Friday, April 30, 2010

So Bad They Are Almost Good






There are all sorts of bad movies out there, particularly in the cheap sci-fi and horror genre.   A lot of them have little or no entertainment value, and were obviously cobbled together just to make a fast buck in the Drive-In Market (or now, Direct-to-Home video).


But there are bad movies out there that -despite a terrible script, lousy actors, cheesy special effects, a miniscule budget, and little or no redeeming social value - still manage to be entertaining on some level.    


At least, if you can suspend any semblance of sophistication or good taste for 90 minutes.


Everyone by now knows the usual suspects in these lists.   Robot MonsterPlan 9 From Outer Space, Eegah, and the absolutely craptastic Beast of Yucca Flats.  


And these films certain fill the bill, but I propose deviating (as deviants are wont to do) from these better known insults to our collective intelligence and taste and highlighting some films you may not have seen.


I’m restricting myself to films freely available online, so some of my favorites  - like  Fiend Without A Face and The Giant Claw, alas – do not make the list. That said, I present this hodgepodge of entertainment fully capable of destroying brain cells.  

You’ve been warned.


Lending faux credibility to our first entry, we have Dr. Frank C. Baxter – fondly remembered from those wonderful 50s Bell Science TV Specials that were re-run in schools for decades (see Remembering Dr. Frank Baxter) – giving us a brief introduction to the 1956 Sci-Fi movie, The Mole People.

The stars were John Agar and Hugh (“Leave It To Beaver”)Beaumont, who play archeologists who find a pathway into the interior of the earth, where they encounter the Mole People.

Proving, I guess, that before Hugh Beaumont learned to deal with a clever Beaver Cleaver, he practiced on subterranean moles.


You’ll find The Mole People  available on Classic Cinema Online, which is a terrific portal for viewing movies.





The Mole People (1956)


If dogs with bath mats glued to them give you the willies, then perhaps your tastes will run more to 1959’s  The Killer Shrews.




Beyond the ridiculous and low budget personification of the titled monsters, the movie manages to be reasonably entertaining if not just a bit implausible. 


It is available on the Internet Archive.


And yes, before you ask, that is Ken Curtis (Festus of Gunsmoke and co-star of the early 60’s TV classic Ripcord!) who not only appears on flim, but is the producer as well.



The Killer Shrews (1959)



At the tender age of 8, I remember liking the first 20 minutes of The Phantom Planet, but not having much use for the rest of the movie.  That was a shame, because the local TV station played it about 4 times a year on their Saturday afternoon sci-fi movie.


At that age, I wanted my sci-fi to be serious, hardware oriented, and exciting. And for the first 20 minutes, The Phantom Planet came close.


After that it devolved into drive-in movie silliness that I was, frankly, probably too young to appreciate. 


The hero lands on a small asteroid whose atmosphere reduces him to miniature size.  He meets a race of 6” tall people who live inside the asteroid, is wooed by a couple of lovely young ladies, and ends up fighting one of the silliest looking space aliens in film history.



Would this monster scare any 8 year old?


But looking back as a adult, I find more to like in this low-budget flick than I expected.   The acting isn’t bad, the script could have been worse, and the production standards are pretty good for the genre.


The movie boasts such solid actors as Coleen Gray, Dean Fredericks, and Francis X. Bushman. Richard Kiel, best known for playing the villain JAWS in the James Bond Movies, wears the alien monster suit. 


The Phantom Planet (1961)



For pure cheese, it’s hard to beat Cat-Women Of The Moon.


One of the first of the `all male expedition ends up captured by Amazon Women’ sci-fi movies, it stars Sonny Tufts, Marie Windsor, and Victor Jory.  


And yes, it’s as bad as it sounds.



Due to a college football injury, Sonny Tufts was 4-F and one of the few young male actors left in Hollywood during WWII.  He made a few pictures, and essentially became a `movie star’ by default. 


