Thursday 29 March 2012

The Monolith Monsters [1957]

An unusually serious-minded addition to the monster movie subgenre, THE MONOLITH MONSTERS was directed by John Sherwood and released by Universal in December 1957.  It stars Grant Williams (best known as THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN) as a geologist in a small town which is threatened by strange space rocks which 'reproduce' on contact with water.  To make matters worse, any prolonged contact with the rock causes it to turn that person to stone.

A daft premise, one might say, but it's made credible by a literate script which contains enough scientific jargon to sucker in those willing to be taken in.  I couldn't tell you what they were on about (something to do with silicates) but it sounded plausible enough and added an extra dimension to a subgenre that, frankly, can be just plain silly at times.  Besides, who can begrudge a geologist his 90 minutes of glory?  Heroes in movies are almost always detectives, soldiers, pirates, cowboys, journalists (ahem), astronauts and so on; it's much less often that you  get a scientist and less often still a specific type of scientist.  So hurrah for the specialist!  In fact, I might start a list of unusual occupations for movie heroes, starting with Grant Williams in this and Samuel Le Bihan as the botanist in Christophe Gans' utterly brilliant LE PACTE DES LOUPS.

Grant Williams with his trusty microscope
I mentioned a few reviews ago the theme of 'scientific meddling' which is common to a lot of monster movies.  Usually it's a hubristic scientist going too far in one of his experiments in pursuit of glory or, worse, forbidden knowledge.  What you often find is that the resulting mess has to be sorted out by the military, who rock up in the nick of time and blast whatever it is to kingdom come.  Now I'm no scientist but such depictions strike me as a rather reactionary attitude towards science or, more broadly, knowledge and learning.  The scientist in Howard Hawks' otherwise admirable THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is a good example.  He's played by Robert Cornthwaite who is got up to look like a commie and is swiftly identified as the chief villain simply because he wants to communicate with the thing and study it.

A lump of harmless looking space rock ...
Anyway, I digress.  My point is that THE MONOLITH MONSTERS is refreshing because it's the scientists who, through diligent and methodical research, save the day by figuring out a way to stop the monster.  In fact, the military and their immense firepower don't even feature in this movie precisely because their methods are counter-productive.  There aren't enough examples of this type of movie, probably because film-makers don't regard the scientific process as sufficiently cinematic.  Well, all I would say in response to that is to defy anyone to not be utterly enthralled by Robert Wise's THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN or indeed this excellent film.

... but this is what happens when it gets wet.

Film anorak notes:
Director John Sherwood was mainly a second-unit or assistant director and only got the chance to helm two other pictures - a Rory Calhoun western and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG, which was the second sequel to the classic THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.  Sadly, THE MONOLITH MONSTERS was Sherwood's last film; he died of pneumonia in 1959 at the age of 55.

Fifties heartthrob Troy Donahue appears uncredited as Hank Jackson.

Another uncredited player is William Schallert, who plays the verbose man at the weather station.  Schallert, who is still going strong at the age of 89, is a prolific character actor who to date has racked up a mind-boggling 361 film appearances including dozens of delirious movies.  Good luck to any William Schallert completists out there!

Tuesday 27 March 2012

It Came from Outer Space [1953]

Another monster movie but this time with a definite sci-fi slant, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE was directed by Jack Arnold and released by Universal in May 1953.  One might say that it's a halfway house between the classic monster movie, say THEM!, and the classic invasion movie, say INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.  It has the desert setting particular to a lot of monster movies - handy for atomic tests and hence whacking great mutations - but it adds the 'they're taking over' paranoia, which often sees genial townsfolk replaced by blank replicas.  And of course there is the well-worn 'no one believes me' angle, which pits the hero against the authorities as well as the aliens.

Familiar elements, certainly, but it's all in the handling and director Jack Arnold was one of the best in the business when it came to genre flicks.  He's probably best known for THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and TARANTULA, two really first rate monster movies, but was also well regarded enough to land gigs directing more mainstream pictures, such as Peter Sellers' THE MOUSE THAT ROARED.  What Arnold was really good at was marrying the everyday with the fantastic, in the same way that Stephen King used to do in his novels: the smalltown atmosphere is crucial to this kind of film because it has to represent the ordinary without being dull.

