Eyes of a Stranger (1981)

From the DVD case:

A lovely blind and deaf teen reaches for a plate she just set aside. It’s gone. She reaches again and it’s back in its original place. Someone is playing a cruel game with her. That someone is the serial killer terrorizing Miami in this shocker from the production company behind the original Friday the 13th. Making memorable movie debuts are Jennifer Jason Leigh (Single White Female) as the impaired but not helpless girl, and Lauren Tewes as her TV newscaster sister whose investigation inadvertently leads the killer to her home. (1981, color)

Mark says:

The most frustrating element of Eyes of a Stranger is that it reminds me of at least a half dozen other movies that I like better. Most notably, it resembles the Hitchcock classic, Rear Window. I even think the killer, Stanley Herbert (played by John DiSanti) looks like Raymond Burr from the Hitchcock film.

Besides Rear Window, the film has elements of When A Stranger CallsBlack ChristmasWait Until DarkHe Knows You’re Alone, and even bits of I Saw What You Did. There are a lot of clever ideas here, but most of them were done better in earlier movies.

Lauren Tewes

When I first purchased Eyes of a Stranger, I thought Lauren Tewes (TV’s The Love Boat) was going to be the biggest drawback. However, Tewes does an admirable job playing TV reporter Jane Harris, and I think she could have been a semi-star in this genre if she wasn’t saddled with the “Cruise Director Julie McCoy” image. It is surprising to watch Ms. Tewes in a film featuring such gratuitous nudity and gore. More on this later.

Jennifer Jason Leigh
Jennifer Jason Leigh

Jennifer Jason Leigh (who I’ll always adore as Stacy Hamilton from Fast Times at Ridgemont High) plays Tracy, Jane’s deaf, dumb, and blind sister. Leigh’s performance is quite believable and it is obvious she took the role seriously. We learn, through a flashback, that Tracy’s handicaps are psychosomatic injuries inflicted on her when she was abducted and presumably sexually assaulted as a little girl. Jane has always felt responsible for Tracy’s abduction and has vowed to keep her safe ever since.

False Scare

The worst thing a suspense/thriller can be is predictable. Unfortunately, the scares in Eyes of a Stranger are easily anticipated (at least to the seasoned genre fan). There is never any real doubt as to who the killer is, and even the “false scares” are incredibly foreseeable. As soon as we learn that Tracy’s injuries are psychosomatic, we instantly deduce that her sight will return during the final climatic scenes as the killer attacks her. This is, of course, exactly what happens.

If not for the nudity and gore, this could have easily been a made for TV movie. True slasher fans will most likely find Eyes of a Stranger disappointingly tame. On the other hand, fans of older suspense/thrillers will find the gore overdone and the nudity gratuitous. It seems this movie was made to disappoint everyone. By the way, when I suggest this film features wanton nudity, don’t think you’ll see Lauren Tewes disrobe. Her honor is upheld throughout.

Lauren is satisfied.
Lauren Tewes, satisfied.

I don’t want to suggest that Eyes of a Stranger is a complete loss, though. As stated above, Lauren Tewes and Jennifer Jason Leigh give competent performances. There are also some surprisingly good scenes. For example, when Jane turns the tables on the killer and begins harassing him via the telephone, we glimpse an aspect of Jane’s character we did not anticipate. She really seems to enjoy the experience. She even smokes a cigarette suggestively as she makes the calls, and then, after hanging up, her head falls back in a manner suggesting complete gratification.

The cat and mouse game at the film’s conclusion is also interesting (see the DVD description above). Though the final scenes are fairly predictable, there is still a genuine intensity when Tracy first begins to realize someone is in the apartment with her.

With just a little more originality and fresh scares, Eyes of a Stranger could have scored higher with me. As is, though, I have to place it in the middle of the road.

Directed by Ken Wiederhorn (Shock Waves).

Tracy just before doing something strange.

Scene to watch for: Tracy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) puts the blood of the killer in her mouth and then decides to cup her breast.

Line to listen for: “Can a cuckoo clock make music, or does it just go ‘coo-coo?’”

Trivia: Ken Wiederhorn also directed Shock Waves, which can be seen playing on the television in early scenes. Tom Savini, who is responsible for the makeup-effects, also did the make-up effects for Dawn of the Dead. You can see a poster for Dawn of the Dead in the background during the theater segment.

Mark’s Rating! ! ½ out of 5.

Horror of Dracula (1958)

From the DVD case:

Dracula (Christopher Lee), a centuries-old nobleman damned to an eternal half-life, travels from his native Transylvania to London. In the lurid nightlife of his adopted city, he finds new victims. He also finds Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), a scientist who becomes the Count’s implacable foe in a deadly game of bat-and-mouse. (1958, color)

Mark says:

Hammer Production’s Horror of Dracula is the standard by which I measure all other vampire films. More than Universal’s Dracula with Bela Lugosi, Horror of Dracula brought true chills to the imaginations of the youth of my generation.

Christopher Lee (Horror HotelThe Wicker Man) plays the celebrated fiend with power and grace, and an animal magnetism that his female victims can not resist. He’s charming when need be, and is appropriately gruesome when in the throes of blood lust.

But it is Peter Cushing (The Vampire LoversThe Curse of Frankenstein) as Dr. Van Helsing that really endears this film to me. In my book, there has never been a better Van Helsing. He is intelligent, determined, intense, and always the gentleman. I rank him with Vincent Price as one of the Kings of Horror.

Michael Gough (KongaHorrors of the Black Museum) plays a significant role as Arthur Holmwood, and Valerie Gaunt (The Curse of Frankenstein) is both seductive and menacing in the part of Dracula’s vampire slave.

