“Terrror Creeps from the fringe of fear to the pit of panic! And horror piles upon suspense as evil plunges into…THE BLACK TORMENT.”
Sounds pretty trashy, right? Like the excessive hyperbole associated with some deservedly forgotten exploitation film from decades past. Well, that assessment is half right: THE BLACK TORMENT is almost forgotten but not deservedly so.
Though the title suggests 1960s Euro-trash (it sounds like a German film imitating an Italian film imitating a British film), this Gothic mystery-thriller is somewhat better than its name suggests, and it actually does hail from Great Britain, exhibiting many of the qualities we associate with Anglo-horror films from that era: solid production values, good actors, atmospheric locations, and a serviceable story line. If you are a fan of classic British horror, looking for something in the same line as Hammer Films (if not as good), then THE BLACK TORMENT is worth checking out.
After a prologue in which a young woman named Lucy (Edina Ronay) is seen desperately running from an unseen attacker, the story has Sir Richard Fordykie (John Turner) returning to his ancestral mansion with his new bride Elizabeth (Heather Sears of Hammer’s 1961 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA). The homecoming is marred by accusations: witnesses claim to have seen Sir Richard pursued at night on horseback by the ghost of his previous wife, and the murdered Lucy died with his name on her lips.
Though hardly a happy homecoming, this opening effectively sets the stage for what follows. The various apparitions, murders, and bumps in the night that follow are mostly by-the-book stuff, but our interest in the plot actually hinges on the increasing tension wrought by the suspicions against Sir Richard. The viewer is continually wondering, “How much worse can his circumstances become?” And the answer is always “Much, much worse!” This engenders our sympathy for the protagonist, regardless of the mechanical plot twists. Yes, Sir Richard is a privileged member of the aristocracy, but all things considered he’s reasonably affable and fair-minded – especially under these trying circumstances – and all the poor guy wants to do is introduce his bride to her new home – but circumstances just won’t let him!
THE BLACK TORMENT eventually moves into Gothic territory when the apparent apparition of Sir Richard’s late wife appears – a white figure first glimpsed through an upper story window, from which she leaped to her death. The tension ratchets up as Sir Richard orders the haunted window barred – only to later find the bars rent asunder – after which the frustrated lord pursues the ghostly figure in a nifty midnight horse ride that nearly ends in Sir Richard lynching by the local superstitious populace.
As in most films of this type, the mystery is whether the supernatural element is real or faked. Early on there is a clue that might offer an explanation for the appearance of his ghostly wife, but the other issue – the witnesses who supposedly saw Sir Richard while he was actually miles away – leaves some room for doubt about exactly what is going on.
At least for a while. The pacing of THE BLACK TORMENT is just slow enough to give viewers time to put all the pieces together before the film actually delivers the big revelation. On the one hand, one has to give the script credit for playing fair, presenting the clues that tie together; however, if the film had only moved a little more quickly, it might have reached its conclusion a step ahead of the audience.
Nevertheless, the film sustains its mood even when the mystery dissipates. We never lose our concern for the predicament suffered by Richard and Elizabeth, and even if you can figure out the basic of the plot, there are one or two details that remain elusive until the end – which unfortunately gets a trifle silly in its effort to work a sword fight into the climax: several by-standers literally stand by during the entire fight – including officers of the law. Oh well, at least the villain(s) get what he/she/they deserve.
Besides Sears, fans of 1960s British horror will note such stalwart supporting players as Patrick Troughton (THE SCARS OF DRACULA, DOCTOR WHO) and Francis De Wolff (also seen in 1964’s DEVIL DOLL). THE BLACK TORMENT is a decent example of what was being produced in England at the time: the directorial style is straight-forward but effective, using the visual materials (costumes, sets, locations) without ostentatiously showing them off. The suspense builds effectively, and the spooky moments (the midnight ride, the discovery of the broken bars) are nicely realized – just enough to send a pleasant shiver down one’s spine.
So, BLACK TORMENT is no lost classic, but it is decent genre entertainment. The film is available on DVD from Redemption Video, a company that usually specializes in sleazy Euro-trash. THE BLACK TORMENT is much less lurid, which may decrease its perceived value among cult film enthusiasts, but fans of old-fashioned thrillers will enjoy a pleasant surprise.
THE BLACK TORMENT is generally overlooked in the usual reference guides and horror history books; in fact, your humble reviewer had never heard of it until embarking on a diligent search for 50th anniversary titles from 1964.* This obscurity is somewhat surprising: although the film does not have the most illustrious pedigree, it was produced by Tony Tenser, who would later give us such memorable horror efforts as Roman Polanski’s REPULSION (1961) and Michael Reeves’ WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968). THE BLACK TORMENT does not deserve the same exalted status, but neither is at an embarrassing skeleton in Tenser’s closet.
Except for Tenser, the behind-the-scenes talent did not go on to any great achievements. Director Robert-Hartford Davis does not have any other memorable genre credits. Co-writer Derek Ford ended up doing nudie comedies such as THE CASTING COUCH, though a year after THE BLACK TORMENT, he and his brother Donald did collaborate on the interesting screenplay for A STUDY IN TERRROR, which pitted Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper.
[rating=3] THE BLACK TORMENT (Compton Films and Tekli British Productions, 1964). Produced by Tony Tenser, Michael Klinger, and Robert Hartford-Davis. Directed by Robert Hartford-Davis. Written by Derek and Donald Ford. 85 minutes. Unrated. In color. Cast: John Turner, Heather Sears, Ann Lynn, Peter Arne, Norman Bird, Raymond Huntley, Annette Whiteley, Francis De Wolff, Joseph Tomelty, Patrick Troughton, Edina Ronay. FOOTNOTE:
THE BLACK TORMENT did not reach the U.S. until 1965. However, it debuted in its native England in 1964.
Celebrating the Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Films of 1964, Cinefantastique looks back at Ray Harryhausen’s classic adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel.
Fifty years ago, special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen took movie-goers on a memorable trip to the moon – a half decade before Neil Armstrong actually reached the lunar surface. Can the cinematic adventure survive not only the test of time but also the incursion of scientific reality, which has debunked the popular notion of life on the moon as a quaint fantasy? The answer is yes: Despite its flaws, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON remains a charming entertainment that stirs our Sense of Wonder with its fantastic imagery, lifting us out of mundane reality and transporting us into an alternative world of the imagination.
To a large extent, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is an archetypal Ray Harryhausen production, which is to say that it initially confounds our expectations only to ultimately confirm them. Critical consensus has taught us to expect an obligatory live-action story that serves only as a showcase for Harryhausen’s marvelous special effects work. However, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON launches with a promising start, raising hopes for a truly good movie, not merely a succession of set-pieces. Although those hopes remain unsatisfied when the curtain falls, the film remains engaging and entertaining, if slightly frustrating.
Utilizing a flashback structure, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON begins with a contemporary prologue depicting a United Nations landing on the moon. The lunar explorers discover a British flag, next to some kind of legal document with a hand-written note on the back, dated 1899, claiming the moon in the name of the Queen of England.
Back on Earth, a team of investigators follow a name on the document to track down Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd), an old man in a nursing home, known as a crank for his dire warnings about the moon. Initially panicked about the recent landing, Bedford calms down and relates his story, which becomes the body of the film…
In 1899, after a series of failed business ventures, Bedford is living in a cottage in a the country, where he hopes to write a successful play. His fiance, Kate Callender (Martha Hyer), a Boston actress, comes to live with him, in anticipation of getting married. Bedford continually demurs, citing financial concerns; what sounds like an excuse has an element of truth, because Bedford is indeed hiding from creditors.
Financial rescue comes in the form of Joseph Cavor (Lionell Jeffries), a research scientist who offers to buy Bedford’s cottage, for fear that his experiments might damage the property. Bedford agrees, on the condition that he be allowed to reinvest the money into Cavor’s experiments into an anti-gravity substance dubbed “Cavorite.” There is only one problem: though he claims to have inherited the cottage from an aunt, Bedford is actually renting it. He circumvents this obstacle by “transferring” the title to Kate, who sells it in her name, unaware of the illegality of the transaction.
With one or two mishaps, Cavor completes his experiments; at one point, an explosion of Cavorite literally lifts the roof off his house. While Bedford waxes over the commercial potential of anti-gravity boots, Cavor dreams of flying to the moon – an idea Bedford dismisses until Cavor tells him the lunar surface is rich in minerals such as gold (“Better than boots, isn’t it?”).
Kate objects to the planned excursion, which she considers a pointless risk, and threatens to return to Boston. However, when she is served with papers for the illegal sale of the cottage, she runs to confront Bedford, who is about to take off with Cavor in an iron sphere that will serve as their space ship. (The film gets off one of its few really good jokes here: Anticipating the take-off, Cavor warns, “There might be a violent shock coming” – and we cut to Kate outside, knocking on the sphere.) Rather than risk her being killed in the blast, Bedford drags her inside.
After a mishap or two, the sphere lands on the moon. Bedford and Cavor explore the terrain and plant the flag that we saw found in the prologue. They also crash through an artificial, concave surface, leading to an underground area with breathable atmosphere. They encounter pygmy-sized insectoid aliens, whom Cavor dubs “Selenites” without much explanation. Surrounded, Bedford fights several them off, possibly killing some, while Cavor laments the “taste of human violence” that Bedford has given to this alien civilization.
Back at the landing area, Bedford and Cavor see that the sphere has been dragged away. Returning underground, they encounter giant caterpillars, which Cavor takes to be “moon calves” – that is, the lunar equivalent of cows, bred for food. Chased by one of the monsters, they get separated. Cavor is captured and, along with Kate, is taken to meet some taller, apparently more advanced Selenites, who manage to translate English well enough to ask him about Cavorite.