The 'comet'; note the tiny figure just below the escape hatch - that's our hero
In IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE the hero John Putnam (played by Richard Carlson) is a teacher and amateur astronomer who sees a comet fall to earth and, in the course of his investigations, comes to believe that it was actually a manned spacecraft.  But manned by what?  And why have the locals started acting out of character?  To complicate things further, Putnam is having a hard time trying to convince the sceptical Sheriff Matt Warren that something's amiss, partly because the Warren fancies Putnam's girlfriend Ellen and thinks Putnam is a flake.

Barbara Rush and Richard Carlson
I really like these films with a desert setting.  Sometimes it's Texas (see THE GIANT GILA MONSTER), sometimes it's New Mexico (e.g. THEM!), or even Nevada (e.g. TREMORS).  In this particular case it's Arizona but the point is that all these films feature small communities that are already struggling against the odds to carve out an existence.  The desert that surrounds them is a harsh, unforgiving, perhaps even malign environment that threatens their lives every day.  But what it means is that the communities are that much tighter, everyone knows everyone else's business; in other words, a perfect setting for an alien invasion movie where strange behaviour is bound to be noticed by someone.

Not in fact Chris Packham from Badger Watch but Russell Johnson as the replicant George
The desert then is a place where strange things happen.  In this film Jack Arnold almost manages to make the desert a character in its own right; he certainly treats it as more than a location.  There are some terrific sequences set on desert roads which are full of foreboding and death awaits anyone who strays from the path - not unlike the moor in John Landis' brilliant AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.

Film anorak notes:
Russell Johnson, who plays the lineman George, went on to everlasting fame as the Professor on hit US TV show Gilligan's Island.

The original story for the film was written by the great Ray Bradbury, many of whose books have been adapted for the screen.  And never with unqualified success, thus far, sadly.  I'd say the best are probably SO METHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (1983) and FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966).

Actor Richard Carlson also appeared in Jack Arnold's THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.

The film was originally released in 3D.

Monday 26 March 2012

The Blob (1958)

One of the most fondly-recalled monster movies of all time is Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr's (only in America would you get a name like that) THE BLOB, which was released in September 1958 by the independent Fairview Productions.  That it was picked up for distribution by Paramount partly explains why it's so well remembered: first, it would have been seen by an awful lot of people, and second, it was a cut above the bargain basement drek that was inundating drive-ins and cinemas across the US at the time.

There is another reason why THE BLOB has lingered longer in the memory than its peers and that's the presence in the cast of one Steve McQueen.  Still looking young enough at 28 to play a teenager, and still being billed as "Steven", this was made just two years before his star-making turn in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.  It's tempting to watch him in THE BLOB and think 'Yes, you can see why he went on to mega-stardom' but you really can't.  He's not particularly good looking, has crap hair and his role is miles from the macho, uber-cool, anti-authoritarian characters that he's known for.

Steve McQueen
He play Steve Andrews, a typical teenage kid growing up in Pennsylvania who just wants to make out with his bird and race his car.  It is during one such makeout session that Steve sees a comet fall to Earth.  Gallantly forgetting about the snogging, he pelts over to the crash site and finds nothing more exciting than a hot lump of space rock.  However, a farmer foolishly prods it with a stick and the next thing you know there's a lump of intergalactic jelly stuck to his hand.  Steve takes him into town to see the local doctor thereby unwittingly exposing the population to the horror of The Blob!

Oopsy ...
Of course Steve being a bit of a tearaway, the police don't believe him until it's almost too late.  In a memorable finale, the whole town unites against the Blob which has destroyed the cinema and trapped our hero in a dinette.

The Blob oozes out of the back wall of the cinema
It's all nonsense, of course, but it's done with sufficient gusto to be enjoyable nonsense.  The effects aren't bad for the time and it's crisply photographed with plenty of vibrant colour to keep the visuals interesting.  Wisely, Yeaworth elects to keep the blob off screen most of the time and the characters never refer to it as such so the whole thing has a slightly more sophisticated air than you might expect.  There's the usual stuff about teens vs authority, to keep the drive-in punters happy, but if the film has a message I suppose it's something along the lines of 'there comes a time when a boy has to prove he's a man'.

Film anorak notes:
Aside from McQueen, the other soon-to-be-famous name attached to The Blob is Burt Bacharach, who co-wrote the title song.

Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr, to give him his full title, made a handful of genre films in the 50s and 60s but quit the mainstream movie business to go and make religious films, for he was a noted God botherer.