Everything in Horror of Dracula works well. A fantastic script by Hammer writer Jimmy Sangster and wonderful direction by Terence Fisher (The Curse of the WerewolfIsland of Terror), combined with a powerful musical score and great acting make this the film to beat when it comes to Dracula pictures.

Carol Marsh as Lucy

The scene where Van Helsing and Holmwood meet Lucy (Carol Marsh) at her crypt is one of my favorite scenes in all vampire film history. It seems to me that this is the first time we see a cross pressed to a vampire’s forehead, branding the sizzling image onto the creature. This is cliche now, but what a startling display in 1958.

We do find ourselves slapping our foreheads from time to time when the characters make stupid mistakes. For example, I’m pretty sure Dracula would be careful to keep the door to his lair locked, so not just any clown could come in and pound a stake through his chest. Similarly, when Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) comes upon Dracula and his vampire mistress sleeping in their coffins, he would have killed Dracula first, and left the less threatening mistress for last. Of course, the film would have been over in half an hour in that case, and what fun is there in that?

Horror of Dracula is definitely worth the full price of admission. That is, pick it up even if you don’t find it in a bargain bin.

Scene to watch for: Van Helsing slaps a hysterical maid to her senses.

Line to listen for: “Why all these garlic flowers? Over the window? And up here? They’re not for decoration, are they?”

Mark’s Rating! ! ! ! ! out of 5.

X the Unknown (1956)

From the video case:

British Commandos on maneuvers near a muddy marsh become ill with mysterious symptoms and horrific burns. Dr. Royston (Dean Jagger), an atomic scientist from a nearby research station suspects lethal radiation but is mystified by the cause. At a nearby hospital, the phenomenon reappears and engulfs more innocent people including a hospital orderly whose skin has melted away from his body.

Dr. Royston speculates that the unknown force is on a quest to absorb radiation and expands in size and range as it claims more and more victims. As time runs short, he becomes desperate to trap the force before its power overcomes mankind. (1956, b&w)

Mark says:

Hammer Film Productions had such success with their first Quatermass movie, The Quatermass Xperiment (USA title: The Creeping Unknown) that they were eager to produce a sequel. However, the author/creator of the Quatermass character, Nigel Kneale, denied Hammer any unauthorized use of his creation.

Instead, Hammer employed first-time screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster (who would later become a regular Hammer scriptwriter) to pen a movie in the Quatermass tradition, without actually using Professor Quatermass’s name. The result was X the Unknown, with Dean Jagger (Revolt of the Zombies) playing the role of the Quatermass equivalent, Dr. Royston.

What I enjoy so much about X the Unknown is how the preposterous concept of intelligent, radioactive mud coming from the Earth’s core to feed on radioactive materials on the surface is treated so seriously. Dr. Royston’s character is so believable (and likable) that we hardly flinch when he postulates his ridiculous theory. In fact, when his superior, John Elliott (Edward Chapman) suggests that Dr. Royston’s ideas are hogwash, we scoff at his unbelief. Of course Professor Quatermass’s, er, I mean, Dr. Royston’s theory is correct! Any fool can see that. And once we believe in Dr. Royston and his theory, the rest of the film is easy to swallow.

X the Unknown is full of great naturalistic performances. Of special note is Dean Jagger in the lead role, and Leo McKern (The Day the Earth Caught FireThe Omen) in the role of Inspector McGill. The friendship that develops between the two men is absolutely convincing.

As noted above, Edward Chapman plays John Elliott, Dr. Royston’s unsympathetic superior. To give the plot more flavor, William Lucas plays Elliott’s son, Peter. Though the elder Elliott wants his son to move into administrative work, Peter is more interested in becoming a scientist like Dr. Royston. As you can imagine, this adds to the tension between Elliott and the great scientist. As an added treat, one of my favorite Hammer regulars, Michael Ripper (The Curse of the WerewolfThe Plague of the Zombies) plays Sgt. Harry.

The monster itself is similar to the creature in 1958’s The Blob. It is a formless mass that can slip underneath doors, and through grates. The difference being, the radioactive mud in X the Unknownkills its victims through radiation burns (apparently, you only need to be in close proximity of the sludge to die from its burns) while the Blob actually absorbs its prey.

While the radioactive creature (wisely not shown for a good portion of the film) is not impressive, there are other effects that will hold your interest. For example, when a person comes in contact with the radioactive mud, sometimes his face will just melt off (courtesy of make-up artist Philip Leakey). The technique is shockingly effective.

X the Unknown also features some eerie settings. My favorite is a scene set in the woods as two boys, on a dare, approach a tower to find out, once and for all, if “Old Tom” (Norman Macowan; Horror Hotel) really sleeps there at night. As a boy who sometimes wandered through the woods at night with my little brother, I can attest to the authenticity of the sequence’s spookiness. By the way, Frazer Hines, who plays Ian Osborn (the boy who lives) later went on to play Jamie McCrimmon in the Doctor Who series.

The film is not completely flawless, but the errors are minor. Once we accept the concept of intelligent, radioactive mud, we’re ready to believe just about anything. One thing that does disturb me about X the Unknown, though, is its ambiguous ending. After we are told that the mud has been successfully neutralized, there is an explosion, and Dr. Royston comments, “That shouldn’t have happened,” but there is no more explanation. To me, this is the equivalent of tagging a question mark to the words “The End” at the finale of The Blob. It seems like a campy stunt for an otherwise impressive sci-fi effort.

X the Unknown is directed by Leslie Norman.

