December 29, 2010

"That's a face?"

The Atomic Submarine (1960)

After the Soviet Union's launch of the first orbiting satellite Sputnik in late 1957, the U.S. had a sort of collective nervous breakdown over the nation's ability to compete in the all-important area of technology, and especially military technology. Many darkly predicted that before long, the Soviets would be lobbing atomic bombs at us from space. Bomb shelters and duck-and-cover exercises at schools became all the rage. One bright spot in the midst of the doom and gloom in 1958 was the first successful submerged voyage across the North Pole by the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus (SSN-571). All but forgotten now, the Nautilus' exploits were big, welcome news to worried Americans, boosting faith in the country's technological future at a time when it seemed all of our space rockets were exploding on their launch pads.

Naturally, the movie industry zealously capitalized on the headlines, turning America's worries into celluloid entertainments featuring atomic mutations, threats from outer space, and, in honor of an American first, atomic submarines. Disney launched the big-budget 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954, around the same time that the U.S. Navy launched their nuclear-powered version of Jules Verne's Nautilus. Several years later, the real-life Nautilus' record-breaking voyages inspired such films as 1961's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and the subject of this post, The Atomic Submarine (1960).

Atomic Submarine is set in a not-too-distant future (not too distant from 1960, that is), where nuclear-powered military, scientific, and commercial subs and ships routinely transit the world's oceans, and in particular take convenient short cuts under the polar ice cap. When dozens of these vessels turn up missing or mysteriously destroyed, the military brass summons top scientists and the crew of America's premier atomic sub, the Tigershark, to investigate. The call to duty tears Lt. Commander Richard "Reef" Holloway (Arthur Franz) away from his pursuit of a shapely peroxide blonde, which does not make him very happy (more on the Lt. Commander's, and the actor's, unhappiness later).

The slowest parts of the movie involve the Tigershark's search for a mysterious underwater craft near the North Pole that may be responsible for the mischief, with lots of stock footage and shots of maps with dotted lines tracing the sub's routes, and a portentous narrator solemnly describing the action (or lack of it). Things don't pick up until the crew and the scientists stumble onto a pattern behind the mysterious craft's appearances and subsequent maritime disasters-- a pattern that traces a circle around the North Pole. (Shades of the real-life Nautilus!) They race to the next point where the pattern suggests the unearthly visitor should be, and sure enough, encounter a submerged saucer that they dub "Cyclops" (for the single eye-like light in the middle of its dome).

What Atomic Submarine lacks in budget ($135,000), it makes up for (somewhat) in imagination. Sci-fi flicks of the time were full of needle-nosed spaceships and flying saucers, but this is the only one that I can think of to feature an Unidentified Submerged Object (USO) -- and to top it off, the USO turns out to be a living organism as well!  When the Tigershark's torpedoes fail to do the trick, the Commander (Dick Foran) rams the Cyclops, but can't extricate his sub, and the two sink to the bottom of the icy depths.

The intrepid crew figures out a way to puncture the Cyclops' "eye," providing a way into the craft. But, much to hard-charging Lt. Cmdr. Holloway's chagrin, the only person qualified to steer an experimental diving bell into the eye of the Cyclops is civilian scientist and (gasp!) pacifist Carl Neilson, Jr. (Brett Halsey), son of Holloway's mentor. Holloway mercilessly chides the earnest and idealistic Neilson about his naive views on peace and disarmament. At this point, the film seems more like crude cold war propaganda than entertainment. 

Off camera, relations between the two actors weren't much better. In a DVD extra interview, Halsey described Franz as cold and aloof. Halsey speculated that Franz thought that the low-budget production was beneath him. Similarly, producer Alex Gordon found Franz "neurotic," and was irritated that Franz insisted on seeing his rushes-- unusual for a modest production on a tight schedule (The Astounding B Monster Book, Dinoship, 2005)

Pacifist or not, Neilson/Halsey performs his job like a trooper, enabling Holloway to lead a crew aboard the Cyclops to see if they can cut the Tigershark loose from the alien ship. The Navy frogmen assigned to the task of freeing the Tigershark note that the area seems more like the ruptured flesh of a gigantic animal than a torn metal hull. Holloway and one of the frogmen hear a disembodied voice that their skeptical companions for some reason can't hear. Like so many extras in sci-fi thrillers, the frogmen work hard to save the day, and get dispatched in grisly ways for their efforts.

