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If you were a kid growing up in America in the 1960s, the chances are you had some contact with monster fan-dom. If you didn't actually read Famous Monsters of Filmland you probably knew somebody who did, and you surely were aware of the wealth of horror and sci-fi films being shown on weekend evenings or, more often, in the dead of night. Joining the syndication packages from name studios were more humble low- or no- budget monster movies, the kind made by entrepreneurs betting that practically anything with a monster in it would sell. By and large, they were absolutely right. If it had a monster, we wanted to see it. We'd sit through forty minutes of irrelevant dialogue scenes to wait for whatever creature we'd seen in Forry Ackerman's magazine.
VCI offers two DVD Double Feature discs, sold separately. One contains a pair of late-night chillers made in the early 1950s, and a second double bill was cobbled together a decade later.
Creepy Creature Double Feature Volume 1 boasts the one historically important show in the pack, Roger Corman's 1954 Monster from the Ocean Floor. This was the noted director's first producing effort, and he gave it everything he could muster for a $12,000 cash outlay and about $18,000 deferred. If that sounds like chump change, you lose: twelve grand in 1953 could easily buy a small home in a decent neighborhood. Corman talked a local company into lending their novel one-man submarine for the project. He shot quietly in Malibu while sending up a smokescreen story that his show was being made in Mexico. When the teamsters discovered his tiny, insubstantial shooting set-up, they were so amused at the Mickey Mouse operation that they laughed and let him go. Corman, as usual, had the last laugh. 1
Corman's achievement ought to impress today's tyro filmmakers. Monster from the Ocean Floor always looks more than competent; for commercial entertainment value it compares favorably with Stanley Kubrick's more artful Fear and Desire made the previous year. He chooses for his leading character an attractive woman, which was probably less of a feminist statement than a realization that audiences would probably be happier watching a feminine leading character. The story has a reasonably attractive seashore setting, a bit of romance, and a scene of danger every few minutes. It's not afraid to be corny: the heroic doctor serenades the leading lady with a rendition of My Wild Irish Rose. We know he's a marine expert because he has memorized the relative sizes of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The heroine paints pictures but also takes a personal interest in the 'sea demon' that's been killing local fishermen, sucking them right out of their diving suits. The mayhem started not long after the Bikini Atom blasts, so do you think they're related?
Potential distributors must have been impressed by Corman's competent underwater scenes, which in 1954 were still a novelty. There's also the likeable actress in Anne Kimball, an interesting little submarine device, and an exploitable monster. The one-eyed octopus is no special effects winner, but neither is it distractingly silly. In at least a few fish tank shots, the glowing eye is fairly creepy. Bob Baker reportedly constructed the monster, which looks a lot like the alien occupant of the flying saucer in The Atomic Submarine, made six years later.
The credits show that actor Jonathan Haze got into Corman's coterie of filmmakers on the ground floor; he's not bad at all as a Mexican. Production manager David Kramarsky would become the nominal director of Corman's Beast with a Million Eyes... a tiny production that I'm going to guess was another Corman attempt to escape the long, expensive arm of the Hollywood guilds.
VCI accompanies Monster from the Ocean Floor with a couple of worthy extras. Distributor Robert Lippert (also no slouch as a renegade producer) put together a trailer that makes the film look fairly exciting. A deleted scene turns out to be a four-minute clip of more scuba-diving footage. Very much worth a listen is a lengthy audio interview with Roger Corman, conducted by "who the hell made it?" specialist Tom Weaver. Corman reveals many production details, stopping short only to withhold an opinion of his director Wyott Ordung, who has gone on record claiming to be the creative force behind the film. Corman's preferred title was It Stalked the Ocean Floor but Robert Lippert insisted on getting "Monster" into the title. (A year later, Lippert suggested that a Hammer film he had money in, The Quatermass Xperiment, be re-titled Monster from Outer Space. Big imagination, there.)