Scene to watch for: The hospital’s radiologist gets his face melted off as Nurse Zena (Marianne Brauns) watches on in horror.

Line to listen for: “It’s a particle of mud. But by virtue of its atomic structure it emits radiation. That’s all it is. Just mud. How do you kill mud?”

Mark’s Rating! ! ! ! out of 5.

House on Haunted Hill (1958)

From the DVD case:

Vincent Price is wonderful as the sinister owner of an old, dark and evil mansion located on a haunted hill. He bribes several of his enemies with an offer of $10,000 each, if they would spend the night in the crumbling mansion. He gives each of his guests a tiny coffin containing a handgun and proceeds to set in motion gadgets and devices aimed at frightening his visitors into using their weapons. Terror, murder and the supernatural make this one of producer/director William Castle’s best films. (1958, b&w)

Mark says:

The DVD description is not entirely accurate, and in fact, is just plain wrong in places, but it suffices for a loose synopsis of the film.

The one thing the description does have right is that Vincent Price (House of WaxThe Flyis wonderful as the sinister millionaire, Frederick Loren. He plays the role as the cool, cold-blooded gentleman we’ve come to expect from Mr. Price. Carol Ohmart is his lovely, and it turns out, just as sinister, wife, Annabelle Loren.

The primary fault with House on Haunted Hill is that the plot has holes in it numerous enough to sink an entire fleet of Titanics. For example, when Carol Ohmart floats to Nora’s (Carolyn Craig) window as a ghost, with that amazing haunted rope of hers, we are later supposed to believe it was just some “trick” played on poor Nora. And when Nora runs from her room, seconds later, there is Carol Ohmart again, dangling from a rope! How did she get in the house and attach herself to that rope so fast?

Regardless, I really enjoy this film. It is pure William Castle fun. Mr. Castle (13 GhostsThe Tingler) was a master of promotion and gimmicks, and he knew how to thrill an audience. When House on Haunted Hill first came to theaters, the gimmick was “Emergo,” a prop skeleton that flew over the audience during the climatic scene of the film. But even without Emergo, this film is a blast to watch.

Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart

There is a lot of camp value to House on Haunted Hill. The dialog, and especially the scenes with Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart, are pure camp fodder.

However, this movie also manages to maintain a creepy atmosphere. Almost all the scenes with Leona Anderson as the blind groundskeeper still give me a chill, and Mrs. Loren hanging from her rope will certainly cause some uneasiness.

Elisha Cook, Jr., as Watson Pritchard, adds another haunted dimension to the film. Though, as Frederick Loren says himself, we get a little tired of Pritchard’s “spook talk.” Carolyn Craig keeps us equally unhinged with her constant screaming.

In the end, you don’t really mind all the stuff you were asked to believe. The movie moves along at a good clip and we are completely entertained. Isn’t that what a good B-movie is all about?

Directed and produced by William Castle.

Scene to watch for: Vincent Price reveals himself as the operator of the haunted skeleton. The contraption he is wearing is incredible.

Line to listen for: “It’s a funny thing, but none of the murders here were just ordinary – just shooting or stabbing. They’ve all been sort of wild, violent, and – different.”

Trivia: The exterior of the haunted house is the Ennis-Brown House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Mark’s rating! ! ! ! out of 5.

The Bat (1959)

From the video case:

Mystery writer Cornelia Van Gorder (Agnes Moorehead) has rented a remote mansion for the summer. One night, a prowler tagged “The Bat” invades the guarded house, terrorizing Cornelia and her maid. The resourceful novelist decides to set a trap to capture “The Bat.” (1959, b&w)

Mark says:

This movie seems older than it is due to the stagy acting. The Bat is based on the play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood, so that accounts for its theatrical leanings.

Vincent Price (House of WaxHouse on Haunted Hill) and Agnes Moorehead (Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte) make this a worthwhile production, but just barely.

I’m not a big fan of the “whodunit” genre, and so this film had to work harder to keep my attention. There is a bit of a guessing game as to the identity of the killer (we have so many red herrings thrown at us that the place reeks like a fish market), but when “The Bat” is finally unveiled, we’re not terribly surprised.

If I wasn’t such a big fan of Mr. Price, I doubt this movie would have held any value for me. However, his performance, as well as that of Agnes Moorehead, is strong enough to make the film interesting. The Bat is somewhat successful in setting a spooky/mysterious atmosphere, which helps its cause.

The Bat also features Gavin Gordon (1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum) as Lt. Andy Anderson, and Darla Hood, who you may remember as Darla from the Our Gang/Little Rascals series.

This picture is directed by Crane Wilbur, who also wrote the screenplay for Mysterious Island.

Scene to watch for: Lt. Anderson discovers that Dr. Wells (Price) has a suspicious bat shrine in his laboratory.

Line to listen for: “Only the shivers? Scared hell out of me!”

Mark’s Rating! ! ½ out of 5.

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

From the DVD case:

On its way home from Venus, A US Army rocket ship crashes into the sea of Sicily leaving Colonel Calder (William Hopper of Rebel Without A Cause) the sole survivor, or so it seems. A sealed container is also recovered from the wreck, and when a zoologist (The Mark of Zorro‘s Frank Puglia) and his granddaughter (Joan Taylor) open it, the gelatinous mass inside escapes. Overnight, it grows into a horrific monster that has doubled in size. In desperation, Calder calls in the Army to help fight the monster, which has taken refuge atop the Coliseum in Rome. But it will take more than man’s weapons to fight the evil forces of the unknown and save the world from destruction. (1957, b&w)

Mark says:

As to be expected, the DVD description is not entirely accurate. However, it is close enough to serve as a synopsis.