Bedford rescues Kate, but Cavor wants to continue communicating with the Selenites. While Bedford and Kate fix the sphere (which has been partially disassembled by the aliens), Cavor stands before the Grand Lunar (never so named on screen), who questions him about human society. Cavor explains that, unlike the Selenites, humanity is divided into different countries, who sometimes make war. When the Grand Lunar expresses concern that other men may follow Cavor and make war on the Moon, Cavor points out that only he knows the secret of Cavorite. The Grand Lunar proclaims that Cavor must remain with his secret.
Unable to fix the sphere without Cavor’s help, Bedford returns to rescue the scientist, blasting away at the Selenites with an elephant gun. Though deploring Bedford’s violence, Cavor repairs the sphere. Bedford and Kate may escape. Cavor chooses to remain behind, to prevent other humans from discovering the secret of Cavorite…
Back in the present day, Bedford and the investigative team interviewing him watch the moon landing on live television. As the astronauts descend beneath the surface, they pass areas that Bedford recognizes, but there are no living beings; in fact, the entire civilization has been wiped out as if by some disease. While the others marvel at this unexpected turn of events, Bedford gazes at the moon through a small telescope pointing out his window. Knowing now that the danger he feared will not materialize, he smiles to himself and mutters, “Cavor had such a terrible cold.”
PLOT AND PERFORMANCES
What can you say about a film that treats the extinction of an entire civilization as a bad joke? Ironically, the best thing you can say is that ending does not work – and it’s to the film’s credit that it does not. Bedford’s closing comment is laughable only if one shares his simplistic view that Selenites were inherently evil – a threat to humanity that need to be extinguished; however, the action in FIRST MEN IN THE MOON does not support this reading, and it’s a bit of a wonder that the filmmakers thought they could get a laugh with his smirking bon mot. (Additionally, there is the matter of Cavor’s almost symptom-free illness; his “terrible cold” manifests only as a few coughs dubbed onto the soundtrack near the end.)
In fact, the faux-funny conclusion of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is symptomatic of the film’s schizophrenic nature, which suggests two scripts spliced together: the first half is comedy romance; the second half is serious science fiction. Presumably, the humor was provided by Jan Read (who had co-scripted Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS the year before), and the serious aspects were provided by science fiction specialist Nigel Kneale (who created such thoughtful scripts as THE QUATERMAS EXPERIMENT). However the contributions break down, the two sensibilities wrestle for supremacy, and if in the end, the serious aspect loses out, at least it leaves an impression strong enough to endear the film to viewers willing to overlook a few lapses.
After a clever opening credits sequence (a graphic of a crescent moon is “eclipsed” by ripples as if we are seeing a reflection in a pool of water), FIRST MEN IN THE MOON begins strong with its depiction of a contemporary lunar landing. The international flavor of the crew, including Americans and Russians, is a nice, progressive touch for a film shot during the Cold War, and the sequence not only provides a spectacular opening; it also updates the Wells novel for contemporary audiences, who already knew more or less what to expect on the moon (a lifeless, arid surface with no atmosphere, unlike the blooming plant life depicted in the book). Thus the screenplay provides the scientifically accurate surface while concealing Wells’ marvels below ground, where they seem a bit more credible.
When the action switches to Earth for a few scenes explaining how the U.N. finds Bedford, the script offers what at first seems like a surfeit of comedy relief, as if over-compensating for the obligatory nature of the connect-the-dots narrative. However, once Bedford’s tale takes us back to 1899, we see that the comedy is not merely “relief”; it is in fact the focus. We get comical sound effects for the boiling Cavorite. We learn that working class people are shiftless and unreliable. Laurie Johnson’s otherwise fine score underlines allegedly humorous moments, inadvertently reminding us how un-funny they are. Kate continually says, “We could get married,” to which Bedford replies, “We could, but…”
Essentially, we are watching a Victorian-era Rom-Com, but the situation is not very amusing for two reasons: First, Arnold Bedford is a bit of a scoundrel; second, he never really does anything to deserve Kate’s forgiveness, but she forgives him anyway (a relationship arc that would be more or less recreated in Harryhausen’s 1969 effort VALLEY OF GWANGI).
Actor Edward Judd almost sells Bedford to us as a lovable rogue. Though the script gives us little reason to admire him, Judd shows us the man’s appealing charm, and to some extent gets us forgive Bedford’s deceptions about his embarrassing financial matters. However, the character crosses the line when he talks Kate into “selling” the cottage in her own name – a ruse that puts her in legal jeopardy.
All of this would be acceptable if the script were setting up Bedford as a flawed character who becomes a better man after Kate calls him on his bullshit; unfortunately, the only time Kate shows a little willpower is when she threatens to return to Boston if Bedford refuses to back out of his lunar voyage. Why this should be the breaking point is unclear (it’s almost as if Bedford is choosing Cavor over her), but she is given a real reason to be angry when she receives the legal summons. Nevertheless, the most she says during the weeks-long trip to the Moon is that she “shouldn’t” forgive Bedford (her tone suggests she does). That’s the last time the topic is even mentioned; the romantic-comedy story line is forgotten once Cavor’s sphere lands, at which point the science fiction half of the film takes over.
This is when FIRST MEN IN THE MOON becomes truly interesting. At first, the film seems to conform to the traditions of cinematic science fiction at the time, which tended to portray aliens as hostile and dangerous, justifying any “defensove” taken by the humans, not matter how overtly hostile. And indeed, if you saw FIRST MEN IN THE MOON when you were five years old, Bedford’s violent reaction to the Selenites seems justified.
However, one suspects that Nigel Kneale saw things differently. Unlike THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), which depicted the scientist’s attempts to communicate as hopelessly naive, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON gives Cavor a fair hearing; his despair over Bedford’s actions is palpable and, to some extent, justified. Presumably, Nigel Kneale’s first draft was thematically sympathetic to Cavor, and Jan Read was brought in to conform the script to the tenor of the times, presenting the questionable Bedford as the macho hero battling the evil aliens.
Yes, the Selenites want to prevent Cavor from returning home, but only to protect themselves from other humans, who might use Cavorite to invade the Moon. One can hardly blame them after hearing Cavor himself describe the human propensity for war, which is horrible and yet considered heroic and noble, even glorious. Unable to resolve the contradiction, Cavor is reduced to almost pleading: “We’re not perfect,” he admits, but insists, “There are men of peace.” To which the Grand Lunar replies, “My concern is men of violence,” and Cavor knows that concern is justified.1
When Bedford interrupts Cavor’s audience with the Grand Lunar, the scene is staged like a traditional rescue, and perhaps we are expected to cheer as Bedford fires his elephant gun, yelling at Cavor that his “audience” with the Grand Lunar is actually a trial. On the other hand, Bedford’s actions seem to confirm the Selenites’ view of humans as dangerously violent,2 and a moment later we are given further reason to doubt Bedford’s character: when Cavor says he did not want to be rescued, Bedford responds, “Don’t flatter yourself. I didn’t risk my neck for you. I need you to repair the sphere.”
Pushing the hapless scientist around and even threatening him, Bedford reveals himself once and for all to be a total ass, loosing any sympathy he may have earned, and when Cavor voluntarily decides to stay behind, it is a truly grand gesture. The young handsome Bedford may conform to the stereotype of a movie hero, but it is Cavor who ultimately behaves heroically, sacrificing his return home both to preserve his secret and also to undo some of the damage Bedford has done.
Much of the credit for this goes to actor Lionel Jeffries, whose sincere performance helps Kneale’s intent shine through. Jeffries perfectly embodies Cavor, first as an absent-minded eccentric in the comical half of the film, then as a dedicated man of science in the latter. His frustration over defending the human race’s less noble characteristics is heartfelt, and his initial reaction to the Selenites’ attempt to translate English is splendid (or “imperial” as the character would say – and let’s not forget the irony of the word in the context of a story about aliens wary of Earth’s intentions).
Jeffries wins us over to such an extent that we cannot laugh at Bedford casual disregard for the extinction of the Selenites, which registers as a tragedy instead of a relief. In this context, one should note that the international nature of the contemporary lunar expedition belies the Grand Lunar’s fear of Earth: humanity has outgrown the war-mongering divisiveness, and one suspects that, had the Selenites survived, the meeting may have gone off peacefully.
The supporting cast is strong, filled with reliable British character actors such as Miles Maleson and Michael Ripper, not to mention a young un-credited Peter Finch (who would eventually win a posthumous Oscar for his role in NETWORK). Martha Hyer deserves some credit for playing the rather thankless leading lady role: though Kate is too gullible and forgiving, Hyer almost makes something of the character. In particular, she pulls off scenes that have defeated many an actor in a Ray Harryhausen film: while staring silently at the off-screen special effects, she actually seems to be looking at something, not just waiting for her cue; while Jeffries is given all the dialogue expounding on the wonders being viewed, Hyer seems on the verge of speaking, as if itching but unable to articulate her reactions.
Still, it is Jeffries show, as far as the live-action actors go. Our final image of Cavor shows him crouching before two Selenites as the sphere takes off in the background, leaving him behind on the Moon. Somehow, the character deserves more.
BEHIND THE CAMERA
Like the majority of Ray Harryhausen’s special effects epics, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON was produced by Charles H. Schneer for Columbia Pictures,. The duo had previously collaborated on an adaptation of a Victorian-era science fiction novel, Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), and Harryhausen had long wanted to film Wells’ War of the Worlds, even going so far as to shoot test footage of the tentacled Martians (though the film ended up made by Paramount instead). Like THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON benefits from the source material, which provides an imaginative, fanciful narrative to which Harryhausen can apply his visual effects magic, though in this case the screenplay is a bit more obviously compromised.
Though shot on a modest budget, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON looks grand in scale. As producer, Schneer kept costs down by putting most of the budget below the line, spending money on the actual production rather than on big-name stars. Wilkie Cooper’s Panavision cinematography (in “Lunacolor”) is beautiful, despite an occasional lapse (e.g., a slightly jittery tilt-down in Bedford’s nursing home). Sets and locations (including some beautiful caverns) effective convey the subterranean lunar landscape with a vividness absent from today’s digitally created backgrounds.
