Them! – A Science Fiction Movie Review

You may be asking yourself, is photog becoming demented?  Didn’t he already write a review of Them!?  The answers to those questions are yes and no.  I have referenced Them in several posts about cheesy 1950s science fiction movies.  But it has never gotten its own exclusive treatment.  Well, I mean to remedy that situation, pronto.

Them! is the grand-daddy of all atomic energy fear films.  Instead of fearing cancer and radiation sickness we are provided with a much more rational fear, giant ants.  It is 1954 and nine years after the first atomic bomb was tested at White Sands, New Mexico.  During those nine years ants have been traipsing around the New Mexico desert ignorant of their future as future contenders for mankind’s crown as King of the Earth.  But the wait is over.  A small prop plane is inexplicably cruising over the desert and spots a little girl holding a doll aimlessly walking in the hot sun.  The pilot alerts a nearby police cruiser which intercepts the little girl and finds that she’s catatonic.  With the help of the pilot they trace her point of origin to a recreational vehicle parked in the desert.  On closer inspection the officers discover that one side of the RV has been ripped to shreds.  But being crack forensic experts and logical linguists, they proclaim that the RV wall, “wasn’t caved in, it was caved out.”  Whoever wrote the deathless prose of this dialog is partly responsible for the sad position we currently find ourselves in, vis-à-vis cultural and actual illiteracy.  Later on, the policeman redeems himself when at a general store that has been similarly destroyed, he declares, “this wasn’t pushed in, it was pulled out.”  Okay, stupid rant over.

Based on blood found in the RV the officers determine that the girl is the only survivor of an attack.  On the way back from finding the girl and the trailer they stop off at a local general store and find it similarly damaged and the store owner brutally killed.  One of the police officers, Ed Blackburn is left at the store to guard the remains.  His partner, Sgt. Ben Peterson played by James Whitmore, drives off and shortly afterward, Blackburn is heard off camera firing his revolver at some thing and then screaming as he suffers horrible death.

Evidence found at the site of the RV, a foot print, is sent to the FBI for identification and so the story moves on to its next logical step, Santa Claus is called in.  Or more precisely Edmund Gwenn who played Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street.  Gwenn plays Dr. Harold Medford a world-renowned myrmecologist who with his myrmecologist daughter have come to lead the effort to save the world from the giant ants.  Representing the government is FBI agent Robert Graham played by James Arness.  Arness who later found fame as Marshall Dillon on TV’s Gunsmoke is the brave, competent hero of the movie and the love interest for the myrmecologist daughter.  And to provide local color Ben Peterson is always on hand to provide the comic relief.

With the help of the scientists, the army locates the giant ant nest and destroy it with cyanide gas.  But after inspecting the inside of the nest the scientists break the bad news.  New queen ants have escaped the nest and will be forming new nests elsewhere.  Now a war room is set up and armed forces from all the services mobilize to battle the giant ants on land, on sea and in the air.  Dunt, dunt, daaaah!!!

The final showdown takes place where it must, in the storm drains of Los Angeles.  And in fitting fashion, the ants capture two little boys who wander into their nest and are rescued by the US Army.  Unfortunately, Ben Peterson dies saving the boys but dies the good death of a hero.  And when the ants are finally finished off Dr. Medford gives a speech and tells us that the atomic age is fraught with danger and giant insects.

Despite how thoroughly I’ve mocked this movie, I actually enjoy it immensely.  Other than the laughably fake animatronic ants the production values for the movie are quite good and the actors are actually very effective for the most part, including the character actors performing the bit parts as police, military and civilian participants.  My favorite scenes are where the scientific expertise of the Medfords is showcased for the benefit of the poor ignorant soldiers and police.  While under attack from their first giant ant Dr. Medford makes sure he uses the Latin singular and plural versions of the word antenna when instructing the police to shoot at the ant. “Shoot the antennae, shoot the antennae,” he yells and once one of these has been shot off he continues “now shoot the other antenna.”  In another scene Dr. Medford is attempting to convince the Pentagon that the giant ants are an existential threat to humanity and he uses an ant film clip that looks like it could have been made by my high school biology teacher.

Them! is a wonderful time capsule of the 1950s.  Americans are the good guys and giant ants are definitely bad.  What could be simpler?

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – A Movie Review

Terry Gilliam is best known as a member of the comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  But he also had a second career as a motion picture writer/director.  His best-known movie was Brazil, about a dystopic future where the all-powerful security state reaches an absurdist level of control.