Corman also admits that when it came time to get paid, distributor Lippert blind-sided him with a sharp double-cross. When the distributor discovered just how inexpensively the show had been put together, he unilaterally renegotiated the contract at a lower price. It goes without saying that this was their last deal together.
The second feature on Volume One slips down a few rungs on the ladder of cinematic achievement. In 2009, the popular '50s creature feature moviemaker Bert I. Gordon wrote a book about his career, somehow managing to fill 258 pages with nothing - readers end up knowing less about his pictures than you knew going in. We thought that 'BIG' Gordon's first marginally watchable opus was 1955's King Dinosaur (also available from VCI). Gordon and future writer-director Tom Gries' first teaming was actually on a tiny color adventure film called Serpent Island. The only creature involved is a large python, but the show always gets lumped in with horror titles. I myself confuse it with a show called Port Sinister, which I've also never seen in its entirety.
Bert Gordon's book doesn't bother to tell us that the show was filmed on 16mm Kodachrome, a format not normally meant for duplication. The print on view looks like Kodachrome all right, but with really clogged blacks. As anybody who shot Kodachrome knows, there's no negative so the lab would presumably have to strike an inter-negative, using the Kodachrome original as an original positive. The plan was that Gordon and Gries would have a COLOR feature to sell, at a time when color was prohibitively expensive, even for the majors.
The story was probably suggested by the availability of an impressive sailboat. Ricki André (Mary Munday) is a secretary who hires a boat and its untrustworthy captain (Tom Monroe) to take her to Haiti to find a golden treasure hidden by her great-grandfather. She also hires harbor bum Pete Mason (wartime film star Sonny Tufts) because he has special knowledge and contacts among the natives in Haiti. On the voyage Ricki plays one man against the other. But when they land on a Hatian island, they encounter 'natives' that deny Ricki's claim, saying that her ancestor stole the treasure from them.
Although the cast surely filmed in the L.A. area, we see plenty of footage of the ship on the high seas. A couple of shots also show the locks of the Panama Canal. But Haiti is represented by some footage of professional voodoo dancers enacting what might be a ceremony for tourists. With its homemade titles and generally soft image, Serpent Island is not something that would attract a film distributor. For his next effort Bert I. Gordon would immediately turn to monster work.
Mary Munday is adequate as Ricki, although Tom Gries' primitive direction gives us scene after scene of bad dramatics, clumsy kissing and awkward fights between the two male leads. Ms. Munday manages to look reasonably attractive despite inadequate makeup and hair work, and almost non-existent lighting. The high-contrast Kodachrome duping throws unattractive shadows on everyone. The post-dubbed dialogue has a lax attitude about synchronization, and there must be twenty instances where people talk but the soundtrack stays silent. As would be expected, Ms. Munday must wrap the large snake around herself while pretending to be trapped by it. The golden treasure turns out to be a statue that looks like a cheap lawn ornament, and unlike anything Hatian or Latin American. The adventurers are stalked by a single generic menacing black character.
The one exemplary angle to Serpent Island is Tom Gries' expert narration script, which does most of the work telling the story and invests the colorless travelogue footage with at least a minimum of drama. It's even halfway humorous now and then. Once Tom Gries exhausted his possibilities teaming with Bert I. Gordon, he embarked on an impressive career. He eventually wrote and directed, among other notable films, the western classic Will Penny.
The name star Sonny Tufts was a good-looking Forrest Tucker type during the war, when his 4-F status won him parts vacated by actors in the service. Ten years later Tufts has sagging jowls and a beer belly than no amount of inhaling can disguise. But he's also okay as the two-fisted hero. The only actor to truly rise above the material is Rosalind Hayes, who plays Pete's old friend on the island, a leader of the voodoo ceremony and guardian of the golden idol. Hayes is often listed as the film's leading lady, an understandable mistake considering the obscurity of Serpent Island. Sources more informed than I may know better, but I would not be surprised to learn that this show didn't get a theatrical release, and made its premiere on graveyard shift TV airings, curing insomniacs.
