Big, Bad Mama Monster!: GORGO (MGM 1961)


When Melanie at The Film Detective offered me the chance to watch and review GORGO for them, I immediately said yes! GORGO was one of my favorites growing up as a little Monster Kid, a Saturday afternoon staple on Boston’s Channel 56, and the opportunity to see it without all that UHF “snow” was too much to resist (and if you don’t know about The Film Detective, I’ll clue you in a bit later).

Producers Frank and Maurice King were a pair of slot machine magnates turned low-budget movie moguls who had success with 40’s films noir like WHEN STRANGES MARRY (with Robert Mitchum), DILLINGER (making a star out of Lawrence Tierney), and the Joseph H. Lewis classic GUN CRAZY . When the stateside release of Japan’s Giant Monster Movie GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS proved a hit, the Kings decided to secure the American rights to another kaiju eiga epic, RODAN! THE FLYING MONSTER . Box offices across the country filled with more coins than any old slot machines, so the Kings set out to make a Giant Monster saga of their own, using the rubber suit and miniature set techniques of kaiju eiga, and throwing a touch of KING KONG into the script for good measure.

Salvage divers Joe Ryan and Sam Slade are searching for sunken treasure off the coast of Ireland when they’re rocked by a volcanic eruption. The upheaval has awakened the dormant Gorgo, a red-eyed, reptilian Prehistoric beast standing 65 feet tall! Joe and Sam hatch a plan to capture the giant, and succeed. Scientists want to study Gorgo, but Joe and Sam have other ideas, namely selling the monster to Durkin’s Circus in London and getting filthy rich! Gorgo is trussed up and hauled to Jolly Old England, where he’s exploited as a freakish main attraction – that is, until Gorgo’s Bigger, Badder Monster Mother emerges from the depths, a 200 foot tall behemoth who tracks ‘baby’ Gorgo to London demanding his return…

GORGO is a simple but effective Monster Movie that’s fast-paced fun for the whole family. The special effects of the pre-CGI era hold up surprisingly well, thanks to some clever editing and camerawork. There are plenty of shots of rampaging destruction (complete with panicked citizens running the streets and futile military retaliation), as London Bridge comes crumbling down, Big Ben gets toppled, and Piccadilly Circus gets blitzed by Mama Gorgo.

Director Eugene Lourie was no stranger to Giant Monsters, having helmed both THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH.  Stars Bill Travers and William Sylvester weren’t exactly household names, but both make fine leads. Travers starred in one of my favorite British comedies, THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH, and later achieved fame opposite wife Virginia McKenna and Elsa the Lioness in BORN FREE, while Sylvester headlined the British noirs HOUSE OF BLACKMAIL and A STRANGER CAME HOME before making his best-known appearance as Dr. Floyd in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Special mention should be made to child actor Vincent Winter as an Irish villager who stows away aboard Joe and Sam’s ship, and has a special bond with Gorgo.

As for The Film Detective , it’s a streaming service founded in 2014 specializing in hard to find films and TV, and can be viewed online, and on the SlingTV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and AppleTV platforms. GORGO can be enjoyed there beginning February 11th, and I highly recommend it to all you Giant Monster Movie Lovers out there. After watching, take a look around… you might discover some other hidden gems on The Film Detective!

 

Diamond Among the Coal: Bela Lugosi in BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT (Monogram 1942)


I’ve written about Bela Lugosi’s infamous ‘Monogram 9’ before, those ultra-cheap spectacles produced by the equally ultra-cheap Sam Katzman for low-budget Monogram Pictures. These films are all Grade Z schlock, redeemed only by Lugosi’s presence, giving his all no matter how ludicrous the scripts or cardboard the sets. BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT is a cut above; still schlock, but the pulpy premise is different from the rest, and Bela gives what’s probably his best performance out of the whole trashy bunch.

Lugosi plays kindly Karl Wagner, a benevolent soul who runs the Friendly Mission down on the Bowery. But wait – it’s all a front for recruiting down-on-their-luck criminals into Wagner’s gang of thieves. And when he’s done with them, he bumps them off and gives the corpses to ‘Doc’, a dope fiend ex-medico who uses the bodies for his own nefarious purposes!

But wait again! Wagner’s not really Wagner, he’s eminent psychology Professor Brenner, who specializes in deviant behavior! Wagner’s pretty nurse at the mission Julie Malvern has a rich Park Avenue boyfriend, Richard Dennison, a student of Brenner, who’s disdainful of Julie working with all those Bowery bums. “I want you to give up that silly job”, he scolds, “Saving humanity, it’s ridiculous!”, then later, “Go ahead and have all the fun you want, you and your social work”, as he petulantly walks out the door. Yep, Richard’s a real jerk!

