All for One, Fun for All: AT SWORD’S POINT (RKO 1952)

France in 1648 is in upheaval: Cardinal Richelieu has passed away, the Queen is ill, and evil Duc de Lavelle is plotting to usurp the crown by forcing a marriage to Princess Henriette and murder young Prince Louis. The Queen summons the only persons that can help: her trusted Musketeers! But the quartet have either grown old or died, and in their stead come their equal-to-the-task children, Cornel Wilde (D’Artagnon Jr.), Dan O’Herlihy (Aramis Jr.), Alan Hale Jr (Porthos Jr.), and – Maureen O’Hara , daughter of Athos!!

AT SWORD’S PONT isn’t a great movie, but it is a fairly entertaining one, with lots of flashing swordplay, leaping about, cliffhanging perils, and narrow escapes. It kind of plays like a Saturday matinee serial, and there’s a lot of fun to be had, with Cornel Wilde a dashing D’Artagnon Jr, O’Herlihy a competent second fiddle, and Hale doing his usual good-natured lug thing. But it’s marvelous Maureen who kept me captivated throughout, her flaming red hair streaming as she battles side by side with the male Musketeers. She’s no slouch with that sword either; Maureen could buckle her swash with the best of ’em! 

The backstory behind the making of AT SWORD’S POINT may actually be more interesting than the movie itself. Republic first announced it would make the film in 1947, based on a screenplay by Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen. It ended up being filmed two years later at RKO, then sat on the shelf another two years. When it was finally released, Walter Ferris and Joseph Hoffman got the screenwriting credits, with Wisberg and Pollexfen credited for the story only. By this point I’m sure they didn’t care, having moved on to form their own Mid Century Productions, making low budget flicks from 1951’s MAN FROM PLANET X to 1961’s SECRET OF MONTE CRISTO. Why the movie sat so long is unclear; no doubt notoriously meddling RKO boss Howard Hughes had something to do with that!

The supporting cast offers fine performances from Gladys Cooper as Queen Anne and Blanche Yurka as tavern keeper and Musketeer aide Madame Michom. Robert Douglas makes a hissable villain, Nancy Gates a regal Princess, and Familiar Faces Tanis Chandler, Tris Coffin, Holmes Herbert, Lucien Litlefield, and Phil Van Zandt pop up as well. Director Lewis Allen has some good films on his resume (THE UNINVITED, SO EVIL MY LOVE, CHICAGO DEADLINE, SUDDENLY ), and keeps the action running along swiftly. Roy Webb’s jaunty main theme sounded suspiciously familiar to me – compare it to John Williams’ theme from 1978’s SUPERMAN and judge for yourselves!

AT SWORD’S POINT is an ‘A’ film in intent, but ‘B’ in execution. It’s hardly a classic of the swashbuckler genre, but it has it’s moments and can certainly be enjoyed on a mindless level. The bold Technicolor helps give it a big budget sheen, Maureen is both lovely and dangerous, Wilde is a heroic D’Artagnon, and it’s all harmless fun. It’s light and breezy and if you’ve got an hour and a half to spare, by all means give it a shot.

 

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Halloween Havoc!: THEM! (Warner Brothers 1954)

The iconic, bloodcurdling scream of little Sandy Descher heralds the arrival of THEM!, the first and best of the 50’s “Big Bug” atomic thrillers. Warner Brothers had one of their biggest hits of 1954 with this sci-fi shocker, putting it up there with Cukor’s A STAR IS BORN, Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER, and Wellman’s THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY as their highest-grossing films of the year. Not bad company for director Gordon Douglas , previously known for his work with Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy! THEM! was also Oscar nominated that year for its special effects (and should’ve been for Bronislaw Kaper’s terrific score).

