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

The Twonky

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(2/6) In a nutshell: Sci-fi radio and 3-D film pioneer Arch Oboler touches the low-point in his career with this ill-advised comedy of a TV set from the future that takes charge over the life of a college professor. Badly adapted from a sci-fi horror satire by Lewis Padgett, the film never finds its tone, the actors struggle with the concept and Oboler continues to use a sledgehammer to pound in his anti-authoritarian message, in case the audience is slow to catch on.

The Twonky (1953). Written & directed by Arch Oboler. Based on a short story by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. Starring: Hans Conried, William H. Lynn, Gloria Blondell, Edwin Max, Janet Warren, Evelyn Beresford, Connie Marshall, William Phipps. Produced by Arch Oboler for Arch Oboler Productions. IMDb score: 5.6

Promotional poster for The Twonky.

Promotional poster for The Twonky.

If there was one thing that filmmakers were more afraid of in the fifties than UFOs, nuclear war and those damn Commies combined, it was the television set. Hollywood was in open rebellion against TV, with some studios even banning televisions altogether from their movie sets. This is why it is easy to misjudge the prevalence of the goggle box when watching films from the early fifties. Hollywood was so afraid that television would make people watch films at home instead of going to the cinema, that filmmakers collectively stuck their heads in the sand and pretended that TVs did not exist in the lives of their movie characters. When included, the television was often shown as a menace or a nuisance. Writer-director-producer Arch Oboler decided to put the cat on the table and made a satirical comedy featuring a TV set from the future that becomes a tyrant in the house of an unlucky college professor. Continue reading

Invaders from Mars

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(6/10) In a nutshell: This Hugo-nominated 1953 film by William Cameron Menzies is delightfully whimsy and disturbingly surreal, balancing between pure camp and serious psychological questions about adolescence. In a dreamlike reality (or a realistic dream) 10-year old David’s parents and friends are body-snatched by Martians who have landed in his backyard. It’s a race to see if David and his confidantes can blow up the UFO before the aliens have infiltrated the whole town.

Invaders from Mars (1953). Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written by Richard Blake, John Tucker Battle, Arthur Gardner. Starring: Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, Jimmy Hunt, Leif Erickson, Hillary Brook, Morris Ankrum. Produced by Edward L. Alperson for Edward L. Alperson Productions. Tomatometer: 82 %. IMDb score: 6.5

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Publicity poster for Invaders from Mars, Luz Potter as “Martian Intelligence”.

1953 was the year when the floodgates finally opened for what we would call ”fifties camp” in science fiction – only three films into the year, I have already reviewed Robot Monster, and now we get to another cult classic: Invaders from Mars. While the former is an entity in and of itself, the latter also has some claim to uniqueness: it was the first alien film in colour. Rushed into theatres in April to beat the premiere of George Pal’s Magnum Opus The War of the Worlds (review), the movie is one of the more bizarre, and beloved, entries in fifties science fiction canon. Continue reading

Tales of Tomorrow

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Tales of Tomorrow aired on ABC in the US from 1951 to 1953 and was the first exclusive science fiction anthology series. Adult, intelligent and genuinly unsettling scripts are intermingled with more staple mystery and sci-fi fare. The live broadcast sets limits for direction, but genius camera work and editing sometimes surpass these limits. Leslie Nielsen dominates the cast, and watch out for the masterclass in method acting between Rod Steiger and James Dean.

Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953). Created by Mort Abrahams and Theodore Sturgeon. Directed by Don Medford, Charles Rubin, et. al. Written by Man Rubin, Mel Goldberg, Frank de Felitta, Alvin Sapinsley, David E. Durston, Max Ehrlich, Gail Ingram, Theodore Sturgeon, Fredric Brown, Henry Kuttner, et. al. Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Cameron Prud’Homme, Walter Abel, Edgar Stehli, Theo Goetz, Olive Deering, Edith Fellows, Bruce Cabot, Rod Steiger, Gene Lockhart, Una O’Connor, Boris Karloff, Eva Gabor, Veronica Lake, Joanne Woodward, James Dean, Lon Chaney Jr, James Doohan, Paul Newman, et. al.  Produced by George F. Foley Jr, Mort Abrahams, Richard Gordon for George F. Foley, distributed by ABC. IMDb score: 7.4

Opening credits for Tales of Tomorrow.

Opening credits for Tales of Tomorrow.

I’ve been reviewing a lot of television lately: there was the first televised sci-fi series, Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949, review), the first anthology series featuring science fiction, Lights Out (1949, review), but now we get to the third one, and the last one I’ll be reviewing in a while: Tales of Tomorrow, which ran on ABC from 1951 to 1953. This has the distinction of being the first television anthology series to feature exclusively science fiction, foreshadowing legendary TV shows like The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and The Outer Limits (1963-1964). Continue reading

Lights Out

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(5/10) In a nutshell: Arguably the first anthology TV show to feature science fiction, Lights Out was adapted from a popular horror radio show in the US in 1949. Broadcast live with a varying degree of quality, very light on sci-fi and quite heavy on traditional ghost stories. Lights Out sported an impressive roster of actors, but the direction and originality never quite reached the same quality as rivalling shows that popped up in the early fifties, like Out There or Tales of Tomorrow.

