Sunday, June 21, 2009

Beast of Hollow Mountain, The (1956)

...aka: Bestia de la montaña, La
...aka: Monstruo de la Montaña Hueca, El
...aka: Valley of the Mists

Directed by:
Edward Nassour
Ismael Rodríguez

Other than being your standard issue monster movie, this introduced the new process "Nassour Regiscope," which promised "animation in depth" to cinemagoers. In layman's terms, they used two different types of stop-motion animation; one employing a single model that is moved frame-by-frame, the other using a bunch of different models with slight differences which are replaced frame-by-frame to achieve the effect of movement. The film was also the first film to combine stop-motion effects with anamorphic widescreen and color (Cinemascope).
Mexican legend has it that a creature dwells inside accursed "Hollow Mountain" and any time there's a drought people and animals have a tendency to mysteriously disappear. An American cowboy, Jimmy Ryan (Guy Madison), along with his trusty partner Felipe Sanchez (Carlos Rivas), run the profitable Rancho Bonito cattle ranch near the mountain. Jimmy's fair cattle prices have managed to anger some people in the area, including hot-tempered competitor Enrique Rios (Eduardo Noriega), who effectively scares off all of Jimmy's ranch hands with stories of the fabbled mountain monster. Thankfully, little motherless Panchito (Mario Navarro) and his pleasant, but ne'er do well father Pancho (Pascual García Peña), who spends too much time at the local cantina, show up one day to work there; feeling indebted to Jimmy because he saved Pancho after his horse started to drag him. Busty señorita Sarita (Patricia Medina), who has tried to be a mother figure to Panchito since his mother passed away, swings by to check up on the kid and strikes Jimmy's fancy (and vice versa). Unfortunately, she's engaged to be married to Enrique, which leads to a brawl at an outdoor market and Enrique trying to harass Jimmy until he agrees to leave town.

Jimmy secretly meets Sarita in a graveyard, which is colorful and not dreary and ugly European and American ones, where she urges him to reconsider Enrique's offer. While he's gone, papa Pancho wanders off into the swamplands and never comes back. Jimmy decides to sell the ranch and then head back to America just as a village fiesta begins in celebration of Enrique and Sarita's wedding. Little Panchito runs off into the swamp to search for his father... So we're nearly an hour into this 78 minute movie, and you're probably like me and thinking; "What the heck happened to the beast." Well, it finally does show up with less than 20 minutes left to go and is a crudely-but-charmingly animated T-Rex dinosaur full of personality that was probably pretty impressive back in 1956. I love this kind of effect regardless of how well it's done. Was it worth sitting through an hour's worth of people riding around on horses, shots of cows grazing in fields and listening to a child's endless whining? I personally though so, but it'll take a pretty patient viewer to get that far. I'd fully understand if anyone would skip ahead to the last 15 minutes and just watch that.

The dino causes a cattle stampede (accomplished by hilariously speeding up the film) that kills two guys. Then it eats a cow. After that it starts chasing Panchito around and then moonwalks out of a mud puddle. Sarita and Panchito barricade themselves in a house and the dinosaur jogs circles around it. It runs down the mountain, slides down a dirt embankment on its butt and chases after a horse, all the while wiggling its tongue and making weird noises that usually sound like either an elephant or a bobcat. These scenes are great. The rest, not so much, though nice outdoor locations are utilized throughout.

The film was "based on an idea" (actually a story) by stop-motion fx master Willis H. O'Brien (KING KONG), who was otherwised not involved in this film. The same story would be refilmed a second time in 1969 as VALLEY OF GWANGI, which also mixed the western setting, cowboys and stop-motion dinosaurs (and other monsters).