Wagner/Brenner aligns himself with “dangerous killer” Frankie Mills, a young sociopath who has no qualms about doing Brenner/Wagner’s dirty work (though the split-personalited mastermind doesn’t mind murder himself, as when he tosses one of his henchmen off a rooftop to create a diversion!). Newly appointed police detective Peter Crawford is hot on Frankie’s trail, and that trail leads to the Friendly Mission, where Richard has gone undercover to spy on Judy (he thinks she’s banging Bela!!). Richard gets himself killed, the cops figure things out and bust the joint, and Wagner/Brenner hides in Doc’s secret basement, where we learn Doc’s been turning those corpses into Zombies!! The Professor gets his just desserts… but somehow Richard is de-zombified and reunited with Judy for a happy ending!

Reunited: Bela and his “Devil Bat’ costar Dave O’Brien

Bela tones down the bombast and plays the part of the double-life prof fairly straight. He’s damn good too, rising above the material and making the movie a memorable one (far as Monogram pics go, anyway!). He’s reunited with his DEVIL BAT costar Dave O’Brien as the cop Crawford, and though they don’t get much screen time together, it’s fun to see them briefly go at it again. DETOUR’s Tom Neal plays the psycho Frankie, pretty ‘B’ ingenue Wanda McKay is pretty Judy, and handsome ‘B’ lead John Archer the jerky Richard. Others in the cast of note are Lew Kelly as the doped-up ‘Doc’, Vince Barnett as the unfortunate hood who gets thrown off the roof by Bela, Bernard Gorcey in a funny cameo as a haberdasher, and silent stars J. Farrell MacDonald and Wheeler Oakman as (respectively) a cop and a crook.

Bowery at Midnight (1942)  Directed by Wallace Fox (Shown from left: Bela Lugosi, Tom Neal)

Sure, sometimes the dialog is downright dumb, the script relies too much on coincidence, and those cardboard sets were seen in countless Monogram epics (and it’s a wonder they didn’t collapse!). And yet… BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT is a fun little film, thanks in large part to the power of Bela Lugosi, who could (and often did) make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It’s the best of his ‘Monogram 9’, which isn’t saying much, but think about this… movie buffs are still watching Bela’s low-budget schlock, seventy-plus years after the fact. There’s a reason for that, and his name is Bela Lugosi.

 

Southern Fried Slasher: THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (AIP 1976)

In 1946, the town of Texarkana, on the Texas-Arkansas border, was rocked by a series of brutal attacks on its citizens from February to May that left five people dead and three seriously wounded. The psycho, who wore what seemed to be a white pillowcase with eyeholes cut in it, caused quite a panic among the townsfolk, and the local and national press had a field day sensationalizing the gruesome events. The case was dubbed “The Texas Moonlight Murders”, and the mysterious maniac “The Phantom Killer”. Famed Texas Ranger M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullus was brought in to lead the investigation and rounded up a few suspects, but no one was ever formally charged with the grisly crimes. To this day, the case has never officially been solved.

Forty years later, Texarkana native Charles B. Pierce produced, directed, and costarred in THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, a film based on those infamous past events. Pierce had grown up a movie-mad kid, and had a variety of show biz related jobs, including TV weatherman, running his own ad agency, and set decorator for films like WACO and PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW . In 1972, he borrowed $100,000, grabbed a 35mm camera, hired a bunch of locals, and made his own film, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, a horror tale about the fictitious Foulke Monster who lived in the swamps of Arkansas. Released by South Carolina-based Howco International, the low-budget regional thriller raked in almost five million bucks at the box office, mainly in drive-ins and on the Southern circuit. Pierce’s next solo effort, the action comedy BOOTLEGGERS (starring a pre-CHARLIE’S ANGELS Jaclyn Smith), also did well, but a pair of Westerns (WINTERHAWK, THE WINDS OF AUTUMN) didn’t, so the Arkansas auteur returned to horror with this creepy little gem.

Producer/director/actor Charles B. Pierce

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN isn’t perfect – there’s a lot of padding involving an inept cop named Benson intended for comic relief. In fact, Pierce himself plays the dumb cracker, and director Pierce should’ve told actor Pierce to cut the crap and get out of the story’s way! That story, written by Earl E. Smith (who also has a role, as a shrink brought in to consult on the case), is one of those “the incredible story you are about to see is true… only the names have been changed” types, as intoned in Vern Stierman’s narration. Our Phantom Killer debuted two years before Michael Myers, four years before Jason, and eight before Freddie, making him one of the first (if not the first) of the silent slashers (well, silent except for the chatty, pun loving Freddie).

