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Category Archives: Movie Reviews 1950s

From IMDb:  (Note: I usually take the film description from the DVD/VHS case. However, in this instance, the DVD case is so full of inaccuracies that I thought I’d avoid confusion and use a plot synopsis from IMDb. – MM) Weird events in the life of atomic scientist Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) culminate in an invitation from the strange-looking Exeter (Jeff Morrow) to work at a secret lab in Georgia, supposedly for the cause of world peace. Other scientists are already there, including the gorgeous Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue). They quickly discover there’s more to Exeter than meets the eye. Is he benevolent? It may take an interstellar journey to find out.

Mark says: This Island Earth is one of my favorite science fiction films of the 1950s, and in fact, of all time. It has everything a B movie enthusiast could want, starting with a stellar cast.

Rex Reason (The Creature Walks Among Us) is Dr. Cal Meacham, a capable scientist with a sonorous voice that commands authority. This is my favorite role for Mr. Reason, and unquestionably the role for which he is most remembered. Faith Domergue (It Came from Beneath the Sea, Cult of the Cobra) plays fellow scientist and love interest, Ruth Adams. Ms. Domergue is ideal as the sensuous genius. Finally, Jeff Morrow (Kronos, The Giant Claw) is Exeter, the alien agent on mission from the distant planet, Metaluna. Ironically, Exeter exhibits more human qualities and pathos than our hero, Dr. Meacham. Morrow is a veteran of 1950s B movies, and though I’m not always impressed with his performances, he really shines here as a human sympathizer from outer space.

In smaller roles, Robert Nichols (The Thing from Another World) is Meacham’s assistant, Joe Wilson. Joe’s attitude towards his boss can be characterized as “adoring.”  This aspect was picked up by Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996), with some humorous results. Lance Fuller (The She-Creature, Voodoo Woman) is Brack, Exeter’s assistant, who is less than sympathetic to the human cause. The Monitor of Metaluna is played by Douglas Spencer, who I most fondly remember as Scotty in 1951’s The Thing from Another World. Rounding out the cast is Russell Johnson (Attack of the Crab Monsters, It Came from Outer Space) as Steve Carlson, one of the few people at the alien compound who has not been subjected to the Metalunan “Thought Transformer.”

Besides a great cast, This Island Earth features some stunning visuals and special effects, enhanced with vivid color created by the three-strip Technicolor process. Though simple by today’s standards, the creative matte paintings, colorful sets, and miniatures are some of the best of the era. We are also treated to a cool flying saucer and lots of impressive explosions. For me, the limited technology lends to a heightened sense of fantasy, and I would argue that these effects stand up even today.

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From the DVD case: When a monster makeup artist is fired by the studio, he uses his creations to exact his revenge. (1958,b&w)

Mark says: Scripted by Aben Kandel (here as “Kenneth Langtry”) and producer Herman Cohen, this follow up to I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, follows a tried formula: An unbalanced adult manipulates a teenage youth (or, in this case, youths) to do his nefarious bidding (see Blood of Dracula for a female version of this theme).

In the case of How to Make a Monster, the dominating adult is disgruntled make-up man, Pete Dumond, played by Robert H. Harris. Pete finds himself out of work after 25 years as the studio’s head monster creator. Harris comes off as slightly eccentric at the outset of the story.  However, as the movie advances, Pete’s eccentricity gives way to creepiness, until he gradually flakes out completely by the film’s conclusion. Pete’s teenage patsies are Gary Clarke (Missle to the Moon) in the role of Larry Drake, and Gary Conway (who I will always fondly remember as Capt. Steve Burton in TV’s Land of the Giants) as Tony Mantell.

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From the DVD case: When Dracula (Francis Lederer) pulls up stakes from his native Europe and flees across the Atlantic, he tries to fit in by posing as the cousin of an unsuspecting American family. But when he starts sinking his teeth into every red-blooded thing California has to offer, he soon turns the Golden State into a Ghoulish state! (1958,b&w)

Mark saysThe Return of Dracula is one of four horror/science fiction films produced by Gramercy Pictures in the latter 1950s. Each picture (The Monster that Challenged the World, The Vampire, The Flame Barrier, and The Return of Dracula) is scripted by Pat Fielder and all, with the exception of The Flame Barrier, rank at least a notch above the standard fare that was being offered at the time.