But the movie that I am interested in here is a less well known but sunnier exercise.  The movie opens up within a walled town besieged by the Turks at a time that is identified as being in the 18th Century, The Age of Reason, Wednesday.  A small acting company is putting on a comical play of the legendary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, when in the middle of the first act the real Baron Munchausen interrupts the play to refute the slanders, he claims are being made against himself.  The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson who is in attendance in the audience and is the military governor of the town and a staunch proponent of the Age of Reason, takes offense at the Baron’s aspersions against reason and logic and threatens to throw the Baron and the whole acting troupe over the wall to the Turk.  The Baron claims he is the cause of the Turkish assault on the town and spends the rest of the movie assembling his legendary comrades to save the town from both the Turk and the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson.  The Sultan and Jackson, behind the scenes are actually on excellent terms and take turns winning battles in order to keep the war going on forever.

Some very excellent actors are included in the cast including Jonathan Pryce as Horatio Jackson, Robin Williams as the King of the Moon and Eric Idle as Desmond and Berthold.  The reason Idle has two characters to play is another conceit of the movie.  The play actors of which Idle is one look exactly like the Baron’s actual comrades and so the movie actors play both parts.  Robin Williams as mentioned, is King of the Moon and his characterization has a split personality.  When the King’s head is detached from his body, he has a light, zany, Italian-accented voice an impish personality.  But when the head and body are joined Williams takes on the voice and personality of what could most easily be described as an angrier version of Benito Mussolini.

The English actor John Neville plays the Baron and smaller parts are distributed to well-known actors like Oliver Reed and Uma Thurman who portray the gods Vulcan and Venus respectively.  Even Sting (of Police singing fame) has a cameo as the “Heroic Officer.”

The plot, such as it is, has the Baron sailing to the Moon, falling into Mount Vesuvius to meet Vulcan and Venus and being swallowed by a giant sea monster, all performed as part of his search for his servants.  Along the way he flirts with Queens, goddesses and even a few commoners.  At all times he somehow has long stem roses to hand out and he invariably compares the beauty of each women to Catherine the Great “whose hand in marriage I once had the honor to decline.”  On one occasion he makes the remark to three women at once.  When an auditor of this exchange challenges him that they couldn’t all remind him of Catherine the Great, the Baron petulantly replied, “Why not? Bits here and bits there!”

The movie is obviously a hymn to fantasy and whimsy and the final showdown has the Baron conquer not only reason and reality but even old age and death itself.  It’s an utterly ridiculous movie that is full of fantastic visual effects and fairy tale imagery.  It probably will not appeal to all tastes.  I highly recommend it to those who can enjoy elaborate nonsense.

I Robot – A Science Fiction Movie Review

My regular readers will know that my estimation of Isaac Asimov’s work is not uniformly positive.  I read the “I Robot” stories as a kid and enjoyed them a good deal.  I think what I found entertaining was the cleverness of the interplay of the Three Laws of Robotics with the plot lines.  Re-reading them many years later I saw that aside from the cleverness, the stories were not particularly rich in characterization or description.  And for short stories of that era that wasn’t unusual.  So, let’s say I Robot is a worthy example of its time and type.

A film was made from the stories back in 2004.  It bears no resemblance to any of the stories but involves the concepts of the three laws and how they relate to a world that has adopted an almost universal use of robots in commercial, industrial and even personal service.  Will Smith is a cop in Chicago who despises robots because of a past encounter.  The plot revolves around his investigation of a murder that contrary to the requirements of the three laws has apparently been committed by a robot.  For fans of Firefly the voice of the killer robot Sonny is provided by Alan Tudyk (aka Hoban “Wash” Washburne).

I was sort of busy back in 2004 and didn’t see the movie when it came out.  But I Robot, the movie, has been in almost constant rotation on AMC for the last year or two so I’ve seen all or part of it a number of times now.  When I first viewed it I wasn’t very enthusiastic for it.  The dissimilarity from the Asimov stories probably annoyed me.  If I grasp for any other reasons, I’ll point to the presence of Shia LaBeouf in the cast in a part so insipid that it makes you shake your head wondering what the director was thinking.

Interestingly, over time I actually grew to enjoy the movie more.  It’s an action adventure movie and the scenes featuring Will Smith battling enormous numbers of robots are cleverly done and quite a lot of fun.  Tudyk does a good job making the robot character sympathetic.  And Bridget Moynahan makes the Susan Calvin character more personable than Asimov ever did.

So here we have a couple of inversions of the typical situation.  For the most part, I find that a movie made from a book almost never lives up to it.  But in this case, it surpasses it.  And here is an example of a book that has decreased in my estimation over time while the movie has done the reverse.