His star did not shine long, and his off screen activities (including public drunkenness, accusations of assaulting two women) helped to quickly deep-six his career.


Victor Jory worked steadily in film and TV for nearly 50 years, and Marie Windsor became the queen of the TV western, appearing on just about oater of the 50’s. 


This is strictly for laughs, but worth popping a bag of popcorn and putting your feet up for an hour.


Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)


There are more, of course.  Many more.  And in a future installment, we’ll look at some more horrible old movies.

For now, this ought to damage a sufficient number of synapses.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Little Retro-Horror





Try as I might, I have great difficulty finding much to like about the horror movies of today.   Perhaps its a generational thing, but the whole genre for me began to decline when `horror films’ became synonymous with `slasher movies’.


Gone were the brooding atmospheric castles of Dracula, or the creepy House on Haunted Hill – to be replaced by an endless stream of scantily clad teenagers who end up impaled or otherwise butchered by some hockey-mask wearing maniac.


Zombies – which certainly appeared in movies going back to the 1930s – became brain-munching hordes of undead, taken down only by a bloody headshot. 


Its not as if the horror movies of the golden age of Hollywood were all great.  They weren’t.   In fact, some were awful  (and we’ll visit some of those in my next blog).    But most are – in my estimation – better than 90% of the dreck being released today.


If you base your appreciation of horror movies on how many gouts of blood geyser up onto the screen, or how many topless actresses run terrified through the woods, then the movies below probably will seem slow and even boring.  


But at the time of their release, many of these movies were the tops in creeps, and for those of us appreciative of such things, still  have much to recommend them.


We’ll go in chronological order this time, and start with perhaps the most famous silent horror movie of them all, The Phantom of the Opera.



Even if you’ve never watched a silent movie – or have and found them wanting – you should give this 85 year-old masterpiece a try.  It features the incomparable Lon Chaney (who’s son went on to act in horror movies as Lon Chaney Jr.), otherwise known as The Man of a Thousand Faces.




The Phantom of the Opera - Universal Pictures





Moving ahead to talkies – which demand less rapt attention than do silent films – we get this very early Bela Lugosi offering from 1932: White Zombie.


Zombies of the 1930s and 1940s (Pre-George Romero) weren’t the flesh hungry pests of today.  They were victims, controlled by an evil spell cast by a voodoo priest or a serum employed by a mad scientist.


White Zombie is long on atmosphere, and admittedly short on action.  But it is a treat to see Bela before he fell into a series of dreadful movie parodies of himself.


White Zombie (1932)




Moving ahead a year we get another early effort from a poverty row studio Majestic Pictures, with a horror-mystery offering called The Vampire Bat (1933).


Residents of the village of Kleinschloss are being found drained of blood, and the only explanation that seems to fit points to Vampirism.     


Look for a pre-King Kong Fay Wray, Lionel Atwill as the town doctor, and Melyvn Douglas as the police chief in this little gem.


Atwill would famously be caught  up in a `morals’ scandal in 1943 following what was described as `an orgy’ in his home (he received 5 years probation for perjured testimony).   The big studios wouldn’t touch him after that, and he died a few years later of pneumonia.



While some may feel let down by the ending, this movie provides plenty of atmosphere and creeps along the way.



The Vampire Bat (1933)





One of the most prolific producer-directors of the horror genre during the late 1950s was William Castle, whose legacy includes The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), and Mr. Sardonicus (1961).   Castle wasn’t above installing `joy buzzers’ into the theatre seats to jolt his audiences at the appropriate moment.


Earlier in his career, Castle worked in radio, and directed a number of studio westerns.


The best of his horror movies is arguably House on Haunted Hill (1959), where Vincent Price offers a handful of house guests $10,000 each if they’ll spend the night in a haunted house.



House on Haunted Hill - William Castle



Jumping ahead another decade, we find the two veterans of British Horror - Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee – aboard a trans-siberian railway train, along with an evil entity that jumps from one host to the next.


Look for Telly Savalas as Captain Karzan in this well done horror outing.



