Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)

For this year's Countdown to Halloween, it's all-Universal Monsters, all-the-time, from Dracula (1931) to The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).  Join me daily for a fresh perspective on movies you may not have watched in a long time, if ever.  Today, we come to an end with the one that's been written in this paragraph every day of the Countdown: The Creature Walks Among Us!

For what I would consider to be the final Universal Monsters movie, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) seems fairly ambitious.  It’s not just the tale of a monster run amok.  In fact, the Gill-man isn’t the real monster at all.  He’s the victim of a mentally unhinged doctor who abuses his wife.  Don’t worry if that’s not how you interpret it; it’s how the other characters do and they’ll state that for you at the end of the movie so you don’t have to draw your own conclusions.

Speaking of being a little talky, that’s something the final movies I watched all have in common.  As they leaned more towards science fiction, they attempted explaining in detail the science part of the fiction.  Here, it’s something fairly simple: sonar.  The men on the expedition to retrieve the Gill-man from the Everglades can’t just use it to locate him without explaining to us how sound bounces off an underwater object and the amount of time it takes to return tells how far away it is.

In the 1950s, maybe sonar wasn’t commonly understood and The Creature Walks Among Us had to actually educate the audience.  On the other hand, it plays loose and free with the more fictional science.  Today, it’s fairly comical to believe that simply transfusing the Gill-man with human blood would actually change his DNA.  That’s what they do in an attempt to resume his evolution from amphibian to human.

Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow) is the aforementioned doctor.  He believes, among other things, that if he can change the metabolism of man, man will change.  This is for the greater good, right?  No, it’s so he can drink and drive.  Ultimately, they change only the skin of the Gill-man, not the animal inside.  This opens discussion about nature vs. nurture.  “What brings out the best in human kind and what brings out the worst, because it’s the stars or the jungle.”  Huh?

By the time doctors Morgan (Rex Reason), Borg (Maurice Manson) and. Johnson (James Rawley) realize Barton’s a kook, he’s pushing his wife, Marcia (Leigh Snowden), around like he hates her, yet bullying the man, Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer), he thinks is fooling around with her.  It turns out Grant really is coming on to her.  He says he just wants to be friends, but she replies, “Being a friend of yours isn’t going to solve my problems, can’t you understand that?”

It’s enough drama to drive the Gill-man into a rage, presumably to protect Marcia.  He really wants to jump back in the water and swim away, but since he’s lost his gills and developed lungs, he would only drown.  It’s a sad situation for him, spending the final part of the movie in a pen with the other animals.  They try to civilize him by putting clothes on him, but it doesn’t really work.  When he gets mad, walls start crumbling down and furniture starts flying.

With all this excitement happening, The Creature Walks Among Us still plays incredibly slow.  They spend much too long hunting and capturing the Gill-man during the first third of the movie.  In the second third, he’s wrapped in bandages while he recovers from third degree burns he received as part of being captured.  In the final third, he’s in his pen observing the soap opera unfolding around him until he can’t take it anymore, but then there's only six minutes of the movie left for him to rampage.

I’ll bet you can guess that even with its flaws, I enjoyed The Creature Walks Among Us.  It’s a fitting conclusion to the Universal Monsters legacy, featuring an original creation the caliber of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Wolf Man.  It has a structure similar to some of the earliest horror movies, yet takes a step forward toward the later science fiction movies.  Plus, it’s a sequel, something it has in common with 17 of the 34 movies I watched this month.

Tomorrow:  There is no tomorrow, as far as the Countdown to Halloween goes.  But there's always next year!  I don't write on here too much the rest of the year, but you can read my movie reviews and episode recaps for American Horror Story and Bates Motel on Boom Howdy.  I've also started writing recently for my old hometown's website, Enid Buzz.  Thanks for reading.  

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 30, 2015

This Island Earth (1955)

For this year's Countdown to Halloween, it's all-Universal Monsters, all-the-time, from Dracula (1931) to The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).  Join me daily for a fresh perspective on movies you may not have watched in a long time, if ever.  Today, one that's out of this world: This Island Earth!

In recent years, a creature from a space adventure has been added to the membership roster of the Universal Monsters.  It is the Metaluna Mutant from This Island Earth (1955).  It’s cool looking, all right, with its bulbous head, round eyes positioned lower than its shoulders, and long arms with pincers for hands.  But it doesn’t appear until almost an hour and fifteen minutes into the movie, and only for a very short time.

