1910s & 20s * 30s * 40s * Pre-50s * Frankenstein * Atomic Angst * 1950 * 1951 * 1952 * 1953 * 1954 * 1955 * 1956 * 1957 * 1958 * 1959 *
1960 * 1961 * 1962 * 1963 * 1964 * 1965 * 1966 * 1967 * 1968 * 1969 * 1970 * 1971 * 1972 * 1973 * 1974 * 1975 * 1976 * 1977 * 1978 * 1979

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Science catches up with the 50s

On Monday, December 21st, modern science finally caught up with the vision of space technology from the 1950s. SpaceX finally succeeded in making their Falcon 9 rocket return to earth -- under power -- to land upright on legs.  You can see a short YouTube video here, that shows the landing as seen from a helicopter.

For fans of sci-fi films from the 50s, SpaceX's accomplishment almost seems like a non-event. We've been watching rockets descend under power, to land on their legs since Destination Moon (1950). From sci-fi dreamers to kids reading comic books, the powered landing was just intuitively the "right" way to do it.

Perhaps 50s (and even 60s) technology was not up to the dreamers' visions. NASA decided, even before the first Mercury capsules went into space, that such landings were impossible. They built their whole system around the assumption of the single-use launch system. Perhaps institutional inertia was to blame, but the vertical powered landing was never considered.

So, congratulations SpaceX. You've finally accomplished what us 50s sci-fi fans had expected all along. Keep it up. We are still waiting for our big-wheel space stations and planets full of beautiful women.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Journey to the Center of the Earth

The major studios were still cautious about producing big budget sci-fi. Jules Verne was a safe conservative choice. Journey to the Center of the Earth (JCE) was more adventure fiction or travel fiction than science fiction movie. Verne's novel drew from the science of geology. His literary style was prone to long expository stretches, so the "science" element was more obvious. The 20th Century Fox movie pares away most of that exposition, in favor of action. Nonetheless, geology is the science connection.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Geology professor Oliver Lindenbrook is given a hunk of lava rock by a student, Alex. It turns out to contain a message from Arne Saknussem, an explorer who disappeared years before, on an expedition to the center of the earth. Oliver writes to a swedish expert, only to find out that this expert is mounting an expedition first. Oliver travels to Iceland. Professor Göteborg is found dead, poisoned by Count Saknussem, descendant of the famous Arne, who believes the underworld belongs to him. Carla Göteborg insists on joining Oliver, Alex and Hans. The Oliver and party descend, shadowed by the Count. They find marks left by Arne. The Count fakes some marks to waylay them. Alex becomes separated from the rest. Through travels and travails, they become reunited and have reluctantly had to add the Count to the group. They find the underworld sea. They build a raft to cross it, thereby escaping the giant Dimenodons. A whirlpool at the center of the earth shipwrecks them onto a beach. In a nearby cave, the Count (who has eaten Gertrude) dies in a rock slide. This opens a passage to the ruins of Atlantis. The skeleton of Arne points to a windy shaft back to the surface. It is blocked, however, so Oliver blows it up. This causes earthquakes and lava flows. The four shelter in an asbestos altar bowl. The lava pushes the bowl up the shaft to safety. All are welcomed home as heros, though no one can prove what they saw. Alex marries Jenny. Oliver proposes to Carla.The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The A-level acting and well done musical score are a refreshing treat from a steady diet of B-level sci-fi. The sets and painting build a sense of wonder. The story, while not pure Verne, is well paced and entertaining.

Cold War Angle
The screenplay maintains Verne's 19th century point of view. It is worth noting that they avoided grafting in any Cold War modernism, unlike 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ('54) and From Earth to the Moon ('58) in which the writers inserted a nuclear parallel.

Sub-Terranian -- The notion that the earth was hollow, or at least had large habitable zones inside it, is ancient. The Greeks imagined Hades' underworld as an alternate world which surface folk could travel to and from. Q.v. Orpheus. The notion persisted until the 1800s. Edmund Halley (of comet fame) thought the earth might be hollow. Leonhard Euler thought there were holes at the poles that connected upper and lower worlds. A Captain Symmes wrote pamphlets and promoted (vigorously) the idea of going to search for these openings. Verne took the notion and ran with it. The idea that the earth had a deep magma layer and a solid core was not proposed until the 1910s.