Nathan Juran, who earned a reputation as one of the worst directors ever thanks to his involvement with the bad-movie classic ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN (helmed under the pseudonym Nathan Hertz), proves here that he was actually a competent craftsman, who knew how to stage and shoot a scene with narrative efficiency, if not with a recognizably personal style. Though he resorts to the occasional cliche (the hand that reaches on screen to startle our hero is revealed to belong to a friend)3, Juran also manages a few suspenseful moments (rare in Harryhausen films, which were always wary of scaring off younger viewers), including a nice bit of foreshadowing when we – but not the oblivious characters – first glimpse the lunar inhabitants only as shadows on a cave wall. The script’s comedy may not be particularly funny, but thanks to Juran, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON seldom drags, and once the characters reaches the orbiting orb, the film becomes a non-stop tour of wondrous sights.
Those sights are enhanced by Laurie Johson’s music, which is suitably grand when not obligated to underscore the comic high jinks (the orchestra sounds slightly drunk during the zero gravity scenes). Early on, Johnson uses the recurring motif of a British anthem to tie together the discovery of the British flag on the moon with the presentation of that discovery to Bedford. Later, he offers a stately march as Cavor ascends the stares of the spectacular set for his audience with the Grand Lunar, dotted with strange angular crystals that seem otherworldly but believable.
The cumulative effect is quite impressive, eclipsing the somewhat mundane aspects of the film’s first half. But of course the star of the show remains Harryhausen himself…
THE SPECIAL EFFECTS
Ray Harryhausen is relatively unique in the annals of cinema – a special effects artist who not only provided technical excellence but also contributed to the development of his films, sometimes conceiving sequences that would showcase his visual effects process, which he dubbed Dynamation (short for “Dynamic Animation” or “Dimensional Animation,” to distinguish the work from hand-drawn cartoon animation). In the days before computer-generated imagery, Harryhausen’s specialty was stop-motion, in which miniature creatures, built from foam rubber laid over metal armatures, were manipulated by hand and photographed one frame at a time; the resulting sequence, when projected at regular speed, gave the illusion of motion. Though time-consuming compared to CGI, stop-motion provided a hand-made charm, allowing Harryhausen to work as an artist and almost an actor, imbuing his characters with amazing semblance of life and personality.
FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is somewhat atypical, in that little stop-motion is utilized; the only animated creatures are the giant caterpillars and the larger Selenites. Despite a weak sound effect for their snapping mandibles, the caterpillars are impressive monsters, nicely detailed and animated, their menace enhanced by Johnson’s ponderous score, but essentially they are a throw-away plot device to get Bedford and Cavor separated, and to showcase the technology of the Selenites, who are able to fell the beast with some kind of ray gun. (We later see its skeleton is picked neatly clean – so much for the voracious monster!) The special effects equivalent of a bit player, the caterpillars do not provide Harryhausen with much opportunity for virtuoso work; the lead Selenites; however, are another matter.
The smaller Selenites are portrayed by children in rubber costumes, which are fairly well utilized, though the rubber faces sometimes bend awkwardly. (Harryhausen uses his special effects to increase their numbers, filming the same dozen or so three or four times and matting them into different parts of the frame.) The later Selenites are achieved with stop-motion, which gives them an entirely different character – more insect-like and alien, able to walk on spindly legs that would not support a human actor’s weight.
They also have a peculiar, almost analytic personality, emphasized in a wonderful shot as one of them peers curiously through a distorting lens while observing Kate (who comically appears only as a talking skeleton, as if being examined via some kind of x-ray device). Harryhausen’s staccato stop-motion emphasizes the inhuman aspect of the Selenites, whose portrayal conforms with the attitude of the time, which often depicted alien life forms as emotionless “brainiacs,” who might be able to run an efficient society but would probably rob it of any soul, turning people into mindless drones.4 Perhaps the Selenites could have been portrayed with masks and makeup, but it is unlikely they would have achieved the same unearthly effect.
Other than that, Harryhausen restricts himself to depicting the wonders of a lunar voyage, putting his special effects in the service of the story instead of generating set-pieces to showcase his work. The results are spectacular to behold.The matching of miniatures to full-scale settings is marvelous, shifting seamlessly back and forth, and the composite work is convincing except for a few matte lines betraying the juncture between elements shot separately from each other. (There is also one weird jump-cut as Cavor and Bedford explore the lunar caves: while the angle angle moves in from long-shot to medium-shot on the actors, the matte painting in the background remains at the exact same distance.)
Five years before the first real-life moon landing, Harryhausen does a fine job of visualizing the event in the modern-day prologue, including a reasonably accurate depiction of a lunar module that separates from the mother ship to touch down on the surface. That the astronaut descends from the vehicle by hanging from a wire like a trapeze artist is eccentric but not enough to ruin the spectacle of the moment.
The 1899 landing is a bit less elegant – the bouncing of the sphere betrays its miniature nature – but the trip through space is convincingly rendered. As Cavor and Bedford explore the Moon, the script provides several wonders beneath the surface, which Harryhausne realizes to perfection, including a gargantuan glass cylinders that provide oxygen for the Moon’s subterranean atmosphere and an enormous rotating orb that generates energy from the sun (yes, the 1964 film predicts solar power!). Hell, even the lunar surface is beautiful – more beautiful than the real thing, filled with eye-catching colors that are consistently amazing in both the live-action and the special effects.
Harryhausen’s hand-crafted techniques have their limitations. When combining live-action, matte paintings, miniatures, and models into a single shot, proper alignment usually required the camera to remain motionless (unlike the sweeping crane shots seen in today’s CGI spectacles). Yet this static quality created its own sense of style, forcing Harryhausen to fill the frame with dynamic action and to avoid letting any shot run on too long. Of all his work, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is one of those that best disguises this shortcoming.
Perhaps this is due to the Panavision aspect ratio. FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is the only film Harryhausen ever made in a widescreen format, which allows filmmakers to squeeze more onto the edges of the frame without having to pan back and forth. Though Harryhausen felt the process was too cumbersome for his techniques, he filled the frame with such wonders that they eye is seldom aware that the camera has become locked down to enable the special effects.
Typical for its time, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is a bit dodgy in its science. Although NASA receives a thank you in the credits, implying a level of authenticity, the film makes several unapologetic errors, assuming that viewers are not familiar with even the fundamentals of astronomy.
During the lunar flight, Kate touches the controls, sending the sphere careening off course. Cavor shouts angrily that the ship is now heading “straight for the sun!” His tone somewhat overstates the danger: whereas the Moon is a mere 237,000 miles from Earth, the Sun is 93-million miles away. Assuming the sphere is traveling at the “speed of a bullet” as Cavor says (approximately 800 miles per hour, depending on the bullet), it would take 116,250 hours to reach the sun – that is, 4,843 days or a little bit more than 13 years. Even if the sphere were traveling ten times as fast (which it would need to do to make the lunar voyage in the few weeks the film implies), Cavor would have over a year to readjust the trajectory before falling into the sun. (On another note, though lip service is paid to the issues of food and oxygen, the lack of bathroom facilities is politely overlooked.)
When confronted with the first Selenite, Bedford remarks on the creature’s diminutive stature, to which Cavor replies, “It’s the low gravity” – as if the statement provides some kind of explanation. If low-gravity results in smaller life forms, one wonders how Cavor accounts for the giant caterpillars.
During Cavor and Bedford’s initial moonwalk, the film seems well aware of the low gravity; for instance, the not particularly athletic Cavor leaps into the air like John Carter of Mars. Yet when Kate and Bedford are re-assembling the sphere near the conclusion, they lug the items around as if they were at full weight.
The modern-day expedition beneath the lunar surface is conveyed to Earth via live television broadcast, but we are left to wonder: Who are manning the cameras that film the astronaut’s escape as the Selenite city collapses around them?
I suppose I should mention Cavorite. Back when Wells’ novel was published, Jules Verne (who strove for scientific accuracy in his own work) derided the concept of the anti-gravity Cavorite, famously demanding, “Show me this metal.”
LOOKING BACK FIFTY YEARS LATER
Like much of Harryhausen’s oeuvre, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON falls short of being a masterpiece but remains a joyful entertainment. To some extent its appeal is rooted in nostalgia: a generation of viewers who saw it at an early age recall it fondly and enjoy revisiting it; some of those now-grownups have graduated to making their own science fiction and fantasy films, keeping the Harryhausen legacy alive through the next generation and beyond.
However, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is not merely a museum piece. Its power to captivate an audience remains intact. Though today we are (justifiably) less inclined to forgive Bedford for his dishonesty, and more inclined to question Kate’s devotion to him, the film’s charm lays elsewhere, with Cavor and his mission to the Moon. The fanciful depiction of lunar travel has aged well, partly because the narrative’s framing device accounts for the archaic elements, which were always supposed to look like a leftover remnant from an earlier era. Perhaps more importantly, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON creates its own stylized semblance of space travel. Like the Wells novel, it presents a fantasy rather than believable science fiction, and fantasy’s power to entertain is unchecked by decades of real-world advances in science (unlike the more realistic approach of 1950’s DESTINATION MOON, which seems rather dull now).
Though the film will never stand as Harryhausen’s shining moment – others showcased his talent for amazing animation far more memorably – FIRST MEN IN THE MOON remains a job well done, its old-fashioned approach retaining a special charm five decades later. As Cavor transports himself and his comrades to the Moon, so Harryhausen transports the audience into a world of imagination where scientific impossibility takes a back seat to our Sense of Wonder.
[rating=3] A trip worth taking!
One of the screenplay’s more felicitous decisions was incorporating this material into the main body of the story. Wells’ novel, originally published in serial format in a magazine, was intended to conclude with the sphere taking off and leaving Cavor on the moon, but the author decided to extend the story with three additional chapters in which the scientist sends wireless messages to Earth, offering an anthropological account of Selenite society. Communication is suddenly terminated when the Selenites realize that Cavor could transmit the formula for Cavorite, potentially paving the way for an invasion of the Moon. This extended epilogue worked in the literary format, expanding and deepening what had been up to that point an imaginative adventure rather than science fiction. This structure would have been dramatically anti-climactic in the film, which benefits from using Wells’ sociological ideas in the third act.
