1950s Monster B-Movie Reviews (Page 2)

6 Reviews (3 New)
A Dark and Scary Place

Destination Moon (1950)

Starring: Tom Powers, John Archer, Warner Anderson, Dick Wesson, Erin O'Brien

In Colour

Produced by George Pal & Directed by Irving Pichel

Based on the book by Robert Heinlein

Screenplay by Rip Van Ronkel, Robert A Heinlein & James O'Hanlon

After four years of planning, a satellite rocket test blows-up and crashes. Two years later a private sector engineer is approached to develop a rocket to go to the moon. The idea is presented to the prospective backers by use of a Woody Woodpecker cartoon which answers all the questions sceptics might have. But what really sells it is the military aspect. It’s implied the Russians are planning their own journey by rocket to the moon. Whoever is the first to establish missiles on the moon will hold the power, as there is no defence of an attack from space. The race is on.

The problems they encounter from the outset are very real ones. They are refused permission to test the atomic engines, and there is an organised ground swelling of propaganda against the project. Therefore, they decide to launch the manned rocket untested, and bring forward the take-off to only 17 hours hence. After their communication and radar expert is rushed to hospital at short notice with appendicitis, a reluctant replacement is found – who only accepts because he thinks the others are all crackpots and it will never get off the ground. Someone arrives with a court order to stop the launch, but the astronauts make it to the ship first.

The crew comprises: General Thayer (Tom Powers) – the idea behind the plan, and co-pilot; Jim Barnes (John Archer) – the businessman financing the project; Doctor Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson) – designer of the craft, and power expert; and Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson) – radio/electronics expert.

There is real tension in the launch sequence. Initial gravitational force and then weightlessness is handled well; you almost feel it with the crew. Their first view of the Earth from space is a spectacular one – although they point out American cities they can see. It’s the first indication this film was made 19 years before the ‘supposed’ first moon landing. A problem with the antennae means the men are obliged to undergo a space-walk outside of the moving ship. A man is accidentally cast adrift and another uses an oxygen bottle, releasing a little at a time to change his direction, to get him back. The landing on the moon is not without complications, but they arrive safely, and two of them leave the ship to be the first men to set foot on the surface.

Earth comes through on the radio and the men describe their first impressions. They might have detected a trace of uranium, but they have another more immediate problem. Corrections in their landing means they do not have enough power to lift off. So they strip the ship of all unnecessary weight. But it’s not enough. They argue about who is going to stay behind; the new recruit even tries to make the ultimate sacrifice. However, desperation has them devise a cagey plan to lose the extra weight of the spacesuits themselves. The last suit is tied to the line of the expired oxygen tank and dragged out of the airlock – the door closing securely behind. The rocket takes-off successfully. They are going home. ‘This is the End of the Beginning.’

The acting is competent enough that the moments of ‘people jeopardy’ carry real weight. You feel for the characters. There is even an everyman for the audience to relate to, in the shape of Joe Sweeney. But it’s the technical side of the production which makes the movie work so well.

This film has an impressive pedigree. It was produced by George Pal, who went on to make The War of the Worlds in the same decade and The Time Machine in the 1960s. It’s based on the book by science fiction premiere master writer Robert Heinlein, and so reflects Heinlein’s realism. This is foremost an adventure, but is scientifically correct based on what was known at the time (how quickly times change!). The finned rocketship was to be copied in countless other films that followed. Proof of the confidence in this movie is reflected in the extra money spent on colour film and very high production values. The background artwork by artist and designer Chelsey Bonestell is phenomenally impressive, and the special effects won an Academy Award in the year of the film’s release. This was said to have been America's first major science fiction movie. 

Verdict: 9 out of 10

(original review Ty Power 2018) 

Conquest of Space (1954)

Starring: Walter Brooke, Eric Fleming, Mickey Shaughnessy, Phil Foster, William Redfield

In Colour

Produced by George Pal & Directed by Byron Haskin

Operatives on a wheel in space have been building a ship to very specific designs. The men in blue will be the crew. They have separate training and are not permitted to eat real food, only food supplement pills. After a short period of involuntary paralysis one crewman is given proper food. He knows what this means and refuses to eat it. The condition could become permanent, so he is sent back to Earth.

