Friday, 30 June 2017

THE MADMAN OF MANDORAS













d. David Bradley (1963)


More brains. Well, sort of. Hitler crops up a lot in psychotronic films, either in person or as the justification for various nefarious goings on. Although he is clearly a villain, he is not always the genocidal monster that we know and despise him as. Instead, he is a stereotypical bad person and common or garden megalomaniac, sometimes slightly silly, even comical. It's a facile and potentially offensive view, but I think it comes from an understandable place: these films were made in the aftermath of the war and, even twenty or thirty years later, the enormity of Hitler's crimes were still too much to process - too hard to remember.        

The Madman of Mandoras is a load of claptrap about poison gas and the threat to world peace posed by a Third Reich who have run away / relocated to South America. The Nazis have Hitler's head in a jar and it is still giving them orders and rolling his eyes in frustration and anger. No idea why they haven't attached a body to the head, they're clearly pretty technologically advanced. Perhaps it's better to know where that guy is.

Do the Nazis succeed? Do they fuck, and we get to see the flesh burned from Das Fuhrer's skull, a sight that is unedifying but strangely satisfying, which is perhaps why we get to watch it for a whole minute and a half.   

Friday, 23 June 2017

THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE











d. Joseph Green (1962)

'Let me die, let me die'


The human brain is the most complex thing in the Universe and, since the Enlightenment downgraded the soul to a might have rather than a must have, it's also the most important thing we possess. Little wonder, then, that the brain fascinates scientists the world over, particularly in films like The Brain That Wouldn't Die, where the line between scientific genius and obsessive fanaticism is a very thin one indeed.

Doctor Bill Cortner is full of the energy and arrogance of youth, a man in a hurry to prove his theories on the transplantation of limbs and organs to the extent that he has become unethical, performing illegal operations using body parts pilfered from the hospital where he works. When his fiancee Jan is decapitated in a car crash, he takes the opportunity to pluck her severed head from the burning wreckage, wrapping it up in his jacket and taking it to a secret lab, bringing it back to life with a 'new special compound' that not only reinvigorates the head but makes it telepathic.

Jan's head, plonked on a metal tray full of chemicals and filled with tubes and pipes, is pretty pissed off about the arrangement and asks repeatedly to die. Bill has other ideas, however, checking out strip clubs and beauty contests in search of a suitably pneumatic replacement chassis before settling on a facially scarred but otherwise intact nude model.

From here, it all gets quite complicated, despite being defiantly non complex. All I can say is that between the giant homicidal freak locked in a closet and poor decapitated Jan's overpowering death drive, it can only end in flames.      

Friday, 16 June 2017

THE LOST WORLD









d. Irwin Allen (1960)


Arthur Conan Doyle's tale of an unknown Amazonian plateau populated by dinosaurs and savage primitives was first filmed in 1925, and has been adapted umpteen times since. This version is from Irwin Allen, the parsimonious producer and director of such television classics as Land of the Giants, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space. Allen spent a fair amount of money on this production, so made sure he got the most out of it by recycling clips from it for years to come. 

Unable to justify the expense of stop motion models, Allen simply glued horns and shit to some standard lizards and let them loose on miniature sets. The results are unconvincing, especially when a gecko blunders into shot and someone shouts 'My God, a Tyrannosaurus Rex!'. When a giant spider is needed (there's always a need for a giant spider in films like these) he simply blows up film of a normal spider to enormous proportions and uses an optical effect to colour it day-glo green.

The two best things about the film are ginger: Jill St John as a spoiled and slightly mercenary heroine, the sort of pretty thing on the make who comes on a dangerous expedition wearing red go go boots and carrying a poodle, and the great Claude Rains as the indomitable Professor Challenger, a man with hair and a beard as fiery as his irascible temper. 

Rains was born in Camberwell in abject poverty (nine of his brothers and sisters died in childhood), and grew up with a thick London accent that he never completely eradicated. A very dignified actor, his professional speaking voice is careful and cultured, a sort of dry purr but, when he gets excited and speaks quickly, every now and again you can quite plainly hear the twang of his native Cockney. It's a very endearing trait, and one that you'll listen out for from now on, I hope.    

Friday, 9 June 2017

CURUCU, BEAST OF THE AMAZON


d. Curt Siodmark (1956)


Routine technicolor exotic adventure potboiler with a variety of vicious animals and some shrunken heads. The titular beast is an extraordinary thing, a sort of malevolent parrot with piercing blue eyes, fearsome tusks and slashing talons: it's also fake, a ruse by a native witch doctor to keep the white man and his disease ridden civilization away. 

