Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Indestructible Man (1956)

Directed by:
Jack Pollexfen

Charles "Butcher" Benton (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is a ruthless underworld thug on death row at San Quentin who's about to fry in the chair for his criminal dealings. Butcher swears to get even with both his slimy lawyer Paul Lowe (Ross Elliott) and a pair of low-life criminals; Joe Marcelli (Kenneth Terrell) and Squeamy Ellis (Marvin Ellis), for turning over state's evidence that helped to convict him. He also knows the whereabouts of 600 thousand dollars stolen during an armed car robbery, but refuses to cooperate with the authorities. Butcher's fried in the electric chair and his corpse is shipped off to a medical facility in another state when Dr. Bradshaw (Robert Shayne) is conducting cancer research. Despite an ad campaign promising "300,000 Volts of Terror!," Bradshaw sends 280,000 volts of electricity into Butcher's body instead, but that's plenty to create a monster. Now revived with super-human strength and skin tough enough to deflect bullets, Butcher strangles the doctor and his assistant (at the same time!), escapes the lab, kills two policemen and then chokes a used car salesmen, steals a car from the lot and heads toward San Francisco so he can kill the three men he vowed to kill before being executed.

Lt. Dick Chasen ("Casey Adams" aka Max Showalter) gets involved in both the case and with Butcher's former mistress Eva Martin (Marian Carr), a failed actress now working as a dancer at a burlesque house. Eva is also unknowingly in possession of a map leading to the hidden money. When Butcher shows up looking for it, the cops get word that's he's miracularly returned to life and attempt to hunt him down while he tries to hunt down the three men who betrayed him. Yes, there's a lot of running around in this one. Eventually a posse is organized to chase the revived killer around in the sewers toward an electric power plant for the predictable finale. Giving this a slight noir touch, Lt. Chasen narrates the entire film.

I guess this could be considered a pretty plum latter-day Chaney role. He's given little dialogue; only speaking during his first scene... but hey, that's more than what he was asked to do in either THE BLACK CASTLE (1952) or THE BLACK SLEEP (1956), and gets to make some odd, intense faces while knocking other people around. He picks up one guy and throws him down a flight of stairs, throws another from a high rooftop and even picks up a car at one point! There's some amusing dialogue ("You stinkin' rotten mob piece!"), a couple of nice camera shots, including one inside a trolley car as it goes downhill and some slight makeup effects on Chaney's mug as he becomes disfigured toward the end. Sure, it's silly, low-budget schlock, but it's entertaining enough for what it is, reasonably paced and short (clocking in around just 70 minutes). It originally played theatrically on a double bill with WORLD WITHOUT END (1956).
Director/producer Pollexfen and writers Vy Russell and Sue "Bradford" / Dwiggins also teamed up to make the schlock-fest THE ATOMIC BRAIN (1964). Lots of DVD releases for this one: It's part of Retromedia's "Lon Chaney Jr. Collection" set (which also contains 1956's non-horror MANFISH and Chaney special guest episodes of the TV shows Lock Up and Telephone Time). It's paired with THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN on Roan Group's "Horror Classics 2" and is also on Rph Productions' "Horror Classics Triple Feature, Vol. 4" along with DEAD MEN WALK (1943) and SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (1943). In addition, it's available with Mystery Science Theater 3000 "commentary" on a Rhino-released DVD.


Phantom from Space (1953)

Directed by:
W. Lee Wilder

What happens when you want to make a science fiction movie about an alien invader but don't have the money to create an alien? Why, you make it an invisible alien, of course! Over a montage of mostly stock military clips, a monotone narrator gives us a blow-by-blow of a comet hurtling toward Earth, passing through Alaska and Canada before disappearing somewhere over the skies of California. Soon after, people are flocking to the authorities claiming to have been attacked by someone or something dressed in a "flying suit" with a "horned helmet" (i.e. a diving helmet) around Santa Monica. Others claim it's "headless." Your usual assortment of cops ("This guy's walking around in a monkey suit... Killing people!"), scientists and reporters are on the case. They manage to locate it at an oil refinery, it pushes a guy down, runs off and baricades itself in a building. Right before the cops bust in, the alien takes off its suit to reveal its invisible and is then able to sneak off. Analysis of the suit proves it's made from a material... NoT oF tHiS wOrLd... They determine the alien is slowly dying because of our atmosphere and needs his helmet back, but even then things look grim. The alien manages to sneak into the lab, desperately tries to tap out messages and its high-pitched cries can only be heard by a dog named Venus.

This very talky low-budget film takes forever to get going, introducing dull stock character types played by OK but pretty nondescript actors along the way. But if you can make it to around the midway point (no easy feat), it becomes a bit more interesting. The invisibility effects (such as the alien carrying a woman, removing its spacesuit, a gravitating helmet and lifting up a pair of scissors) are passable, but this seems to save its better effects for the very last scene when the alien finally materializes. The cast includes Ted Cooper (who had a bit in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD), Michael Mark (Corman's THE WASP WOMAN), Rudolph Anders (FRANKENSTEIN - 1970), former "Taster's Choice" coffee spokesman Harry Landers and James Seay, who starred in KILLERS FROM SPACE (1954) for the same director.

Polish-born Wilder is the older brother the much more famous Billy Wilder, writer/ director of such classics as DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), SUNSET BLVD. (1950) and THE APARMTENT (1960). While Billy was racking up critical acclaim and award nominations (including 14 Oscar nods from 1940 to 1967), W. Lee (or Wilhelm) was off making stuff like this, which was co-written by his son Byron Wilder (who'd go on to become a prolific TV writer himself). W. Lee also made THE SNOW CREATURE (1955), FRIGHT (1956), THE MAN WITHOUT A BODY (1957), BLUEBEARD'S TEN HONEYMOONS (1960) and THE OMEGANS (1968), his final film (he passed away in 2002). Apparently the two filmmaker siblings had nothing to do with one another in real-life; Billy was even quoted as calling W. Lee "a dull son of a bitch."


Mole People, The (1956)

Directed by:
Virgil W. Vogel

During the five-minute prologue, Dr. Frank Baxter, a real-life Professor of English at University of South Carolina, tells us of the various theories about what's really going on in the middle of our Earth. Then the credits cleverly roll out of a steaming hole in the ground and our story begins. Somewhere in Asia (Tibet, I think), archeologists unearth a stone tablet and a child brings them an ancient oil lamp he claims he found near the base of the mountain. A five-man expedition; Dr. Roger Bentley (John Agar), Dr. Judd Bellamin (Hugh Beaumont), Prof. Etienne Lafarge (Nestor Paiva), Dr. Paul Stuart (Phil Chambers) and some other guy who might as well be wearing a red Star Trek uniform, is organized to climb the snowy mountain to look for more artifacts. After scaling for a couple of days and surviving several avalanches, they come across a Sumerian temple carved into the mountainside. The ground starts giving way, Paul falls inside a hole and the rest climb down hundreds of feet to try to locate him. Unfortunately, by the time they get to Paul he's dead and the nameless guy is crushed during a rockslide.

Roger, Jud and Lafarge stumble on underground, locate more artifacts, get pulled thought the dirt down to another level by clawed hands and come across an ancient civilization of light-hating, mushroom-eating albinos who want to sacrifice them to "The Divine Fire of Ishtar." The mole people, led by mole king Sharu (Arthur D. Gilmour) and high priest Elinu (Alan Napier), have enslaved clawed mutants called "The Beasts of the Dark" and force them to do their manual labor. The archeologists are spared their wrath for the time being when they brandish a flashlight, but know they need to try to get out of their pronto or else they'll be killed. Naturally, there's a hot, normal-looking mole woman named Adel (Cynthia Patrick) who strikes Agar's fancy. Can the scientists get out of there alive?

As a juvenile 'lost world' adventure, this Universal production works OK. Napier does a standout job in his role, some of the sets, mattes and makeups (from Bud Westmore) are decent enough and the general idea is pretty intriguing. However, if you have a low tolerance for absurdities, you'll probably want to give this a pass. Why an ancient Sumerian mole tribe would speak perfect English, dress like ancient Romans and have Egyptian hieroglyphics adorning their walls boggles the mind. Where their finely tailored and impeccable duds and herd of sheep come from may also give you a pause. The science is a bit silly, with characters behaving as if the 'great flood' is factual, and it's also saddled with a terrible ending. The mountain climbing scenes economize by stealing footage from the 1929 German film WHITE HELL FROM PITZ PALU.

Director Vogel also made the Swedish abominable snowman movie TERROR IN THE MIDNIGHT SUN (1959). The film got the usual ridicule from the MST3K folks in 1997. In 2008, Universal released it as part of the box set "The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection, Vols. 1 and 2."

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