 Book vs. Hollywood -- The script of JCE was fairly faithful to the spirit of Verne's tale, but not slavishly so. JCE is closer to the novel than Unknown World ('51) which was loosely based on Verne's story. Fox's movie version of JCE added a Disneyesque cute animal (Gertrude the duck) and two women for romantic interest. Verne did not usually clutter his tales with romance. The writers also changed the lead character from a German (Otto Leidenbrock) of Hamburg to a Scot (Oliver Lindenbrook) of Edinburgh. Perhaps it was still a bit too soon after the Second World War to have a German protagonist.

Bottom line? JCE is not an especially science-y sci-fi, but it is very well done. The sets, the music, the acting, all make a fine performance. The story is well written and nicely avoids Verne's penchant for long stretches of exposition. JCE is a great family movie.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Sting of Death

Reader “Robin” suggested that Sting of Death (SoD) might be a good addition to this sci-fi collections. Admittedly, SoD was passed over when this study was viewing through films of the 60s as most sources classified it as horror. Upon deeper examination, SoD does have a hint of sci-fi and turns out to be a fitting follow-up to the two recently reviewed films from the 40s, The Bat (’40) and The Flying Serpent (’46). All three films feature a ‘mad’ scientist using his creation to kill off people he does not like. This similarity does not make SoD a good film. It’s relative obscurity is not undeserved. It does, however, deserve inclusion.

Quick Plot Synopsis

A slimy, rubbery hand of the “monster” sabotages a two-way radio. The monster then pulls under the water, and drowns a blonde sunbather. Under the title and credits, the mostly-hidden monster ferries the dead blonde to an underwater lair. When Dr. Richardson, his adult daughter Karen and Dr. John Hoyt return to their island compound in the everglades, Ruth’s absence is noted, but of much concern. Egon is the slightly disfigured, but otherwise normal assistant to Doc. Egon is smitten with Karen and professionally jealous that the hunky Dr. John replaced him as Doc’s assistant. A boat load of rowdy young adults (classmates/friends of Karen) come to the island to spend spring break helping Doc do his research on sea life and evolution (?). The visitors are rude and insensitive to Egon: teasing, chasing, laughing. The youth proceed to dance around the pool to a peculiar pop tune by Neil Sedaka: “The Jellyfish”. The monster lurks in the pool and attacks Louise (one of the taunters of Egon). She is pulled out, but the monster then attacks the young man who taunted Egon. Both suffer from ‘horrible’ stings, but are not dead. Most of the youth take the injured man to the hospital in Doc’s big boat. The monster damaged the boat, so it stalls and founders. A ‘swarm’(?) of regular jellyfish (plastic bags floating on the water) “attack” the sinking boat. Much panic, flailing and screaming ensues and drags on too long. Eventually, all the youth are dead in the water. Back on the island, the other youth are stalked and killed one by one. Eventually, Egon captures Karen after professing his love for her. She faints. He absconds with her via his airboat. Doc and John pursue in their airboat. A long chase through vast tracts of everglades grasses ensues. Engine trouble for Doc’s boat gives Egon time to get to his underwater entrance to his secret ‘cave’ lab. He takes Karen there and professes his great love for her. She rebuffs his creepy mauling form of love. Perhaps in an effort to persuade Karen of his merits, Egon monologues about his ‘genius’. He was able to grow giant (20”) jellyfish when everyone said he could not. His secret was: seawater, electricity and human blood. Breathing deeply from the fumes thus created, is what turns Egon into the jellyfish-man-creature. He transforms. John appears with an underwater flare. They spar and wrestle and dance around in the cave while Karen looks passive and sick in the background. John drops his flare in the big aquarium tank with the ‘giant’ jellyfish. This somehow throws off the magic of Egon’s “science”, causing the jellyfish monster to swoon and all his sparky electrical equipment to smoke. Sensing an immanent explosion, John tries to get Karen to flee. She’s worried about Egon, who has partially un-transformed. In a last ditch show of humanity, Egon-monster tells John to save Karen from the impending explosion. John and Karen swim away. Once on Doc’s airboat, the undersea cave ‘explodes’ (makes a lot of bubbles). The three ride off into the everglade distance. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
For those who love ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ films, SoD has a lot to offer. The monster costume is bad enough to bring a smile. On the plus side, Grefe and Fink did fill the cast with some pretty young women, if 60s styles don’t bother you.

