerate to me. They are very successful and intelligent men. They know their market and they know their field very well. I’m most grateful to them. Their films are beautifully mounted and photographed. They shoot them in about three weeks. How can they do them in that short amount of time? The answer is in the immense amount of preparation, the homework that is done before you ever get on the set and start shooting. That’s when all the money starts to roll out, the moment you assemble the whole thing on the set. Then, if you’re not ready, you’re throwing money out the window. They rent space at a studio, they have assembled one of the finest crews that I’ve ever known, and the crews in the studios out there are really marvelous. They anticipate everything, they are ahead of you, they take a pride in what they are doing, and believe me it makes a difference. Everything is there and ready right down to the last button so that there is no pressure on me as an actor. If I’ve played a scene badly and want to do it again, they say, “sure,” not, “oh, Christ we haven’t got the time.”
______ Obviously, Stephen King is a masterful writer of horror fiction, but one wishes he had done a little more fact checking for his book, Danse Macabre, since it is filled with an incredible number of factual errors. Here are just a few from the short text I’ve quoted from, above:
KING: …fifty-six of its seventy-eight total episodes…
Mr. King obviously got the total number of Thriller episodes wrong, since it was 67 episodes, not 78.
KING: Karloff was sixty-four at the beginning of Thriller’s two-year run
When Karloff began Thriller, he was 71 and in fairly good health. His major health problems came in 1963 after Thriller was off the air.
KING: Karloff had to wear weights to stand upright. Some of these infirmities dated back to his original film appearance as Frankenstein’s monster in 1932.
Frankenstein, as most everyone knows appeared in 1931. Karloff did not have to wear weights to stand upright, but needed leg braces to walk in his final years.
KING: Fans will remember a few memorable occasions when he did (appear on the show) “The Strange Door,” for instance.
Fans will remember The Strange Door, but not because it was an episode of Thriller. It was a Universal feature film starring Karloff and Charles Laughton.
KING: The young man staggering blindly down the stairs of the decaying bayou mansion with a hatchet buried in his head (“Pigeons from Hell”).
Mr. King’s memory is faulty, as the scene he describes does not appear in “Pigeons from Hell.” The young man is carrying a hatchet with which he attempts to kill his brother, it is not buried in his head.
Let’s see, how do I compare the first movie I ever saw as a five year old to how I see it 50 years later? I’ll begin by sharing that I believe in fate; coincidence is not coincidence. The anime ALAKAZAM THE GREAT (1960) is the first movie and “martial arts” film per se that I ever saw. It’s a Japanese film adapted from a Chinese kung fu novel about the Monkey King, and it was in a theatre in the middle of nowhere England (Tadley), a country still living in the past and distrustful of the Japanese since WW II. Yet there it was.
Coincidentally (or not), I was born in the Year of the Monkey, and when it comes to cinema, Fant-Asia and martial arts films are my shtick, which has just climaxed with the completion of my first book, The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s. The book includes in-depth martialogies on many sci-fi/horror kung fu films made during the 1970s, some of which I’ll exclusively reveal to Cinefantastique Online before the book’s Nov. 2010 release.
Here are my childhood memories of the film. Alakazam was a wee monkey who fights with a pole and zips around the sky on a cloud. He had three friends: a pig; a cannibal who wielded a pole with a half-moon blade that he used to burrow underground; and a Prince. I vividly recall an impish, child-like villain dressed in shorts with a horn on top of his head, which he used like a telephone to call a raging bull with witch-wife who owned a giant feather. Alakazam eventually got home to save his sick monkey girlfriend, and they lived happily ever after.
Now it’s 2010, I had not seen this film since 1961, and I’m quite well versed in the Legend of the Monkey King. I was so looking forward to re-watching this.
According to the English dubbed film version: Majutsoland, which lies off the coast of Japan, is a kingdom reigned by King Amo and Queen Amas. Their son is Prince Amat. The gods see that the animal world needs a new king. Whoever can leap off the waterfall and retrieve a placard from the underwater enchanted palace shall be king. Alakazam (spoken Peter Fernandez; singing Frankie Avalon) takes the leap, becomes king, then decrees he’s smarter and wiser than all humans. To prove it, he challenges Merlin the Magician, beats him, then sets his sights on King Amo and calls him out by defiantly eating the forbidden fruit.
After Amo defeats him, Alakazam is imprisoned in a cold cave on top of a snowy mountain until he learns the stupidity of conceit and selfishness. As monkey girl friend Dee Dee (Dodie Stevens) brings him food, the cold blizzard snow begins to drain her life. Alakazam begs that he’ll do anything to save her. Queen Amas agrees to help if he accompanies her son Amat on a pilgrimage. The ulterior mission is for Alakazam is to learn humility, mercy and wisdom.
Along their way, they run into a large pig named Sir Quigley Broken Bottom (Jonathan Winters) who is trying to force a beautiful maiden into marrying him, until Alakazam saves the day. Rather than killing Quigley, he befriends and hires him to be an extra bodyguard for Amat. They next meet a cannibal named Lulipopo (Arnold Stang); after he tries to eat them, Alakazam spares his life, too, and they now have a third bodyguard for Amat.
Meanwhile, the bratty impish Fister, who has a horn on top of his head, wears shorts, and has a red scarf around his neck, leaps onto screen. Fister wants to rule Majutsoland. His boss, Gruesome, a large raging bull, agrees to help Fister if Fister can kidnap Amat and bring him to Gruesome’s cave. Gruesome plans to collect ransom from King Amo so Gruesome can pay for his wife’s mink-stole habit. Prior to leaving the cave, Gruesome gives his witch-like wife a big fan (looks like a feather), which she uses to turn things into ice with a single swish.