At one and the same time, Atomic Submarine reveals its stark low budget, yet manages visuals that had me hiding my eyes as a kid, and stayed with me long after. The Cyclops' interior is a simple sound stage with a couple of ramps, lit in stark black and white. With most of the unearthly ship in total blackness, and disembodied voices calling to select Tigershark crew members, the scene is simply and eerily effective. The ways in which the hapless frogmen meet their demise are particularly gruesome for a movie of this era (if you're curious, see the clip below).

The climactic meeting between the Cyclops' guiding intelligence and Holloway is also quite effective, considering the shoestring effects budget. The creature was an elaborate sock puppet built up around effects man Irving Block's arm, with rubber tentacles around the base manipulated by wires. The whole sequence aboard the Cyclops submersible spacecraft is so tight and effective, that it almost seems part of another, more expensive and sophisticated production. Needless to say, Earth is saved in typical B fashion by well-placed shots-- the first, a shot from Holloway's pistol into the gaping eye of the Cyclops creature, and the coup de grace: one of Tigershark's torpedoes quickly reconfigured as an anti-ballistic missile to intercept the fleeing alien ship in mid-air.

Another reason Atomic Submarine stands out from similar B pictures of the day is its veteran cast. Arthur Franz may have had good reason to be grumpy about being in this shoestringer. By 1960, he already had a long string of leads in B movies, secondary parts in bigger budget movies, and TV roles behind him. Early in his career, he gained notice for his portrayal of a mentally unstable war veteran who snaps and begins shooting women with a high-powered rifle (The Sniper, 1952). While other actors parlayed such noticeable roles into fame and A-list careers, Franz never broke out of the B-list and TV doldrums.

The presence of veterans Dick Foran (as the Tigershark's commander) and Tom Conway (as a member of the scientific team) adds to the fun. Foran is 50 years young in Submarine, and instantly recognizable to fans of old Universal programmers like The Mummy's Hand (1940) and Horror Island (1941) -- not to mention countless westerns. Conway, debonair brother of equally debonair George Sanders, went from genre picture highs like Val Lewton's Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), to lows like Bride of the Gorilla (1951) and Voodoo Woman (1957). He made only a couple more films and some TV after Atomic Submarine.

Bill Warren, in his monumental and highly entertaining compilation Keep Watching the Skies: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (McFarland), pithily sizes up The Atomic Submarine:
[I]t has a certain odd likability that makes it a more watchable film than it has any right to be. Despite a shortage of action, and especially lame direction by veteran Spencer Gordon Bennet, the film is relatively brisk, and the acting by a crew of old (and young) pros is considerably above average for a low-budget film, although the script by Orville H. Hampton is so full of clunker lines and wildly wrong character reactions as to be frequently hilarious.
Unintentionally hilarious or not, how can you not like a movie with lines like these?
Cyclops creature: At last Commander, we meet as your people say... face to face!
Lt. Cmdr. Holloway: That's a face?
The Atomic Submarine is available for immediate free online viewing at Internet Archive.

Unlucky Tigershark crew members have a bad day aboard the alien craft:

December 17, 2010

Leslie Nielsen, 1926 - 2010

Dark Intruder (1965)

I love the goofball Leslie Nielsen from Airplane and the Naked Gun and Scary Movie franchises. I'm also old enough to remember and appreciate his first Hollywood incarnation as a leading man and dramatic actor. If he had done nothing else but the role of J. J. Adams, commander of the C-57D Starcruiser in Forbidden Planet, I would still remember him fondly.

Fortunately, Nielsen left a long, rich legacy of acting roles -- both dramatic and comedic, in film and TV -- that we can enjoy for many years to come. Dark Intruder, a failed TV pilot turned theatrical release, highlights Nielsen's ability to pull off the leading role of an insouciant, devil-may-care playboy in a dark, atmospheric horror thriller.

