Ho Meng Hua’s THE OILY MANIAC„ÄĆ ś≤Ļť¨ľŚ≠ź„Äćto Blu-ray in July from 88 Films

Today in “things I never thought I’d live to see”, 88 Films have announced via their facebook page that director Ho Meng Hua’s deliciously bizarre action-horror-revenge fantasy¬†The Oily Maniac „ÄĆ ś≤Ļť¨ľŚ≠ź„Äć, from Shaw Brothers in 1976, will see its high definition video debut in July.

From the 88 Films FB:

Danny Lee (THE KILLER) played one of cinema’s most unlikely superheroes in THE OILY MANIAC (1976) – a Shaw Brothers creature-feature classic that is only now gaining a much-deserved premiere in the UK! In this gooey gem of a monster-mash, Lee plays a Hong Kong everyman who has been crippled and is down-on-his-luck – that is, until he learns of a spell that can turn him into a transformative and transmorphing pile of ferocious but malevolent mush. Yes, he is THE OILY MANIAC – and in this Cantonese predecessor to Troma’s THE TOXIC AVENGER, he is able to appear and re-appear at will, making it all the more tricky for his arch-enemies to dillute his delirious brilliance. Directed by the prolific Meng Hua Ho (THE FLYING GULLOTINE), this is one Far Eastern B-movie masterpiece that deserves to be seen and appreciated in full HD!

Full details have yet to be made available, but The Oily Maniac is expected to release on the 24th of July. The disc is already available for pre-order through Amazon.co.uk. We can hardly wait!

Entombed for eons… Turned to Stone… Seeking Women! Women! Women! Edward Cahn’s CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN

Etruscan gladiator-slave Quintillus Aurelius rises from the ruins of Pompeii to reclaim his reincarnated bride in this occasionally odd and often rote science fiction horror, produced by Robert E. Kent (Invisible Invaders) for the prolific Edward Small (Witness For the Prosecution) and directed by B-picture genre dependable Edward L. Cahn (Creature With the Atom Brain).

Curse of the Faceless Man plays in a more or less predictable fashion, with a gaggle of Neapolitan scientists working to uncover the secrets of their discovery; a man, perfectly preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD (never-mind that the real-life inspirations for the film’s ‘Volcano Man’ were poured plaster through and through, shaped by the cavities left by Pompeii’s long-decomposed dead); as bodies start to pile up. Elsewhere artist Tina (Elaine Edwards, The Bat) is haunted by dreams of the faceless man, of his slavish imprisonment in the past and of his misdeeds in the present.¬†On the anniversary of the eruption of Vesuvius Tina succumbs to her psychic connection with the faceless man and the pair, reliving their doomed¬†flight of two-thousand years ago, make their way towards the sea . . .

This is another of those films which was arguably better than it needed to be, reasonably¬†photographed (by The Outer Limits regular Kenneth Peach) and intelligibly edited, with a capable cast (including a perennially disinterested Richard Anderson, The Six Million Dollar Man,¬†and the lovely Adele Mara, Wake of the Red Witch) who do little to embarrass themselves. The primary draw, then as now, remains the faceless man himself, a memorably blank make-up by Charles Gemora performed by the substantially buff Bob Bryant (My Seven Little Bares). He reminds of the meteor-encrusted astronaut of the following year’s¬†First Man Into Space, albeit less grotesque. The score by Gerald Fried (The Killing)¬†lends the beast a suitable atmosphere in its various budget rampages, knocking through doors and bashing in the skull of the occasional misplaced guard.

Curse of the Faceless Man isn’t a bad hour to spend all told, provided expectations aren’t set to high for it. Pseudo-DeMille-ian¬†narration by genre regular and frequent screen general Morris Ankrum (Invaders From Mars) may put it a notch or two higher in my book, but this is pretty standard monster-on-the-loose fair, and perfectly average among its contemporaries. It may not sound like much of a recommendation, but those of you looking to scratch that mid-century sci-fi / horror itch could do much worse.

As of this writing Curse of the Faceless Man is available for streaming, and in HD besides, via Prime Instant Video through Amazon. The film is also available on Blu-ray through Kino Lorber, who include a commentary for the feature by Chris Alexander.

Saturday Monster Matinee: Edward L. Cahn’s ‘IT! The Terror from Beyond Space’

ITTFBSblurayThe year is¬†1973. The first manned mission to Mars has gone disastrously wrong, and several¬†months later a rescue mission reveals the grim details: All but one of the crew of ten¬†has been killed, and the sole survivor¬†– Col. Carruthers (Marshall Thompson, Fiend Without a Face), the mission’s commander – is the only culprit apparent. With evidence and suspicion alike mounted solidly against him, Carruthers seems destined for¬†the firing squad, but the Colonel has his own explanation: Shortly after crash-landing on the planet his party was attacked by¬†some malignant, inhuman force – a mysterious¬†it,¬†of which no direct evidence exists.

As the¬†rescue mission turned prison party rockets back towards Earth its crew is¬†justifiably¬†suspicious of the Colonel’s claims. Suspicious, that is, until they begin disappearing one by one,¬†the victims of a hungry¬†stowaway from a dying world…

So goes IT! The Terror from Beyond Space, the¬†over-achieving shoestring shocker from veteran director Edward L. Cahn (Three Came to Kill,¬†Creature with the Atom Brain) and science fiction author Jerome Bixby (Fantastic Voyage). Bixby’s screenplay begins with a keen noirish¬†hook – grim narration from the doomed Carruthers, destined for court martial and execution for crimes he didn’t commit –¬†and swiftly transitions into outright horror,¬†as Carruthers and his would-be wardens find themselves trapped within the ever more claustrophobic confines of their ship by a nigh-unstoppable Martian beast.¬†Reminiscent of both the earlier¬†The Thing from Another World and the later¬†Alien,¬†IT!‘s narrative was streamlined¬†out of necessity (the budget only allowed for a handful of sets) and becomes all the more suspenseful for the trouble. The film’s multi-level spaceship locale is a studio cost-cutter’s dream, largely evoked by¬†a single set (staircase to the roof, port in the floor) which could be rearranged and redressed as required.¬†Bixby has the eponymous “IT” chew through level after level, driving the dwindling human cast further and further¬†upward, until at last there’s nowhere left for them (or the audience!) to run.

That the human cast are such a reputable bunch (for such a small production, at least) is a large factor of¬†IT!‘s success. Lead Marshall Thompson¬†had been a bit actor and supporting player for the decade and more¬†leading up to the late 1950’s, and became a regular fixture of B-horror for a couple of years (starring in the deliciously grotesque sci-fi Fiend Without a Face, as well as¬†First Man into Space and¬†Curse of the Faceless Man) before moving on to hard-earned¬†success in television. Shirley Patterson (as Shawn Smith) is fine¬†(even as the writing gives her precious little to do but indulge her vaguely-defined affections and serve coffee) in what would come to be her last film appearance, while Ann Doran (Rebel Without a Cause) and Dabbs Greer (the duplicitous Mac from Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers) make for a believable husband / wife science team. Bixby’s screenplay pulls¬†a minor coup with¬†Kim Spalding’s spaceship commander,¬†who appears from the outset as though he may be the hero of the picture.¬†By the end, however, he’s lost his love interest to a one-time murder suspect and is slowly dying of an alien¬†infection.¬†His final suicidal act, impelled by an unsound and feverish mind,¬†seems¬†a willful rebuttal of the trope of the self-sacrificial hero¬†– pretty¬†ambitious stuff for a cheap-o horror pic.