The next thing you know, Fister almost kills the weakening Alakazam; Quigley and Amat are captured by Gruesome and dangled over a large vat of boiling soup, and there’s no ransom demands. Just as Gruesome is about to drop Quigley and Amat into the soup, Alakazam and Lulipopo arrive, rescue Quigley and Amat, and all hell breaks lose. Volcanoes erupt, lava flows, Gruesome and Alakazam are dueling to the death, Quigley steals the fan, and back home Dee Dee is dying.
Why so many details? By knowing the original Chinese story, we can see how easily things get totally lost in translation.
The Japanese anime version calls Alakazam “Saiyu-ki.” It was the third Japanese cartoon ever made in color and the first anime film to come to America (ASTROBOY was the fourth anime feature to hit stateside in 1964). In Chinese classic literature, he is the Monkey King, Swuin Wu-kung from the novel Xi Yo Ji (“Journey to the West”) written by Wu Cheng-an during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Swuin is famous for riding around on a golden cloud and fighting with a pole magically made from a strand of his hair. Accompanied by his kung fu brothers Zhu Ba-jie (a rake-wielding pig) and Xia Wu-jing (a creature with a monk’s spade: long pole with a shovel at one end and a half-moon shaped blade at the other), Swuin sets out to protect Tang San-tsang, a Buddhist monk, while he travels to India to get sacred scriptures.
One of the famous chapters tells how Princess Iron Fan and Ox Demon King want to eat Monk Tang so they can live for 1,000 years, but Tang is protected by Swuin, Zhu, and Xia. However, their son, Red Boy (aka Hong Hai-er) has mastered the Three Types of True Fire in Flaming Mountain, and they order him to kill Swuin. Just as all hell breaks loose, Goddess of Mercy Guan Ying descends from heaven to make peace on Earth.
With this in mind, it’s now pretty obvious who each character in ALAKAZAM represents. The not-so-clear ones are Fister (who is Red Boy), King Ama (who is Buddha), Queen Amas (who is Quan Ying, and Merlin the Magician (who is probably Lao Zi or some other Taoist sage). There was never a plan for ransom; Gruesome wanted to eat Amat.
So how does one compare the first movie you ever saw as a five-year-old to how you see it 50 years later as a film critic? Especially when it’s Chinese story turned into Japanese film turned into a Westernized dubbed version? Beyond all that is wrong with ALAKAZAM – dialogue, plot, character names, added-in songs to make it Disney-appealing, some obvious re-editing, and illogic up to the wazoo – to me, it’s still magical.
Historically, ALAKAZAM is the first Chinese-Japanese martial arts film that got theatrical distribution for mainstream audiences in Europe and America. This alone is a worthy reason for anyone into Fant-Asian films to see the movie. ALAKAZAM THE GREAT (1960). 94 mins. D: Lee Kresel, Daisaku Shirakawa, Osamu Tezuka, Taiji Yabushita. C: Sterling Holloway, Jackie Joseph, Kiyoshi Kawakubo, Arnold Stang, Dodie Stevens, Jonathan Winters, Peter Fernandez, Frankie Avalon.
Back in 1960, with the Cold War at its hottest, the end of the world seemed less like a vaguely disturbing distraction about a possible distant future than like a very real possibility – something that could happen tomorrow. That anxiety fuels THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH, an odd-ball effort from producer-director Roger Corman, about the last three people left alive after the rest of Earth’s population mysteriously disappears, leading to the ultimate love triangle as the two men vie for the affections of the sole remaining woman. Filmed on a shoe-string, the film offers a low-budget apocalypse, too slowly paced to qualify as a good cult film, let alone a classic, and yet a certain aura of existential dread infuses the situation, offering some small redeeming value.
THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH is an example of the cost-conscious Corman’s two-for-one economic strategy: on location in Puerto Rico to film BATTLE OF BLOOD ISLAND, Corman shot this film as well. Unfortunately, doubling down like this created some scheduling problems – namely the lack of a completed script. Unable to afford bringing the writer on location, Corman came up with a novel solution: hiring scripter Robert Towne (later an Oscar-winner for CHINATOWN) to play the film’s young lead, so that he could complete the screenplay at night when he wasn’t in front of the cameras. Town delivered the pages day by day, throughout the two-week shoot.
Said Corman of the production, “A lot of people see these films today and ask me if I knew I was being existential. No. I was primarily aware that I was in trouble. I was shooting with hardly any money and less time.” *
Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the results are less than satisfying. Despite the 71-minute running time, the story develops slowly, and THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH often seems to be treading water. The script has a hood named Harold (Anthony Carbone) and his wife Evelyn (Betsy Jones-Moreland) hiding out in Puerto Rico, along with their lawyer Martin (Towne, under the pseudonym “Edward Wain”). After scuba diving, they surface to find the world mysteriously de-populated and guess that some kind of disaster temporarily destroyed the world’s oxygen supply, eradicating animal life from the planet’s surface. They survive by breathing through their SCUBA tanks until the local vegetion restores enough oxygen for them to breath normally. The struggle to survive is complicated when Evelyn and Martin fall for each other leading to a lethal confrontation…
Surprisingly, the low-key approach to the end of the world (no doubt dictated by the budget) is fairly effective, with the off-screen apocalypse offering an eerie mystery for the characters to solve. Shot in color and widescreen, THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH presents a decent depiction of a depopulated world, realized on location with streets full of empty cars abandoned in the middle of the road.
