Conquest of Space

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(4/10) Back with his fourth science fiction epic, George Pal sets out to explore the mental and theological aspects of a trip to Mars. Good ideas abound, but the movie is scuttled by ham-fisted script. The special effects are very ambitious and impressive when they work. Unfortunately they don’t work most of the time, leaving us with flickering composites and thick matte lines. Pal’s idea of bringing humour into the mix is making one of the astronauts a dim-witted Brooklyn stand-up comedian. Fun to watch, but ultimately disappointing.

Astronauts on a space sled going from a rocket to the space station, "The Wheel".

Astronauts on a space sled going from a rocket to the space station, “The Wheel”.

Conquest of Space (1955, USA). Directed by Byron Haskin. Written by: James O’Hanlon, Philip Yordan, Barré Lyndon, George Worthing Yates. Based on the books Conquest of Space by Chesley Bonestell and Willy Lay and The Mars Project by Hermann Oberth. Starring: Walter Brooke, Eric Fleming, Mickey Shaughnessy, Phil Foster, William Redfield, William Hopper, Benson Fong, Ross Martin. Produced by George Pal for Paramount Pictures.
IMDb rating: 5.8/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.

Poster.

Poster.

If someone asks you who was the most important person for the popularisation of science fiction films in the fifties, there can really only be one answer, and that’s producer George Pal. It was Pal’s extremely ambitious and visionary, albeit horribly flawed, independent film Destination Moon (1950, review) that kicked off the whole sci-fi craze. Likewise, it has been claimed that it was his 1955 movie Conquest of Space that killed it. This is a questionable statement, since some of the best sci-fi films of the fifties were still to come after Conquest of Space. And furthermore, even though it has been described as a horrible flop when it came out, it actually didn’t do all that badly. It made a million dollars at the US box office, essentially making back its shooting budget. That is not to deny that it is, at so many levels, a deeply flawed film. Continue reading

Where Did You Get This?

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(5/10) In a nutshell: This 1952 movie, Min aina laka haza? in Arabic, has the distinction of being the first science fiction movie of Egypt. Starring four of the biggest movie stars of the country and directed by the B movie specialist and effects innovator Naizi Mostafa, this film is inspired by Universal’s Invisible Man films, but plays out as a romantic musical comedy. A fun, light-hearted and well-made popcorn movie that is enjoyable even without understanding the dialogue.

Where Did You Get This? (1952). Directed by Niazi Mostafa. Written by Ali El Zorkani and Muhammad Fawzi. Starring: Muhammad Fawzi, Madiha Yousri, Farid Shawqi, Ismail Yasseen, Hassan el Baroudi, Zeenat Sidqi. Produced by Muhammad Fawzi for Film Company Muhammad Fawzi. IMDb score: 5.0

Muhammed Fawzi becomes invisible in Niazi Momammad's Where Did You Get This?

Muhammed Fawzi becomes invisible in Niazi Momammad’s Where Did You Get This?

This is a rare entry on this blog of Arabic science fiction cinema, which is certainly not a huge subgenre, but nevertheless not to be completely overlooked. As a prosperous, stable and fairly secular country, Egypt was long the dominant film producer of the Arab countries and the golden age of Egyptian cinema lasted from the forties to the sixties. To a modern viewer, the liberal take on violence and sex in of some of the genre films of the golden age is surprising. Where Did You Get This? is in comparison a rather timid little film, and like much of the genre cinema of Egypt in the day, it was a blatant ripoff Hollywood’s genre films, in this case the Invisible Man franchise by Universal. 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

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

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

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(3/10) In a nutshell: The first of Universal’s monster mashes, made in 1943, sees the studio finally dropping the ball in their monster franchise. What could have been a decent, fun B horror flick is ruined by Univseral first casting Bela Lugosi as the Frankenstein monster and then doing its best to erase him from the film.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. 1943, USA. Directed by Roy William Neill. Written by Curt Siodmak. Sort of suggested by Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Starring: Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, Ilona Massey, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Lionel Atwill, Dennis Hoey, Rex Evans, Dwight Frye. Produced by George Waggner for Universal. Tomatometer: 25 %. IMDb score: 6.5

Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. have a standoff in a promo shot for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. have a standoff in a promo shot for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

By 1943 Universal’s Frankenstein franchise had lost all roots to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein apart from the name. Scriptwise there isn’t even much proof that it is part of the same francise as the original 1931 Frankenstein (review). There isn’t even a Dr. Frankenstein in the film (on screen anyway). The original Dr. Frankenstein, Colin Clive, passed away in 1937 and one must say that it is to the studio’s credit that they didn’t try to replace him with another actor (apart from a brief hallucination sequence in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review), but instead had not one, but two, sons of Frankenstein take up the mantle, Basil Rathbone and Cedric Hardwicke. One might suppose that Universal thought that a third son might be pushing it. We do, though, get a granddaughter of Frankenstein in the shape of Ilona Massey, but she is no doctor (she’s a woman, d’uh). Continue reading

Invisible Agent

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(5/10) In a nutshell: The fourth of Universal’s invisible man films, made in 1942, has a Griffin descendant fight Nazis in Germany. The special effects are impressive, as is much of the cast, incliding Cedric Hardwicke and Peter Lorre. But the comedy is lame and the script by Curt Siodmak falls far from his best efforts. Still, it is fairly entertaining as bit of a jumbled spy thriller.

Invisible Agent. 1942, USA. Directed by Edwin L. Marin. Written by Curt Siodmak. Inspired by the novel The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Starring: Jon Hall, Ilona Massey, Cedric Hardwicke, Peter Lorre, J. Edgar Bromberg, Albert Bassermann. Produced by Frank Lloyd for Universal. IMDb score: 6.0

Maria Sorenson (Ilona Massey) and the invisible agent (Jon Hall), covered in cold cream.

Maria Sorenson (Ilona Massey) and the invisible agent (Jon Hall), covered in cold cream.

I almost feel like I’ve got to apologise for posting yet another bland five-star review. But that’s just the thing with a lot of the sci-fi in the late thirties and early forties. The momentum that drove especially the mad scientist subgenre in the first half of the thirties was gone, and many of the directors that created such visionary films had been replaced by studio hacks. But on the other hand: even when relegated to Povery Row studios and bigger studios’ B units, there was still a lot of talent surrounding the genre, who were often able to elevate the films above their slight budgets. Such was the case with Invisible Agent. Continue reading

The Ghost of Frankenstein

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(5/10) In a nutshell: The magic is all but gone from the fourth Universal Frankenstein picture, made in 1942. Although well-paced and fairly entertaining, the film stumbles on a ridiculous script with more holes than a Swiss cheese and a low budget. Decent acting from Misters Hardwicke, Lugosi and Atwill, but substituting Karloff with Chaney was a bad move.

The Ghost of Frankenstein. 1942, USA. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Scott Darling & Eric Taylor. Inspired by the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Starring: Cedric Hardwicke, Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Ralph Bellamy, Evelyn Ankers, Barton Yarborough. Produced by George Waggner for Universal. Tomatometer: 75 %. IMDb score: 6.1

Ludwig Frankenstein (Cedric Hardwicke) and Theodore Bohmer (Lionel Atwill) inspecting Lon Chaney Jr. in The Ghost of Frankenstein, made in 1942.

Ludwig Frankenstein (Cedric Hardwicke) and Theodore Bohmer (Lionel Atwill) inspecting Lon Chaney Jr. in The Ghost of Frankenstein, made in 1942.

This is the fourth instalment in Universal’s Frankenstein saga, and notable for a number of reasons. The Ghost of Frankenstein is the first Frankenstein film to be relegated to the studio’s B movie unit, resulting in slashed funding. It is the first film to replace Boris Karloff as the monster with another actor, in this case Lon Chaney Jr. It is also the last film where the Frankenstein monster was the solo monster in Universal’s cannon. The next film, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (review), well the title says it all. Continue reading

The Invisible Woman

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(6/10) In a nutshell: The third ”invisible man” installment is a good, solid comedy with a great female heroine, but hardly brings anything new to the sci-fi table.

