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Holding a rather unsteady position in the history of big-screen stop-motion animation is the odd 1956 production The Beast of Hollow Mountain. The Nassour Brothers Edward and William go way back to the '30s producing and directing novelty stop-motion animation, although their name is not well known compared to that of the famous George Pal. Edward has a supervisory credit for the crude animated dinosaurs for Robert Lippert's The Lost Continent. He also cobbled together some added effects for the second Godzilla film, when it was reworked for America as Gigantis, the Fire Monster. The brothers also produced the Abbott & Costello picture Africa Screams, which was not a hit. Modest success finally arrived when William became executive producer of TV's Sheena: Queen of the Jungle.
The Beast of Hollow Mountain is something of a giant leap upward -- a feature filmed in Mexico in color and CinemaScope, starring the likeable lower-case star Guy Madison. The credited story idea is by Willis O'Brien, the famed effects genius behind King Kong, and bears a similarity to Gwangi, the ill-fated 1940s project that combined O'Brien's two loves, cowboys and dinosaurs.
Most of the running time of Hollow Mountain concerns a rather tame rivalry between cattlemen. Yankee rancher Jimmy Ryan (Guy Madison) is doing well in Mexico, and has the friendship and support of his pal Felipe Sanchez (Carlos Rivas of The King and I) and the son of one of his wranglers, Panchito (Mario Navarro)1. Unfortunately, Jimmy finds himself opposing local Mexican cattleman Enrique Rios (Eduardo Noriega). Missing cattle cause the men to suspect each other of rustling, while Enrique is angry that his assumed bride-to-be Sarita (Patricia Medina) seems attracted to Jimmy. When Panchito's father Pancho (Pascual García Peña) disappears in the swamp looking for whatever is killing the livestock, everyone is given a rude awakening: the culprit is a fierce carnivorous dinosaur that can run as fast as a horse.
Hollow Mountain was filmed against what looks to be the same picturesque scenery seen in the later The Magnificent Seven, with a crew of mostly Mexican technicians. Edward Nassour is frequently listed as the director, but Mexican co-director Ismael Rodríguez had a substantial role, probably handling much of the direction across the language barrier. A veteran writer-director with far more experience than Nassour, Rodríguez reportedly directed a Spanish-language version at the same time. The routine western scenes are handsomely filmed, with a Mexican festival and a stampede thrown in for local color. But most of the story plays slow and stiff, like a '40s Republic western on snooze control. When they could, Mexican film censors liked to sanitize the content of foreign co-productions. Yet the film still features a nasty Mexican bad guy vs. an honorable Yankee, with a stereotyped lazy/sleepy comic vaquero and an obnoxious maid who seems intent on putting Sarita and especially Panchito in harm's way. The one progressive idea is Sarita's independent attitude. Although she seems ready to submit to a marriage with a man she doesn't like, she's out there riding and shooting with the boys. Sarita doesn't go all silly-helpless when confronted by the twenty-foot titular monster.
The 'beast' just wanders in out of nowhere, without any sort of explanation. Has he been paid off to rid the hero of a romantic rival? The intriguing 'hollow mountain' in the title is nowhere to be seen. This only makes the movie seem even more derivative of O'Brien's Gwangi, in which an isolated valley is accessible only by a passageway through a cliff face. Almost all of the fantastic dinosaur action is in the last two reels, which are fairly exciting the first time through.
Fans have been debating the nature of the film's special effects for a long time, in arguments based on viewings of old flat TV prints. The Nassours claimed that their dinosaur beast was visualized via a secret electronic process credited as the impressive-sounding "Regiscope." The evidence of the film refutes this -- what we see is a combination of known animation techniques. A lot of the dinosaur's movements are done with ordinary stop-motion that ranges from very good to mediocre. Some shots seem to have been filmed on 'twos' -- two frames for each adjustment of the model -- and are distractingly jerky, like the dinos in the 1951 The Lost Continent. Other movement is provided through Puppetoon-style replacement animation. Full walk- and run- cycle beast models were individually sculpted and painted, obviously a job requiring skill and patience. The IMDB credits this work to a man named Henry Lyon. The beast runs and strides very smoothly, yet it lacks the kind of 'personality' that an animator such as Ray Harryhausen would provide. As dinosaurs go, the beast isn't a very imposing design, with its gap-toothed mouth and expressionless face. Even The Giant Behemoth, with the sprung seams in its hide, is more interesting. The animators give the beast a distractingly exaggerated red tongue, which waggles like a flag when he roars. The effect is cartoonish at best.
A total non-match with the above techniques is a pair of rubbery monster feet seen stomping through mud. But a definite plus are the movie's excellent miniature sets, particularly a shack in a clearing in which Sarita and Panchito take shelter from the beast. Other well-designed shots suffer from weak rear-projection. As the anamorphic lenses of the time would likely be unable to film the required extreme close-ups, it is possible that the rear-projection animation scenes were shot flat, and later cropped and squeezed (like SuperScope) to fit the CinemaScope format. Thus the rear projection is extremely soft and weak.