The fakeness of the monster doesn't really matter, however, as elsewhere real nature is working overtime to demonstrate it's redness in tooth and claw. The protagonists are attacked by crocodiles, several big snakes, a spider the size of a dinner plate, a jaguar and a load of piranhas, represented several times with mismatched, washed out stock footage. 

Shot on location in Brazil, the film never really takes off, despite being punctuated by somewhat manic dance routines and having a beefy male star who never stops smoking, regardless of whether he's eating, kissing or having a medical examination.

I was particularly impressed by the no nonsense heroine, played by Beverley Garland. She is beautiful, yes, but she's also a doctor, a scientist and an explorer, a person of great intelligence and nerve who is determined to make the world a better place. These qualities are even noticed by our carcinogen addicted hero who admiringly says: 'You're not frightened of anything, are you?' Disappointingly, she responds 'Of course I'm frightened, I'm a woman'. Bah.   

Friday, 2 June 2017

JUNGLE WOMAN











d. Reginald Le Borg (1944)

It's worth remembering that half the films made during the golden age of Hollywood were b-movies, and never intended to be anything other than a time filling support to something more important, more expensive, more valued, the thing that people wanted to see. There are great b movies, made with love and care, and these tend to be the ones that are remembered today. Then there are films like Jungle Woman, incomprehensible potboilers thrown together from old footage and cliche and padded out with voice overs, flash backs and long scenes of people walking corridors and going up and down stairs until sixty or so minutes pass.

Ostensibly a sequel to, but more like a rehash of Captive Wild Woman with all its teeth pulled out, the production misses any number of chances to be as silly or interesting as only a film about a beautiful woman who used to be a gorilla can be and really only merits notice because of the sulky presence of its female star, the mysterious and exotic Acquanetta, here slap bang in the middle of her five film credit career. The so called 'Venezuelan Volcano' is her usual somnolent self, drifting around in a self-absorbed daze, occasionally scowling and staring. She's not much of an actress, but she's a hell of a presence, the sort of person who enters a room glowering and makes everyone wish she'd either say something or just go away.   

As a final note, it is now believed that Acquanetta was neither Venezuelan or a gypsy or an Arapaho Indian but instead that rarest of all onscreen Hollywood persons: an African American.

Friday, 26 May 2017

SON OF KONG











d. Ernest B. Schoedsack (1933)

'I guess next time you leave big monkey alone, huh?'

Released a mere nine months after King Kong, and made at a third of the cost, Son of Kong is a charming, modest little film that packs murder, mutiny, dinosaurs, seismic disturbances and a big white hero ape into seventy minutes without ever removing its tongue from its cheek. 

Set a month after Kong's New York rampage, it focuses on hapless promoter / chancer Carl Denham, now broke and facing a grand jury trial and a dozen law suits. Eager to escape his legal woes, and feeling bad about dead Kong and his dead victims, he jumps on board his boat and hits the open seas.

After forty five minutes of mildly diverting intrigue and romance, the highlight of which is a group of monkeys in fezzes playing avant-garde mood music, he finds himself back on Skull Island in search of treasure, arriving just in time to save Kong's son from drowning in quicksand. Poor Little Kong 'ain't a patch on his old man', being gentle, dopey, boss eyed, albino and a mere twelve feet tall, but he is lovable and approachable and doesn't seem to want to eat anyone.  

Comically anthropomorphic, Little Kong becomes Denham's protector, beating up the various oversized mammals and reptiles that prowl the island, including a Nothosaurus, a Styracosaurus and a giant, angry bear that he puts into a headlock and punches repeatedly in the face.

All too soon, a violent earthquake sinks the island beneath the sea, and plucky Little Kong sacrifices himself to the turbulent waters in order to hold his best friend Denham above the waves until he can be rescued. It's all rather sweet, and although it lacks the impact, iconography and innovation of its illustrious predecessor it is fun, genuinely funny and easy to like.

Friday, 19 May 2017

HAND OF DEATH











d. Gene Nelson (1962)


Dr. Alex Marsh (schlock superstar, John Agar, Shirley Temple's first husband) is one of those madly intense scientists obsessed with making the world a better place by inventing unspeakable things. The main thrust of his work is to combine a hypnotic drug and non-deadly nerve gas, thereby giving the U.S.A a paralyzed and compliant enemy to invade. His reasoning is that it will save the horror and destruction of nuclear war but, as he speaks, his eyes glitter and his mouth grows wet: the idea excites him very much, a lot more than his over-eager fiancee in fact, who plays the coquette with his cheerful best friend in desperate lieu of attention from her permanently working husband to be.  

