|'); document.write(''); //-->|
Universal DVD's The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Vol. 2 has arrived, following up on last year's Volume One set, which is now discontinued and going for high prices on Ebay. Universal has dipped deeper into the barrel this time, coming up with fun titles but no surprise classics. Two of the selections are by any estimation actually horror pictures, but we won't complain too loudly because they're probably the most interesting of the set.
First up is Paramount's Technicolor Dr. Cyclops from 1940, an Ernest Schoedsack project more notable for its 3-Strip photography than anything else. This is the film where a mad scientist up in the Peruvian Andes shrinks people with a radium ray. "Oh, that one." The fanciful direction sketches a poetic fantasy for an audience that the studios hadn't yet properly defined, but uninspired dialogue tends to drag the show down. The Variety review called it a fantastic melodrama, but also 'dull.' It's a lot better than that, but no classic. Famous Monsters magazine introduced many of us to the film's remarkable images long before it showed up on television. I personally didn't see the picture until they screened Paramount's nitrate studio print at UCLA in the early '70s.
Dr. Cyclops begins with an effective scene where the mad Dr. Thorkell (Albert Dekker at his slimiest) jams Paul Fix's head into his radium beam device and eerie purple and red skull-like highlights appear on his face. Nothing that follows tops that, although we're frequently given iconic, pulp magazine views of Thorkell using his boiler-plate helmet to observe his atomic furnace, or whatever it is. He's dipping a Frankenstein-like collecting device into a radium mine, and has gone insane, with accompanying delusions of grandeur. With his bald head and sneering attitude, Albert Dekker probably set back the cause of science a hundred years; when people heard about atomic bombs five years later they surely imagined that chortling crackpots like Thorkell were in charge. The script stretches to justify its title, talking about moral myopia and finally breaking one of the lenses in Thorkell's spectacles. All the writers needed to do is allude to Odysseus and Polyphemus and let the audience think for itself. A committee must have gotten involved in that one.
The effects are splendid for 1940 and only passable now; one has to remember that in the old Technicolor process making even a simple dissolve required at a minimum 6 strips of film and often more. Many effects are marvelous, even simple rear-screen setups. Some of these are marred by depth of field problems. Foreground people and objects in the background are often in focus while the middle ground between them goes soft, like the riverbank in front of the alligator. That just doesn't happen in normal photography, and is perhaps why that old review called some of the scenes 'fuzzy.' Gigantic miniature sets and oversized props were built, many of them quite realistic. A setup where the miniaturized people aim a shotgun into the background at the sleeping Thorkell looks just as good as it did in stills. One very handsome trick traps the fussy Professor Bullfinch in a giant hand prop, while the rest of Thorkell looms behind in a rear projection. Doubtless many a bored science student could identify with this scene.
A first viewer of Dr. Cyclops is bound to be impressed, but repeat looks unfortunately invite us to notice all the flaws and trickery, like the string tied to the alligator's mouth to make his head bob around. Thomas Coley is an insipid hero and Janice Logan has to stand around in stage waits with everyone else. Halton and Victor Kilian are good character backup types, but Frank Yaconelli wears what look like red diapers for most of his scenes. Someone must have thought that he'd make a good 'funny Mexican' comic character. He proves that theory by not surviving to the climax.
The copy of Dr. Cyclops is very good, reproducing the colors I remember fairly accurately. The flattened contrasts and grain in the effects shots were always there. I'm told that Dr. Cyclops wasn't a big hit in 1940, and can't understand why. Kids flocked to see One Million, B.C., and it was in B&W. Maybe this color show needed Carole Landis in a fur bikini.
Cult of the Cobra is a supernatural horror film, plain and simple. It's also a flagrant carbon copy of the Val Lewton Cat People of thirteen years before. Faith Domergue plays Lisa Moyer, a moody 'foreign' girl new to The Big Apple who transforms into a snake to fulfill a curse handed down by an irate chieftain of the Lamian cult (Edward Platt, of all people). Dogs and cats freak out whenever Lisa appears. She encourages her unwary victims to make a pass at her before striking. Jacques Tourneur's atmospheric street scenes are replaced by prosaic but functional Universal back lot facsimilies. A Lewton 'bus' moment occurs when a pressure cooker hisses ...you know, like a snake.