Bill Warren's impressive reportage in his book Keep Watching the Skies! uncovers Hollow Mountain's messy and rather sad back story. The film can be chalked up as another failed attempt by Willis O'Brien to initiate his project El Toro Estrella. The story, or some version of it, involves a relationship between a bull saved from death in the bullring by a Mexican or Latin-American boy. It bears a similarity to Ring Around Saturn, a property that reportedly changed hands from directors Robert Flaherty to Orson Welles before being bought by Edward Nassour. What relationship did this story have to Willis O'Brien's El Toro Estrella which contained the same boy and his pet bull, but added a Gwangi- like Allosaurus? O'Brien submitted his Hollow Mountain story in 1955 and was "engaged in talks" with the Nassours to create the effects, but only his story idea was used (and credited).2
As O'Brien had been struggling for upwards of twenty years on this movie idea, seeing The Beast of Hollow Mountain released in this form must have been heartbreaking.3
Writer-producer Aubrey Wisberg is credited with the script for the clever, highly entertaining Nazi-spy movie They Came to Blow Up America, which is a real anomaly in a career of generally undistinguished movie writing: Port Sinister, anyone? Wisberg and his frequent co-producer/co-writer Jack Pollexfen enjoyed a surprise hit with their 1951 The Man from Planet X, the first '50s sci-fi movie about a visitor from outer space. Wisberg and Pollexfen rolled the dice seven or eight times in hope of a surprise hit: Captive Women, The Indestructible Man, Daughter of Dr. Jekyll. The smart choice of the talented director Edgar G. Ulmer for Planet X, may have motivated the hiring of the once-admired German director E.A. Dupont for their United Artists quickie The Neanderthal Man. It didn't help: this 1953 groaner is weak tea in every department. Its only claim to fame is as a laughable example of well-intentioned but hapless 'fifties filmmaking.
Most of The Neanderthal Man is filmed on tiny sets, including mountain exteriors represented by an unusually cramped interior setting. Although the story takes place in California's Sierra Nevadas, most of the action footage looks like Griffith Park. Grumpy 'lone wolf' researcher Professor Cliff Groves (Robert Sha(y)ne of TV's The Adventures of Superman) harangues his associates in Los Angeles, claiming that Neanderthal Men must have been more intelligent than Homo Sapiens because their brains were bigger. Groves is so obnoxious and unreasonable that his theories (which we never really hear) are rejected. Meanwhile, up near Groves' home lab in the Sierras, a local rancher (Robert Bray) and the Game Warden George Oakes (Robert Long) each have confrontations with a living, snarling saber-toothed tiger. Oakes carries a plaster cast of the cat's footprint to zoological specialist Dr. Ross Harkness (Richard Crane), who comes to the mountains to investigate. Harkness helps Groves' attractive fianceé Ruth Marshall (Doris Merrick) when her car breaks down, and meets Groves' pretty daughter Jan (Joy Terry). Snooping around in Groves' lab, Harkness discovers that the Professor has been working with a serum that returns living things to their most primitive evolutionary forms: the prehistoric tiger is actually a housecat. Groves has been injecting his mute maid Celia (Jeanette Quinn) as well -- photos show her reverting to a feral state. What Harkness doesn't immediately recognize is that a sudden rash of murders are Groves' work as well -- he's been injecting himself with the serum, and transforming into a bona fide lowbrow caveman, with violent tendencies.
The Neanderthal Man may be a maladroit joke of a movie, but it's also a very funny, entertaining one. Robert Shayne's dialogue consists almost exclusively of scientific non-sequiturs and oddly phrased insults: "This is my cross, the penalty of being born into an era of little men." "You're nothing but a vacuum of ego." The story is a rather pointless take on the Jekyll & Hyde tale, as the only reason Groves gives for his actions is to delight in the power of his primitive urges. These are given rather sordid dimensions, as the Neanderthal Groves kidnaps and rapes the local waitress Nola (game gal Beverly Garland in her first of several fantastic scream queen appearances). At one point ape-man Groves potentially does the same thing with his girlfriend Ruth. We're surprised that such sleazy events could squeak by the censor, although the movie doesn't let us find out if a baby Neanderthal Man has been conceived. So there is room for a "Son of Neanderthal Man"... I'm sure the rights can't be too pricey.
It should be pointed out that the film's poster art relies on images of a monster-man threatening the film's various women. "What Animal Desires Drove Him On?" shouts the blurb. Maybe the movie should have been called The Neanderthal Rapist. Mom, don't let your boys miss this one!
There's no point in belaboring the no-budget filming style, although the film's effects need to be touched on. Some rather sloppy "in between" makeup stages of Groves' transformation are attempted, none too credibly, until he suddenly emerges wearing an immobile mask with weird doll eyes. Oversized and dead looking, the eyes are pretty silly. The Neanderthal menace just stalks around like a juvenile delinquent, attacking men and carrying off babes, as when he espies Nola posing for a photograph in the woods and thinks he's discovered Raquel Welch.
