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…

 

 

Paranoia Strikes Deep: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (Allied Artists 1956; United Artists 1978)

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These two versions of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS have much in common. Both are visions of the paranoia of their times disguised in the veneer of science fiction. But while the 1956 film is an allegoric warning of the dangers of Communism, its 1978 remake focuses on conspiracy theory paranoia in the post-Watergate era. The films are equally good reflections of the times they were made, and the differences lie mainly in the visions of directors Don Siegel (’56) and Philip Kaufman (’78).

Siegel’s roots were planted firmly in the old studio system. He began his career at Warners, then RKO before moving onto to independent productions in the mid-50s. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was made for Allied Artists (formerly known as Monogram, home of The Bowery Boys and Bela Lugosi quickies.) Siegel was well versed in working within budgetary constraints. Early films like PRIVATE HELL 36 and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 were low-budget but effective noirs notable for their toughness. Siegel’s version of the story has that noirish  feel to it, with the protagonist caught in an ever-downward spiral towards an inescapable fate.

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Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is being held in the mental ward at a hospital. He’s hysterical, screaming about an impending doomsday. Psychiatrist Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) is called in, and Bennell recounts the story of what’s been happening in his sleepy little suburb of Santa Mira, California. Bennell had just returned from a vacation when he’s told about a strange phenomenon occurring in town. People have been reporting their loved ones aren’t really their loved ones…they’re imposters. A young boy claims his mom is not his mom. Bennell’s girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter) has a cousin who insists Uncle Ira is not Uncle Ira. Psychiatrist friend Dr. Kauffman thinks it’s mass hysteria caused by “what’s going on in the world”. But Bennell has nagging doubts about that diagnosis, doubts that are confirmed when he goes to Jack and Teddy Belicec’s (King Donovan, Carolyn Jones) home to discover a body on their pool table. An unformed body, approximately the same height and weight as Jack!

Things go steadily downhill as Bennell and Becky and the Belicecs find weird seed pods in the greenhouse. The pods bubble and ooze, popping out newly minted body doubles of the quartet. They burn the pods, and soon find out most of Santa Mira has been taken over by the pod people. Bennell and Becky are now hunted by the pod people, who are intent on making the couple one of them. The key is to stay awake, for only while humans sleep can the pod people take over their bodies. Bennell and Becky finally escape through an old tunnel, hearing music when they get to the other side. Bennell investigates, thinking there must be other humans, but is shocked to find the music’s coming from a pod farm! He goes back to Becky and kisses her, and to his horror realizes she fell asleep, and is now one of them! Bennell is chased to the highway, frantically trying to flag down drivers, yelling, ” Listen to me! Listen to me! They’re here! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next!” The drivers pass him by, thinking he’s just drunk or some kind of nut.

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Dr. Hill listens, but dismisses Bennell’s tale as the rantings of a deranged man. He leaves the room just as an accident victim is being brought into the hospital. It seems his truck was broadsided, and he was trapped by the weight of its load… filled with pods! Hill immediately realizes Bennell’s telling the truth, and calls the authorities. This INVASION ends on a positive note, with hope for mankind’s future. The message is quite clear, to remain aware and act when necessary. 50s worries about Communist infiltration (whether real or imagined) were at their peak during this era, and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS offers a chilling warning to its audience. All the best science fiction includes some underlying message, and Siegel’s movie delivers without hitting the viewer over the head,  his film noir touch only adding to the frightening mood.

Philip Kaufman is rooted in another film school altogether, that of the director as auteur. Kaufman’s works are a product of the individualistic cinema of the 1970s, when visionaries like Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola were creating genre-bending films based on traditional themes like THE LONG GOODBYE and THE CONVERSATION. His influences were French New Wave directors like Goddard and Truffaut, and independent American mavericks like John Cassavettes and, to a lesser extent, Don Siegel. Kaufman’s version of INVASION ratchets up the paranoia, giving the viewer a much bleaker perspective of a world where it may indeed be far too late for hope.

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Kaufman’s protagonist is now Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), and his occupation has been changed to Public Health inspector. A bigger change is in moving the setting from quiet suburbia to bustling San Francisco. This widens the scope of the horror, as we see even large cities aren’t safe from the vast conspiracy. It’s not just happening in some small, out-of-the-way burg, it’s right here in Big City America. Bennell’s colleague, microbiologist Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), believes her once-affectionate husband Geoffrey (Art Hindle) “is not Geoffrey” anymore. He’s now aloof, meeting with strange people, and always away from home. Bennell brings Elizabeth to see his friend, pop psychologist Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy in a brilliant piece of casting).   Kibner has heard this complaint recently from others, and spouts some platitudes about a “hallucinatory flu” going around, caused mainly by people just not listening to each other anymore.

Bonnell’s friends Jack and Nancy Belicec (Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright) run a trendy Mud Bath health spa, and a cocoon-like body is found there. Bennell sees it, and begins to believe Elizabeth’s story. Bennell rushes to her and spies her doppelgänger in the greenhouse growing while she sleeps. He grabs her and returns to the Bellicec’s. Kibner is called in, but the body is nowhere to be found. Kibner’s still skeptical, and suggests they all get a good night’s sleep. It’s only when the camera follows him outside that we learn the truth… Kibner is one of THEM!

