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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Navy vs. The Night Monsters

The style of cheap 50s B sci-fi was gone yet. 1966 saw the release of The Navy vs. The Night Monsters (NvNM). Essentially, NvNM a recasting of the popular people-trapped-with-a-monster trope. Instead of an arctic base, such as The Thing ('51) or in a rocket It! Terror From Beyond Space ('58), NvNM is set on a tropical island. Mamie Van Doren stars, but not in her usual way. Anthony Eisley plays the reluctant hero. Bobby Van plays the incongruous comic relief. The navy personnel on the base, and later from an aircraft carrier, must battle the killer trees.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Antarctic scientists discovered some odd plant forms, so loaded them on a plane to ship them to the States for study. As they planned to set down on remote Gow island for refueling, all heck breaks loose. A crewmen goes berserk after visiting the cargo hold. Shots are fired. People fall out. The pilot regains control, but lands gear-up on Gow. He's in a catatonic state, so can explain nothing. With the disabled plane on the runway, no one can come in, or leave. On the island, there is a complex web of would-be love triangles and macho rivalries to distract the viewers. Spaulding has the hots for Nora, but Nora is smitten with Lt. Brown. While fond of Nora, Lt. Brown has commitment issues. Since Spaulding and Brown are rivals for Nora, they don't get along. The island's biologist, Dr. Beecham has the "trees" planted near a hot spring to preserve them. After awhile, one by one, people who walk into the jungle at night, disappear. The catatonic pilot is a suspect, since he periodically gets up and attacks people. This is a red herring. It's the trees. They can walk (sort of),have grabber arms and secrete a powerful acid Several more people are killed and absorbed by the trees. The trees ruin the base's generator.The islanders fight back with molotovs. Doc theorizes that the trees needed to be mobile and carnivorous to survive the 60 months of antarctic winter. The darkness in the cargo plane "awakened" them. The navy dispatches an aircraft carrier to the island. Jet fighter-bombers drop napalm on the hoards of walking trees. The bombers eventually wipe out the trees, saving the day. Cue triumphal music. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
NvNM is almost pure 50s B sci-fi, with all its warts and foibles. This far into the 60s, it's like finding a dollar between the couch cushions. It can be enjoyed as such.

Cold War Angle
This is more monster and horror than political metaphor. There is, still, the strong flavor of American military might, as yet untarnished by the Vietnam experience.

Based on the Book -- Michael Hoey wrote a screenplay based on the 1959 novel "Monster from the End of the World" by Murry Leinster. The novel was, itself, a variation on The Thing ('51). Hoey kept the basics: antarctic plant samples, plane crash en route back to the States, carnivorous trees. He made some of the usual Hollywood additions. Curiously, Hoey kept the pilot alive, perhaps as a plot diversion. In the book, the pilot shoots himself after the crash landing.

Land Unknown, Again -- The central premise in Leinster's book and Hoey's screenplay used the same source material as Land Unknown ('57). A supposed warm area, with clear lakes is found in the antarctic. See notes on Land Unknown for more on that.

Platinum in Decline -- An icon from the 50s was the platinum blonde "bombshell" starlet. Fox had Marilyn Monroe. Warner Brothers countered with Jayne Mansfield. Universal tried to get in the game with Mamie Van Doren. Where Marilyn had an ethereal charm. Mansfield had a huge chest. Despite type casting as the "dumb blonde", both Marilyn and Mansfield showed some acting ability. A more distant third in the "Three Ms", Mamie also had a huge chest, but not as much acting ability. Somewhat surprisingly, Mamie plays a fairly serious role in NvNM with little flagrant exploitation of her famous features. Hoey did put her in a tight sweater for one scene, but other than that, her assets remained unexploited.

Weak Team -- The people creating NvNM did not qualify as a well-oiled-machine. Mamie Van Doren refused to wear the navy nurse's uniform, insisting instead on wearing several sleeveless (and shapeless) dresses. Hoey relented. She'd be a civilian then. Director Hoey and executive producer Broder did not get on well, nor communicate well. Broder changed Hoey's title from a more mysterious "Nightcrawlers" to the flagrant NvNM title. The most glaring example of their dysfunction was the inserted scenes and hokey ending. Hoey was striving for a darker, moodier piece, more along the lines of The Thing. You can tell what he imagined as his ending -- the scene where everyone is standing shoulder to shoulder watching the tree monsters burn. Hoey wrapped it up as a 78 minute film. Apparently he did not believe Broder when he told him he needed a 90 minute film. Broder than had director Arthur C. Pierce film the shots in the admiral's office, insert yet more stock footage of jets, and a few brief (and badly done) clips of the "crawlers" en masse. Broder then wrapped it up with some triumphal music and air show footage.

Bad Plant, Bad -- Plant monsters have a history in classic sci-fi. Of course, the first of them, The Thing ('51) was very humanoid in shape, but made of plant tissues. The pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers ('56) didn't do much, but produce duplicate humans, but they were plants. More monster-like, was Tabanga, the walking tree monster in From Hell It Came ('57). Then there was the very similar people-eating tree thing in Womaneater ('59) which actually fed on humans, and was destroyed by fire. The Triffids ('63) added the mobility factor. They too were people-eaters.

Plane Crazy -- Like any average 50s B sci-fi, there is ample stock footage in NvNM. In that, there are the usual continuity lapses. The first one is brief, so easily missed. The plane the scientists (and killer trees) are on, is an R4D (Navy letters for the DC-3). A different DC-3 is shot making a gear-up low pass at the air strip. it is a C-46 Commando that is show doing the belly landing. Note too, that all the shots of the supposedly belly-landed DC-3 are with it in a wheels-down stance. Towards the end, in the new footage Broder inserted, we're shown several clips of the Blue Angels team at air shows, sometimes in F9F Panthers (with the tip tanks), or F9F Cougars (more swept wing, no tip tanks). All the stock footage of napalm bombing runs are P-94 Starfires (with the huge tip tanks). A smorgasbord of late 50s fighters, but not the same squadron.

Bottom line? NvNM is not high art. In fact, after the production polish of Fantastic Voyage which was released before NvNM, its cheapness is almost embarrasing. But it is classic low-budget 50s-style sci-fi. Lots of stock footage, cheap monsters, predictable deaths and heroic heros. NvNM is out of its league in the mid-60s. Fans of the cheap 50s films will enjoy it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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Anyway, it made me want to start my own blog, reviewing movies and stuff but I don't know really where to get the movies or if the ones I'm looking are even on DVD format.
Thanks for your time :)