A scientist arrives on the wheel and tells General Sam Merritt they will not be going to the Moon, as believed, but to Mars. Three of the trained men are chosen to accompany the General and his son, Captain Barney Merritt. During the journey two of the men are sent outside to repair the topside camera view. A huge asteroid looms towards them and the ship is obliged to take evasive action. Even afterwards they are bombarded by stray fragments, and one of the men is killed. He is given a burial in space by the General.

However, the General has his own problems. He is ill and takes to quoting from the Bible, talking of Man’s blasphemy in entering God’s heaven of space, when they were meant to remain on Earth. The others assume extreme fatigue and mental strain, and that rest will combat the ailment. As they prepare to touch down on Mars, the General mutters that they can’t land, they haven’t got the right. He turns on the thrusters, nearly crashing the ship before his son manages to grab the controls and secure a landing on Mars. General Merritt tries to sabotage the ship by opening the water valves. When, again, his son Barney stops him the general pulls a gun. In a wrestle for possession of the weapon it discharges and General Samuel Merritt is killed. The General’s friend accuses the son of murder, threatening a court martial when they return. The General is buried on Mars and a makeshift marker cross placed.

The water is drained from the heating system of the ship in order for them to survive the year until they are able to take off – when the Earth is in the right position. Then the impossible happens: it snows! Heavily. This solves the water shortage problem. The time for take-off nears and rock sample elements have been collected which will prove that, with care and hard work, Mars can be made fertile. Confirmation comes from a seed planted by the General’s grave, which has sprouted.

A Mars quake and rock fall opens up holes in the ground, affecting the stability of the ship. Short on time now, they have to take a chance and fire the retros, hoping it will level the ship so that they can take off. Eventually, it does. They are on their way home. Sergeant Mahoney decides that the story they will tell back home is the General died ensuring a safe landing on Mars. A fitting end for The Man Who Conquered Space.

The effects on this one are a little less convincing than they were on George Pal’s earlier offering, Destination Moon. However, the spaceship interiors and particularly the Mars surface are very well realised. Characterisation is good whilst being understandably dated. Many films from this era had similar characters. Whilst not exactly ciphers, they are somewhat predictable. There is even one joker in the pack, again someone less officious with whom the viewers can more comfortably relate. Essentially though, this is a people story, as any genre should be. Yes, it is about a journey and landing on Mars, but it is more about how the crew is affected by being taken out of their comfort zone. 

Verdict: 7 out of 10

(original review Ty Power 2018) 

Godzilla (1954)

Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Harata, Takashi Shimura

In Black & White

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Screenplay by Takeo Murada & Ishiro Honda

Story by Shigeru Kayama

A ship appears to explode in the water near Japanese Odo Island. A nearby fishing boat is sent to investigate, but it mysteriously sinks, too. There is a news media frenzy. Was it an undersea volcano or earthquake? Some people on the island believe it is a bad omen, and even speculate that it is Godzilla (Gojira), a legendary sea beast – particularly because fish supplies in the area are extremely depleted. The old ones say Godzilla will come to land to prey on men in retribution.

Fierce storms batter the island and many homes are destroyed. Representatives from Odo Island give evidence on the mainland, resulting in a research party being sent to the island. Some of the water wells are found to be radioactive, and a thought-to-be extinct trilobite is found. Someone sounds the alarm and the people scramble up the hills to high ground. Heavy footfalls are heard, followed by the shocking sight of a huge Jurassic monster appearing over the high ground. The people flee in terror. But then it turns and leaves the island from the other side, leaving huge footprints in the sand.

A palaeontologist gives a lecture explaining that it’s two millions years old (happy birthday!) and 150 feet tall. He says that H-Bomb testing in the South Pacific has disturbed its peace. Radioactivity found in its wake means it has been irradiated – or at least carries traces on its body. There is a fierce debate over whether this information should be released or kept from the public. A Counter-Godzilla headquarters is set up. They release depth charges in the area where the monster is thought to be. Doctor Yamane, the palaeontologist wants to preserve and learn from the creature, rather than kill it.