Since Howard Hughes didn't see fit to sue Universal for all it was worth, that comparison is now little more than a footnote. Cult of the Cobra was sort of a genre orphan in its year (quick, name four 1955 supernatural horror films) and is really not a bad picture, mainly because of an interesting cast. Faith Domergue is no Simone Simon but she passes as the mixed-up killer cobra lady. We can't tell if Lisa's a true Lamian believer or just a tool of the cult -- no Indian master guides her -- and she definitely seems to want to ditch her reptilian side and get cozy with Marshall Thompson's nice-guy hero Tom. Lisa becomes a frustration for the amorous Tom when she turns hot and cold without warning; I'll bet a lot of guys at the drive-in used the movie to soften up their dates: "Gee, you aren't some cold-blooded psycho snake chick, are you Sally?"
Cult of the Cobra begins with a lengthy prologue in India, with the boys escaping from a Lamian temple after witnessing a secret dance. The theme of GI's coming home is taken seriously, and the actors inhabit their roles knowing that good work here may get them noticed. Richard Long and Jack Kelly definitely did well, while William Reynolds and James Dobson remained lesser names. The big winner of course is David Janssen, who unfortunately is one of the earlier victims. Also getting special attention is Kathleen Hughes, the femme fatale of the noir The Glass Web and the 3-D poster bait in It Came from Outer Space. Richard Long and Marshall Thompson both hope to marry Kathleen's Julia Thompson, and she's given a lot of screen time for agents to mull over her appeal.
The snake transformations are simple dissolves, sometimes obscured in silhouette. The snake's shadow often falls across its intended victim and on at least one occasion appears to be little more than the shadow of the director's arm and fist. The mystery and the horror angle are predictable and slight, but the film is enjoyable because of its interesting characters.
Cult of the Cobra is presented in a slick, perfectly-framed enhanced widescreen transfer. Even a borrowed stock shot of an old car crash looks good. It's a perfectly acceptable double-bill entry.
1957's The Deadly Mantis looks like a replay of ideas from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them!, using Sam Katzman's method of pillaging stock libraries for every frame of useful film. Scenes of glaciers, icebergs and curious Inuits are recycled from Arnold Fanck's German S.O.S. Eisberg, the 1933 film starring Leni Riefenstahl. The monster is resuscitated in the arctic and makes its way south to wreck airplanes, fishing boats, etc. By blanketing the eastern seaboard in fog, the writers arrange to deprive most of the cast of a good look at the monster until almost the last reel. With no really impressive 'monster jeopardy' set pieces until the end, The Deadly Mantis is slow going indeed.
The cast tries hard to bring the show to life, but the script is a stack of generic situations. As the woman entering the male domain, pleasant Alix Talton is frequently surrounded by babbling enlisted men. Officer Craig Stevens is dark and handsome and therefore qualifies to help Alix with her coat and be around to claim her at the fade-out. Scientist William Hopper handles reams of exposition and is the kind of unflappable Phd who seems unimpressed by incontrovertible proof of giant bugs on the loose. The stock footage of jet planes and military equipment becomes tiresome indeed, and isn't what we expect from a 50s Universal film - what they came up with may be weak, but it was almost always done in-house. Proof that this is a bona fide Uni production comes when the Peeping Mantis stoops to stare at Alix through an unlikely giant window in a Greenland air base building. Maybe he's disappointed when he doesn't see Mara Corday in a nightgown.
A real mantis is used for a couple of shots but most of the time the big bug is a silhouette in front of unconvincing rear projections, or a large marionette / rod puppet. The model doesn't have enough detail but it looks good against some okay miniature sets, sometimes with heavy fog to make it look creepy. The final confrontation in the Manhattan Tunnel is handled fairly well, but like everything else in the movie, it's just SLOW. Some paramedics are told not to look for bodies at a bus accident, with the implication that they were gobbled up by the incredibly voracious mantis. The thing moves so slowly, your grandma could climb out of the bus with a broken hip and still escape.
