Monday, October 08, 2012

“That's the trouble with you eggheads - you jump to conclusions! I know what I see and I see a dead man, but, uh, I don't see any spider.”

Time once again to jump into the processed-shot world of Bert. I Gordon. Today’s entry is 1958’s Earth Vs. The Spider AKA The Spider.

In River Falls, (I presume) California, a teenager and her insensitive boyfriend look for her missing dad. Dad had a reputation as a drunk, but when the kids find his wrecked truck and some bloody clothes near a cave, it seems drunk driving was not the problem. No, that problem is a giant spider that the teens barely escape. The High School science teacher arranges to spray the monster with enough DDT to fill Lake Mead, and the spider’s corpse is stored in the school gym because it’s the only place large enough to study it.

And then the janitor lets a band into the gym to rehearse for the school dance, and they in turn are followed by the drama class who start shaking, rattling, and rolling, and the power of rock music rouses the spider from its slumber, sending it on a murderous rampage across the city before it’s killed in its original cave through a complicated series of events where the two teenagers from the beginning are trapped inside when a road crew blasts the entrance shut, then has to dig an entrance to rescue the kids, and the science teacher electrocutes the hell out of the beast.

Carol Flynn: June Kenney plays an average small town girl with average issues like occasional disagreements with her boyfriend and a father with a reputation as a bit of a drunk. Actually, her attachment to her father moves the plot along several times (sometimes stupidly) because she is devoted to keeping and recovering his last gift to her (a piece of jewelry) that she is willing to run back into the giant spider’s cave to find it after the plot has decided that she dropped it in there.

Mike Simpson: (Eugene) Gene Persson plays Carol’s rather dense and unintentionally insensitive boyfriend. Mostly he serves to follow Carol around and voice doubts about various things. Oh, and to drive a car. His dad owns a movie theater.

Sheriff Cagle: Gene Roth plays the simple, and extremely skeptical provincial sheriff. Like any B-movie sheriff, he doesn’t believe the teens when they tell him there’s a giant monster attacking people. It takes a few dead deputies to convince him that yes, there is indeed a giant monster attacking the town.

Professor Art Kingman: Ed Kemmer plays the actual hero of the film. He’s a high school science teacher and the first person to believe the teens when they tell him what they’ve seen. He’s also the guy who comes up with effective plans to stop the creature. However, after the spider is put down the first time, he’s determined to study it (like all good scientists do) and makes the miscalculation that the beast is dead instead of dormant. Still, he’s the only character that does anything truly proactive in the movie.

Directed by Bert I. Gordon, it works in Gordon’s signature processed shots to make things really big on a small budget. In this case, it’s a tarantula, and the effects are generally decent (though issues of scale come into play for differing shots). The spider’s web is very obviously a standard (and large) rope net. The film also uses Carlsbad Caverns as the “location” of the spider’s cave, but there’s some very obvious matte work and I suspect it was just cheaper to use elements from, say postcards, than to actually shoot in the actual caverns. There’s lots of cost and time cutting cheats in this genre and this movie is no different.

There is a random insert shot of a baby crying (presumably orphaned or abandoned) in the street amid the wreckage of the spider's rampage that is rather inexplicable. It only lasts a few seconds and I guess the purpose of it is to show the tragedy of this destruction, but it doesn't fit into a big, dumb giant spider movie like this which is full of lots of really, really dumb goofiness. All it manages to do is provide a few seconds of mood whiplash before jumping right back into "holy crap, how do we stop a giant spider!?"

Story by Bert I. Gordon, Screenplay by Laszlo Gorog and George Worthing Yates. Well, it’s a giant spider movie. It definitely provides that. The characters are not very interesting and the plot is by its nature far-fetched. Still, unlike some other contemporaries, it’s not boring and scenes don’t linger as long on pointless padding conversations as other movies. (They’re still present, but pacing at least exists in this movie).

Albert Glasser provides an enthusiastic and bombastic soundtrack to the movie. There’s also some Theremins thrown in for good measure. Because its not a 50s Sci-fi movie without Theremins.