Perhaps most memorable among the cast is actor, stunt man, and screen gorilla extraordinaire Ray “Crash” Corrigan, here taking his final film role as the eponymous “IT” – Corrigan is reputed to have been variously inebriated throughout the production, which may go some way towards explaining his shambling and sometimes awkward monster performance here. The iconic, reptilian look of the beast itself came courtesy of an uncredited Paul Blaisdell (It Conquered the World,¬†Invasion of the Saucer Men), whose work for IT! is among the most detailed and memorable¬†of his significant tenure as a B-movie monster maker.¬†Director Cahn and cinematographer Kenneth Peach (The Iron Sheriff) wisely obscure¬†the beast with¬†shadows and smoke¬†for many of its appearances, often limiting views to inserts of its alienated parts¬†– a couple of shuffling feet here, a claw peeling back a hatchway there.¬†One of its early appearances, surrounded by oozing haze and backlight as it tears its way through a hatchway, is indelible and nightmarish,¬†and among the more memorable moments in¬†the B-monster canon.

IT!¬†is not without its flaws, and certainly has more than its fair share of preposterous distractions (like the crew’s eagerness to shoot, grenade, and bazooka their way about their own spaceship, or a¬†locker full of Chesterfield cartons that leads to an unlikely monster attack – remember kids, smoking kills!), but this is all part and parcel of the genre and time. It may not exactly be the Academy’s view of art, but with¬†all the thrills and chills it packs into its slim 70 minutes it sure makes for a hell of an entertainment. IT! The Terror from Beyond Space is great stuff.

Screenshots were gleaned from Olive Film’s new Blu-ray of the film, released just this past week. The Region A-locked disc has its fair share of issues, stemming from a rather noisy HD master provided by MGM and a lackluster encode that leaves the feature rife with artifacting. There are positives – Kenneth Peach’s photography finally plays as it should, framed at the proper 1.85:1, and there are obviously¬†improvements in contrast and detail over MGM’s decade-plus old¬†DVD¬†edition – but this is pretty underwhelming¬†stuff for a Blu-ray release from 2015 that carries with it a bloated $30 retail price tag. Audio is original English monophonic 2.0, passable in unrestored DTS-HD MA. Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter’s score, dominated by rearrangements of their work for the earlier¬†Kronos, fares reasonably well, but those looking to pick nits will find occasional dropouts and plenty of pops to obsess over. The disc offers no subtitles, and features as its sole supplement the theatrical trailer for the film (absurd attempts at subliminal advertising included). This is far too uneven a presentation to get a recommendation from me, and fans of the film are encouraged to¬†check their expectations. The disc is available through Amazon.com and other retailers, but those with streaming capabilities may want to check Amazon Instant Video instead, which offers the same HD transfer for significantly less cash.

Terror Has No Shape!
Chuck Russell’s ‘The Blob’

A piece of carnivorous pink snot falls to Earth in a meteor¬†and chews its way through the population of a rural California town in this uneven (if¬†ultimately lovable) remake of the¬†oddball monster classic from 30 years before. Shawnee Smith (Becker) is the requisite teen-who-cried wolf, out to warn a disbelieving public after her boyfriend is unceremoniously devoured, while bad-boy Kevin Dillon (Platoon,¬†Entourage) is the “unlikely” hero,¬†a selfish anti-social who’s out for himself, at least until the script predictably dictates otherwise. Candy Clark (The Man Who Fell to Earth), Jeffrey DeMunn (Christmas Evil), Bill Moseley (The¬†Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) and Paul McCrane (RoboCop) head up the disposable supporting cast,¬†the most noteworthy items in the film’s all-you-can-eat buffet.

Just one of a¬†slog of high-profile ’50s monster remakes to descend upon cinemas in the ’70s and ’80s, Chuck Russell’s (The Mask) 1988 redux of Jack H. Harris’ considerable 1958 hit is also¬†one of the least interesting, dramatically speaking. Scripting from director Russell and co-writer Frank Darabont (The Green Mile)¬†can’t hold a candle to¬†Carpenter, Cronenberg, or Kaufman’s more lauded revivals¬†– the expected nods to the events of the original are supported by some rote action setups and plenty of cocky one-liners, but not much else. Russell and Darabont’s only significant¬†narrative addition is that of a¬†tiresome¬†evil-government subplot, in which the amorphous star of the show is revealed to be (surprise!) a bio-war experiment gone awry.¬†Joe Seneca does his best as the unethical man of science behind the whole mess, and makes¬†his monologues about disappearing dinosaurs and Russians sound like better stuff¬†than they really are, but he and his army of hazmat goons never amount to more than an unnecessary distraction. Like most of the rest of the film’s cast, they’re all just so much blob-chow in the end.

For all of its dramatic inadequacies The Blob does have at least one undeniable strength: an abundance of gore and creature effects that rate¬†among the best of their type and time, and which take to their logical conclusion aspects of the concept largely left to the imagination in the ’58 original. Clearly influenced by Rob Bottin’s landmark make-up effects for Carpenter’s repulsive 1982 classic¬†The Thing (ad art from which can be glimpsed in The Blob‘s projection room¬†scene),¬†Tony Gardner (make-up effects creator), Lyle Conway (creature effects creator), and a platoon of technicians put the man-eating mucous front and center with as many gross-out set-pieces as the budget would allow¬†–¬†and it allowed for a¬†lot. Tristar and a cadre of producers (including the original’s Jack H. Harris) threw nearly $20 million at the film, big-time¬†money for an R-rated monster pic and only a fraction of which would be recouped at the box office.

Conway and Gardner’s new-and-improved blob jiggles and writhes and tumbles over itself with ambling, carnivorous purpose, melting its way through its unfortunate prey like the creeping sac of digestive fluids it’s supposed to be. Those with a taste for such things will find no shortage of top-flight gore gags on display –¬†the blob’s first victim (hobo Billy Beck) is reduced to a disembodied torso and¬†slather of sputtering grease, while an ill-fated football jock’s would-be romantic conquest collapses into a slimy mass of blob tentacles as he cops a feel. Stand-out of the lot is the death of fry cook Clayton Landey, who finds himself the bizarre¬†casualty¬†of the world’s hungriest¬†clogged sink¬†–¬†The Blob was one of the first films I ever recall seeing, courtesy of my father’s questionable taste in family programming (I was only 4 or 5 – surely I’d never remember this, or Miracle Mile, or Goodbye Emmanuelle…), and this effects gag stuck hard in my shocked little mind.¬†I was scared silly¬†of sink drains for days.

Supporting all the gore is a¬†bona fide monster rampage that plays like the sort of thing Universal threatened its quintessential Western communities with so often (Tarantula,¬†The Monolith Monsters¬†and so on). The blob creeps through small-town city streets, snatching up the occasional fleeing citizen and duking it out with Joe Seneca’s dim-witted hazmat army before plastering itself to the front doors¬†of town hall¬†– stand-in for the original film’s beleaguered diner.¬†There it makes easy pickings of the people trapped inside (no one checks for emergency exits?) until the teens inevitably arrive to save the day, packing automatic rifles and thermite charges¬†in addition to the ’58 film’s comparatively quaint fire extinguishers. There are shades of other classic horrors to be had among all the modern action flash, with¬†Shawnee Smith’s one-girl fight against encroaching blob tentacles strongly recalling the climactic action of¬†It Came From Beneath the Sea, and despite the glitzy trappings the end result is in keeping with the source film – the monster is left impotent and frozen, but far from dead, in the middle of downtown, and the question of whether it might rise to feed again is left well open.

The Blob¬†certainly has it’s issues, and plenty of ’em, but it’s a film I find difficult to criticize too harshly. What it does well it tends to do¬†very well, and so long as that eponymous cascade of people-eating goop is on screen it can really do no wrong.¬†The Blob‘s major practical effects production still holds up well, even under the increased scrutiny afforded by HD video, and I suspect there’s a whole generation of new CG-raised youngsters that would find plenty to admire in its slick and sticky monster antics.¬†Nearly thirty years after the fact this blob remains a gruesome good time, and those in the mood for a tasty gross-out treat could do far, far worse.