There are actually two mutants.  One appears briefly before a building on Metaluna comes tumbling down on top of it.  The other manages to stow away on the ship escaping the planet, which is under attack by meteors from warring planet Zagon.  It doesn’t seem like they could do much harm, but one manages to mortally wound friendly alien, Exeter (Jeff Morrow) and scare the mascara off Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue).

Whether or not the Metaluna Mutant should be considered a Universal Monster doesn’t concern me.  This Island Earth was released before the final Creature from the Black Lagoon sequel, The Creature Walks Among Us, so it’s within the appropriate timeframe.  While its actions may not be memorable, its appearance is unforgettable.  It’s like equal opportunity employment to include an otherworldly creature among the vampires, man-made monsters and wolf men.

This was the first time I’ve ever watched This Island Earth and I rather enjoyed it, going against the expectation that I wouldn’t like a movie ridiculed by Mystery Science Theater 3000.  It’s rather talky with its scientific explanations for everything, but has a good set-up and mystery that is sustained through a large part of the story.  In fact, we don’t find out what Exeter and his race really want until its final moments.

Excepting Phantom of the Opera (1943), it’s the only Universal Monsters movie that’s in color.  It’s glorious color, at that.  As if to emphasize the point, all the controls for Metalunan technology are color wheels that look something like Simon games, or those vintage contraptions that changes the color of your Christmas tree.  (How about those references for people who old and people who are really old?!?)  It’s pretty to look at and adds depth to otherwise bare spaceship interiors.

The special effects are not bad for their time. I liked when the spaceship flew along the surface of Metaluna, which looks like it’s made out of grey Swiss cheese.  If you fly into one of the holes, though, the city lies beneath.  It’s less impressive than the surface because it’s merely a painting.  You have to wonder what it would have been like to experience This Island Earth in 1955.  Would it have been as spectacular as one of today’s technical extravaganzas?  Were people enthralled?

When I watch these movies, I try, as often as I can remember, to imagine what they were like at the time they were made, not what they’re like today.  “Imagination” is the key word here.  Not only am I imagining the experience of seeing the movie with fresh eyes, but I’m also exercising a lot more imagination to make the movie even work.  That was a requirement at the time.  Today, though, we barely have to imagine anything that filmmakers can’t simply show us.

With imagination comes joy.  There’s a different feeling after watching This Island Earth (or any Universal Monsters movie, really) than you do have after watching something like… let’s say The Last Witch Hunter, since it’s a recent genre release.  If not joy, perhaps “fun” is a less extreme word.  These movies are fun.  It doesn’t matter if they’re silly; they’re well intentioned and accomplish an awful lot of magic with very few resources.

Better yet, if you continue to think about them after you watch them, your imagination enhances them, transforming them into something else entirely.  They become classics of the cinema and our favorite movies.  Even if they’re not that good when you re-watch them, your imagination is sparked once again and the process repeats.  This is the value of a cheesy old sci-fi movie from the 1950s like This Island Earth.  This is the power they have.

Tomorrow: The Creature Walks Among Us!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Revenge of the Creature (1955)

For this year's Countdown to Halloween, it's all-Universal Monsters, all-the-time, from Dracula (1931) to The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).  Join me daily for a fresh perspective on movies you may not have watched in a long time, if ever.  Today, it's a little more than a regular sequel; it's Revenge of the Creature!

Unless there were two of them, the Gill-man survived being shot at the end of Creature from the Black Lagoon and returned for a sequel a year later in Revenge of the Creature (1955).  He probably wouldn't have returned if he'd been left alone; however, a new crew returns to the upper Amazon to finish what the previous one could not.  One of the men boasts, "If there really is a Gill-man, we'll catch him!"
It's the same captain on the boat, Lucas (Nestor Paiva), and he judiciously recaps the last movie for those who might be challenged by its complexity:  five men died on the previous expedition.  While the new crew discusses the Gill-man being "captured in time," having skipped an evolutionary step, Lucas adds, "Inside it is a demon dragging it through the centuries."

I didn't even mention this.  Recognize that guy?  It's Clint Eastwood in his first screen appearance!
It's a demon that they're able to put into a coma by placing explosives on the surface of the water; however, it's also a demon that they're able to revive after "walking" him through the water several times in a tank at the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium in Florida.  This science is explained by Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) as she winks at the hunky "walker," Joe Hayes (John Bromfield), from a walkway above.
She's just a flirt, though, because by the end of the movie, she's met, gone on a date, and become engaged to Professor Clete Ferguson (John Agar).  I'm pretty sure I missed that last development, but a radio announcer tracking the escaped Gill-man's movements along the beach says it's Ferguson's fiancĂ©e that he's carrying with him.
Yes, of course the Gill-man escapes.  He even gets to flip over a car on his subsequent rampage.  In this new setting in and around Jacksonville, there's a lot more action in Revenge of the Creature than in the first movie.  In that sense, it's a tighter, faster-moving and more entertaining movie.  Besides, it's more fun to see crowds run from a monster than one person swim away from one.

