Monsters, Madmen, and 50 Foot Women: The Last Gasp of the 1950s, as Experienced through Creature Features
by Robert Cashill
There are at least three branches of the esteemed Criterion Collection. There is the one that puts out first-rate DVD editions of cinema classics like The Seven Samurai and The Third Man. There is its new Eclipse line, which has packaged early Bergman, late Ozu, and, coming soon, the mid-period of some other distinguished auteur. And then there is its unnamed subset, dedicated to movies that stretch its mission to present “the greatest films from around the world.” Dedicated collectors of Criterion’s canonical titles must surely feel their ascots tighten about their necks when the label forgoes Welles and Antonioni for a month to put out deluxe packages of cult chillers like The Blob or Equinox.
But man does not live on Kurosawa alone. And the other, far less celebrated filmmakers who have seemingly sneaked their way into Criterion, far from the mountaintop of his achievement, do have something to offer. Consider Monsters and Madmen, a four-disc set, bundled together as two double features. A belated followup to Criterion’s earlier, excellent enshrinement of Fiend Without a Face (whose intellect-absorbing, brain-shaped fiends are, once seen, never forgotten by horror buffs; look for one toward the end of Tim Burton’s Beetle Juice), the two-volume set continues its exploration of the careers of Alex and Richard Gordon, British-born brothers and fanzine writers who became Hollywood producers at the lower end of the spectrum. “Boris Karloff Chillers” spotlights the actor in two tortured melodramas set in a not-so-merry-olde-England, The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood. First Man Into Space and The Atomic Submarine make up the jet-age “Classic Sci-Fi Adventures.”
Indefatigable genre historian Tom Weaver corralled Richard Day, the director of all but The Atomic Submarine, plus screenwriters and actors, for video interviews on each disc, with Gordon Films Inc. supplying ballyhooing supplementary material (today’s posters, trailers, and ads are so dull in comparison) and of course the films, in transfers so spotless they are bound to clash with memories of how they looked on late-night TV. The heart of each disc is Richard Gordon’s respectful, anecdote-rich reminiscences, skillfully moderated by Weaver, on the commentary tracks for each movie (Alex Gordon, who died in 2003, is heard for a half-hour on The Haunted Strangler track, taken from a 2002 session with Weaver). The price of admission is repaid many times over by Gordon’s recollections of Karloff’s gracious personality and intensely physical performances (the 69-year-old actor’s only complaint was that he couldn’t do more stunts), working with MGM (which distributed the Karloff pictures and First Man), his opinion of Burton’s Ed Wood, and producing the fast-paced Atomic Submarine (from a director of serials, Spencer G. Bennet) in eight days on a $135,000 budget.
Coincidentally, as I was delving into the Gordons’ menagerie of stranglers and spacemen, the first volume of Warner Home Video’s new Cult Camp Classics line arrived. The set contains the quirky Allied Artists productions Queen of Outer Space, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, and The Giant Behemoth, the first two sporting typically entertaining and well-researched commentaries moderated by Weaver. Looked at as a whole, the seven movies form a mayhem-filled mosaic of the ambitions and anxieties of the pop culture that spawned them in 1958-1959, the year of production and release for all seven..
All, that is, except for the only semi-chilling chiller Corridors of Blood, which, as Gordon laments, sat on the shelf for three years before winding up on the bottom of a double bill with the decidedly less aspirational Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory. The more explicitly horrific Haunted Strangler, a novel twist on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, had an easier time in the marketplace. Karloff plays the novelist James Rankin, who reopens the case of the Jack the Ripper-like Haymarket Strangler, believing that the murderer was a long-vanished Dr. Tenant and that an innocent man was falsely executed for his crimes. While snooping around the Judas Hole, a den of iniquity where some of the strangulations took place, Rankin discovers the awful truth: he is in fact Tenant, whose urge to kill (the byproduct of an abusive father and neglectful mother) still resides under his now-respectable facade. But no one believes that a man of such stature could ever be a criminal, and the unwanted protection his privilege affords makes the situation worse for him in his guilt-ridden moments of lucidity. Tenant/Rankin, whose contortions as he resumes bad old habits were achieved without makeup by the actor, slays the can-can dancers at the Judas Hole and his own wife, who would prefer to let sleeping murderers lie before the fatal exorcism of his psyche that ends the film. Rankin’s assistant, a doctor of “psychological medicine,” promises to whisk his daughter away to the new frontier of Canada. But clearly this society, with repression and suppression still quite resonant in the Anglo-American 1950s, offers more fertile ground for his studies.
