Tarantula

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(6/10) This 1955 film marked Universal’s entrance into the giant bug market, and along with Them! it stands as one of the classiest examples of the subgenre. Sci-fi stalwarts John Agar and Mara Corday back up a good Leo G. Carroll in a rather anachronistic mad scientist role. The script is derivative and somewhat clumsy, but moves along at a good pace and avoids communist/nuclear hysteria. Occasionally flawed, but ultimately impressive visual effects make Jack Arnold’s fourth sci-fi picture a genuine classic.

The spider.

The spider.

Tarantula (1955, USA). Directed by Jack Arnold. Written by Robert M. Fresco, Martin Berkeley, Jack Arnold. Starring: John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll, Nestor Paiva, Eddie Parker, Clint Eastwood. Produced by William Alland for Universal-International.
IMDb rating: 6.5/10. Tomatometer: 92% Fresh. Metascore: N/A.

Poster.

Poster.

1955 stood in the middle of a decade that marked the second Golden Age for monster movies. But unlike in the thirties, the monsters were no longer gothic undead ripped from the pages of literary classics and folklore. No, these were the monsters of the atomic age – mutants, radioactive giants and overgrown insects. The hugely successful re-release of RKO:s King Kong (1933, review) in 1952 spurred Warner to take a chance with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review), and the old masters of the monster genre, Universal, answered with Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review). Smelling success for science fiction in general, Universal splashed out with a big-budget space epic, This Island Earth (review) in 1955, and even if the film made back its budget, it wasn’t the hit they had hoped for. So, the studio decided, space rockets and far-off planets still weren’t the money-cows they needed, and for the rest of the decade decided to play it safe with an ever-declining line of mutated insects, arachnids and other critters. Tarantula isn’t the first time we’ve seen giant spiders on films, but it is the first time the spider has taken the size of a house. And this movie is without a doubt the best of Universal’s post-1954 sci-fi horror films. Continue reading

King Dinosaur

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(0/10) Forget Plan 9 from Outer Space, that charmingly childish fantasy from Ed Wood. Bert I. Gordon’s super-cheap directorial (solo) debut King Dinosaur is a much better contender for the title of worst film ever made. This story of four scientists battling a T.Rex on an unknown planet is inept in every single department and doesn’t even have a redeeming amateurish charm to it. The most interesting aspect of the movie is probably the life story of one of its stars, a jazz singer who kickstarted fashion guru Mr. Blackwell’s career and almost caused a diplomatic incident in Argentina.

Douglas Henderson and Patti Gallagher flee a "Tyrannosaurus Rex" in a promo photo. The actual effects of the film never look this good.

Douglas Henderson and Patti Gallagher flee a “Tyrannosaurus Rex” in a promo photo. The actual effects of the film never look this good.

King Dinosaur (1955, USA). Directed by Bert I. Gordon. Written by Tom Gries, Bert I. Gordon, Al Zimbalist. Starring: William Bryant, Wanda Curtis, Douglas Henderson, Patti Gallagher, Marvin Miller. Produced by Bert I. Gordon for Zimgor Productions. Executive producer: Al Zimbalist.
IMDb rating: 1.9/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.

Note the dissimilarity between the lizard in the photograph above and the one on the poster.

Note the dissimilarity between the lizard in the photograph above and the one on the poster. The poster also as five people in it. That’s more than the entire cast of the film.

I had just finished my one-star review of The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), and thought it probably couldn’t get much worse, when King Dinosaur came along and proved me wrong. It seems that 1955 was the turning-point for sci-fi cinema in the sense that filmmakers realised that by running a shrewd marketing campaign promising monsters and babes, they could really film almost anything that had a fleeting resemblance to the poster, create a script that had a beginning and an end, and preferably some padding in the middle, and get the film released. And since the movies probably didn’t cost more than 30 000 dollars, a profit was almost inevitable. Continue reading

Dr. Cyclops

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(7/10) In a nutshell: Brought to you by King Kong director Ernest B. Schoedsack, along with multiple Oscar winning teams of set designers and special effects technicians, Dr. Cyclops (1940) paints an imaginative picture of mad scientists and shrinking people in the Peruvian Jungle. Unfortunately there was no money left for actors and screenwriters. Nonetheless, this film stands as one of the best sci-fi flicks of the forties (which isn’t saying all that much, though).