The movie begins with the look and feel of a noir mystery courtesy of DP Sidney Hickox’s (DARK PASSAGE, THE BIG SLEEP  , WHITE HEAT) brooding shadows and sandstorm-battered landscape. New Mexico policemen Ben Peterson and Ed Blackburn come across a little girl wandering the desert highway near Alamogordo, a eyes locked in a blank, faraway stare. Further investigation takes the pair to a trailer that’s been trashed, sugar cubes scattered around, and some mysterious paw prints like those of a wild animal. Peterson finds a piece of her doll’s head and a tear from her robe, indicating this is where she was before becoming catatonic. While being loaded in an ambulance, an eerie, high-pitched noise wakes her, her eyes widening with fright, unnoticed by the cop and the medic.

Ben and Ed stop at Gramps’ General Store to find a similar scene – the place has been violently ransacked, sugar cubes strewn about. This time they find a body, the old man with a look of sheer horror on his face. Peterson leaves the scene, Blackburn staying behind to secure it, when he hears that eerie, high-pitched noise. He goes outside, gun drawn, as the noise grows louder. Offscreen we hear gunshots, followed by the cop’s death throes.

Cut to police headquarters, as Peterson is being consoled for the loss of his partner. The cops believe a homicidal maniac may be on the loose, and FBI agent Robert Graham has called in. It seems the little girl’s dad was an agent on vacation. The coroner’s report states Gramps’ mutilated body contained “enough formic acid to kill twenty men”. The Department of Agriculture sends eminent myrmecologists (ant experts) Dr. Medord and his daughter Pat, and when the elder scientist gives the girl a whiff of formic acid, she wakens in terror, screaming, “THEM! THEM! THEM!”.

Back in the desert, Medford finds a footprint despite the raging sandstorm, estimating it’s owner must be “over eight feet”, yet not ready to tell Ben or Bob what exactly his theory is. They soon find out as Pat is menaced by a giant ant, and both lawmen shoot in vain until Medford instructs them to aim for the creature’s antennae, stopping the big bug in its tracks. Medford’s suspicions have now been confirmed, the ant was “probably created by lingering radiation from the first atomic bomb”, tested right there in the Alamogordo desert!

Ben, Bob, and the Medfords take to the skies to look for more, and find a huge anthill the size of a mesa! There’s an entire colony of the mutated bugs down there, and a plan is devised to blast the opening with bazooka fire at high noon, then drop cyanide down the hole to destroy the beasts. When the smoke and gas clear, Ben, Bob, and Pat explore the strange underground chambers, littered with the carcasses of giant dead ants. A few survivors are blasted with flame throwers, and the trio continue to the queen’s chamber. They torch all the eggs, yet discover two have hatched already, two winged queens who’ve left the colony and taken flight…

Unlike subsequent “Big Bug” epics, THEM! boasts a talented cast of actors that make the audience buy into the outlandish premise. James Whitmore lends his blue-collar believability to the part of cop Ben Peterson, risking both life and limb in the name of service. Big James Arness , former alien in THE THING and future Marshal Dillon of TV’s GUNSMOKE, is the brawny FBI agent. Joan Weldon plays Pat, Arness’s love interest (oh, those 50’s lady scientists!).  Oscar winner Edmund Gwenn is perfectly cast as the somewhat scatterbrained but knowledgable scientist Medford. Rounding out the cast are a plethora of Familiar Faces in smaller roles: John Beradino, Willis Bouchey, Richard Deacon, Ann Doran, Olin Howlin, Sean McClory, Jan Merlin, Leonard Nimoy, Fess Parker, William Schallert, Onslow Stevens, Dub Taylor, Dick Wessel, Harry Wilson, and Dick York.

I’ve deliberately left out any ending spoilers for those among you who haven’t seen this sci-fi/horror classic. Suffice it to say, there’s lots more to the story, and if I’ve gained you’re interest I urge you to add THEM! to your Halloween watch list. The rest of you have, like me, probably enjoyed the film more than once, and you already know it’s worth watching again!