If The Haunted Strangler is Boris Karloff’s Fight Club, with the actor fatally divided amongst himself, than Corridors of Blood is his Bigger Than Life. When I was a kid, I watched these movies impatiently, cooling my heels through all the set-up and exposition—the boring parts—to get to the monsters. Corridors, which has no monster, was all boring parts, and I learned to avoid it, despite its come-on title. I’d rather have been in the girl’s dormitory with the werewolf. Viewed today, I realize I was missing the bigger picture: Society itself was the monster, and it is Karloff’s kindly, well-intentioned doctor who ends up deformed by taking a stand against its tyranny. The movie relocates the discovery of anesthesia, the subject of Preston Sturges’s underappreciated The Great Moment, to London at the beginning of the Victorian era, and casts Karloff as Thomas Bolton, a renowned doctor disgusted with the prevailing view that “the pain and the knife are inseparable.” He is known for his dab hand with a scalpel, a prerequisite for his profession in a period when patients requiring surgery dropped dead if a procedure went on too long; still, as Weaver explains, doctors rejected experiments with anesthetics as quackery, and religious leaders found them impious. Bolton’s establishment colleagues further roll their eyes at his charity work in London’s notorious Seven Dials district—Criterion snobs, alert, there is a Red Beard side to this one—but put up with his do-gooding.
Bolton’s reputation is at risk, however, as his secret tinkering with nitrous oxide leads to addiction, and, in a tie-in to the scandal of the true-life Burke and Hare, makes him susceptible to blackmail by body-snatching innkeeper Black Ben (Francis De Wolff) and his murderous partner-in-crime, Resurrection Joe (Christopher Lee—bringing two of the movies’ most famous Frankenstein monsters together in one film). They force him to sign phony death certificates for their victims, who are sold as medical cadavers to doctors who could care less where the corpses came from and wink at government rules regulating their provenance. “Anesthesia would not have gotten off the ground if this film had been around then,” Gordon wryly notes, as the bodies pile up. For all the horror trappings, the screenplay, by TV hospital show writer Jean Scott Rogers (films of this type were fairly atypical assignments for women), dissects the medical trade as earnestly as Michael Moore in Sicko. “You can’t have operations without screams,” Bolton is informed, as his fellows tuck into their snuff boxes, an acceptable habit for moneyed conformists. In the Nicholas Ray film, overexposure to cortisone turns James Mason into a God-playing megalomaniac; when Karloff becomes “bigger than life,” it’s for the greater good of a culture that discards him and his radical notions as soon as his instability, incurred on its behalf, becomes public. A closing sequence informs us that the pain and the knife were separated, by Karloff’s doctor son, but it’s the steep price paid by the crusader that makes the biggest impression.
This depressingly timeless scenario for pioneers is updated to the Sputnik era for First Man Into Space, which has a similar bucking-the-tide story, but ends with a question mark. Hot shot test pilot Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards) wants to be all that he can be, but this high-flying Icarus is cautioned by his brother, military commander Charles Prescott (B-movie stalwart Marshall Thompson), who sets up the missions. “You’d be dead without us,” Dan reminds Charles, so up he goes, “the highest man in the world,” to pursue his brother’s exploration of the stratosphere. But it’s Dan who winds up dead—or maybe dead—when his ship explodes, after it encounters the wrong stuff, a cloud of mysterious space dust. The emergence of a hulking, homicidal beast near the site where the pieces of Dan’s spacecraft are recovered eventually causes Charles to put two and two together, and declare, “It’s incredible to think of your brother as a blood-drinking monster.”
First Man Into Space is the most rudimentary of the films Day directed in this set, and not just because of funny clinker dialogue like that. I always thought the movie, which cribs from the better-realized Hammer sci-fi picture The Creeping Unknown, took place in England, but only now do I realize that most of it is supposed to be happening in New Mexico, which no amount of stock footage can convincingly put across (thanks, among other things, to the “American” signage, with its unmistakably British spellings). Hilariously, the mutated Dan, who has one lifeless eye in his muck-covered, Michelin Man-type costume, can still drive a car. However, and more poignantly, his still-sentient self can’t breathe under all that plasma-sucking space junk, which sets up a touching ending tinged with self-sacrifice. The specter of a horribly disfigured spaceman, altered by unknown and uncontrollable forces unleashed by the march of progress, remains potent; almost 50 years after First Man’s release, it turns up again in this summer’s Sunshine. The moral of the story, as expressed by Dan’s girlfriend Tia (Marla Landi), is “people matter more than machines.” But in 1958, as the space race was heating up, people and machines were running neck-and-neck, and with history yet to be written there is no place for a reassuring ending like the one appended to Corridors of Blood.