I Robot is not a film version of the Asimov stories and it does not break any new ground as a science fiction movie either for the special effects or for original story telling.  But it’s a pretty good Will Smith action adventure.  And he does kill a lot of robots with a big gun.  How can you go wrong with that?

Independence Day – A Science Fiction Movie Review

I have never reviewed the movie Independence Day.  It may seem as though I have because I have used the movie setting as the background for four parts of a Trump vs Independence Day post.  In any case it’s time for me to rectify the deficiency.  I’ll start out by declaring that I have a love/hate relationship with the film.  There are numerous strengths and weaknesses to the movie that cry out for mention.  So, let’s do that.

The concept of Earth being invaded by space-aliens intent on exterminating the human race is almost as old as science fiction itself.  H. G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds well over a hundred years ago.  In the era of modern science fiction the concept has been done and redone.  And there have been two film versions of War of the Worlds.  But Independence Day broke new ground in the tradition.  By the 1990s special effects had progressed far enough along so that the images from Independence Day of New York, Washington and Los Angeles being obliterated were groundbreaking in their impact.  Seeing the energy weapon explode the Empire State Building and then unleash a super-heated shock wave throughout Manhattan was at the time remarkable.  Even today, the destruction scenes are visually impressive.  The visual effects for the alien ship are also well done.  The aliens themselves I would say are more of a mixed bag.  They have some interesting features but just didn’t seem all that scary.  All in all, I’d say that the CGI and other technical effects stand up pretty well to present day expectations.

Next up is the cast.  Will Smith, who plays Marine pilot Capt. Steve Hiller, would of course now be considered the biggest name in the cast.  Back then though, Jeff Goldblum coming off his part in Jurassic Park would have been the more prominent star.  He plays David Levinson an electronics genius and ex-husband of President Pullman’s Chief of Staff.  Both of these guys get plenty of screen time.  Bill Pullman plays President Tom Whitmore and has about equal importance with Smith and Goldblum in the story line.  Other memorable parts are portrayed by Randy Quaid as Russell Casse, Robert Loggia as General Grey, Adam Baldwin as Major Mitchell and Judd Hirsch as Julius Levinson, David’s father.  Most of the humor in the movie are provided by Randy Quaid and Judd Hirsch but there is a general humorous atmosphere in the film despite the catastrophic nature of the action.

The plot of the movie has an enormous alien space craft arriving in earth orbit from which smaller city-sized ships fly down and hover over Washington D.C, New York City and Los Angeles in the United States and the other largest cities around the world.  David Levinson figures out that the space craft is preparing to launch a simultaneous attack on all the target cities around the world.  Once the attack destroys these cities the President and his advisors counter-attack with military aircraft but the alien ships have force fields that turn the counter attack into a disaster.  After this the personal stories of the three main characters and their loved ones are skillfully blended with the race to find some way to stop the aliens from systematically wiping out the entire human race.  And of course, the decisive battle occurs on the Fourth of July.

So, what’s the verdict?  As I mentioned at the beginning I have a love/hate relationship with the film.  But on balance I consider the movie a success.  The cast is for the most part likeable.  The plot is undeniably exciting.  And the resolution is almost completely satisfying.  I have some quibbles about messaging by the David Levinson character about the use of nuclear weapons and environmental crap.  And the President gets a little too globalist during the pep speech before the world-wide battle at the end of the movie.  Saying that from now on the Fourth of July would be a world-wide holiday was pretty annoying.  But for the most part it’s a good movie and has lots of great action, heroism and even some excellent comedy.  Highly recommended.

House on Haunted Hill (1959) – A Horror Movie Review

Halloween has come and gone but I would like to add a few more movies to the list and maybe finish off with some kind of summation.

The date (1959) is inserted in the post title to differentiate this film from the 1999 remake.  I actually paid money to see the remake in a theater and still consider it one of the worst judgement calls of my rather checkered movie viewing career.  It’s right up there with Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.  Ah well.

The 1959 original is a masterpiece of cheesy 1950s horror film goodness.  The plot, such as it is, revolves around a millionaire, Vincent Price, and his wife who invite three men and two women who are only casually familiar with the hosts, to stay overnight locked in a haunted mansion.  That total of four men and three women matches the number of men and women murdered in the haunted house and therefore the number of ghosts haunting it.  Got it? Good.  If they stay, they each win $10,000.  If they die, they get $50,000 or at least their beneficiaries do.  The building is locked completely and until the next morning no one can leave.

Although Vincent Price stars in this gem and brings to bear all of his formidable overacting ability I would say that the star of the film is the screams produced by the two main female characters in the movie.  The piercing quality and protracted duration of the various screaming jags is remarkable.  Especially considering the low body count of the action.  These gals will start singing at the drop of a hat or at least at the drop of a severed head.