The opening scene is pretty damn frightening, with our hooded killer emerging from the woods and attacking a young couple parked out on Lover’s Lane. On a rain-soaked night three weeks later, Deputy Norman Ramsey hears shots fired out on a lonely back road, and discovers two dead bodies. The town is now up in arms, literally, as area gun shops quickly sell out. Texas Ranger Capt. J.D. Morales (like I said, “the names have been changed”) vows, “I plan on catching him… or killing him”. But in another three weeks, the killer strikes again, this time a pair of teens out late after the prom, and he ties the girl to a tree and murders her in an skillfully directed and edited scene involving a trombone! The final attack finds The Phantom shooting a man down as he sits in his easy chair, then stalking the man’s wife (effectively played by GILLIGAN’S ISLAND star Dawn Wells) with a pickaxe, as she barely escapes with her life.

“Skipper! Gilligan! HELP!!!”

Besides the former castaway Mary Ann, the cast features Oscar winner Ben Johnson as the Texas Ranger Morales. I don’t know if it’s just Johnson’s laconic style or he’s walking through the part, but he doesn’t seem very interested to me. Better is Andrew Prine as Deputy Ramsey, who acts like he’s actually invested in his role. Stuntman Bud Davis plays The Phantom Killer, and he’s quite menacing with his size and heavy breathing underneath that pillowcase mask. The rest of the cast is populated by locals and non-actors; the victims give it their all in the wide-eyed screaming department under Pierce’s direction.

Proto-slasher: The Phantom Killer

Charles B. Pierce directed a few more films (including a BOGGY CREEK sequel that later got the MST3K treatment), but none of them matched the success of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. The movie began the onslaught of psycho-killer films to come, and slasher fans can be grateful for that. It’s certainly not the greatest film ever made, but Pierce, like other regional auteurs working outside the studio system,  did the best he could with what he had. Like Herschell Gordon Lewis and George Romero before him, Pierce helped usher in an entire new horror genre, one that’s still going strong today.

Cleaning Out the DVR #21: Halloween Leftovers 3

Time to reach deep inside that trick-or-treat bag and take a look at what’s stuck deep in the corners. Just when you thought it was safe, here’s five more thrilling tales of terror:

YOU’LL FIND OUT (RKO 1940; D: David Butler) – Kay Kyser and his College of Musical Knowledge, for those of you unfamiliar…

…were a Swing Era band of the 30’s & 40’s who combined music with cornball humor on their popular weekly radio program. RKO signed them to a movie contract and gave them this silly but entertaining “old dark house” comedy, teaming Kay and the band (featuring Ginny Simms, Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason, and the immortal Ish Kabibble!) with horror greats Boris Karloff , Bela Lugosi , and Peter Lorre . It’s got all the prerequisites: secret passageways, a creepy séance, and of course that old stand-by, the dark and stormy night! The plot has Kyser’s band hired for Helen Parrish’s 21st birthday party at said spooky mansion, with band manager Dennis O’Keefe as her love interest. Bela gets the juiciest part as flamboyant phony medium Prince Saliano, Boris is a shady family friend, and Lorre his usual sinister self. Alma Kruger plays Helen’s aunt who’s into spiritualism, which sets things in motion, and bumbling Kay gets to solve the mystery. Nothing earth-shaking going on here, but fun for fans of the Terror Trio. Fun Fact: The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Song, “I’d Know You Anywhere”, written by Jimmy McHugh and Johnny Mercer, and sweetly sung onscreen by Ginny Simms, who had a brief film career of her own after leaving the band in 1941.

THE LEOPARD MAN (RKO 1943; D: Jacques Tourneur) – One of producer Val Lewton’s most unheralded films, chock full of his trademark use of sound and shadows. A black leopard gets loose from nightclub performer Jean Brooks’ act, and a series of gruesome murders follow in a small New Mexico town. This tense, gripping ‘B’ is loaded with eerie scenes; I especially liked the one in which a young girl gets locked in a cemetery and stalked by the killer cat (or is it a human – the movie will keep you guessing!). Dennis O’Keefe is Jean’s publicity agent whose stunt goes awry, Margo (later married to Eddie Albert) a castanet-clicking dancer/victim, and Isabel Jewell shines as a Gypsy card reader. Mark Robson’s marvelous editing job on this and Lewton’s CAT PEOPLE got him promoted to the director’s chair for THE SEVENTH VICTIM later that year. This chilling horror-noir doesn’t get the attention of other Lewton films, but deserves a much larger audience. Fun Fact: Based on the novel “Black Alibi” by prolific pulp author Cornell Woolrich, whose many books and short stories were made into film noir classics.