The Blob is reviewed from the new Twilight Time blu-ray, a limited edition of 5,000 (already nearly sold-out according to the label) that streets with their other releases for this October. The disc presents the film at its theatrical 1.85:1 ratio by way of a Sony-licensed 1080p master. The Blob is in about as fine a condition here as one might reasonably hope, some occasional artifacting and a touch of noisiness aside Рthe screenshots should give a good indication of what to expect. The average video bitrate is middling (19.6 Mbps), but the image is quite pleasing in motion Рclean of all but the most marginal of damage, with strong contrast, well-saturated color, and a solid level of detail besides. The last I saw The Blob was on cable half a decade or more ago, so this was an upgrade for me to say the least. 

Audio (originally presented in Ultra Stereo) sounds great in 5.1 surround DTS-HD MA, clear and with a good degree of separation that adds¬†plenty to the appeal of the¬†frequent monster scenes, and is supported by optional English SDH subtitles. An isolated track of Michael Hoenig’s rather mundane score (stereo, DTS-HD MA as well), a commentary track with director Chuck Russell and Shock Till You¬†Drop‘s Ryan Turek, a pair of original theatrical trailers (gory and non), and a featurette of¬†The Blob‘s presentation as part of¬†Cinefamily’s Friday Night Frights round out the supplemental content.¬†The Blob is single layered and looks to be all-region compatible (it plays without issue¬†on my Region B secondary deck),¬†and is available while supplies last through ScreenArchives.com.¬†

In den Klauen der Tiefe:
The Mole People (1956)


The Mole People is reviewed from Anolis Entertainment’s region B-locked Blu-ray, released on April 17 of this year. The disc is limited to 1000 copies and can be found at Amazon.de and elsewhere.

From over-achieving B’s like Tarantula!¬†and¬†The Monolith Monsters to outright classics like¬†The Incredible Shrinking Man and¬†It Came From Outer Space,¬†there were an awful lot of very good sci-fi thrillers¬†produced under the banner of Universal International¬†through the late¬†1950s.¬†One would be hard-pressed to cite 1956’s¬†The Mole People as one of them. Produced on the fast and cheap,¬†The Mole People‘s limp tale of lost world misadventure has exactly one ace up its sleeve – its¬†eponymous monsters, the memorable work of make-up artists Bud Westmore and Jack Kevan (The Creature From the Black Lagoon). Wisely trumped up to the nth degree by the company’s keen advertising department, which churned out¬†some terrific art for the cause,¬†the fantastic critter design should have been¬†enough in its own right to hook¬†the intended crowds of teenagers and grade-schoolers. Universal must have¬†turned¬†a small fortune on¬†The Mole People‘s slim pickings.

And slim they are indeed. Penned by Laszlo Gorog (Earth vs. The Spider) and helmed by veteran editor turned freshman director Virgil W. Vogel (whose résumé boasts such disparate works as Touch of Evil and Invasion of the Animal People), The Mole People distills an already rote exercise in fantasy action and adventure to a torpid lump of patience-defying essentials. The yarn begins in an anonymous gravel pit in Asia (specifics are overrated), site of an archaeological dig to uncover the the long-lost secrets of the Sharu dynasty, unheard of since the time of the Biblical flood (established historical fact in so far as The Mole People is concerned). Leading the effort is one Dr. Bentley (John Agar, The Brain From Planet Arous), who has unearthed evidence of something hitherto unheard of Рa post-flood history of Sharu and his civilization!

Doc Bentley and a cadre of co-archaeologists (including an excitable Nestor Paiva, an expendable Phil Chambers, and a very bored Hugh Beaumont) follow their new evidence to the last known location of their lost kingdom, the summit of an inhospitable mountain nearby. There they find the remnants of an ancient temple, but before any meaningful research can be done tragedy strikes! Chambers slips through a hole in the temple’s unstable floor and plummets into the untold depths below, leaving the rest of the team no recourse but to don their¬†climbing gear and descend¬†through the darkness after him. What they find is more or less predicable – hundreds of feet below the surface of the Earth Chambers has reached the end of his contract. A rock slide traps the rest in the abyss,¬†but their desperate search for an alternate means of exit instead leads them¬†right into the heart of the Sharu dynasty, paler for all their millennia underground and¬†still partying like it’s 3000 B.C. Now numbering just 150, the kingdom subsists wholly on mushrooms cultivated and harvested by their subhuman slave race (guess who!) and sacrifices any superfluous citizenry in the “fire of Ishtar”.¬†Bentley and associates aren’t exactly welcome in Sharu’s domain, with the high priest Elinu (Alan Napier!) taking particular exception to their threat to his (very) narrow world view.¬†But the archaeologists¬†carry with them a god-like power – the very fire of Ishtar itself! – a power the scheming Elinu will stop at nothing to possess!

SidePoster1The Mole People owes a substantial debt to the wealth of lost world fiction that had come before it (certain elements are lifted straight from the work of H. Rider Haggard, such as the archaeologists presenting themselves as¬†gods a la King Solomon’s Mines), though it lives up to almost none of them. One might¬†complain about the overall lack of production punch, with some anonymous darkened tunnels, a handful of sparse sets, and a couple of tremendously unconvincing matte paintings comprising the sum total of the lost Sharu empire, but¬†The Mole People‘s low budget trappings are only amplified¬†by the¬†impoverished writing. Laszlo Gorog’s script must have run a dozen or so pages too short, as the finished film feels remarkably padded even at a¬†brief 77 minutes. A dubious scientific lecture¬†eats up half of the first reel, and the later descent to find Chambers’ fallen archaeologist seems to run¬†almost in real time.¬†Inaction remains the order of the day throughout.¬†The film’s few horror moments are legitimately good –¬†a shock close-up of Westmore and Kevan’s mole man design, a monster attack on one of the explorers, and several shots of men dragged beneath the earth – but there’s just nothing for them to punctuate. Bentley and company sit around and talk or wander aimlessly through tunnels, and high priest Elinu’s evil scheming amounts to a minor effort to steal John Agar’s flashlight (the fire of Ishtar!). The eventual¬†uprising of the inhuman slaves against their masters feels less of a climax than an inevitability, and with so little of worth¬†backing it up¬†any significant¬†impact it may have had is woefully undermined.

With so much of the script working against them it’s a wonder that any among¬†The Mole People‘s generally good cast is able to shine at all. Alan Napier is the most radiant of the lot¬†as the requisite villain type, and his performance is the only from the main cast that might be called passionate.¬†His careful, curious handling of the flashlight, and the forbidden power Elinu thinks¬†it contains,¬†is the performance highlight of the film, an inspired take on an insipid plot development and a fine testament to the professionalism of Napier as an actor. Nestor Paiva is one of those rare talents the nature¬†of whose performance¬†quality¬†seems to forever¬†elude me. His turn here as the dubiously ethnic, sweaty, uncomfortable, and flighty LaFarge is all of the above and with un-traceable accent to spare – I honestly can’t tell if it works or not. As for the rest, passable seems the operative word. One can’t help but pity career also-ran Hugh Beaumont, whose indifference towards¬†the production appears equal to the production’s indifference towards him. With few lines and only scraps of action, one can hardly blame him for standing around looking bored. Star John Agar always seemed to get the short end of the critical stick, but his turn as archaeologist Bentley offers nothing to sway his detractors. Agar dutifully recites Gorog’s goofy and utilitarian¬†prose (“In archaeology all things are possible!“), but there’s no sign of the charismatic, promising young actor who can be glimpsed elsewhere. His delivery here is ill-paced and as dull as the proverbial dishwater, and only serves to bog down a production already awash with¬†mediocrity. Most unfortunate of all may be second-billed Cynthia Patrick, who received the biggest role of her brief film career with¬†The Mole People.¬†Patrick makes her appearance half way in, the resident freak in Sharu’s court (flesh tone, how ghastly!), and is shuffled through a painful by-the-numbers romance with Agar’s archaeologist before falling in with the mole man crowd. Universal gave the actress precious little to do in her brief stint as a contract player, and one doubts this felt like much of a step up, or even a step in the right direction. After leaving the studio Patrick went on to freelance a bit in television, but soon abandoned show business all together¬†in favor of¬†a more reasonable profession – real estate.