In second place in terms of importance to the atmosphere of the film is Watson Pritchard, the character played by actor Elisha Cook Jr.  You may know Cook from his notable roles in such high-profile films as the Maltese Falcon and the Big Sleep where he interacted with the likes of Humphrey Bogart.  But this is not the Maltese Falcon.  This not even the Maltese Bippy.  In House on Haunted Hill he is interacting with actors of the caliber of Vincent Price, at best.  Pritchard is a morose alcoholic survivor of a previous ghost attack whose brother is one of the ghosts haunting the house.  His main function is to drink booze and tell the participants in a droning, despondent voice, that they are all doomed and soon to be themselves ghosts in the house forever.  In this role he is truly annoying and it is sort of beyond the suspension of disbelief to think that none of the other characters would beat him into silence.  In the most egregious occurrence of Pritchard’s pessimistic prognosticating, the male romantic lead, airline pilot Lance Schroeder, runs into a room holding a mummified woman’s severed head by its long dark hair and yells to Pritchard, “where’s Nora!”  Pritchard immediately proclaims, based on no evidence we’ve been given, that not only have the ghosts already killed Nora but that she’s already actively working as one of them to kill the rest of the living occupants of the house.  Then Nora walks into the room and Pritchard doesn’t even bat an eye but goes back to his drinking.  Apparently ghost listening is far from an exact science and his radar was slightly thrown off by the straight bourbon he was pouring down his throat at the time.

And Lance is the only other character played by an actor anyone has ever heard of.  He’s played with astonishing mediocrity by Richard Long whom you may or may not remember played “the Professor” in the forgettable 1970s tv series “Nanny and the Professor” with Haley Mills’ less talented but more attractive sister Juliet playing the role of “the Nanny.”  The rest of the actors on House on Haunted Hill probably ended up as extras on Gunsmoke, Bonanza and the Twilight Zone.  Some may even have lasted long enough to do a stint on “Love American Style.”  But I digress.

As host, Vincent Price distributes party favors (semi-automatic .45 caliber pistols) and a private bed room to each of his guests.  The guests form various alliances and attempt to protect themselves from harm but despite this, Vincent Price’s wife is quickly found hanged from the ceiling of the stairway.  It’s a really nice-looking braided rope.  This of course triggers an avalanche of shrieks from Nora.  Richard Long comforts her, which cements their romantic attraction and allows her to rest her tonsils for the next bout of screeching.  And that can only be a few minutes away.  Just to summarize, there are secret passageways, ceilings dripping with blood, vats below the floor filled with really, really, fast-acting acid, a blind hag that seems to slide along the floor as if being pulled along on roller skates, a ghostly apparition outside the window, a walking, talking skeleton and a self-propelled rope that can wind around women’s legs without any hand moving it.  There are another couple of characters that I haven’t described but honestly, they don’t have much to do.  There is a plot line that involves Vincent Price and his wife which actually explains a lot of the plot elements but knowing it doesn’t really add or detract much from entertainment value of the movie.  It’s a ridiculous horror movie and I enjoy it immensely on its own terms.  If you like bad 1950s horror movies then I recommend House on Haunted Hill as the pinnacle of the genre.  If you don’t like bad 1950s horror movies then I can’t help you and you’re probably a monster.

Things to Come – An OCF Classic Movie Review

It’s been a few years since I last saw this old science fiction film.  The screenplay was written by H. G. Wells based on his story of the same name.  And it has some distinguished British Shakespearean actors in the persons of Ralph Richardson and Cedric Hardwicke.  But it also has Raymond Massey who can chew up scenery with the best of them.

The plot is remarkably realistic at the start.  A Second World War begins in 1940 (this was made in 1935) and goes on for decades killing off most of humanity.  Then a plague finishes off the majority of the survivors and throws humanity into a virtual dark age where isolated communities battle for the meager resources that remain in what is practically a pre-industrial age.  In a section of England Ralph Richardson portrays a “Chief” who controls his villages as a rough and ready princeling battling the surrounding mini-states for control of the food and other resources.  Suddenly an advanced airplane lands and Raymond Massey reveals that a scientific community has survived the war and is re-establishing civilization and putting an end to nation-states.  He is taken prisoner by the chief but the writing is on the wall and eventually Massey’s friends show up with aircraft that looks like something out of a Buck Rogers serial.  They use the “gas of peace” to knock out the population and shepherd them into the Global Socialist Future complete with “science.”  We are then regaled with the wonderful futuristic science and engineering marvels that allow the world to be converted into a paradise on earth.