Cultural Context
Indie Club — Southern California had a virtual lock on film production, even in the low-B grade films. Cheap and quick as they were, the Poverty Row studios were still in California. That did not stop some people from trying to spark alternate movie industry hubs. William Grefe was a south Florida director/writer who thought Florida could be the new Hollywood. Grefe, along with producer Joseph Fink and a handful of others, created several B films in the mid-60s. They had a crowd of regulars for workers and actors. None of their films even approached the work of Poverty Row, but that did not stop them from trying. They were a group making movies!

Low B — SoD was born with low expectations. Grefe had written and directed Death Curse of Tartu in 1966. (Fink was the producer). Tartu was a low-B film itself. Grefe and Fink needed to create an even cheaper film so Tartu could be released as a double feature. William Kerwin was a busy third-tier actor and jack-of-all-trades (production manager, sound man, camera man, writer, etc.) Kerwin provided a screenplay (with Al Dempsey another bit actor) for a monster movie that was a mishmash of traditional tropes. Kerwin’s story might have made for a less risible film with a bigger budget (better monster costume) and more time, but SoD was born to be the B film for an already low-B first feature.

Trope Sampler — Some see in SoD, a low-budget knock off of Creature From The Black Lagoon (’54), though the parallels are few. Both were set in “wet” tropical settings. Both featured some underwater footage. There was also an ‘attraction’ between the monster and the “good” girl. But, there are as many differences between SoD and CFBL as there are similarities. SoD has a hint of Dr. Jekyll to it, as Egon’s experiments appear to have inadvertently turned HIM into the monster. There are hints of The Bat in that the mad scientist uses his creation to kill off his enemies. There is also a touch of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the disfigured Egon being in love with the fair Karen, including the abduction. No doubt, other plot parallels can be found too.

Senseless Killings? — Being a low-B horror film, audiences expected random people to be killed for no particularly good reason. SoD delivers the expected, but actually tried to provide a motive for the murders. During his cave monologue, Egon explained that his experiments to grow really big jellyfish required: 1, sea water. (easy, they’re in Florida), 2, electricity (that magic ingredient since Frankenstein) and 3, human blood. That’s why the “missing” fishermen were missing and why the monster drown the sunbather, then swam her body down to his secret cave. He wanted their blood for his jellyfish experiments. This was very poorly developed in the screenplay, but then, the purpose of the film was more simple — gratuitous violence to sell tickets.

Man or Beast? — The costume for the monster was so cheaply done that viewers could be excused for no knowing if the killer was really supposed to be a freakish beast, or just Egon dressing up as a jellyfish. After all, the beast appeared to be just a guy in a black wetsuit with a plastic bubble on his head and some limp ‘tentacles.’ At times, the actor’s ankles showed between wetsuit legs and flippers. At times, the actor’s face/head were fairly visible within the painted plastic bag ‘head’. Was it really a beast, or just Egon? The answer is easily missed, but lies in the poorly done transformation scene. After his monologue in the cave, Egon fires up his sparky machines. The aquarium bubbles and makes dry ice fog. Egon breathes in the fog. Some slimy lumps develop on his face. Then, suddenly, he is fully beast. As a sentient were-jelly, the beast retains Egon’s mind, but now with deadly stinging power.

Sudden Demise — Another spot where the production did not bother, was making it clear just what killed the beast. Grefe spent a lot of time and footage on agonizingly slow stalk attacks and airboat chases, but only a few feet of film on the turning point. Viewers could be excused for missing it. During the standoff “fight” between John and the beast, John drops his underwater flare into the aquarium tank. The flare, apparently kills the big jelly fish Egon had grown. Apparently, the Egon/Beast was an extension of this ‘murderous creature’. So, when the tank jelly died, the Egon/Beast would too. Why all this would make Egon’s equipment short out, was not explained. Nor why said equipment should explode. Details. Grefe had enough film for a second-feature movie, so just needed to wrap it all up quickly. So he did.