SidePoster2I hate to sound overly critical of¬†The Mole People, a film I’m genuinely quite fond of (honest!), but its more lamentable qualities are just part and parcel of what it is, and quite impossible to ignore. Still, out of all that rough more appreciable moments do arise. The opening titles are some of the best of their kind, rising from a smouldering pit as Heinz Roemheld and Herman Stein’s evocative theme blasts, and are worth seeking out the film for in and of themselves. The film’s horror moments are sparse, but are very well handled when they do appear¬†(kudos to Westmore and Kevak’s convincingly grotesque creature design). Even the generally underwhelming production design has successful¬†moments. The Sharu slave grounds are atmospheric and unsettling in their design, and their first wide reveal¬†makes for¬†one of¬†The Mole People‘s most¬†indelible moments.¬†Then there is the film’s oddball opening, half a reel of padding by way of a¬†some laughable “scientific” exposition.¬†The eccentric mini-lecture entreats audiences to consider, of all things, a variety of hollow earth theories, notably those forwarded by¬†John Cleves Symmes, Jr. and self-proclaimed messiah and Koreshanity founder Cyrus Teed (a fascinating character in his own right), and is delivered by The Mole People‘s most unlikely cast member – Dr. Frank C. Baxter, a PhD in English here appearing as¬†himself. Though doubtless lost on most modern viewers, Baxter was himself something of a celebrity at the time¬†The Mole People was produced. His¬†Shakespeare on TV program was a popular success in the early ’50s and netted several Emmys, but¬†his greatest public exposure arrived via a recurring¬†role as Dr. Research, the host of a series of pseudo-religious science documentaries produced by Frank Capra and Bell Laboratories (AT&T). If his¬†The Mole People¬†appearance is any indication then Baxter must have been quite a character – his enthusiastic and strangely expressive approach to the film’s hollow earth babble is far more interesting than than any of the¬†information espoused.¬†It’s all rather compelling in its own odd way, and the sequence makes for¬†one of¬†the film’s¬†more bizarre assets.

The Mole People will never be remembered as a good film, or even as a good example of the Universal brand of sci-fi / horror. While there are certainly a few captivating moments that emerge from the rough, one will have¬†to weed through a good deal of¬†dull, lethargic mess to appreciate them. Even from¬†one who genuinely¬†likes the picture, The Mole People¬†makes for a tough recommendation. Though obviously a must for classic monster fans, who¬†should¬†find Westmore and Kevak’s work more than worth the price of admission, others should perhaps prepare themselves for just how tiresome 77 minutes can be.

The Mole People, under the title In den Klauen der Tiefe, is the second of Universal’s golden age sci-fi thrillers to see blu-ray release from Anolis Entertainment (The Monolith Monsters was released in March, with¬†The Land Unknown to follow later in the year), and while it’s far from the top-list of desirable Blu-ray titles even in its own genre I’m still damned happy to have it.

Those familiar with Anolis’ earlier release of¬†The Monolith Monsters will know what to expect here. The single-layer disc presents a robust progressive Mpeg-4 AVC encode of the film, average bitrate 30.7 Mbps, which dutifully supports¬†The Mole People‘s modest visual charms. The Universal-supplied master presents the film at a ratio of 2.00:1, and while the image can appear a little too tight in places (a more open 1.85:1 framing would have been preferable in this case)¬†I can’t say it detracted from my viewing experience in the least.¬†The Mole People¬†progresses well beyond past editions in its HD debut, adding significantly to the left and right of the frame and making impressive gains with regards to contrast and detail.¬†There is a heavy grain structure throughout (the elements look a good few steps down from the OCN) that is well supported by the HD encode, and there is significant minor damage in evidence – speckling, scratches, even reel change markers. A perfect scan from pristine elements it certainly isn’t, but improvements are quite substantial over¬†past SD editions, and one doubts if¬†The Mole People will ever appear on home video in a¬†superior¬†condition. One point worth noting: The title card on the master sourced reads¬†In den Klauen der Tiefe as opposed to¬†The Mole People, though the rest of the credits remain in their usual English.

Anolis provides audio in two flavors – original English and German dub, each presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0 (mono for English, stereo for German). The tracks sound quite flat in both instances,¬†but sound perfectly¬†faithful to the original recordings. Optional German subtitles are also available. Supplements are limited to a pair of trailers (a digitally-created German one, and the original American, both in SD) and an HD image gallery. Anolis Entertainment’s blu-ray of¬†In den Klauen der Tiefe / The Mole People is locked to Region B, comes packaged in a slick black case, and is limited to a run of just 1000 copies. While a swift sell out is unlikely for such a marginal title I recommend those interested pick it up sooner rather than later – another blu-ray release seems unlikely in the near future.

DVD / Blu-ray comparison shots
DVD shots appear first, and have been upscaled to 1920×1440 for ease of comparison. Blu-ray shots were taken as uncompressed .png in Totem Movie Player and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 93% using¬†the ImageMagick command line tool. No filtering has been applied.


More Blu-ray shots:

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Das Geheimnis des Steinernen Monsters: The Monolith Monsters (1957)


The Monolith Monsters is reviewed from Anolis Entertainment’s region B-locked Blu-ray, released on March 28 of this year. The disc is limited to 999 copies and can¬†be found at Amazon.de and elsewhere.

1957 seems to have been¬†a good year to be a dangerous rock in cinema. In June¬†Columbia unleashed¬†The Night the World Exploded, a shoestring¬†Sam Katzman / Fred F. Sears thriller that found¬†the Earth in mortal danger from the sudden appearance of a¬†dangerously¬†unstable element buried within its own crust. Interesting in concept (particularly in its¬†overtones of ecological awareness) but bland in its execution,¬†Night¬†would¬†be outdone at practically every level by competitor Universal International’s¬†The Monolith Monsters, released in December of the same year. Easily the most Arnoldian of the Universal shockers¬†not directed by him (Jack Arnold does receive a story credit), long time second unit man John Sherwood’s picture finds one of Universal’s many stock desert communities¬†beset by one of the more bizarre¬†among the decade’s otherworldly menaces – an extraterrestrial¬†crystal growing kit of¬†immense proportions.

A quintessential example of the ’50s monster mystery movie, and about as by-the-books as they come, credit is due to writers Norman Jolley (I’ve Lived Before) and Robert M. Fresco (Tarantula!) for working up a better screenplay than a production like¬†The Monolith Monsters really called for. The narrative centers around the town of¬†San Angelo,¬†a rural¬†patch of civilization with little but a salt mine, a one-page daily rag, and a few hundred decent and law-abiding all-Americans to its name. Just beneath the postcard surface something sinister is brewing. A local geologist with the Department of the Interior is killed, seemingly turned to stone, and his office all but destroyed. A farmhouse is found crushed, its two adult occupants¬†in the same state as the geologist while their¬†child, wandering¬†and catatonic, is found to be slowly petrifying from the hand up. The only clue comes in the form of¬†rocks, slick black and strangely alien, tons of which have mysteriously appeared at each scene.