The theme of an old, family relative arriving to bring evil to a small American town draws inevitable comparisons to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943).  The relationship between naïve and trusting Rachel, played by Norma Eberhardt (Problem Girls) and the worldly Dracula (posing as Cousin Bellac), played by Francis Lederer (Pandora’s Box), invites further comparison to the Hitchcock classic. Pat Fielder, in an interview with film historian Tom Weaver, noted some of her influences:

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From the DVD case: Beware Tabanga! On a remote South Seas island, no one is safe from this hideous and unique monster. Tabanga is part man, part tree, all doom. Formerly an island prince, he was unjustly put to death by a witch doctor. Now he’s returned to life with roots, branches, and a vengeance. A macabre medley of creature feature, Polynesian kitsch, and Atomic Age cautionary tale, From Hell It Came is the killer-tree movie you woodn’t want to miss! (1957, b&w)

Mark saysFrom Hell It Came is one of those movies that leave an indelible impression on a child’s mind. One of the joys of writing online reviews is being able to help readers identify movies they remember from childhood.  I’m often asked if I can identify the movie “about a tree monster brought to life” by a tribal curse. My own memories regarding this movie are vague, at best, though it did inspire one of my very first nightmares. Unfortunately, that nightmare was scarier, and more memorable, than the actual film.

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From the DVD case: Vengeance is sworn against six American G.I.’s after they witness a clandestine ceremony worshipping beautiful women who can change into serpents.

Mark says:  Tom Markel can’t catch a break.  During his last day of service he and his buddies crash a snake cult ritual resulting in a curse upon the gang and the sudden death (cobra bite) of one of his pals.  After returning to the states, he loses his girl to his best friend and roommate, Paul.  The very same night he meets the woman of his dreams who, it is eventually revealed,  transforms into a cobra at will and is methodically knocking off his friends one by one.  The brutalities of war must have paled in comparison.

It is difficult to watch Cult of the Cobra without being put in mind of Val Lewton’s Cat People, released thirteen years prior.  We have the haunted, alluring woman, in this case Faith Domergue in the role of Lisa Moya, who has the ability to transform into a deadly creature and who fears she’ll harm or kill the man she loves;  we have an American leading man, Marshall Thompson (Fiend Without A Face, It! The Terror from Beyond Space) playing Tom Markel, who tries desperately to understand his girlfriend’s hesitancy towards passion; and we have the “other woman,” Kathleen Hughes (It Came from Outer Space) as Julia who stirs jealousy in our shapeshifting friend.

What Cult of the Cobra lacks is the artistry of Cat People.  There is no ambiguity as to who or what the killer is, a prime source of suspense in Val Lewton’s productions.  Although Cult of the Cobra attempts to use some of Lewton’s techniques (i.e. the false scare often termed “the bus”), it just can’t seem to pull them off in a convincing manner.  The suspense created is almost negligible.

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Four Skulls

From the DVD case: The sins of the fathers rest heavily on the heads of the sons – literally – in this fun-filled frightfest that’ll keep you awake and screaming through many a traumatic night. Faced with an age-old family curse that beheaded their forefathers, two brothers attempt to unravel the family plot, even as sinister forces attempt to put them into it! (1959, b&w)

Mark says: The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake was an unknown film to me until a DVD (paired with Voodoo Island) from MGM’s Midnite Movies was released. When I noticed what amateur reviewers were writing at IMDb and Amazon, I started to take an interest. Apparently Four Skulls traumatized many a youthful audience member when it was first released. When a reader wrote me with a similar story concerning his history with the film, I knew I had to give it a view.

The DVD description is not quite accurate, and deserves some clarification. Jonathan Drake is the descendant of a man responsible for a massacre of an Amazonian tribe known as the Jivaro Indians, approximately 180 years ago. Drake’s ancestor (Wilfred Drake) slaughtered every man and male child of the tribe except for the tribal witch doctor, who escaped. The witch doctor placed a curse on the Drake family. Ever since, every male member of the Drake family, at the age of 60, succumbs to death and, more mysteriously, their heads are always removed before entombment. The skulls are eventually returned to the family tomb after each death. It is important to note that the Jivaro Indians are famous for their practice of shrinking heads.