Lite Voyeur — A regular feature in Grefe’s mid-60s B films was a segment in which several youth dance (60s dance moves) to some lite pop music. Grefe would then zoom in close to catch the jiggle of the young ladies backsides and upstairs. These dance scenes did not advance the plot so much as it provided the young male movie-goer with some extra-soft voyeurism.

Bottom line? SoD is a marginal film that suffers from the usual problems of weak acting, poor effects and numerous plot problems. Even as a “horror” film, it is scant horror. There is barely any sci-fi to it, but diligent viewers will find a little bit of the classic tropes in the final reel. For fans of so-bad-it’s-good films, SoD can be entertaining. For viewers who expect believable effects, good acting and a logical plot, SoD will probably be annoying.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Flying Serpent

The success or failure of B movies produced by Poverty Row studios was not all that closely tracked. One sure sign of a B movie’s success was that it was copied. Producers Releasing Corporation’s 1940 Devil Bat, starring Bela Lugosi, must have been a hit (so far as B movies ever were “hits”) because PRC put out a copy of it in 1946 entitled The Flying Serpent (TFS). This was not a sequel, but a remake. Instead of Bela Lugosi, George Zucco plays the vengeful scientist. Instead of a ‘scientifically’ enlarged bat, there’s a mythical beast — the titular flying serpent. The remake had really no sci- to its -fi, but is included in this study as a follow-up to Devil Bat, a reader request, and a tangental connection to a later sci-fi B movie classic.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Professor Andrew Forbes (Zucco) was an archeologist studying some ancient Aztec ruins near San Juan, New Mexico. The ruins are handily named Azteca. He discovered a vast treasure, hidden there by the wily Montezuma, so the conquistadors would not find it. The treasure is guarded by a winged serpent beast (about the size of a large dog) which was said to be guarding the treasure. The beast is often referred to is Quetzalcoatl (Q, for short). Q is very jealous of it’s fine plumage and will kill anyone who has one of its feathers. Through back story, leaked out in dribs and drabs, viewers learn that Forbes discovered that fact when he gave his wife a feather he found, and the beast killed her. Forbes is angry that a local ornithologist published a story about Forbes’ work because it might bring treasure hunters. He leaves a feather, then opens the roof of the caged cave, releasing the beast. Q kills the man. A big city radio personality, with a fame for solving mysteries, decides to solve the case of the murdered ornithologist. Richard Thorpe and team arrive in San Juan. Forbes conspires to plant a feather on Thorpe, but the local Sheriff gets the feather and is killed. At a coroner’s inquest over the two deaths, the ornithologist Thorpe brought in is killed because he held the feather. Thorpe suspects Forbes and sets up a trap with a fake treasure hunter. Thorpe follows Forbes into the treasure chamber with Q and learns all. When Forbes’ lovely blonde step-daughter, Mary begins to suspect him of being behind the murders, Forbes takes Mary to the cave. Thorpe intervenes just in time to save Mary. Forbes runs outside holding a feather, so naturally, Q swoops down and kills Forbes. Thorpe shoots Q with his pocket .38, so the danger is gone. Thorpe and Mary profess marriage plans. Thorpe’s boss punches a coworker because he did not get a cut of the treasure. Fade to black, The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Seeing a remake of Devil Bat’s story line has some amusement. George Zucco delivers an excellently evil villain role. The matte art for Azteca is actually pretty well done for a Poverty Row film. The foreshadowing of some sci-fi yet-to-come is fun too.

Cultural Connection
TFS lies more in the “lite” horror genre than sci-fi, but in some ways, it foreshadows a couple of Golden Era sci-fi B movies. The “special effect” scenes of Q flying are prescient visuals for the flying rocket man (model) in 1949’s King of the Rocketmen and all the subsequent rocket man serials. The Q model and puppet themselves seem like a foretaste of the much-maligned, yet also much-loved space vulture in 1957’s The Giant Claw. TFS was the inspiration for 1980’s Q which borrowed the notion of a quezalcoatl who took up residence in the Chrysler building and went about killing people.