I’ve always thought 20 Million Miles to Earth an inappropriate title for this film. It leads you to believe that the focus will be on the voyage from Venus to Earth, when in actuality, the entire story unfolds exclusively on Earth. Of course, the voyage to and from Venus is discussed, but it is definitely not the core of the plot.

The focal point of our story is what is brought back from Venus: the Ymir. The term “Ymir” is never used in the film, but that is what stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen (The Beast from 20,000 FathomsIt Came from Beneath the Sea) dubbed the beast upon its creation (named after the fabulous giant from Norse mythology). The Ymir, by far, is the most interesting aspect of this film. As is often the case, Harryhausen’s fantastic animation is stuck in a rather mediocre movie (based on a story by Charlotte Knight).

Ray Harryhausen has always proclaimed his love for the film classic, King Kong. In fact, he attributes King Kong, and especially the work of stop-motion pioneer, Willis O’Brien, as the inspiration for his own career. 20 Million Miles to Earth was Harryhausen’s chance to animate a similar tale. Like Kong, the Ymir is taken from its own environment and placed in a world that is unjustly hostile to it. At the climax of the picture, the creature climbs to the top of a famous landmark (in this case, the Roman Coliseum) where he is shot down and falls to his death.

Rocket from 20 Million Miles to Earth

20 Million Miles to Earth starts off on a sensational note as a huge spacecraft crashes into the Mediterranean Sea. Harryhausen was responsible for the rocket’s creation, and his work is superb. We get a strong impression of its enormity. I am particularly impressed with how the spaceship casts a shadow on the water as it skims above its surface. Harryhausen’s eye for detail is nothing short of amazing.

We are then introduced to a small group of fishermen (two men and a boy) that happen to be out in their boat when the spacecraft crashes. The boy, Pepe, played by Bart Bradley, later to become Bart Braverman (1980’s Alligator), is one of those annoying child characters that films of this era and genre seem to be fond of. We are obviously supposed to find Pepe an endearing lad, but he’s an absolutely grating presence. That aside, this group of fishermen rescue the two survivors aboard the spacecraft.

Rocket crashes

Ultimately, only one man from the Venus expedition lives, Col. Robert Calder, played by William Hopper (The Deadly MantisThe Bad Seed). Col. Calder serves as the hero of our story, but truth be told, the story is only adequate as a vehicle for Harryhausen’s effects.

You may recognize Joan Taylor as Marisa Leonardo, the love interest of the film. I thought Miss Taylor was radiant in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, released just the year before, but she seems a little tired in this picture. Frank Puglia (1943’s Phantom of the Opera) plays Marisa’s grandfather, Dr. Leonardo, and look for B movie veteran Thomas Browne Henry (Blood of DraculaBeginning of the End) as Maj. Gen. A.D. McIntosh.

The Ymir

The Ymir is the real star, and his scenes are fabulous. He hatches from what appears to be a larvae brought back from Venus. Pepe, that annoying brat, found the larvae on the beach in a capsule clearly marked USAF, but instead of returning the capsule to the authorities, he removes the larvae and sells it to Dr. Leonardo so he can buy a cowboy hat.

When the Ymir hatches (see image at the top of this post) he is just a little fellow, but he grows quickly. He is utterly fascinating to watch as he struts about, his tail in almost constant motion. His movements are so realistic that some people believed, on first viewing, that the Ymir was a man in a monster costume. He is far more interesting than a man in a suit, though. The Ymir soon outgrows the doctor’s cage and breaks loose to roam the Italian countryside.

The military, of course, is dedicated to tracking the Ymir down for study. If possible, they want to take the beast alive. Unfortunately, after a farmer plunges a pitchfork into him, the Ymir becomes less passive and more than a little distrustful of the human element. The Italian government insists that the creature be destroyed, while the Americans remain optimistic they can take it alive before it hurts anyone else.

Ymir and the elephant.

Eventually the Ymir is caught by the use of an electrified net. When he escapes again, he goes on a rampage and even fights a zoo elephant. To me, Harryhausen’s animation of the elephant is even more impressive than that of the Ymir. With the Ymir, Harryhausen was dealing with a fictional creature with which he could take liberities, but everyone knows what an elephant is supposed to look like. The scenes are executed wonderfully, and except for the elephant’s trunk being a tad too long (this was pointed out to me; I doubt I would have noticed it otherwise) the battle is primarily believable.

The finale of the film is a bit of a disappointment. It’s fun to watch the Ymir stalk the Roman Coliseum, but his death scene is anti-climatic. It is established earlier in the film that the creature is impervious to bullets and artillary. So his demise by falling off a relatively small structure (for a giant Ymir, anyway) seems preposterous. Still, the film had to end somehow, and I guess falling off one famous landmark is as good as another.

Finale

20 Million Miles to Earth features some of Ray Harryhausen’s best work, and for this alone, it is worth watching. I only wish the quality of the story could have matched Harryhausen’s talents.

Directed by Nathan Juran (aka Nathan Hertz), who also directed such films as The Brain from Planet Arous and Attack of the 50 Ft Woman.

Produced by long-time Harryhausen collaborator, Charles H. Schneer.

Scene to watch for: If you watch closely, Ray Harryhausen has a cameo appearance as a man feeding peanuts to an elephant. He also appears as one of the crowd fleeing the zoo.

Line to listen for: “Fascinating. Horrible, but fascinating.”

Mark’s Rating! ! ! out of 5.