Il trono di fuoco (1970)

... aka: Bloody Judge, The
... aka: Der Hexentöter von Blackmoor, Der
... aka: Night of the Blood Monster
... aka: Throne of the Blood Monster
... aka: Trial of the Witches
... aka: Witch Killer of Broadmoor
... aka: Witches' Trial

Directed by:
"J. Frank Manera" (Jesus Franco)

With the success of WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) came the obligatory series of copycat films, each with a period setting and all dealing with witch hunting. This premise carries with it a chance to explore themes like religious hypocrisy, mass hysteria spreading around like disease in small communities and general abuse of power, but most of these films were actually more interest in the general abuse of women. Yep, usually completely innocent and naked or half-naked ladies being slapped with the scarlet "W" and then dragged into some dungeon where they're chained up, shackled down or thrown into a cell and await prolonged torture and sometimes death. There was Mark of the Devil (1970) and its 1972 sequel, CRY OF THE BANSHEE (1970), THE DEMONS (1973) and others, plus this one from the prolific Jesus Franco, who used the alias "J. Frank Manera" for the film. Set in 1685 England, the film follows the reign of terror orchestrated by hateful, self-serving, power-mad Judge Lord Jeffreys (Christopher Lee), who lives a lavish lifestyle, tries to get sexual favors from "witches," uses his position for wealth and political gain and does other awful things all in the name of the Lord.

As the film opens, a man suspected of being a sorcerer is murdered and his lover, Alicia Gray (Margaret Lee), is captured. She's brought to trial, found "guilty by association" of practicing witchcraft and promptly taken to a torture chamber where she's stretched on a rack, slapped, sliced with a blade and has a "W" burnt into her chest by chief torturer Jack Ketch (Howard Vernon, dressed in a tight, full-bodied one-piece black outfit with a hood!), a man who really seems to enjoy his work. Alicia's sister Mary (Maria Rohm) goes to Jeffreys and pleads for her sister's life. He propositions her for sex. She refuses, which leads to her sister being found guilty and getting burned at the stake. Now I don't know about you, but I think if I were in Mary's shoes, I'd be willing to give Mr. Lee the best five minutes of his life if he'd be willing to spare my sibling's life. Hell, I might even make him pancakes in the morning.

A devastated Mary goes to see blind psychic Mother Rosa (Maria Schell), who predicts she'll go through some turmoil but will arise triumphant in the end. Lord Wessex (Leo Genn), an adversary of Jeffreys, has a son named Harry Sefton (Hans Hass, Jr.) who's a member of a rebel army and becomes romantically involved with Mary. Sadistic bailiff Satchel (Milo Quesada) attempts to rape Mary, but she pushes his face into a fireplace before escaping. To get revenge, a now-facially scarred Satchel murders Harry's best friend Barnaby ("Peter Martell"/Pietro Martellanza) and then goes around kidnapping innocent women; including Mary and some woman named Sally (Diana Lorys), who are dragged back to Jeffreys for more torture "fun."

It's pretty elaborate for a Franco film. There's even a lengthy battlefield sequence with men on horseback fighting with lances, rifles and canons, lots of stunt work, explosions and tumbling horses. However, Franco fans aren't likely to place this very high on their list of favorites because of its anonymous, stilted direction. Lee fans are also likely to be disappointed. Despite the title and Lee's star billing, his character isn't the centerpiece of the film and the one-note role is far too rigid to be the least bit memorable. The pacing is slow, the torture scenes are tedious, the period detail is sufficient yet unimpressive and the numerous political discussions are highly confusing. Bruno Nicolai contributes a decent music score and Manuel Merino does a fair job shooting it, but otherwise there's not too much to recommend here. The art direction and set decoration are from "George O. Brown" (who is better known as actor Jack Taylor).

The version I saw was the 90 minute cut (with the on-screen title The Bloody Judge), which is missing quite a bit of footage. 13 minutes, in fact. Apparently, what I missed was more graphic full frontal nudity, a lesbian scene and a few prolonged moments of torture. In other words, nothing that would have really saved this film from mediocrity. Harry Alan Towers produced and wrote (using the alias "Peter Welbeck" for the latter), and it was a co-production between Italy, Liechtenstein, Spain and West Germany.


When Worlds Collide (1951)

Directed by:
Rudolph Maté

El Mundo Evacua! Verdens Ende! Quittez La Ville! Das Ende der Welt! Extra! Extra! Read all about it! End of the world right around the corner! Things begin with a close-up of the Bible, with the cover swinging open to reveal the passage "And God looked upon the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the Earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth... " Uh oh. You know what that means. Our world is toast. At the Mount Kenna Observatory in Johannesberg, South Africa, scientists discover something speeding toward Earth at an alarming rate. They hire high priced delivery boy and ladies man David Randall (Richard Derr) to deliver a small black to Dr. Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) at the Cosmos Observatory in New York City. At the airport, he's met by Hendron's daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush), who escorts him to his destination. There, the box is opened and inside is data revealing that in eight months time the Earth is going to be destroyed by not one, but two, planets; Bellus and Zyra. Zyra is expected to pass so close to the Earth that it will cause mass destruction, earthquakes and tidal waves that will wipe out every coastal city on the planet. 19 days later, Bellus is expected to finish the job by making a direct hit. Yep, the world's about to come to an end.

At a U.N. meeting, the findings are brushed off and Dr. Hendron is labeled a crackpot. Fortunately, he's able to persuade billionaire Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt) to lend the funds to design a Noah's Ark-style rocketship capable of transporting 44 people, some animals and livestock and other important things needed to start life anew. Plans are made for the ship to planet hop over to Zyra (which is said to have an atmosphere similar to the Earth) after it passes through. Top male and female students in engineering, science, medicine and argriculture are drafted in to help, with those being able to board the ship being chosen at random at the end of the project. Tensions arrise later thanks to a love triangle between David, Joyce and Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hansen) - who was about to marry Joyce before David came into the picture, as well as between Dr. Hendron and the heartless Stanton and another between young lovers Julie (Rachel Ames) and Eddie (James Congdon) - one of whom is chosen to go, the other not.

Nicely photographed in Technicolor, this George Pal production is a very good "end of the world" opus, with an exciting and suspensful premise, good performances (particularly Herr and Keating), nicely drawn characters and great special effects for its time. While some of the matte paintings don't hold up too well (particularly the one showing the new world at the end), other effects (which won an Academy Award) utilize excellent miniature models which effectively depict fires, bridges and buildings collapsing, avalanches and flood waters pouring into a city. The effects with the spaceship are also well done. In retrospect, you could pick holes through this (there's not a single minority in the film and thus none get an opportunity for a second chance at life on the new planet, the random selection of who gets to go might limit the specialists, etc.), but the same can be said for most films from this era. Highly influential, this went on to inspire everything from the Irwin Allen disaster movies to that spate of sci-fi meteor/comet destruction movies (ARMAGEDDON, DEEP IMPACT, etc.) that came out with a bang in the late 1990s. It's also slated for a remake sometime in the next couple of years.
Not particularly horror in the traditional sense, but I'm including it here for its scary end of the world/apocalypse theme, mass destruction scenes and obvious influence on similar films in the sci-fi and horror genres. Paul Frees narrates and provides the voice of the U.S. President and small uncredited roles are played by Kirk Alyn (Superman) and Stuart Whitman. Based on the novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie (which was adapted by Sydney Boehm) and executive produced by Cecil B. DeMille.


Iced (1988)

...aka: Blizzard of Blood

Directed by:
Jeff Kwitny

Cory McGiver (Doug Stevenson) and Jeff Stinson (Dan Smith) decide to have a ski off to see who's man enough win the affections of blonde Trina (SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE's Debra De Liso). Cory ends up smoking Jeff on the slopes and gets the girl, while Jeff proves he's a little on the unhinged side by having a conversation with himself in the bar later that evening, barging into Trina's hotel room unannounced and then deciding to work out his rage on the slopes by doing a little drunken midnight skiing. Instead, he gets himself into a little accident when he falls over a steep embankment into some rocks. Four years later, Cory and Trina - now married - and their friend Jeanette Foster (Lisa Loring) are on their way to an exciting ski vacation. They've all been invited by real estate agent Alex Bourne (Joseph Alan Johnson, who also wrote this) to one of those time share weekends, where they get to check out a remote ski lodge free-of-charge that they can purchase for 250,000 dollars at the end of their stay if they so chose. Some other friends - wealthy coke-snorting investor Carl (Ron Kologie), snobby pediatric doctor John (John C. Cooke) and his nurse girlfriend Diane (Elizabeth Gorcey), who has psychiatric issues, eventually show up for what they assume will be a fun, stress-free little getaway.
But none of them happened to see what's already happened to Jeanette's boyfriend Eddie (Michael Picardi), who was driving up separately, crashed his car and was then immediate run over by a snow plow. The driver of the plow, decked out in ski garb so his/her identity is kept hidden and cracked goggles for convenient POV shots, eventually invades the cabin and begins to kill everybody off. But rumor has it that poor Jeff has already commited suicide, so he couldn't be the killer, right?

