Creature Double Feature 2: IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (Columbia, 1955 & 1957)

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Let’s return to those thrilling days of yore before CGI and enter the wonder-filled world of Special Effects legend Ray Harryhausen! I’ve covered some of Harryhausen’s fantastic work before (ONE MILLION YEARS BC EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS THE VALLEY OF GWANGI ), and most of you regular readers know of my affection for his stop-motion wizardry. So without further ado, let’s dive right into IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA.

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An atomic submarine picks up a mysterious large object on its sonar. The sub’s hit hard, and radiation is detected in the surrounding area. The damaged sub is taken to Pearl Harbor for repairs, and a substance found on it is determined to be from a “living creature” by eminent scientist Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis) and beautiful marine biologist Prof. Leslie Joyce (Faith Domergue ). Sub Commander Pete Matthews (Kenneth Tobey ) and Leslie immediately butt heads, which means they’re going to hook up before it’s all over. But let’s face facts, no one cares about the romantic subplot, we’re here for the monster, determined to be a gigantic octopus!

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Ocky (as I’ve taken to refer to him) has been disturbed by H-Bomb tests in the Pacific, and his radioactivity has caused the fish he usually feeds on to flee, so now Ocky is going after larger prey. He attacks a tramp steamer and eats everyone but a small raft of survivors, who confirm Leslie’s theory. The U.S. Navy goes out in full force hunting for Ocky, who eats a deputy sheriff off the coast of Oregon. The entire Pacific Coast is shut down, as Ocky makes his way to San Francisco, wreaking havoc at the Golden Gate Bridge. The fabled bridge has been wired with electricity to shock the beast, and Pete and Dr. Carter board the sub with a special jet-propelled torpedo to launch into Ocky’s brain. Meanwhile, Ocky’s on the loose in the Market Street area, causing destruction, snatching a helicopter out of the sky, and allowing the filmmakers to add plenty of shots of panicked citizens running down the streets of San Francisco!

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Army flamethrowers drive Ocky back to the sea, and our intrepid heroes launch their super-duper torpedo. But Ocky catches the sub in it’s six-armed grip- that’s right, el cheapo executive producer Sam Katzman held the budget reins so tight, it only allowed Harryhausen to animate six octopus arms! Anyway, Pete scubas out and uses a harpoon gun to shoot plastique explosives at Ocky, but isn’t successful, so Dr. Carter bravely does the deed, hitting Ocky square in his octopus eyeball and blowing his head off, making the Pacific Coast safe for surfers once again!

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Ocky’s stop-motion scenes of destruction are exciting, but there’s only so much you can do with a giant octopus. The monster in our main attraction is another story. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH begins with a spacecraft crash-landing off the coast of Sicily. Some brave fisherman (with bad Italian acc-a-centas) board and find two humans still alive. They pull them off before the ship sinks, and little, annoying Pepe (played by future VEGA$ co-star Bart Braverman) is sent to get help from a visiting doctor (Frank Puglia ) , but Dr. Leonardo is only a zoologist, so he sends his med student granddaughter Marisa (Joan Taylor) to attend the surviving crewmen. One dies, but Col. Bob Calder (William Hopper, PERRY MASON’s Paul Drake) demands to speak to his superiors, butting heads with Marisa in the process (and you already know what that means!). Meanwhile, enterprising Pepe finds a capsule loaded with a mysterious, jellylike substance, so he sells it to Leonardo for 200 lira (so he can buy a “Texas cowboy hat”!).

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The jelly hatches a tiny, strange-looking creature, so Leonardo and Marisa put it in a cage with plans to take it to the Rome Zoo for study. But next morning the thing has grown larger, and escapes while in transit. Annoying Pepe tells Air Force brass he sold the stuff in the capsule to Leonardo, and they track him down. Seems that spacecraft was a secret expedition to Venus, and the creature in question is a Ymir (though it’s never called that in the film).

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The Ymir wanders the countryside scaring horses and sheep, coming across some sulfur in a barn, which happens to be the Ymir’s favorite food. While snacking, Ymir is attacked by a dog… bye, bye dog! The local farmer stabs it with a pitchfork, and Ymir attacks him! This pisses off the local Commissario, who no longer wishes to cooperate with the Americans and wants Ymir dead. The Italian higher-ups give Calder one last chance to capture Ymir, and they do, using a net and zapping poor Ymir into unconsciousness with high voltage.

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Ymir (who’s now grown to gigantic proportions!) is kept sedated by electricity and studied at the Rome Zoo. The Air Force holds a press conference and allows three reporters to view the beast. When an accident short-circuits the electricity, Ymir breaks free from his bondage, and engages in a titanic battle with a zoo elephant. Ymir goes on a rampage through the streets of Rome wreaking havoc, and you guessed it, we get shots of panicked citizens fleeing for their lives! The armed forces can’t stop Ymir as it heads to the Colosseum, where bazookas finally take it down, as it hangs on for dear life before plunging to its demise.

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The Ymir is Harryhausen’s most iconic (and lifelike) creation. Like Frankenstein’s Monster and King Kong before it, the Ymir is a frightened and misunderstood creature  trapped in a world it never made. The scene where police are tracking down Ymir with dogs is reminiscent of an old Universal horror; all that’s missing are the torches and pitchforks. Ymir definitely gets the viewers to sympathize with its plight, and I felt sorry to see the poor beast persecuted to its inevitable doom.