The Deadly Mantis is the only title in the set not presented in its appropriate aspect ratio. The main titles show that it could have been matted off and enhanced for widescreen like Cult of the Cobra, but when we get into the dialogue scenes heads would be lopped off in almost every shot. I'd say this copy is a 35mm optical dupe 'adapted' for TV use: selectively blown up and repositioned so as to reduce the dead space top and bottom. Perhaps some of the footage was originally hard matted, prompting the re-fit. I've read that a proper widescreen version is being shown on the Monsters HD television channel, so in this case somebody's good intentions didn't pay off.
A textless trailer is included.
The Land Unknown is not particularly well remembered, but it's a film everyone wants to see. It and The Incredible Shrinking Man must have been expensive films for Universal in 1957. Large, elaborate jungle sets dominate, including one vast miniature set for its dinosaurs to clomp around in. Practically every other shot is a complicated optical, filmed in CinemaScope. It came out on Laserdisc about ten years ago, in one of the last of the format's last $100 'bargain' boxed sets. This enhanced transfer is much sharper.
Unfortunately, the movie is a real snooze. The Navy personnel who escort beautiful Maggie Hathaway (Shawn Smith) to a newly-discovered warm oasis in the middle of Anarctica constantly plague her with lame suggestive remarks disguised as hip compliments. Maggie behaves as if charmed. Nobody tries anything, however, leaving leading man Jock Mahoney to 'claim' her at the climax for marriage and babymaking. Despite that finale, the film's theme is definitely not 'life will find a way': we see the humans running about smashing dinosaur eggs whenever they find them.
The movie has plenty of monsters but little tension. Trapped in a steamy tropical jungle way below sea level, the group just muddles through. The fact that the whole show is an unofficial remake of The Lost World is reinforced when the party is menaced by a demented survivor from an earlier expedition played by Henry Brandon, War Chief Scar from the previous year's The Searchers. He kidnaps Maggie, takes her to his cave and claims the right 'to make her his property', hot-cha, yet nothing comes of it. The rest of the military men bide their time until Brandon comes to his senses and tells them where they can locate a missing part for their broken helicopter.
The opticals in The Land Unknown are impressive, but the monsters are not. Some casual saurian interlopers are monitor lizards encouraged to bite each other. A pterodactyl, an elasmosaur and a Tyrannosaurus Rex are all big rubber creations that are either goofy or just plain ridiculous. One would have to be a very small child to be impressed by the foolish-looking rubber Rex shambling along, with its embarrassingly unworkable anatomy. At least he has a scaly appearance; the anemic elasmosaur looks like it's been dipped in tar. Good rear projection and traveling mattes are used to paste people into the same frame with these unlikely monsters. I can honestly imagine kids hooting at the screen, not only because the dinos are so fake, but because they don't really do anything interesting. I think I tried to stay up to see this one at age fourteen, and plain fell asleep.
The Land Unknown's beautiful enhanced transfer indicates that its film elements haven't been reprinted much over the years. It's certainly a more impressive experience in CinemaScope than it was on old flat TV prints. The capable Shawn Smith was actress Shirley Patterson, using the new name she'd adopted in 1954 in hopes of changing her luck. The next year she landed the lead role in Edward L. Cahn's It, the Terror from Beyond Space after which she apparently said Aloha to the movies for good. Like so many others, she never got that breakout role.
1960's The Leech Woman is at the ragged end of the line for Universal's B&W horror line; it was originally co-billed with The Brides of Dracula a big hit of the new Technicolor Hammer era. It's been mentioned that Ben Pivar's story was likely gathering dust in Uni's story files until it was dusted off to be re-written by David Duncan, the screenwriter of The Time Machine. Produced almost on a minimalist level, The Leech Woman is a treasure trove of perverse ideas about the roles of men and women. It was one of the first genre films written up when feminist film criticism came 'a-calling in the early 1970s. The movie is so tightly structured, a full Synopsis is indicated, with spoilers:
The Leech Woman is an enjoyably perverse cynical fantasy about the vile nature of men and the cruel fate of women. June has accepted her husband's revulsion for women without a youthful appearance; as the feeble old Malla says, when a man grows old and gray he gains dignity, while a woman becomes worthless. Paul, to his dismay, underestimates the wrath of a woman scorned, while the desperate June is 'liberated' from her inhibitions against killing and predatory sexual pursuit. Once back home, she puts the moves on her lawyer Neil. Perhaps the Nando drug has other powers, for Neil is instantly mesmerized, and seduced literally right in front of his fiancée Sally Howard (Gloria Talbott of I Married A Monster from Outer Space, looking better than ever).