A reporter drafts Yamane’s daughter into introducing him to Doctor Serizawa for an interview. He tells the reporter nothing, but shows the woman, Emiko, his laboratory and something that frightens her. She is sworn to secrecy. A siren sounds signifying Godzilla’s return. It pulls down high tension wires, destroys a bridge and causes a train to derail and crash. Ninety foot barbed wire barriers are erected, as families are evacuated. Godzilla is moving towards Tokyo. It melts the electrified barriers with it’s breath (I suggest a mint) and moves on, breathing fire on to buildings. Tokyo burns.

Godzilla returns to the sea, attacked along the way by ineffective fighter planes. Emiko witnesses the devastation and breaks her promise, revealing what Serizawa is working on – a device which removes oxygen from water and decimates whatever is in the locality. Serizawa will not give it up to anyone else, as it will surely be used by governments as a terrible weapon. Eventually, he agrees to use it once on Godzilla, but destroys all his research papers. No one will be able to make any more. He dives down into the sea with the oxygen destroyer, locates the creature and deploys the device. Godzilla sinks to the depths, and Serizawa cuts his own lines so he can’t be used to repeat the experiment. Doctor Yamane speculates on there being more than one Godzilla, and that if we continue to experiment with H-Bombs and other devastating weapons we could well get another visit.

This classic Japanese film has received a very nice make-over from the British Film Institute. Upon its first release in America it was severely cut and, quite illogically, had a new sequence inserted wherein an American journalist became a main character. It was also dubbed into English and had the anti-nuclear message of the film removed. The original version (pictured above) is fully restored to how it was, including Japanese language and English subtitles. It also has special features: A full voice-over commentary, Designing Godzilla featurette, Story Evolution featurette, The Japanese Fishermen short, Original Japanese Trailer, The US Trailer for the altered Godzilla: King of the Monsters! There’s a Gallery of Posters, Storyboards and Original Artwork. A fully illustrated booklet. The sound is in Dolby Digital Mono.

This film is really quite powerful considering how silly it could have looked if they had got it wrong. Godzilla itself looks pretty impressive. Its rampage of destruction destroys intricately constructed models. The falling building, toppling telegraph towers and raging fires look very real as the film is slowed and the appropriate sound effects added. There is a very strong anti-nuclear message here. Fish stocks are depleted as a result of testing in the South Pacific, and the waking of Godzilla – a monster from the past – acts as a cipher for God’s retribution to man’s foolishness. Serizawa has morals as a scientist. He hates what he has discovered, and therefore takes it upon himself to destroy his own work and die with the last oxygen destroyer weapon. When it proves successful there is no real celebration. The expressions of those on the boat, accompanied with the melancholy music, describes the feeling that defeating this magnificent creature was not wanted, but it was necessary.

Godzilla has spawned more sequels than any other film in history, with more than 28 films in the franchise. 

Verdict: 9 out of 10

(original review Ty Power 2018) 

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Starring: Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, Paul Langton, April Kent

In Black & White

Directed by Jack Arnold

Screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on his novel 'The Shrinking Man'

Scott Carey is on the deck of a small boat when a strange mist emerges from nowhere and passes overhead, coating him in a rather fetching party glitter. But Scott doesn’t even get the chance to show off down the disco (not that discos have been invented yet). Barely six months later he notices he is losing weight. He and his wife suspect he has a debilitating illness, so he visits the doctor to get checked out. One of the many tests involves his height; he appears to be shorter, but the doctor declares this an impossible mistake (why? Many people shrink with old age). Subsequent examinations convince the doctor of the truth, and he finally refers Scott to hospital experts who desperately attempt to halt the process.