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Bennell’s stymied at every turn by government bureaucracy, passing him from one department to the next, some not taking his calls at all. The exhausted quartet finally fall asleep, and the pods try to overtake them, nearly encompassing Bennell until Elizabeth’s screams wake him up. They run but they can’t hide, and the rest of the film generally follows the original’s path except for a completely different ending that I won’t spoil here.

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Kaufman pays homage to the first film with cameos by Kevin McCarthy (virtually recreating his iconic highway scene) and director Siegel (as a cab driver who’s not what he seems). The newer INVASION utilizes sound editing to build up the terror, something the quieter original didn’t capitalize on. And the larger budget means better special effects, including a bit where a street singer’s head is transposed on his dog’s body. Kaufman’s version is closer to horror than noir, and it also has a sense of humor not found in the 1956 INVASION.  I like both versions, but enjoyed the Kaufman version just a bit more. Growing up in the 70s, I’m well aware that governments cannot be trusted. Young people today share these sentiments with me, at least some of them do. The story’s been retold twice since 1978, in BODY SNATCHER (1993) directed by Abel Ferrara, and 2007’s THE INVASION, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Neither has had the impact the first two films did, both of which can hold their own in the horror/science fiction pantheon. I suppose as long as people are worried about conspiracies and the dehumanization of mankind, the story will be retold again. It’s only when we STOP worrying about what’s really going on behind the curtain that we as a species will truly be in trouble.

 

Strange New World: George Pal’s THE TIME MACHINE (MGM 1960)

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George Pal (1908-1980) made movies full of wonder and imagination. The Hungarian born Pal got his start in film by creating “Puppetoons”, stop-motion animated shorts that delighted audiences in the 1930s and 40s (my personal favorites are JOHN HENRY and TUBBY THE TUBA). Some of these featured the character Jasper, a stereotyped black child always getting in some sort of trouble. Pal saw Jasper as closer in spirit to Huckleberry Finn than Stepin Fetchit, but by 1949 he  abandoned the “Puppetoons” altogether to concentrate on producing features, beginning with THE GREAT RUPERT, a Christmas fantasy starring Jimmy Durante. Pal produced a string of sci-fi hits in the early 50s (DESTINATION MOON, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, WAR OF THE WORLDS, CONQUEST OF SPACE), and began directing his films with 1958’s “tom thumb”. Having had his biggest success with the H.G. Wells adaptation WAR OF THE WORLDS, Pal produced and directed another Wells classic, the sci-fi/fantasy masterpiece THE TIME MACHINE.

Four men have gathered at George Wells’ house in London to meet for dinner, but the host is late. His housekeeper Mrs. Watchett hasn’t seen him in five days, but soon George comes bursting in, looking extremely disheveled. The four friends are startled as George relates what happened to him since they last met on New Year’s Eve 1899…

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On that day, George tried explaining his theory of travelling through the Fourth Dimension, through time itself. He demonstrated using a model of a Time Machine, which vanishes before their very eyes! The men are skeptical, believing it to be some magician’s trick, but George is adamant about his theory. When they depart, he goes into his workshop, where sits a full-sized machine. George begins experimenting, slowly at first, and stops in 1917, where he meets friend Filby’s son, who says his dad was killed in WWI. Going forward, he lands in 1940, at the height of the Nazi blitzkrieg. He travels to 1966, and lands in the midst of a nuclear holocaust. George then hits the full throttle, and crash lands in the strange new world of year 802,701.

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George is amazed by the lush paradise, with “natural splendor beyond compare”. Soon he discovers other humans, all very blonde and very young. One of them, a stunning young girl, is drowning in a nearby river, while the rest still by idly. George jumps in and rescues her, and finds out her name is Weena, and they are called the Eloi. It seems the Eloi have no government, no laws, and no motivation to do anything but lounge around all day (the original slacker generation!!). But all is not what it seems, as George finds out the Eloi are controlled by a fearsome underground race called the Morlocks. These brutish, blue skinned mutants breed the Eloi like cattle, then when they’re matured lure them into their cavern to become dinner for the cannibalistic Morlocks. The Morlocks have also stolen George’s Time Machine, and now he’s trapped in a world he never made!

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Australian actor Rod Taylor had his first leading role as George, and became a star because of it. Taylor would go on to headline Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, then went on to a series of action films like DARK OF THE SUN, THE HELL WITH HEROES, DARKER THAN AMBER, THE TRAIN ROBBERS (with John Wayne), and THE DEADLY TRACKERS. Taylor’s last film appearance before his death in January 2015 was as Winston Churchill in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. Costar Yvette Mimieux was only 18 when she made THE TIME MACHINE. The pretty young star was featured in WHERE THE BOYS ARE, TOYS IN THE ATTIC, and PICASSO SUMMER. Never a big star, Mimieux is remembered for the 70s exploitation drama JACKSON COUNTY JAIL, and TV movie HIT LADY, which she wrote. Alan Young, who plays Filby and his son, is known to baby boomers as Wilbur Post, owner of TV’s talking horse MR. ED, and to a later generation as the voice of Uncle Scrooge McDuck. Sebastian Cabot, Whit Bissell, and Doris Lloyd also offer strong support.