Dark Intruder is lean and thrillingly mean at a spare 58 minutes (reflecting its origins as a TV pilot for a series that was to be called "The Black Cloak"). The title sequence strikes just the right note with suitably haunting music and effective graphics of menacing eyes peering out from a thick blanket of fog. After establishing the 1890s San Francisco setting, Intruder quickly gets down to business: a woman in a nurse's uniform runs screaming from an upstairs apartment, fleeing down inky black alleyways with an unseen, growling thing close on her heels. We see the thing in silhouette, a human shape in hat and cape, hunched over the unfortunate woman. Moments later, we see her dead at the foot of a wrought iron gate with claw-like marks on her face. The camera pans to a carving of some misshapen totem dropped next to the body. The scene is reminiscent of (perhaps even a tribute to) House of Wax (1953) with its own memorable misshapen, yet obviously human, thing stalking young women down shadowy, turn-of-the-century streets.

The scene quickly shifts to the lush apartment of our protagonist, occult expert Brett Kingsford (Nielsen), who is eyeing newspaper headlines about the latest murder. Kingsford, dressed in an elegant smoking jacket and nursing a hangover, reluctantly greets an opulent young lady friend, Evelyn Lang (Judi Meredith), who breezes in carrying the latest purchases for her upcoming wedding to Kingsford's best friend. Here we have a humorous, light-hearted few minutes of exposition, with Evelyn baiting Kingsford, who can barely hide his exasperation. The contrast with the first grim couple of minutes couldn't be more jarring, and screenwriter Barré Lyndon (The Lodger, 1944; The War of the Worlds, 1953) skillfully sets up the movie (and the hopeful TV series) while letting Nielsen and Meredith exercise their comedic chops. Meredith especially is so breezily good that the abrupt change in mood can easily be forgiven (see the clip below).

Evelyn (Meredith) briefly stops to remark on the motto that hangs prominently in Kingsford's apartment: Omnia Exeunt in Mysterium ("Everything Ends in Mystery"). The light mood quickly turns dark again as the protagonists deal with more murders, puzzle over the demon carvings left next to each corpse, and discover a connection to a mid-nineteenth century archaeological expedition (shades of the Mummy!) To add to the mystery, Evelyn's bridegroom-to-be and Kingsford's friend Robert  (played with melancholic intensity by Mark Richman) begins having spells, and worries that he may have something to do with the grisly string of murders. In quick succession, Kingsford gets a lesson about Sumerian demons from an oriental mystic (Peter Brocco), and has his fortune told by a hooded soothsayer, Prof. Malaki (played by a completely unrecognizable Werner Klemperer of Hogan's Heroes fame). He soon intuits a diabolic pattern behind the serial killings.

The other star of Dark Intruder is John F. Warren's rich black and white photography, which, coupled with the detailed Victorian production design, lends a big budget feel to the proceedings. After filming a number of low-budget films in the 1950s (Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, The Colossus of New York, The Cosmic Man), Warren spent the '60s exclusively lensing TV shows, including this failed pilot. Veteran TV director Harvey Hart maintains a quick, deft pace, and adds a number of unusual angle shots to keep the viewers' interest. Alas, Intruder doesn't always rise above its humble TV origins. Several times Hart makes the mistake of showing the shadowy murderer's claw-like hands, which have a cheap costume-shop-latex-rubber look to them. And most of the music, including Evelyn's perky theme, sounds like schlock TV stock. Rod Serling fans might blame the movie's deficiencies on producer Jack Laird, the man who later stepped in to produce a portion of Serling's Night Gallery series. Laird drove Serling to distraction by insisting on inserting painfully unfunny gag segments between the tales.

Alternately amusing and chilling, Dark Intruder is several orders of magnitude better than the TV fare of its day, and a worthy part of Leslie Nielsen's bountiful acting legacy. A good quality DVD copy is available from Sinister Cinema.