PosterInsertGeologist Dave Miller (Grant Williams, The Incredible Shrinking Man) and his old professor Flanders (Trevor Bardette, Gun Crazy) investigate, and make a startling discovery. The strange rock that litters the scenes of destruction is indeed alien, borne to Earth on a meteorite, and possessed of a remarkable ability Рwhen it comes into contact with water it grows (to towering height where quantities are sufficient). In the process it absorbs the silica from everything it touches, turning human beings to stone and leaving its surroundings desolate and lifeless. With her disease progressing the young girl (in the care of lovely school teacher Lola Albright, Kid Galahad) is rushed to a research hospital, where the race is on to find a cure. Meanwhile San Angelo is beset by torrential rain. In the desert the extraterrestrial monoliths begin to grow, tumble, shatter, and multiply, making slow yet irresistible progress through a winding canyon, threatening to bury San Angelo and all that lies beyond it under a mountain of petrifying stone!

While one could hardly call¬†The Monolith Monsters the most original of ’50s sci-fi thrillers in so far¬†as its narrative is concerned (this is rooted firmly in the tradition of Warner’s Them!¬†and Universal’s earlier¬†Tarantula!), it remains a more than capable representative of its type. Jolley and Fresco’s screenplay keeps the action moving at a healthy clip and with almost no waste¬†– if a seemingly minor trapping is introduced, you can bet it figures into the film’s conclusion somehow.¬†With no villains to clutter up the proceedings¬†the characters are all a¬†likable lot, and intelligibly written besides. Some of the peripheral players are more interesting than the main cast, including the late, great Les Tremayne (War of the Worlds) as the editor, proprietor, and sole reporter for San Angelo’s daily paper and William Schallert (The Man From Planet X) as a slightly neurotic scene-stealing weatherman.¬†Attention is even paid to legitimate¬†scientific process, a rarity in sci-fi,¬†with Dave and Prof. Flanders methodically going about the task of uncovering the monoliths’ mysteries. The pair chip away at samples, test, re-test, and (gasp!) even do math. It’s a refreshing change¬†of pace¬†for a genre too fond of leaving even the softest of hard science on the cutting room floor.

Poster_3shtThe meteoric menace is itself one of the decade’s highlights, and brought to memorable geologic life by Universal’s accomplished effects department (including ace effects photographer¬†Clifford Stine and¬†Earthquake‘s Frank Brendel). The revelation of the rocks’ titanic potential is handled¬†with good suspense and style to spare, with Dave and Prof. Flanders rushing to a rain-drenched crater after accidentally growing a mini-monolith in their lab sink – there, battered by torrential rainfall, they see the rocks eerily growing in silhouette. The special effects are limited to a few brief scenes, but are generally very well handled. The monoliths sprout from the ground, angular and weird, and then collapse, taking a few neat miniatures and plenty of desert with them. While others will doubtless disagree I always found them quite imposing and even a little frightening, a thoughtless, unmotivated natural process rumbling destructively through the countryside. It’s an aspect that connects¬†The Monolith Monsters with the earthquakes, tidal waves, super-storms and volcanoes that would clutter up cinemas during the disaster craze of the ’70s, though¬†none of those distinctly Earth-bound events have an ounce of the out-there appeal¬†of this film’s monoliths.

The Monolith Monsters isn’t a perfect film by any means, and those repulsed by plot holes may find the inevitable feel-good conclusion too convenient by miles, but it remains one of the better of its¬†type and¬†time and easily bests most of the Universal sci-fi horrors to come (lovable as¬†Monster on the Campus,¬†The Thing that Couldn’t Die and the rest may be). This is damned fine stuff as far as I’m concerned, and the eponymous monsters well worth the cost¬†of admission.

Anolis Entertainment, who have been responsible for a host¬†of groovy German genre releases over the years (including some world’s best tokusatsu special editions), have granted¬†The Monolith Monsters an unlikely high definition debut with this limited edition Blu-ray, and while I couldn’t be happier I must admit it’s not for everyone. The disc is locked to Region B and carries a hefty price tag – a little over¬†$30 from Amazon.de, and slightly less from some other outlets.¬†Anolis released a comparatively loaded DVD edition as part of their¬†Galerie des Grauens¬†series, but much¬†of that supplemental content (including a pair of audio commentaries and a full-frame German kino-version) has not been ported over to the new issue.¬†The Blu-ray arrives with a pair of trailers (American and faux-German – the film did not have a theatrical release in Germany, but was something of a television staple in the ’70s), a neat HD gallery of stills and advertising material, and a cool HD copy of the US pressbook (put together in such a way¬†that you can actually read the thing if you want, which is a hoot).

The feature presentation, courtesy of an HD master provided by Universal Studios, will be a bone of contention for some.¬†The new master improves quite drastically over Universal’s own domestic DVD edition, with broader contrast, significantly boosted detail (Tremayne’s suit!),¬†and a lovely undisturbed grain structure. Largely unrestored with some occasional¬†instability, flicker, and light damage (dust, specs, and scratches here and there), this edition of¬†The Monolith Monsters¬†nevertheless looks¬†very¬†strong in playback, and the comparison shots below should make the improvements obvious. The disc¬†is only single-layer, but that’s more than sufficient for this 77 minute feature. The encode is quite robust – Mpeg-4 AVC at an average bitrate of 34.1 Mbps – and artifacting is not an issue.

Visual improvements aside the release has courted some controversy due to it’s aspect ratio – 2.00:1,¬†which is as Universal’s master presented it.¬†The Monolith Monsters was filmed¬†flat and protected for both theatrical matting and later open-matte¬†television presentations,¬†but just how wide it was intended to be projected theatrically is beyond me. 2.00:1 was one of Universal’s in-house ratios at the time, and the placement of the film’s credits (quite tight, and pushed slightly towards the top¬†in the frame) suggest that cropping to such a wide ratio may indeed have been expected. In practice this will all be a matter of taste, I expect. The new master shows considerably more information at the sides of the frame, particularly the left. The opening credits appear to be a bit squashed vertically, but this does not appear to effect the rest of the film. All in all I don’t think the material suffers in the least from the wider¬†framing, but others will surely disagree. Those who prefer the old open-matte¬†presentation will have to hang on to their VHS / Laserdisc / DVD (alas, I once had all three!).

Audio is presented in two flavors of 2.0 monophonic DTS-HD MA – original English and German dubbed. The former sounds¬†very¬†good, and while I was expecting the kind of flatness that marred Universal’s¬†King Kong vs. Godzilla blu-ray it never really materialized. The mix is¬†surprisingly vibrant nearly 60 years after the fact, and those classic Universal genre cues expand beautifully. The German dub sounds quite strange in comparison, with significantly flatter background music – the new dubbed dialogue and sound effects seem almost as though they’re floating over the older material. Optional subtitles are povided in German only.

There will be some gnashing of teeth over this disc’s aspect ratio, and still more¬†with regards to the price. Despite some reservations with regards to each I¬†still made the jump, and¬†was pleasantly surprised by the end results. It turns out¬†The Monolith Monsters plays just fine at 2.00:1 (who knew?), and the blu-ray improves so dramatically over what’s come before that yeah, I think the lofty price point¬†was worth it. I’m so happy in fact that I’ve already ordered Anolis’ second limited Universal sci-fi blu-ray –¬†The Mole People shipped yesterday, and should arrive¬†in a couple of weeks. With no sign of these films¬†reaching domestic blu-ray anytime soon I’m glad I picked them up, and those considering the same are encouraged to do so sooner rather than later. While a swift sellout is exceedingly unlikely, those 999 copies aren’t going to last forever.