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The special effects by Gene Warren and Wah Chang won the Oscar that year, though they’re a bit crude today. William Tuttle’s makeup on the Morlocks, based on Pal’s design, is quite a fright to behold, with their long fangs, blue skin, and glowing eyes. The wonderfully dramatic score by Russell Green is one of the best in all of sci-fi. George Pal’s  THE TIME MACHINE is a sci-fi/fantasy treat guaranteed to please even the most jaded viewer, packed with adventure, humor, and enchantment, and it’s a must-see for kids of all ages.

 

 

 

 

Tough As Nails: BRUTE FORCE (Universal-International, 1947)

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The prison movie has long been one of the most popular of the crime genre. Beginning with 1930’s THE BIG HOUSE, to THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and beyond, audiences flock to get a forbidden glimpse behind the walls. Newspaper columnist turned film producer Mark Hellinger gave us one of the starkest, most realistic looks at prison life in  BRUTE FORCE, as relevant now as it was back in 1947.

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Westgate Penitentiary is a walled island facility much like Alcatraz, ruled with an iron hand by Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). The warden (Roman Bohenen) is weak and inefficient, and the prison doctor (Art Baker) a drunk. Inmate Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), just back from solitary thanks to having a shiv planted on him by one of Munsey’s stoolies, is desperate enough to plan a jailbreak with his cellies in R17. They stage a fight in the machine shop and drive the rat to his death while Joe visits with the doctor, making sure he has an airtight alibi. The politicians are in an uproar about the prison’s lack of discipline, and threaten the warden that changes will be made if things aren’t straightened out. Joe makes a proposition to Gallagher (Charles Bickford), a veteran con, to break out. Gallagher declines, stating he’s up for parole soon, and has it pretty easy playing both sides of the fence.

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Flashbacks are used throughout the movie to humanize the cons in R17, as we see them on the outside with their women. Joe’s girl Ruth (Ann Blyth) is a cripple with cancer. His lawyer tells him she refuses to have a life-saving operation until he returns. Joe doen’t want her to know where he is, as he’s shielded her from his criminal life. Joe gets a message to visit a con in the infirmary, who tells him the drainpipe is the answer to his way out. A cryptic reference to “Hill 633” provides Joe with the means to carry things out. Munsey causes one of the cellmates (Whit Bissell) to hang himself, and the warden, under more pressure, revokes all convict privileges. All scheduled paroles are cancelled, and Gallagher now agrees to go along with Joe’s escape plan. Munsey sends the men to work in the drainpipe, but what they don’t know is there’s a rat among them, and Munsey’s on to their scheme. Just before setting things into play, the warden is forced to resign, and Munsey is put in charge. The cons riot while the breakout is on, culminating in a death struggle between Joe and Munsey in a gory ending inside a flaming guard tower.

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Burt Lancaster’s Joe Collins is the ultimate anti-hero, clearly a criminal, but we sympathize with him. His love for Ruth shows us his softer side, and though he’s on the wrong side of the law, we cheer him on, rather than the corrupt Captain Munsey. Cronyn’s Munsey is vain, sadistic, and tyrannical. His methods of intimidation and brutality make him as bad (if not worse) than even the hardest con. It’s a subtle, well drawn portrait, and I think it’s Cronyn’s best screen performance, which is saying a lot considering his long body of work. The rest of the cast is a testosterone fueled bunch, including Howard Duff (billed as “Radio’s Sam Spade in his first screen role”), Jeff Corey, Sam Levene, Jack Overman, John Hoyt, Jay C. Flippen, and Gene Roth. The ladies are represented by Blyth, Yvonne DeCarlo, Ella Raines, and Anita Colby. Black actor Sir Lancelot plays Calypso, who serves as a sort of Greek chorus for the film, much like he did in Val Lewton’s 1943 I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.

The screenplay by Richard Brooks is tough as nails. Brooks wrote another Hellinger movie, THE KILLERS, and worked on John Huston’s KEY LARGO, before becoming an acclaimed writer/director of his own with THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, ELMER GANTRY, IN COLD BLOOD, and LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR. Director Jules Dassin came up through the ranks of b-movies before scoring with THE CANTERVILLE GHOST. He collaborated with Hellinger again on THE NAKED CITY , and made NIGHT AND THE CITY before falling victim to the Hollywood blacklist. Moving to Europe, Dassin continued his fine work in films like RIFIFI, TOPKAPI, and NEVER ON SUNDAY with his wife, Greek actress/activist Melina Mercouri.

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BRUTE FORCE is a violent, gritty movie that was way ahead of its time. It’s a no holds barred look at a hard life, and retains its punch even today. Well worth watching for its realism, and particularly for Hume Cronyn’s chilling performance as Captain Munsey.  A true classic!