December 14, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned From B Movies

Sometimes, watching a B movie is like striking up a polite conversation with a slightly seedy old man in worn-out, ill-fitting clothes, and finding out that he has a Ph.D. in Anthropology and has lived the kind of rich, event-filled life that puts your humdrum existence to shame. Tucked among the modest production values, mannered acting, and formulaic plots are pearls of timeless wisdom and spot-on prognosticating that are all the more impressive coming from an unpretentious genre flick.

I recently had one of those moments watching an exchange between two characters in one of my all-time favorite science fiction films, Five Million Years to Earth (aka Quatermass and the Pit; 1967). The two lines of dialog, near “throw away” lines penned over 40 years ago, were so prescient, so relevant to one of the greatest issues facing humanity in 2010, that I hit Pause and backed up the recording to make sure I had heard it right. I wrote them down, thinking I’d update the IMDb quotes database with a real gem, but of course, someone had beaten me to it.

The categorized list of quotes below, culled from IMDb and my own notes, demonstrates the wit and wisdom of B movies—and dare I say—their relevance to our complicated 21st century lives.

(A particularly personal note: I’ve stored most of these in my work e-mail signature database. I’ve set them up to generate randomly, but sometimes I will select one that seems particularly appropriate to the e-mail discussion at hand. Of course, I am near retirement age and no longer care so much what my co-workers think.)

Astronomy and Cosmology

Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!
   -- Ned “Scotty” Scott, The Thing From Another World (1951)

It wasn't the right time for us to meet. But there'll be other nights, other stars for us to watch. They'll be back.
   -- John Putnam, It Came From Outer Space (1953)

Economics

Glenn: Mutual trust is a beautiful thing
K. Fuji: That won't buy groceries.
   -- Monster Zero (1965)

Education

People, especially children, aren't measured by their IQ. What's important about them is whether they're good or bad, and these children are bad.
   -- Alan Bernard, Village of the Damned (1960)

I'm considered a scholar, but unfortunately that hasn't made me rich.
   -- Prof. Jackson, Flight to Mars (1951)

It's hard to come up with answers when you don't even know what the question is.
   -- Lt. General Edward Considine, The Giant Claw (1957)

Ahhh, these monsters are as stupid as human beings!
   -- Detective Shindo, Ghidora the Three-Headed Monster (1964)

The Environment and Climate Change

Prof. Bernard Quatermass:  The will to survive is an odd phenomenon. Roney, if we found out our own world was doomed, say by climatic changes, what would we do about it?
Dr. Mathew Roney:  Nothing, just go on squabbling as usual.
   -- Five Million Years to Earth (1967)

Commander John J. Adams:  Nice climate you have here. High oxygen content.
Robby the Robot:  I seldom use it myself, sir. It promotes rust.
   -- Forbidden Planet (1956)

Food and Drug Safety

Nestor 1: [eating a hot dog for the first time] There's no dog in this.
Cowboy: Uh-uh.
Nestor 1: Hydrolyzed vegetable protein, soybean meal, niacin, dextrose, and sodium nitrate flavoring.
Cowboy: Yup, that's what we call "meat" back home.
   -- Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Foreign Policy and Defense

We didn't come here to fight monsters, we're not equipped for it.
   -- David Reed, Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Alien Spaceman: At last Commander, we meet as your people say... face to face!
Cmdr. Richard 'Reef' Holloway: That's a face?
   -- The Atomic Submarine (1960)

When an armed and threatening power lands uninvited in our capitol, we don't meet him with tea and cookies!
   -- General Edmunds, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)

Perhaps, on your way home, someone will pass you in the dark, and you will never know it... for they will be from outer space.
   -- Criswell, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

Geography

Mars is almost as big as Texas, maybe it has monsters.
  -- Lt. James Calder, It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958)

The desert, it gives people wonderful ideas!
   -- Dr. Matt Hastings, Tarantula (1955)

Health Care

Are you insured? I'm insured. It's good to be insured. At least it cheers you up.
   -- Sladden, Five Million Years to Earth (1967)

Law and Politics

We're all part monsters in our subconscious, so we have laws and religion!
   -- Commander John J. Adams, Forbidden Planet (1956)

I’m here, and I want action!
   -- Senator Walter K. Powers, The Brain Eaters (1958)