This tactic used four years later with the character of Taylor (Charlton Heston) in PLANET OF THE APES (1968).
Juran pulled a similar stunt in the earlier Harryhausen film, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH.
Which is almost literally the case here: when the Selenite chemists have finished their failed attempt to analyze Cavorite, they are cocooned into hibernation. Cavor at first seems to approve of this method for “dealing with unemployment,” until Kate suggests the Selenites may do the same to them. Cavor is suitable horrified – the only time he truly seems wary of the Selenites.
FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (Columbia Pictures, 1964). Produced by Charles H. Schneer. Directed by Nathan Juran. Screenplay by Nigel Kneale and Jan Read, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. 103 minutes. Not rated. Cast: Edward Judd, Martha Hyer, Lionel Jeffries, Miles Malleson, Norman Bird, Gladys Henson, Hugh McDermott, Betty McDowall, Michael Ripper (uncredited), Peter Finch (uncredited), John Forbes-Robertson (uncredited).
Cinefantastique celebrates the good, the bad, and the ugly from five decades ago.
1964 is a transitional year for horror, fantasy, and science fiction films. In the wake of the new wave of Technicolor horror that started in the 1950s, old-fashioned black-and-white atmosphere is seeing its last gasp, with titles such as CASTLE OF BLOOD and THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH. Ringing the death knell, Mario Bava abandons the period setting and moody monochrome of BLACK SUNDAY (a.k.a. THE MASK OF SATAN, 1960) for the lurid hues and modern-day mayhem of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (a.k.a. SIX WOMEN FOR THE ASSASSIN). The foremost proponent of graphic Gothic horror, with an emphasis on bright red blood, Britain’s Hammer Films is recycling old ideas (THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB) but also experimenting with a new monster movie, THE GORGON, which emphasizes tragic romance instead of horror. Meanwhile, the fear of the unknown dramatized so well in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1961) is replaced by the more nuanced view of CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED.
In the world of spy-fi, Bond is back, but the gritty Cold War melodrama of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is extinguished by the over-the-top antics of GOLDFINGER, whose incredible gadgets and laser beams point the way toward the superspy’s eventual entrance into full-blown science fiction a few years later. Although 007 will not leave the stratosphere for a while, the space race is altering science fiction cinema, turning out attention toward the stars more than ever before. Ray Harryhausne leaves the earthbound Greek legends of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) to explore our nearest neighbor in the solar system with THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON. Likewise, Toho Studios, which has been moving away from grim black-and-white science fiction of GODZILLA (1954) toward colorful fantasy, begins offering monsters from outer space, with DOGARA and GHIDORAH: THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER.
Speaking of Japan, though the country has been making wonderful ghost stories for decades (e.g. YOTSUYA KAIDAN in 1959), these films make their first impression on the international market this year, thanks to the one-two punch of ONIBABA and KWAIDAN. The latter, an anthology, includes an episode titled “The Black Hair,” whose imagery will return decades later in the J-Horror wave of the 1990s and early 2000s.
There is an increasingly international feel to cinefantastique. American producer-director Roger Corman moves his series of Poe adaptations to England, where bigger budgets and better supporting casts yield two of his best efforts, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE TOMB OF LIGIEA. Corman’s U.S. distributor, American International Pictures, will follow his example, mounting many of their subsequent productions in the U.K.; they will also release an alternate version of GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (under the title GODZILLA VS. THE THING) that was specifically designed by Toho for international release, with additional scenes of English-speaking actors and American warships.
As usual with genres that depend on satisfying popular taste, many of the films are churned out with little artistry; nevertheless, even some of the lesser efforts show hints of imagination, with enough lively energy to make interesting viewing. Moreover, great titles abound – classics that live on, delighting our Sense of Wonder five decades later: George Pal’s THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO; Robert Aldrich’s HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE; Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB, to name a few.
Here, then, is a rundown of what the year 1964 has to offer those willing to take a trip in the Way Back Machine. Explore at your own risk. There is exploitation aplenty, lurid and shocking, but tempting nonetheless – and not nearly intimidating enough to dissuade brave viewers willing to sift through the sleaze in search of gems.
7 Faces of Dr. Lao
George Pal produced and directed this fantasy film, from a screenplay by Charles Beaumont and Ben Hecht, based on the novel The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney. Tony Randall stars as the enigmatic Chinese magician, who rides into an old western town and changes the lives of the inhabitants with the lessons learned from the magic wonders inside his circus. William Tuttle won an honorary Oscar for his makeup work, which transformed Randall into the titular seven faces (well, one of them is actually a stop-motion puppet voiced by Randall, and another is pretty much a stunt man in a suit). Jim Danforth’s special effects, which also included a fanciful Loch Ness Monster, were nominated by the Academy as well.
Pal is more well known for his apocalyptic science fiction epics, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951) and WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), but 7 FACES OF DR. LAO is equally memorable, its charms lovingly recalled by a generation of children now grown to adulthood. With Babara Eden and Arthur O’Connell.
This is a black-and-white silent film, made by artist Andy Warhol without approval from DC Comics. Taking a campy approach to the character years before the Adam West television series, BATMAN DRACULA was shown only at Warhol’s art exhibits. Jack Smith starred as Batman.
The Black Torment
The title of this unfairly neglected Gothic thriller suggests Euro-Horror – German, maybe Italian – but it is in fact a colorful British production about a wealthy gentleman, Sir Richard Fordyke (John Turner) returning to his ancestral home with his new bride, only to be met with accusations of murder. During his long absence, his dead wife has been wandering the countryside, suggesting she rests uneasy in her grave – perhaps because Sir Richard killed her? Also, Richard himself has supposedly been seen stalking and killing a victim during his absence from home.
The script (by Derek and Donald Ford) and the direction (by Robert Hartford-Davis) are perhaps more workmanlike than inspired, but the competent craftsmanship is more than enough to wring several spooky chills out of the premise of an innocent man, who merely wants to settle down to a quiet life with his wife, bedeviled by rumors, innuendo, a ghost, and possibly a doppleganger. Fans of Hammer horror will spot a few familiar faces in THE BLACK TORMENT, including Heather Sears (THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA).
Blood and Black Lace
Known as Sei Donne per L’assassino (“Six Women for the Assassin) in its native country, the mystery-thriller from director Mario Bava pushes the violence to horrific levels, essentially creating a new sub-genre, the giallo (named after the yellow covers of mystery novels in Italy). Set in the world of high fashion, the story in a programmatic, Ten-Little-Indians kind of way, depicts the death of six beautiful models, each of whom has come in contact with a diary that includes some kind of incriminating evidence that the killer (or killers) wants to keep hidden.
The ultimate explanation of the motivation appears too weak to justify the on-screen carnage, which seems more like the work of a maniac (as the police in the film assume it to be). However, questioning the plot developments is beside the point in this film, which works as a series of gruesomely stylish set-pieces, showing off Bava’s visual artistry. Never has murder been realized with such beauty; the heightened use of color (as when one victim’s face is pushed closer and closer to a red-hot stove) rendered the imagery in almost abstract terms – until you hear the screams of pain. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is must-see viewing.
The Brass Bottle
Tony Randall and Barbara Eden, seen in 7 FACES OF DR. LAO, are together in this fantasy film as well. Randall plays an architect who purchases the titular antique, from which emerges a djinn (like a genie but different, according to the F. Anstey source novel). The joke is that, having been locked inside the brass bottle for many years, this ancient supernatural being (played by Burl Ives) is ill-equipped to deal with the modern world, and his granting of wishes inevitably goes wrong, causing trouble for the architect. Harry Killer directed from a screenplay by Oscar Brodney.
“…one of the duller fantasies dreamed up by Hollywood’s necromancers,” opined the New York Times’ A. H. Weiler upon the initial release of THE BRASS BOTTLE. Little has happened over the ensuing decades to alter that judgement.
A Carol for Another Christmas
This 90-minute made-for-television update of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was scripted by Rod Serling (THE TWILIGHT ZONE) and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. Sterling Hayden plays an industrial tycoon embittered by the loss of his son on Christmas Eve in World War II, until he has a change of attitude thanks to the intercession of the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Steve Lawrence), Christmas Present (Pat Hingle), and Christmas Future (Robert Shaw).
Broadcast on December 28, without commercial interruption, A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS was the first in a series of special promoting the United Nations. As such, Serling’s adaptation was themed as a plea for cooperation between nations. The “all-star cast” included Britt Ekland, Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, James Shigeta, and Peter Sellers (Hayden’s co-star from DR. STRANGELOVE).
Never released on home video, the film has been screened in recent years by Turner Classic Movies, and is available through UCLA’s Film and Television Archive.
Castle of Blood
This splendidly atmospheric Italian ghost story features a contrived plot in which English journalist Alan Foster (Georges Riviere) tracks down Edgar Allan Poe ( Silvano Tranquilli) for an interview, only to end up accepting a challenge from Poe’s acquaintance, Lord Blackwell, whose ancestral castle is supposedly so haunted that no one can survive All Souls Night within its walls. Inside, Foster encounters various spectres from beyond the grave, including Elisabeth Blackwood (Barbara Steele) and Dr. Carmus (Arturo Dominic), the latter of whom theorizes about the distinction between the Death of the Body and the Death of the Spirit (apparently, a violent demise kills the body but leaves the spirit restless and wandering on this earthly plane).
The castle setting, beautifully captured in black-and-white, lends just the right atmosphere for this horror film, which is much enhanced by the presence of Steele as an alluring phantom. The screenplay by Sergio Corbucci and Giovanni Grimaldi has some interesting ideas and pulls off a nice, ambiguous twist ending that is both morbid and romantic. Director Antonio Margheriti (working under his Anthony Dawson pseudonym) handles the material with unobtrusive expertise – he doesn’t have the visual flash of Bava, but he knows how to get the job done in an entertaining fashion.
