Stranger from Venus

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3/10 Patricia Neal, the star of The Day the Earth Stood Still, reprises her role in in this cheap British knock-off from 1954. The film was the brainchild of eccentric ufologist, WWII pilot, occultist, writer, filmmaker and electronic music pioneer Desmond Leslie, and didn’t even get a theatrical release in the US. Confined to a British inn, the movie is plodding and derivative, but still manages to hold the viewer thanks to a decent cast and some interesting script quirks.

Stranger from Venus (1954, UK). Directed by Burt Balaban. Written by Desmond Leslie & Hans Jacoby. Starring: Patricia Neal, Helmut Dantine, Derek Bond, Cyril Luckham, Willoughby Gray, Marigold Russell, Peter Sallis. Produced by Burt Balaban & Gene Martel for Rich & Rich Ltd. IMDb rating: 5.4/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

A Title Card Screen for the movie: Stranger From Venus (1954)

A Title Card Screen for the movie: Stranger From Venus (1954)

By 1954 the British had entered the science fiction market again after some trepidation, although it was still a genre reserved for cheap knock-offs. However, the hugely popular live TV-series The Quatermass Experiment (1953, review) had left the British public hungry for more. Hammer and small outfits like Gainsborough had started dabbling in the genre with mixed results. 1954 had already seen the campy romp Devil Girl from Mars (review), a film in which a superwoman in S/M gear comes to dominate Earth’s men, and mistakes a small Scottish pub for London. Stranger from Venus is a similarly low-budgeted movie, which also takes place in a British inn (or is it British?). Continue reading

Devil Girl from Mars

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(4/10) In 1954 British filmmakers took advantage of ten days of studio time left over from a TV show that finished early. The result was this ”Dracula from Space” film, remembered for its latex-clad dominatrix in the title role. It’s a hilariously campy romp played (with some skill) completely straight, and has a surprisingly good technical polish for a non-budget film. Unfortunately the script, whipped together in a matter of days, is disastrous from beginning to end. Features two Hammer horror scream queens.

Devil Girl from Mars (1954, Great Britain). Directed by David MacDonald. Written by John C. Mather & James Eastwood. Starring: Patricia Laffan, Hugh McDermott, Hazel Court, Peter Reynolds, Adrienne Corri, Joseph Tomelty, John Laurie, Sophie Stewart. Produced by Edward & Harry Danziger for Danziger Productions. IMDb score: 5.0/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

Joseph Tomelty and Patricia Laffan in Devil Girl from Mars.

Joseph Tomelty and Patricia Laffan in Devil Girl from Mars.

It’s funny how history changes things. Described by ”serious” critics as the low-point in Scottish director David MacDonald’s career, Devil Girl From Mars is the one film he is remembered for today, a film that is loved by science fiction fans and friends of B movies all over the world, and one that inspired both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Sure, this ridiculous science fiction yarn probably wasn’t quite what MacDonald had in mind as his legacy when he worked as an assistant producer in Hollywood for Cecil B. DeMille on films like Cleopatra (1934) and The Crusades (1935). After returning to Great Britain in the late thirties, MacDonald made a number of so-called quota quickies, and made himself a name as comedy director. During WWII he directed and/or produced a number of acclaimed morale-boosting documentaries, and his career seemed to be looking upward when he returned to feature film with the well-regarded thriller Snowbound in 1949. Unfortunately when it came time for his final breakthrough, the big-budget historical epic Christopher Columbus (1949), everything fell apart. The film was ridiculed by critics and audiences alike, and almost killed star actor and Oscar winner Frederic March’s career. Described by The New York Times as ”an uninspired succession of legendary but lifeless episode of tableaux”and later by Britmovie as ”a long and extraordinarily tedious affair”, this would have been his legacy unless Devil Girl from Mars would have come along, because nobody remembers any of the other low-budget movies he made after that. Continue reading

Killers from Space

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(2/10) In a nutshell: The second sci-fi film by Billy Wilder’s less talented brother Willie mashes up a cold war spy yarn with an alien abduction story and nuclear fright. The underlying story is a sound one, but it gets messed up by a thin script and a shoestring budget that relies on stock footage for filling time and has some of the most profoundly silly-looking aliens in film history. Future TV star Peter Graves of Mission: Impossible fame lends the film some dignity in the leading role, but it doesn’t help to save this ineptly produced and directed oddity. A must for lovers of bad B-movies, though.