The Invisible Woman. 1940, USA. Directed by A. Edward Sutherland. Written by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, Gertrude Purcell, Joe May, Kurt Siodmak. Inspired by H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man. Starring: Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard, Charles Ruggles, Oskar Homolka, Edward Brophy, Donald MacBride, Margaret Hamilton, Shemp Howard. Produced by Burt Kelly for Universal. IMDb score: 6.1

Virginia Bruce not seen in The Invisible Woman.

Virginia Bruce not seen in The Invisible Woman.

Number three in the Universal Studios Invisible Man franchise takes the humorous elements of its predecessors to a new level. While James Whale added his pitch-black witty comedy to The Invisible Man (1933, review), it always remained at heart a horror film. Joe May toned down the horror for laughs in The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review), but still kept the serious mystery thriller element dominant. With director A. Edward Sutherland, one of the original, Keystone Cops, it is slapstick comedy all the way, and now there is very little, if anything, to remind the viewer of H.G. Wells’ original novel written in 1897 – which still gets screen credit. Continue reading

The Invisible Man Returns

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(7/10) In a nutshell: The horror icon Vincent Price takes over the empty shirt and trousers of Claude Rains in The Invisble Man Returns (1940). Univeral was still making good sequels to their horror films, although this one does clearly fall into B-movie category. But this is a good B-movie, well acted, well filmed and well received, but a harmless Hollywood sequel nonetheless.

The Invisible Man Returns. 1940, USA. Directed by Joe May. Written by Kurt Siodmak, Joe May, Lester Cole. Inspired by H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man. Starring: Vincent Price, Cedric Hardwicke, Nan Grey, John Sutton, Cecil Kellaway, Alan Napier, Forrester Harvey. Visual effects: John P. Fulton. Produced by Ken Goldsmith for Universal. Tomatometer: 80 %. IMDb score: 6.5

The bandaged head is back! Now in the profile of Vincent Price.

The bandaged head is back! Now in the profile of Vincent Price.

When Universal bought the rights for the novel The Invisible Man from author H.G. Wells for their first film (1933, review), they made a contract for several films. But it would pass seven years before the studio re-opened the Invisible Man files again in 1940. By now Frankenstein had had both a Bride and a Son, and Dracula had a Daughter, so it was no more than fitting that The Invisible Man should have a Return, and later the same year The Mummy also got a Hand. Of course undead beings like Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and The Mummy were easy enough to reanimate, but things were slightly more complicated with the invisible man, Jack Griffin, who was very much an ordinary man. So despite the fact that Claude Rains had made such an impact with his role seven years earlier, it was decided that a new invisible man was needed, as Griffin had very clearly died at the end of the previous film. And rather than bring in a Lugosi or a Karloff, Universal decided to do what they did with The Invisible Man – that is to cast a relatively unknown actor with a fantastic voice, and reveal his face in the last scene. This actor turned out to be a young Vincent Price in his first major role, and once again the casting agents at Universal had scored gold. Continue reading

The Son of Frankenstein

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Bela Lugosi’s Ygor is the best thing to come out of the Universal horror stable since The Bride of Frankenstein, but unfortunately the rest of The Son of Frankenstein isn’t really up to the same standard as its predecessors. The expressionistic style is stunning and the acting good across the board, with team members Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill and Basil Rathbone joining forces with Lugosi. But we mourn the reduction of Frankenstein’s monster to a mute, brute prop.

The Son of Frankenstein. Directed by Rowland V. Lee. Written by Wyllis Cooper, Rowland V. Lee (uncredited). Inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Starring: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, Donnie Dunagan. Produced for Universal. Tomatometer: 89 %. IMDb score: 7.2

Karloff in close-up in Son of Frankenstein.

Karloff in close-up in Son of Frankenstein.

Son of Frankenstein (1939) was the Universal smash hit that wasn’t supposed to be made. In fact, Universal didn’t release any horror films in 1937 or 1938, mainly because of pressure from the PCA, Production Code Administration, set up in 1934 to enforce the infamous Hays code on the US film industry. But happy coincidences and a new-found confidence in the genre made this semi-classic a reality, and once again kicked off a horror-fest in the States. Continue reading