Gog

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(5/10) Ivan Tors’ third OSI film was hugely influential on sci-fi writers such as Michael Crichton, who basically ripped the film off in his book The Andromeda Strain. Extremely ambitious, the film ticks so many boxes of ”first time ever on film” that I can’t fit them all into this introduction. The script doesn’t live up to its ideas and director Herbert Strock fails to create a claustrophobic suspense drama. The viewer forgets that the protagonists are trapped in an underground lab because of the bright Eastman colours and the seemingly spacious science lab, where a giant computer runs amok and killer robots stalk the corridors. Quintessential cold war drama with communist infiltration, nuclear threat, space race science and casual sexism.

Gog (1954, USA). Directed & edited by Herbert L. Strock. Written by Ivan Tors, Tom Taggart, Richard G. Taylor. Starring: Richard Egan, Herbert Marshall, Constance Dowling, John Wengraf, Philip Van Zandt, Michael Fox, William Schallert, Billy Curtis. Produced by Ivan Tors for Ivan Tors Productions. IMDb rating: 5.5/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

Killer robots on the loose: Gog and Magog!

Killer robots on the loose: Gog and Magog!

If science fiction enthusiast bemoan the exclusion of visionary producer George Pal from discussions about pioneers of the film genre, then they should be doubly as wronged over the fate of the now almost forgotten Ivan Tors. If Tors is remembered today, it is mainly as creator of the Flipper franchise and other family-friendly animal shows. But in his own way, Ivan Tors was just as visionary a science fiction producer as Pal in the fifties, albeit working with significantly lower budgets. His main claim to fame within sci-fi is his movie trilogy about the fictional OSI, or Office of Scientific Investigation, a sort of precursor to the X-Files, without the new-age mumbo-jumbo and lacking in aliens. Gog was the final film in the OSI series, and probably the most ambitious one. Continue 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 Maze

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(5/10) In a nutshell: More an old-school horror movie than a science fiction film, this low-budget effort by the visual innovator William Cameron Menzies is an atmospheric mystery play with strong expressionist leanings and a Lovecraftian atmosphere. The female heroin of the piece travels to a remote Scottish castle to find out why her husband-to-be has broken off their engagement weeks before the marriage with a cryptic letter saying he must remain secluded in his family’s old mansion. Starring sci-fi cult actor Richard Carlson. The script stalls, the characters are flat and the ending is downright silly. 

The Maze (1953). Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written by Daniel B. Ullman. Based on the novel The Maze by Maurice Sandoz. Starring: Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery, Michael Pate, John Dodsworth, Hillary Brooke, Lilian Bond. Produced by Richard V. Heermance, Walter Mirisch for Allied Artists Pictures. IMDb score: 6.0/10

The Maze - Its only a model.

The Maze – Its only a model.

The Maze is a science fiction film only by a very narrow margin, thanks to revelation in the very final scene in the movie, which I won’t reveal, since it would destroy the viewing pleasure for all involved. But I’ll try and give it a short run-down without giving too much away. The plot follows young Kitty Murray (Veronica Hurst) who is engaged to the dreamy Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson). During a holiday in France Gerald suddenly gets called to his old family castle in Scotland, and several weeks later sends a short letter telling Kitty that their engagement is off – pressing matters demand his presence at the castle, and they are never to meet again. Distraught, Kitty decides to travel to the castle, and her stern aunt Edith (Katherine Emery) insists on tagging along. 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

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

The Lady and the Monster

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(5/10) In a nutshell: The first film adaptation of Kurt Siodmak’s influential novel Donovan’s Brain features, for the first time on screen, a disembodied brain asserting its influence on people around it. Well shot and directed for second-tier studio Republic in a gothic noir style, and good acting from Erich von Stroheim and Richard Arlen. Unfortunately the script doesn’t live up to its source material and the film contains ghastly wooden acting from Czechoslovakian ice-skater-turned-studio-boss’-girlfriend Eva Hruba Ralston in her first feature role.

The Lady and the Monster (1944). Directed by George Sherman. Written by Dane Lussier and Frederick Kohner. Based on the novel Donovan’s Brain by Kurt Siodmak. Starring: Vera Hruba Ralston, Richard Arlen, Erich von Stroheim, Helen Vinson, Mary Nash, Sidney Blackmer. Produced by George Sherman for Republic Pictures. IMDb score: 5.1

Erich von Stroheim as Dr. Mueller in the 1944 film The Lady and the Monster.

Erich von Stroheim as Dr. Mueller in the 1944 film The Lady and the Monster.

Poster

Poster

The early forties were a golden age, in a sense, for really bad B horror movies, many of them featuring German mad scientists, for obvious reasons. One of these, and not at all the worst of them, was The Lady and the Monster. Now, the title is a tad misleading since, first and foremost, the movie doesn’t primarily concern a lady, and secondly, there isn’t really a monster in it. The green one with the claws, depicted on the poster to the right, has nothing at all to do with the movie. One supposes that both the title and the poster were made up simple to lure monster movie fans to cinemas. Continue reading

House of Frankenstein

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(4/10) In a nutshell: Universal’s horror stars gang together for the franchise’s second monster bash in a film that is a mix of good and mad. There’s too much going on in a too short period of time, Dracula is thrown by the wayside and the plot holes are big enough to fill a stadium. But there’s also a dash of originality and some first-class acting in this 1944 film.

House of Frankenstein. 1944, USA. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Curt Siodmak, Edward T. Lowe Jr. Starring: Boris Karloff, J. Carrol Naish, Lon Chaney Jr, John Carradine, Anne Gwynne, Peter Coe, Elena Verdugo, George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, Glenn Strange, Sig Ruman. Produced by Paul Malvern for Universal. Tomatometer: 55 %. IMDb score: 6.2

Glenn Strange, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney in House of Frankenstein.

Glenn Strange, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney in House of Frankenstein.

Quick! Give me the five greatest mad scientists of the forties! Did you say Boris Karloff, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill, George Zucco and J. Carroll Naish? Great, now you have them all in one film! This was the second monster mash movie after the success of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review), starring Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill. Lon Chaney also turns up in House, again as Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. The film is sometimes referred to as ”The House of Frankenstein” and sometimes without the prefix. Continue reading

The Mad Ghoul

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(5/10) In a nutshell: Another decent, but not in any way brilliant, mad scientist film from Universal. This 1943 movie is one of the rawer of the horror films from Universal after the enforcement of the Hays code, and basically deals with temporary zombification. Good performances, good makeup, too much operetta, a low budget and a slim script puts this at the middle of the scale.

The Mad Ghoul. 1943, USA. Directed by James P. Hogan. Written by Paul Gangelin, Brenda Weisberg, Hanns Kräly. Starring: David Bruce, Evelyn Ankers, George Zucco, Turhan Bey, Robert Armstrong. Produced by Ben Pivar for Universal. IMDb score: 5.7

Poster from one of the creepier scenes from The Mad Ghoul.

Poster from one of the creepier scenes from The Mad Ghoul.

The crowning achievement of Universal’s horror franchise was The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935, and after that the studio’s output slowly waned in quality. Despite the huge success of The Wolf Man (1941), the horror films were decidedly B movie fare in the forties, as Universal churned out one movie after the other without ever sinking to the abysmal depths of Poverty Row ripoffs, however. A classic example of a forties Universal horror sci-fi film is The Mad Ghoul from 1943. It is filled with modestly talented B actors and has decent production values, and even some original ideas, but still stumbles on the script department as the setup is already all too familiar. Continue reading