By focusing on a love triangle, the script scales world annihilation down to the size of a soap opera, but at least the situation is fraught with dramatic potential so obvious that it needs no explanation to the audience: you know the two surviving men will inevitably challenge each other over the titular Last Woman on Earth. To some extent, the older Harold and the younger Martin battle things out in terms of a conflict between the Conservative Establishment and Rebellious Youth; this tends to make us side with Martin, but he turns out to be too pessimistic and self-centered to effectively overthrow the existing authority: he may not like following Harold’s orders, but he has no vision of his own to offer as an alternative.
The conflict ultimately leads to an ending that manages to work up a little genuine feeling, refusing to cop out with a happy resolution as the loser meets his fate in a church. This is one of those happy instances when an apparent mis-step pays off in its own way: none of the characters would likely be anyone’s nomination as a worthy survivor, and the thought of the entire world left in their hands is a depressing one indeed, driving home a sense of despair that might have been muted by the presence of likable heroes.
THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH might have been a great half-hour episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE or even a good one-hour television drama. As a feature film, it falls short. Fortunately, it does have a few good things going for it – at least enough so that curiosity seekers will not feel that their time has been totally wasted. THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH (1960). Produced and directed by Roger Corman. Written by Robert Towne. Cast: Betsy Jones-Moreland, Antony Carbone, Robert Towne (as Edward Wain) FOOTNOTE:
Classic television show, hosted by Boris Karloff, finally comes to DVD
For fans of classic horror on television, this is big news: THRILLER, the spooky anthology series hosted by Boris Karloff (FRANKENSTEIN), finally arrives on home video, in a lovely DVD box set, this Tuesday, August 27 – almost exactly 50 years after its premier on NBC way back in September of 1960.
THRILLER ran for two seasons, offering up 67 hour-long episodes of macabre entertainment. (If that sounds like a lot of episodes for two seasons, this was back when television shows typically ran for nine months, taking only the summer off.) Although less well known than THE TWILIGHT ZONE or THE OUTER LIMITS, THRILLER offered similar high-quality episodes, with wonderfully atmospheric black-and-white photography; some great scripts based on classic horror literature, including episodes scripted by or based on Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, and others; a menagerie of familiar faces and guest stars, including William Shatner, Leslie Nielsen, Mary Tyler Moore, Elizabeth Montgomery, Rip Torn, Richard Chamberlain, Cloris Leachman, Robert Vaughn, Marlo Thomas, Ursula Andress, and more.
Like Rod Serling with THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Boris Karloff introduced each episode, but unlike Serling, he offered no wrap-up at the end. The intros are nicely done, often tongue in cheek (“Don’t be alarmed – the woman who screamed is perfectly quiet now,” he intones playfully in the familiar lisp. “After all, she’s been dead over 100 years.”) On top of his duties as host, Karloff himself starred in more than one episode, putting his familiar sinister-gentleman persona to good use.
As the title suggests, THRILLER began more in a mystery-thriller vein, a la ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, with lots of creepy skulduggery going on in old dark houses and the like; however, it soon morphed into more of a Gothic horror show, with ghosts and other supernatural beings making frequent appearances. The crime stories are nicely done, but the horror episodes stand out in memory, such as “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” (in which the infamous serial killer is revealed to be an immortal, still at work in the 20th Century) and “The Cheaters” (in which a mysterious pair of spectacles reveal the often ugly truth lurking behind every day reality).
The conflict between the two approaches left the show feeling a bit schizophrenic: if you wanted a monster of the week, you were not going to get it, and the main theme (heard prominently on the DVD’s menu) has a jazzy feel more appropriate to film noir than Gothic horror. However, the nice thing about the format was that, because THRILLER was not dedicated to supernatural explanations, the scripts could play with audience expectations (e.g., was the painting in “The Grim Reaper” episode really cursed, or was that a ruse used by a murder to conceal his crimes – or was it both?).
Image Entertainment’s box set collects all 67 episodes onto 14 discs , remastered and uncut. Bonus features include extensive galleries or production and promotion stills, promotional clips, isolated music and effects tracks for select episodes, and 27 new audio commentaries. (Since many of the people associated with the series are long gone, most of the commentaries are provided by fans, scholars, and filmmakers: Ernest Dickerson, David Schow, Tim Lucas, Gary Gerani, Marc Scott Zicree, etc.)
If the single screener disc we received is any indication of the overall quality, then the THRILLER box set is a must-have. The full-screen transfers are clear and sharp, perfectly capturing the low-key photography (which is even more impressive when you recall that these episodes were filmed at a time when most shows avoided high-contrast lighting because of the limitations of then-current television monitors, which might render dark areas of the screen as completely black).
The two episodes on the provided disc, “The Grim Reaper” and “Pigeons from Hell” (Episodes 36 and 37, the last of Season 1) offer mystery and suspense, bordering on horror, keeping the audience guess as to what is really happening. “Pigeons from Hell,” scripted by John Kneubuhl from the story by Robert E. Howard, and directed by John Newland (ONE STEP BEYOND) plays things a bit too close to the vest: although intriguing and eerie, with hints of voodoo, it comes to a conclusion that leaves one wondering exactly what was going on and just why were the pigeons from Hell?