The saber-toothed tiger is really a mess. A real tiger is seen running among some trees and wrestling with a victim, hopefully the animal trainer. The big cat's tether chain is clearly visible In several shots. And a couple of cuts use a much younger tiger cub. Was the baby tiger originally planned for scenes showing the housecat's transformation? Neither live cat has any characteristics of a real saber-toothed tiger, especially not the tusk-like teeth we're all familiar with. We only see those in wholly unconvincing close-ups of a stuffed tiger head, where big teeth have been added.
The "hero" scientist Harkness is a real S.O.B.. He barges into Groves' lab on the flimsiest of pretexts, goes through Groves' private researches and even develops some film he finds. When he's established that Groves is the killer, Harkness hides what he knows from the cops. He persists in this criminal behavior even after more women are kidnapped and more men murdered. And all because he doesn't want to upset Jan Groves, a potential hot prospect in the girlfriend department. I say we hang both the caveman and Harkness from the same tree.
The most unsavory part of the show involves the maid Celia, played by Jeanette Quinn, who is now better known as "Tandra" Quinn from the mind-numbing inept-o-rama horror film Mesa of Lost Women. Groves has been drugging Celia, injecting her with his serum and photographing what happens. All we see is a series of poorly doctored photos of Celia's transformation -- not into a cave-girl, but into some kind of wild, beast-like woman, complete with different makeup and hair. Celia is dark-skinned and identified as Mexican in origin; Groves hired her out of an orphanage or something. What the progression of retouched photos really suggest is that the 'primitive form' that Celia has taken is that of a black woman -- her nose becomes flat and wide. She does not look anything like Groves' primitive ape man.4
The Neanderthal Man is quite an experience in unrelieved Z-grade filmmaking, made at a time when producers were just discovering that money could still be made from a pretty crummy movie if its subject matter pushed the right exploitation buttons. The goofy makeup, stiff acting and dated attitudes are enjoyable, as is the scene where Ruth's head rub leaves Groves' hair sticking straight up, where it remains through an entire dialogue scene. Six years later Richard Crane and Beverly Garland would meet again, playing ill-fated lovers in the slightly more reasonable horror fantasy The Alligator People. Garland definitely gets in her bid as a champion on-screen screamer, bar none: her shrieking fit when the Neanderthal Man grabs her is a real riot.
Scream Factory's Double Feature Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack of The Beast of Hollow Mountain and The Neanderthal Man can't be faulted for picture quality -- both shows look terrific. The Beast has some scratching on the titles and near changeovers, indicating wear on the source element used. But the color is excellent throughout. Raúl Lavista's music score has some effective, brassy moments. The Beast is often cited as the first animation monster movie in CinemaScope.
The B&W Neanderthal Man is also in prime condition, looking so good that we can see that several scenic establishing shots are really frozen still images. The audio is just as crisp, giving us a good listen to Albert Glasser's characteristically blaring music. The MGMHD channel decided to cablecast some flat shows in widescreen, and cropped this movie to 1:78, spoiling many compositions. MGMHD also occasionally shows the classic The Red Shoes cropped, chopping off heads and dancing feet. But fear not, this new Scream Factory Blu-ray release bears a correct, proper 1:37 Academy ratio.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Beast of Hollow Mountain and The Neanderthal Man Blu-ray + DVD Double Bill rates:
2. Complicating things even further, Edward Nassour preceded Hollow Mountain with a movie called Emilio and his Magical Bull, using the same models and animation techniques. This project, left unfinished at the time, has everything -- a boy who raises a bull that eventually does battle with a dinosaur in a bullring. It was apparently the basis for a lawsuit filed by the Nassours against the rival producers the King Bros., whose Academy Award-winning movie The Brave One had the bull, the boy and the finale in the bullring, but no dinosaur. it's a really complicated story. Emilio and his Magical Bull was finally finished in 1975 and screened in Los Angeles.
3. In 1982 or 1983, when picking up my daughter from pre-school, I found out that one of her classmates was named Nassour. Sure enough, her father was a next-generation Nassour, and he told me that all of the super-secret Regiscope equipment was still packed away in storage. One of the brothers was still alive and still waiting for a big-money offer to put the patented devices to work. This son wasn't sure himself exactly what Regiscope was. I've read elsewhere that it was some kind of motion-mirroring puppet system, by which an operator in a rig would move an arm, and a large dinosaur model would do the same. It sounds like something Carlo Rambaldi tried on an immense scale for the 1976 King Kong. It also sounds as if the Nassours could derive more publicity value from Regiscope by leaving it locked up and out of sight -- whatever it was, it certainly wasn't used in Hollow Mountain.
4. Is this an overreaction, or do other viewers pick up on what seems a blunt racist statement by the filmmakers? It also doesn't take much effort, especially with Groves' later admissions, to surmise that the Professor may have been molesting Celia when she was anesthetized. Groves, and the filmmakers, are looking slimier all the time. Or maybe I'm the one with the dirty mind.
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T'was Ever Thus.