Horror Express - Benmar Productions



Next time, we’ll look at some of the so-bad-they-are-almost-good horror and sci-fi movies of the past.  

Sunday, April 11, 2010

For Your Inner 10-Year-Old Child




As a 10-year old boy, growing up in the early 1960s, I had some pretty strong feelings as to what constituted `good’ science fiction (and/or horror) movies.  


I had great experience in the matter, as twice each week our local TV stations paid homage to the genre. 


Friday nights at 11:30 pm was Shock Theater . . . which re-ran mostly old Universal Studios horror classics from the 1930s and 1940s.  The Wolfman, Dracula, Frankenstein . . .  and some newer Vincent Price movies of the 1950s, like  The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, and House of Wax.


Saturday afternoons, on a competing station, came Terminus Theatre – usually a double feature sci-fi bill, featuring clean cut, square jawed, and stalwart scientists who battled giant locusts, tarantulas or Squid, and sometimes got the girl after saving the world. 


My boyhood movie heroes were stars like Marshall Thompson, Peter Graves, Craig Stevens and Kenneth Toby


I had little patience for the Japanese derivatives of Godzilla, although the original was certainly acceptable.  Mothra and Gammera  and their ilk were . . . well, silly . . . in my estimation.    Those Saturdays when these pale imitations aired, I found diversion in books or playing outside.


Compared to most of the dreadful made-for-TV Sci-Fi movies that clutter the airwaves today, some of these old black & white (and occasionally color) movies of yesteryear come off as absolute masterpieces.  


Of course, they weren’t all good.  But grading on the curve helps considerably.


With that in mind, for the next few blog entries I plan to highlight some of the Sci-Fi and Horror `classics’ that are available online.   I’ll finish off this series with handful of `they’re so bad, they’re almost good’ movies.


But let’s begin with some quality, shall we?  And for that,  you can’t do much better than Destination Moon.




Produced by George Pal,  Destination was the first attempt to portray science realistically in a Sci-Fi movie.  Robert Heinlein, the dean of Science Fiction writers, contributed heavily to the script and helped to keep the science on track.


You’ll find no monsters, no aliens, and no ray guns in this movie.  Much like the William Lundigan TV series Men Into Space, which would follow in the late 1950s, this was an attempt at `adult’ science fiction.  And it succeeds admirably.


There’s gentle comic relief provided by Dick Wesson as a reluctant last minute crew replacement, and a short animation featuring Woody Woodpecker (demonstrating the science behind rocket propulsion).  This movie won the Academy Award for Special effects, and still looks good 60 years after it was made.


But more than that, this is the movie that launched a thousand (mostly inferior) space ships.   




Destination Moon - George Pal


Speaking of inferior space ships . . .


In an attempt to cash in on the soon to be released big budget Destination Moon, Rocket Ship X-M  (aka Expedition Moon) was filmed in 18 days and rushed to theaters.



A movie that even a 10-year-old in 1964 would find fault with, nonetheless, it was groundbreaking in its day.   Rocket Ship X-M was one of the first movies with an anti-nuclear viewpoint (opposite of Destination Moon).  


Science was notably missing from this fiction. 


While headed to the Moon, the rocket goes into hyper=speed and after a few hours, lands on Mars by mistake.   There, the scientists discover mutants living in caves, the remnants of a civilization destroyed by their atomic technology.


Boomers will find the presence of Lloyd (“Sea Hunt”) Bridges, Hugh (“Wyatt Earp”) O’Brien,  and Noah (“Rockford Files”) Berry Jr. add to the addled-brained enjoyment of this `B’ movie.



Rocketship X-M - Kurt Neumann, Murray Lerner




In what would prove to be a forerunner to the successful movie and TV series Voyage to The Bottom Of The Sea, The Atomic Submarine pits the crew of a nuclear sub (which were just coming into service) against a mysterious force attacking vessels in the Arctic.