Flash forward fifty years and everyone lives underground and the world is a garden of delights where no one seems to work very hard or gets sick and everyone is happy, sort of like San Francisco but without the human feces everywhere.  The descendant of Raymond Massey, who looks remarkably like Raymond Massey, is working on the Space Gun that will shoot a space capsule around the Moon.  But Cedric Hardwicke won’t have it.  He rallies the non-scientists (actors and hair stylists) to attack the Space Gun and destroy it with their own soft and well-manicured hands.  Raymond Massey takes his helicopter and races the mob to the Space Gun and loads his daughter and her boyfriend into the bullet just in time to fire them into space and coincidentally allow the shockwave from the firing of the gun to murder all the raging doofuses attempting to stop him.

Then Massey gives a monologue that goes on and on.  It’s a panegyric to progress.  We’ll go to the Moon and colonize it and out to the planets and then onto the stars.  We’ll never stop.  It’s all or nothing.  There’s even a choir at the end.  I think they were repeating “all or nothing.”  For someone who is a big fan of the space program he managed to make it sound unhinged even to me.

Here’s my take.  The beginning of the movie is frighteningly prescient.  He saw the rest of the twentieth century coming.  That was right on the nose.  But Wells was a socialist.  Basically he might as well have been doing forward work for Stalin.  All that was missing was the hammer and sickle.  His belief that the socialists would build some kind of scientific utopia was laughably misguided.  And the smugness of the Massey character made me immediately think of Barack Obama.  All he needed to do to make the effect perfect would have been to say a couple of times “it’s not who we are.”  Honestly, I was solidly behind the “Chief” character and would gladly have put up with the lice and dysentery to avoid having to hear the speeches about “science.”

This really is a period piece and worth seeing just to get a flavor for what the British socialists thought the future should be.  It’s very enlightening.  And the histrionics by Massey are so over the top that they’re really quite funny to see and hear.

Scientists Real and Imagined – Part 2

Re-posted from 2017 in honor of Halloween

In the first installment of this post I documented my education into the real world of scientists, how they saved the world from giant mutated insects and invented important stuff like flying cars. That time period was the 1960s. It was a carefree time full of youthful high jinx such as race riots and the Manson Family. Fast forward thirty years to 1993. A little movie came out called Matinee. It was about the 1960s. The movie employs a device that I like to call “a movie within a movie.” It’s called that because within the movie you are watching there is a movie being watched by the characters in the movie! It’s a wild concept.

The name of this internal movie is MANT. That’s a portmanteau for man-ant. The eponymous victim of this movie has been transformed from a man into a hybrid man/ ant creature. Once again radiation is involved and eventually the MANT reaches gigantic proportions. And right on schedule arrives the scientist that has glasses and a beard and explains all the technical jargon about this scientific problem. And by an amazing coincidence it’s our old friend Dr. “You’re Wiser Than We Are” from “The Thing from Another World” (Robert Cornthwaite). I mean, what are the odds? He makes such valuable pronouncements as “human/insect mutations are far from an exact science” and “My friend, you’ve suffered some of the worst that our little friend the atom has to offer. It can power a city or level it!”