THE DISEMBODIED (Allied Artists 1957; D: Walter Grauman) – Ice Princess of Horror Allison Hayes IS Tonda, jungle voodoo queen in this low-budget shocker that wasn’t as bad as I expected, far as jungle voodoo epics go. Paul Burke costars as a filmmaker who brings his wounded friend to Allison’s doctor husband John Weingraf’s jungle compound, but let’s face it – the main reason to watch this is Allison Hayes, thoroughly evil and sexy as hell! And that memorably sensuous voodoo dance she performs…

Hot Damn! She’s the whole show in this minor chiller directed by Walter Grauman, who later helmed 1964’s LADY IN A CAGE and tons of TV (including 53 episodes of MURDER, SHE WROTE). Fun Fact: Weingraf gets off the best line when he tells Allison, “There are only two places where you belong. The jungle – and the place where I first found you!”. Burn!!!  

BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE (Filmgroup 1959; D: Monte Hellman) – An uneven blend of the horror and crime genres courtesy of the Corman Brothers finds crook Frank Wolff and his gang (including his perpetually soused moll Sheila Caroll) plotting a gold bar heist using an explosion at a mine as a diversion. Wolff and his cohorts (perennial Corman actor Wally Campo and Frank Sinatra’s cousin Richard!) use good-looking ski lodge instructor Michael Forest to lead them on a cross-country ski trip to make their getaway, but the blast awakens a not-so hideous monster from its slumber that tracks them down! First film for director Hellman has its moments, but the rock-bottom budget defeats him. Filmed on location in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Fun Fact: The unscary monster was designed and played by actor Chris Robinson, the original “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” commercial ad guy!

HORROR HOTEL (Vulcan/Trans-Lux 1960; D: John Llewellyn Moxey) – Also known as CITY OF THE DEAD. New England 1692: accused witch Elizabeth Selwyn curses the town of Whitewood, MA as she’s burned at the stake. Present Day: college student Nan Barlow wants to do her term paper on witchcraft and devil worship, and is directed by her history professor Alan Driscoll to travel to his hometown of Whitewood for research. He even recommends she stay at The Raven’s Inn, run by Mrs. Newless (who bears a striking resemblance to Elizabeth!).

Nan immediately notices strange things about Whitewood: the fog-shrouded town doesn’t look like it’s changed in 200+ years, the townsfolk aren’t very friendly, the old reverend warns her “Leave Whitewood”, and weird noises emanate from the cellar. The only person who welcomes her is the reverend’s granddaughter Patricia, newly arrived herself and running an antique bookstore. Curiosity gets the best of her and… DON’T GO IN THAT BASEMENT, NAN!!

When Nan doesn’t return home after two weeks, her brother Ronald and boyfriend Bill become worried. Patricia, too, is worried, and pays a call on both Ronald and Prof. Driscoll. The men decide separately to go to Whitewood and investigate, and that’s when the fun really begins! This is probably Moxey’s best feature film, though he does have some good TV Movies on his resume (THE NIGHT STALKER, HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY). Christopher Lee is dark and ominous as Driscoll, but it’s Patricia Jessel (A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM ) who stands out in a truly bloodcurdling performance as Elizabeth Selwyn/Mrs. Newless. The rest of the cast (Betta St. John, Valentine Dyall, Venitia Stevenson, Dennis Lotis) is equally good, and the British actors do a fine job maintaining their American accents. This incredibly creepy nightmare of a movie is an old favorite of mine, and highly recommended! Fun Fact: This was a Vulcan Production from Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, who soon changed their company’s name to Amicus , premiere makers of horror anthologies in the 60’s & 70’s.

Halloween Havoc!: THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (Universal-International 1956)

THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US – and he’s not too happy about it! Can’t say that I blame him, as once again he’s used and abused by humans, kidnapped from his watery home, suffers third degree burns, and transformed into a landlubber! This third and final entry in The Gill-Man saga unfortunately isn’t as good as its two predecessors, with too much melodramatic nonsense spoiling what was an intriguing premise.