Halloween TV Havoc!: Boris Karloff in “The Crystal Ball” (from THE VEIL TV Series, 1958)

You all remember Boris Karloff’s pre-THRILLER supernatural anthology series THE VEIL, right? Of course you don’t!! That’s because it never aired! It was being filmed at Hal Roach Studios when they went belly up, and only 10 episodes were filmed. Karloff had a role in most of the episodes, including this spooky oddity entitled “The Crystal Ball”, presented here for your Halloween enjoyment. (The series itself is available through Something Weird Video for all you Karloff Kollectors!):

Halloween Havoc!: THE BLOB (Paramount 1958)

Teenagers save the world from the outer space menace known as THE BLOB in this 1958 indie-made sci-fi classic. The stars are a 28-year-old Steve McQueen (billed here as ‘Steven’), channeling his inner James Dean and cool as ever, and THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW’s  future Miss Helen, lovely Aneta Corsault. The cheaply made BLOB became a huge hit, and remains one of the best-loved sci-fi flicks of the 50’s.

After the peppy title tune “Beware the Blob!” (written by Burt Bacharach and Mack David), we find teens Steve (McQueen) and Jane (Corsault) out parking, as 50’s teens do, when a mysterious flying object crash lands in the distance. The curious kids investigate and come across an old man (veteran Olin Howland ) in the road, his hand covered with a purple gelatinous goo. The  geezer’s in obvious pain, so our young couple take him to Doc Hallen, who’s baffled as the goo creeps up the geezer’s arm.

Steve and Jane go back to where they found said geezer to look for clues, but The Blob engulfs the geezer, a nurse, and the doc, which Steve witnesses in horror. The kids go straight to the cops, who naturally are skeptical. They all head for Doc’s house, finding it in disarray  but with no bodies. The cops think Steve and Jane are pulling a prank, and no one believes he saw “a monster!”. Meanwhile, The Blob oozes its way around town, eating whatever’s in its path, until Steve recruits his hot-rodding buddies to warn the town there’s a Blob on the loose!

The malleable monster is among the coolest of cool 50’s aliens, a living blob of protoplasm that slimes through the streets gobbling up earthlings like Goobers and Raisinets at a drive-in show. This Incredible Bulk was really nothing more than a ball of silicone, made to look massive thanks to the genius of SPFX man Bart Sloane and DP Thomas Spaulding. They replicated some of the films’ locations in miniature and plopped the silicone into the picture, tilting the table it sat on back and forth to give the impression of movement. Red dyes were used to make Blobby seem blood-gorged as it grew larger. Simple and primitive yes, but effective as hell!

Those locations I mentioned were mainly in the small town of Phoenixville, PA, which now holds an annual “Blobfest” every July commemorating the movie. The scene of scared patrons running out of the Colonial Theater is reenacted, Chef’s Diner (where McQueen and company were trapped by Blobby) is open for business, there’s a BLOB screening along with other sci-fi shockers of the era, and special genre guests appear. Sounds like a good time to me, and Pennsylvania’s not THAT far of a drive from Massachusetts! Maybe next year…

Speaking of that iconic Colonial Theater scene, the marquee heralds a ‘Midnight Spook Show’ featuring DAUGHTER OF HORROR and BELA LUGOSI!! The former was a 1955 low budget item producer Jack Harris owned the distribution rights to, a surrealistic little number with no dialog narrated by (of all people) Ed McMahon! Lugosi’s name is up in lights because Harris also owned OLD MOTHER RILEY MEETS THE VAMPIRE, a 1952 British production teaming the Hungarian legend with cross-dressing comedian Arthur Lucan. The movie was known variously under the titles VAMPIRE OVER LONDON, MY SON THE VAMPIRE, and here as THE VAMPIRE AND THE ROBOT. Since there was no poster for it available, Harris simply had the title plastered onto a poster of FORBIDDEN PLANET ! Again, simple but effective.

THE BLOB was made in a simpler era, where teens and cops got along, small town life was cut and dried, and citizens rallied together to confront any enemies… even giant gelatinous aliens! Many have tried to read a bit too much into THE BLOB, but to me it’s just an entertaining drive-in flick, made in a can-do DIY spirit. Enjoy it for what it is, folks, good, clean American low-budget fun!