“The Grim Reaper” is equally spooky but with a more satisfying twist ending, thanks to a script by Robert Bloch (PSYCHO) from a story by Harold Lawlor.William Shatner stars as a newphew who shows up at his aunt’s mansion to warn her about the eponymous painting she recently purchased, which has a reputation for bringing death to its owners. However, Aunt Beatric (Natalie Schafer, Mrs. Howell on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND) is a best-selling mystery author who believes the “curse” is good publicity – until she ends up dead.
Under Herschel Daugherty’s direction, the performances are so broadly melodramatic that “The Grim Reaper” borders on camp: watch Shatner as he extends his hand, after touching the painting, to reveal his blood-stained fingers, and then watch the equally overdone reactions of those watching him. (Shafer in particular matches Shatner note for note in the histrionics department.) Fortunately, the performances are thoroughly enjoyable, helping to set up the correct playful tone that justifies the blackly comic finale, in which villain finds himself hoist on his own petard. Also of note: genre faves Robert Cornthwaite (THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD) and Henry Daniel (THE BODY SNATCHER) show up in cameos.
The audio commentaries by Gary Gerani and/or Ernest Dickerson are informative and interesting. The photos galleries truly deserve the adjective “extensive,” stretching throughout the show’s run (not just the two episodes included on this disc). And the promotional clip is a truly novel bonus item: clearly designed not for audiences but for television station owners, the lengthy montage of scenes features Karloff both on-screen and narrating, extolling the virtues of the series that are guaranteed to attract audiences and guaranteeing thrills “natural, unnatural, and supernatural.”
1960 was a blood-red year for the vampire’s kith and kin, with over a half-dozen variations on the theme. There is an international flavor to these sanguine offerings, with blood-drinkers prowling crypts in England, France, Mexico, and Italy; at least one is ensconced inauspiciously in an American flower shop. Some are old-school nosferatu of the Gothic horror variety; others have a decidedly sexier style than seen in classic horror films of earlier eras; one or two are mutant science fiction off-shoots. Some are ugly; others are handsome or beautiful. Some favor old-fashioned black-and-white photography, emphasizing the spooky atmosphere of the crypt and cemetery; others are bold and beautiful in modern color. One or two are classics; others are camp; some might be dismissed as Euro-trash (or celebrated for their daring sexiness, depending on the critic). In short, there such a rich diversity of undead revenants and blood-drinking monsters that it is hard to generalize; you have to take each on on its own terms. Here then is a Photographic Retrospective of the Vampires of 1960.
ATOM AGE VAMPIRE (Seddok, l’erede di Satana)
Our first vampire title (alphabetically speaking) is more of Jekyll-and-Hyde mad scientist film, in which “vampirism” is of the most figurative sort: stealing glands of young victims in order to rejuvenate the beauty of a disfigured woman is a sort of modern variation on draining the life essence. The original Italian title is less misleading, translating roughly as “Seddok, the Heir of Satan.”
BLACK SUNDAY (a.k.a. THE MASK OF SATAN)
Italian director Mario Bava’s atmospheric masterpiece of black-and-white horror features two magnificent vampires: Barbara Steele as Princess Asa and Arturo Dominici as Ygor Yavutich (four if you count two of their victims who return from the dead). Burned alive as witches, Asa and Yavutich return from the grave to drain the blood and/or life force of Asa’s descendants. The result is one of the great horror films of all time.
BLOOD AND ROSES (Et Mourir de Plasir [“To Die with Pleasure”])
Next up is French filmmaker Roger Vadim’s ambiguous adaptation of Carmilla, the excellent Victorian vampire novel by J. Sheridan LeFanue. Vadim modernizes the setting and presents a dreamlike atmosphere that leaves the question of vampirism open to debate, yet the film contains memorable imagery that should satisfy fans of the undead.
THE BRIDES OF DRACULA
Hammer Films’ first sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA suffers from the absence of Christopher Lee as the Count, but there is an interesting alternative in the form of David Peel as a blond, boyish vampire named Baron Meinster. He also has some lovely brides to keep him company. This English film is one of the best of its kind, even if there is no Dracula in it.
THE CURSE OF NOSTRADAMUS
This interesting Mexican variation on the vampire motif presents the son of the famous oracular prophet, who rises from the grave intent on establishing a cult devoted to magic and the supernatural. So confident is he of his powers that he appears to a renowned scientist and declares his intention of killing thirteen victims, even naming the time and place, just to show how unstoppable he is. German Robles makes a fine, aristocratic vampire, even if bad dubbing undermines the effectiveness for English-speaking viewers.
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
Before graduating to eating body parts and/or whole human, Audrey the plant begins by drinking the willingly offered blood of Seymour Krelboin, the goofy would-be botanist who created her. Producer-director Roger Corman’s campy classic, written by Charles B. Griffith, is not quite as funny as intended, but it is so weird it has to be seen to believed.
THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE (L’Ultima Preda Del Vampire [“The Last Prey of the Vampire”])
Another Italian entry in the vampire genre, this one offers a sexier slant on the old blood-suckers.
THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA (a.k.a. L’amanti del Vampiro [“The Vampire’s Lover])
This off-beat Italian entry in the vampire sweepstakes is tame on its own terms, but it offers some of the first suggestions of the more explicitly sexual approaches to the theme that will emerge later in Continental vampire films (see THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE, above). Along with a couple of fetching female vamps, the film also features one of the ugliest undead this side of NOSFERATU’s Graf Orlock.