Killers from Space (1954, USA). Directed by W. Lee Wilder. Written by Myles Wilder and William Raymond. Starring: Peter Graves, James Seay, Steve Pendleton, Frank Gerstle, John Frederick, Barbara Bestar, Shepard Menken. Produced by W. Lee Wilder for Planet Filmplays. IMDb: 3.1/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

Are these not the most terrifying killers you have ever seen?

Are these not the most terrifying killers you have ever seen?

This here is something of a cult classic with lovers of bad movies – mainly because of the hilarious look of the aliens. Once seen, they can never be unseen. First of all, there’s the ridiculous jumpsuits. But most of all, what we remember are the eyes – the wonderfully wacky ping pong ball eyes. This 1954 film was supposed to be serious – and the aliens were supposed to be frightening. And then they stuck ping pong balls on their eyes. It’s wonderful! Well, in fact, they are not ping pong balls at all. Director Willie Wilder had suggested ping pong balls, but makeup artist Harry Thomas thought that wouldn’t really look realistic, so he went to an actual optical shop to ask for glass eyes, that he could cut in half. But they cost 900 dollars apiece, which was probably more than Thomas’ entire makeup budget. John Johnson’s book Cheap Tricks and Class Acts quotes an article in Filmfax, where Thomas is interviewed. Thomas describes how after being turned down at the opticians’, he stayed up all night wrestling with the problem of the aliens’ eyes, and how to make them realistic, so he wouldn’t have to settle for Wilder’s idea with the ping pong balls: ”I was almost completely discouraged when I opened up the refrigerator to get something to drink, and there was my answer: a white plastic egg tray.” So there you have it. In your face, haters, those are not ping pong balls, they are very realistic egg tray bottoms. Good on you, Harry Thomas! Continue reading

El monstruo resucitado

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(5/10) In a nutshell: Clearly a passion project of sorts for director Chano Urueta, The Monster, as it’s been labelled with the US DVD release, was a pioneering Mexican medical sci-fi movie upon its release in 1953. Made with virtually no budget the movie is clunky and the script absolutely zany, but holds up thanks to strong acting and a well-built eerie atmosphere. The star name was the ill-fated Czech immigrant Miroslava, or ”the Marilyn Monroe of Mexico”.

El monstruo resucitado (1953, Mexico). Directed by Chano Urueta. Written by Adruino Maiuri, Chano Urueta. Starring: Miroslava Sternova, Carlos Navarro, José Maria Linares-Rivas. Produced by Sergio Kogan, Abel Salazar for Internacional Cinematográfica. IMDB rating: 5.8/10.

Miroslava as Nora and José Maria Linares-Rivas as the mysterious Dr. Hermann Ling in The Monster.

Miroslava as Nora and José Maria Linares-Rivas as the mysterious Dr. Hermann Ling in The Monster.

First of all, please forgive my long absence, I’ve been stressed out by my day job as a magazine editor and haven’t had the energy to do the blog well, and decided it’s better to not do it at all than to do it poorly. But now I’m back with yet another look at an obscure horror sci-fi film. With this last of my review of 1953 I’m tackling something of a cult classic with Mexican horror lovers – El monstruo resucitado, directed by Chano Urueta. It’s literal translation is The Resurrected Monster or The Revived Monster, and it’s been released on DVD in the US simply as The Monster. It is also sometimes referred to as El monstruo Dr. CrimenContinue reading

Donovan’s Brain

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(5/10) In a nutshell: Based on The Wolf Man creator Curt Siodmak’s influential novel, this is the first real sentient-brain-in-a-vat film. It’s hampered by a rather dull tax fraud subplot and the generic mad scientist storyline, which was quite passé in 1953 – even though the scientist, played by Lew Ayres, isn’t mad at all. On the plus side, the direction feels modern and grounded and the acting is primarily good. Holes in logic abound, and the ending is a cop-out. Stars future First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Donovan’s Brain (1953). Directed by Felix E. Feist. Written by Hugh Brooke & Felix E. Feist. Based on the novel Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak. Starring: Lew Ayres, Gene Evans, Nancy Reagan, Steve Brodie. Produced by Tom Gries for Dowling Productions. Tomatometer: 50 %. IMDb score: 6.0/10.