Compare and Contrast — John T. Neville was the screenwriter for Devil Bat, which was based on “an original story by” George Bricker. For TFS, Neville was both writer and screenwriter. He clearly took the first script and reworked it to make a “new” story. Neville kept many elements, but tweaked others. The most obvious is swapping electronically enlarged bats for a fanciful legendary beast. Handily, though, the new beast was about the same size as the enlarged bats. In TFS, the ‘scientist’ (now an archeologist) does not have to resort to sparky equipment to create a monster. Q simply exists. The villain scientist still plants markers on his victims, which the beast then kills. The hero is still a journalist, but in TFS he’s a radio personality instead of a newspaper reporter. Said journalist still has a comic-relief sidekick. “Jonesy” instead of “One Shot”. The evil scientist still has a beautiful blonde adult daughter, who for some bizarre reason is still not married yet. How handy. Of course, the journalist (also handily unattached) and the daughter find romance at the fade-to-black. In TDB, Lugosi parted ways with his victims uttering a solemn “Goodbye”. Neville kept one of of these lines in TFS when Forbes drops off Thorpe to look around the crime scene (with a feather), he says gravely, “Goodbye, Mr. Thorpe.” As in TDB, the villain is killed by his own creature. In TFS, it is a bit more contrived in that Forbes runs out of the cavern, always hanging onto the feather he plucked. Even when Q is swooping down to attack, he keeps holding the feather. At least in TDB, the sprayed-on aftershave was not so easily cast aside.

Automotive Anachronism — A slightly curious feature to TFS is that the cars used in the film were rather old for a 1946 film. Forbes drove a big ’39 Lincoln Zephyr. The Sheriff drove a ’39 Plymouth coupe. Even with the dormancy of war era automotive ‘advancement’, styles looked quite different by 1945 and ’46, such that the pre-war cars look noticeably older. Since they’re older, but in very good shape, one might wonder if TFS was actually filmed much sooner, but released later in 1946.

Pocket .38 — Like the hero journalist in TDB, the hero journalist in TFS apparently had a .38 snub nose revolver in his suit jacket pocket as standard male journalist fashion equipment. As in TDB, there is no foreshadowing like “I’d better take this along, just in case.” When the hero journalist sees the killer beast, he simply pulls out his gun and starts shooting — as if guns in pockets were quite routine. The hero is still a remarkably good shot with such a low-accuracy weapon. He can fire several stabbing shots from the hip and bring down a flying beast dozens of yards away.

Not Much Hope — The actress who plays Mary was Hope Kramer. Aside from her role in TFS, she played in one other film, a lesser role in I Was a Communist for the FBI (’51). Unquestionably pretty enough for films, Hope may not have had a wide enough range as an actress. The script in TFS did not give her a chance to do much beside look pretty, a bit naive and vulnerable. As such, viewers did not see much of Hope.

Bottom line? TFS is far from cinematic high art. There really is no science in the fiction. As a ‘horror’ film, there is little horror. It is a low-budget B film by a low-budget B studio. Watch it with that in mind and TFS can be entertaining — just not go-out-of-your-way entertaining.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Devil Bat