THE WORLD OF THE VAMPIRES (El Mundo de los Vamiros)
This eccentric Mexican vampire film features vampires that, for some reason, can be disabled by particular sound waves, leading to a dubious conclusion in which the villain is defeated by someone playing a tune on a pipe organ. Gotta give ’em credit for off-the-wall originality, if nothing else.
No new genre films hit theatres this weekend, but fear not: Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski once again rev of the time machine and take you five decades into the past, for a look at one of the greatest horror films of all time, director Mario Bava’s masterpiece of black-and-white Gothic horror, BLACK SUNDAY (a.k.a. THE MASK OF SATAN, 1960), starring the Queen of Horror, Barbara Steele. It’s all part of Cinefantastique’s on-going celebration of 1960’s Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Films. Also on the menu: a weekly round-up of news, upcoming events, and home video releases.
The word peplum derives from the Roman word for pleated skirt, and a “peplum movie” is one in which the characters wear such skirts. SON OF SAMSON (originally Maciste nella Valle dei Re [“Maciste in the Valley of the Kings”]) was the second of Mark Forest’s muscleman movies (his first was GOLIATH AND THE DRAGON) and one of the earliest competitors to the highly successful HERCULES, which had kick-started the sound revival of the peplum genre. Forest would play Maciste 7 times and appear in 12 different pepla movies.
Traditionally, Maciste was the son of Hercules or even an alternate name for Hercules, but this film identifies him as the son of the biblical Samson instead. The character of Maciste is one of the longest-running cinematic characters, having been featured in over 50 films; he made his initial appearance in Italian cinema is the incredibly impressive silent epic CABIRIA( 1914), directed by Giovanni Pastrone and loosely based on Flaubert’s Salammbo. As in that silent film, Maciste here tells another character that his name means “of the rock” (macis is the Latin word for “rock”).
SON OF SAMSON follows the standard plot of a Maciste movie, which usually involves a young lady who runs afoul of an evil ruler and who must be rescued. Maciste also helps the rightful ruler overcome a usurper and confronts an evil queen with carnal designs who attempts to seduce him with a belly dance. In 11th CenturyEgypt, the Persian Queen Smedes (played by Folies Beregeres dancer Chelo Alonso) rules Egypt despite being secretly in league with the kingdom’s Persian invaders, who are raping and pillaging their way across the countryside. When Pharaoh Armiteo (Carlo Tamberlani) hears that Smedes participated in selling Egyptian women as slaves, the Pharaoh berates her for exploiting his subjects; however, one of Smedes’ minions shoots an arrow into the Pharaoh’s back. Meanwhile, Kenamon (Angelo Zenoli), the son of the Pharaoh, who has been traveling and fighting across Egypt, recovers from his wounds and spends some time with Norfret (Frederica Ranchi), who pines for him when he returns to Tanis. Persians attack Norfret’s village, killing the men, burning the huts, and rounding up the women to be sold as slaves.
Maciste, the Son of Samson (Mark Forest), viewed by the Egyptian as a potential savior, lies sleeping by a mountain when a lion stalks him. Seeing this, Kenamon shoots the lion with an arrow and as Maciste thanks him, another lion approaches. There follows the typical shots of Maciste hugging a lion followed by him struggling with a lion skin rug with roars and growls dubbed in. Finally, Maciste beats the second lion to death with his fists. In gratitude, Kenamon gives Maciste a ring as a token of his friendship. Taking his leave of Kenamon, Maciste comes across the Persian raiders, whom he crushes with boulders and a huge stone wheel, rescuing the Egyptian women and escorting them back to their village. Kenamon in turns finds the streets of his city of Tanis empty following the death of his father, Armiteo. Visiting the mummy of his father, Kenamon is advised by the Grand Vizier (Petar Dobric) that he is the new Pharaoh.
To secure her position, Smedes proposes she wed Kenamon, who declines saying that it is too soon after his father’s death. Smedes immediately assumes that another woman has won Kenamon’s heart. She leaves him declaring, “Our marriage must take place on order of the Persians.” Distressed, Kenamon finds his egress blocked by spear-carrying guards. He dispatches a servant to carry word to Norfret, but the servant is quickly intercepted by guards and pumped for information. Aware of Kenamon’s interest in Norfret, Queen Smedes plots to use the mystical “Necklace of Forgetfulness” on Kenamon, which will make him her slave. The Vizier, who is in cahoots with Smedes, places the necklace of forgetfulness around Kenamon’s neck, and he instantly falls under Smedes’ spell. Suddenly he relishes her company and accedes to her every request.
Meanwhile, Maciste drives the rescued women in a carriage to an oasis in a failed effort to find water. They find a similar situation once they reach the town of Memphis, where greedy merchants conceal what little water there is in their animal skins. Maciste. hearing that Kenamon’s coronation is about to take place in Tanis, resolves to find men to aid in the fight against the marauding Persians. Waiting until nightfall, he moves part of a mountain side to create a natural spring and supply the populace’s water needs.
The corruption of Tanis is established in that travelers must bribe the guards to be admitted. The merchant with Maciste gains him entry by disguising him as a merchant whose rich caravan will be arriving shortly. Once inside, Maciste sees a young boy cry out for mercy for his father, who is being whipped. The boy throws rocks at the guards from a nearby rooftop after being chased away, so the guards climb up a ladder to pursue him. Maciste grabs the ladder with the guards on it, walks it over to the Nile and throws the guards into the water.
