Bottom line, is The Unknown Terror worth the small amount of extra effort and expense to see? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that if you're like me, it grates on you that there's this elusive sci-fi or horror title that you've read about from time to time, but never seen. It doesn't matter if the judgment of it over time has been harsh. Someone thought they had an idea good enough to invest some time, money and talent (yes, talent-- even bad movies require some talent to make). It was made for kids like me, growing up in the Midwest in the '50s and '60s. Maybe I was sick the day it popped up on the afternoon Creature Feature or the late show. Regardless, as a boomer with a predilection for vintage sci-fi and horror movies, I am duty bound to seek it out and give it a chance, even to the point of writing about it in this blog.
The Giant Claw released the same year, which I managed to catch a couple of months ago on TCM. Claw is standard giant-monster-on-the-loose '50s sci-fi, with a competent script, fair to good acting, and some suspenseful moments. But the monster of the title is anything but standard. According to legend (and related by TCM's Robert Osborne), Claw's producer Sam Katzman saved a few bucks by outsourcing the monster effects to a shop in Mexico. The result is an ungainly, moth-eaten giant bird with an uncanny resemblance to Beaky Buzzard of cartoon fame. In the words of classic sci-fi maven Bill Warren (Keep Watching the Skies!, McFarland, 1982), "The sight of this pathetic horror has been known to bring strong men to their knees in laughter." (Lead actor Jeff Morrow, who liked to catch his movies at the local theater where he could visit with friends and neighbors, reportedly had to slink out of the theater when the first appearance of Beaky, aka the Giant Claw, elicited howls of laughter from the audience.)
Warren has similar things to say about The Unknown Terror:
The Unknown Terror is a pretty bad movie in most respects, but it isn't as poor as it might have been; the primary defect is a monster done by a method so foolish that it causes only gales of laughter whenever this picture is shown, which is rarely. Had the monster been done differently, the picture would have been an acceptable programmer." (ibid.)A fair assessment. But Unknown also misses the mark in other ways. Considering the locales and themes it presents -- a simmering, tense love triangle played out in the jungles and dark caves of an unnamed Caribbean island, with the danger of a mysterious contagion thrown in for good measure -- the film plods along, only managing to generate occasional suspense or interest. The main characters spend most of the movie fighting among themselves or with their own, veiled inner demons for reasons that the viewer can at best only dimly understand. If you're going to squander plot and character opportunities, then at least the effects and/or the monster should be pretty exciting to lift the thing into the realm of the watchable. But the effects, and the monsters, fail… so… spectacularly… (don't worry, I'll get around to the juicy details shortly…)
Unknown reminds me of yet another 1957 sci-fi programmer-- The Cyclops (featured right here in a March 2011 posting). At least on the surface, they have quite a bit in common: the female protagonists, with the aid of a wealthy man, go searching for a lost fiance/brother in the wilds of Central America/the Caribbean and encounter mutations/monsters. (You have to wonder if the writers or producers from each had a long three-martini lunch together, or if someone from production A just happened to glance at a story outline on the desk of someone from production B… but I guess we'll never know.) Both films suffer from some logic lapses, the most obvious being the slim-to-none chance of the missing loved one being alive to justify mounting an expensive, time-consuming rescue expedition. And they both feature some below-average-even-for-a-B-movie effects work (Bert I. Gordon's matte work in Cyclops is patently crude). Where they part company is in that ultimate payoff for B sci-fi movie fans: a decent monster. For me, The Cyclops redeemed itself with frighteningly memorable monster make-up (check out the video clip at the end of my post and judge for yourself). As for The Unknown Terror -- well, its supposedly monstrous threat might not cause viewers to convulse in laughter like The Giant Claw, but it is good for some pretty hearty chuckles.
|Calypso star Sir Lancelot sings a cryptic|
ballad about la Cueva de la Muerte.
Mala Powers, who played Gina Matthews, sister of the missing explorer, explained in an interview how she approached some of the less than stellar work, like Unknown Terror, that came her way:
You may read a script and say to yourself, 'I wonder why this is being made at all.' But if you need the work, if you need to stay in front of the public, if you need the money-- whatever your reason is-- and you say yes, at that point it is incumbent upon you to fall in love with the script and fall in love with your part. At that point you put on blinders that enable you to permit your love for your profession to shine a radiance over everything. This allows you to put all of yourself into it. (Tom Weaver, Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes, McFarland, 1991.)She was also quite generous when talking about the special effects:
They used a lot of soap suds and some other stuff that was kind of like plastic goo. It was a real conglomeration, and to find out exactly how it was done you'd have to go to Merlin the Magician [laughs]! The prop man was very inventive, and it was quite effective. It's quite different now that they have these special effects laboratories-- it's much more sophisticated today. The effects in The Unknown Terror were just done by very good, inventive prop men. (ibid.)While I disagree with her assessment of the effects -- this is just bad work for any era -- I certainly appreciate her sense of professional ethics. Very simply, if you agree to do the work, you give it your all. There is nothing worse than an actor, writer, producer or director who feels that he/she is above the material, and takes great pains to let everyone know it. Such cynicism and hack work is almost always painfully obvious to see in the finished work.
|Dr. Ramsey, the fungus expert, is cooking up something|
in his humble abode. I wouldn't eat that if I were you!
The Unknown Terror's obscurity is no mystery. Even with a bigger budget and more care taken with the effects, Unknown would still only be a footnote in anyone's survey of good vintage sci-fi. But if you're a completist like me, you'll want to check out Sci-Fi Station's video catalog. It's there, along with equally obscure but tantalizing titles.
Daring explorers Dan Matthews (John Howard) and Pete Morgan (Paul Richards) encounter chills and water spills in the Cave of Death: