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Roger Corman's Sci-Fi Classics
Producer-director Roger Corman made his name in the middle 1950s providing drive-in fodder for small distributors. After an initial sale to Lippert he teamed up with Nicholson & Arkoff's American Releasing Corporation, knocking off quickie westerns and Sci-Fi pictures. His low-budget skills soon came to the attention of Allied Artists as well. Corman made some of the movies as a producer for hire and for others retained partial participation. Eventually moving on to more prominent directing-producing work, Corman seems to have thought of these early efforts as practical exercises in creating releasable attractions for as little cash outlay as possible. Two of the features on this Roger Corman's Cult Classics Triple Feature DVD set show the director scaling his ambitions perfectly to his meager production resources. A third sees him getting in a bit over his head in the special effects department.
Even at its cheapest, Corman's Sci-Fi work stands apart from the general trend of atomic giants, bulb-headed saucermen and mutants in rubber masks. Each show has a strong central idea that is more than an excuse to motivate a monster. Back in 1972, Corman told interviewer William Johnson that he chose material looking for a sense of excitement within the story, plus a theme of some importance. He also went on to say that he was never really satisfied with his work in the field. Trimmed down to the specific marketing requirements of thriller matinees, Corman's early efforts hold up extremely well.
1957's Not of This Earth is a touchstone picture for aspiring low-budget filmmakers. The Allied Artists poster depicts the Earth engulfed by a tentacled monster (did this poster inspire The Trollenberg Terror?), which in the movie turns out to be a minor monster sidebar. With little more than a pair of contact lenses and a couple of barely-adequate props, Not of This Earth conjures an interesting story of an invasion by vampires from a distant planet.
A secret agent from Davanna, Paul Johnson (Paul Birch) looks like a human but has no normal internal organs. He hides his alien eyes behind dark glasses (a Corman motif repeated in "X" and Tomb of Ligeia) and can use them to hypnotize and kill. Paul teleports blood samples and human guinea pigs back to Davanna through a matter-transmitting device (that pre-dates The Fly). He murders a teenaged girl and uses his chauffeur / bodyguard / housekeeper Jeremy (Jonathan Haze) to ensnare three winos from the park. Johnson also hypnotizes a doctor (William Roerick) into studying Earth-Davanna blood compatibility issues, and hires live-in nurse Nadine Storey (Beverly Garland) to give him daily transfusions. Motor patrolman Morgan Jones takes an interest in Nadine, and grows suspicious of her oddball employer, who never removes his sunglasses.
Not of This Earth extracts a maximum of interest from actor Paul Birch, who looks quite frightening with his pupil-less white eyes -- another filmic first? Paul Johnson converses telepathically -- in Chinese when he needs to -- yet he's a stranger to human ways. He can't park a car and must depend on Jeremy for most everything. He reminds us of Jean-Luc Godard's Lemmy Caution, who supposedly crosses 'Intersidereal Space' but is seen driving in an ordinary auto. Like Caution, Paul Johnson is only one of a series of invading agents. We learn in voiceover that Davanna's supply of blood victims is running out, and that Paul's mission is a desperate attempt to locate a fresh source. A nice scene has Paul encounter another Davannan, a beautiful female vampire (Anna Lee Carroll) who teleports to Earth to avoid starvation. Paul tries to "feed" her with blood stolen from a doctor's lab, but makes a fatal mistake.
Paul Johnson can kill people with his eyes, but he has weaknesses that prove to be his undoing. One potential victim is a parking attendant played by Tom Graeff, an ambitious young filmmaker who would proceed directly to filming his own mini-budgeted alien invasion movie. Chased barefoot through Griffith Park, Beverly Garland's spunky nurse saves herself by the same unexpected means that will neutralize William Castle's The Tingler two years later. Not of This Earth may appear insubstantial, but Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna's neatly constructed screenplay never drags its feet.
Not of This Earth can boast a brief but beloved appearance by "Corman regular" actor Dick Miller, as a luckless vacuum cleaner salesman who lives to regret the words, "No flip-flop". Director Corman and leading player Paul Birch reportedly had a blowup late in the picture that led to the actor walking out; Corman replaced him in a number of scenes with a so-so double. Few viewers even noticed!
Attack of the Crab Monsters was filmed next, to fill out an Allied Artists "Terrorama!" double bill for early 1957. The more ambitious production, it covers the methodical destruction and inundation of an entire island -- all of which occurs off-screen. Charles B. Griffith's screenplay keeps the story hopping for just over an hour but limits the show to a minimum of locations -- rocky Leo Carillo beach, a Beachwood Canyon home (standing in for a research station) and the ever-popular Bronson Caverns. The initial king-sized cast of ten is reduced by half almost immediately, as a core of scientists and adventurers battle telepathic monsters.
The Navy lands some scientists and researchers on an island used for atomic testing, and where a previous expedition has disappeared without a trace. Despite this fact, and the freak decapitation of a sailor as they land in shallow water, the scientists maintain casual attitudes as they react to strange phenomena and determine that unknown forces are undermining the island bit by bit. Researcher Martha Hunter (Pamela Duncan of The Undead) is awakened in the night, by voices that appear to belong to members of the first doomed expedition. As they are picked off one by one, the survivors formulate the only rational explanation: a pair of mutated super-crabs have evolved a completely different atomic structure. Not only are they telepathic, they absorb the consciousness of anyone they devour. When the "missing" Dr. Carson (Richard Cutting) calls to Martha in the night, he's now a subordinated personality in the "collection" of one of the crab monsters. Martha and scientists Dale Drewer and Hank Chapman (Richard Garland & Russell Johnson) must think of a way to stop the crabs -- because the island is being rapidly reduced to a single outcropping of rock, leaving no avenue of escape.
Jokes abound about Attack of the Crab Monsters, from the old story about tennis shoes being visible under the klunky Fiberglas crab costume to the film's campy title, the ultimate generic 50s monster movie moniker. Corman never shows the spectacular destruction of the island, yet the film is strangely convincing. We hear hundreds of acres collapsing into the ocean, while people report that they just saw a hill / a beach / a mountain disappear. After getting an eyeful of Corman's insubstantial crab mockups, hearing about off-screen landslides is probably preferable to poor special effects. For one storm Corman resorts to some familiar stock footage, but it's barely needed. Corman's haste shows only in a few dialogue-visual mismatches. When a character remarks about the unearthly quiet, we're told that all animal life has departed from the island -- yet Corman cuts to various crabs and a noisy flight of seagulls taking off.
Plenty of cheapo monster movies introduce interesting sci-fi concepts only to leave them undeveloped. Attack of the Crab Monsters can't afford a big production but it can afford ideas, and Charles Griffith comes up with a winner. We expect monsters to eat people, but the idea of being "incorporated" into a monster's psyche is an atomic age equivalent of the living death of vampire movies. The crabs are still crabs, but they can tap the imprisoned personalities of every person they consume. Martha telepathically hears a scientist's voice. Is it the scientist himself talking, or is the crab using his personality as a disguise? The Remote Control of Human Beings is a core 50s sci-fi theme, but few pictures envision human identity as a non-spiritual pattern that can be ingested and used against our loved ones as an offensive weapon.
Corman stumbles only in a few details. The crabs appear in perhaps thirty shots, four or five of which are reasonably convincing. A scientist loses his hand simply because a small rock falls on it, a development that appears particularly absurd after this year's 127 Hours. We're told that the crabs carefully sabotaged the team's radio, neatly slicing each vacuum tube in half. We have a hard time picturing the giant claw prop doing anything more delicate than bashing in a door. For his underwater scenes Corman returns to the Marineland of the Pacific amusement park. All looks well until we become aware of the far side of the park's water tank.
Just the same, the movie works, and a much bigger production might overpower the story premise. That's essentially what happens in most new so-called Sci-Fi thrillers. With special effects in the driver's seat, the movies have impressive visuals but not a hint of character interest or a fresh idea. Attack of the Crab Monsters delivers on its modest promise.