Hollywood stalwarts like  Tom (`The Falcon’) ConwayArthur (`Invaders from Mars’) Franz, and Dick (too many roles to mention) Foran, and everyone’s favorite nebbish Sid (“Make Room For Daddy”) Melton populate this sub-par adventure.


Relax, it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds.



The Atomic Submarine - Alex Gordon



In the wake of Godzilla, the 1950’s drive-in movie scene was populated by Flying Pterodactyls (“The Giant Claw”), Gi-ANTS (“Them!”), and lizards with pituitary issues (“The Giant Gila Monster”).


The best of the lot was undoubtedly Them! with James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, and Jim Arness.  A film that remains remarkable 55 years after it was made.


While not quite in the same league, but a cut above most of the other creature features of the era, is The Beast From Hollow Mountain staring Guy (“Wild Bill Hickok”) Madison.




The first movie to combine wide-screen Technicolor and stop-motion photography,  `Beast’ tells the story of a rancher’s battle against a prehistoric predator devouring his cattle. 



The Beast of Hollow Mountain - Edward Nassour and William Nassour


If this sounds familiar, you may be remembering very similar movie  made a decade later called The Valley of Gwangi.

Since it is difficult to judge the relative artistic merits of these movies without some basis of comparison, I offer The Giant Gila Monster for your consideration.





Fair warning.  This is typical low-budget 1950’s Teenager-centric Drive-In Movie fare, starring no one you’ve ever heard of, filled with every cliché in a hack horror writer’s repertoire.


Special care should be taken when listening to the `Rock & Roll Hits' in the movie . . .classics like  “The Gila Monster Crawl”.



Brain damage from watching it isn’t inevitable, but it is possible.



Giant Gila Monster, The - Ken Curtis, B.R. McLendon, Gordon McLendon


A half dozen  Sci-Fi romps suitable for a rainy Saturday afternoon.


Next time, we’ll look at the horror side of the genre.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Bogie’s Bold Venture Into Radio






You’d be hard pressed to find a Hollywood star of the 1930s and 1940s who didn’t, at one time, make a foray into radio.


Sometimes, it would simply be a guest appearance on a variety show or a recreation of a movie role on Lux Radio Theater . . . but quite often, it would be in a show of their own.

Alan Ladd starred in Box 13.

Jimmy Stewart was The Six Shooter.

Vincent Price was The Saint (among others).

Don Ameche starred in The Bickersons (among others).


And Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall teamed up in 1951 to create Bold Venture.


Coming 7 years after their first pairing in To Have and Have Not, where Bogie and Bacall first met and fell in love, Bold Venture in many ways harkened back to that early success.  


The formula – a tropical location, dangerous characters, and snappy banter – remains the same, just the location and names are changed to protect the producer.   


This time, Bogart owns a Cuban Hotel – home to an assortment of treasure hunters, ex-pats, and revolutionaries – and a boat, The Bold Venture.    Each week, he and his `ward’  Sailor Duval (Bacall) get drawn into an new tale of danger and intrigue.


Instead of Hoagy Carmichael at the piano as in To Have and Have Not, we get Calypso singer King Moses (Jester Hairston) providing musical bridges between the scenes.


Formulaic?   Sure.


But it is an enjoyable formula. 


And to get to hear Bogart and Bacall trade quips, and engage in thinly veiled innuendo that must have pushed the censorship envelop 60 years ago, is a guilty pleasure.


Alas, the sound quality of many of these episodes is less than robust, and that can detract from the listening experience.  


Given that many of these episodes were presumed lost, and have only recently surfaced, I suppose we should simply be grateful they exist at all.


The Internet Archive has 55 episodes (a few are repeats), which yields roughly 50 individual episodes. 


Bold Venture   ZIP  497 MB


You can also download or listen online to the individual episodes, to see if the series floats your boat.   


You can find the entire collection at:

Monday, April 5, 2010

Holmes Revisited





A little over a year ago I posted 4 blogs (count’em) on Sherlock Holmes in print, on the radio, on the big screen, and on television. 