The downbeat and pessimistic First Man Into Space is paired with The Atomic Submarine, a more rah-rah celebration of America’s military might, with a trippy “electro-sonic” score by Alexander Laszlo. Neither film mentions the Cold War, though the latter is literally about a cold war, as the U.S.S. Tiger Shark, a submersible outfitted with all of Uncle Sam’s latest toys, heads to the icecaps to head off an invader that is disrupting polar shipping lanes. The antagonist is not the great Soviet bear, but rather a massive, unblinking Cyclopean eye, a space monster that zips around the ocean in a craft made from its own cells. It communicates, haughtily, through brain waves (“Point of view is everything. Your form of life is ugly,” it retorts, when its welcoming of Arthur Franz’s sub commander to a “face-to-face meeting” is met with Franz’s deadpan reply, “You call that a face?”), and makes saber-rattling, vaguely communistic noises about assimilating human bodies to advance its alien aims.
Onboard the Tiger Shark, Franz’s Commander “Reef” Holloway holds a grudge against “peacenik” doctor Carl Neilsen, played by an always immaculately Brylcreemed Brett Halsey. Neilsen, whose peaceable activities drove his military father to despair, calls war a “Paleozoic pastime,” to which the fast-with-a-rejoinder Holloway remarks that he is “all talk—what do you do with your ideals?” (The script never defines these ideals, but I sensed that for the rock-ribbed Holloway, guys who looked a little like Elvis, even the Army-serving Elvis of the time, were already suspect and should not have them.) In the face of interstellar danger, the two put aside their differences and bond, saving the quarrels for a time when the atomic submarine should encounter a human threat in the rough seas of international diplomacy.
The Atomic Submarine, like the three pictures in the Cult Camp Classics set, was distributed by Allied Artists, an outfit that flew its freak flag with some of the wilder no-budget fantasies of the day. Other films marketed as cult camp classics by Warner Bros., like Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs and Sergio Leone’s debut The Colossus of Rhodes, aren’t classically cult or classically camp enough to really qualify, and some, like the listless Skyjacked, with Charlton Heston in training for his run of 1970’s disaster films, are just plain bad. But two-thirds of the sci-fi box lives up to the hype. The remaining film, the redundantly titled The Giant Behemoth, is as somber-looking as the Gordon pictures, but its central character—an irradiated, sea-going dinosaur, summoned from the ocean depths by the dumping of atomic waste—is underwhelming.
The mutant beast, which surfaces in the Thames, emits radioactive forcefields that fry pedestrians, and cannot be blown out of the water, as shredding it would set off nuclear chain reactions. We armchair paleontologists also learn that in its natural state, the paleosaur generates electricity, and can elude radar. The behemoth badly needs all these awe-inspiring attributes, as in the film it is represented by nothing so much as a floppy rubber head and an inelastic stop-motion model. The maquette, whose disappointing animation was supervised by King Kong creator Willis O’Brien, is today owned by special effects wizard Phil Tippett, who co-contributes a commentary with fellow effects ace Dennis Muren. Neither is enthused by the film, which lacks the panache of other rampaging dinosaur movies directed by Eugene Lourie, the similar Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, with its superior Ray Harryhausen effects, and the colorful Gorgo. (Before his monstrous career change, Lourie had been an art director for Jean Renoir and Charlie Chaplin.) But, like the original Gojira/Godzilla, it is interestingly grim, with no time wasted on love affairs. In an inconvenient truth, illustrated B-movie style, the sins of the atomic father come back to haunt him, as the film concludes with reports of strange phenomena off the East Coast of the U.S.
The films I had looked at thus far teased, tantalized, and tormented with visions of scientific and psychological chaos. Filmed in CinemaScope and Deluxe Color, an eye-popping treat after so much black-and-white, Queen of Outer Space throws sex into the mix. Allegedly based on an outline by His Girl Friday scribe Ben Hecht (about “spacewomen too inept to run their own planet,” says Weaver, who adds that no one has ever found it), the movie takes itself just seriously enough to be truly riotous in retrospect. Set in “1985, the year space travel begins” (an instance of science fact trumping science fiction), the film is rooted in the dawning of the Playboy bunny, with an all-male crew of astronauts detoured to Venus (where else?) to clash and clinch with a long-legged coterie of short-skirted glamazons, among them Zsa Zsa Gabor (who has handed her crown as queen of the tabloids to her step-great-granddaughter, Paris Hilton). Gabor is Talleah, a scientist with a yen for men, a desire ruthlessly suppressed by the reigning queen Yllana, who is played by Laurie Mitchell, a former Miss Bronx who chats with Weaver on the commentary track (“I was either eaten by giant spiders or shot by cowboys,” she recalls of her B-movie career). Yllana hides her face, scarred by the radioactive weaponry wielded by the since-overthrown Venusian men, behind a mask, and plots to destroy the Earth with a presumably more eco-friendly “beta disintegrator.” Hearing this, the swinger of the bunch, Larry (Patrick Waltz), who has a girl in every spaceport, muses, “Even if they invented it, how could they drive it? You know how women drivers are.”