Hero Richard Garland may have been suggested by Allied Artists; he had a small but impressive part opposite Gary Cooper in the previous year's Friendly Persuasion. Russell Johnson was well known in Sci-Fi pix but later found immortality as The Professor in Gilligan's Island ... that show really should have floated a sci-fi two-parter called Gilligan Versus the Crab Monsters: "A Three-Hour Cruise... to Terror!" Mel Welles (The Little Shop of Horrors) and Leslie Bradley (No Orchids for Miss Blandish) give their respective professors distinctive voices, the better to be distinguished in those midnight telepathy sessions.
Roger Corman may have run out of ultra-cheap ideas, or perhaps he felt the pressure from studio-distributed pictures encroaching on his turf, because he soon made an effort to add more elaborate special effects to a couple of his shows. The absurdly titled The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent contracted optical effects from the prolific Jack Rabin, Irving Block and Louis DeWitt. These required costly trial & error methods inimical to Corman's hit 'n' run filming ethic. Mismatched process plates led to storm scenes with soggy Vikings struggling while laughably disproportionate ocean waves sloshed behind them.
Corman is fond of telling the story that he popped over to Allied Artists right after the Russians launched their Sputnik, and nailed a movie deal by promising to deliver in just a few weeks a finished film with the word "Satellite" in the title. That sounds swell, but Sputnik went up on October 4, 1957 and Corman's War of the Satellites made its debut on May 18, 1958. Lawrence Louis Goldman, a writer associated with the Block-Rabin team (on Kronos and Viking Women) wrote the script and Block and Rabin served as co-producers. As Corman produced eighteen feature films in 1957 and 1958, it's reasonable to assume that he was forced to farm out these creative functions.
War of the Satellites boils down to a very small-scale drama played out on a few tiny sets meant to represent the workings of a giant rocket installation and their interaction with the United Nations. This is intercut with a relatively large number of special effects shots (for a Corman production) that never seem particularly integrated into the story. Although Corman is fairly creative in his direction, we mostly see a handful of people acting in rooms without windows, on a spaceship where the fanciest space gear is a pair of designer reclining couches. Since all of the doors in these sets open in a way that keep us from seeing into the hallways beyond, characters must cram themselves into corners just to exit a room. Rabin & Block's spacecraft zip about unconvincingly, and three rockets assemble a special "satellite" in very poor stop-motion animation. We hear the familiar '50s trilling 'space atmospheric noise' as the satellite orbits, while the presence of an unknown alien power is represented by the sound effect of the Martian heat ray from George Pal's The War of the Worlds.
Viewers are often confused by the film's plotline. The Project Sigma rocket base headed by Dr. Pol Van Ponder (Richard Devon) strives to break through a strange barrier in space, even after losing 100 spacemen in ten earlier attempts. A message of unknown origin warns Earth to call off its space exploration, a development that threatens funding from the United Nations. Van Ponder is ready to quit until his ace spaceman Dave Boyer (Dick Miller, in the leading role!) delivers a stirring speech that gets the launch back on track. But Van Ponder is killed in a mysterious car crash, and a sinister double takes his place. This alien Van Ponder can split himself into two separate people, to enable him to better sabotage the mission. Dave Boyer witnesses one of these transformations. Will he be able to stop Van Ponder in time?
War of the Satellites never gives us the poster image of a helmeted spaceman taking a space walk, but it does have a number of excellent matte shots showing giant finned rockets being readied for takeoff. The story is more pedestrian than might be expected, but the idea of a possessed crewman sabotaging a crucial spaceflight was good enough to be lifted by Toho for 1959's Battle in Outer Space. The movie is held together by the sheer skill of its leading players. Richard Devon's Van Ponder is a glowering alien turncoat unaccustomed to a physical body; in one scene he's unaware that a blowtorch is burning his hand to a crisp. He has Quatermass-like burn marks on his wrists, presumably the entry points for the alien intelligence that has possessed him. In a less compelling scene, Van Ponder concentrates to give his dead heart a convincing beat, to fool a space doctor. With his "heart" functioning, the alien unaccountably develops human passions that cause him to blow his cover.