CASTLE OF BLOOD is known as Danza Macabra (“Macabre Dance”) in Italian. The credits claim the screenplay is based on a story of that name by Poe, though the author bibliography includes no such title. The film was released to American television, in a shortened version, as CASTLE OF TERROR. The longer version, available on DVD, includes dialogue in which the character of Poe recites passages from his work – truly the only Poe material included in the script.
Castle of the Living Dead
This is a relatively minor black-and-white thriller from Italy, whose historical interest lies mostly in the presence of Michael Reeves, who would go on to direct WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968, a.k.a. THE CONQUEROR WORM) before his untimely death a few years later. Though the direction is officially credited to Warren Kiefer and Luciano Ricci (working as “Herbert Wise”), second-unit director Reeves impressed the producers so much that he was allowed to write and direct additional material (apparently focusing on supporting character rather than the main cast).
Christopher Lee (HORROR OF DRACULA) plays another Count, this one named Drago, who mummifies his victims with a secret formula that leaves them frozen, looking exactly as they did at the moment of death. Donald Sutherland plays a comic-relief gendarme who does little to solve the situation but takes credit nonetheless. One of Reeves’ additions to CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (Il Castello dei Morti Vivi) was to give Sutherland a second role, as a witch in drag – a sight that truly must be seen to be believed.
No one is doing his best work here, but Lee’s fans may want to check this out after they have seen everything better. Reeves’ work (mostly on non-dialogue action scenes) are nice but not enough to save the film. The biggest attraction is probably Sutherland’s eccentric performance(s).
Cave of the Living Dead
This little German opus is too much a jumble of conflicting elements to be fully satisfying, but at the same time the mixture is just weird enough to be interesting. Known as Der Fluch Der Gruenen Augen (“The Girl with the Green Eyes”), CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD begins like a James Bond movie, with hip agent Frank Dorin (Adrian Hoven) hanging out in a nightclub, listening to jazz, and eyeing a hot chick while contemplating a well-deserved vacation. Unfortunately, his idyll is interrupted by a call from headquarters, asking him to investigate a rash of mysterious deaths (though not necessarily murders) in a small town. The modern flavor of the opening scenes morphs into a more traditional flavor as Dorin reaches the stricken villa, which hasn’t moved much out of the 19th century. It becomes clear pretty quickly that the problem is vampires and almost as quickly that the source of the problem lives in the local castle, though Dorin takes his time about figuring this out.
The locations, filmed in black-and-white, lend an appropriate atmosphere to the proceedings, even when the narrative is taking its time about getting anywhere, and Dorin’s transformation from modern-day skeptic to believer is nicely underplayed. There are a few visual moments that evoke the glory days of German expressionism, such as the shadow of a vampire cast upon a wall, suggesting the monster’s presence without revealing its true identity. Perhaps the most remarkable moment reveals how the old “he was right behind me but now he’s gone” moment works, the vampiric Professor Adelsberg (Wolfgang Preiss) quickly stepping through a doorway when Dorin is not looking.
Akos Rathonyi directed from a script he co-wrote with Kurt Roecken. and Erika Remberg co-star. Also known as NIGHT OF THE VAMPIRES.
Children of the Damned
This truly remarkable follow-up to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) deserves credit for being one of the few sequels to truly re-think the material, creating a new story that is less a continuation of its predecessor than a complete inversion. The only link is the concept of children, gifted with psychic powers and glowing eyes that make them an (apparent) threat to the normal, human world. Though there is an ominous black-and-white atmosphere similar to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, which depicted the children as an alien menace that needed to be exterminated, CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED presents mankind as the true monsters, afraid of this new breed of humanity without trying to truly understand it.
The original screenplay by John Briley (GANDHI) is fairly clever about serving up its liberal message in an exciting science fiction story. One of the sly jokes is that the two male leads (played by Ian Hendry and Alan Badel) are, respectively, a psychologist and a geneticist, neatly embodying the old “nurture versus nature” debate regarding human development – though in this case, neither one has an answer for why there are suddenly a half a dozen special children from around the world, who may be the next step in human evolution (unlike the previous film, in which the children were implied to be the result of alien invasion). Even the title makes metaphoric sense: the children are not “damned;” they are the children of the “damned” – i.e., the human world that is too paranoid to accept these new beings, whose virgin births and ability to resurrect the dead make them blatant Christ-figures.
Anton M. Leader directed. Barbara Ferris, Alfred Burke, and Patrick Wymark arein the supporting cast.
The Comedy of Terrors
Though not based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, this tongue-in-cheek spoof from American International Pictures is clearly a follow-up to their previous efforts, TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN, both of which had injected the old horror formula with doses of humor. Richard Matheson, who had scripted those two efforts, recycled and revised motifs, inverting character relationships to come up with something recognizable but new. The love triangle from TALES OF TERROR’s middle episode, “The Black Cat,” is back, in the form of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Joyce Jameson, but this time Lorre rather than Price is the third wheel. The story has Price and Lorre as undertakers who save money by reusing the same coffin over and over again, dumping out the body and buring it after mourners have left. The plan goes bad when their latest customer, Mr. Black (Basil Rathbone) is placed to rest above ground, inside a tomb, where the coffin will be visible. Things get worse when Mr. Black returns from the grave to menace the undertakers, who contributed to his “death” when he was trying to collect a debt from them.
Unfortunately, AIP’s resident horror producer-director, Roger Corman was not involved, and his absence is telling. Though THE COMEDY OF TERRORS features a similar look to Corman’s Poe films, right down to exteriors rendered with stylized matte paintings, the result feels like an uninspired forgery, despite the presence of director Jacques Tourneur, who had helmed the excellent CAT PEOPLE (1941) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1942) for producer Val Lewton. The film’s greatest virtue is its cast of classic horror stars, who seem to be having a good time – much better than the audience, unfortunately – delivering lines like “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that thing” (in reference to an attempt to build a replacement coffin). Boris Karloff (FRANKENSTEIN) is on hand as the decrepit former owner of the funeral business (now owned by his son-in-law); he is given little to do, but his funeral eulogy (in which the senile old man cannot recall the name of the dearly departed) is worth a few laughs.
THE COMEDY OF TERRORS actually had its premiere on December 25, 1963 in Detroit, Michigan, but its major release did not take place until the following year, so we included it here among the films of 1964. The film was not a success, and a planned follow-up was abandoned. Matheson ceased writing the Poe films, leaving Corman to find other collaborators for the two that he completed in 1964.
The Creeping Terror
Prepare to have your mind blown by one of the most aggressively awful films ever created – a movie that truly knows no shame as it assaults the viewer with mindless stupidity from beginning to end, justifiably earning a reputation a for unintentional camp that helped make it one of the best episodes of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 ever. Produced, directed, edited by, and starring Arthur Nelson White (who billed himself as “Vic Savage” in front of the camera and “A.J. Nelson” behind), THE CREEPING TERROR is the one with the walking carpet monster – surely cinema’s most hilarious inept example of a slow-moving threat that miraculously manages to overtakes its victims (who more or less have to throw themselves into its maw, because despite the alien’s dangling appendages, it has no functioning claws or tentacles to grab its prey).
This is also the film with no soundtrack. Well, there is canned music and narration; however, there is no live sound recorded while filming. Explanations vary: either the director lost the soundtrack, or he shot silently with the intention of over-dubbing later, only to find the post-production process too time consuming. The result is that the “story” is conveyed by an annoying narrator, who spends most of the time telling us what the characters are saying and explaining action that is self-evident to any viewers who manage to remain non-comatose throughout the proceedings.
The highlight is a dance party invaded by the monster, who eats men and women indiscriminately – though the director’s gaze lingers far more lovingly on the latter, who go in head first and ass-up, kicking and screaming as they crawl inside, pretending to be eaten. In at least one case, the woman’s male companion clearly pushes her toward the monster. (Chivalry is dead – it’s time to look out for Numero Uno!)
Screenwriter Robert Silliphant was the brother of Sterling Silliphant, a successful film and television writer. Though uncredited, Robert’s younger brother Allan is said to have written the original story. Apparently, Sterling’s talent was not genetically transmitted to his siblings: Robert went on to co-script the equally awful THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES; Allan wrote and directed the 3D softcore film THE STEWARDESSES, under the pseudonym “Alf Sillman Jr.
Reportedly hiding from creditors, Vic Savage never made another movie. His story is told in the documentary THE CREEP BEHIND THE CAMERA (2014), which includes dramatic recreations and interviews with the cast of THE CREEPING TERROR.
Crypt of the Vampire
Camillo Mastrocinque, who later directed Barbara Steele in AN ANGEL FOR SATAN (1965), helmed this unofficial adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla. Christopher Lee once again plays a Count, though this time he is protecting his family from vampirism. The screenplay by Tonino Valerii & Ernesto Gastaldi (writing as Robert Bohr and Julian Berry) has Count Karnstein’s innocent daughter, Laura (Adriana Ambesi) befriending Ljuba (Ursula Davis) after the latter’s coach crashes outside the castle. Ljuba turns out to be the witch Scirra, who has been plaguing the Karnstein family for decades.
Release in England as CRYPT OF HORROR, and shown on American television as TERROR IN THE CRYPT, CRYPT OF THE VAMPIRE (originally La Cripta e L’Incubo) has never earned much of a reputation, even among fans of black-and-white ’60s Euro-horror. There is some nice black-and-white photography in this Italian-Spanish co-production, but the pacing is slow (even though the basic outline of LeFanu’s fine tale is still recognizable).
The Curse of the Living Corpse
Stop me if you have heard this one: a bunch of greedy relatives, gathered at an old house for the reading of a will, die in mysterious ways. Even by 1964, this story was older than Dracula’s castle, but that didn’t stop one-man creative team Del Tenny (director, writer, and co-producer) from dusting off the cobwebs for another attempt. The interesting wrinkle here is that the dearly departed had a morbid fear of being buried alive, and his will left specific instructions to prevent this from happening – instructions which the relative ignore in their haste to get their hands on the estate, thus sealing their fate.