One late night, an exhausted Marsh clumsily spills some of his experimental solution over his hands, and tears open his lab coat and Hawaiian shirt in pain and horror before falling onto the bed and hallucinating test tubes, beakers and scurrying white mice. When he awakens, he not only has a first class tan, but the merest touch of his hands means instant death, a lesson his Mexican lab assistant learns very quickly. Ever responsible, Marsh douses the corpse and the rest of the lab in white spirit and puts a match to it before driving off to cause chaos downtown.

A film that runs out of steam very quickly and soon descends into jumbled images of a bloke just staggering about, Hand of Death is most notable for Marsh's transformation from handsome(ish) young(ish) scientist to bloated, blackened monster, as mutation turns his head into a lump of swollen coal and his deadly hands into bunches of over-ripe bananas. Interestingly, to disguise the disfiguring condition that has distorted his entire body and robbed him of his speech and sanity, he does the only thing he can under the circumstances: he puts a hat on.  

Friday, 12 May 2017

THE MANSTER












d. George Breakston and Kenneth G. Crane (1962)

Regular readers may have noticed that many of the films written about here are concerned with transformation, mainly of the uncontrolled and uncontrollable sort: people shrink or grow; they die but stay alive; they become bestial and unhinged or taken over, mostly at the gnarled hands of bad science, pure evil or alien conquest. Is that the worst thing, do you think? To become other, to turn into someone or something that you can't manage, and to know it is happening, to feel yourself slipping further and further into the void. Is it a metaphor for the human condition? Does transformation evoke old age, illness, death? Yes, in these films transformation is death, and can only be cured by more death including, ultimately, your own. I need some Propranolol.

In The Manster, jaded US foreign correspondent Larry Stanford is on his last assignment in Japan when he meets genius geneticist, Dr. Suzuki. Suzuki is interested in 'the beginnings of life' and seems nice enough despite keeping his brother and wife in the basement, having turned them into a hairy white ape and a disfigured hag respectively. While Larry has a Mickey Finn induced nap, Suzuki injects him in the neck with a serum designed to turn the hapless journalist into an entirely new life form.

In time honoured fashion, the first Larry knows about it is when he notices he has a very hairy hand. Next, he is startled to discover an eyeball embedded in his shoulder. After a few out of character homicidal rampages, an additional head emerges from him, malevolent and wizened, resembling a fairground coconut with comedy teeth. Head two is murderously angry with everything and everybody, not least Larry, who he wants to get away from as quickly as possible, ultimately leading to a violent split between host and parasite. 

As Larry reverts to human form, his erstwhile spare head and body conveniently having fallen into a live volcano, there is barely a second to wonder if Larry will pay for his crimes before the film's abrupt end. Let's hope the Japanese police are prepared to blame it all on the psychopathic man monkey and let Larry go home.  

Friday, 5 May 2017

THE WEREWOLF











d. Fred F. Sears (1956)

Cheaply but carefully made, The Werewolf provides a surprisingly contemporary retelling of the hoary old lycanthropic legend, placing the action in Smalltown USA and making it a condition of mad modern science rather than arcane folklore.

The origins of the werewolf are somewhat odd, with responsibility falling to a couple of fascist scientists who plan to outlive the impending nuclear apocalypse by combining human genes with the survival traits of other successful species. When a timid salesman injured in a car crash falls unexpectedly into their clutches they ruthlessly inject him with a syringe full of lupine essence and sit back ready to note down the results.

Their victim escapes, of course, and trudges through the snow to the small ski resort town of Mountaincrest. Here, the poor, frightened fellow transforms into a ravenous, drooling wolf: a hairy, hungry killing machine. The townspeople, dressed almost exclusively in plaid, form a posse to track him down.

The werewolf spends most of his time running, but never really gets anywhere, not least because there’s nowhere to go. In his old life he was a nice man with a wife and a son but now he is a crazed killer, a beast who inadvertently seals his fate by ripping apart the scientists who made him like this in the first place. With literally no turning back, he ends up full of yokel bullets, a bloodied heap of hair. His dying act is to revert to his human form, a pitiful and questioning look upon his face. 