The original brain in a vat.

The original brain in a vat.

There are tropes in science fiction that have become so commonplace today, that they are reduced to clichés. The time machine, the UFO, the mad scientist, the lunar landing, the killer robot, the invisibility serum, and of course the disembodied brain. The ”brain in a vat” has become a staple villain of sci-fi comics, the best known are probably Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Brain in DC Comics. The disembodied brain has also turned up in a number of TV series and films, and the basic concept has been drawn upon for cyborgs like Robocop. But the one film that people keep referring to as the essential brain-in-a-vat film is the independently produced Donovan’s Brain, made in 1953, based on Curt Siodmak’s novel of the same name. Continue reading

The Quatermass Experiment

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Only two out of six episodes remain of this hugely influential British TV mini-series written by Nigel Kneale. Spawning three feature films, three more series, a number of ripoffs and laying the ground for a whole new subgenre, this series changed how TV was made in Britain. The execution is quaint and a bit stuffy today, but that doesn’t take away from the awesome impact of Kneale’s highly original writing and the story and the themes of an astronaut carrying a lethal danger within his body to Earth are still as strong today as they ever were.

The Quatermass Experiment (TV mini-series, 1953). Directed by Rudolph Cartier. Written by Nigel Kneale. Starring: Reginald Tate, Isabel Dean, Hugh Kelly, Paul Whitsun-Jones, Duncan Lamont, John Glen, Ian Colin, Frank Hawkins, Oliver Johnston, Katie Johnson, Christopher Rhodes, Peter Bathurst. Produced by Rudolph Cartier for BBC. IMDb score: 7.4/10

The alien plant of The Quatermass Experiment.

The alien plant of The Quatermass Experiment.

This is one of my rare TV reviews. Although I tend to stick to films, there is a broader point behind this blog, which is to create an Encyclopedia of sorts of the history of sci-fi films, and in that regard some TV series are simply too influential to be left out. One such as this is the BBC production The Quatermass Experiment, which was really the first TV serial aimed at an adult audience. Continue reading

Mesa of Lost Women

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(0/10) In a nutshell: Exploitation director Ron Ormond built a new film on top of a completed, but shelved production by German wannabe director Herbert von Schoellenbach. Uncle Fester stars as a mad scientist creating spider women in a cave in a mesa, where a ragtag group of heroes and villains crash their plane after being kidnapped by a madman. There are giant spider props, mute and sultry spider girls, evil dwarves, a Chinese valet who speaks in proverbs, a mad one-eyed scientist, and by some miracle it all adds up to one of the most boring films in history. Worse than anything Ed Wood ever made. But still strangely compelling.

Mesa of Lost Women (1953). Directed by Herbert Tevos (Herbert von Schoellenbach) & Ron Ormond. Written by Herbert Tevos & Orville H. Hampton. Starring: Jackie Coogan, Paula Hill, Robert Knapp, Tandra Quinn, Harmon Stevens, Nico Lek, George Barrows, Allan Nixon, Richard Travis, Lyle Talbot, Chris-Pin Martin, Samuel Wu, John George, Angelo Rossitto. Produced by Melvin Gordon & William Perkins for Ron Ormond Productions. IMDb score: 2.5

Tandra Quinn as Tarantella in Mesa of Lost Women.

Tandra Quinn as Tarantella in a puplicity shot for Mesa of Lost Women.

The most prevalent description of this bewildering tale is ”a really bad fever dream”. Another fitting attribute is ”something approximating a full-length feature film”. Like Invasion U.S.A. (1951, review), sitting through this one is a test of endurance, but no matter how much I loathed that film, at least it had one good performance and something resembling a cohesive plot. Mesa of Lost Women has no such redeeming qualities. It’s one of those films that you love after seeing it, because it’s so ridiculously bad, but sitting through it is a nightmare. I am not above giving bad movies good reviews when they deserve it, as I should have proved with my five-star rating of Robot Monster (1953, review). Although I love Mesa of Lost Women to bits for being so horrendously bad as it is, it would be a crime against cinema as an art form to give this film any more than zero stars. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t watch it, because you should. Just like you should go winter bathing at least once in your life. You’ll hate every minute of it, but you’ll be so happy once it’s done. Continue reading