This film marks the feature film debut of Roy Scheider, who would essay the iconic role of Chief Brody in JAWS a decade later. Cult movie fans will also note the presence of Candace Hilligoss (CARNIVAL OF SOULS).
Shot in Stamford, Connecticut, on an estate owned by Tenny’s father-in-law, THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE was released on a double bill with THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, another Del Tenny production, filmed around the same time.
Critic Dennis Schwartz advises: “If you love bad films, this one is irresistible.”
The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb
Though not a direct sequel, this second mummy movie from Hammer Films is a rehash of its predecessor, THE MUMMY (1959). To its credit, the scenario (credited to “Henry Younger” – a pen name for producer-director Michael Carreras) offers a few interesting twists on the familiar elements; for instance, actor George Patel is back, playing another Egyptian, but this time instead of aiding the mummy, he turns out to be a good guy.
A very proper British expedition of dedicated archaeologists discovers yet another entombed mummy, but their backer and crass American showman Alexander King (Fred Clark) exploits the discovery for fun and profit – at least until the Mummy revives and kills him. It looks like yet another example of an ancient curse decimating the desecrators of a tomb, but there is something more going on here, something to do with the Mummy’s brother, who may also be walking the Earth as an immortal…
The story is an entertaining mis-mash of forgotten plot threads and neglected motivations; at first, scenes seem to make sense (such as an attempted robbery of Egyptian artifacts), and only later do you realize that we never learn who the robbers were or whether the attempt was not just a set-up, allowing a stranger, Adam Beecham (Terence Morgan) to intervene heroically and gain the trust of the expedition.
Typical for Hammer, the sets and photography are beautiful, and the modest budget goes a long way toward making this look like a lavish production. Unfortunately, stunt man Eddie Powell, his face buried beneath the bandages, brings little personality to the Mummy – which might not normally be a big drawback in a mummy movie, but this one gives the character a back story and a dramatic conflict based on a character conflict with his brother.
Carreras pulls off several nice horror scenes. The attempted capture of the Mummy by the police, after the bandaged juggernaut has crashed through a window into a study, plays like a direct lift from THE MUMMY, once again juxtaposing the decaying ancient figure with brightly colored, modern surroundings, but one attack upon a helpless victim, whose skull is bashed repeatedly with a paperweight, is memorably brutal, without being explicit; the almost methodical way the Mummy raises the weapon for one more blow is just slow enough to give viewers time to gasp, “Oh no, not again!”
All in all, this is a good “Horror Pinch Hitter” – not as good as THE MUMMY, but a good substitute when you tire of repeatedly viewing the original.
Death on the Fourposter
This is another modern-day Euro-thriller that affects a Gothic atmosphere, insofar as much of the action is set inside an old castle and filmed in black-and-white. Mostly the film is about a group of young, hip, swinging ’60s kids, deciding who will sleep with whom. However, the most provocative member of the group starts a little game, in which her allegedly psychic boyfriend predicts horrible demises for the participants.
Originally titled Delitto allo Specchio, and sometimes known as SEX PARTY in England, this little-seen Italian production includes some elements that would later bloom into the giallo genre, but here they play a subordinate role in the narrative (which doesn’t get to the first murder till after the halfway mark). Fans who have tracked it down tend to be modest in their appraisal (the film’s appeal seems to rest more with its attractive female cast than with the thriller elements); however, Johan Melle of Euro-Fever Blogspot writes that DEATH ON THE FOUR POSTER offers “is a superlative early giallo that provides sexy, campy fun from beginning to end.”
Jean Josipovici and Ambrogio Molteni directed, from a script Josipovici co-wrote with Giorgio Stegani. The cast includes John Drew Barrymore (the missing link between John Barrymore and Drew Barrymore), Gloria Milland, Luisa Rivelli, and Antonella Lualdi.
The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse
This is the sixth and final entry in a ’60s-era series of films based on the character previously seen in Fritz Lang’s THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE. Unlike its predecessors. THE DEATH RAY OF DR. MABUSE (Die Todesstrahlen des Dr. Mabuse) supplants the krimi (“crime”) film elements with a more high-tech, science fiction approach, akin to the James Bond films – most notably with the titular death ray.
Working from a screenplay by Ladislas Fodor, Hugo Fregonese directed the German-Italian-French co-production, which features an international cast, including Peter Van Eyck, Yvonne Furneaux (of Hammer Films’ THE MUMMY), Walter Rilla, O.E. Hasse, Rika Dialina, and Robert Beatty. Wolfgang Preiss, who had played Mabuse in the previous films, appears only in re-used footage; the character, apparently now in spirit form, is dubbed by another actor, as he influences a professor to complete the death ray.
The Lexicon of International Film dismissed the movie as “rude and crude.” Poor box office returns doomed plans for further sequels, though the character was revived years later.
Demon in the Blood
This ultra-obscure title apparently hails from Argentina (though IMDB lists it as Mexcian in origin). A three-part anthology, DEMON IN THE BLOOD (El Demonio en la Sangre) showcases tales of ordinary people turning to murder: a black boxer is hypnotized, turning him into a murderer; a married couple is haunted by the ghost of the man’s first wife; a mysterious stranger torments a couple travelling by train.
Rene Mugica directed. The script was co-written by Tomas Eloy Martinez, Augusto Roa Bastos, and Mugica. The cast includes Rosita Quintana, Ubaldo Martinez, Ernesto Bianco, and Wolf Ruvinskis (who starred as Neutron in a series of Mexican masked wrestler movies).
Phil Hardy’s Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror called DEMON IN THE BLOOD “technically competent” but “disappointing” and accused the cast of giving “hammy” performances.
A movie about a ventriloquist and his dummy – think there might be something strange, even supernatural, going on? You guessed right! Although deliberately created to replicate the eerie quality of the ventriloquist’s dummy episode from DEAD OF NIGHT (1945), this black-and-white English production works tolerably well as a crude rip-off, thanks to a creepy dummy and an even creepier performance from Bryant Haliday as The Great Vorelli. The innovation here is that Vorelli is not only a ventriloquist but also a mystic who casts a mesmeric spell over leading lady Marianne Horn (Yvonne Romain, of Hammer’s THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF). William Sylvester (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) plays American journalist Mark English (??), who seeks to unravel the secret of Vorelli’s ambulatory dummy Hugo and hopefully put a stop to Vorelli’s designs on Marianne.
There is a sleazy aura to the film – not only in the Continental version, which adds gratuitous nudity, but also in the original narrative, which has English more or less rape his reluctant girlfriend in a car (she clearly resists, but he presses on regardless) and then pimp her off to Vorelli in the hope getting a good newspaper article about the famous entertainer. Fortunately, the on-stage tension between Vorelli and Hugo is palpable, lending an interesting edge to the proceedings, and the bizarre climax (a physical fight between the two opponents) is both laughably funny and oddly disturbing, leading to a conclusion that is almost satisfying (the villain gets what he deserves, but no thanks to our hero Mark, who was off-screen at the decisive moment).
Lindsay Shonteff directed for producer Richard Gordon, who was responsible for several productions of this type during this era (CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, ISLAND OF TERROR). Ronald Kinnoch and Charles F. Vetter (under the pen names George Barclay and Lance Z. Hargreaves) wrote the screenplay, based on a short story by Frederick E. Smith.
If you like this kind of thing, DEVIL DOLL is worth seeing, especially if you can catch the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 version.
You ever get tired of giant monsters attacking Tokyo? So did the filmmakers, or at least that’s the way it seems when you look at DOGORA (Uchū Daikaijū Dogora – i.e., “Giant Space Monster Dogora”), which conspicuously splices a cops-and-robbers story line involving international jewel theives into the usual kaiju scenario. The intersection between the two plot elements is that the titular monster feeds on coal, including diamonds, the mysterious disapperance of which leads the local diamond ring to be blamed for more robberies than they actually committed; consequently, they set out to discover who’s poaching their territory, and finger Mark Jackson (Robert Dunham), who turns out to be an international agent posing as a criminal.
In between the police procedural elements, the monster attacks just often enough to remind you that this is a monster movie, though the initial special effects sequences are played somewhat tongue-in-cheek (e.g., a sleeping man levitating without waking). Later, there is a fairly spectacular sequence in which Dogora finally materializes – a giant jellyfish floating above the city, its tentacles destroy a bridge like matchsticks. Abandoning the usual man-in-a-suit approach, effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya created a startling, amorphous creature unlike any other in his lengthy filmography (which includes Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and more). Unfortunately, the creature mutates into a less impressive form for the rest of the film, which leaves viewers feeling the climax took place at the film’s midpoint.
The usual crew from Toho Productions was involved here: producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, director Ishiro Honda, screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, composer Akira Ifukube. The cast included Yosuke Natsuki, Yoko Fujiyama, Hirohsi Koizumi, Nobuo Nakamura, Jun Tazaki, and Akiko Wakabayashi as a sultry gangsters moll.
Though DOGORA does not really add up to much, there are some exciting scenes, including a nail-biter in which Mark Jackson and his Japanese police counterpart are tied up and left in a room with a lit stick of dynamite. The effectiveness suggests that director Honda was eager to prove he could handle a more conventional form of suspense that did not require toppling buildings to generate thrills.
Dr. Orloff’s Monster
This is an early effort from cult auteur Jess Franco, whose exploitation excesses have earned him a following among fans of Euro-trash. The story involves a Dr. Fisherman (renamed Dr. Jekyll in some languages), who kills his brother Andros (Hugo BLanco) for cuckolding him, then resurrects him as a mindless zombie that kills on command; plot complications ensue when Fisherman’s niece (Agnes Spaak) arrives for a visit and finds out what happened to her father.