I was fascinated by the changes I noted in Cornthwaite between the time he was in “The Thing” and “Mant”. No longer was he sympathetic toward the monsters. His allegiance had shifted back to humanity. I attributed this change to the smoldering resentment he felt after the Thing back-handed him into a wall in the earlier movie. Such ingratitude by the monster pushed our friend back into the Humanity First camp once again. I knew this was valuable information. I wrote it down!
Outside of the movie Mant (but inside of Matinee) a teenage girl (played by Lisa Jakub) is swept up in the drama surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis (and the premiere of Mant) in the southern Florida town of Key West. This girl is the daughter of beatniks and she has her world view changed by exposure to a young Navy brat who also happens to like horror movies. When the movie ends Lisa has gotten over her prejudices against military families and monster movies. What does this have to do with this post? Well it does link us back to the military but hang in there. I have another half-baked segue coming up.
Fast forward to 1998 and a blockbuster called Independence Day erupts onto the cinematic stage. Now it just so happens that there is an ex-Navy pilot named Russel Kay and by a strange coincidence (or is it) his daughter is played by Lisa Jakub! But her love of a navy brat in the last movie has landed her in this movie in a family headed by a delusional alcoholic ex-military flier. Although it’s not apparent how she feels about horror movies she definitely suffers some of the worst of what our friends the aliens have to offer. In Independence Day, the role of scientist is handled by Jeff Goldblum. He is an environmentalist computer scientist who’s always worried about recycling and is totally opposed to nuking the aliens. He’s worried that fallout is worse than extermination of the entire human race by death rays. But by the end of the movie he comes around and cheerfully nukes the aliens on their home base.
I was thinking of dragging this forward by following President Whitmore forward into Lake Placid (well the crocodile is very large) or following Jeff Goldblum into Jurassic Park and Independence Day 2 which has all kinds of scientific mumbo-jumbo and giant creatures but I’m getting tired.
Suffice it to say that even really stupid people and fat-headed scientists can see reality if monsters and giant insects start slapping them around.
And now my patient readers, the payoff.
All of this research has allowed me to formulate a unified theory of scientific behavior. Apparently all scientists are morons and can only learn about reality by being hit over the head by it. Therefore, I propose a new policy. Whenever a scientist dictates a policy based on fat-headed stupidity he should be forced to endure the solution himself until he either sees the error of his way or dies from the paradox of settled science.
For instance, if a climate scientist declares CO2 the death of the planet then he should not produce any of it himself. Now, I don’t propose that he cease breathing. Even though technically respiration is nothing but exchanging O2 for CO2. Let’s just let him slide on the breathing. But that’s all. No internal combustion engines or heating systems or electricity. In fact, nothing produced by technology supported by the industrial revolution. So that also eliminates batteries and solar cells and everything else made in a factory. And finally, I remind everyone that burning coal or oil or even wood produces CO2. So, this scientist is telling us to give up every bit of science going all the way back to the paleolithic age. So, let us limit our friend the scientist to killing fur-bearing animals and eating their flesh and wearing their pelts for warmth. Of course, he’s probably a vegan but we all have to make compromises when inconsistencies crop up.
That’s my plan in a nutshell. It should be amusing to see Al Gore dressed like Fred Flintstone and trying to catch a squirrel for breakfast.

Scientists Real and Imagined – Part 1

Re-posted from 2017 in honor of Halloween

 

On Saturday afternoons when I was a kid I used to watch Million Dollar Movie on Channel 11 and was able to enjoy such science fiction classics as “Attack of the Crab Monsters” and “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.”  Right away I figured out that really big creatures that had been exposed to atomic radiation really liked to attack.  But as I became more sophisticated in my sci-fi viewing I eschewed such childish cinematic offerings in favor of more cerebral tales.  No more ridiculous giant crab stories.  I graduated to “Them” which is the realistic depiction of an attack by giant ants exposed to atomic radiation.  In this classic of the fifties I learned that scientists were old and wore glasses and looked like Santa Claus (except for the girl scientists who were young and didn’t even look like Mrs. Claus and tended to end up with the FBI agent who starred in the film, who in this case was James Arness of Gunsmoke fame).  And the best ones had British accents (or at worst New England accents).  Also, no matter what their area of specialization (e.g., physics, botany or myrmecology) they were all equally adept at battling giant creatures exposed to atomic radiation.  And they were full of esoteric and valuable information.  I found out that the plural of antenna wasn’t antennas but rather antennae!  This inspired in me a life-long love of the classical Greek and Latin languages.  And the most important characteristic of scientists was their love of knowledge.  Because of this thirst for knowledge, they were willing to venture into tunnels and basements where even the ubiquitous soldiers in their WWII vintage uniforms were afraid to go.  It also meant the scientists were very likely to be munched on by the mutant du jour of the story.  But you know, science.  So that is how I came to admire scientists.  They were cool and smart too.  And they always, always, always figured out how to kill the monsters.

