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

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Them!

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(8/10) The first true giant bug movie, Them!, was released in 1954 and set the template for years to come. However, few, if any, giant insect films have come close to the cinematic quality of the original. Giant mutated ants appear in New Mexico and threaten to wipe out humanity. Only Science and the American Way can stop them! Good acting, a smart script, well-held suspense, well-placed comedy, superb full-size giant ant puppets and a fifties Ellen Ripley. Watch out for Leonard Nimoy’s cameo.

Them! (1954, USA). Directed by Gordon Douglas. Written by George Worthing Yates, Russell S. Hughes, Ted Sherdeman. Starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness, Sandy Descher, Fess Parker, Leonard Nimoy, William Schallert. Produced by David Weisbart for Warner Bros. IMDb rating: 7.3. Rotten Tomatoes: 100% Fresh. Metacritic: N/A.

Joan Medford flees the giant ant in Them!

Joan Medford flees the giant ant in Them!

On the site Gary Westfahl’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Films, the author writes: ”Although there were several strange and striking films in the early 1950s that demonstrated in various ways what science fiction films of that era might have become /…/ there was one film that precisely exemplified what science fiction film in the 1950s actually became, and that was Them!” And I would agree. While there were quite a few noteable exceptions, like George Pal’s ambitious space film Conquest of Space (1955), the claustrophobic social drama Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and the Shakespearean space opera Forbidden Planet (1956), Them! set the template for the latter part of the fifties. This was the first actual giant bug film, and, many would say, the best. 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

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

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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(8/10) In a nutshell: In a career-defining role as Jekyll/Hyde John Barrymore lifts the quality of this 1920 silent film by two whole points, and sets the bar almost out of reach for anyone who has ever tried on the same role after him.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. 1920, USA. Directed by John S. Robertson. Written by: Clara Beranger, based on a play by Thomas Russell Sullivan. Based on the books Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (uncredited). Starring: John Barrymore, Nita Naldi. Produced by Adolph Zukor and Jesse S. Lasky for Lasky Famous-Players. Tomatometer: 92 %. IMDb score: 7.0

Production still from the film, with John Barrymore as Hyde.

Production still from the film, with John Barrymore as Hyde.

In 1920 director John S. Robertson and in particular lead actor John Barrymore created what remains the most well remembered adaptation of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde-story, despite numerous later versions. It is a testament to the astounding talent of Barrymore that this silent version still has such an impact on contemporary viewers that no other film, despite their superior technical and dramatic values, have been able to eclipse this one as an icon. When we think of Mr Hyde, John Barrymore’s image is the one that comes to mind, even if we have never even seen the film, nor know who John Barrymore is, very much like Boris Karloff and Frankenstein’s monster (1931, review). Continue reading