The gods having decreed to Maciste that Egypt will be free, Maciste goes to the slaves who are erecting an obelisk. When the obelisk slips down, crushing slaves and guards like, Maciste arrests the descent with his mighty muscles, and has the slaves pull from the other side. That night he tells the slaves to construct weapons while he seeks out Kenamon and enlists his aid in their cause. However, Kenamon doesn’t recognize the man he once saved in the jungle, and Maciste is beset by guards. He backs into what proves to be a swiveling wall and enters the “Cell of Death,” wherein the walls close in to crush him. With his incredible strength, he makes it to the gate of the cell and escapes, arranging for the slaves to attack during the next day’s chariot race.
At the chariot race, the winner is told by Smedes that he will have the honor of punishing some escaped slaves. He is given a chariot with long scimitars welded to the hub. The women Maciste rescues are brought into the arena blindfolded, and the chariot is driven among them, eventually cutting down the blind seer who prophesized Maciste being Egypt’s deliverer. Angered, Maciste throws off his disguise and grabs the back of the chariot, arresting its progress and bring the team of horses pulling it to a stop. Impressed, Smedes falls for the mighty Maciste and grants him his wish of releasing the women prisoners. That night, she attempts to seduce Maciste with a seductive dance that allows Chelo Alonso to show off her dancing talents, though who knew that Persian queens were so versed in bellydancing? This allows Maciste to get close to Kenamon again and spell out his plans; unfortunately, Smedes can overhear them. Enraged, she gives Maciste a knock-out potion and orders him thrown to the crocodiles. Still, the mighty hero makes quick work of these reptilian foes and escapes to find the women safe and the slaves ready to revolt. After knocking down a few dozen soldiers, the rest of the royal force arrives, led by Kenamon. Maciste ties a rope to a support on the bridge they must cross, and as the leaders of the royal force almost reach the other side, Maciste pulls away the support, causing the bridge to collapse.
This causes the necklace to fall from Kenamon, and he once more remembers Norfret and turns against Smedes. Leading everyone back to the palace at Tanis, he tells the crowd that Smedes, for her perfidy, will be burned until she is embers, and that the crowd will deal with the overthrown Vizier. Smedes proclaims, “You win Maciste, but you will never burn me.” She runs through the wall passage of the cell of death and into the crocodiles’ lair. Norfret reunites with Kenamon, and Maciste, his destiny fulfilled, leaves to find other people to free and possibly other films to appear in.
The refreshing thing about this movie is the Egyptian settings, complete with authentic looking costumes and shots of the pyramids. SON OF SAMSON is directed by Carlo Campogallani, whose career stretches back to Italy’s silent era, when he directed some of the earliest Maciste movies, including MACISTE I (1919), LA TRILOGIA DI MACISTE (1920), MACISTE CONTRO LA MORTE (aka MACISTE VS. DEATH) (1920), and THE TESTAMENT OF MACISTE (1920). His other peplum include GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS, URSUS, and SWORD OF THE CONQUEROR. Campogallani keeps things moving and gives a fairly spectacular feel (the film is shot in Technicolor and Totalscope) despite the limited budget.
The fantasy elements of the film are largely limited to Maciste’s supernatural strength, the blind seer with the gift of prophecy, and the magical necklace that bends Kenamon to Smedes’ will. The horror elements include a generous application of bright red Kensington gore during the battle scenes, the crushing walls, the crocodile pit, whippings, and torture of a prisoner using a red-hot poker. Campogallani also gives us a disturbing image of the Persian depredations near the opening when we see snakes slithering past the heads of victims buried up to their necks in desert sand.
While not one of the more impressive 1960 genre efforts, SON OF SAMSON is a reasonably entertaining historical adventure that doesn’t make the mistake of presenting fantastic creatures it cannot quite pull off, unlike its immediate predecessor GOLIATH AND THE DRAGON. It is colorful and, like most pepla, features very fetching female leads with an impressively muscled bodybuilder at its center. SON OF SAMSON (originally Maciste nella Valle dei Re [“Maciste in the Valley of the Kings”], 1960). Directed by Carlo Campogalliani. Story and screenplay by Oreste Biancoli, Ennio De Concini. Cast: Mark Forest, Chelo Alonso, Angelo Zanolli, Federica Ranchi, Carlo Tamberlani, Nino Musco, Zvonimir Rogoz, Ignazio Dolce, Andrea Fantasia, Petar Dobric, Vira Silenti, Ada Ruggeri.
1960 was not necessarily the Year of the Dinosaur, but it did feature a pair of science fiction films that clearly delineate two different approaches Hollywood used during this era to portray the ravenous reptiles on screen: DINOSAURUS and THE LOST WORLD. Neither film is a milestone in its presentation of carnivorous carnosaurs, but each has its own goofy charm for those with an appreciation for the sort of old-fashioned special effects used in the days before computer-generated imagery – in this case, stop-motion puppets and live-action lizards.
By 1960, both techniques had been well established. The use of stop-motion to depict prehistoric beasts on screen dated back to the silent era, when Willis O’Brien pioneered the technique on short subjects like GERTIE THE DINOSAUR (1915) and the feature-length THE LOST WORLD (1925), the first adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, about a expedition to a plateau where evolution has hit a stand-still, allowing the supposedly extinct animals to continue living into the 20th Century. O’Brien went on to perfect the technique in KING KONG and SON OF KONG (both 1933). However, because of the time and expense (stop-motion involves shooting miniature armatures one frame at a time, adjusting the armature between frames to create the illusion of movement), stop-motion was never widely adopted, and only a relative handful of films utilized it to depict dinosaurs: THE LOST CONTINENT (1951), THE ANIMAL WORLD (1956), and THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN (1956).