It’s rather a depressing spectacle, but then werewolf films never have happy endings, they just don’t work that way.

Friday, 20 January 2017

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN











d. Jack Arnold (1957)

'Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too'.

Despite it's sensational title, 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' is an astonishingly thoughtful, even profound film, especially at its conclusion, where our hapless hero, now less an inch high, stoicly accepts his fate and embraces the process of slowly melding into the Universe. 

It starts, like so many stories, with a normal person (blog fave Grant Williams, who is excellent) being made abnormal by exposure to radioactivity, in this case via a dirty cloud that sweeps over him while he's out yachting. Shortly afterwards, he notices that his clothes are becoming looser and, ominously, his wedding ring falls from his finger. Medical science are baffled and pretty useless as 'people just don't get shorter' (actually, they get shorter all the time, particularly as they get older. In fact, people get shorter over the course of a normal day, and are always tallest when they get out bed: fact).  

Within a few months, he's incredibly angry and living a wretched life barricaded in a dolls house under constant threat of dismemberment by his own pet cat. It's terribly sad, especially as the mysterious condition diminishes him in every way except mentally, leaving him all the time in the world to question himself as a husband, as a man, as a human being.

Eventually, he ends up lost in the basement, presumed dead by his family and locked into a life or death battle with a resident spider. He drinks water that drips from the boiler and lives on crumbs from a slab of stale cake. It's a hard, miserable existence, and there is a palpable sense of relief when he finally realises that his normal life is gone forever and that whatever his future brings will be at a sub-atomic level. So, he raises his eyes to the night sky and accepts he will go from microscopic to submicroscopic, from quark to proton, finally becoming an infinitesimally small, nameless particle known only to God, to whom 'there is no zero'. 

I'd like to have that sort of courage and spiritual depth, but I'm a bit of a 'fuck it' person, so I'd probably just impale myself on a needle or jump on a mouse trap. We all have our own way of shrinking away to nothing, I suppose.

Friday, 13 January 2017

THE BRAIN EATERS












d. Bruno VeSota (1958)

'A few weeks ago, Riverdale, Illinois was just another small, quiet town. But on that Saturday just after midnight, a living nightmare began'.

A 200 million year old race of hungry neon leeches land on on Earth with the idea that they are going to plug themselves in to the necks of human beings, operate them like mad puppets until they finish eating their brains, and then move on until the supply is extinguished. You can see what's in it for the leeches, but the Midwest natives are unconvinced, so eventually use science, a harpoon gun and several lives to zap the little bleeders into oblivion.

Not much happens, to be honest, but it's relatively well made and the alien's ship, a gleaming metallic cone of unknown material filled with a myriad of concentric tunnels, is interesting, as is the late appearance of the human manifestation of the malevolent hirundea, happily played by our old friend Leonard Nemoy (that's how it's spelled on the credits), wearing a silly Father Christmas beard to make him look older and wiser, his familiar features further obscured by odd lighting and a vaseline smeared lens. It's good to sort of see him.

Friday, 6 January 2017

THE ASTOUNDING SHE MONSTER











d. Ronald V. Ashcroft (1958)

A young, pouting woman with extraordinary eyebrows, dressed in a skin tight iridescent metal catsuit and shimmering with radiation, arrives from outer space on a mysterious mission. Finding herself in a secluded forest, she stalks towards the only occupied place for miles around, a cabin occupied by a geologist and his dog. On the way, she kills a fox, a snake, a black bear and the members of a criminal gang who have kidnapped an heiress. Her silvery fingers are deadly, and the merest touch from her means radium poisoning and instant destruction. It's a bad situation, especially as she seems unstoppable by conventional means, i.e. she is shot about thirty times and it makes no difference, but these are Americans, so they just keep on firing into her.

Eventually, the geologist is able to whip up a cocktail of acids that kill the murderous alien and dissolve her away, leaving behind nothing but a trail of animal and human corpses and a medallion that contains a message from the President of the United Federation of Planets (or something like that) saying hello to the Earth and asking if we need any help with anything. It seems the young woman was merely an galactic emissary on a good will mission, a revelation that makes no sense at all unless the President of the United Whatnot of Whatever is an idiot, as sending a kill crazy person dripping with death to the middle of nowhere with a message of interplanetary importance was always bound to end in abject and embarrassing failure.

Super cheap, majorly clunky, the film only really jerks into life when the shiny un-smiley alien psycho lady is on the prowl but that's okay, as she's on the prowl for fifty minutes of its sixty five minute running time.