You know, someone once told me when a bureaucrat wants to keep his job, he stamps everything 'Top Secret.'
   -- Freya Neilson, These Are the Damned (1963)

Psychology

It isn't what's out there that's dangerous, as much as what's in us.
   -- Dr. John Rollason, The Abominable Snowman (1957)

I think it's a matter of chemistry how the brain thinks. The problem is to find out what chemical combinations are responsible for success... failure... happiness... misery.
   -- Dr. Patrick Cory, Donovan’s Brain (1953)

One is always considered MAD, if one discovers something that others cannot grasp!
   -- Dr. Eric Vornoff, Bride of the Monster (1955)

Yet all the suns that light the corridors of the universe shine dim before the blazing of a single thought...
   -- Dr. Peter Duval, Fantastic Voyage (1966)

I believe a man lost in the mazes of his own mind may imagine that he's anything.
   -- Doctor Lloyd, The Wolf Man (1941)

The mind of man had thought of everything -- except that which was beyond his comprehension!
   -- Narrator, It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)

Do old ideas rest comfortably in an open mind...?
   -- Prof. Van Helsing, Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)

It's easy to see a demon in every dark corner.
   -- Dr. John Holden, Night of the Demon (1957)

Science and Technology

It would answer the riddle, wouldn't it? Remote-controlled creatures, their brains powered by atomic energy, roaming the streets, directed from a central point.
   -- Dr. Chet Walker, Creature With the Atom Brain (1955)

In our very hands, we have the cosmic force of creation itself. In our very hands, we can shape life, take it apart, put it together again, mould it like putty.
   -- Dr. Alexander Thorkel, Dr. Cyclops (1940)

You know this Royston chap. Brilliant, of course, I'm sure. But the trouble with these scientific types is they can't see the easy way out of anything. It's got to be complicated if it's going to work.
  -- Major Cartwright, X: The Unknown (1956)

You boys like to call this the pushbutton age. It isn't, not yet. Not until we can team up atomic energy with electronics. Then we'll have the horses as well as the cart.
   -- Dr. Cal Meacham, This Island Earth (1955)

I cannot - yet I must. How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do "must" and "cannot" meet? Yet I must - but I cannot!
   -- Ro-Man, Robot Monster (1953)

The paths of experimentation twist and turn through mountains of miscalculations and often lose themselves in error and darkness!
   -- Kurt, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962)

Why is it always, always so costly for Man to move from the present to the future?
   -- Dr. Judson Uhl, 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

The hell with radiation. Let's go.
   -- Gen. George Treegar, Angry Red Planet (1960)

Social Conflict

Dr. Roger Bentley (archaeologist): This one died from a blow from a heavy blunt instrument.
Dr. Jud Bellamin: Well, that’s a sign of a higher civilization.
   -- The Mole People (1956)

Work and Personnel Management

What we need is young blood... and brains...
   -- Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Many people on Earth are beginning to face the same problem: too much free time, too little work.
  -- Capt. Frank Chapman, The Phantom Planet (1961)

Well haven't you heard? I'm a mental case! Can't even be trusted with my own work!
   -- Dr. Douglas Martin, Killers From Space (1954)

The Future of Humanity and the Meaning of It All

We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.
   -- Criswell, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

Maybe there's an ordinary explanation for what happened, but I wouldn't take any bets.
   -- Col. Joe Parkman, The Deadly Mantis (1957)

We all stand between the jungle and the stars, at a crossroads. I think we better decide what brings out the best in humankind, and what brings out the worst, because it's the stars or the jungle.
    -- Dr. Thomas Morgan, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)

Unless we learn to control the instincts we’ve inherited from our ape-like ancestors, the race is doomed.
   -- Prof. Donald Blake, Monster on the Campus (1958)

The world's been here for millions of years. Man's been walking upright for a comparatively short time. Mentally we're still crawling.
   -- Prof. Tom Nesbitt, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet - like the closing of a gigantic circle.
   -- Scott Carey, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

We haven't seen the end of them. We've only had a close view of the beginning of what may be the end of us.
   -- Dr. Harold Medford, Them! (1954)