But one Saturday, Million Dollar Movie was playing another sci-fi film, “The Thing from Another World.”  I was suspicious at first.  If it was from another world how did it get here?  Had it been exposed to atomic radiation?  Would there be enough scientists?  These doubts plagued me.  But I decided to give it a whirl.  Encouraging signs emerged quickly.  The creature was indeed radioactive and there was a whole passel of scientists assigned to this movie.  One of them even had a New England accent so things seemed to check out.  And reassuringly the US military was available for monster eradication duty once the scientists had done the heavy lifting of analysis.  Early on a problem arose.  This creature was man shaped.  He was bald and had strange hands with hypodermic finger nails.  But he was no more than eight feet tall.  This was highly irregular and seemed to throw into doubt his qualifications for his own movie.  Also the scientists in this movie were extremely assertive and gave the military officers a lot of lip.  And it seemed they didn’t know their primary function, figure out how to kill the monster.  This was very confusing.  The leader of the scientists kept saying that regardless of how many humans the creature killed, science demanded that no force should be used against it.  He kept saying (in a really annoying intonation) that the creature “is wiser than we are” and that “it’s our duty to die to preserve the knowledge this creature possesses.”  Even as a youngster I intuited that this head scientist was what we called back then “a loser.”  How could this be?  He was a scientist!  He had the answers.  I found this very puzzling and dispiriting.  I searched for some reason for this failure on the scientist’s part to want to kill the monster.  Eventually I developed an hypothesis based on a detailed comparison of “Them” and “The Thing from Another World.”  At first glance nothing jumped out.  But once I checked the cast members it all became clear.  As mentioned above, in “Them” the part of the FBI Agent and eventual boyfriend of the scientist’s daughter is played by James Arness of “Gunsmoke” fame.  It turned out that the part of the Thing was played by none other than James Arness!  Well obviously if Arness was the prospective son-in-law of one scientist, then it stood to reason that a fellow scientist would not turn on him.  What was at work here was the kind of professional courtesy that, for instance, police confer on each other’s family members.  Now it made perfect sense.  Crisis averted.  I could become a scientist without becoming a loser.  But I was troubled by all that talk of monsters being wiser than us.  And not killing them but instead letting them kill us.  It was very strange.

Fast forward forty years.  I work as an engineer.  I am surrounded by R&D PhDs.  They all look and sound like the head scientist in “The Thing from Another World.”  They drive Priuses and have Tolerance and Coexist, Bernie and Free Tibet bumper stickers on their cars.  And suddenly it all makes sense.

Scientists Real and Imagined – Part 2

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 7 – The Lesser Works and A Final Verdict

Re-posted from October 2017

The follow-on episodes to each of the primary monster movies vary in quality but the one given is that anything with a title that begins with “Abbott and Costello Meet …” isn’t going to be scary.  It could be funny, but definitely not scary.

Sort of in a class by itself is the first sequel to Frankenstein, “The Bride of Frankenstein.”  This movie has a lot of interesting things going on.  The actors who portrayed Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster in the first film reprise their roles here (Colin Clive and Boris Karloff).  The script is leavened with a little humor.  Some scenes add some human interest to the Monster’s otherwise predictable behavior of grabbing people and things and tossing them about.  One of the best known of these is the Blind Man Scene.  The Monster escapes from his enemies.  He’s been shot and is on the run.  He wanders into the cottage of a blind man who welcomes him and treats him with kindness.  The Monster is sheltered and his wounds treated.  The blind man teaches him to speak and introduces him to bread and wine and even the pleasure of a good cigar.  And he learns what music is and he calls the Blind Man friend.  Of course, inevitably, reality strikes back and a couple of hunters show up at the Blind Man’s cottage and tell the blind man he’s living with a monster.  And somehow, they manage to burn down the cottage before fleeing from the Monster.

Standouts performances in the movie are Dr. Praetorius and Minnie, Elizabeth Frankenstein’s Housekeeper.  Dr. Praetorius is a competing mad scientist who has also dabbled in the creation of human life and wants to convince Dr. Frankenstein to create a woman.  Minnie is an almost Shakespearean character who combines the qualities of busybody and wise fool with the ability shriek like an air raid siren.

 

The Monster meets Dr. Praetorius while he is selecting body parts for the Monster’s bride in the catacombs beneath the graveyard.  The Dr. offers him wine and a cigar and they become quite chummy.  So much so that the Monster becomes Praetorius’ henchman in a plan to kidnap Elizabeth to force Dr. Frankenstein to complete the Bride project.

 

Appended to the story is a foreword that portrays Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and the Frankenstein authoress (his wife Mary) discussing the story on a stormy night and segueing to the creation of a mate for the Monster.  Interestingly, they cast the same actress, Elsa Lanchester, to play both Mary and the Monster’s mate.

 

The final scene where we see the meeting between the Monster and his prospective bride the atmosphere is bizarre and overwrought to say the least.  Suffice it to say that Monster love does not conquer all.  The spurned monster decides to blow up the laboratory taking himself, Dr. Praetorius and the Bride “to kingdom come.”  But interestingly, he decides to spare Dr. and Mrs Frankenstein.  So, once again, the producers decided that a non-literary happy ending was the way to go.  Assuming that they realized they would need descendants of Dr. Frankenstein to allow for further sequels I guess you could say this decision was at least monetarily warranted.  Artistically, maybe not.  It is pretty much acknowledged that the quality of the Frankenstein sequels after the “The Bride” falls off almost asymptotically.  The next installment “The Son of Frankenstein” has a few good moments that mostly don’t involve the Monster but otherwise is mediocre.  After that the rest of the series is almost unwatchable.

 

And unwatchable is how I would describe the rest of the sequels and reboots that fill out the Universal Classic Monster movies.  The later installments of the Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman and Mummy series are very poor indeed.  The Mummy series was not continued after the original film but instead rebooted with the new Mummy character identified as Kharis played by our old friend the Wolfman, Lon Chaney Jr.  In these later movies, the Mummy is never given any personality but mutely wanders through each of the movies of this series wrapped in his bandages and chasing ponderously after the protagonists who are murdered one by one for possessing the Scroll of Thoth (or whatever they called it in the later series).  I think in the last of the series I remember he is somehow or other running around the bayous of Louisiana hunting the scroll and its owners.  In the last scene, he is seen plodding into the swamp until he is lost to sight under the muddy water, apparently ending his undead life far from the deserts of Egypt as a soggy meal for alligators and crawfish.  A fitting end.

 

So, what’s the verdict?  Is the Universal Classic Monster series a worthwhile cinematic collection or an embalmed thing that is only noteworthy as a museum piece to be fussed over by academics and fanatics?  I vote worthwhile.  Granted the movies are antique and the audience surely won’t be scared in the same way your great grandparents were.  But the movies still provide the fantasy experience that they originally were designed for.  In the same way, a nursery rhyme can still charm children who have never seen lambs and cows and ducks except on a screen so these movies give an archetypal experience of the dark fantasy world they are meant to represent.  Dracula is the evil seducer of young innocents.  Frankenstein’s Monster is the raging step-child of God.  The Mummy is a Promethean character punished forever for attempting to preempt the prerogatives of the gods.  Each of these movies is an outdated but enjoyable attempt to entertain an audience with a passion play of what happens when humans are juxtaposed with the darker side of the fantastic.  And because of the gap in time since they were made I think that the best audience for enjoying these films are kids.  I’d say 9 to 11 is about the optimal age group for maximum effect.  That age is old enough not to be scared by the images but not old enough to be jaded by modern movie magic.  And come to think of it, I think that’s how old I was when I thought these movies were great fun.

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 6 – The Invisible Man

Re-posted from October 2017

The Invisible Man, to be pedantically precise, is not a monster movie but a science fiction story.  H.G. Wells’ tale of a scientist who develops a technique to render the human body (his own) invisible is not really monstrous in a physical sense but because the technique drives the inventor insane we are back in the neighborhood of the Mad Scientist.  And since Dr. Frankenstein is then brought to mind we can shoehorn this science fiction story into the genre.  Claude Rains (the Wolfman’s father from an earlier chapter of this review) is the Invisible Man.  Or rather Claude Rains voice is the star of the movie, since until the very last scene we can’t see his face.  But it’s a very good voice.  And since often we can’t exactly tell what he’s doing he spends a fair amount of time telegraphing his actions to help us guess what his actions are that the other characters are pantomiming around.  And he’s an active fellow.  He kills a few people with his bare (invisible) hands.  He bludgeons some others and he goes in for some mass murder via railway sabotage.  He ends up a rather unsavory fellow.  But somehow there remains a somewhat sympathetic core to the character.  Based on the people who still try to help him he must have been a good man before his descent into madness.  Therefore, we can look at him as a victim of his own scientific curiosity.

All that aside, it’s a fun movie.  The scientific intelligence, megalomania and irritable persona of the Invisible Man is juxtaposed against the plodding mediocrity, skeptical common sense and parochial outlook of the English villagers and local constables who are dumbfounded and unbelieving as to the true cause of the strange goings on.  Whenever they declare the inexplicable events a hoax the Invisible Man steps in and gives them a painful (and sometimes fatal) object lesson in his reality.

In the thick of these goings on is my favorite supporting character Una O’Connor as the Innkeeper’s wife.  She is a wonderfully shrewish landlady whose suspicious and unkind treatment of the Invisible Man throws him off the deep end.  She possesses the most remarkable shrieking scream ever recorded on film.  She is a national treasure of sorts.  And as a tie-in she plays Dr. Frankenstein’s housekeeper in “The Bride of Frankenstein,” another movie where she chews up the scenery and shrieks a blue streak.

Of course, by the end of the movie and after murdering so many innocent people, the Invisible Man has lost almost all of the audience’s sympathy so that it seems just that he should pay the price for his crimes.  But he is allowed the touching death scene where he regains his humanity and seemingly his sanity.

So, to reiterate, this is not a monster movie but there is a Mad Scientist and several of our old friends from earlier Universal Monster Movies do show up.  It’s basically a tour de force for Claude Rains (or rather his voice). I give it my seal of approval.  Good stuff.