As I watch all these classics chronologically, I notice little things that I think are milestones in the making of horror movies… more things they started getting away with.  Here, it's not only that the Gill-man commits the most unforgiveable cinematic crime of all: killing a dog, but it's also that we see the body of the dead dog lying in the bushes, I could swear with blood on its neck.
Jack Arnold directs again and I'll be darned if he doesn't attempt a jump scare or two.  First, a young couple making out in their car is startled when a policeman approaches the window.  Second, a hand reaches out to touch Helen on the shoulder, but it's not the Gill-man, it's just good ol' Clete.  This may be just another Universal Monsters sequel, but it's also an early experiment with tropes of the horror genre that remain with us today.

Tomorrow:  This Island Earth!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

For this year's Countdown to Halloween, it's all-Universal Monsters, all-the-time, from Dracula (1931) to The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).  Join me daily for a fresh perspective on movies you may not have watched in a long time, if ever.  Today, Universal bridges two eras with Creature from the Black Lagoon!

By the early 1950s, the classic, earth-bound creatures that had served Universal so well for 20 years had become guest stars in comedies and the studio was looking elsewhere to find its monsters.  Instead of Transylvania, It Came from Outer Space.  It was the Atomic Age and size mattered, whether it was a giant Tarantula, a Deadly Mantis, or, going the other direction, an Incredible Shrinking Man.

In the midst of these new sci-fi horrors came a monster and a movie that spanned both eras.  The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was from this Earth; however, the movie itself is just about as Atomic Age as you can get.  It opens with nothing less than the explosive creation of our planet:

This is the planet Earth, newly born and cooling rapidly from a temperature of 6,000 degrees to a few hundred in less than five billion years.  The heat rises and meets the atmosphere, the clouds form and rain pours down upon the hardening surface for countless centuries. The restless seas rise, find boundaries, are contained.  Now, in their warm depths, the miracle of life begins.  In infinite variety, living things appear and change and reach the land, leaving a record of their coming, of their struggle to survive, and of their eventual end.  The record of life is written on the land where 15 million years later, in the upper reaches of the Amazon, man is still trying to read it…

Then, twice later, the scientists investigating the discovery of a fossilized claw discuss outer space and how they can use what they learn to help man survive.  There’s very little mention, if any, of evolution or the wonders that we might find in our own backyard.  That’s very forward thinking, if you ask me, and one of the things I love about the time.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a very well made movie, saving any complete glimpse of its monster until almost a third of the way into it.  Before then, it’s just its claw here and there, almost grabbing the leg of Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) before pulling away.  What a great claw it is!  Large enough to cover a man’s face, it has webbed fingers and looks like it might have nails that are razor sharp.

Well, we know they’re razor sharp.  The creature is able to slice its way out of a net and makes mincemeat of two men from the expedition in their tent one night.  On the other hand, when we see it swimming, it’s very graceful.  As Kay leisurely swims on the surface, it’s doing the backstroke directly below her, almost mirroring her movements.  It also smoothly weaves its way in and out of its underwater environment.

The creature is more effectively scary in the water than it is on land, where its face has dark holes for eyes instead of translucent fish eyes.  However, nice detail is paid to show it breathing, an effect that makes it appear to be more than a man in a rubber suit.  On land, we don’t really see it’s backside, but underwater, you realize his back has Godzilla-like spikes.  It’s definitely more threatening when it’s wet.

Eventually, though, the threat becomes a little tedious.  I thought of my mother telling me to stay either inside or outside on a hot summer day, because the creature is in and out of the water all the time.  There are too many close calls.  Is this a deadly creature or a timid one?  This is a movie that could have benefitted from the shorter running time of the old Universal B movies.

Nevertheless, I love it.  The Creature from the Black Lagoon was directed by Jack Arnold, who made many of the great 1950s sci-fi features, and has a terrific, although uncredited, score by Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein and… Henry Mancini.  It shares several other credentials with It Came from Outer Space, which came out a year earlier.  It’s an interesting little hybrid with an enduring monster.

Tomorrow:  Revenge of the Creature!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Abbott & Costello Meet the Monsters

For this year's Countdown to Halloween, it's all-Universal Monsters, all-the-time, from Dracula (1931) to The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).  Join me daily for a fresh perspective on movies you may not have watched in a long time, if ever.  Today, for historical purposes, I must include Abbott & Costello.