Dr. Bill Barton (Jeff Morrow ) leads a search in the Florida Everglades for the Creature, who escaped Ocean Harbor Oceanarium in the last film. Along with Barton are geneticist Dr. Tom Morgan (Rex Reason), Dr. Borg (Maurice Manson), Dr. Johnson (James Rawley), and macho guide Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer ). Also on board is Barton’s wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden), a beautiful blonde trapped in a loveless marriage with her insanely jealous, controlling prick of a husband.

The Creature is located thanks to Dr. Johnson’s sonar, subdued with a heavy dose of Rotinol (remember it from the first film?), and accidentally set aflame, causing permanent damage to his gills. But that’s alright with Barton, who planned all along to genetically alter the Gill-Man to a more human state to help in the ‘space race’ (I kid you not!). By inflating his already-there lungs, The Creature begins to mutate, getting loose and heading back to the water – which almost drowns him! The now gill-less Gill-Man is transported to Barton’s ranch in California and penned up with the sheep, seemingly helpless…

THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US gets bogged down by the melodrama of the Bartons and horny Jed Grant looking to bed the lovely Mrs. Barton. Things perk up when The Creature is featured, but slow back down as the humans talk and talk and talk. It’s almost like two different movies, and horror lover that I am, I would have preferred more monster madness and less domestic drama. It’s the weakest of the trilogy, and though the end is ambiguous enough to leave the door open for a fourth sequel, it didn’t happen.

The underwater scenes are still cool, and Riccou Browning returned to play The Gill-Man in them once again. Don Megowan takes over on land, and the 6’7″, 300 pounder makes for a physically imposing Creature. Megowan was featured as the sheriff in another horror film that year, THE WEREWOLF, played the Monster in Hammer’s unsold 1958 TV pilot TALES OF FRANKENSTEIN, starred in the low-budget CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS, and was featured in plenty of Westerns and action flicks calling for a burly mountain of a man.

Beautiful Leigh Snowden (1929-1982) first made a splash (pun intended!) doing a walk-on bit for Jack Benny’s Christmas show at San Diego Naval Base. Making her film debut in Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY , she signed a contract with Universal-International, then moved on to programmers like FRANCIS IN THE NAVY, THE SQUARE JUNGLE, OUTSIDE THE LAW, HOT ROD RUMBLE, and the big-budget ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS. She married accordion virtuoso Dick Contino (star of 1958’s DADDY-O), and retired from the screen after 1961’s THE COMANCHEROS.

And with that, we wrap up this special ‘Universal Horror’ edition of ‘Halloween Havoc!’. I hope you’ve enjoyed taking a look back with me at the films of Hollywood’s Monster Factory. These are the movies that first sparked my interest in classic cinema as a child, and it’s been a labor of love to write about them, but right now I’m exhausted! Think I’ll go lie down in my coffin awhile before those ghosts’n’goblins come rapping on my chamber door begging for candy. Happy Halloween to all, and to all a good fright!

Halloween Havoc!: REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (Universal-International 1955)

The Gill-Man  made his second appearance in REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, a good-not-great sequel that finds The Creature out of his element and in the modern (well, 1955) world. In fact, The Creature is the most sympathetic character in the film, as he’s hunted, ripped from his home, chained up, tortured, and treated like a freak-show attraction. The humans, with the exception of heroine Lori Nelson, are your basic 50’s sci-fi hammerheads who fear what they don’t understand and try to force The Gill-Man to their will.

Old friend Captain Lucas is once again heading down the Amazon to the Black Lagoon, in his new boat The Rita II. Joe Hayes and George Johnson of Florida’s Ocean Harbor Oceanarium are out to capture The Creature and use him as a theme park attraction. Underwater dynamite charges stun The Gill-Man into a coma, and he’s trussed up and transported stateside. Professor Clete Boyer is on hand to study The Creature and use behavioral modification to try to tame him; also on hand is pretty grad student Helen Dobson, who’s doing her Master’s thesis on ichthyology, and whom Professor Clete immediately hits on!