However, as time goes on it seems to be accelerating. We are soon met with the shocking but impressive image of Scott sitting in an armchair opposite his wife but, like a small child, only taking up a fraction of the seat. This shot is nicely set up with the viewer initially seeing only his wife talking, before the camera pans out to reveal the reality of the matter. Word leaks out of this curious phenomenon and pretty soon the press is camped outside the house desperate for a glimpse of the ‘freak’. There is a very nice sequence wherein Scott, who is going stir crazy cooped-up in the house, decides to sneak out at night. He finds himself on the edge of a carnival where he is approached by a beautiful midget woman, April, who rebuilds his confidence. They strike up a friendship. Scott now has a more positive outlook on life, bolstered by the news from the hospital that his shrinking might have halted. However, when he next meets the lady he finds he is now shorter than her.

The next thing we see is Scott descending a staircase. The bannister and stair rods shake like a cheap piece of set scenery, but this is all part of the masterplan. Again, some deft camerawork reveals the fact Scott is now tiny and living in a doll’s house. His wife leaves the main house to pick up supplies, inadvertently shutting in the cat. The cat tries desperately to reach Scott through the windows, and while the animal is distracted he makes a desperate dash from the doll’s house across the seemingly vast stretch of carpet in the full-size room. He hides behind the door to the cellar, but the cat pushes it open, causing Scott to fall into a basket at the bottom of the cellar steps. His wife thinks the cat ate him and grieves for his death.

Now trapped in the cellar, the shrinking man gets water from a drip beneath a water heater, and utilises an empty matchbox for shelter. But he is driven by hunger; more so when the cheese he knocks from a mouse trap falls through a grating. He spots what looks like cake next to a spider web high up on top of a unit. He watches wide-eyed as a spider appears and crosses the floor of the basement. Removing a pin from a pin cushion, Scott secures it around his waist, before fashioning a grappling hook by bending another pin and attaching cotton thread as rope. With great effort he makes it to the top. He eats some of the cake before finding a grate looking out into the infinite jungle of the garden. The spider suddenly returns, prompting Scott to hide in the matchbox. However, there will be a reckoning. The leak in the basement turns to a flood when the water heater releases its tank. Scott’s wife and brother turn off the gas and water before they leave the house, but he is too small to be seen or heard by either of them. He survives by hanging on to a pencil like a raft. Scott soon realises his only source of food is up by the spider web. Facing the spider is inevitable.

What can I say about this film except it is a true bonefide classic. For a 1950s film it still has the power to keep you on the edge of your seat. As Scott fights for survival in a world of normally mundane monsters and vast spaces, the tension is ratcheted-up with a series of life threatening set pieces. The attack by the house cat, scaling the heights to the cake, the flood, and the ultimate confrontation with the spider which he manages to kill with the pin sword.

The effects are excellent compared with other giant man/creature movies from the same period because they are kept to a minimum. Many of the sets and props, particularly in the cellar, were built large to make the actor look according small. Grant Williams (also in
The Monolith Monsters and The Leech Woman) acts the part very well, but it is the source material here that really shines. Richard Matheson was a master storyteller with seminal works such as Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, Hell House, Duel, and The Shrinking Man (the ‘Incredible’ was added for the film). The fact he wrote the screenplay makes the piece all the more coherent.

Scott begins by writing his day-to-day story in a journal, but from the point he is in the cellar we actually hear his thoughts in the past tense. There is a poignant ending, as he moves between the bars of the vent and into the garden. He is like the smallest insect now and accepts that his connection with the universe has changed. He is still significant … but for his new prospective in a different world. He speculates if it is God’s plan and wonders if this is the future for humanity. He finally accepts his place in existence.

Verdict: 10 out of 10

(original review Ty Power 2018)

The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

Starring: Forrest Tucker, Laurence Payne, Jennifer Jayne, Janet Munro, Warren Mitchell

In Black & White

Directed by Quentin Lawrence

Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, Story by Peter Key

Three men are mountain climbing in Trollenberg. One is higher than the other two and shouts down that there is a thick mist and he can’t see a thing. Then he suddenly calls down that someone or something is moving towards him. This is followed by a hideous scream. The body falls past them. The two men grab the rope and begin to haul the inert body back up. One of them sees the man’s face, causing him to let go of the rope in shock and terror. The rope rubs on the rock and frays to breaking point. The body is lost.