Empire of the Ants (1977)

From the video case:

In this chiller based on H.G. Wells’ terrifying novel, Joan Collins is an aggressive land developer trying to turn a swampy island into an exclusive residential community. In the process, her builders rupture a can of atomic waste that has washed ashore. A colony of ants feasts on the substance, which causes them to grow into voracious monsters with heightened intelligence and cunning. The night of Marilyn’s gala opening arrives, and the ants are ready. With a vicious persistence, the monsters attack the guests, cutting off their only means of escape. Forced into the jungle, their only hope of survival is a risky, one-in-a-million chance that could destroy them all. (1977, color)

Mark says:

Every now and then I watch a movie that is so bad that I actually feel embarrassed for the cast. Empire of the Ants is just such a movie.

Don’t get me wrong, this movie has plenty of merit as a schlock great, and I enjoy it immensely. When you see Bert I. Gordon’s name (Earth vs The SpiderTormented) attached to a film (in this case, producer and director) you know you are in store for a few good chuckles. But he really outdid himself with this monstrosity. The laughs come so fast and often that Henny Youngman would be envious.

Just when your sides are aching from laughter with the horrendous 1970s dialog, the “special” effects of the giant ants come on screen to finish you off. This movie shows no mercy. The characters are so unlikable that you’ll find yourself cheering whenever the creatures kill off another castaway. But this movie is fun. Terrible, terrible fun. Be sure to watch it with friends to share all the schlock goodness.

Look for Robert Lansing (4-D Man) in the role of Dan Stokely and Jacqueline Scott (Duel) as Margaret Ellis. Tom Fadden (1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers) plays Sam Russell.

If you want to watch a genuinely good giant ant flick, let me recommend 1954’s Them!

Scene to watch for: Harry and Velma emerge from their shack haven to find themselves surrounded by giant schlock ants.

Line to listen for: “You’re so terrific in the sack that it almost justifies the extensive salary that I have to pay you.”

Mark’s Rating! ! ! out of 5.

Invaders from Mars (1953)

From the DVD case:

A young boy is awakened during a storm to witness a flying saucer land in the field behind his home. No one will believe his story as, one by one, the townspeople are captured and put under the control of sinister forces from the planet Mars.

Brilliantly created by visionary set designer and director William Cameron Menzies (designer of Gone with the Wind and H.G. Wells’ Things to Come) with a haunting musical score by Raoul Kraushaar. Surreal imagery brought to terrifying life in a Cinecolor world just beyond our nightmares! (1953, color)

Mark says:

The great thing about watching Invaders from Mars as a kid is that the story is told from a child’s point of view. David (Jimmy Hunt) doesn’t just stand around while the adults battle the aliens. Instead, he tips off the adult world to the invading presence; he’s right there when important military strategies are discussed, and he even works the alien blaster ray when the army is trapped in the underground caverns. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The most striking element of Invaders from Mars is its fascinating visual quality. William Cameron Menzies has always been an amazing Production Designer (as noted in the DVD description, Menzies was responsible for the visual style of Gone with the Wind and the 1936 sci-fi classic, Things to Come). In Invaders from Mars, Menzies creates an alternate reality based on the surreal quality of a child’s nightmare. The sets are eerily simple and effective, and the Cinecolor only adds to dreamlike quality of the film.

In his book, Keep Watching the Skies, Bill Warren comments on Menzies’ approach to the movie:

By far the most visually impressive film of Menzies’ later years is the modestly budgeted Invaders from Mars. Once the decision was made that the film would have an it’s-all-a-dream ending, Menzies’ imagination was apparently freed. None of the sets are realistic, except those most central to the boy’s own life: his room, his parents’ room, and the rest of their house. Things more and more peripheral to him become less and less detailed, until they are almost schematic or surrealistic.

Menzies was careful not to create sets that were overly bizarre, as not to give away the “it was only a dream” ending. Of course, it’s David’s awakening from his nightmare that brings all the fantastic elements of the story together as a cohesive plot device. As a literal nightmare, the oddly surreal sets and storyline make sense.

I should note here, the British version of the film (which is included with the 50th Anniversary Special Edition DVD that I own) has a significantly different conclusion. In the British version, David’s plight is not a dream. Because it was believed that European markets would not accept the “it was all a dream” ending, members of the cast were brought back for a few days of additional shooting. Instead of being awakened from his nightmare, David is simply told that his parents are going to be all right and his long ordeal is over.

Though I’m not usually a fan of the “it was only a dream” ending, in this case I believe it works well. For me, the original version of the picture is the superior cut. Otherwise, we have no explanation for the bizarre sets, and we are left to believe that David, a young boy, really was in on the execution of important military plans.

Invaders from Mars spacecraft

The premise of Invaders from Mars is similar to other “paranoia films” of the era (see It Came from Outer Space (1953) and 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Important authority figures in David’s life are kidnapped and returned as nefarious agents of an alien race. David, a budding young astronomer, actually witnesses the spacecraft land in his own backyard.

The abduction scenes are particularly frightening for a child. First, we hear an unworldly chorus of voices (16 voices, to be exact, scored by Raoul Kraushaar) and then the ground literally opens up and swallows the victim. After the victim has been successfully snatched, the ground reseals, leaving no trace of the abduction.

Leif Erickson in Invaders from Mars

Leif Erickson (I Saw What You Did) plays George MacLean, David’s father. MacLean is the first victim of the aliens’ mind control device (which is implanted at the back of the neck, leaving a noticeable X-shaped scar). Erickson’s portrayal of a man whose mind is no longer his own is utterly entertaining. His friendly countenance changes to a suspicious and insidious unblinking zombie-like stare. His mannerisms are equally suspect, especially as he tries to conceal the tell-tell X on the back of his neck.

Hillary Brooke in Invaders from Mars

David’s mother (Hillary Brooke) already looks vaguely sinister to me, but after the change she is even more frightening. In a heartbreaking scene, David runs to his mother for comfort, and as he hugs her, we see by her emotionless facial expression that she in now an unfeeling agent for the alien invaders.

Other victims include police officers, military personnel, a police chief, and a little neighbor girl, Kathy Wilson, played by Janine Perreau. Of course, only David is wise to the changes at first, and a fair portion of the film is devoted to David trying to convince the adult world that an invasion is taking place.

Helena Carter and Jimmy Hunt in Invaders from Mars

Eventually, David persuades Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter), a psychologist, that his story may be true. Dr. Blake is further convinced when she speaks to local astronomer, Dr. Stuart Kelston, played by Arthur Franz (Monster on the CampusThe Atomic Submarine). Dr. Kelston knows David and his family, and vouches that David is an honest and down to earth child.

David’s story, backed by Dr. Kelston and Dr. Blake, is related to the military, who eventually witness abductions for themselves. Troops are rushed to the scene. Actually, I shouldn’t say “rushed,” as the movie is padded here with what seems to be countless minutes of stock footage of tanks and jeeps preparing for transport. B-movie fans will undoubtedly recognize Morris Ankrum (Beginning of the EndKronos) in the role of military commander, Col. Fielding.

Mutants

Finally, we are taken to the Martians underground lair where we encounter the “Mu-tants” which do the bidding of the “Supreme Martian Intelligence.” The Mu-tants are rather comical beings, wearing what appear to be green, velor pajamas with zippers down the back. One of the Mu-tants is played by Lock Martin, who also played the robot, Gort, in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In contrast to the Mu-tants, the Supreme Martian Intelligence is more startling in appearance. It appears to be a tentacled head encased in some sort of fish bowl. It communicates to its Mu-tant lackeys through telepathy and is truly a disturbing image, especially as its eyes dart back and forth. In reality, the Supreme Intelligence is played by little person actor, Luce Potter, who you may know as Violet from Jack Arnold’s classic, The Incredible Shrinking Man.

The underground lair scenes are marred by the same shot of the Mu-tants running through the tunnels over and over again. Like the stock footage of military tanks being prepared for transport, these looped segments of the running Mu-tants only slow the picture down.

Jimmy Hunt attempts to defeat the Supreme Martian Intelligence

The climax of the film is a montage as David races wildly from the alien ship to escape its explosion. As David runs, images from the film are superimposed over his face. Some of the scenes are played backwards, giving the montage an even more nightmarish quality. When the ship finally explodes in a fiery climax, David awakens from his nightmare to find himself shaken, but safely returned to his room and the loving arms of his parents.

Though Invaders from Mars could use some editing (it only clocks in at 79 minutes, but seems longer) it is still a powerful film. I can’t imagine that anyone who saw this movie as a child has ever forgotten it entirely. The brilliant imagery conceived by William Cameron Menzies, in combination with the unique child’s point of view, create a wonderful piece of cinematography that should please sci-fi/fantasy fans of all ages.

Scene to watch for: David asks his dad one too many questions about the mysterious X on the back of his neck and receives a serious whack for his curiosity.

Line to listen for: “You’ve got to hit them right in the puss if you want to stop ’em, Major!”

Trivia: In the 1986 remake of Invaders from Mars, Jimmy Hunt makes a reappearance as a middle-aged cop. One of his lines: “I haven’t been here since I was a kid.”

Mark’s Rating! ! ! ! out of 5.

Konga (1961)

From the video case:

After discovering a potion in the jungle that makes plants grow to ten times their normal size, Dr. Decker returns home to England to give the brew to his lab companion, Konga, a baby chimp. Amazingly, Konga begins to grow and obeys every wish of Dr. Decker, even murder! But when Konga’s growth spurt goes ape, things quickly spin out of control, and soon this killer gorilla goes on a rampage sending London into a frenzy of terror! (1961, color)

Mark says

Konga offers us man-eating plants, a giant ape, a pretty girl, and a mad scientist in the form of Dr. Charles Decker, played by horror/sci-fi great, Michael Gough (Horrors of the Black MuseumHorror of Dracula). It’s a terrible movie in most respects, but wonderfully entertaining overall.

Konga is basically a low-budget rip-off of King Kong, with the climax occurring in London rather than New York. And when I say low-budget, I mean the limbo stick can’t get much lower.

At times it seems there is not even an attempt at reality in this film. Konga, an ape mind you, obeys instructions given to him in English. When the British Army arrives to shoot giant Konga with machine guns and bazookas (at incredibly close range) they consistently miss. Konga himself is a big, sloppy ape suit.

Claire Gordon with Konga

However, what this film has is Michael Gough, who plays the evil Dr. Decker with a ruthless enthusiasm. The facial expressions this man produces onscreen kept me fascinated and amused throughout the picture. The scene where he desperately tries to smooch with his attractive student (Claire Gordon, pictured here) is particularly entertaining.

My ex-wife hated this movie, primarily because Michael Gough plays such a bastard, but I rather enjoy it. For me, Mr. Gough is a treat to watch, and I am constantly amused by the cheapie effects.

In an interview with producer Herman Cohen that I link to below, Cohen states, “Konga only cost about $500,000, in color, but the effects were so good that people thought the picture cost millions.”

I have a hard time believing that.

Konga is directed by John Lemont and produced by Herman Cohen (I Was A Teenage Werewolf).

