Tuesday, February 24, 2009

February's Cult Movie of the Month - Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)


The Review

The Gill-man is dead.

That's the first thing I learned when I started searching on this film. His name was Ben Chapman and he died a year ago, almost to the day, in Honolulu. He was 79 years old. The image at right is from Mr. Chapman's personal website, The Reel Gill-man (which is now maintained by his family).

The Creature from the Black Lagoon is hands down one of the best sci fi/horror pictures ever made. A good way to judge a picture is by it's timelessness quotient (yes, I just made that up) - film it, wait 40 or 50 years, put it back in front of an audience and see how well it holds up. This one holds up really well.

The plot's nothing new - a spin on 'beauty and the beast'.
An expedition on the Amazon River finds a fossilized hand/claw that may tie marine and land life together - an early amphibian. When the group can't find anything more at the original site, they decide to go downriver to the lagoon the river empties into - see if anything fossil-ish has washed down to the end of the line. What they find is a living breathing version of their original fossil (aka the beast). And things move on from there.
It's got a typical cast of characters - science guy and science gal (aka beauty) who are in LOVE, jerky jealous scientist boss, affable doctor who won't make it to the end credits, swarthy but good natured boat captain/guide and so on. But there are a few things that set this movie apart from the average beauty/beast storyline.

One is the creature itself. The Gill-man is brought to onscreen life amazingly well. There were actually two actors who played the creature. Ben Chapman, mentioned, played the Gill-man on land and was the one who gave the character it's flavor, while olympic swimmer Ricou Browning did the underwater scenes (quite masterfully, I might add).

The Gill-man was brilliantly designed by Millicent Patrick, a Disney animator who also worked for Universal's makeup department. Sadly, department-head Bud Westmore, seeing how favorably the Gill-man was received in early publicity tours, deliberately downplayed Ms. Patrick's role and essentially took credit for her design work. (Dick.) It wasn't until recently she was given proper recognition.

The film also carried a pro-ecology message (before the average person knew the meaning of the word). One of the film's writers was an avant-garde environmentalist and deliberately worked the theme into a couple of scenes: In one a character tosses a cigarette butt from boat-side into the lagoon as the camera pans to the Gill-man, looking up from under the surface as his "air" is fouled by the intruder. Another shows the scientists dumping poison into the lagoon, in hopes of trapping or killing the Gill-man, and hundreds of fish float to the surface belly-up.

The movie was actually the first of a trilogy, being followed by Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us. Unlike most "monsters" of the day, all three films portray the creature as victim and mankind as antagonist.

While the first film has men intruding into the Gill-man's habitat and trying to capture him, the second movie follows their success as he is chained, displayed and "conditioned" by withholding food and electrical shock. In the last film his gills are removed so he can no longer breathe under water. After various abuses and incarcerations, the film's final scene shows the Gill-man slowly walking back into his sea home, knowing he'll drown there.

Don't know if you've seen any of the DVD box sets Universal has put out - the Creature set has all three films and a couple of really cool documentaries to boot. Well worth your 20 bucks.

The Trailer

The Details

Director: Jack Arnold

Writers: Harry Essex (screenplay), Arthur A. Ross (screenplay)

Release Date: 5 March 1954 (USA)

Tagline: Not since the beginning of time has the world beheld terror like this!

Richard Carlson ... David Reed
Julie Adams ... Kay Lawrence
Richard Denning ... Mark Williams
Antonio Moreno ... Carl Maia
Nestor Paiva ... Lucas
Whit Bissell ... Dr. Thompson
Bernie Gozier ... Zee
Henry A. Escalante ... Chico

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956)

Allosaurus menaces Cowpoke, Cowpoke menaces Allosaurus

The Review

I was about to say it's the one and only Mexican Dinosaur Western, but I remembered The Valley of Gwangi also takes place (mostly) in Mexico. So I guess there are two.