The comparison DVD shots below were captured as uncompressed .png in VLC media player, blown up in Gimp (to 1440×1080 and 1920×1080 respectively, to simulate upscaling the DVD in both cropped and uncropped ratios), and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 93%. Blu-ray shots were taken as uncompressed .png in Totem and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 93% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

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The Real B. I. G. Picture Show:
The Cyclops (1957)

Independently financed for what must have seemed a small fortune to commercial maker turned Hollywood director and low budget special effects guru Bert I. Gordon in the wake of 1955’s miserly matinee¬†King Dinosaur, the 1957 sci-fi horror¬†The Cyclops¬†was the first film in Gordon’s filmography to be completely his own. Not only did Gordon produce, direct, and provide special effects for the production, he wrote it and hunted up its private financiers as well. Though eventually distributed through Allied Artists, upon completion¬†The Cyclops was picked up by a floundering RKO, whose cash advance on the deal put the $100,000 production in the black before it even hit the screens. Its profitability led to a new deal with the short-lived AB-PT Pictures Corp and the production of the big-bug opus¬†Beginning of the End, and doubtless helped ingratiate Gordon with Nicholson and Arkoff’s A.I.P., under whose banner he would go on to produce many of his best pictures.

The narrative for¬†The Cyclops¬†is pretty straight forward stuff, but after the brainless slog of¬†King Dinosaur I’m just happy it has one at all. Several years prior young Susan Winter’s (Gloria Talbot, I Married a Monster From Outer Space) fiance Bruce flew into an isolated canyon region of Mexico and never came back. Now Susan has returned to find him, with a motley crew of three in tow. Lee Brand (Tom Drake, Meet Me in St. Louis) is a contract pilot, while ambitious oaf Martin Melville (Lon Chaney Jr.!) is looking to prospect for uranium in them thar hills. Scientist Russ Brand (top-billed James Craig, Kitty Foyle) is the most devoted of the bunch, a would-be suitor who hopes the expedition will convince the woman he loves to put the tragic past behind her.
Having brushed aside stern warnings from the local government (there are dangerous downdrafts in the area!), the expedition flies out to the ill-fated Bruce’s last known coordinates and promptly crash lands (with an assist from a momentarily crazed Martin) in a valley rimmed with nigh impassable mountains. Martin’s prospect-o-scope is soon ticking off the charts – the area is alive with radioactive elements he hopes will make him rich. Unfortunately for our adventurers, it’s also alive with something else. As they search the valley for evidence of Bruce’s downed plane they encounter giant beast after giant beast – a car-sized spider, a hawk a dozen feet high, and a pair of dueling bus-sized lizards. After a quick bit of scientific investigating Russ reaches a dreadful conclusion. The constant exposure to radiation has sent the native wildlife’s pituitary glands into hyper-drive, allowing them to grow exponentially, and the expedition has mere days before its own exposure reaches dangerous levels.

Just as the group are plotting to escape the area they fall prey to the most horrible threat yet – a disfigured twenty-five foot tall giant whose humanity seems to have gone with his face. The one-eyed beast traps the band in a cave, killing the trigger-happy Martin in a fit of vengeful rage and taking Susan as his personal hostage. The chance appearance of a mammoth snake gives the surviving three all the opportunity they need to sneak out from under the giant’s watchful gaze, but he is soon in hot pursuit. Can the surviving three escape the valley before they all wind up like Martin? And just who¬†is that towering giant?
half sheet
Gordon’s screenplay tries a little too hard to build a mystery out of such an obvious situation (that giant couldn’t possibly be the downed airman we’re all looking for,¬†could it?), but I’d say it’s a perfectly forgivable transgression – the rest of the writing is passable enough in context, and gets to the thrills early and often. Of these the titular cyclops is easily the best and most memorable, a fact due in large part to Jack H. Young’s (The Brood) deliciously ghastly prosthetic make-up effects. With one big, bulging eye and a half-deformed mouth lined with cartoonishly out-sized chompers¬†The Cyclops is an outright classic fifties monster design, even if the film it inhabits doesn’t quite rate. Studio guard turned giant monster Dean Parkin gives an appropriately BIG performance and, with a monumental assist from grunt-and-growl over-dubber Paul Frees, even elicits some heart-tug empathy when scientist Russ takes to re-enacting Homer with the beast’s one good eye. The scene of the cyclops whimpering in pain as he removes a bloodied spear from his now useless eye has been trimmed from television prints as of late, which is a damned shame – it’s the best moment of the picture.

The cyclops itself excepted The Cyclops plays as a fairly routine lost world adventure (some of the plot is straight out of the First National’s 1925 adaptation of the Conan Doyle novel) with a contemporary sci-fi twist. Unlike the lamentable¬†King Dinosaur, which promised kids a Tyrannosaurus Rex and handed them an iguana instead, here Gordon’s oversized animals are just that – native wildlife made huge by the valley’s abnormally high radioactivity. The effects are what they are. Some early moments – the first appearance of a giant lizard and the landing of a monstrous hawk – are done in split screen, and blend with the rest of the action well enough. Gordon handles the rest with his trusty, terrible traveling matte process, producing an army of beasts with glowing highlights and see-through shadows. When I first saw the film late one night in my formative years, the unreal, almost phantasmagoric quality of Gordon’s process effects fascinated me. In this age of cold, photo-real CGI, the transparent unreality of Gordon’s work still holds huge appeal for me. I’ll take one man doing what he can to get the shot he needs over an army of tinkering effects techs any day.
Less appealing is¬†The Cyclops‘ occasional reliance on real animal violence for its thrills. For decades after Hal Roach did it in¬†One Million B.C., monster pictures (including A productions like Fox’s Journey to the Center of the Earth) seemed to be fixated with abusing big lizards for fun and profit. To that end¬†The Cyclops repeats one of¬†King Dinosaur‘s unpleasant highlights – a tangle between an iguana and a tegu – anew, but is at least brief about it. The optically gigantified lizards spend most of their time chasing down James Craig and Gloria Talbot, who prefigure James Mason and Thayer David’s dimetrodon escape in Fox’s later¬†Journey by fleeing for the questionable safety of waste-deep water. An earlier assault by a giant hawk is more grisly still, lingering at length as the bird kills and begins to eat a mouse. The content is no worse than moments (staged and non) from countless nature documentaries that have been produced over the years (some pretty lamentable in their own right), but I’m still ruffled at the use of such material for its thrill factor alone.

The animal scenes aside, I’m not one to criticize The Cyclops too harshly. It’s a competent if not especially outstanding genre programmer, but it was the first Bert I. Gordon picture I ever saw, and remains one of my favorites. Indeed, it’s the first from the director that really¬†feels like a Gordon picture, thanks both to its content and the happy confluence of talent involved. Among other things it was the first to feature a score from Albert Glasser, whose beautifully overstated compositions would go on to accompany a further seven of the director’s pictures. Gordon would expand upon¬†The Cyclops‘ central conceit in fantastic fashion with his first A.I.P. production – the monumentally successful¬†The Amazing Colossal Man. That film’s 1958 sequel War of the Colossal Beast¬†would replay some elements from The Cyclops‘ wholesale, featuring yet another pitiable one-eyed giant courtesy of¬†Parkin, Young, and Frees.

The Cyclops is out in a gorgeous (and uncut!) widescreen enhanced made-on-demand DVD from the Warner Archive, and comes highly recommended to genre fans. The top image is sourced from my old tape, for the dubious purposes of nostalgia.