Scene to watch for: Dr. Decker deals rather harshly with a pesky house cat.

Line to listen for: “There is a huge, monster gorilla that’s constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose on the streets!”

Bonus: Tom Weaver (my all-time favorite film historian) interviews writer/producer Herman Cohen on the making of KongaClick here to read.

Mark’s Rating! ! ! ½ out of 5.

The Giant Claw (1957)

From the DVD case:

In an act of cosmic irony, an enormous bird from outer space descends upon the Earth and begins chowing down on people. As usual, scientists and the military must team up to save our planet. This hysterically feathered fable stars sci-fi icons Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, and Robert Shayne, and is directed by Fred F. Sears. (1957, b&w)

Mark says:

As a devoted fan of 1950’s schlock entertainment, I knew The Giant Claw was legendary in its appalling production values and “special effects.” I’d seen stills and I’d read articles, but until you actually see it, you can’t be prepared for kitsch wonder of it all.

The Giant Claw begins like countless other cheap sci-fi/horror flicks of the time. We get a lot of stock footage of military operations and rotating radar dishes. A narrator sets the scene: “An electronics engineer. A radar officer. A mathematician and systems analyst. A radar operator. A couple of plotters. People doing a job, well, efficiently. Serious. Having fun. Doing a job. Situation: normal. For the moment.”

Oh, we know its going to be bad, but there’s no way to anticipate how wonderfully terrible it’s going to get.

The Giant Claw 02

All of the usual suspects are here. Jeff Morrow (KronosThis Island Earth) is Mitch MacAfee, an electronics engineer and pilot who plays by his own rules; Mara Corday (TarantulaThe Black Scorpion) plays Sally Caldwell, the no nonsense mathematician, and B-movie staple Morris Ankrum (Beginning of the EndInvaders from Mars) eventually shows up as Lt. Gen. Edward Considine, a man committed to his duty and his country. Director Fred F. Sears is no stranger to the genre either, having already directed such pictures as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and The Werewolf, both released only a year earlier.

The Giant Claw 03

The real star of the movie, though, is the ridiculous flying prop that is supposed to be a threat to humankind. We only see it as a blurred lump of feathers at first, but eventually we behold it in all its ludicrous glory. I’ve seen it described as a vulture, a turkey, as Beaky Buzzard from the old Looney Tunes cartoon, and even Gonzo of Sesame Street. What it is not, however, is scary. No flying menace was ever more laughable (though Reptilicus gives it a race for its money).

The Giant Claw 04

At this point it would be customary for me to attempt to make this review as humorous as the creature is absurd. However, I simply can not do this flying marionette justice. The beast is mind-bogglingly horrendous. Producer Sam Katzman had the prop manufactured in Mexico rather than Hollywood to save on cost. I think we can safely assume he saved a bundle.

It’s not just the terrible special effect that makes the movie such a treat, though. The film is also filled to the brim with incredibly inane dialog. It’s not as bizarre as what you will find in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, but the results are similarly hilarious. Here are just a few gems:

Gen. Considine: Three men reported they saw something, and two of them are dead.
Mitch: That makes me chief cook and bottle-washer in a one-man bird watchers’ society!

Also:

Dr. Karol Noymann: That bird is extraterrestrial! It comes from outer space, from some God-forsaken anti-matter galaxy millions and millions of light years from the Earth. No other explanation is possible.

And another:

Narrator: No corner of the Earth was spared the terror of looking up into God’s blue sky and seeing, not peace and security, but the feathered nightmare on wings!

This stuff is B-movie gold .

The Giant Claw 05

There are a few other tidbits to relate, like how some of the scenes were recycled from Earth vs the Flying Saucers, and a funny story of how Jeff Morrow, sans a cast and crew screening, viewed the film (and it’s comically inept “special effect”) for the first time at his hometown theater with his family. Morrow was so embarrassed by the laughter the bird elicited that he sank down in his seat and eventually escaped the theater to meet his family afterwards in the car.

I can’t imagine any fan of the genre being disappointed.

Scene to watch for: Mitch and Sally happily sip on Pierre’s applejack while the corpse of their friend lies covered on the sofa just feet away. I guess one can’t grieve forever.

Line to listen for: “You keep your shirt on and I’ll go get my pants on.”

Trivia: Fans of the genre may recall the name “Dr. Karol Noyman” (played by Edgar Barrier in The Giant Claw) was also John Carradine’s character’s name in Invisible Invaders. Samuel Newman was the screenwriter for both films.

Mark’s Rating! ! ! ! out of 5.

The Giant Claw 06

Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)

From the video case:

A remote Pacific atoll is besieged by a horde of giant land crabs that devour members of a scientific expedition. A good thriller that seemed better when you were a kid, but still a lot of fun. Roger Corman directed this low-budget movie. (1957, b&w)

Mark says:

With a title like Attack of the Crab Monsters, and Roger Corman (The Wasp WomanIt Conquered the World) credited as producer and director, you have a good idea as what to expect from this film: low-budget schlock entertainment.

However, I must stress that some people have a fond attachment to Attack of the Crab Monsters. While I credit some camp value to the movie, others attribute actual virtues to it. One of my favorite science fiction film critics, Bill Warren, states in his review from Keep Watching the Skies:

It takes more than a trite title and inept monsters to make a bad film, if other elements are handled well. This is true despite the beliefs of cheap cynics such as those who wrote The 50 Worst Films of All Time and The Golden Turkey Awards, who seem to feel that seeing a film isn’t necessary to determine if it is good or bad – all that counts for some pictures is to have a silly title. Attack of the Crab Monsters has a foolish title, but is definitely a case to prove the contrary.