The Creepy Creature Double Feature Volume 2 disc contains a pair of monster films made in 1962 and 1963 by the same producer, Joseph H. Robertson. In each case Robertson partnered with someone with professional experience, who apparently ended up calling in a lot of favors to help out. Robertson doesn't seem to have been a hands-on guy or the best of organizers, but instead that breed of producer who starts out with inadequate planning and funding, and hopes for the best.
The Slime People was done in partnership with '40s film actor Robert Hutton, who saw in it an opportunity to direct. He ended up talking a relative into letting the show shoot in his butcher shop because the film could afford no sets. Robertson must have had contacts at KTTV studios as well, as a number of scenes are filmed on the lot, in screening rooms, etc.
The Slime People is a prime example of a no-budget monster show hoping to find a place on a drive-in double bill. A small group of people drive about in cars and sit together worrying about an outbreak of hideous slime monsters from beneath the Earth, a pattern broken up by intermittent Slime Men attacks. The monsters look quite good in stills, but only from a single camera angle. The filmmakers seem to recognize this, as the movie opens very raggedly, with several random shots of the monster, duplicated from later in the movie. Forget about preparing the way for the monster's first appearance. The plan seems to be to get the critter on screen right from the get-go, so those drive-ins don't immediately empty out.
The story goes that the three Slime Man costumes cost so much that little money was left to film anything. Pros Hutton, Robert Burton and Les Tremayne are the older folk, while future A.I.P. beach bunny Susan Hart and Judee Morton (Experiment in Terror) make coffee, act nervous and arrange to get themselves captured by the monsters. The show itself seems to exist in a twilight zone of self-contradiction. Pilot Hutton is forced down by a terrible storm, and lands in a deserted Los Angeles. The entire city is supposed to be covered by a huge dome of solidified air (not smog). Yet when he lands the skies are clear and visibility is unlimited. Smoke pots are used in some scenes, and a lot of the movie uses an optical with a misty overlay effect: I bet they fainted when they got the lab bill for that one. But we never for a minute buy this giant dome concept. The screenplay gets both romantic couples kissing within a few minutes of meeting, with little attempt to put anything more than the bare minimum of exposition into scenes. The breakneck production pace didn't allow for such niceties.
We're told that the Slime Men have overrun the entire city, but we mostly see undeveloped brushy hills. One shot takes advantage of the Bel Air fire to show a pair of vehicles driving past a row of burned houses. The action scenes are laughable. The clumsy, rubbery creations engage our heroes in pitiful hand-to-hand combat. Our gawky humans have no difficulty prevailing even when outnumbered three to one. Bullets don't work (a given in any monster show) but a slime guy crumples when speared with a hollow lance, allowing all of his precious slime gook to spill out. I know it's stupid, but we 12 year-old-boys made special note of details like that.
Nobody comes off well, although everyone but newcomer William Boyce is a competent player. Apparently asked to appear as a favor (or because he lost a bet), notable actor Les Tremayne enters carrying a goat. Not much later, he exits screaming as the Slime Dudes skewer him but good. Of course, Tremayne must sit still and wait for his attackers to catch up first.
The Slime People comes with another Tom Weaver audio interview, this time with Susan Hart, now Susan Hart Hoffheinz. She doesn't talk about her A.I.P. years, or about the non-availability of the A.I.P. classic films she controls, but we get a great rundown on an iffy career move made by a busy '60s starlet. We hear the entire hiring story and her take on her co-stars; it turns out that Judee Morton was her roommate. With all the interesting talk about the vagaries of no-budget filmmaking, we don't hear about anybody actually being paid for their work. That's another distinguishing factor when deciding whether Roger Corman was an exploiter or an opportunity-giver: we're told that when Roger made a deal, he kept it faithfully.