The Giant Gila Monster (1959)

Monster movies were really big in the 1950s, if you'll pardon the expression.  That was partly a reaction to anxieties caused by the atom bomb, partly due to the excitement generated by the nascent space race and partly because they were lapped up by undemanding teenagers at drive-ins.  So, in some cases you get a monster arrive from outer space (e.g. IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE or THE BLOB); in others you get a dormant creature awakened or released by scientific meddling (e.g. THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS); and sometimes you get a normal-sized creature made ginormous by scientific meddling (e.g. THEM! or TARANTULA).

In THE GIANT GILA MONSTER, which was directed by Ray Kellogg and released by the independent Hollywood Pictures Corporation in June 1959, you get a ginormous - or, rather, giant - Gila monster that achieved its size via its own means, presumably to demonstrate how weird Texas is at the best of times.  For the uninitiated, a Gila monster is a venomous lizard native to the USA.  Normally it grows to about two feet long but for the purposes of drive-in features it can grow to the size of a railway carriage.

The Gila in this flick is terrorizing a small Texan community by smashing cars off the road, derailing trains, flattening people and generally being a nuisance.  The only person who seems to be taking things seriously is local mechanic and budding rock star Chase Winstead (Don Sullivan).  Perhaps not being quite au fait with proper rock star behaviour, Chase is a clean cut lad who helps the police, does good deeds and is a role model  to his crippled sister.  In fact, he's very much a middle-aged man's idea of what a teenager ought to be, which isn't really a surprise considering Ray Kellogg was 54 when he wrote and directed the movie.

Chase Winstead played by Don Sullivan
Nevertheless, this is a teen-oriented horror movie and I suppose in that sense the monster subgenre could be regarded as a forerunner of the that other teen-oriented subgenre, the slasher movie, which dominated the late 1970s and 1980s.  The pre-credits sequence sees a necking couple being nudged over a cliff and then stomped on for good measure.  Then following the credits we meet the town's teenagers all bopping away like mad in the diner.

Things proceed very much as you might expect from this point: the lizard kills an increasing number of people while the sceptical townsfolk fanny about wondering what's going on.  It's not until it knocks down a railway bridge and chows down on the passengers after the train derails that the authorities believe Chase's theory of a mammoth creature that has lived hitherto undetected in a gulley.  Even so, that doesn't deter from the teenyboppers from gathering into a nice target-sized barn for a sock hop featuring superstar DJ Steamroller Smith, whom Chase had earlier saved from a little drink-driving incident.  When the lizard turns up and pokes his head through the side of the barn all hell breaks loose.

At the hop, which looks more like a sermon

The Giant (no, really) Gila monster arrives
It's easy to take the mickey but it's good clean fun and so hopelessly uncool that it's actually rather endearing.  It's pretty shonky on a technical level too: no doubt for budgetary reasons the film-makers couldn't get their hands on a genuine Giant Gila monster so had to make do with a tiny one.  Which wouldn't have been a problem if they'd also had decent scale models to make the damn thing look giant; but sadly that  didn't happen either so, for the most part, the lizard looks utterly harmless.

One or two things struck me while watching the movie.  First is a rather obvious point about how central to American popular culture is the automobile.  Essentially this film wouldn't exist without it: the characters would have no means to get to the locations, the lizard would have nothing to chase, and perhaps more importantly - from a sociological point of view - the kids would have nothing to do.  Like another monster movie I watched recently - Irvin S. Yeaworth's THE BLOB [1958] - the kids are all mad keen hot rodders.

Second, there is an odd thing going on in this movie whereby many of the characters seem unable to talk to each other without raising one leg to lean on a table or bench.  Once I noticed it I saw it everywhere, to the extent that it became unintentionally hilarious, particularly when both actors are doing it.  I suppose it's something to do with the actors being inexperienced and uncomfortable simply standing there.

Finally, and a little ungraciously, I couldn't help noticing that Chase's little sister looked disconcertingly like Brian Molko from Placebo.  Fine, if you're an indie adrogyne; less so if you're looking to break into the cute little sister market.

Hi, I'm Brian from Placebo
Film anorak notes:
Director Ray Kellogg was really a special effects man but got the directing gig for this movie because that was his condition for agreeing doing the effects.  He only made a couple of other features (including the equally ludicrous THE KILLER SHREWS) but in 1968 was inexplicably plucked from obscurity to co-direct the notoriously right wing pro-war THE GREEN BERETS with star John Wayne.

Don Sullivan never made it out of B-movies in a career that lasted little more than five years and, worryingly, of which THE GIANT GILA MONSTER was probably the high water mark.