In a train carriage is a man travelling alone, and there are two women who are sisters. One seems excitable and at times a little frail. When the guard announces the next stop to be Trollenberg the man, Alan Brooks, says he is getting off. The excitable sister, Anne Pilgrim, claims they have to get of here, too. Even though they are supposed to be travelling straight through to Geneva. She tells her sister, Sarah, they can stay at the Europa Hotel, though she has never heard of or been to the place before. In the car from the station she suddenly asks the driver if there has been an accident with climbers on the mountain. Brooks looks at her strangely. She seems to instinctively know a lot about the place.

Brooks goes to meet his friend the professor at the Observatory, who is studying cosmic rays. The professor tells him there is a cloud over one region of the mountain, and that it never moves. What’s more, it’s radioactive. It turns out a similar phenomenon occurred at the Andes. As there was no evidence it was to blame for people going missing, Brooks was practically accused of making up the whole thing.

The two sisters perform a mind reading act for the entertainment of a handful of people at the hotel. When the object described is a snow globe with a mountain and a hut inside, Anne turns trance-like and describes two climbers in the hut. One of them is compelled to go outside, and when the other wakes there is no sign of him. Brooks telephones the cabin and tells the second man to stay inside. A report from the Observatory states that the radioactive cloud has moved down the mountain to the hut. Brooks phones again to warn the climber but hears the man scream in terror. The cloud moves back to where it had been.

Brooks and a rescue party of locals climb the mountain to the hut, which is locked from the inside. Forcing the door, they find the second climber’s body; the head has been torn off. The Professor tries to instruct the Pilgrim sisters to leave Trollenberg. He tells Sarah that Anne has a telepathy and can pick up other people’s thoughts, but that there is a more powerful and manipulative mind out there which could prove dangerous to Anne. But Anne sneaks away from the place she has been taken to for safety. The rescue party find the missing man’s rucksack. The first man to it finds a severed head inside. The head of the man in the hut. The missing man shows up and attacks him with an ice axe. Another man arriving on the scene also gets attacked.

The aggressor turns up at the hotel looking dazed and uncoordinated. As soon as he sees Anne – who has been brought back down from the Observatory – he tries to attack her with a knife. Brooks gives him a good old bunch of fives. When the man later tries for Anne again he is shot dead. It seems that whatever is on the Trollenberg is afraid of the mental abilities of Anne.

The cloud moves down towards the town. Everyone is evacuated to the Observatory, but they barely make it to the top after the cloud freezes the cable mechanism. Three other clouds converge with the first at the Observatory. Inside each cloud is a gigantic alien eye with far-reaching tentacles. Brooks and others use fire bombs in bottles to throw at the creatures. The weapon against them is heat. As a fire bombing raid is arranged with the air force, the creatures attack through the wall of the Observatory. However, the attack by the air force is successful and the creatures burn.

This is another solid home-grown science fiction horror from the 1950s, but with Forrest Tucker in the lead role. Ironically, he’s quite convincing even though Brooks seems to spend most of his time leaning and smoking. Laurence Payne plays Truscott, and there’s an early role for Warren Mitchell as Crevett. In America this film was released under the name The Crawling Eye, which rather gives the game away from the start. The screenplay is by Hammer Films stalwart Jimmy (‘Do you want it Tuesday, or do you want it good?’) Sangster. The plot thread of Anne’s mental abilities isn’t really played through. I would have expected the character to be utilised in the last ditch battle with the creatures, but instead she is just used as an excuse for the creatures to attack and is otherwise forgotten. It doesn’t matter though. This is a very enjoyable film which deserves its cult status. 