It seems a little out of place writing about Abbott & Costello during the Countdown to Halloween; however, their role in the last hurrah of the Universal Monsters is indisputable.  If the movies offend you because of their silly tone, remember that your lasting memory of Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man could have been from House of Dracula (1945).  You don't get much sillier than that.

I'm reminded of something I read when Tim Burton's version of Dark Shadows was released in theaters.  Amid general complaints about the movie, someone (sorry, I don't remember who) said that we should simply be happy that the original characters and stories even remain in the pop culture consciousness almost 50 years after the TV soap opera first aired.

It was only three years after House of Dracula that Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein was made, but 17 years since the original Dracula and Frankenstein were monsters at the box office.  Think of the legacy.  Almost 20 years after their first movies, the characters survived.  Someone still wanted to make a movie with them, even though they were the "straight men" to a couple of buffoons.  I'll take that.

By the time of Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy, it was the mid-fifties and "horror" had shifted more to "sci-fi."  Otherworldly, scientific terrors like It Came from Outer Space, Tarantula, and This Island Earth replaced the more grounded and familiar monsters of the previous two decades.  Perhaps the Abbott & Costello movies serve their place in history as the transition between two eras.

Whether or not you like the movies depends on what makes you laugh.  I generally don't like the slapstick humor in an Abbott & Costello movie, but I do enjoy the witty wordplay.  Remember, this is the comedy team that gave us "Who's On First?"  There are some clever moments that don't totally offend my intelligence, and more than a few that still make me laugh out loud.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is my favorite.  Abbot plays Chick Young and Costello plays Wilbur Grey.  They're baggage clerks at a train station and receive crates for McDougal's House of Horrors.  One of them contains the remains of Dracula and the other contains Frankenstein's monster.  Larry Talbot calls from London telling them that under no circumstances should they deliver them.

Of course, they do deliver them and chaos ensues.  Other than the Wolf Man making a huge pratfall, the story is a relatively serious retread of an old formula.  That's true of all three of these movies: Abbott & Costello are merely the zany characters of a larger story that's mostly serious.  Not everyone is running around like crazy; it's only the two men in the situation that are supposed to be funny.

This movie is significant in that it's the only time Bela Lugosi reprised his role as Dracula.  In the finale, he battles the Wolf Man while Frankenstein's monster chases Abbott & Costello.  In a scene that's pretty cool for any movie, Dracula changes into a bat and flies into the air while the Wolf Man takes a dive off the balcony to grab him and they both fall into the ocean below.

Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)

Although we hear Vincent Price's voice at the end of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, the next movie is not a continuation of that story.  In fact, as erratic as Universal's invisibility movies were in relation to the original movie, Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man is firmly tied to it.  In this movie, the original invisible man, John Griffin, willed his formula to Dr. Phillip Gray (Gavin Muir).

Gray's niece, Helen (Nancy Guild), wants him to use the formula on Tommy Nelson (Arthur Franz), a boxer who was framed for the murder of his manager.  Bud Alexander (Abbott) and Lou Francis (Costello) have just graduated from Dugan Detective Training and are employed to help find the real killer.  Finally, one of these movies demonstrates the pure fun of being invisible!

Nelson helps Lou get into a fight that will expose a conspiracy.  With him throwing the punches, Lou's opponent will literally not see what hits him.  I got a kick out of a scene where Lou is pretending to be working out with a punching bag.  As it swings rapidly back and forth due to Nelson's unseen jabs, he takes impossible stances and makes hilarious poses that exaggerate the fact that it's not really him doing it.

Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

Just as the mummy movies were my least favorite of the Universal horrors, Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy is my least favorite of the comedies.  The comedians play two "bold adventurers" in Egypt who get involved in shenanigans over a missing medallion.  By the time the characters start disguising themselves as Klaris, it becomes a silly case of mistaken mummy identities.

Speaking of the old "Who's on First?" routine, there's a play on it when Abbott & Costello try to select tools.  Let's call it "take a pick, that's a shovel."  I'm not familiar with their other movies, but while I found this very funny, I have to wonder if it's just a retread of old material.  It kind of feels like these movies were at the end of their cycles and were becoming more desperate for laughs.

It's important to reiterate the nature of these movies.  They are not spoofs of the original Universal Monsters movies.  If you removed Abbott & Costello, the stories would resemble other sequels in their respective series.  That's another reason for including them in the Countdown to Halloween.  As hard a pill as it may be to swallow, they are part of the legacy.

Tomorrow: The Creature from the Black Lagoon!