(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.
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.
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
(4/10) A giant radioactive octopus destroys San Francisco in Columbia’s stale rehash of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. This low-budget programmer is saved by a good leading cast and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation. George Worthing Yates writes a strong part for scream queen Faith Domergue, giving it a feminist slant. The hero from King Dinosaur, William Bryant, is back in a bit-part, but this time it is sci-fi stalwart Kenneth Tobey’s turn to ”bring the atom bomb”.
The hexapus attacking the Golden Gate in the later colourised version of the film.
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955, USA). Directed by Robert Gordon. Written by George Worthing Yates, Harold Jacob Smith. Starring: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis. Produced by Charles H. Schneer for Clover Productions.
IMDb rating: 5.9/10. Tomatometer: 67% Fresh. Metascore: N/A.
Radioactive deep-sea dangers menaced the world in the mid-fifties, and it all started with the Warner-distributed The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review), which in turn was inspired by the immensely successful re-release of King King (1933, review) in 1952. King Kong showed Hollywood that stop-motion animation was still as effective a way for creating giant monsters as it had been twenty years earlier. King Kong, or course, was animated by legendary Willis O’Brien, as was its inferior slapdash sequel Son of Kong (1933). A much worthier follow-up was made in 1949, Mighty Joe Young, which gave O’Brien his only Oscar, although most of the animation was done by his apprentice, a young man called Ray Harryhausen, who would hone his animating skills on George Pal’s Puppetoons replacement animation film series. When producer Jack Dietz had the idea to make a giant monster film about a radioactive dinosaur wreaking havoc in New York, the call went out to Ray Harryhausen to create the creature in the stop-motion technique, and that film’s huge success spawned the inferior rip-off It Came from Beneah the Sea. Continue reading
(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!
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
(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?
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
2/10 In a nutshell: Surely one of the most inept productions ever to get a theatrical release, this Poverty Row film from bad movie giants Al Zimbalist and Jack Rabin steals its sets and props from other movies and throws science and logic out the window as it presents the first Amazons-in-space film. If you can forgive its ineptitude and fifties sexism, it’s a highly enjoyable so-bad-it’s-good movie. And there’s giant moon spiders.
Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, USA). Directed by Arthur Hilton. Written by Roy Hamilton, Al Zimbalist & Jack Rabin. Starring: Sonny Tufts, Marie Windsor, Victor Jory, William Phipps, Douglas Fowley, Carol Brewster, Susan Morrow. Prodcuced by Al Zimbalist and Jack Rabin for Z-M Productions. IMDb score: 3.6/10
The Cat-Women of the Moon.
In the fifties American manhood was threatened. When the men were off fighting WWII, women were called in to factories, retailers and institutions to take their place, and thus keep the wheels of society turning. In the process, many of them found that having a salary of their own greatly improved their freedom and made them independent of a male provider, which had been the norm up until then. As the men returned home, many women refused to let things slip back to the way it was before the war, and were backed up by a growing feminist movement. Suddenly women’s’ liberation was thing again, and companies that could hire women for a lesser salary than men, didn’t necessarily protest. But a lot of men felt threatened by the loosening of their control over women, and a lot of men dominated the media, the entertainment and the advertising industry, and this created a backlash, resulting in what we today loosely refer to as ”fifties values”, where great emphasis was laid on ”traditional” family values, Christianity, which stated that the man was the head of the family, chastity and female obedience. This was one of the driving forces in Hollywood behind an onslaught of ”Amazon Women” films, of which Cat-Women of the Moon is one of the best known examples. Continue reading
(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 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
(3/10) In a nutshell: This bad 1940 B horror comedy from Poverty Row studio PRC has an abysmal script, bad acting and a shoestring budget. Nevertheless, the film has a certain old-timey charm, helped tremendously by a funny Bela Lugosi, who sends a giant killer bat to off the people wearing his new aftershave.
The Devil Bat. 1940, USA. Directed by Jean Yarbrough. Written by John T. Neville & George Bricker. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Suzanne Kaaren, Dave O’Brien, Guy Usher, Donald Kerr, Yolande Donlan. Produced by Jack Gallagher for PRC. Tomatometer: 55 %. IMDb score: 5.4
Bela Lugosi grinning it up in The Devil Bat.
Where to begin? Well let’s begin with Bela Lugosi, the star of this film. By 1940 Lugosi’s career was not yet as completely in the ruts as it would become. He was hot off the huge success of The Son of Frankenstein (1939, review), and would yet land a few decent roles in films like The Wolf Man (1941) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). It was his abysmal performance (with no help from the editor who took out all his lines) in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review) that would finally sink his career, along with the waning popularity of the Universal monsters and Lugosi’s own health and drug problems. Although his career paled compared to Boris Karloff’s, he had been temporarily saved by The Son of Frankenstein. In fact 1939-1942 was something of a second coming of Lugosi, who, despite being broke, had made only a film serial in 1937 and not a single production in 1938. But despite this, The Devil Bat was certainly a taste of things to come for Bela – a cheapo by Poverty Row studio PRC, surrounded by an incompetent cast and a crew that seemed like they really couldn’t care less. Continue reading
(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.
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