Clete uses an underwater cattle prod to “teach” the poor Gill-Man proper etiquette, though Helen begins to feel sorry for the lonely humanoid. The Creature is feeling something too, as he’s obviously crushin’ on Helen! The Gill-Man gets tired of all this abusive treatment and finally snaps his chain, literally, killing Joe and running amok at Ocean Harbor before heading back to Mother Ocean. A search proves fruitless, but that doesn’t stop Clete and Helen from having a night on the town, which The Creature rudely interrupts by snatching Helen and sending everyone into a panicked frenzy…

Riccou Browning is back as The Creature for all the underwater sequences, while stuntman Tom Hennesey plays him on land. There’s a scene at the Oceanarium featuring “Flippy, the Educated Porpoise” – could this have inspired Browning to co-create the FLIPPER TV series? Marineland in Florida stands in for Ocean Harbor, still a popular destination today. Like it’s predecessor, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE was shot in the 3D process, but the “comin’ at ya” scenes are a bit more distracting here. The basic premise of this movie served as ‘inspiration’ for another aquatic horror… 1983’s JAWS 3D.

John Agar  (Clete) plays the “hero” in much the same way as he did in countless 1950’s/60’s sci-fi movies, the macho know-it-all who tries to hook up with the leading lady the minute he lays eyes on her! Lori Nelson (Helen) made her film debut in Anthony Mann’s BEND OF THE RIVER with The Creature’s original “crush”, Julie Adams. John Bromfield (Joe) starred in Curt Siodmak’s CURUCU BEAST OF THE AMAZON and TV’s SHERIFF OF COCHISE before retiring from acting in 1960. Nestor Paiva returns as Captain Lucas in the Amazon River scenes at the film’s beginning. And there’s another Familiar Face here…


Clint Eastwood , making his extremely short film debut as a lab assistant who’s mislaid a white rat (it’s in his pocket!). Clint’s brief bit was designed to introduce him to audiences by Universal-International, but the actor failed to impress the studio or the audience (he’s pretty green), and he was released from his contract a short time later. I think most readers would agree with me that Clint’s improved a lot since those early years!

REVENGE OF THE CREATURE is a solid entry in the saga of The Gill-Man and was a box office success, so naturally Universal-International followed up on its cash cow with a third sequel. Next up: THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US!

Halloween Havoc!: THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (Universal-International 1954)

By the early 1950’s, the type of Gothic horrors Universal was famous for had become passe. It was The Atomic Age, and science fiction ruled the roost, with invaders from outer space and giant bugs unleashed by radiation were the new norm. But the studio now called Universal-International had one more ace up its collective sleeve: THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, last of the iconic Universal Monsters!

Scientist Dr. Maia, exploring “the upper reaches of the Amazon” with his native guides, discovers a fossilized hand that may be the evolutionary “missing link”. Taking his finding to the Institudo de Biologia Martima, he teams with ichthyologist David Reed, David’s pretty assistant/fiancé Kay Lawrence, institute chief Dr. Mark Williams, and fellow scientist Dr. Thompson to form an expedition. They charter the steamer The Rita, skippered by Captain Lucas, and head down the river into the Black Lagoon. Maia’s Indian guides are found slaughtered in their tent, and an animal is suspected. But The Creature is no mere animal: he’s an amphibious half-human terror out of the Devonian Era, the last of his kind and looking for a mate…

I love how the film slowly builds up to the unveiling of The Creature. We first see only a scaly hand clawing its way out of the swamp, then that same hand mauling Maia’s native guides in a tent. Later, as David and Mark are exploring the lagoon in scuba gear, we begin to get glimpses of him. Finally, we see the full Creature in the famous aquatic ballet with Kay, one of the most memorable scenes in horror history. The Creature himself is actually played by two men: Riccou Browning, co-creator of FLIPPER and second unit director for the underwater action scenes in THUNDERBALL , dons the suit beneath the water, while the 6’5″ Ben Chapman takes over on land. The underwater scenes (and others in the film) were meant to take advantage of the 3D process then in vogue, but unlike some 50’s 3D movies seen in 2D today, they don’t distract from the film’s potency.

For years, makeup whiz Bud Westmore received sole credit for The Creature’s creation, but that’s simply not true. Millicent Patrick, the first female animator at Disney Studios, did the original design for The Creature’s features, and Chris Mueller sculpted its head, while Jack Kevan created the body suit. Exactly what Westmore did I’m not really sure, other than the fact he was head of  Universal’s makeup department at the time.