The main lesson offered is that, without love, the need for the illusion of youth (and by extension, the ability to be a desirable sex partner) becomes an obsession. We grudgingly accept the hokey notion of a youth serum because it's necessary to the story. But after seeing Paul's mercenary cruelty, we're fully behind June's decision to become a hormonal vampire feeding off the offending opposite sex. You go, girl! June's newfound self-esteem is a big step forward from being a drunken neurotic. So what if a few annoying guys have to die along the way? The moment June steps onto Main Street wearing her diamonds, the creeps appear, and it doesn't matter to June if they want money or sex. Conman Jerry Lando (Arthur Batanides) doesn't realize that he's being sized up as a donor of pineal fluid.
Although it rushes to its grim finish, The Leech Woman doesn't dodge the implications of its story. With a foolish blunder similar to Paul Birch's in Not of this Earth, June's presto-change-o trick goes sour at exactly the wrong time, like when the cops have discovered her latest victim.
The presence of Phillip Terry suggests an interesting possibility -- The Leech Woman provides the underappreciated Coleen Gray with an interesting part, but the film would have been the perfect vehicle for ... Joan Crawford, Phillip Terry's ex-wife. In 1960 the limitlessly narcissistic Crawford could be depended on to consider herself capable of playing both the beautiful and the (only slightly) decrepit versions of June; the film is thematically similar to movies Joan had been making since 1950. After seeing her outrageously awful display in Strait-Jacket, we can easily imagine Crawford separating Grant Williams from Gloria Talbott with just a bat of her eyelashes. As it is, everybody in The Leech Woman is a creep driven by sexual imperatives. The 'nice' Neal Foster dumps his girl like a hot potato, and the 'nice' girlfriend resorts to violence to scare off an unfair competitor. We wonder about Malla back in Africa, going to all that effort for a few hours of youth and beauty before dying of old age. The Nandos appear to worship women, but Malla is still a prisoner of her culture.
Although June becomes the film's 'monster', The Leech Woman deflects most of the blame for her mad crimes onto the male-dominated value system. Roger Corman made a nearly identically themed film in the same year, The Wasp Woman with Susan Cabot. It's just as cheap but not quite as interesting. Coleen Gray's The Leech Woman just gets wrinkly, thanks to some rubbery Bud Westmore makeup. Not only does Ms. Cabot turn into a giant bug, she's a less sympathetic villain.
The Leech Woman is another picture-perfect 1:85 enhanced transfer that finally presents the film properly -- no acres of carpet below or empty headroom above. The sharp image gives us a good look at the makeup on display, as well as showing up all the stock footage in the film's safari section. Strangely enough, because the native Nando tribe and Malla are central to the development of the story, these scenes seem less racist than earlier Hollywood jungle pictures .. ones that use the same raggedy stock footage.
The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Vol. 2 comes in a folding plastic holder similar to last year's set. 'Unbelievers' won't find any unsung classics here -- Universal is plumb out of those -- but rabid monster addicts will get their desired fix. Who knows, there are probably plenty of fans who think the stumbling Tyranno-slob dinosaur is better than Jurassic Park! Okay, maybe not quite so many.
The big bother with this set is that it can only be purchased through Best Buy stores. Although it's an exclusive it wasn't promoted at all; investigation on the Best Buy website turned up nothing (ads may be there now). With no preorders and only word of mouth on a couple of dozen Monster Fan websites, only the cognoscenti even knew about the title. And because Best Buy doesn't ship overseas, foreign buyers are Out Of Luck. Marketing ploys are one thing; we can see how an order guarantee from a retailer like Best Buy would be a good for a studio. But it's not a kindness to the loyal fans (and customers) to make them jump through hoops like this.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Vol. 2 rates:
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are more likely to be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.