Lights Out (1949-1952). Directed by William Corrigan, Laurence Schwab Jr, Kingman T. Moore, Grey Lockwood, Fred Coe, et. al. Written by: A.J. Russell, George Lefferts, Fred Coe, Ernest Kinoy, Douglas Parkhurst, Wyllis Cooper, Arch Oboler, et. al. Starring: Frank Gallop, Jack La Rue, Mercer McLeod, Leslie Nielsen, Gregory Morton, John Newland, Peter Capell, Alfreda Wallace, Richard Derr, Ross Martin, John Forsythe, Burgess Meredith, John Carradine, Vaughn Taylor, Grace Kelly, George Reeves, Veronica Lake, Basil Rathbone, Anne Bancroft, Anne Francis, Boris Karloff, Anthony Quinn, Melvyn Douglas, Vincent Price, Produced by Herbert B. Swope, Fred Coe for NBC. IMDb rating: 7.3

Frank Gallop as the eerie presenter of Lights Out.

Frank Gallop as the eerie presenter of Lights Out.

Not really a science fiction show per se, Lights Out can still be credited as the first anthology show to bring sci-fi to the small screen. You could debate whether it was in fact the first science fiction show or not, but I’m going with the latter, and I’ll explain why below. Continue reading

House of Dracula

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(4/10) In a nutshell: Universal’s 1945 film marks the end of the era of the original Universal monsters, and at the same time the end of the American sci-fi film of the forties, more or less. Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine star alongside Onslow Stevens and Poni Adams in this rushed, inconsistent last huzzah for the monsters. Despite flashes of originality, it feels as if we are re-heating the same TV dinner for the umpteenth time as Frankenstein’s monster is once again found, buried in quicksand in a cave under a castle after having six building collapse on him in previous films, Dracula re-emerges after having been destroyed by the sun’s rays a third time in the last film, and we get to wonder if the Wolf Man will cheat death for a third time.

House of Dracula. (1945). Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Edward T. Lowe Jr, George Bricker, Dwight V. Babcock. Starring: Lon Chaney Jr, John Carradine, Onslow Stevens, Lionel Atwill, Martha O’Driscoll, Jane Adams, Ludwig Stössel, Glenn Strange, Skelton Knaggs.  Produced by Joseph Gershenson and Paul Malvern for Universal. Tomatometer: 56 %. IMDb score: 5.8

John Carradine as Dradula and Martha O'Driscoll as his love interest.

John Carradine as Dradula and Martha O’Driscoll as his love interest.

This here is the movie that ended the original Universal monster franchise, unless you count The Creature of the Black Lagoon (1954) to the same series. Personally I consider it more of a symptom of the second wave of monster films kicked off by the science fiction craze of the fifties, even though the films have since been repackaged in DVD boxes along with the original monster films. It was also the last film that featured the original Universal monsters before they began to get spoofed in the Abbot & Costello films, which you won’t see reviewed on this blog. Continue reading

Voodoo Man

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(2/10) In a nutshell: Horror icons George Zucco and John Carradine join Bela Lugosi in his last film at Poverty Row studio Monogram, for a tongue-in-cheek rendering of one of the most bizarrely funny so-bad-it’s-good sci-fi horror films of the forties. Unfortunately giggles aren’t enough to lift this film out of the ruts, although it is a must-watch for the wonderful Voodoo seances with Carradine and Zucco immensely enjoying the insanity of it all. 

Voodoo Man (1944). Directed by William Beaudine. Written by Robert Charles. Starring: Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, John Carradine, Tod Andrews, Wanda McKay, Louise Currie, Ellen Hall. Produced by Jack Dietz and Sam Katzman for Banner Productions and Monogram Pictures. IMDb score: 5.2

Bela Lugosi, Louise Currie and Wanda McKay in a publicity image for Voodoo Man.

Bela Lugosi, Louise Currie and Wanda McKay in a publicity image for Voodoo Man.

There are, in my opinion, strictly speaking two ways to grade a movie. The first one is to grade it on its entertainment value, i.e. ”how much did I enjoy watching this film?” The problem with this approach, of course, is that it ultimately comes down to personal taste. The other way is to do it the way I do it on this blog: to try and grade the film according to some pre-set criteria, such as originality, production values, artistic merit, impact, acting, directorial and editorial style, writing merits, and so forth. This approach does have the drawback that it is difficult for a low-budget movie to reach really high marks, whereas a film with a lavish production might score slightly higher points than it would actually deserve based on sheer viewing enjoyability or originality. But this is a trade-off that I feel is worth making – a really good low-budget film is able to overcome its low production resources and turn the lack of money into an asset rather than a burden, and makes it easier for a reviewer to have oversight with certain production flaws. And a film with a lavish budget doesn’t get away with a bad script or obvious production blemishes quite as easily as a cheap film with lots of heart. Continue reading