You can revisit these essays at the links below where you will find a good deal of historical information on more than a century of Sherlockian adventures.



Holmes Sweet Holmes Pt. 1
Sherlock Holmes On The Big Screen
Three Decades of Holmes On The Radio
Sherlock Holmes On The Small Screen


In the intervening 14 months the Internet Archive has increased its selection of Holmes related media, and so it would seem a good time to update this blog.


First, three more Sherlock Holmes movies.  


The first, The Sleeping Cardinal, was believed lost for many years but resurfaced after a 16mm print was found.   This is the first of five appearances by Arthur Wontner as  Sherlock Holmes, and features Ian Flemming (the actor, not the writer) as Dr. John Watson.

To call this movie dated would be a kindness, but it remains a fascinating early sound movie portrayal of the redoubtable Holmes. While stage bound and primitive by today’s (or even mid-1930s) standards, Wontner’s movies are considered among the best imaginings of Holmes and Watson.




Sherlock Holmes: The Sleeping Cardinal - Julius Hagen


You’ll find two other Arthur Wontner efforts in my previous blog Sherlock Holmes On The Big Screen.  


Wontner’s final entry into the series came in 1937, in Murder At The Baskervilles, which is based not on the Hound of the Baskervilles, but on the short story Silver Blaze.   The print is a bit faded on this version, but it is still watchable.



Murder At The Baskervilles - Julius Hagen



Although the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce series produced by Universal Studios during the 1940s remains perhaps the best remembered incarnation of Holmes on the screen, there are many who regard these films as less-than-true to Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation.

Universal studios set the first two films (properly) in the Victorian era (The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) but revised the timeline to London of the 1940s for the remainder of the series.


While Sherlockphiles may argue the merits of the various movies and actors,  the Universal entries remain entertaining to watch.



The Woman in Green - Roy William Neill



The 39 episodes of Sherlock Holmes produced in 1954 by Sheldon Reynolds starred Ronald Howard (son of Leslie) and H. Marion-Crawford.    The entire series run is available on DVD, and can often be found in discount bins at Walmart and other stores.


I picked up mine for $6.   


While I’d seen a number of episodes a year ago, I’ve recently watched all 39.    These are genial, if not terribly complex, Holmes mysteries. With a run time of about 25 minutes, there really isn’t an abundance of time for plot development.

Still, I find them satisfying in a `mac & cheese’ comfort food sort of way.   Howard makes a pretty good Holmes, and Marion-Crawford is less irritating (and more capable) than the Nigel Bruce Watson.


Sherlock Holmes - The Case of the Haunted Gainsborough

Sherlock Holmes - The Case of the Neurotic Detective

Sherlock Holmes in The Case of the Laughing Mummy
Sherlock Holmes in The Case of the Split Ticket
Sherlock Holmes - The Case of The Baker Street Bachelors

Sherlock Holmes - The Case of the Diamond Tooth

Sherlock Holmes - The Case of the Tyrant's Daughter

Sherlock Holmes - The Case of the Unlucky Gambler

Sherlock Holmes - The Case of Lady Beryl

Sherlock Holmes - The Case of the Belligerent Ghost 

Sherlock Holmes - The Case of the Cunningham Heritage 

Sherlock Holmes - The Case of the Pennsylvania Gun 

Sherlock Holmes - The Case of the Shy Ballerina

Sherlock Holmes - The Case of the Texas Cowgirl



To date, 14 of the 39 episodes are archived on the site.  I would expect more will show up over time.   You can check this link from time to time to see if any new shows are added.



And lastly, in 1951, three years before the Sheldon Reynolds series, there was a failed attempt to bring Holmes to the small screen in the UK.    


This pilot stars John Longden and Campbell Singer.  It is actually pretty good, and it is a pity the series wasn’t picked up. 



Sherlock Holmes - The Man Who Disappeared (Failed Pilot) -