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: DIABOLIQUE (Filmsonor 1955)

I last discussed France’s le cinema fantastique two years ago today with a look at EYES WITHOUT A FACE . Now let’s return to the land of “Liberte’, equalite’, fraternite'” and take a trip back to 1955’s DIABOLIQUE, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece of psychological horror starring Simone Signoret that can compete with any Alfred Hitchcock film in the spine-tingling suspense department. In fact, Hitchcock himself wanted to secure the rights to the book by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac that DIABOLIQUE is based on, but Clouzot beat him to it!

Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is the cruel principal of a boarding school owned by wife Christina (Vera Clouzot), a weak woman with a heart condition whom he constantly berates. He also has a mistress, teacher Nicole Horner (Signoret), sporting a black eye from the bastard. The two women know about each other, with Michel lording his power over them. Christina and Nicole have had enough though, and conspire to do the prick in over the school holiday. Nicole has devised an ingenious plan to lure him away, having Christina call and tell Michel she wants a divorce. Not wishing to lose his meal ticket, he goes to Nicole’s apartment in Niort, where he’s drugged with a bottle of Johnnie Walker and drowned in the bathtub. They cart Michel’s body in a wicker basket back to the school and dump it in the swimming pool, but when it doesn’t emerge they scheme to have the pool drained. The body has vanished, and strange things then begin to happen: the suit Michel was wearing is delivered home from the dry cleaners, a little boy tells them the principal caught him breaking a window, and the annual school picture shows Michel’s ghostly face in a window!

Clouzot keeps the suspense ratcheted tight as a drum, turning the screws ever so slowly until the haunting finale, with a triple twist ending that the filmmaker asks the audience not to reveal… so I won’t! The penultimate scene is obviously influenced by the films of Val Lewton and American film noir (which were both influenced by the French poetic realism films to begin with): full of chiaroscuro shadows, footfalls in the dark, a quiet sense of dread, followed by the shocking revelation. It is one of the scariest segments in horror, indeed in cinema as a whole, and not to be missed.

The performances are dead-on (pun intended), with Simone and Madame Clouzot at the top of their game. Charles Varel also shines in the pivotal role of a Columbo-like retired cop turned private detective, adding to the eeriness. DIABLOIQUE has been remade several times: Curtis Harrington’s 1967 GAMES (also with Signoret), a pair of TV Movies (1974’s REFLECTIONS OF MURDER, 1993’S HOUSE OF SECRETS), and a big budget 1996 version starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani (with Kathy Bates as the cop!) that failed miserably. None of these films can hold a candle to Clouzot’s dark, disturbing piece de resistance. There’s only one auteur who could’ve possibly handled this material with such style, and that would be Hitchcock. We can only wonder what that would be like, but we’ll never know. Instead, we’re left with Clouzot’s brilliant piece of film work, which we can certainly be grateful to have for Halloween (or any) season.

Halloween Havoc!: FROM HELL IT CAME (Allied Artists 1957)

I’ve seen a lot of movie monsters in my time. Vampires and werewolves, zombies and mutated bugs, but nothing prepared me for the horror of… Tabanga, the Terrible Tree Monster and star of FROM HELL IT CAME! I’ve seen a lot of Grade ‘Z’ “so-bad-they’re-good” movies as well, and let me tell you, this one’s right up there with the best of the worst. This was the last film from Milner Brothers Productions (who brought you the equally ludicrous PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES) and rightly so. FROM HELL IT CAME is so inept it makes Ed Wood’s epics look like Cecil B. DeMille spectaculars!