DR. ORLOFF’S MONSTER is the second a series of films named after mad scientist who first appeared in THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF 1962). However, the connection is tenuous at best: there is an early scene of a dying old man (presumably Orloff, though not played by the actor from the previous film) passing on his secrets to Fisherman (Marcelo Arroita-Jauregui), who carries on from there.
Also, it is easy to loose track of exactly where this film comes in the Orloff saga, thanks to confusion over the title. Shot as El Secreto Del Dr. Orloff (“The Secret of Dr. Orloff”) in its native Spain, the film was released as THE MISTRESSES OF DR. JEKYLL in some territories, and did not become known as DR. ORLOFF’S MONSTER until much later – after a subsequent sequel named DR. ORLOFF’S INVISIBLE MONSTER (1971).
Franco’s combination of pretension and sleaze (arty black-and-white approach mingled with gratuitous nudity) has its advocates, but DR. ORLOFF’S MONSTER is not highly regarded, even by fans (thanks at least in part to the absence of the title character).
Long available only in an edited TV version, the Spanish production can now be seen in its uncut European incarnation (taken from a French print, dubbed into English), which is available on DVD and instant streaming.
Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Fifty years after its release, it is more than a little bit redundant to rank producer-director Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy apocalypse among the greatest achievements in the history of cinema; the film is a masterpiece that transcends genre. The science fiction element is small (limited to a Doomsday Device that brings about the end of the world regardless of the effectiveness of enemy attack); nevertheless, DR. STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB stands as a superb example of speculative fiction: What if a general went made and ordered his B-52s to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear warheads?
The premise plays out in a surreal context that juxtaposes the petty foibles of individual humans against the horrifying backdrop of potential human extinction, and the comic absurdity is all the more effective because the grim logic of the narrative seems absolutely convincing. Credit this to the fact that Kubrick based his screenplay, co-written with Terry Sothern, on a serious novel, Red Alert, by Peter George.
If there is anything we can extract from the film today that was not apparent in 1964, it is perhaps the moral imperative of civil and military leaders to ensure that their actions are justified when they send soldiers in their command to war. The various faction we see in the film all perform heroically when seen from their own vantage point: the air force personnel defending their base (not knowing their commander is launching an unprovoked war); the soldiers who are attacking the base to get the recall code from the general, which requires them to fire upon fellow Americans; and most especially, the crew of the B-52 that defies all odds to deliver its payload, in the belief that they are defending friends and family back home from a Soviet attack. The plane’s captain, Major Kong (Slim Pickens, playing to perfection) deserves a medal of valor, and in a weird way it’s a good thing that he ends up vaporized, having sacrificed his life to dislodged a bomb a stuck H-Bomb – and thus never learning the truth that his action triggers the Doomsday Device.
Unlike other Kubrick films, DR. STRANGELOVE is mostly free of elaborate tracking shots; the emphasis is on montage, with exaggerated camera angles, expressionistic black-and-white photography, and stylized performances that emphasize the nightmare nature of the demented comedy. Peter Sellers shines in three roles, particularly the title character – a mad German scientist who seems like a living embodiment of the Death Wish driving mankind to nuclear annihilation. Sterling Hayden is equally memorable as the insane General Ripper, and George C. Scott chews the scenery with gusto (though in fact his performance is the result of Kubrick pushing him further than he wanted to go).
What else can we say about DR. STRANGELOVE, five decades after its debut? Well, apparently the U.S. Air Force reviewed and revised its protocols to prevent this scenario from playing out in real life. There are many films that can lay claim to great artistic achievement; how many can plausibly claim to have helped prevent the end of mankind?
This is the last Hammer horror film to feature the studio’s essential triumvirate of director Terence Fisher and stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Made when the studio was looking for new ideas, but before it had begun its later decline, THE GORGON is an interesting addition to the company’s pantheon of classic monster movies – a sort of tragic love story told as a Gothic fairy tale. It features the company’s glossy production values, including colorful sets and beautiful photography, spiced with usual horrific chills (most memorably the petrified bodies of the Gorgon’s victims). Although never likely to rank alongside the seminal CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), the film is a fine example of the form that deserves a place with Hammer’s other classics, such as CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962).
The story follows Paul (Richard Pasco), a young man who comes to an isolated village where the residents have been dying under mysterious circumstances, their bodies literally petrified. After a close encounter and a fleeting glimpse of a horrifying figure in the shadows, Paul is stricken, though not fatally. His university professor, Karl Meister (Christopher Lee) shows up to lend assistance and soon deduces that Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing) is concealing the identity of the Gorgon. Unfortunately for Paul, the monster turns out to be Namaroff’s assistant, Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley, previously seen in 1957’s CAT GIRL), with whom Paul has fallen in love. Although normal during daylight hours, Carla is possessed by an ancient spirit that, werewolf-like, turns her into a monster during the full moon. The next time the moon rises, Paul, Professor Meister, and Dr. Namaroff converge on the abandoned castle, where the Gorgon is known to lurk, for a final, fatal confrontation…
Scripted by John Gilling (who would go on to write and/or direct THE REPTILE and PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES), THE GORGON is an imaginative attempt to take the famous creature from Greek mythology and turn it into a viable movie monster by lifting bits and pieces of lore from other creatures of the night, most notably the werewolf. Consequently, the film has an almost achingly fatalistic tone, with an innocent individual cursed to do evil against her will, whose only hope for salvation lies in her own death.
This sets THE GORGON apart from Hammer’s earlier Frankenstein and Dracula titles, which often evinced the aesthetic of robust action film: colorful, dynamic, exciting. THE GORGON is more stately and sad. The narrative is in no hurry to string shock scenes together, and the suspense is minimal, restricted to a few key points. Instead, the film’s goal is, clearly, to work on an emotional level by emphasizing the doomed romance. The result may not jerk quite as many tears as the ending of TITANIC, but it works on its own level quite well.
As one would expect from a Hammer production, the sets, costumes, and photography all combine to create a wonderfully atmospheric version of a haunted European landscape, which belongs more properly to the realm of imagination that reality. The period detail may or may not be correct, but it does not matter: the film takes place in that same self-contained universe that is home to all Hammer horrors.
Horror stars Lee and Cushing also do expert work. As was usually the case, their combined efforts create a wonderful sort of chemistry that is more than the sum of its parts, making them the greatest duo in the history of the horror genre. The script even contrives to play a little game with audience expectations, delaying the inevitable confrontation between the two stars until viewers have just about given up hope — and then springing it on them after it seemed that it would not be happening after all.
Cushing delivers another variation on his Frankenstein persona, a doctor who runs an asylum and serves as a cornoer, but his villainy is more ambiguous. Clearly, he is covering up the truth, but he appears to be doing out of concern, even love, for Carla. For all his cold-heared precision, he ultimately succumbs to his emotions, risking his life to confront Carla in her Gorgon form – and failing because he cannot resist the urge to gaze upon her face.
Lee gets a rare opportunity to shine in a heroic role as the gruff, sarcastic Meister, taking the attributes he usually used to invoke fear (e.g., his imposing stature) and turning them to the side of the angels. The actor has a wonderful moment when Meister warns the local constable (Patrick Troughton) that the townsfolk had better not try to run him out of town (as they did his predecessor). Coming from anyone else, the line would sound like an empty threat (is Meister saying he will take on an entire mob, single-handed?), but Lee’s delivery imbues the words with conviction. (You’re almost sorry he never gets to make good on his threat.)
Barbara Shelly is excellent in the title role. Although not as glamorous as some of Hammer’s other leading ladies, she was perhaps the finest actress, and it is sad that she never became a bigger star in the genre despite her many good performances in a variety of roles ranging from RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK to QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (a.k.a. FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH). Here, as in DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS and CAT GIRL, she deftly handles a schizoid role, half love interest and half monster. The briefly glimpsed Gorgon makeup is quite good in terms of its frightening look, especially when Fisher keeps it in shadows. Unfortunately, the special effects component, which brings the serpents to life, is slightly disappointing: the movements of the snakes writhing in the Gorgon’s hair have a mechanical quality that undermines the effect. Although Barbara Shelley wanted to play the character beneath the makeup, the producers were afraid that audiences would recognize her early on, giving away the surprise that Carla is the Gorgon; consequently, actress Prudence Hyman played the title character.
As a pure horror film, THE GORGON may be a disappointment. The fear-factor is not up to the levels of Hammer’s highest efforts, and the scares tend to be low-key, lacking the action-packed punch of, for example, HORROR OF DRACULA. Instead of a bloodthirsty Count leaping over a table and hurling his vampire mistress to the floor, you get a snake-headed woman lurking the shadows and staring at her victims — a sort of static tableau that does not necessarily set adrenalin coursing through the veins.
But then, Terence Fisher was never a pure horror director. In the definitive career interview he gave to Cinefantastique magazine in the early 1970s, he expressed less interest in the mechanics of suspense, as exemplified by Alfred Hitchcock, than in the melodramatics of Frank Borzage. Fisher always wanted to make a love story, and here he gets his chance — albeit a doomed love story. The emotional underpinnings raise THE GORGON to the level of a genre gem, even if you are more likely to cry than scream. THE GORGON (1964). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by John Gilling, story by J. Llewellyn Devine. Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Richard Pasco, Barbara Shelley, Michael Goodliffe, Patrick Troughton, Jack Watson. RELATED ARTICLES:
This film features Vincent Price (the Merchant of Menace) in one of his finest roles—as Prince Prospero. Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, producer-director Roger Corman’s film mostly eschews shock tactics and formulaic suspense, instead emphasizing the moral aspect of horror, as the Devil-worshipping Prince tries to win over an innocent Christian (Jane Asher) to his satanic beliefs. Prospero’s efforts are interrupted, however, by the intrusion of a titular plague, embodied in the form of a red-cloaked reaper who intones philosophic aphorisms like “Each man creates his own Gods from within himself—his own Heaven, and his own Hell.” In one of his best villainous performances, Price displays admirable restraint, avoiding the over-the-top ham that typified his horror roles at this time, instead putting his tongue-in-cheek style in the service of his bemused character (instead of using it as a sarcastic comment on the character), and the script is sophisticated in a way that few horror films are. Corman does the best work of his career, aided by the wonderful cinematography of Nicolas Roeg. Continue reading “Masque of the Red Death (1964) – A Retrospective”→
This fifth film in the Godzilla series (following MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA) is highly regarded among fans who first saw it on television as children, but anyone looking for an awesome monster movie had best look elsewhere. By this time, the franchise had given up all pretense of serious science-fiction, opting for comic antics: this is the film in which Godzilla abandons his role as a walking metaphor for nuclear destruction and morphs from villain to hero, teaming up with fellow Earth monsters Rodan and Mothra to defeat King Ghidorah, an extra-terrestrial menace that previously eradicated all life on Venus.