Earth Vs. The Spider is an acceptable representative of the 50’s Giant Monster craze. Not the best, but not the worst. It’s bad, sure, but it has enough crazy images, concepts, and stuff going on that it’s at least entertaining.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

“White people shouldn’t live too long out in the jungle.”

In 1951, Curt Siodmak, a screenwriter probably most famous for the very excellent Lon Chaney Jr. Wolf Man, wrote and directed Bride of the Gorilla, which recycled a ton of elements from The Wolf Man.

In South America, a brash young plantation manager is having an affair with his employer’s beautiful young wife. There’s an argument at dinner and he gets fired by the old man, and the argument continues outside. The two struggle briefly, and the manager lets a deadly snake bite the old man and kill him. This would be great news for our protagonist, but the deed is seen by the creepy old native witch who works on the plantation. She was following our protagonist to get revenge on him for abandoning a local lover, and she takes the opportunity to curse him (and starts slipping a magical plant into his drink to facilitate the curse). The manager inherits the plantation and marries the widow, but soon starts seeing himself transform into a bestial creature. Not coincidentally, a bestial creature begins terrorizing the region at night, and a local police commissioner begins investigating.

Barney Chavez: Raymond Burr! Clearly not Hispanic. Or Spanish. Barney is a terrible plantation manager who slacks off constantly and is juggling at least two love affairs before his boss fires him and the fateful confrontation happens. Afterwards, things seem pretty great for him, he gets a profitable estate and a beautiful bride that loves him. Then he starts seeing his hand get hairy, then sees a gorilla costume instead of his reflection in the mirror. The curse starts driving him up a wall and he starts spending more time out in the jungle than with his wife. The natives begin whispering of the “sukara” a beast that is tall, red, and somewhat man-like (In other words, a gorilla costume). For a while its up in the air whether Barney is actually turning into a creature or its all in his head.

Dina Van Gelder: Barbara Payton plays the young, materialistic trophy wife of the plantation owner. She’s not happy in her marriage, since she doesn't love her husband and they live in the middle of nowhere. So when the young stud Barney starts up a relationship with her, she goes for it. Blinded by love, she doesn't realize (at first) that Barney’s really responsible for her husband’s death; she loves him unconditionally. Dina bet on the wrong horse though, since Barney starts losing it and would rather frolic in the jungle than spend evenings with her. Yes, he cheats on her with the Jungle. She still loves him and wants to get them away from the plantation, which leads to dire consequences.

Klaas Van Gelder: Paul Cavanagh plays Dina’s sickly husband. He’s not in the movie long, but gets to express his intense dislike of Barney and feels bad that he can’t make Dina happy. Then it's snakebite time.

Dr. Viet: Tom Conway plays the family physician who gets caught up in investigating the mysterious goings-on. He’s ALSO got romantic feelings for Dina, but she doesn't even notice, probably because he’s older than Barney and thoroughly boring. 

Police Commissioner Taro: Lon Chaney Jr. is also clearly not Hispanic, but plays one anyway. He’s effectively the hero of the movie, a local boy made good who came home and is now putting the pieces of a murder mystery together. He’s also a creature between two worlds, but he knows it (and doesn't kill farmers in the night). City educated and sworn to uphold civilized law, he’s also well-versed in local legend and superstition and the more…flexible form of justice found in the jungle. 

Al-Long: Giselle Werbisek plays the creepy housekeeper and witch woman. She’s got an illegal plant that she can do magic with. The locals all hold her in awe and fear. She actually witnesses Van Gelder’s death from the bushes but doesn’t do anything about it, instead leaning over his dead body and cursing Barney Chavez to become like an animal. At the inquest she gives false testimony that helps acquit Barney, but then she holds what she knows over Barney’s head and quietly keeps drugging him with the plant. She comes across as sinister and unlikable.

                               Man, I wish I had this as a .gif

This was one of the few movies directed by Curt Siodmak. Siodmak was an interesting guy. Born in Germany in 1902, he was part of the mass exodus of Jewish filmmakers who fled the Nazis prior to World War II and he had a long, healthy career as a screenwriter and novelist. His older brother Robert Siodmak had a much more prominent career as a (more successful) director. 

As far as the visuals of this movie go, it's okay I guess. The budget is obviously low and the gorilla costume is not very good. I presume the filmmakers realized this, as they kept it off the screen as much as possible. Sure, it was probably also minimally used to build tension and uncertainty, as they use it in reflections and for hands, but I think the look of the gorilla costume was also a factor. The rest of the movie is a very workmanlike production.

Written by Curt Siodmak, I really can’t help but focus on the similarities to The Wolf Man. Its got a curse, a gypsy-like wise old woman, the elements of a love triangle, the notion of the bestial nature of man as a curse, and its even got Lon Chaney Jr. The major thematic difference is that Barney Chavez is a brutal, unsympathetic murderer and Larry Talbot was a sympathetic, likable guy. Outside of the commonalities, the dialogue, characters, and plot are all quite pedestrian. I suppose it's also worth noting that gorillas are not native to South America. At all.

Original music by Raoul Kraushaar and Mort Glickman (uncredited). It’s…there, in a forgettable way. 

The movie essentially takes Siodmak’s Wolf Man premise and recycles it into the South American jungle with an ape. Curt Siodmak cribbing from his earlier, better script but with a much lower budget is somewhat interesting, but not particularly compelling. There are worse movies out there, but considering the talent involved in making this, Bride of the Gorilla is simply mediocre and mostly boring. Sure, it's in the public domain and easy to find, but you're not missing anything by not seeing it.

Monday, October 01, 2012

“Before we get through this thing, we may uncover sins that even the Devil might be ashamed of.”

Yeeaaaahhhh buddy! October returns and once more its time to open up the dusty doors of Castle RMWC to a month of horror, the macabre and the weird. Well, more weird, at least. This year will continue the tradition of mixing in new stuff with old, significant and often overlooked pieces from the past, and pure schlock. Thus, I bid you welcome. Enter freely and of your own free will, as we spend the month dancing with the weird.

I miss Voodoo zombies. Zombie. Zuvembie. Xombi. Zombi. You know, OG Zombies.

So why not go back to the source? 1932’s White Zombie is pretty much the first feature-length zombie movie, and the granddaddy of every other walking dead movie made. Rob Zombie’s band was named after this movie, so there's that going for it.

A young couple arrive at a Haitian plantation. It belongs to a mutual friend, who is also the third wheel in a love triangle who schemes with a sinister local mystic to take the woman for himself. After getting friend-zoned one last time, the plantation owner goes through with his plan, slipping the bride a potion at the wedding dinner that slips her into a death-like trance. Distraught and drunk, her widower finds her tomb empty one night and starts investigating, while the plantation owner begins having second thoughts about his deal with the mystic, since his beloved has been transformed into a zombie.

Charles Beaumont: Robert Frazer plays the jealous plantation owner. It was his suggestion for the couple to have the ceremony at his Haitian mansion, where he not-so-smoothly tries to woo Madeline away from her fiancee right before the wedding ceremony. Beaumont is unhealthily obsessed, and he eventually realizes this, seeing as the raw deal he makes transforms Madeline into an emotionless puppet not even under his control. 

Neil Parker: John Harron plays our hero. He works for a bank and is incredibly in love with his fiancee. To be honest, he only gets interesting after Madeline’s “death.” Then he becomes a drunk, alternating between drinking his sorrows away in bars and grieving in the cemetery. It's at one such cemetery visit that he find’s Madeline’s tomb empty, triggering his investigation.

Madeline Short Parker: Madge Bellamy plays our heroine, though for most of the movie she’s in a passive trance. Before the wedding, she’s not fleshed out much, being somewhat creeped out by the Haitian locals and talk of Voodoo. She doesn't get to enjoy being Mrs. Parker long, since Beaumont’s obsession with her ends up literally objectifying her. 

Dr. Bruner: Joseph Cawthorn plays a Christian missionary who feels uneasy about Beaumont’s estate and urges the Parkers to leave right after the wedding. After Neil’s shocking discovery, Bruner’s local knowledge and connections help the duo track down Legendre’s hideaway. Interestingly, one of his oldest friends and connections is a Haitian witch doctor named Pierre.

“Murder” Legendre: Bela Lugosi outright steals the show with his creepy eyes, sinister goatee and gleeful villainy. Part devilish dealmaker, part super villain, his past is vaguely hinted at. While the movie makes it clear that its possible for these zombies to return to normal from their drugged state, Legendre still has supernatural powers: he has an affinity to birds of prey and he can silently and mentally command his zombies. He learned voodoo from a local expert, then converted him into his first zombie. Legendre then went on a zombie-making spree, using them as cheap labor in his sugar mill and, to his unending delight, he made his former enemies into his zombie A team (i.e. the ones you see on screen a lot). He plays Beaumont for a fool: Legendre is the true master of zombie-Madeline, and once Beaumont starts turning against Legendre, the bokkor slips some poison into Beaumont’s drink and cheerfully sits down to watch his former partner slowly and painfully turn into a zombie. Lugosi’s fantastic in this.

Directed by Victor Halperin (and co-produced with his brother), this is clearly a low budget movie compared to the Universal stuff from 1931. There’s a rough-around-the-edges quality to it. Some of the edits are a little sloppy. Though there are some great touches. First is the makeup effects by Jack Pierce. His zombies are the slow, wide-eyed kind, but each one looks unique and has “personality.” You can tell that they had lives prior to their weird state of unlife, and their costumes reflect that. Some of the sets, particularly Legendre’s estate and his sugar mill, are incredibly atmospheric and eye-catching. The Mill stands out as the most visually striking scene, with the large gears all being operated by zombies, and when one accidentally falls in, the others keep pushing away without a pause. Effectively creepy in a movie where the acting is very theatrical. 

There’s also an interesting split-screen effect near the end where Neil and Madeline are shown: Neil is swooning from fever on the beach below Legendre’s castle and Madeline is standing in a trance inside one of the rooms therein. It doesn’t quite work right, since the effect is a little jerky, but it still conveys the mood quite nicely, showing both character at respective low points. I applaud the ambition of the effect.

Story and Dialogue by Garnett Weston and based on (uncredited) the novel “The Magic Island” by William Seabrook. The plot has roots in sensationalism: White people go to exotic location and are bedeviled by exotic local magic. Zombies were one of the new, hot supernatural things at the time. 

As for the character work, its mostly bland. Neil only gets interesting after he turns into a mournful drunk prone to bouts of swooning. Madeline is more of a plot device/object of desire than a complete person. Dr. Bruner is cut from the exact same cloth as Abraham Van Helsing. Beaumont’s arc is thoroughly predictable in its path from “obsession” to “I’ve made a huge mistake.” Even Legendre is two-dimensionally evil, but Lugosi manages to elevate the material above the unimpressive script.

Original music by (uncredited) Xavier Cugat according to IMDB. According to Wikipedia, most of the soundtrack is a hodgepodge of classical pieces recorded for the film including works by Mussorgsky, Liszt and Wagner. There is also a Voodoo-sounding chant that plays over the opening credits that establishes the exotic tone right away. 

White Zombie is actually rather good. Bela Lugosi is playing up his gleeful devilishness and cuts a sinister figure much less restrained and aristocratic than Dracula. Which is good, because he carries the film entirely by himself. The other actors are…there, and play their roles, but what sticks with you after this movie is Bela and the great zombie makeup by Jack Pierce and the overall spooky mood. Respect most definitely due. 

The film's also in the public domain, so it's extraordinarily easy to get a copy of it. Hell, four of the first five results for "White Zombie 1932" on Youtube are the full movie.