Warren further states that the “plot and gimmicks are nicely sewn together,” and credits it with having “a vein of humor running through the film.” I agree that there is plenty of humor, but I think most of it is of the unintentional variety.

As the video description states, a scientific expedition arrives at a remote atoll in the Pacific on a mission to discover what happened to the first expedition that seemingly vanished into thin air. All they have to work from is the journal of Dr. McClain, a scientist from the first campaign.

At the outset of the film we are treated to several shots of atomic bomb stock footage. Immediately we deduce that the island is populated by radiation-mutated crabs (actually, only two, not the “horde” the description suggests.)

Eventually we discover that the giant crabs are blasting away the atoll as a means of cornering and devouring the members of the expedition. The crabs absorb the minds of their victims and, using the voices of their devoured prey, lure in other members of the team. One of my favorite pieces of dialog occurs after Karl (Leslie Bradley) has announced his theory to the group:

Dale: “That means that the crab can eat his victim’s brain, absorbing his mind intact and working.”

Karl: “It’s as good a theory as any other to explain what’s happened.”

Indeed.

The male lead, Dale, is played by Richard Garland (Panic in Year Zero). Dale is a rather dull character, and is upstaged by almost everyone else in the cast. Pamela Duncan (The Undead) plays Martha Hunter, the only female on the expedition, and Dale’s fiancee. You’ll recognize Russell Johnson (It Came from Outer SpaceThis Island Earth) as Hank, the “technician and handy man” of the group. Hank is a significant character and at one point almost forms a romantic bond with Martha. In the final reel, it is Hank that proves to be the true hero.

Other familiar faces include Mel Welles (The Little Shop of Horrors) as Jules Deveroux; Richard H. Cutting (The Monolith Monsters) as Dr. James Carson; Beach Dickerson (Creature from the Haunted Sea) as Ron Fellows, and Ed Nelson (Night of the Blood Beast) plays Ensign Quinlan.

The monster itself is a ridiculous contraption (see image above) with a somewhat human face, including eyelids that open and shut. Because it was built with Styrofoam, they had a difficult time keeping the beast submerged, hence the lack of underwater scenes with the creature. On a similar note, Pamela Duncan says that the scuba equipment she was given was too big and so a man was “padded out” and did all the doubling for her underwater.  (I, personally, have never been able to pinpoint a scene where it appears that a man is playing the part of Pamela Duncan.)

The script was hastily written by Charles B. Griffith (Not of this EarthA Bucket of Blood) and appears to have some underdeveloped (or perhaps, edited) ideas. For example, in an early scene, as the expedition is reading from McClain’s journal, a giant “worm-like creature” is mentioned, giving us the notion that more than crabs were affected by the radiation. However, we never get a glimpse of any giant worms, and only one minor reference is made to the worm again.

In all fairness, I must say that this is a movie I did not see as a child, and so it does not get the benefit of “nostalgia value” that boosts the ratings of similar films I’ve reviewed. Though Attack of the Crab Monsters isn’t one of my favorite low-budget treasures, it enjoys a “cult classic” status, and does have its fun moments.

Scene to watch for:  Jules loses his hand in a gratuitously gory scene. Ouch.

Line to listen for:  “Once they were men. Now they are land crabs.”

Mark’s Rating! ! ½ out of 5.

The Deadly Mantis (1957)

From the video case:

This menacing insect kills everything in it’s path while scientist work feverishly to stop it. Craig Stevenson stars as as the commander in charge of of putting an end to this beastly insect with William Hopper (The Bad Seed20 Million Miles to Earth) as the paleontologist and Alix Talton (The Man Who Knew Too Much) as his assistant, a photojournalist, assigned to help in this battle between man and mantis! (1957, b&w)

Mark says:

This movie is an educational experience. First, we are treated to a basic law of physics: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This is used to explain how the mantis is released from his Arctic sleep. Apparently, volcanic activity near the Antarctic Circle causes ice caps to melt at the North Pole where our giant mantis has been frozen since prehistoric times. This is one of the few giant bug movies that does not use nuclear testing/radiation as its explanation for gigantism.

Even more educational, and entertaining to this reviewer, is the drawn out explanation of what must have been a mysterious technology at the time: RADAR. The narrator, who speaks exactly like those narrators from educational films of the era, explains patiently why radar is so important to our national defense. Others may find this prologue unnecessary and tedious, but I find it adds to the nostalgic flavor of the film. If nothing else, it provides the viewer with a sense of comfort to know that we are protected from a sneak attack by route of the North Pole.

The special effects by Clifford Stine (Tarantula) are not as horrendous as you might imagine and at some points are very well done. The insect looks peculiar while in flight, and at times is an obvious puppet, but there are a few scenes where it is almost believable. Of course, a constantly foggy set helps the cause.

Though this movie is predictable and relies heavily on stock footage, it does get points for special effects and entertainment value. The lessons in physics and radar are worth something, too. There are other films of the genre that are better (Them!, comes to mind) but this is a fine watch.

The Deadly Mantis was produced by William Alland and directed by Nathan Juran, aka Nathan Hertz (Attack of the 50 Ft WomanThe Brain from Planet Arous).

Scene to watch for: The mantis, sightseeing in Washington D.C, visits the Washington Memorial Monument.

Line to listen for: “In all the kingdom of the living, there is no more deadly or voracious creature than the Praying Mantis.”

FYI: This movie is also known as The Giant Mantis and The Incredible Praying Mantis.

Bonus: Find some great stills from this movie by clicking here.

Mark’s rating! ! ! out of 5.

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