The convoluted plot has a Japanese policeman protecting the visiting Princess Salno (Wakabayashi), who is under threat of assassination. After her plane explodes over the ocean, the Princess somehow shows up alive, now believing herself to be a prophet from Venus; she warns of the advent of King Ghidorah, a space monster that destroyed her world millennia ago.
Coincidentally, Godzilla and Rodan reappear, and the twin fairies from Mothra’s Infant Island summon their god (now in caterpillar form, since the conclusion of MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA) to convince the two rampaging reptiles to fight the three-headed dragon. (This film includes the infamous scene of Mothra, Rodan, and Godzilla literally conversing in monster language.) Meanwhile, assassins attempt to kill the Princess, who neglects to take precautionary measures because she does not remember being the Princess. Fortunately, the monsters interrupt the assassination attempts (e.g., knocking down power lines when she is about to be electrocuted), and Princess Salno regains her memory just as the final assassin is killed in a landslide caused by the monster battle, which ends with Ghidorah flying away in defeat.
Even by the waning standards of Toho monster movies, GHIDORAH is weak. Its message about cooperation in the face of a common enemy is delivered on the level of a kiddie flick. The pacing is slow, padded out with repetetive and/or unnecessary scenes. Just when the action does seem to be building to a climax, the movie inserts frustrating fade-outs reminiscent of a made-for-television film (you expect a commercial break to cover up the fact that we’re transitioning away from action we want to see).
The idea seems to have been to cross-polinate two genres: science-fiction and international intrigue. The two mix about as well as oil and water, and the screenplay’s trick of having the monster action conveniently assist the humans wears thin pretty quickly. Part of the problem is the jarring tonal shifts between the live action and the special effects. Director Ishiro Honda shows a few touches of wit early on (especially when poking fun at the amateur astronomers awaiting the arrival of a UFO – which never shows up), but he mostly plays the human action straight. Special effects director Eija Tsuburaya, on the other hand, handles the monsters like comical Muppets, with antics barely one step removed from the Three Stooges.
To be fair, if one embraces the silliness, some of it is amusing. Rodan’s shift from laughter – when Godzilla is being doused by Mothra’s silk-spinning – to consternation – when the thread is turned on him – is a juvenile laugh riot. At times, GHIDORAH does work on its own terms, as when the titular menace blasts the relatively puny Mothra caterpillar and the humans cry out in alarm; for a brief moment, the action has actual impact, above and beyond a cheap laugh.
Even taking this into consideration, the special effects have noticably degraded in this film. There are fewer process shots to combine live-action with special effects, making the monster footage seem like puppet theatre cut into the movie. Citywide destruction is kept to a minimum, in favor of staging most of the battle in rural areas. Also, this is the first Godzilla film in which there is no military effort to defeat the monsters; the humans simply stand around and watch while the monsters battle it out.
The cast of human characters is pretty colorless. The only sparks fly at the very end when Princess Salno bids farewell to her policeman-protector: their eyes express the emotions they are not allowed to voice. Other than that, GHIDORAH is a tepid affair, okay for fanatics but requiring too huge a suspension of disbelief to be regarded as much more than a campy trifle.
If GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER deserves to be remembered, it is for introducing the magnificent monster that would go on to be Godzilla’s most popular foe, appearing in no less than six subsequent G-films. (Besides Godzilla, Mothra is the only Toho monster with more on-screen appearances.) Ghidorah is presented here as a scourge of the Solar System, an uncontrollable force of destruction capable of reducing entire worlds to burnt-out desolation. Unfortunately, this concept would be abandoned in most of the monster’s subsequent appearances, in which the three-headed dragon was reduced to the status of a super weapon, controlled by advanced civilizations seeking to overpower Earth. In this, his first on-screen appearance, Ghidorah makes an indelible impression as the interplanetary destroyer of worlds; too bad the film itself fails to live up to the concept.
The Toho Masters Collection DVD (ASIN: B000OCY7IU) features both the original Japanese cut of the movie, with optional subtitles, and the re-edited American version. The transfer and framing of both versions is satisfactory (unlike the same company’s MOTHRA VS GODZILLA DVD, in which the American version was badly cropped, cutting off the edges of the wide-screen photography). The color is good (better than the faded prints available for theatrical retrospective screenings), but it is not as clear and sharp as DVD releases of other Toho films from the same period.
Also on the disc are an original Japanese trailer, galleries of posters and photographs, a biography of Eiji Tsuburaya, and audio commentary by David Kalat (author of A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Films).
The trailer is of mild interest because it includes a few unfinished effects scenes, such as Godzilla reacting to the lightening blasts from King Ghidorah, which have not been added to the shot yet. There are also a couple of cuts clearly showing a hand-puppet version of Godzilla that does not match the full-size suite worn by the actor.
The galleries include only a handful of posters and photographs, but unlike most DVD galleries, these contain elaborate captions that identify the images and explain their significance.
The video biography of special effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya is, in essence, a slide-show: comprised of still photos and narration, it does a good job of hitting the high points in Tsuburaya’s life and career; even hardcore fans, already familiar with the details, will find it interesting.
The Japanese cut of the film is approximately ten minutes longer than the American version, but in this case (unlike most of Toho’s efforts) it is not clear that the original version is superior. The longer cut moves at a slower pace, and much of the footage missing from the American version adds little to the story. In the most egregious example, the twin fairies sing not once but twice to Mothra; the second scene is virtually identical, cut for cut, to the first. The American re-edit wisely deleted the unnecessary reprise.
The American version moves along more quickly, but the re-editing introduces problems of its own. The arrival of the meteor that brings Ghidorah to Earth is moved up to the opening sequence, and the monster emerges from the meteor (in a spectacular display of pyrotechnics) much earlier. This creates an absurd situation in which Princess Salno is prophesying the arrival of a creature that has already arrived, and yet it seems to be news to the people listening to her.
Another silly bit of rejiggering leaves what looks like a gaping hole in the effects: Godzilla wades ashore, hears the sounds of Rodan flying overhead, and looks up; unfortunately, the POV shot of the clouds overhead shows no sign of the giant pteranodon – just empty sky. The glaring absence suggests that the effects team forgot to add Rodan into the shot. This turns out not to be true: in the original Japanese continuity, Rodan is first heard, then seen emerging from the clouds; after being briefly visible, he disappears back into the clouds. In the American version, the shots of Rodan have been moved up to an earlier scene of Godzilla in the ocean, implying that the sea-going dinosaur notices the flying monster and follows him to land. Reshuffling the footage creates the odd continuity gap, leaving no visible reason for Rodan’s mysterious disappearance.
The re-dubbing has its good and bad points. For some reason, Princess Salno’s Venusian prophetess becomes a Martian in the English-language version. On the negative side, giving regional accents to characters in a rural area creates Japanese characters who sound as if they wandered in from the set of FARGO. On the positive side, sound effects from the monsters were added in the background of the final gun battle between the policeman and the assassin, creating a stronger connection with the climactic monster battle taking place just over the hill.
The audio commentary by David Kalat, which plays over the American version, is a bit disappointing. Although Kalat obviously knows his stuff, he seems too eager to retract statements he made in his book (about the preferability of subtitling to dubbing) while mounting a case for the superiority of the American re-edit, and he is equally eager to downplay the flaws in GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER, both in the original version and in the English-dubbing.
Fortunately, Kalat’s formidable analytical skills have not completely abandoned him, and when he gets off his pro-dubbing soap box he does have interesting observations to make. Most notably, GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER represents a considerable advance for female characters in the series, who take a more active role in solving the problem, instead of waiting around for the men to rescue them. Kalat also points out that Princess Salno is at her most assertive when she has abandoned her royal garb in favor of a male fisherman’s hat and coat. When her rescuers put her back into female clothing, her assertiveness begins to recede, until by the end of the film she is back in her former role.
The Toho Masters DVD of GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER does a good job of presenting this historically important (if over-rated) entry in the Godzilla series. For many American viewers, this is the first opportunity to see the original Japanese version of the film, which in and of itself makes the disc worth a rental. It is also nice to have the American dub preserved for comparison purposes. But neither the quality of the film, nor of the DVD bonus features, is enough to make this an essential part of a sci-fi fan’s collection. Owning this one is strictly for hardcore fanatics and completists.
When first released in the United States, the title of the film was spelled GHIDRAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER, making the monster’s name only two syllables instead of three. As David Kalat points out in his DVD audio commentary, the Japanese language is spelled in such a way that two consonant sounds cannot be contiguous; a correct rendering of the original Japanese spelling produces the revised title GHIDORAH. (Although the spelling and pronunciation may have varied slightly over the years, Ghidorah’s subsequent film appearances utilized a three-syllable version of the name.)
GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (a.k.a. San Daikaiju: Chikyu Saidai No Kessen [“Three Giant Monsters: Earth’s Greatest Battle”], 1964). Directed by Ishiro Honda. Written by Shinichi Sekizawa. Cast: Yosuke Natsuki, Huniko Hoshi, Hiroshi Koizumi, Akiko Wakabayashi, Emi Ito, Yumi Ito, Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata, Hisaya Ito, Minoru Takada, Sensho Matsumoto.