Be afraid. Be very afraid.
   -- Ronnie, The Fly (1986)

Naga! Oomay mah luke!
   -- Deena, World Without End (1956)

December 1, 2010

Rediscovering a Eurohorror Gem

Terror in the Crypt (aka Crypt of the Vampire; 1964)

I discovered Eurohorror in my early misspent teens watching the late, late show (yes, that was a long, long time ago). In contrast to the domestic product, this stuff was dark, atmospheric, exotic, disturbing, and… downright sexy. You were guaranteed to see at least one beautiful, bountiful starlet in a diaphanous white nightgown running screaming from some twisted, disfigured monster. And this being the late, late show, there was always the small hope-- never actually realized on American broadcast TV --  of seeing something… more. Later, I discovered that there were prints of these films that included scenes not shown on TV!  With all that going for them, one could excuse the bad dubbing and the wooden acting.

Terror in the Crypt, an obscure occult thriller from 1964, was one of the exotic flicks that lodged some pretty potent images in my impressionable brain: a disfigured, hunchbacked beggar; a bell tolling in an abandoned church in the middle of the night; a woman using a severed hand ("hand of glory") as a candelabra to light her way down a long, dark hallway…; and yes, the bountiful, raven-haired heroine in the almost-but-not-quite see-through nightie.

Over the years, and especially when I watched anything with B scream queen and Eurohorror specialist Barbara Steele in it, I'd think to myself, is this the one with the gnarly severed hand moonlighting as a candlestick? Inevitably, the answer was no (although Barbara's flicks were usually intriguing in their own right). Somehow I had gotten the beauteous, raven-haired Adriana Ambesi (working in American prints of Crypt as Audrey Amber) mixed up with the exotic, raven-haired Barbara. Black Sunday? Nope. The Long Hair of Death? Nope. Nightmare Castle? Nope.

So, imagine my surprise when quite by accident, I recently rediscovered the movie that had made such a lasting impression. Around Halloween I looked up Christopher Lee on Netflix, thinking I might line up a mini-Chris Lee film festival. Crypt of the Vampire (the alternate American release title) caught my eye, and in reading the description, I wasn't sure if I'd seen it or not-- a good reason right there to order the disc.

A few minutes into it, and I realized this was the film with the dark, haunting images that had stuck with me for so long -- no Barbara Steele, but this was it! And I had completely forgotten Christopher Lee's role. Not surprising, since Lee is particularly wooden in this one, wearing a one-note worried frown through the film's 82 minutes. Lee was making a ton of these things at the time, and I can imagine that he felt stuck in a "if this is Tuesday, it must be Italy and 'La Cripta e l'incubo'" kind of rut.

Lee plays Count Ludwig Karnstein, whose worries stem from an old family curse and recent, inexplicable disappearances and murders in and around the ancestral castle. It seems the Karnsteins have been haunted for years by the legacy of an ancestor, Sera, accused of being witch and murdering young girls. His daughter Laura (Ambesi) has been having vivid nightmares which foretell horrific events in uncanny detail. He fears that Laura may be under the spell of the long-dead malefic ancestor, or even be her reincarnation! In desperation, he hires an antiquarian scholar (Jose Campos) to research Sera, and especially to find out what she looked like. Other members of the household dabble in witchcraft themselves in an attempt to protect their mistress.

Just as Laura thinks she might go mad, a carriage carrying a prosperous mother and daughter breaks down in front of the castle. The mother worries that the daughter, Ljuba (ravishing Ursula Davis) may not be strong enough for additional travel, so Laura invites her to stay at the castle. Laura, right on the verge of falling for the hunky scholar, dumps him for her new, very special friend Ljuba. After a visit from a hunchbacked beggar, flirting by the two young women, more murders, dark occult rituals, tolling church bells, and strange encounters in the family vault, the real evil is revealed.

Crypt is supposed to be based on Sheridan Le Fanu's vampire tale Carmilla, but it's probably more accurate to say it was inspired by Le Fanu. Crypt exploits the Karnstein name and the theme of female evil, but there are no vampires per se in it.  Carmilla and the Karnsteins have popped up in numerous films over the years, some well-known and some not:  Carl Dreyer's Vampyr (1932), Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses (1960), The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), Daughters of Darkness (1971), Twins of Evil (1971), and The Blood-Spattered Bride (1972).

