Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Under its proprietary branded line Scream Factory, the busy Shout! Factory Company continues to release neglected titles from the MGM library, which contains a large number of fantasy, horror and sci-fi pictures from Orion, A.I.P. and United Artists. This Double Feature Blu-ray / DVD combo disc pairs two UA pix with vaguely 'prehistoric' themes. One is a ragged "Z" picture that happens to have been directed by a giant talent of the German silent screen. The other is an attempt by ambitious filmmaking brothers looking for a path to big-time Hollywood. It can boast as weird a making-of backstory as any '50s film going. They were released on pricey laserdisc sets in the middle 1990s, and one just showed up on a budget DVD from Shout! Factory. Judging by the message board online chats, some viewers have found them hard-to-see.
The Beast of Hollow Mountain
1956 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 81 min. / El monstruo de la montaña hueca
Starring Guy Madison, Patricia Medina, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro, Pascual García Peña, Eduardo Noriega, Julio Villarreal, Lupe Carriles.
Cinematography Jorge Stahl, Jr.
Special Effects Louis DeWitt, Henry Lyon, Edward Nassour, Jack Rabin
Original Music Raúl Lavista
Written by Robert Hill, Jack DeWitt from an idea by Willis O'Brien
Produced by Edward and William Nassour
Directed by Edward Nassour, Ismael Rodríguez
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 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 and cobbled together some added effects to 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; success evaded them until 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 and routine 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). Unfortunately, Jimmy finds himself opposed to 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 in what looks to be the same picturesque landscape 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 appears to have had a substantial role, probably handling much of the direction across the language barrier. Rodríguez was a veteran writer-director with far more experience than Nassour, and reportedly directed a Spanish-language version at the same time. The western scenes are handsomely filmed, with a stampede and a Mexican festival thrown in for local color. But most of the story plays like a '40s Republic western on snooze control. It's slow and polite. 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 attitude of independence. 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 -- and she doesn't go all silly-helpless when confronted by the twenty-foot titular monster.
The 'beast' just wanders in out of nowhere, without explanation (unless he's been paid off to rid the hero of a romantic rival). The 'hollow mountain' in the title really never appears. 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 in Hollow Mountain 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 a secret electronic process was used to animate their dinosaur beast, and the disc credits it as the impressive-sounding "Regiscope." The evidence of the film refutes this -- what we see is a combination of known techniques. A lot of the dinosaur's motions 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 movement of the model -- and are distractingly jerky, like the dinos in the 1951 The Lost Continent. A lot of 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 when he roars waggles like a flag. The effect is cartoonish at best.
A total non-match with the above techniques is a pair of rubbery monster feet seen walking through mud. But the movie uses some 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, which involves a story property (or properties) about a boy, his pet bull and a rampaging Allosaurus. Willis O'Brien received an "idea" credit but was not hired for the effects. Meanwhile, a noted lawsuit was filed against the King Brothers, producers of the Academy Award-winning picture The Brave One, which retained the boy and the bull but not the dinosaur. The Nassours had already made another (shorter) feature called Emilio and his Magical Bull, using the same models and animation techniques. It was abandoned, only to be finished in 1975 for a few screenings in Los Angeles. As O'Brien had been struggling for upwards of twenty years to revive his career by getting another effects project off the ground, seeing his The Beast of Hollow Mountain released in this form must have been heartbreaking.
The Neanderthal Man
1953 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 78 min.
Starring Robert Shayne, Joy Terry, Richard Crane, Doris Merrick, Beverly Garland, Robert Long, Jeanette "Tandra" Quinn, Lee Morgan, Eric Colmar, Dick Rich, Robert Easton, Frank Gerstle, Robert Bray.
Cinematography Stanley Cortez
Film Editor Fred R. Feitshans, Jr.
Makeup Harry Thomas
Original Music Albert Glasser
Written and Produced by Aubrey Wisberg, Jack Pollexfen
Directed by E.A. Dupont
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 his career of undistinguished movie writing: Port Sinister, anyone? Wisberg and his co-producer & frequent 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. When Wisberg or Pollexfen turned to fantastic subjects the result was usually a wild dice-roll in hope of a surprise hit: Captive Women, The Indestructible Man, Daughter of Dr. Jekyll. The talented director Edgar G. Ulmer had helmed Planet X, which may have motivated the choice 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. It's 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 Nevada Mountains, 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 just as intelligent as 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, both a local rancher (Robert Bray) and the Game Warden George Oakes (Robert Long) are confronted by 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 finds evidence 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 Celia reverting to a more feral state. What Harkness doesn't immediately recognize is that a rash of murders taking place 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 Groves' only reason for transforming is to feel 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" stages of Groves' transformation are sketched, 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.
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. In several shots, the big cat's tether chain is clearly visible. And a couple of cuts show a much younger tiger cub. Was the baby tiger meant 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 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 persists in hiding what he knows from the cops even though 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.
The most unsavory part of the show involves the maid Celia, played by Jeanette Quinn, who was better known as "Tandra" Quinn in the mind-numbingly bizarre inept-o-rama horror film Mesa of Lost Women. Groves has been drugging Celia, injecting her with the 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.
The Neanderthal Man is quite an experience in unrelieved Z-grade filmmaking, made at a time when producers were just discovering that a pretty crummy movie could still make money 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 makes Groves' hair stick straight up, making a nerd fashion statement. Richard Crane and Beverly Garland would meet again six years later, as ill-fated lovers in the slightly more reasonable horror fantasy The Alligator People. Garland definitely gets in her bid as an 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. 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. 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 many outdoors 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, which resulted in this movie being cropped to 1:78 and spoiling many compositions. MGMHD also occasionally shows the classic The Red Shoes cropped, chopping off heads and dancing feet. But fear not, Scream Factory's new Blu-ray version 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:
Movie: Beast and Neanderthal: Good, but Very Good for committed horror/sci-fi fans
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: One Blu-ray and one DVD disc in Keep case
Reviewed: December 29, 2013
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2014 Glenn Erickson