So there’s this tribe of suspiciously Caucasian-looking natives living on this South Seas island, okay. The very Caucasian Kimo (Gregg Palmer, ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU) is staked to the ground, accused of poisoning his chieftain father with the white man’s “bad medicine”. This is only a ruse by witch doctor Tano (Robert Swan) to take over  the tribe with Maranka (Baynes Barron) and Kimo’s tropical floozy wife Korey (Suzanne Ridgway). Before Tano gives the order to plunge a knife into his victim’s heart, Kimo vows to return from the grave to exact revenge on his lying tormentors.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, scientists Dr. Bill Arnold (Tod Andrews) and Professor Clark (John McNamara) are researching nuclear fallout in the area, which the natives call “Devil Dust”. With them is Army Sgt. Eddie (Mark Sheeler), whose role is so meaningless he isn’t even given a last name. Then there’s Mrs. Kilgore (Linda Winters), man-hungry owner of the local trading post, sporting one of the worst Cockney accents in the history of cinema! Into the picture (via helicopter) comes Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver), no relation to Perry Mason, one of those dedicated 50’s “female scientists” that leading men like Bill go ga-ga over.

It’s brought to everyone’s attention there’s a tree stump growing out of Kimo’s grave, and this botanical marvel has a pulse! Some friendly natives warn the gang about the legend of Tabanga, a restless evil tree monster who once terrorized the islanders. Dr. Mason gives it a shot of her new serum to keep it alive, but Tabanga busts out of the lab and makes good on Kimo’s promise to avenge his death against those who murdered him. The shambling stump takes things too far when it shuffles off with Terry. The men chases after it, and realize the only way to stop Tabanga is to shoot a bullet at the knife still protruding from the former Kimo’s chest, driving it through its tree heart! I don’t think even Annie Oakley could pull that off, but scientist Bill manages to do just that, ending the threat of Tabanga, earning the native’s gratitude, and winning the hand of the fair Terry.

The only thing worse than the stilted dialog is the wooden (pun intended) delivery the actors give it. As for Tabanga  itself, this monster wouldn’t scare anybody over the age of five. In fact, I found myself smiling every time it appeared on-screen. This isn’t “rubber suit” monster maker Paul Blaisdell’s greatest creation; then again how do you make a tree scary? I’m pretty sure there are worst films you can watch this Halloween though, so if you’re in the mood for some unintentional Tree Monster laughs, FROM HELL IT CAME will certainly fill the bill. Time to say goodnight, Tabanga:

 

Halloween Havoc!: TARANTULA (Universal-International 1955)

TARANTULA is a movie that used to scare the bejeezus out of me as a kid, and helped warp my fragile little mind. Watching it again through my so-called “grown-up” eyes, I could sit here and pick at some gaps in logic and bad dialog. But I’m not gonna do that; instead I’ll look at the positives in this still entertaining and fun “Big Bug” movie (okay, maybe I’ll pick at it a little!).

A pre-credits scene shows a deformed looking man in pajamas stumbling across the desert, buzzards circling over his head. He drops in his tracks, then the title appears in big, bold letters: TARANTULA! The credits roll, and we meet Dr. Mark Hastings, who’s “just a country doctor” in the aptly named desert town of Desert Rock. Mark gets a call from Sheriff Jack Andrews to inspect the body, assumed to be scientist Dr. Eric Jacobs. Mark thinks this is impossible, for the corpse has died from acute acromegaly, a disease of the pituitary glands causing gigantism and enlarged organs which takes years to produce the state the body’s in.

“Nutrient biologist” Prof. Gerald Deemer comes to the morgue and identifies the body as indeed Jacobs, “a friend for thirty years”. Deemer claims the condition came on suddenly four days ago, and he was helpless to aid his dear, deceased friend. Deemer returns to his laboratory far from town limits, and we glimpse the fruits of his labor: a giant rat, giant rabbit, and giant guinea pig locked in cages, as well as one BIG-ASS tarantula in a glass cage. A creepy dude looking similar to Jacobs enters the lab and attacks Deemer. They tussle, and the lab equipment bursts into flames! Creepy dude injects Deemer with a serum, then drops dead. The lab is in ruins, equipment and experiments destroyed… except for that BIG-ASS spider, who’s escaped into the desert night!