And so it goes, as the movie veers from fascination with its va-va-voom space girls to constant discounting of their abilities and reminders of their shortcomings. “You’re not only a queen, but a woman, and a woman needs a man’s love,” insists ship captain Neal Patterson; but his attempt at thawing relations ends when Ylanna’s mask is removed, and, repulsed, he can’t bring himself to complete his seduction. (No one blames him for his failure of nerve, which puts the men and the female co-conspirators they woo to their side in even greater jeopardy.) That women could survive and prosper on their own completely baffles the men, whose strictly Fifties relations with them are pure kitchen-and-the-bedroom. “Perhaps this is a civilization that exists without sex,” theorizes the ship’s professor. “You call that civilization?” snorts Larry. The movie ends with the queen dispatched and Zsa Zsa in charge of a new world order, but I would hope that after a few more wisecracks from Larry “Ylanna Lives!” posters start springing up on Venus.
Blessed with one of the great film titles in B-movie history, but cursed with a budget so low and effects so poor its director, Nathan Juran (of the same year’s lavish Seventh Voyage of Sinbad), hid behind a pseudonym, 1958’s Attack of the 50 Foot Woman gives the fairer sex the right of rebuttal, but ends in a monster-sized mess of co-dependency. A spoofier 1993 cable TV remake cast the goddessy Daryl Hannah in the lead. Here, the part of “poor, mixed-up” Nancy Archer, a neurotic, alcoholic heiress, is played by Allison Hayes, hard-edged and not entirely sympathetic. Nancy has a lot on her plate. Her no-account husband, Harry (William Hudson) is two-timing her with trampy, murder-minded Honey Parker (Yvette Vickers, who gives commentary play-by-play with Weaver), in a noir-ish love triangle. Her taxes are keeping her desert town, off Route 66, afloat. The local sheriff patronizes her and the TV newscaster pokes fun at her screwed-up life. And there is the matter of the space giant who accosted her one night for the jewel around her neck, the “Star of India,” which she persists in wearing even though there is no one to notice her in her sleepy community.
The giant, who uses the gem as a power source for his satellite, passes along his gigantism to Nancy, whom doctors immediately confine to her bed, with chains and meathooks. (There’s no need for subtext in a picture like this; it’s right there on the surface.) When she finally breaks free, we expect some payback time, and get some. But she aims too low. The promise of the movie poster, with the scantily clad Nancy wreaking havoc on the interstate, is unfulfilled, as she brings her personal drama to an end by causing the deaths of Honey and Harry (“Harry!” she cries). The three leads are actually quite good, portraying the tawdriest and most involving of all of the human relationships in these films. But, really, the lovelorn Nancy, who had dismissed the rotten Harry as a “parasite” but keeps returning to him, should know better. “Another sad case, not infrequent in our supersonic age,” remarks a physician diagnosing her wobbly mental health. Her contemporary in big screen bigness, The Amazing Colossal Man, squared his massive shoulders and took out his frustrations on a hostile and uncaring world; Nancy, however, is a domestic drudge, writ large. “She finally got Harry all to herself,” says her doctor, in the last line of the picture, which is tellingly more about Harry, and her need for him, than her unique experience, which ended in a blaze of high-tension cables. I prefer the original, more piquant final exchange of dialogue, which Weaver says was changed during filming:
Harry: You killed me, Nancy.
Nancy: You killed me many times before, Harry.
And so a giantess is brought to heel, five years before The Feminine Mystique might have shown her how to break free from Harry’s thrall and become her own 50 foot woman. But maybe it was for the best. These figures were the kings and queens of the drive-ins in their day, the creepy-crawly side of the supposed age of innocence, yet still a little stuck in their conservatism. Something far scarier and more unpredictable than the giant behemoth was waiting for them all, promising liberation and annihilation, and this monster mash of counter-cultural currents was just around the corner: the Sixties.
Monsters and Madmen. Four-disc set in two volumes, “Boris Karloff Chillers” (The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood) and “Classic Sci-Fi Adventures” (First Man Into Space and The Atomic Submarine). Distributed by the Criterion Collection, http://www.criterioncollection.com.
Cult Camp Classics 1: Sci-Fi Thrillers. Includes Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Giant Behemoth, and Queen of Outer Space, all also available singly. Distributed by Warner Home Video, http://www.whv.warner-bros.com.
Robert Cashill, a New York City-based free-lance writer and an Associate Editor of Cineaste, also blogs at www.robertcashill.blogspot.com.