The first known use of modern reptiles to replicate dinosaurs on screen had occurred in ONE MILLION B.C. (1940),* which saved time and money by simply gluing fins and horns onto monitor lizards, baby alligators, and iguanas. Of course, the results resembled dinosaurs only in terms of being reptiles with scales, teeth, and claws. As if this were not bad enough, the treatment of the animals is clearly inhumane (a death by avalanche is depicted by dropping a load of rocks onto an iguana; the big dino-fight set piece features the monitor lizard and the alligator biting and clawing each other – for real). According to Denis Gifford in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, this all-too-real carnage raised the ire of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, leading to a ban on similar scenes. Consequently, later low-budget dinosaur films either used men in dino-suits (e.g., 1957’s THE LAND UNKNOWN) or recycled ONE MILLION B.C.’s footage: PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1950), TWO LOST WORLDS (1950), UNTAMED WOMEN (1952), ROBOT MONSTER (1953), and TEENAGE CAVEMAN (1958). Nevertheless, at least a few subsequent films shot new footage of made-up lizards as dinosaurs: UNKNOWN ISLAND (1948), KING DINOSAUR (1955), and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959).
This, then, is the historical backdrop against which DINOSAURUS and THE LOST WORLD painted their pictures of prehistoric life surviving into the modern world. The former picture is an attempt by the team behind THE BLOB (1957) – producer Jack H. Harris and director Irvin S. Yeaworth – to upscale with a bigger-budget production, shot in widescreen and released by a major distributor (Universal Pictures). The story involves a Brontosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus Rex accidentally brought to life on an isolated island resort. Hired to provide the special effects was the team of Tim Baar, Wah Chang, and Gene Warren, with uncredited help from model builder Marcel Delgado (who had worked on KING KONG) and several stop-motion animators.
The advantage of stop-motion over costumed lizards or men in suits is that the miniature model can be far more anatomically correct in terms of proportions and resemblance to actual dinosaurs. The advantage of stop-motion over mechanical models is that the frame-by-frame shooting process allows careful positioning of the puppets, which helps imbue the creatures with life-like movements. The disadvantage is that miniature models can be hard to detail correctly; also the fact that the models are not actually moving when each frame is exposed creates a perfectly clear image, lacking motion blur, which results in a staccato, stroboscopic look, especially when the creatures are supposed to move quickly.
Unfortunately, the dinosaurs in DINOSAURS fall victim to these disadvantages. The creatures are convincingly terrifying to youngsters, but older viewers will most likely find them quaint in their execution. Nevertheless, fans of the stop-motion process will find them interesting, and some of the action is imaginative, such as the final-reel confrontation between the T-Rex and a steam shovel.
The 1960 version of THE LOST WORLD is an attempt by producer Irwin Allen (LOST IN SPACE) to remake the 1925 silent classic with sound and color, featuring an all-star cast: Michael Rennie from DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951), David Hedison from THE FLY (1958), and Claude Rains from THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933), along with Jill St. John along for sex appeal. Although Willis O’Brien, from the original film version of THE LOST WORLD, is credited as an effects technician, stop-motion was eschewed for cost reasons, with L.B. Abbott, James B. Gordon, and Emil Kosa Jr. optically enlarging monitor lizards made up to resemble (allegedly) their prehistoric ancestors.
The advantage of real lizards is that they are clearly alive, and they move very convincingly: their tongues flick; their claws grasp, and their bodies flop about, without the artificially precise stylization inherent in stop-motion. The disadvantage is that they are obviously not dinosaurs. The addition of fins and horns does little to create a resemblance to Stegosaurus or Triceratops, and Professor Challenger, the film’s alleged expert in paleontology, comes across as a bit of a fool as he identifies each new hybrid monstrosities by name, suggesting for example that one belly-crawling beast is a Brontosaurs, a creature structured more like a suspension bridge.
The other big problem with the live-action approach to special effects is that, once again, we are presented with a real-life tussle between two wild animals. Fans of cockfighting may not have much problem with this, but more enlightened viewers are likely to shake their heads in wonder that only five decades ago, Hollywood filmmakers still thought that watching animals harm each other on screen was an innocent evening’s entertainment. (To be fair, one should note that even today, the prospect of witnessing animal atrocities draw eyeballs to YouTube videos of animals devouring each other. But at least in cases like these, the action has not been staged for the camera.)
Modern viewers, accustomed to the glossy digital dinosaurs in films like JURASSIC PARK (1993) and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (2008) will likely be disappointed by the old-fashioned effects in DINOSAURS and THE LOST WORLD. Even fans with a nostalgic fondness for classic films will prefer the superior work seen in the previous version THE LOST WORLD and in the subsequent remake of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (featuring Ray Harryhausen’s dynamated dinosaurs, upstaged by Raquel Welch in a fur bikini). Nevertheless, the 1960 versions of DINOSAURUS and THE LOST WORLD provide a marvelous snap-shot of Hollywood’s efforts to recreate extinct life forms in the era before special effects became the province of computer operators. FOOTNOTE:
As Mark Leeper points out in comments below, THE SECRET OF THE LOCH (1934) used a live iguana to portray the Loch Ness Monster. Whether Nessie is a dinosaur is at least open to debate, but the film definitely deserves credit for using live-action lizard technique before ONE MILLION B.C. Although the film itself is rather slow and dated, the composite effects used to place the monster in the same scene with the actor (during a dive beneath the loch’s surface) are very effective. Unfortunately, the effect is somewhat diminished by the fact that, instead of swimming, the monster crawls on the loch’s bed – without, rather miraculously, raising any swirling silt to muddy the water.