Joseph H. Robertson's second horror effort is 1963's The Crawling Hand, a slightly more professional show with a weak storyline and a 'monster' that could only appeal to what was once referred to as "undiscriminating audiences." The connected person here is Herbert L. Strock, a former editor and TV director who helped Ivan Tors on several features and directed GOG, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and Blood of Dracula. Strock may have provided the contacts that brought in veteran actors Kent Taylor, Alan Hale Jr. Arline Judge, Richard Arlen, Tristram Coffin and Ross Elliott. He may even have found star Peter Breck and wangled the brief appearance of cult actress Allison Hayes. It's a small part but Hayes does look good -- her hairstyle may have been inspired by Anne Bancroft's look in several recent pictures.
The lumpy plot stretches to give the guest stars something to do. Space agency executives Peter Breck and Kent Taylor fret when yet another moon rocket explodes on re-entry; their boss Richard Arlen is eager to send the nation's last two surviving astronauts up even though it's likely they'll be killed too. Seen on TV, astronaut Lockhart (Ashley Cowan) has a zombie-like appearance before he begs mission control to remotely destroy his space capsule. From this scant evidence Taylor theorizes that an outer-space organism has invaded Lockhart's body, making The Crawling Hand yet another unacknowledged offspring of Nigel Kneale's The Quatermass Xperiment. Science student Paul (Rod Lauren) finds Lockhart's severed arm on the beach and inexplicably hides it away in the cellar. Energized by the alien entity, it comes to life and starts strangling people. A victim of second-hand possession, Paul periodically turns into a murderous killer, with sunken zombie eyes like the dead astronaut. The space agency people and the local sheriff (Alan Hale Jr.) must track Paul down before he kills his girlfriend, Swedish student Marta (Sirry Steffen).
Technically more competent than The Slime People, this show isn't that much more interesting. The deadly hand is animated in the obvious way -- we either cannot see the rest of the arm, or an unconvincing wind-up arm is used. The business with Paul's possession by the alien spirit doesn't amount to much. It's the kind of film that we kids would accidentally land on while spinning the TV dial, and perhaps watch for a while in case a monster shows up.
The one campy twist is the inclusion of the hit single The Bird's the Word -- not the Trashmen's version heard in Full Metal Jacket (the one with the driving machine beat), but the R&B original by The Rivingtons. Unfortunately, The Crawling Hand uses the song only as source music from a juke box... if it played during the murder scenes, the show's cool factor would have been magnified tenfold.
Because the movies share the same producer, Tom Weaver's commentary with Ms. Hart also gives us a lot of information about The Crawling Hand. Laugh if you must at these shows but producer Robertson surely made a good profit from them. They played as a double bill for three years and then were broadcast almost non-stop for ten years more, until cable came along and local stations could no longer afford movies.
VCI's Creepy Creature Double Feature Volumes 1 & 2 DVDs (separate purchases) feature the best encodings I've seen of these shows. Actual TV broadcasts were not terrific, and later gray-market VHS tapes were even worse. Volume 1's Monster from the Ocean Floor only looks slightly better than earlier DVD releases. Amazon lists it as widescreen but it is flat; titles and compositions convince me that it probably was composed for widescreen projection. Serpent Island was made by people that clearly weren't thinking of aspect ratio at all. Since it looks like a home movie anyway the flat screen shape is entirely appropriate.
On Volume 2, both The Crawling Hand and The Slime People are nicely matted at 1:78, filling a widescreen TV and thus reproducing the theatrical experience, for the minority of viewers that can remember seeing it that way. Trailers for both the Robertson pictures are present as well. The goal of these films was to make money, have fun and perhaps break into the glamorous motion picture biz. Three out of four shows presented have secured a humble nook in monster movie history. As for the fourth, all it needed was a monster.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Roger Corman probably considered himself lucky, as other companies then sneaking non-union shoots in Los Angeles routinely ran into all kinds of interference and threats. From the beginning, Corman hired people willing to work for little more than screen credit, if that. He also looked for quality talent that had trouble finding work, like his ace cameraman Floyd Crosby. I find it telling when Corman expresses sympathy for blacklisted or grey-listed movie people. Roger reaped the benefit -- a pro cameraman to give his near-homemade film a professional look.
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