Crypt's strength is its dark, forbidding atmosphere. It starts off in the dead of night, as an ethereal blonde in nightdress flees from a deserted coach, the door of which opens slowly and menacingly. She gasps, then screams, as the shadow of a nameless something envelops her. A moment later, she lies dead, her face frozen in terror.

Lawrence McCallum (Italian Horror Films of the 1960s, McFarland, 1998) describes Crypt as "atmospheric, but otherwise fairly ordinary," and speculates that it "might have been a winner had it been handled by Mario Bava or Antonio Margheriti."  While director Camillo Mastrocinque certainly cannot claim the horror credentials of those gentlemen, in Crypt he has fashioned some truly memorable, chilling sequences that compare favorably with the best of the genre.

On a dark and stormy night, Laura Karnstein (Adriana Ambesi) has another terrifying vision:

November 24, 2010

Why Bother with B's?

Why bother with old B movies? Because they're there. They're on NetFlix. They're on Amazon. They're on eBay. They're on Turner Classic Movies. They're on hundreds of video archive and gray market sites. They're everywhere.  It seems there are a lot of folks who can still enjoy a good pre-CGI sci-fi, fantasy, or horror flick. Fans can excuse that model spaceship hoisted on wires, or the creature from beyond space in a rubber suit, because there's a kernel of pure, childish joy to be found in these modest pictures.

In case you hadn't noticed, science fiction, fantasy, and horror have become BIG business. Millions are sunk into productions requiring vast armies of technical specialists. To ensure maximum returns, films are crafted to resemble amusement park thrill rides or big screen video games. Vampires have turned into teen idols, and torture porn (Saw, Hostel) masquerades as horror. Filmmakers with more modest budgets compensate with over-the-top, gross-out special effects (Slither, Splinter). And as if that wasn't enough, a film can't just sell tickets. If it's not already part of a franchise, it has to have franchise potential… and it has to do merchandising, and tie-ins, and product placements, and you name it.  With all that riding on the typical science fiction or fantasy vehicle, there's very little room for imagination, creativity, uniqueness… or simple fun. For all the latest CGI effects, today's movies tend to "dazzle" audiences in the same predictable, stultifying ways.

Sure, B genre pictures are by definition formula pictures, and there's nothing more tedious than a bad, unimaginative, shoestring-budget programmer. But for many pics, low budgets and modest expectations freed moviemakers to take chances on interesting lesser known actors, original material, creative shoestring effects, and quirky bits of dialog and business. The results, while not always sublime, were often refreshing and fun. It's to these movies, the men and women behind them, and the fans who enjoy them to this day -- free to 'B' themselves -- that this blog is dedicated.

So, what to expect? I'll be rooting around in the shadowy past, from roughly the early '30s to the early '70s, dusting off those intriguing rough gems of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror that have been overlooked and under-appreciated. While I love them dearly, I'll tend to bypass classics like Forbidden Planet and Creature From the Black Lagoon (what's left to say about them?) in favor of more obscure titles like The Phantom Planet and The Monster of Piedros Blancas.

Making movies, even "bad" ones, is a hard, time-consuming job. My purpose is not to make fun of these underdog movies to show what a clever, sarcastic guy I am. Granted, there will be unintentionally funny and inept lines, plot elements, acting and/or effects in many (if not most) of the movies featured here, but my mission will be to show what works, what doesn't, and why you might want to seek it out -- not to ridicule it. And wherever possible, I'll include clips to show you exactly what I'm talking about. Occasionally, I'll veer off into film noir and even westerns-- it is my blog after all.  And I reserve the right to just blather in general about movies or popular culture.

There's a lot to discover beyond the cinematic time barrier: giant mutations, mythical beasts, gothic vampires, atom-age vampires, teenage werewolves, mad scientists, madmen, and their cursed sons and daughters…  I invite you to come along for a ride or two into this fantastic film world.