Yeti: The Low-Rent Giant of the 20th Century


From Shaw Brothers’ delirious great-ape-sploitation vehicle The Mighty Peking Man to Paul Leder’s dismal camp anti-classic¬†A*P*E, a lot of imitators cropped up in the wake of Dino De Laurentiis’ mega-budget 1976 re-production of¬†King Kong – a film so over-publicized that the Universe was likely aware of Kong’s return at the atomic level. Still, out of all the faux-Kongs¬†that fought over De Laurentiis’ scraps none seems quite so ill-advised as¬†Gianfranco Parolini’s¬†Yeti: The Giant of the 20th Century (Italian title Yeti: Il Gigante del 20¬į¬†Secolo). The production saw short-lived schlock purveyor Stefano Film (most notable for D’Amato’s Erotic Nights of the Living Dead) working well out of its depth, footing what must have seemed a lavish bill for a cross-continent special effects fiasco that fails on pretty much every conceivable level. Perhaps the only giant monster film to take place in Toronto,¬†Yeti achieves an almost transcendent level of bad before its near 2-hour running time is up, and it’s little wonder that director and co-writer Parolini (who’d previously had a good career in peplums and spaghetti westerns) would slip into obscurity soon thereafter.

From its opening moments of ice inexplicably exploding in the frozen north of Canada, it’s obvious that Yeti is destined to be a dreadful hoot. Out of the tumult of collapsing ice sheets emerges something very special indeed – a huge block of ice, bobbing about in the surf, with two sets of toes poking out the end of it! The block is scooped up by a ship owned by the megalithic Hunnicut corporation (they own a whole building!) and put under the care of paleontologist Wasserman (Paul Stacy, Zeder), who sets about exposing its contents in the only reasonable way imaginable – with flame throwers. Discovered inside is the eponymous Yeti who, true to the film’s Kong pedigree, stands about a dozen meters tall. Wasserman and corporate stooge Cliff (Tony Kendall, The Whip and the Body) concoct a dubious scheme to wake the slumbering giant, some mess involving a helicopter and a big red cage that, like most of¬†Yeti‘s developments, is never properly explained. It all works of course, and Yeti is soon rampaging through the Canadian wilderness with the papa Hunnicut’s grandchildren – mute Herbie and beauty Jane (Antonella Interlenghi!) – in tow. Somewhere between some grotesque Yeti nipple-hardening and a dinner of raw fish Yeti and the tykes become friends, and dear Jane convinces the kindly critter to head to Toronto to be exploited by her grand-pops’ corporation.

Shortly thereafter, Yeti-mania strikes Toronto! Gas stations promise to put a Yeti in your tank, young women buy tight Kiss-me-Yeti T-shirts, super-markets sell Yeti vegetables, and Yeti parades are held where dancers gyrate to Yeti’s theme song, “Yeti”, by who else but The Yetians! Hunnicut rakes in the dough in advance of his star attraction’s public premiere, but not everyone is pleased. Meeting in secret, a consortium of Hunnicut Corp’s top competitors vote to bring Hunnicut and his hairy superstar down by any means possible, and their inside man on Hunnicut’s staff is a face all to familiar – a good guy turned most dastardly of dastardly bastards, Cliff!

Elsewhere, Yeti’s rooftop debut doesn’t go strictly as planned. A few flashbulbs send him into hysterics, and the ensuing panic traps his beloved Jane in what must be Canada’s shoddiest elevator. As the elevator crumbles to bits around her Yeti goes into action, setting aside his fear of flashy lights and scaling the building in an effort to rescue Jane before it’s too late. He does of course, but with the local police in hot pursuit Yeti and Jane are forced to go on the lam. They settle on a warehouse as a choice hiding spot, but more trouble strikes – Yeti, removed from his high altitude habitat, is dying! Wasserman is called in to administer the proper medical care, leading to a choice romantic Yeti hallucination (a dance scene between Yeti and Jane that appears to have been deleted from most international prints), but unbeknownst to him the scheming Cliff and his under-goons are plotting against them all. The baddies kill the good doctor and blame it all on the Yeti, but the beast isn’t so stupid as they think. Even in his boozy near-death stupor he saw everything, and it isn’t long before Yeti is up and at ’em again, and itching for some ferocious toe-choking revenge!

It’s impossible to properly relate the delightful awfulness of Yeti – The Giant of the 20th Century¬†in print. From the utterly indifferent direction and photography to the uproariously derivative score (Sante Maria Romitelli channeling both John Barry’s King Kong and Orff’s Carmina Burana) to the loathsome special effects and beyond,¬†Yeti is an out-and-out catastrophe of a film. One can’t help but feel pity for poor Antonella Interlenghi, to whom¬†Yeti provided an inauspicious film debut, or the rest of the cast, most of whom look to have had much better days. Mimmo Craig gets the worst of it, however, as the Yeti. Not only is his costume (a mess of matted fur topped off with a freakish, fluffy mane) lamentable, the effects used to scale it up to size are some of the worst I’ve ever seen.

Blame for that doubtless rests with Stefano Film’s financial capabilities, which were obviously nowhere near satisfactory enough to support the sort of effects production such a film requires. The rest, however, boils down to effects director Ermando Biamonte and his company, Biamonte Cinegroup S.r.l., who have gone on to do work of varying quality elsewhere (The Pumaman leaps to mind). There are a few decent miniature setups peppered throughout the film’s running time, but the vast majority of Yeti‘s effects are accomplished though process photography. There is a¬†lot of it to be found here, not just with regards to the Yeti, but also bridging Italian-shot dialogue with Toronto-made background plates, and it is almost unanimously terrible. The setups are shaky, the elements transparent, and perspective is all over the map. I honestly can’t think of another film in which a single effects method is utilized so often and so¬†badly.

Of course, that’s all part of the charm for a film as uncompromisingly dismal as this – Yeti wouldn’t be nearly so much fun if its effects had actually worked. In the wake of MST3K and the popular resurgence of midnight cinema there’s a ready-made audience for this sort of thing now, though finding a copy can be something of a challenge. The last official domestic release was to VHS a couple of decades ago, and copies of it go for stupid amounts of money these days. The same is sadly true for the international market, with long-OOP tapes fetching higher prices than¬†Yeti¬†could ever command otherwise. To any of the more suicidally-minded distributors out there, let it be known that I’d pay damn good money for a proper release of this on DVD or, my god, Blu-ray. Here’s hoping for something, as¬†Yeti is a hell of a thing.

Homeland Insecurity: The Black Hole (2006)

TheBlackHolecoverThat most dangerous of all scientific endeavours, Quantum acceleration experiments, as taken on in a certainly highly scientific establishment in St. Louis goes rather wrong, opening a black hole in the fabric of space-time, as these things tend to. The black hole quite impolitely starts eating up the surrounding matter, growing in curious stops and starts in the progress, and threatening to eat up the whole planet rather sooner than later.

Because only one of the three initial scientists of the project, Dr (I assume) Shannon Muir (Kristy Swanson) has survived the film’s first five minutes, the military under the surprisingly competent and sane General Stryker (David Selby) calls in former project member Eric Bryce (Judd Nelson), who brings with him the aftershocks of a bad divorce, moon eyes between him and Shannon, ridiculous mad scientist hair, and a chip on his shoulder because he was¬†right all along. As if closing up a black hole weren’t problem enough for two more or less sexy scientists, an energy creature has slipped out of the black hole, eating electricity (and people) and feeding the black hole in the process. Shannon and Eric are doing their best to resolve the situation before the increasingly humongous black hole eats¬†all¬†of the landmarks of St. Louis, and eventually find out the creature’s – and therefore the black hole’s – central weakness, which at least is neither salt nor the power of love this time around.

It’s just too bad that their government would really rather resolve the problem in more traditionally American ways, by dropping an h-bomb on it and the remaining citizens of St. Louis, despite our heroic experts telling them this would only make matters worse. Consequently our heroes have not just one but two races against time to win. Fortunately, the film provides a bombing mad general to Stryker’s sane one, so the latter is free to actually be helpful.