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Zombies of Mora Tau 01

From the DVD case: Director Edward L. Cahn teams with another great writer, Bernard Gordon (using his blacklist nom de plume, Raymond T. Marcus) for this delightfully loopy adventure about a sunken ship’s cargo of diamonds guarded by its zombified crew members. And wouldn’t ya know it, there’s a bunch of foolhardy scavengers who aren’t scared of the swimming dead. (1957, b&w)

Mark says: The DVD description gives us a hint as what to expect from Zombies of Mora Tau. It’s never favorable to hear a zombie flick described as a “delightfully loopy adventure.” It makes you think the film might feature Abbott and Costello (which it doesn’t).

Zombies of Mora Tau 02What Zombies of Mora Tau does have is a strong cast of B-movie regulars. Most notably, Allison Hayes (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) stars as Mona Harrison, a greedy and voluptuous vixen. Mona has her eyes set on Jeff Clark, played by Gregg Palmer (From Hell It Came, The Creature Walks Among Us), even though she is married to George Harrison (Joel Ashley). Morris Ankrum (Kronos, Earth vs the Flying Saucers) portrays Dr. Jonathan Eggert, a man more interested in a story than diamonds. Marjorie Eaton (The Reincarnation of Peter Proud) is a Maria Ouspenskaya-like character (see The Wolf Man) known as Grandmother Peters. You’ll also recognize Gene Roth (Twice-Told Tales, Attack of the Giant Leeches) as Sam, the chauffeur.

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The Giant Claw 01

From the DVD case: In an act of cosmic irony, an enormous bird from outer space descends upon the Earth and begins chowing down on people. As usual, scientists and the military must team up to save our planet. This hysterically feathered fable stars sci-fi icons Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, and Robert Shayne, and is directed by Fred F. Sears. (1957, b&w)

Mark says: It was such a treat to find this movie on DVD. As a devoted fan of 1950’s schlock entertainment, I knew The Giant Claw was legendary in its appalling production values and “special effects.” I’ve seen stills and I’ve read articles, but until recently, I had never actually seen the film. I must say, it was worth the wait.

The Giant Claw starts out like countless other cheap sci-fi/horror flicks of the time. We get a lot of stock footage of military operations and rotating radar dishes. A narrator sets the scene: “An electronics engineer. A radar officer. A mathematician and systems analyst. A radar operator. A couple of plotters. People doing a job, well, efficiently. Serious. Having fun. Doing a job. Situation: normal. For the moment.”

Oh, we know its going to be bad, but there’s no way to anticipate how wonderfully terrible it’s going to get.

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From the DVD case:Dr. James Moran (George Coulouris) returns from the Amazon jungles with a sacred tribal tree that can produce a sap which will reportedly restore life to the dead. Unfortunately, the tree can only live and grow by devouring beautiful young women! (1958, b&w)

Mark says:Womaneater (aka The Woman Eater) is a British film that drips with a 1950’s sexuality that just borders on full exploitation.Beautiful women with heaving breasts, always adorned in dresses that leave one shoulder bare, are sadistically fed to a “miracle-working juju” plant.The plant (which resembles a hairy tree with tentacles) devours the women as men stand by with looks of pure orgasmic joy on their faces.But don’t get too excited, this is 1958 after all, and the luridness is much more implied than shown.

Bill Warren, author and genre critic, writes in his book, Keep Watching the Skies:

Charles Saunders’ ponderous direction makes a slow story painfully halting, in a point-by-point plodding technique of showing all actions. It makes Womaneater one of the dullest science fiction-horror thrillers ever made, almost unbearable to sit through. It isn’t even campy.

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Marla English in The She-Creature

From the DVD case: A hypnotist resurrects a prehistoric female creature to kill his enemies. (1956, b&w)

Mark says: During the opening scene, watch the dog that barks at Dr. Lombardi. That dog’s acting is the best performance you will see in this movie.

OK, I’m being overly unkind, and I don’t want to give the impression that I did not find The She-Creature an entertaining movie, because I certainly did. Despite the lousy acting, the absurd plot, and a rather ridiculous monster, I found this movie has a certain kitsch charm that B movie aficionados cherish.

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