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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Beast With a Million Eyes

Beast (BWME) was born more of desire for a quick buck than artistic vision. Promoters tried to pre-sell a B-movie with little more than a concept and a poster. The poster (seen at left) featured quite a hideous monster face menacing a screaming young beauty clad in lingerie. That was the stock formula that sold B-movie tickets. There was sufficient investor interest to proceed. Trouble was, the actual script (originally entitled Unseen) was about a (mostly) incorporeal alien who possesses animals to do his bidding (hence the metaphor of the million eyes). Distributors and audiences were understandably disappointed when the movie had nothing to do with the poster. Truth be told, BWME is a very low budget B-movie, but it's not without some points of interest -- if you can get over the poster. It tries to be a more thoughtful, almost 'art' film, even though executed in a somewhat ham-handed way.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A voiceover at the beginning (supposed to be the alien) tells us that he's coming to earth, that he feeds on fear and will use animals and people to be his eyes and ears."I see your most secret acts...you will know me as the beast with a million eyes." Cut to a date palm farm in the California desert, where a man, wife and teenaged daughter live a not-too-happy life. They have a large simple-minded mute man as farm hand. A high-pitched squeal of something flying overhead breaks all the glass in their house. Animals change, eventually. A flock of birds attacks the dad. The family dog turns on the mom. A docile cow attacks and kills the neighbor farmer, then comes after the mom. Dad shoots it just in time. The already creepy hired hand (whom the women simply call "Him", but is named Carl) is clearly being directed by the alien. He knocks out the local sheriff and then carries off the daughter. Dad, mom and sheriff arrive in time to stop Him from delivering unconscious daughter to the alien (in a small silvery 'ship' in a crater in the desert). Even though Carl dies, listening to the pleas of his friend, the dad, and not the alien, the unseen alien isn't through. He has the daughter in trance/coma and threatens to cause her great pain if the mom and dad don't surrender her to him. They refuse and argue (with the voice-over mind-to-mind communications) that love is stronger than hate. When they confront the alien at his ship, the little beast he's living in dies, but the ship takes off anyway, preprogrammed. The alien's evil spirit is implied to then jump to a desert rat nearby. An eagle swoops down and snatches the rat away. Sunrise, and everyone looks skyward arm in arm. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
Admittedly, this is a movie that only an ardent 50s sci-fi fan will like. There are too many faults and shortcomings for a lot of people to overlook. That said, there are still some points of interest, if you look for them. (see Notes section)

Cold War Angle
Only on a metaphorical level is there any hit of the Cold War. The original notion of some hostile someone using hate and fear, "possessing" people, to do his bidding, does smack of American angst over communist infiltrators. They'll use fear to divide and conquer.

It's a Metaphor, Deal With It -- Quite a few viewers, then and now, think it's a major goof in the movie that the final monster (and it's a small one) has only two eyes. Right in the opening narration we're told that the alien will use the eyes and ears of animals and people to see everything. That's the million eyes. After seeing the multi-eyed monster in the poster, people expected a literal multi-eyed beast. It was a metaphor cooked up by marketing types who thought the original title, The Unseen wasn't grabby enough.

Early Birds -- The scenes of the flock of birds attacking Alan, the father, prefigures Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) by many years. The scene inside the farm house, with all the squawking, fluttering and pecking outside, and daughter Sandy going nuts inside the claustrophobic house, is too similar to Hitchcock's movie to not notice.

Marketers as Marginal Movie Men -- BWME might have been a bit better (though still a low-budget B movie) if the marketing men hadn't tried to impose themselves. Firstly, they "sold" a standard ugly-monster-menaces-babe product, which BWME wasn't. Disappointed audiences were too miffed to see the movie for what it was supposed to be. Secondly, the opening narration, the "alien" tells us he's the 'beast with a million eyes. Obviously intended to tie the movie to the poster, this narration gives too much of the story away. It's an honored marketing maxim, Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em. Tell 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em. BWME does this to annoying degrees. Imagine BWME without that opening narration. Viewers would wonder what the whine was. They'd wonder why the birds attacked and why Duke turns on his masters. There'd be more mystery. As it stands, BWME comes across like a movie we've already seen before, even before we've seen it.

Star Watch -- Paul Birch, who plays the father, Alan, also played the embattled father with a young woman daughter, in Day the World Ended. Also look for a very young Dick Sargent playing Larry the sheriff. Sargent would later gain fame as the "second" Darrin Stephens in the 60s & 70s sitcom Bewitched (the first being Dick York)

Out of Their Minds -- BWME is in the sub-genre of alien mind-takeover movies. We saw this at the outset of the decade in The Man from Planet X ('51), followed by many others. There would be many more after BWME. The trope of something 'alien' taking control of regular folks (usually to do bad things) was apparently intriguing to both writers and audiences in the 50s.

Feed the Fear -- A minor interesting point in BWME is the idea of an alien feeding (nutritionally speaking) on hate and fear. This is true, metaphorically, of people who benefit from the fear of others: politicians, mobsters, anti-virus software makers, etc., the notion of fear as nutrient is fairly new (in '55). It's an idea that would resurface in later years too, in Star Trek episodes and even as recently as the Stargate SG-1 series -- with the Ori.

Love Is All Ya Need -- The plot device that has some humble feature of earth being the defeat of an alien invasion was already not new by 1955. H.G. Wells had the humble germ defeat the martians even back in 1898. Here, to an alien who "feeds" on hate and fear, it's human love and loyalty that defeats and actually kills him. Talk about tough love. The overall moral of the movie is about being understanding and forgiving instead of judgmental and afraid. A bit lofty for B-sci-fi.

Bottom line? Unless you're a fan of low-budget 50s sci-fi, BWME will disappoint you. It tries to be more artsy and even somewhat sentimental, but cannot live up to it's suggested monster-meances-babe hype. Taken as a low-budget sci-fi "art" drama, it's actually not that bad. It's just NOT a monster movie.


Anonymous said...

Beast w/ a Million Eyes is a classic, hands down. It's the most underrated '50s B movie of them all. The whole poster- monster arguement is lame. In fact, the attempts to "improve" the film by adding the lead in narration and Paul Blaisdell's neat, but inappropriate beasty, serve only to detract from the core idea in Beast. To heck with the Cold War, anti-commie schtick, too. This is a classic fable of love vs. hate told as a sci-fi. Good stuff, all things considered.

Nightowl said...

I agree, "Beast" is typically underrated. The poster, opening narration and the physical 'monster' at the end were unnecessary. The love/hate tale itself was interesting.

Glad to hear "Beast" has another fan.

thingmaker said...

I can't hold the little Blaisdell critter against this movie. It looked OK - perfectly acceptable partly obscured by opticals, and, as the dialog suggests, it was supposed to be the alien host body used as a spaceship pilot. I agree that the initial narration was a bad idea, though...