And while Gwangi is a (much) better film, The Beast does have it's own little charms. One of those charms is that it's open-source and can be downloaded for free at Archive.org. (Ding!)

The first hour of the movie is pure western - you've got the square jawed hero, the mustachioed villain, a beautiful woman for 'em to fight over and an affable town drunk providing comedy relief. You don't even see the Beast until over an hour into it, and 15 minutes after that the Beast is dead.

Here's the story:

Straight-shooting Jimmy (Yaaay!) and his faithful compadre Felipe are south of the border on their cattle ranch. They're a little worried over the livestock they keep losing - cows just up and disappearing - more and more often as time goes on. Felipe suspects rival rancher Enrique (Boooo!) is behind it. Enrique would like nothing better than to see Jimmy get the hell out of Dodge.

Why? Because Enrique is engaged to Sarita (w00t!), and he sees how she looks at Jimmy when they pass in the town square. Enrique, incidentally, is a lying cheating bullying bastard who pretty much rules the town with an iron fist. Sarita is marrying him out of some family obligation, but she's had the hots for Jimmy since he first rode in. And... Jimmy's sweet on her, too.

So that's pretty much how things stay for the first 60 minutes of the film. Jimmy and Enrique fistfight... Enrique schemes his revenge... a little comic relief from the town drunk...Sarita moons over Jimmy... Jimmy moons over Sarita... more laughs with town drunk... few more cattle go missing....

Now, it turns out Enrique's not behind the disappearing cattle (much as he'd like to be). You see, there's a LEGEND: Hollow Mountain is rumored to be... hollow... and home to a ravenous BEAST. This beast (it's said) comes out in times of drought (and yes, the village is currently in the midst of one) and kills livestock.

I didn't quite get why it would come out and kill livestock during droughts. Seems it would more likely slurp up the town's water supply or something. But anyway, no one around now has ever actually SEEN this beast (probably hasn't been a drought in a long time), so it's just a legend and probably doesn't exist anyway. (Or... DOES it?)

So anyway, things between Jimmy, Enrique and Sarita finally come to a big dramatic head on she and Enrique's wedding day. Which is also the day the Beast decides to rear *it's* ugly head. (Dramatic head... ugly head. I seriously did not intend the pun but, there it is. So be it.)

The Beast comes out just as Enrique and Jimmy are having their big showdown. Much cracking of pistols and thundering of hooves ensue, with Enrique showing what a dastardly coward he is by running away and leaving people to die, while Jimmy shows true hero-ness by risking his life to save Enrique from the Beast's GAPING MAW.

And when everybody realizes they can't kill it with their guns (guess no one had a Gatling on hand), Jimmy has the bright idea of luring the Beast into a convenient bog of quicksand. And so the Mighty Beast's short screen career ends.

Speaking of Mighty Beast, I'm not sure just what the Beast is supposed to be. It's arms are too big, and have too many claws, to be a T Rex. Allosaurus had three claws... bit big for an Allosaurus though. Maybe it was a previously UNKNOWN type of dinosaur. Most people call it a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

So I'll call it an Allosaurus. A big one.

The Trailer

The Details

Directors: Edward Nassour, Ismael Rodríguez
Writers: Willis H. O'Brien (story), Robert Hill (writer)
Release Date: August 1956 (USA)
Genre: Western | Horror | Sci-Fi
Tagline: One Day After A Million Years It Came Out Of Hiding To... Kill! Kill! Kill!

Guy Madison Jimmy Ryan
Patricia Medina Sarita
Carlos Rivas Felipe Sanchez
Mario Navarro Panchito
Pascual García Peña Pancho
Eduardo Noriega Enrique Rios
Julio Villarreal Don Pedro
Lupe Carriles Margarita
Manuel Arvide Martínez
José Chávez Manuel
Roberto Contreras Carlos
Armando Gutiérrez Employee
Margarito Luna Jose
Jorge Treviño Shopkeeper