Creature from the Black Lagoon

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(7/10) In a nutshell: While Universal made this film in 1954 as a cheap money-grabber to cash in on the 3D craze, they once again underestimated the magic created by combining producer William Alland, director Jack Arnold, actor Richard Carlson and the studio’s brilliant design and makeup team, just as they had done on their previous collaboration. Despite a clumsy and derivative script, the film has some poetic quality and is a superbly directed, action-packed shocker. In good Frankensteinean fashion, the movie puts the audience on the side of the monster, and while the suit might seem hokey today, it was a sensation in its time, and served as a benchmark for science fiction films to come. Whether the film itself falls under the sci-fi umbrella is a matter of debate.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, USA). Directed by Jack Arnold. Written by Arthur A. Ross, Harry Essex, Maurice Zimm, William Alland. Starring: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, Nestor Paiva, Whit Bissell, Ricou Browning, Ben Chapman. Produced by William Alland for Universal-International. IMDb rating: 7.0/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 84% Fresh. Metacritic: N/A.

Ricou Browning as the classic movie monster.

Ricou Browning as the classic movie monster.

In 1954 the old Universal monsters had fallen into decay a long time ago, and few cared about the old gothic legends like Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy or the wolfman. During the forties the studio had milked everything and then some from them, resulting in an ever-declining parade of monster mashes, ending in The House of Frankenstein in 1945 (review). Presently, the old monsters were little more than punchlines in Abbott & Costello films. The political landscape, pop culture and filmmaking had changed. The old style, inspired by German impressionism, 19th century horror novels and Soviet montage symbolism had fallen out of style. The new science fiction style was cleaner, modern, urban and more linear. Nevertheless, the old monster makers still had one last shot in them, before the field was completely taken over by little green men, giant insects and computers-run-amok: Creature from the Black Lagoon. Continue reading

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Riders to the Stars

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(5/10) In a nutshell: In his second OSI film producer Ivan Tors teams up with writer Curt Siodmak and director/actor Richard Carlson to to train a group of unwitting volunteers to become USA:s first astronauts. Although the film is presented in a refreshingly sober and scientific manner, the basic scientific premise of it is pure hogwash. The documentary feel lends it a nice calm, and although Carlson directs his actors well, he doesn’t quite have the chops for the climactic action sequence. Enjoyable, but no classic.

Riders to the Stars (USA, 1954). Directed by Richard Carlson and Herbert L. Strock. Written by Curt Siodmak and Ivan Tors. Starring: William Lundigan, Herbert Marshall, Richard Carlson, Martha Hyer, Dawn Addams, Robert Karnes. Produced by Ivan Tors for Ivan Tors Productions. IMDb rating: 5.6/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

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With its January 14 US release, Riders to the Stars was the first science fiction film of the brave new year of 1954. The film was the second in producer Ivan Tors’ trilogy about the Office of Scientific Investigation – a sort of FBI for nerds. The previous one was the charming The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), which made good use of special effects shots from the German 1934 film Gold (review). The last one is perhaps the best known; Gog, which was released in 1954 as well (review). The two latter films were filmed in colour. 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

It Came from Outer Space

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(7/10) In a nutshell: Sci-fi stalwart Jack Arnold directed this his first science fiction film as Universal’s 3-D splash for the summer of 1953. Prominent sci-fi leading man Richard Carlson plays a proto-Fox Mulder who tries to convince a small town in Arizona that he saw a UFO crash in the desert, while aliens kidnap and and assume the guises of the townspeople. Co-written by Ray Bradbury, this well-directed fable of xenophobia and cold war paranoia manages to both appeal to the pulpier parts of our brains and the intellectual grains of the mind.

It Came from Outer Space. Directed by Jack Arnold. Written by Ray Bradbury & Harry Essex. Starring: Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson, Kathleen Hughes, Virginia Mullen. Produced by William Alland for Universal-International. Tomatometer: 81 %. IMDb score: 6.6

Barbara Rush as Ellen in the xenomorph's view.

Barbara Rush as Ellen in the xenomorph’s view.

Acclaimed A movie directors like Howard Hawks, Robert Wise and Don Siegel, along with visionary producer-director George Pal, all did their best to coax the science fiction genre out of the B movie quagmire that refused to loosen its grip on it in the fifties. But equally important – if not even more so – for the genre was Jack Arnold, director of films like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review), Tarantula (1955, review) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), among others. Arnold acknowledged the genre’s pulpy roots, and instead of trying to transcend them, he embraced them, but brought a level of intelligence and refinement to his work, and made some of the most influential sci-fi films of the decade. It all started with a film that is often dropped from his resumé when counting his best films, and it is always a mistake: It Came from Outer Space. Continue reading

The Magnetic Monster

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(4/10) In a nutshell: This 1953 film uses least 10 minutes of special effects from the German film Gold and steals its premise from an Arch Oboler radio show, but still manages to come off as something quite original. Made by Ivan Tors and legendary sci-fi writer Curt Siodmak, the film follows a sort of sci-fi FBI, trying to neutralise a radioactive material that keeps growing and threatens to sling the Earth out of orbit. Starring sci-fi cult actor Richard Carlson and features a bit-part by comedienne Kathleen Freeman.

The Magnetic Monster (1953). Directed by Curt Siodmak, Herbert L. Strock (uncredited) & Karl Hartl (uncredited). Written by: Ivan Tors & Curt Siodmak. Inspired by The Chicken Heart by Arch Oboler (uncredited). Edited from the film Gold (1934, uncredited). Starring: Richard Carlson, King Donovan, Jean Byron, Harry Ellerbe, Leo Britt, Leonard Mudie, Byron Foulger, Kathleen Freeman, Hans Albers, Michael Bohnen. Produced by Ivan Tors for A-Men Productions. IMDb score: 6.0

King Donovan and Richard Carlson in a magazine ad for The Magnetic Monster.

King Donovan and Richard Carlson in a magazine ad for The Magnetic Monster.

Legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman made many of his most famous sci-fi films by taking lavish European special effects films that were virtually unknown to American audiences or even critics, and intercutting them with newly shot scenes with American actors. The method wasn’t new. In 1943 Edward Dmytryk took a good portion of his Captive Wild Woman (review) about an ape woman from a 1932 lion taming film called The Big Cage. But what probably inspired Corman even more was German expat Curt (Kurt) Siodmak’s 1953 film The Magnetic Monster, which basically took its whole last 20 minutes from the German sci-fi thriller Gold (1934, review). Continue reading

The Day the Earth Stood Still

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(9/10) In a nutshell: Perhaps the best sci-fi film of the fifties, this 1951 movie directed by Oscar winner Robert Wise took a risky move by presenting a leftist peace statement just when the McCarthyist blacklistings were clamping down on Hollywood. Hugely influential on sci-fi tropes, it is remembered for its sleekly designed flying saucer and the menacing robot Gort, as well as for its realistic direction and impressive special effects, and for cementing the theremin as the sci-fi composer’s instrument of choice.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Directed by Robert Wise. Written by Edmund H. North. Based on novella Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates. Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray, Lock Martin, Richard Carlson, David McMahon. Tomatometer: 94 %. IMDb score: 7.8

Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Along with George Pal’s Destination Moon (1950, review) and Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951, review), Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still would set the template for science fiction films for a decade to come. Two years in the making, this was the second bone fide A-list sci-fi film in Hollywood, after The Thing (Destination Moon’s budget of 600 000 dollars could be described as an unusually big B movie budget). The money shows, both in the fact that the filmmakers have had time for generous pre-production, and in the talent, the sets and the special effects. 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