20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH is my favorite of the two, and I consider it Harryhausen’s masterpiece. IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA is fun, but the story of the Ymir still resonates, and is a certified science-fiction classic. See them both and enjoy the genius of Ray Harryhausen!

Creature Double Feature: THE BLACK SCORPION (1957) and THE KILLER SHREWS (1959)

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Back in the glory days of local television, Boston’s WLVI-TV (Channel 56) ran a Saturday afternoon movie series titled “Creature Double Feature”. It was a huge ratings hit during the 1970’s, introducing young viewers to the BEM (bug-eyed monsters) movies of the past. Let’s return now to those halcyon days of yesterday with a look at two sci-fi flicks from the fabulous 50’s.

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First up is THE BLACK SCORPION, a 1957 giant monster movie from Warner Brothers. This low-budget saga starts off with stock footage of volcanos erupting and earthquakes a-quaking, and a hyperbolic narrator expounding on natural disasters threatening Mexico. Two brawny geologists, Hank and Artur, investigate the devastation. While out scouting they run into beautiful rancher Teresa Alvarez, whose vaqueros have fled the hacienda in fear. After getting them back on the ranch, our scientists attend an autopsy of a dead Mexican cop (the doctor performing the autopsy looks like he should be starring in his own series of Mexican horror flicks!). The result is “organic poisoning”, and a giant footprint has been found at the scene of the crime.

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While scientist Hank and Teresa get cozy, scientist Artur has found a fossil with a live scorpion embedded inside (this particular scorpion squeaks like a mouse for no apparent reason). Teresa gets a call from the telephone lineman repairing the lines, and at this point they’re coincidentally attacked by a giant black scorpion! The scorpion attacks the village, causing the villagers to flee in panic (one of them exclaims “It’s a giant scorpion!”, just to make things clear). Experts led by Dr. Velasco believe the Giant Scorp was released by the recent upheavals (again, in case you weren’t sure). Hank and Artur , the Mexican Army (well, one truckload), and the vaqueros seek the Giant Scorps’ lair, and the two geologists are lowered by crane into a crevice, only to discover a whole host of Giant Scorps! A Giant Scorp grabs their cage, and they have to escape by being pulled up on the cable (including little Juanito, who stowed away with the scientists… and the less said about this obnoxious little brat the better!).

Explosives are used to seal off the Giant Scorps, and the threat to humanity is over. Not quite- it seems another Giant Scorp found a way out, and is threatening Mexico City! This is the point where I lost interest in THE BLACK SCORPION, and will spare you the details. There’s far too much talking and standing around, and it’s 88 minute running time seems to go on forever.  Despite having sci-fi stalwarts Richard Denning (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) and Mara Corday (TARANTULA) as stars, and fine special effects from Willis O’Brien (except when the filmmakers choose to use the Bert I. Gordon superimposition method in some scenes), the movie drags on and on, and is one of the lesser giant monster movies of the 50’s. One viewing of this turkey was more than enough for me, with only O’Brien’s special effects of interest.

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Next is THE KILLER SHREWS, and despite having an even lower budget, this film is far more enjoyable. Captain Thorne Sherman (James Best of THE DUKES OF HAZZARD) and his first mate Rook arrive at an island to drop off supplies. They’re greeted by Dr. Cragis (Baruch Lumet, father of director Sidney), his daughter Ann (Miss Sweden 1956 Ingrid Goude), assistant Dr. Baines (pirate radio king Gordon McLendon), Ann’s ex-fiancé Jerry (Ken Curtis, GUNSMOKE’s Festus), and servant Mario. A hurricane is brewing and Thorne and Rook are planning on spending the night, despite protests from the Cragis bunch. It seems they’ve been monkeying around with some sort of formula on shrews, little rat-like creatures who are basically eating machines. The experiments were designed to study the effects of overpopulation, or so they say. Drunken, irresponsible Jerry did something stupid, and now the island is overrun with vicious, insatiable Killer Shrews the size of dogs. And not those ratty little teacup pooches either, but dogs the size of German Shepherds!

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The Killer Shrews are actually dogs made up to look like monstrous shrews, with matted fur and long, sharp teeth! They’re pretty laughable, especially in close-up, when puppet headed Killer Shrews stand in for the dogs. The dark lighting and nighttime exterior shots almost but not quite help suspend belief, but the dog/shrews are just too ludicrous. Anyway, Rook gets attacked and killed, then Thorne and the gang are trapped in the house while 200-300 Killer Shrews try to dig their way inside. At least theoretically; there’s really only about six dogs/shrews made up for the movie, but 200-300 sounds far more ominous.  Oh, and the Killer Shrews are rabid, to boot- one bite from their venomous fangs and its adios amigo!

Yes it sounds incredibly cheezy, and it is, but THE KILLER SHREWS has a certain lunatic energy to it that makes it exciting to watch, unlike the dull BLACK SCORPION. Actors Curtis and McLendon produced this made-in-Dallas film simultaneously with another giant monster flick, THE GIANT GILA MONSTER. Both films were directed by Ray Kellogg, former special effects wizard at 20th Century-Fox. Kellogg also worked as second-unit director on many films, and co-directed the 1968 war drama THE GREEN BERETS with its star John Wayne.

Let’s end this look back at sci-fi of yesteryear with the credits for Channel 56’s late, lamented “Creature Double Feature”, with music by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. (and if you’d like to see more of these sci-fi double-feature posts, let me know in the comments section!):