Below, check out more images from DINOSAURS and THE LOST WORLD.
Originally created to be a co-feature for BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER, THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN is the Rodney Dangerfield of low-budget Invisible Man movies: it gets no respect, even though it’s really not a bad little effort.
Like BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER, THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN was produced by Miller Consolidated Pictures, directed by cult director Edgar Ulmer, and shot in Texas with very limited funds. Naturally, if one has limited resources, making a special effects film usually isn’t one of the more effective options, but THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN does feature an interesting combination of gangster and science fiction plots, some decent performances, and unlike many similar productions, a decent pace that keeps things moving rather than eating up running time with endless dialogue scenes. The movie opens on the run, in a way, with searchlights illuminating the opening credits (an interesting choice on Ulmer’s part), which quickly transition to Joey Faust (Douglas Kennedy from INVADERS FROM MARS and THE LAND UNKNOWN), an imprisoned safecracker, making his escape from prison. (We see a guard firing a machine gun from one of the prison’s guard towers, but it isn’t clear just what is being shot at as Faust seems to be running along the same wall). Faust gets picked up by Laura Matson (Marguerite Chapman from FLIGHT TO MARS), who drives him to see Krenner (James Griffith from THE VAMPIRE), the man who arranged Faust’s escape. Krenner is a mercenary who has given himself the title of major and who plans to take over the world by creating an army of invisible soldiers. He has arranged for Faust’s escape because he needs Faust to steal some fissionable materials used in the transparency experiments of Dr. Peter Olof (Ivan Triesault from THE MUMMY’S GHOST). Kremer is clearly a megalomaniac whose ambition far exceeds his ability. He offers Faust a thousand dollars to steal radioactive materials from a military nuclear weapons laboratory nearby and seems surprised that the prospect of imperiling his life and freedom for such a small amount does not appeal to the escaped convict. To secure Ulof’s cooperation, Krenner keeps Ulof’s daughter (Carmel Daniel) locked away in a small room in the attic laboratory. Ulof is depicted as a weary, resigned but brilliant scientist who admits to Faust that he killed his own wife when he was forced to conduct medical experiments while in a concentration camp and was given subjects whose faces were hidden. Krenner keeps Faust in line by threatening to kill him and collect a reward from the police (Fauts is wanted dead or alive), and Krenner’s personal thug Julian (Boyd “Red” Morgan) seems quite prepared to carry out the threat.
We first see Dr. Ulof use his transparency ray on a guinea pig, which is strapped down and has parts disappear from view, leaving only some leather straps to indicate its location. Krenner warns the doctor to keep the projector away from the safe containing the fissionable materials needed to make it work, planting a piece of information that will prove significant later. (The minimal visual effects are handled by the Howard A. Anderson Co., which have parts of the subject turn into film negative before disappearing from view. The Anderson company handled optical effects for the original STAR TREK TV series).
Running less than an hour in length, THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN wastes no time in rendering Faust invisible so that he can steal the special “fissionable material” (called X-13) from what looks like a bank vault. The reckless Krenner has Dr. Ulof use the new material immediately on Faust before ascertaining whether it will work as well as the prior radioactive material. The next time Faust becomes invisible, he chooses to rob a bank rather than follow Krenner’s orders to steal more X-13. However, in the midst of the robbery, Faust’s hands and head make an unexpected appearance, causing him to be recognized and take off with Laura on the run.
Returning to the farmhouse, Faust demands Dr. Ulof inform him what’s going wrong. Dr. Ulof urges him to put a stop to Krenner’s plans and gives him the bad news: given his exposure thus far, Faust only has a month left to live. (Naturally if recruits are informed about this minor drawback, it won’t be easy for Krenner to assemble his invisible army).
Laura, who is attracted to Faust, also turns against Krenner, who has done little more than exploit her or slap her around. She reveals to Julian that his son is dead, so Krenner will never be able to keep his promise to rescue the boy. Krenner kills Laura, and upstairs in the laboratory, he and Faust get into a major tussle after Faust releases Ulof’s daughter, during which the transparency projection ray hits the fissionable material and fission occurs, setting off an explosion that wipes out half the county.
THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN ends on what it hopes will be a thoughtful note. A police officer asks Dr. Ulof what should be done about his invention of the invisibility ray. Ulof muses that perhaps it would be best if the secret of transparency were lost, and then turns to the camera to ask the audience “What would you do?”
The performances by Griffith as the unrealistic criminal mastermind and Triesault as the coerced, largely uncaring scientist are both interesting. Except for Morgan, the cast acquits itself professionally. Ulmer’s direction is not particularly inspired, but he got the job done effectively in a short amount of time. This was his last American-made movie. Jack Lewis’ dialogue can be a little strained at times, but it never makes you wince. The film never really amazes, but it is a lively, fast-paced, B-movie thriller. THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN (1960). Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Written by Jack Lewis. Cast: Marguerite Chapman, Douglas Kennedy, James Griffith, Ivan Triesault, Boyd “Red” Morgan, Cornel Daniel, Edward Erwin, Jonathan Ledford, Norman Smith, Patrick Cranshaw, Kevin Kelly, Dennis Adams, Stacy Morgan.