The romantic "stars" of the film are the diminutive Susan Cabot, a favorite, competent actress who routinely steered turkeys like Corman's The Wasp Woman into the watchable column. Dick Miller is better than competent as the low-key hero who saves the day. A voiceover at the movie's clumsy ending gives the impression that the "space satellite", after penetrating the sinister alien barrier, has emerged in some distant quadrant of the cosmos.
Also contributing to the fun are the ubiquitous Robert Shayne and actor-director Bruno VeSota, as concerned bureaucrats. Knowing the way Corman operated, VeSota may have been performing for free in exchange for the chance to direct Corman's The Brain Eaters. Roger Corman takes a quickie part as a "space guy" checking instruments at a console, but the unsung talent in War of the Satellites is Jerry Barclay, a crew member given a chance to join the alien cause. He gets the film's most absurd line of dialogue: "I was born a human and I'll die one before I join a race that kills innocent people for abstract ideas!" 1
Shout Factory's 2-DVD set of Roger Corman's Cult Classics Triple Feature is something genre fans (including yours truly) have been whining for for years. It seemed that decent copies of Corman's early films would never show up, either because of avaricious rights holders of A.I.P. titles or the iffy chain of title for these Allied Artists releases. Worse, tragically disadvantaged fans like myself (get out your handkerchiefs) could only remember seeing Attack of the Crab Monsters on bad TV reception. With our substandard antenna, 80 miles from the broadcast tower, I think I could make out some shadowy forms before both image and sound disintegrated into static.
Flat gray-market bootlegs didn't look much better, and were often from Allied Artists' botched TV syndication prints, which added title crawls, long credit rolls, step-printed action scenes and repeated "prologue" scenes to pad the films out for 90-minute time slots. And the films were already fattened with standard digressions like teenage smooching scenes, "for kids to identify with".
Shout Factory apparently acquired two of the pictures in one go, and then contracted for the third at the last minute. Not of This Earth and Attack of the Crab Monsters (with an English distributor's logo) are nicely enhanced for widescreen, and War of the Satellites is presented in a very good flat transfer (and an English censor card). The images are all but flawless -- we can read road signs to figure out some of Corman's Hollywood locations. 2
The first two films carry audio commentaries by Tom Weaver and John & Mike Brunas. Their banter is quite good with the exception of long credits list for bit players. Weaver refers to original scripts and shooting schedules and has reliable information on things like the Corman-Paul Birch falling-out. John and Mike are less polished speakers but they know their material, even if they poke too much fun at Crab Monsters. They get one thing exactly right -- that the reputations of these films were made through television exposure as part of an early-1960s "Chiller Theater" syndication package.
War of the Satellites is accompanied by a long string of Roger Corman Trailers, including excellent transfers of items like Creature from the Haunted Sea, which looks better than any available copy of the film itself. Also included is a long endorsement piece, possibly assembled to promote Roger Corman as a candidate for the special Oscar he won last year. Corman receives plenty of positive testimonials from everybody from Peter Bogdanovich to the makeup people on his 70s releases -- Jack Hill, George Hickenlooper, Cindy Weintraub, Harry Dean Stanton, Peter Kuran. We know others by name but not by face -- the more successful ones fulfilled Corman's prediction that if they succeeded on one of his shows, they'd never have to work for him again. Joe Dante sums up the Corman experience with a quote reported by director Jonathan Kaplan: Corman told him to "decide how long it will take to make it great, decide how long it will be to make it good, and decide how long it will take to get an image. And then go for the image."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Roger Corman's Cult Classics Triple Feature rates:
Movie: Earth, Crab Very Good; Satellites Good +
Video: Earth, Crab Very Good; Satellites Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Two commentaries, deleted TV prologues, Corman trailer compendium, Corman testimonial featurette
Packaging: Two discs in Keep case
Reviewed: December 28, 2010
2. It's interesting that intact prints would be found in the UK, where censorship routinely cut out the most innocuous content. Listings for '50s genre films in The Monthly Film Bulletin often shaved a couple of minutes from American running times.
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