Enter hot graduate student Stephanie “Steve” Clayton, biology major. She’s arrived in town at the behest of Deemer and Jacobs, and Mark offers her a ride out to his home. He just happened to be heading there to meet newspaper reporter Joe Burch, hoping to get some info on Jacobs’ mysterious bout of acromegaly. Mark and Steve are automatically smitten with each other, despite Mark’s sexist comment, “I knew it would happen! Give women the vote and whaddaya get? Lady scientists!”.

Arriving at Deemer’s, the scientist tells Mark he’s been experimenting with a powerful nutrient bolstered by a “radioactive isotope” in hopes of overcoming a future world hunger crisis brought on by overpopulation. When he leaves, we see Deemer beginning to show signs of acromegaly from the serum Creepy Guy injected in him. As Deemer continues to weaken, reports of mutilated cattle, “their bones picked clean”, occur, a viscous pool of white liquid nearby. When a truck is overturned and it’s occupants similarly victimized, Mark takes a thermos full of the stuff to be examined at the local college… but not before taking a taste of the vile-looking stuff! Yuck!!

The university doctor tells Mark it’s “related to insect venom”, but it’d have to be one BIG-ASS insect to produce that much venom. Mark puts two and two together and calls Deemer’s home, with Steve telling him she’s worried about the scientist’s condition. She lets out a scream, and Mark rushes to the rescue, finding Deemer in rough shape, but not rough enough to give out some exposition on the story’s plot. Mark gets the sheriff to call in the state police, as the tarantula crawls along, ominous music playing wherever he goes!

The highway is blocked off, and here comes Spidey! Machine gun fire can’t stop it, as two unlucky trooper find out (“Jumpin’ Jupiter!”, exclaims the sheriff). Desert Rock is evacuated, and the townsfolk order caseloads of dynamite to try and blast it to smithereens. The Air Force is called in (Mark: “If those boys have some napalm, tell ’em to bring it along!”), and the TNT blast doesn’t stop it (“Holy Cow!”), so the air squadron, led by an uncredited 25-year-old Clint Eastwood no less, uses their rockets and napalm bombs to obliterate that BIG-ASS spider in a fiery conflagration!

Sci-fi hero John Agar plays Mark, utilizing his expressive eyebrows and lopsided grin as usual. He gets the worst dialog, but as a sci-fi hero he’s okay; he’s done this before. Mara Corday, of THE BLACK SCORPION and THE GIANT CLAW , made her sci-fi debut here; later, when Eastwood became a megastar, he cast his old friend Mara in small roles in some of his films. Veteran Leo G. Carroll  lends dignity to the sympathetic part of Prof. Deemer. Familiar Faces in key roles are Raymond Bailey (THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES’ Mr. Drysdale), Ross Elliott, Nestor Paiva, and Hank Patterson (GREEN ACRES’ Fred Ziffle, “father” of Arnold). Stuntman Eddie Parker does double-duty as the deformed Jacobs and Creepy Dude in makeup by the great Bud Westmore.

Producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold collaborated on 50’s sci-fi films IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE , THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and it’s sequel REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, THIS ISLAND EARTH (Arnold was uncredited on this one), and THE SPACE CHILDREN, all among  the decade’s best. Speaking of the decade’s best, Joseph Gershenson’s score is a cut above what’s usually heard in these films, and deserves recognition. Clifford Stine’s optical effects of the superimposed spider hold up well in this age of CGI. Robert Fresco and Martin Berkeley’s script manages to tell a gripping story regardless of those logic gaps and sometimes ludicrous dialog.

TARANTULA is definitely a guilty pleasure for me, an amusing “Big Bug” romp that’s doesn’t scare me like it did when I was a child, but remains a treat to watch. Nostalgia, maybe? Sure, but whereas some of these old sci-fi flicks I wouldn’t go out of my way to revisit, I would with TARANTULA! Over and over again!