The cast is loaded with genre actors, chief among them Richard Carlson as the empathetic David. His credits include THE MAGNETIC MONSTER, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE , RIDERS TO THE STARS, TORMENTED, and VALLEY OF GWANGI . Richard Denning plays arrogant jerk Mark; he appeared in UNKNOWN ISLAND, TARGET EARTH, CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN, Corman’s THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED, and THE BLACK SCORPION (and was married to Universal’s 40’s Scream Queen Evelyn Ankers ). Julie Adams (Kay) is the object of The Creature’s affections (can’t say that I blame him!), and though she’s noted for her many Western outings, she has been seen on TV’s ONE STEP BEYOND, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, NIGHT GALLERY, and as recently as a 2006 episode of LOST. Whit Bissell (Dr. Thompson) has far too many genre credits to note here; he does get the honor of being the first to dub The Creature “The Gill-Man”. Nestor Paiva (Capt. Lucas) was featured in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, TARANTULA , THE MOLE PEOPLE, and that all-time sci-fi classic THE THREE STOOGES IN ORBIT! Former silent star Antonio Moreno (Maia) doesn’t have any other genre credits, but since he started in movies back in 1912, we’ll cut him a break.

Producer William Alland (who played the reporter in Welles’ CITIZEN KANE) and director Jack Arnold teamed for many Universal horror/sci-fi flicks in the 50’s, but none as iconic as THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. The film, as “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers used to say, has been “often imitated, but never duplicated”. Universal has been threatening to do a remake since at least the early 80’s, but nothing has materialized. Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water” was obviously ‘inspired’ by this film, a loving homage to The Gill-Man. And of course, there were two sequels, the first of which we’ll discuss tomorrow…

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: HOUSE OF HORRORS (Universal 1946)


Rondo Hatton (1894-1946) was dubbed by “The Ugliest Man in Hollywood” by Universal for his repulsive visage. Originally a Tampa-based sportswriter, Hatton began developing the disease acromegaly as a young adult, a form of gigantism which distorts the facial features and bone structure (wrestler Andre the Giant suffered from this). Rondo moved to Hollywood and got work as a film extra and some bit parts (he can be spotted in SAFE IN HELL , IN OLD CHICAGO, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (’39 version), and THE OX BOW INCIDENT, among others).

1944’s “The Pearl of Death”

Hatton played “The Hoxton Creeper” in the 1944 Sherlock Holmes entry THE PEARL OF DEATH (with Universal Scream Queen Evelyn Ankers as a villainess, for a change), then proceeded to scare the daylights out of audiences in JUNGLE CAPTIVE and THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK. While not a trained actor, his unique looks made him a perfect fit for horror. Hatton died in January 1946 before the release of his last two films, and today let’s take a look at the better of the pair, HOUSE OF HORRORS.

Martin Kosleck  plays Marcel De Longe, a sculptor of (shall we say) limited talent whose work is excoriated by an acerbic art critic (Alan Napier ). The already unstable artist goes off the deep end, and decides to end it all. Instead, he winds up saving another lost soul from drowning – the notorious serial killer The Creeper! The two oddballs bond, and Marcel creates his masterpiece, a bust of Creeper’s hideous head! Creeper returns the favor by snapping the critic’s spine, and commercial artist Steve Morrow (Robert Lowery ), who recently fought with the pompous jerk, becomes the prime suspect, while Creeper continues to kill Marcel’s enemies.

While homicide detective Lt. Brooks (Bill Goodwin) is busy trying to put the moves on Steve’s sexy model (Joan Shawlee ), Steve’s girl, art critic Joan Medford (Virginia Grey) visits Marcel, looking for filler for her Sunday column. Sneaking a peek at Marcel’s latest piece, she lifts his drawing of Creeper to run in the paper. The engraving boys notice a resemblance to the mad killer, while Marcel notices the sketch is missing, and he sends The Creeper out to kill again….

Kosleck is a lot of fun as the deranged De Longe, whether having conversations with his cat or bugging out in all his crazy-eyed glory. Grey is also good as a snappy newshound, but Robert Lowery’s as wooden as ever. Joan Shawlee (credited as Joan Fulton) stands out in more ways than one as the model; fans know her best as ‘Sweet Sue’ in SOME LIKE IT HOT. Napier, always remembered as Alfred the Butler on TV’s BATMAN, is good too, as the George Sanders-like pompous jerk. Familiar Faces include Virginia Christine as one of Creeper’s early victims, Byron Foulger, Howard Freeman, Syd Saylor, and Charles Wagenheim.

But it’s Rondo Hatton who’s the star attraction, and the reason fans still remember this minor but effect little chiller directed by Jean “DEVIL BAT ” Yarbrough. In 2002, The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards were established by horror fandom, given to the best in film, television, books, art, and websites every year. The award was created by comic artist Kerry Gammill, and is based on Marcel’s bust of The Creeper in HOUSE OF HORRORS:

RONDO LIVES!