Bela Lugosi starred in a low-B grade film in 1940 titled The Devil Bat (TDB). Given his cultural association with Dracula, it was a title and marquee. Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) was one of the more notable Poverty Row studios. Most of what they turned out (very quickly and cheaply) were westerns (Billy the Kid series) or crime dramas. TDB was, at a nominal level, a crime story with a hint of sci-fi.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Carruthers (Lugosi) was the disgruntled chemist for a cosmetics company. His discoveries had made the owners of Heath Enterprises very rich. Carruthers felt the two partners, Martin Heath and Henry Morton, had bamboozled him out of his fair share of the wealth. To extract his revenge, Carruthers developed a fragrance which a species of bats hate. He then experimented with ways to grow little bats into big eagle-sized bats. He gives Roy Heath a new aftershave he had been working on, then releases his giant bat. The bat kills Roy. The police are stumped. The death draw media attention. Reporter Johnny Layton and his photographer, “One Shot” are sent to investigate. Martin’s other son, Tommy, also gets a sample of aftershave and is likewise killed. Don Morton succumbs to the Devil Bat too. Johnny begins a romantic attraction to the lovely daughter, Mary Heath. Henry Morton begins to suspect that Doc is behind the killings, but on his way to the Heath mansion, is attacked by the bat and dies. Later, Mary wonders why her going-to-bed perfume smells different, but dismisses it. That night, the big bat tried to get into her room. Doc is called to tend to the pretending-to-be-upset Mary, while Johnny searches Doc’s house. He finds the lab, the aftershave and the attic full of bats. Johnny slips away, returns, and convinces Doc to watch for the bat. Doc agreed because Johnny put on some of the aftershave. While they watch, the bat screeches as it attacks. Johnny throws some aftershave on Doc, who is then attacked by the bat. With the mad scientist and his bat dead, Mary can rest her head on tall Johnny’s shoulder. Fade to black, The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Bela’s animated acting makes this film. Without him, TDB would be quite forgettable. Still, with Bela keeping things lively, TDB has a certain super-cheap B-movie charm. The room full of sparky things in which Carruthers ‘grows’ his bats, is classic old world charm.

Cultural Connection
Good, Cheap, Fun — Despite the growing war in Europe, or perhaps because of it, there was an eager market for movie entertainment. With the ‘double bill’ formula for distributing films, there was a strong demand for quick, cheap B movies. While this B movie market thrived, margins were thin. To be profitable, a Poverty Row studio had to crank out a feature film in a matter of days, with little set, costume or talent costs. As such, the bread and butter of these studios were westerns and crime dramas. Sci-fi, typically, required more money for special effects or props. Movie audiences in the late 30s, 40s and early 50s, had more forgiving expectations for their entertainment. Cheap sets and no-name actors were okay, as long as there was some fighting, some shooting and a few women’s screams.

Bela’s Decline — Bela Lugosi never was able to rise above his big famous role as Dracula in 1931. He played the mad scientists or villains in a string of medium-grade films for the rest of the 1930s. Treatment an old war wound (manifest as sciatica) led to him becoming addicted to opiates. While Lugosi remained popular with audiences, his desirability to the studios was limited. Appearing Poverty Row films was a descent he was never able to rise above.

That’s Science! — The thin connection TDB has to sci-fi appears in the opening minutes of the film. The first, and weakest connection, is Doc’s work as a chemist to have brewed up his aftershave potion that dives bats to kill. That’s something. The more classic sci-fi, is Doc using sparky electrical things to grow his giant bats from ordinary bats. Perhaps it was a slightly flubbed line, which as a Poverty Row film, was not worth correcting, but Doc tells his bat that he has mastered “glandular stimulation through electric improcess.” This has, at least a hint of Frankenstein to it. The rest of the story is a more pedestrian crime drama.

Why aim? — An amusing bit of Hollywood-ism is how freely Johnny Layton brandishes and uses his snub-nosed .38 revolver. When the bat appears, he fires several shots at the fleeing bat, from the hip! Now, a snub-nosed .38 is not a particularly accurate gun in the first place, but aiming helps. Nonetheless, hero Johnny is able to hit the fast flying bat with his third shot. Heroes are good that way.

Milking the Turnip — PRC cranked out dozens of films in the 40s. In 1946 they sought to wring just a few more bucks from The Devil Bat by producing a sequel. This might suggest that TDB actually did fairly well for a cheap B film. The sequel: Devil Bat's Daughter had no sci-fi element to it all, but was a plain crime drama. While DBD purported to be a continuation, even using some TDB footage as flashback nightmares for Doc’s daughter, the plot continuity was highly flawed. This suggests that PRC had a draft script for a mediocre crime drama. (Sinister psychologist convinces sick woman that she’s a killer, in order to cover the murder of his wife.) With a little rewriting and inserting old footage, the script could almost work as a sequel to TDB. Almost. Yet, the sequel lacked any of the gravitas that Lugosi brought.

Bottom line? Viewers with a fondness for old B-movies, or Bela Lugosi, will find TDB mildly entertaining. Viewers with high standards or fussy tastes in films, will likely find TDB boring or dumb. TDB isn’t high art, by any means, but with a forgiving attitude, it can be good cheap fun.