People who are wrong will tell you that Tibor Tak√°cs’s¬†The Black Hole¬†(produced by Nu Image for our friends at the – then – SciFi Channel) is a stupid piece of nonsense, when in truth it’s a film that provides a whole lot of fun based on a silly yet clever idea of the kind it’s not difficult to imagine to find in an episode of the classic Outer Limits.

As everyone who¬†isn’t¬†wrong knows, Tak√°cs in his incarnation as direct-to-DVD and direct-to-TV director is pretty excellent at squeezing fun films out of sometimes (okay, most of the time) doubtful scripts and tiny budgets, and his¬†The Black Hole¬†is absolutely no exception. The film is perfectly paced, hitting the disaster movie and semi-monster movie beats at just the right moments, never stopping for too long along the way to let the audience think too much about the (im)probabilities of what’s going on.

Sure, if you’re the kind of person who can’t help but bemoan curious scientific ideas, the bizarre lack of scientific staff in US government during a scientific catastrophe, and call them “plot holes”, you won’t have any fun with this, and even Tak√°cs won’t be able to distract you from actively avoiding fun, but then, why are you watching a film about a black hole opening up in Missouri in the first place?

For the rest of us, the film at the very least shows a degree of coherence. That is to say, if you accept¬†The Black Hole‘s sometimes (okay, always) bizarre assumptions about the nature of reality, it proceeds logically enough from them to create a diverting SF pulp movie plot that provides Tak√°cs with ample opportunity to show soldiers vaporized, and parts of St. Louis eaten by a black hole. Which, surely, is all we can ever ask of a film called¬†The Black Hole.¬†To make up for a tight budget, Tak√°cs shows most of the major destruction through the eyes of shaky TV footage happening on screens with dubious resolutions, a cost-conscious decision that works beautifully – thanks to good timing much better than in other SyFy movies trying the same trick.

Added to the film’s entertaining pulp trappings are some rather sarcastic nods in the direction of political crisis management – particularly in a scene of the US president and his aides writing a bathetic speech about the nuclear destruction of St. Louis before the fact intercut with our scientist heroes’ attempts to actually do something to save the the city and the world. It’s also difficult to miss the fact that the least effectual (and most destructive) ideas to solve all problems come courtesy of “Homeland Security”, which can hardly be a coincidence in a US film made after hurricane Katrina.

In the less real world, SyFy experts will be astonished that the catastrophe is only normalizing the relationship between Eric and his ex-wife and daughter, instead of bringing the grown-ups back together as is annoying tradition and stupid rule in these films, nor does Shannon sacrifice herself to protect Eric’s family or something of that sort. Why, you might even think the film argues moving on after a divorce is a good thing! I am quite conscious I’m happy about getting a clich√©d romance instead of the clich√© divorce regression, but then, this isn’t something too typical for a SyFy movie. Perhaps Tak√°cs made¬†The Black Hole¬†too early in the cycle for the Rule of Un-Divorce to have already been in effect?

Given these achievements and minor surprises of and in¬†The Black Hole, I’ll end this with the traditional phrase that could end half of my SyFy Channel Original write-ups: what’s not to like!?

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

The Earth Dies Squirming: Behemoth (2011)

BehemothCoverA US small town situated close to a mountain that was an active volcano ages ago is hit by a series of tremors and rather curious earth activities, while deadly CO2 starts leaking all around the mountain. Strangely, at the same time this mysterious activity starts up, various off-screen natural disasters hit places all around the world.

Retired professor William Walsh (William B. Davis) has found an explanation for the strange phenomena through his extensive study of myth, or rather myths. William thinks what’s happening has to do with the true base of various myths shared by cultures all around the world, myths in which a gigantic creature acts out the wrath of the Earth whenever humanity too actively disturbs the natural order; now, says William, the creature is waking up again.

Of course, William is mentally ill (probably schizophrenic, though the film doesn’t dare use the world in what I assume is an example of inexplicable US puritanism), and going off his meds, so neither his son Thomas (Ed Walsh), a lumberjack boss, nor his twenty year old daughter who acts like a teenager Grace (Cindy Busby) believe a single word he says. Too bad he’s right.

The seismic activities are so peculiar that Thomas’s former flame Emily Allington (Pascale Hutton), now a seismologist, returns to her hometown to find an explanation of her own, and convince her Sheriff uncle (Garry Chalk) of the danger of the situation, if need be.

The danger is, of course, even larger than she could have expected. Also as a matter of course, Emily, Thomas, Grace, and a mysterious government agent of the Department of Weird Shit (Ty Olsson) will end up on the mountain exactly when the tentacles really hit the fan, and William’s theories are proven quite beyond doubt.

The Internet disagrees with me here, but I truly think W.D. Hogan’s¬†Behemoth¬†is a particularly fine example of SyFy movie making. Certainly, it’s a film pushing a lot of my buttons with the way it mixes a basic SF horror idea right out of Weird Tales or Astounding in its more horrific moments with the highly localized global disaster movie style SyFy is so very fond of. It’s a great mixture, particularly because Hogan (and/or Rachelle S. Howie’s script) really does know how to sell the age-old clich√©s most of the film is built from as natural instead of annoying.

Plus, there’s a monster as big as a mountain with tentacles that is first partially revealed in a sequence where its very large eye peers angrily out of a hole in the mountain at our non-teenage teenage co-protagonist and her boyfriend, which is as perfect and resonant an image as one could hope to find anywhere. Once we get to see the monster completely, it also turns out to be one of the rather more creatively designed SyFy CGI creatures, again fully fitting into the traditions of certain old pulp magazines. The only disappointment when it comes to the monster is the rather lame way our heroes end up getting rid of it, even though this comes with a territory when you as a filmmaker aren’t allowed to let it eat the world and surely couldn’t afford the pyrotechnics anyhow.

Behemoth, despite being a film deftly made from clich√©s and well-worn tropes, also has some moments when it’s making small steps into directions you¬†don’t¬†expect. I was particularly surprised by the film’s treatment of William’s mental illness (even though it doesn’t dare name it – people could infect themselves with it, or something). There’s a believability and truthfulness about the way his environment reacts to William’s illness and what they believe to be just another expression of it in what must have been a long line of expressions. William’s family shows a mixture of sadness, exasperation and plain tiredness that isn’t just unexpectedly real for a SyFy monster movie but for movies in general. Even better, the film also allows its mentally ill character the same degree of dignity (one thing many mental illnesses don’t exactly leave you much of, while your environment generally does its damndest to take away the rest) it gives its other characters, and even provides him with an opportunity for small-scale heroism without feeling the need to kill him off for reasons of redemption.

William B. Davis uses the opportunity to for once in his life not play a bad guy, and provides William (the name-giving fairy was out, sorry) with just the right mixture of obsessiveness, fragility, and a warmth suggesting a complete human being.

In general,¬†Behemoth¬†is pretty good at breaking up its ultra-competent and highly entertaining giant monster/disaster tale with small moments of truth in the character department (not in the moments when everyone just has to act like an idiot for genre conventions, obviously). Apart from everything to do with William, there’s – just for example – the telling fact that the Sheriff doesn’t take what Emily tells him about a possible catastrophe seriously, despite her being an actual expert, because she’s¬†just¬†his niece, and surely she can’t know more about anything than he does, which seems to mirror the experience most younger women of my acquaintance have with their own families.

For me, these kinds of elements and small details often are what make or break a SyFy creature feature; it is of course important (and pretty much unavoidable) to work with and within clich√©s and tropes when making a low budget genre film for TV, but it’s these small things that differentiate a competent movie from one truly worth watching.¬†Behemoth, for its part, clearly belongs to the latter group.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?