Verdict: 7 out of 10

(original review Ty Power 2018) 

X The Unknown (1956)

Starring: Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, Leo McKern

In Black and White

Directed by Leslie Norman

Story & Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster

An army platoon is carrying out radiation detection exercises when they encounter a powerful source. The ground opens up and something unseen escapes. A scientist from a nearby atomic research facility travels to the site to find that an extraordinarily deep fissure has opened in the ground. Two local boys creeping about in the woods at night encounter a frightening presence. One of them suffers first degree burns and ends up in hospital. The scientist goes to the area where the boys were. He finds a hidden dwelling and, inside, an empty radiation container stolen from his own laboratory. The unexplainable fact is there’s not a trace of radiation on or in the pot, and that’s impossible.

Something gets into the radiation lab of the hospital where the boy has just died. Again, uranium is taken, but a doctor sees something terrifying before all of the flesh melts from his face. From a protected room a nurse witnesses the event, but is so traumatised it is considered she will never talk or be the same again. At the site of the fissure two soldiers are killed by the menace. Two scientists and the Atomic Commission investigator consider what they are dealing with. The scientist theorises about an intelligence formed in the Earth’s crust when compressed gases helped form the world.

A volunteer is lowered by winch into the fissure, and sees not only the body of a burnt soldier but something from a nightmare. The volunteer is quickly brought back up and put into a car with the scientist. The military officer orders explosives detonated at the fissure, with instructions above to concrete it over (!). The menace breaks through easily, melting four people in a car nearby. The scientist maps its previous attacks and realises it is making for the Atomic Centre. They try to transport out the cobalt but their adversary is already there. The primal attacker is a huge mass of mud and slime moving quickly to the laboratories. The defenders know it will return to the fissure, so they arrange to quickly evacuate its path of people – who are shepherded to the church in true horror fashion.

There’s no help from the outside, as the radiation of the primordial ooze turns all communication to static. They come to realise if they don’t stop the thing at the fissure it will make for the experimental nuclear station (why didn’t it go there first?). The scientist tests a new process of passing irradiated material through a field which neutralises it. It’s successful but causes an explosion. They have no choice but to try it on the fast-moving mud. A full-scale version of the trial is set-up at the fissure, with the cobalt as the lure. The fissure begins to glow as the mud emerges. The neutralising fields are turned on, producing a high-pitch noise and an explosion. It worked. The sentient energy mud creature is no more.

On screen thanks are given to the War Office in the production of the film. It’s a British venture set in Scotland, wherein most of the characters speak with educated middle class accents. This is to all intents and purposes a Quatermass-like story. The science is solid but exaggerated, aside from the science fiction element of the sentient mud (you’ve got to have a monster, after all).

This is a Hammer Films production; subsequently, Hammer would almost exclusively stick to horror once they had huge commercial and critical success with
The Curse of Frankenstein, The Horror of Dracula and The Mummy. It’s nice to see Michael Ripper, who was in more Hammer films than any other actor – including Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Of course, many of them were small roles: policeman, innkeeper, villager, etc. Here he plays the army sergeant. While we’re playing ‘Spot the Actor’ the surviving boy is played by Fraser Hines, who would pop up ten years later as Jamie McCrimmon alongside Patrick Troughton in Doctor Who.

The latter part of the film has a similar structure to The Monolith Monsters; essentially, a town standing in the way of a seemingly unstoppable horror. In a way, what has been done here is what was more recently achieved in the aforementioned Doctor Who. Robert Holmes’ shop window dummies coming to life, and Stephen Moffat’s Weeping Angels – statues which move when you are not looking at them – are both examples of making the mundane frightening. This is no different, with a primordial ooze (mud) moving with a purpose, pretty much filling the same role. A very solid if not outstanding piece. 

Verdict: 7 out of 10

(original review Ty Power 2018)

The Thing From Another World (1951)

Starring: Kenneth Tobey, Robert Cornthwaite, Douglas Spencer, Margaret Sheridan, James Arness

In Black & White

Produced by Howard Hawks & Directed by Christian Nyby

Screenplay by Charles Lederer (based on the novel 'Who Goes There' by John W Campbell, Jr)


Verdict: 9 out of 10

 (original review Ty Power 2018)