Take one part talky BIG CHILL-style reunion movie (it's almost all talk and paltry "character development" the first hour or so), one part cheapie slasher and one part soft-core porn (with plenty of nudity from both genders) and you've pretty much got this horribly edited and badly-paced effort that one character adequtely sums up when he states, "The only time you watch the screen is if there's somebody's naked or somebody getting killed, or both." A ski pole is jammed through a neck (a pretty good effect), there's an icicle jabbed into an eyeball, a hot tub electroction and death-by-bear-trap. It's just too bad all that takes an hour to happen. After everyone else is quickly done away with, our leading lady wakes up the next morning, runs around outside wearing boots, a jacket and panties (!) discovering dead bodies and then gets her hand on a gun, which comes in handy taking on the surprise killer, who isn't even a surprise since the person's identity is horribly telegraphed well in advance during a clumsy flashback sequence.

The actors range from decent to awful. Best of the lot is Loring, the now-grown Wednesday from The Addams Family TV series (1964-1968). Despite big 80s hair, she's pretty, has more natural dialogue delivery than the rest of the cast and handles the majority of the female nudity. It's too bad she didn't have a bigger career as a Scream Queen (though she also appeared in the 1986 film BLOOD FRENZY) because that would have been a good career path for her. Loring also seems to have led a pretty interesting life away from movies. She was married at 15, had a daughter at 16 and was divorced soon after. Her second husband was Doug Stevenson, the star of this film. After they split up, she married porn actor Jerry Butler, appeared in non-sexual roles in a few adult features (and even wrote one!), did the talk show circuit to discuss her drug problems, divorced Butler, turned her life around, went to work doing public relations for a hotel chain and now works as a caterer while appearing at film conventions across the country. I'd actually like to see her make a return to horror films some day.


Alligator People, The (1959)

Directed by:
Roy Del Ruth

The great trailer (see below) promises "suspense that will clutch you like quicksand, pulling you down into bottomless depths of suffocating horror!" The film hardly delivers all that, but it's actually pretty entertaining for what it is, thanks mainly to a highly enjoyable cast, offbeat setting and amusingly cut rate monster creations. The always spirited and lovely Beverly Garland (who passed away not too long ago - R.I.P.!) stars as Joyce Webster, a newly-married woman whose husband Paul (Richard Crane, of Rocky Jones fame) mysteriously disappears on their wedding night. Joyce then embarks on a frantic search for her missing mate, which leads her deep into the Louisiana Bayou to secluded Cypresses plantation and its strange and suspicious-acting inhabitants. She's greeted with hostility by the home's owner, Lavinia Hawthorne (Frieda Inescourt), who when forced to accomodate Joyce, advises her not to leave her room or go out at night and doesn't make it a secret she wants her gone the next morning.
Next door is a private clinic run by Dr. Mark Sinclair (an understated George Macready), whose well-intentioned experiments with accident victims; using a serum derived from alligator hormones and a cobalt radiation ray, have backfired in a big way and have turned his patients into "revolting scaly monarchs" and "hideous living gargoyles." If all that's not enough for you, Lon Chaney, Jr. has one of his flashier later day roles as a hook-handed, alcoholic backwoods Cajun brute/poacher who just loves shootin' gators (whether they're walking on two or four legs) because one had bit off his hand. It's all told in flashback, with Garland's character reliving the experience (years after the fact and under a new identity) to psychiatrists Bruce Bennett and Douglas Kennedy through hypnosis sessions.

Despite obviously cheesy alligator man designs and some dated laughs, this is actually somewhat better than it's reputed to be. Though there's some wooden acting from a few of her co-stars, Garland is excellent and really carries this film, the swampland scenes generate some genuine atmosphere and it's all harmless fun. Plus it was filmed in "Screaming Horrorscope!" In theaters, it played on the bottom half of a double-bill with RETURN OF THE FLY (1959) and in fact it was green-lighted for the very purpose. The DVD from 20th Century Fox is a nice widescreen print of the film.

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