Dr. Cyclops. 1940, USA. Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack. Written by Tom Kilpatrick, Malcolm Stuart Boyley. Starring: Albert Dekker, Thomas Coley, Janice Logan, Charles Halton, Victor Kilian, Frank Yaconelli. Produced by Dale van Every, Merian C. Cooper for Paramount. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 6.4

Charles Halton and Albert Dekker in the 1940 film Dr. Cyclops.

Charles Halton and Albert Dekker in the 1940 film Dr. Cyclops.

If anyone remembers Dr. Cyclops today, it is mostly as a curiosity – but it does deserve a slightly better reputation, although it is by no means a masterpiece. But it is notable for a number of reasons, of which the biggest is the amazing special effects, although not flawlessly executed, and aged today. Following the premise of a mad scientist shrinking his nosy colleagues, this was not the first film to toy with the idea of miniature people, but perhaps the most striking that had come along in 1940, and it probably held that title all the way up to the in many ways superior 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking ManContinue reading

The Devil-Doll

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(7/10) In a nutshell: Dracula and Freaks director Tod Browning’s sci-fi/horror/comedy The Devil-Doll from 1936 is an accomplished special effects reel concerning shrunken people. Despite the feel that Browning recycles his old themes, this moral play is one of the best sci-fi films out of USA in the late thirties – and Lionel Barrymore in drag is absurdly fun.

The Devil-Doll. 1936, USA. Directed by Tod Browning (uncredited). Written by Tod Browning (uncredited), Garret Fort, Guy Endore, Erich von Stroheim, Richard Schayer. Loosely based on the novel Burn, Witch, Burn by Abraham Merritt. Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Lawton, Rafalea Ottiano. Produced by Tod Browning, E.J. Mannix for MGM. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 7.0

Grace Ford as the shrunken assistant Lachna in The Devil-Doll from 1936.

Grace Ford as the shrunken assistant Lachna in The Devil-Doll from 1936.

Here’s one that got away. I always assumed, based on the title, that The Devil-Doll had more to do with black magic or voodoo than science fiction. Turns out I was wrong, and boy am I glad I watched it. The film was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1936, one of the big five studios who jumped the sci-fi horror bandwagon after Universal’s five years of almost supreme reign over the genre. The film followed the release of The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review), a film that toyed with the notion of miniature people. What was a throwaway moment in Bride becomes the whole premise for The Devil-Doll, directed by the man that started the whole horror shebang by directing Dracula in 1931, Tod Browning. Continue reading

The Bride of Frankenstein

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(9/10) In a nutshell: With Bride of Frankenstein James Whale created the greatest of all Universal horror films. Superb acting, great casting, a script that balances between drama, horror and campy humour, all rounded up with fluid, expressionistic filmmaking and Soviet-styled montage editing. All this, plus the marvellous Elsa Lanchester as the Bride, Boris Karloff in high form, and a chilly, funny, scary Ernest Thesiger. Greatness abounds, but thematically the film is a bit sloppy. 

The Bride of Frankenstein. 1935, USA. Directed by James Whale. Written by John L. Balderston, Edmund Pearson, William Hurlbut. Based on the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Valerie Hobson, Elsa Lanchester, O.P. Heggie, Una O’Connor, Dwight Frye, John Carradine.  Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. for Universal. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 7.9

The superb Elsa Lanchester in her most iconic role as the Bride of Frankenstein.

The superb Elsa Lanchester in her most iconic role as the Bride of Frankenstein.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is one of those films that has been analysed into shreds, so that the legacy of the film somehow overshadows the film itself, very much like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It is one of those rare horror films that even reviewers not generally infatuated with genre films like to promote to the same status as groundbreaking works like Battleship Potemkin (1925) or Citizen Kane (1941) – or at least that is the sense that one sometimes gets from people who are adamant that Bride is one of the most important films in American cinematic history (an interesting notion as most of the key personnel were British). Although it is true that along with Paramount’s Island of Lost Souls (1933, review) this Universal classic is the finest of the American horror films of the thirties, some of its reputation stems from the fact that people like to read topics between the lines that simply aren’t there. Continue reading