Halloween Havoc!: HOUSE OF DRACULA (Universal 1945)

Since I’ve already reviewed HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN back in 2015,  we now turn our attention to HOUSE OF DRACULA, the last “official” entry in the series (though the Universal Monsters would ‘Meet Abbott & Costello’ three years later). The film tries to put a new slant on things, using science to conquer the supernatural, but winds up being just a hodgepodge of familiar horror tropes without much cohesion. HOUSE OF DRACUA does have its fans, but I’m not one of them.

John Carradine  returns as Count Dracula, introducing himself as Baron Latos to Dr. Edlemann (Onslow Stevens ) and seeking a cure for his vampirism. Edlemann discovers a “peculiar parasite” in Dracula’s blood, and believes he can cure him through a series of transfusions. But the Count, that sneaky devil, has his fangs set for Edlemann’s pretty nurse Militza (Martha O’Driscoll),  whom he hypnotizes with those hypnotic eyes of his. Drac reverses a transfusion, and turns Edlemann into a Jekyll & Hyde-type homicidal maniac.

Also looking for help is Larry Talbot, aka The Wolf Man, seeking relief from his lycanthropic curse. Lon Chaney Jr. once again takes the dual role, sporting a pencil-thin moustache this time (for his “Inner Sanctum Mysteries” series”). Talbot, fearing the full moon, gets himself locked in the local jail, where Edlemann and Inspector Holtz (Lionel Atwill, in his fifth and final different part in the saga) watch him transform before their very eyes. Tired of waiting for a cure, Talbot throws himself into the sea below Edlemann’s estate, is rescued by Edlemann, and the pair find the body of Frankenstein’s Monster in a cavern.

The procedure on Talbot is a success, and Edlemann promises his hunchbacked nurse Nina (Jane Adams) she’s next on the list. But Edlemann,    now gone mad thanks to Dracula’s tainted blood, kills his servant Siegfried (Ludwig Stossel, no relation to John!) and Nina, and brings The Monster back to life, just as Inspector Holtz and a gang of those angry villagers barge in, and chaos ensues as Talbot shoots Edlemann and The Monster is destroyed in a fiery finish lifted straight from GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (with Lon playing  The Monster!).

Carradine is good as Dracula, as he was in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (not so much in BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA , however!). His “hypnotic eyes” rival Bela Lugosi’s, and he makes a very suave vampire. Chaney, though, is way too whiney this time around, and when he’s finally cured I breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn’t have to listen to his complaining anymore! Glenn Strange, in his second of three appearances as The Monster, is once again little more than a prop. Onslow Stevens tries as Edlemann, but is defeated by Edward T. Lowe’s ludicrous script, which constantly contradicts itself, often in the same scene! As for the rest, Atwill’s done the Inspector routine a thousand times before, Martha O’Driscoll isn’t convincing as Militza, Jane Adams does manage to gain some sympathy as Nina, and Skelton Knaggs’s part as a villager is  underwritten.

It’s not director Erle C. Kenton’s finest hour, either, though George Robinson’s cinematography helps a bit. HOUSE OF DRACULA seems like too much of a rush job, as if Universal just wanted to be rid of its Monsters once and for all. The Second Horror Cycle was winding down, and though the studio would bring all it’s Monsters back for ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, it took Hammer Films’ CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN  and HORROR OF DRACULA , along with the release of the Universal Monster Movies to television with SHOCK THEATER in 1957, to fully bring Frankenstein’s Monster, Count Dracula, and the rest of the brood back to bloodcurdling life.

 

Halloween Havoc! Extra: Boris Karloff in THE SNAKE PEOPLE (Columbia/Azteca 1971) Complete Horror Movie!

Boris Karloff frightened the nation in 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN , and continued to terrify audiences for over three decades. In 1968, at the age of 81 and suffering from emphysema and crippling arthritis, Boris signed on to do four low-budget horror films for a Mexican production company. Unable to travel, Karloff’s scenes were shot in Hollywood by Jack Hill (SPIDER BABY, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS). These films had a limited release here in the U.S. in 1971, two years after Karloff’s death, then went straight to late night TV.

THE SNAKE PEOPLE is probably the best of the quartet (which admittedly isn’t saying much!), featuring some bizarre imagery, flesh-eating zombies, voodoo rituals, human sacrifice, and other cool stuff! Karloff looks ill (and he was), but still manages to command every scene he’s in. Enjoy a last visit with the King of Horror, Boris Karloff, in THE SNAKE PEOPLE!: