Friday, May 3, 2013

May Day Movie Marathon, Part I

With the birth of Son of Atomic Spud II a couple weeks ago, I took a two week vacation from work. As I did with the original Son of Atomic Spud, I liked to spend a few hours holding the baby and watching old movies while Bride of Atomic Spud took a nap. After watching a few movies from my Netflix queue, I found that a number of movies were only going to be available for streaming until May 1st. Since I didn't want to miss them, I decided to work through all the soon to be expired movies on my list.

The dozen movies I watched over my vacation varied wildly in quality, release date, and plot. They ranged from an Orson Welles film noir (excellent) to a Larry Buchanan made for TV movie (wretched). The oldest was released in 1935 and the newest was released in 1967. Oddly enough, four of them were released in the '60s, which is unusual for me since I rarely watch anything made during the period from 1960 to 1976. While there was the usual smattering of American sci-fi pictures, there was also a British horror movie at least partially inspired by The Mummy (1932), an Italian film starring Vincent Price, a Korean kaiju film, and a joint Japanese/American production.

I'll be presenting the movies in the order I watched them (as best as I can remember, anyway). Since the newest of these films is about 46 years old, many of these reviews can be expected to contain spoilers.

The Giant neither comes from another
world nor is it from the unknown. Who
knew that '50s movie posters could
be so deceptive?
Giant from the Unknown (1958)
For whatever reason, an unusual number of my favorite movies were released in either 1954 (e.g., Gojira, Them!, Creature from the Black Lagoon) or 1958 (e.g., It! The Terror from Beyond Space, Fiend Without a Face, The Crawling Eye). Unfortunately, Giant from the Unknown will not be joining this list.

When animal mutilations in a small California mountain town are followed by the brutal murder of a local citizen, Sheriff Parker begins to unfairly suspect amateur geologist Wayne Brooks. Brooks pays little attention to the Sheriff's insistence that he not wander far from town and takes archeology professor Frederick Cleveland and his daughter, Janet, up to Devil's Crag in search of evidence for the existence of "the Diablo Giant". Legend has it that the Diablo Giant was a famous conquistador's lieutenant who went AWOL with several other soldiers. The Giant was purportedly an enormous and brutal man who may have passed through the area in search of fortune and glory. Although Brooks has yet to find any Spanish artifacts at the site, a recent thunderstorm removed a lot of the topsoil and may have uncovered something new.

After an apparently futile search, the three accidentally run across the bones and rusted armor of a number of conquistadors. As the sun begins to set, they find an enormous helmet and breastplate in better condition than the other pieces of armor. Brooks also finds an ax buried deeply in the trunk of a fallen tree that he's unable to remove. Since it's dark when they find the armor, they don't realize that the Diablo Giant himself is nearby and laying under only a few inches of dirt. Earlier Brooks had discovered that the rocks and soil of Devil's Crag have the unusual property of preserving living creatures such as the lizard he found in the middle of a rock. It's only a matter of time before he finds out that it also preserved a very large and angry Spaniard.

The Giant extracts himself from his shallow grave and goes on a small-scale rampage, which includes killing a young woman and kidnapping Janet. As expected, the Sheriff blames this new murder and Janet's disappearance on Brooks and takes him into custody. With the help of Professor Cleveland, Brooks makes his escape and goes in search of the kidnapped girl. When the pursuing Sheriff sees the Diablo Giant for himself, he and Brooks become fast allies and the Sheriff's posse is reassigned to monster-hunting duties.

This movie could have been a lot better. The Diablo Giant looks great as his makeup was done by Jack Pierce himself (Pierce did Karloff's makeup for Frankenstein and The Mummy). The acting is passable and the characters are likable enough. I don't much care for plots in which the local law enforcement persecutes the hero with little evidence, though, especially when it takes time away from the monster. As for the Diablo Giant himself, it's unfortunate that he turns out to be one of those slow and clumsy monsters who likes to commit mayhem off-screen and racks up a disappointingly low body count.

Worst of all, the Diablo Giant isn't really a monster in the traditional sense. Although the movie begins by suggesting that the animal mutilation and the first murder are the result of some sort of curse associated with the Indian burial ground at Devil's Crag, the fact that this is an American film from the '50s means that there's a "rational explanation" for the whole thing. (Well, it's as rational as the idea that an unusually large conquistador can be revived after being buried for 500 years can be.) Since the Diablo Giant doesn't represent any sort of supernatural threat, or even an unnatural mutation, he can be dispatched through relatively conventional means and is, in the end, simply a large man with an ax. That's not nearly as cool as the idea of an undead conquistador who has risen from his grave as the instrument of an Indian curse intended to wreak vengeance on the white man.

It would have been more entertaining
if it actually delivered the Ultimate in
Diabolism or Pure terror
Die, Monster, Die! (1965)
H.P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space is one of my all time favorite sci-fi/horror stories. Die, Monster, Die! claims to be adapted from that story and shows evidence that the filmmakers were at least somewhat familiar with Lovecraft's writing in general and The Colour Out of Space in particular. However, the film completely abandons the central premise of Lovecraft's story and replaces it with something that had already been done better by other movies.

Immediately after arriving in the small English town of Arkham (the original story's backwoods American setting has been inexplicably transplanted to Britain), scientist Stephen Reinhardt realizes that he's going to have a hard time getting to his final destination. He's been invited to the Witley mansion, the home of his college girlfriend, but no taxis will take him there, the local bike shop won't rent him a bicycle to get there, and none of the locals will even tell him which way to go. After figuring out the general direction, Reinhardt sets out on foot.

While walking to the mansion, Reinhardt passes the "blasted heath" which is dominated by an enormous crater (enjoy it, Lovecraft fans, this is the most obvious reference to The Colour Out of Space you're going to get). The crater is surrounded by scorched and dead trees that disintegrate at a touch. The American eventually arrives at the Witley house just to find that no one will answer his knocking. When the door drifts open itself, Reinhardt invites himself in and quickly comes face to face with Nahum Witley (Boris Karloff!). The wheelchair-bound master of the house doesn't approve of the visitor at all and insists that he leave. He only relents when his daughter Susan greets Reinhardt and it's revealed that Susan's mother, Letitia Witley, invited the foreigner to the house.

Reinhardt is asked to speak to Letitia, who has come down with an odd disease that makes her sensitive to the light. From the shadows of her curtained bed, Susan's mother begs Reinhardt to take her daughter away from the house. Mrs. Witley doesn't really elaborate on her reasons, although she briefly mentions the disappearance of the Witley's maid, Helga. Reinhardt agrees to leave with Susan, but his girlfriend insists on staying until her mother gets better. Shortly after Reinhardt leaves the room, Nahum starts questioning his wife. Letitia laments the blasphemy of Corbin Witley (Nahum's father) and the fact that he was calling upon the powers of the "Outer Ones" when he died (a reference to many of Lovecraft's stories, although I don't believe the Outer Gods or the Great Old Ones are explicitly mentioned in The Colour Out of Space). Nahum declares that the Outer Ones' gift is a blessing, although recent events suggest that the master of the house is seriously deluded.

The butler's mysterious death and burial by Nahum, the locked greenhouse with its pulsing green glow, and the attack by an apparently insane Helga suggests to Reinhardt that something odd is going on at the Witley house. Susan shows Reinhardt a secret entrance to the greenhouse, which proves to contain enormous plants and vegetables. When they follow odd screeches and howls into an adjacent shed, they find a bizarre menagerie of misshapen creatures in cages. The chunks of glowing crystal in the plants' pots leads Reinhardt to conclude that the plants and creatures are radiation-spawned mutations. Susan reveals that Helga, Letitia, and the butler had all worked in the greenhouse before Nahum saw the need to padlock it.

Lo and behold, the "gift" that Nahum Witley believes was sent by the Outer Ones is in fact a radioactive meteor, the bulk of which is being kept in a pit in the mansion's basement. Shortly after Reinhardt and Susan return to the house, Letitia is found to be missing from her bed. The mutated and violent woman is finally found after a drawn out search involving various false scares. After briefly attacking her family, the matriarch takes a fall from a balcony and her horribly deformed body melts away in the rain.

Concluding that the meteor is a punishment for Corbin's sins rather than a gift to restore the fortunes of the Witley house, Nahum goes into the basement to destroy it. The patriarch is attacked by Helga who ends up falling into the meteor's pit. The radioactive crystal shatters, annihilating the mutant maid and transforming Witley into a glowing tinfoil fiend (I assume the monster is played by someone other than Karloff since the venerable actor could hardly walk by this point in his life). In a rare demonstration of heroic competence, Reinhardt defends himself from the monster with the axes decorating the walls of the mansion rather than miscellaneous items like breakaway chairs or tables. An ill-advised rush at Reinhardt sends Mutant Nahum through a guardrail and down to the floor below (there sure is a lot of falling in this movie). The creature's body shatters like stone and the resultant sparking starts a fire. Reinhardt and Susan emerge from the burning house, presumably to start a new life.

Die, Monster, Die! isn't necessarily a bad film, but it's a bit too slow. Worse, it eagerly deviates from its source material and heads off in a decidedly less interesting direction that had already been taken by dozens of movies before it.

Throughout his stories, Lovecraft eschewed the overtly supernatural in favor of science fictional horror. A "Lovecraftian Demon" is typically an ancient transdimensional being rather than a fiend from the Infernal Pit of Judeo-Christian belief. While many of his stories involve cultists who worship or attempt to summon beings such as Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth, the subjects of the cultists' belief are invariably intelligences from distant galaxies or realms outside of our space-time continuum. If you removed the element of horror, these beings are not unlike something you might see on an episode of Star Trek.

While a basic knowledge of who the Old Ones are is often necessary to understand Lovecraft's stories, The Colour Out of Space never explicitly references them. Instead, this particular sci-fi/horror story involves an encounter between a family on a small, out of the way farm and an utterly alien intelligence or intelligences. The beings arrive on Earth by way of a strange meteor that lands near the farmhouse's well and gradually disintegrates. Shortly thereafter, the plant and animal life on the farm begin to transform; the crops grow early in the season and reach an enormous size, although their taste is horrendous. The family even swears that the trees near the meteor's impact site sway by themselves. After a season of riotous growth, the crops and trees turn to ash and the region is changed into what the locals refer to as "the blasted heath".

The plant life isn't merely dying; it's being consumed by the aliens. As lifeforms around the farm are reduced to dust, the intelligences increasingly manifest themselves as an indescribable "colour" that seems to live in or around the well. As they feed on the humans, the affected family members go insane and, like the plants and livestock, are slowly reduced to a gray powder.

Rather than taking advantage of Lovecraft's extremely original alien invasion story, the filmmakers decide to give us the standard radiation-spawned monster story that was ubiquitous in the '50s. Sure, they throw in a reference to the Outer Ones to justify their claim that this is a Lovecraft adaptation, but the film seems to be saying that Corbin's blasphemy and Nahum's belief that the meteor is a gift from the Outer Ones is merely a superstition. The true cause of the tragedy is the disastrous effects of radiation, which the Witleys don't understand but Reinhardt, the scientist, does.

Personally, I'd rather see a more faithful version of Lovecraft's story.

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