Sunday, February 22, 2015

Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster (1965)

... aka: Duel of the Space Monsters
... aka: Frankenstein Meets the Space Men
... aka: Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster
... aka: Marte invade a Puerto Rico (Mars Invades Puerto Rico)
... aka: Operation San Juan

Directed by:
Robert Gaffney

Picking up "modulated hydrogen frequency signals of 21 centimeters," a small group of aliens, led by the sultry and stone-faced Princess Marcuzan (Marilyn Hanold) and bald, Spock-eared Dr. Nadir (Lou Cutell), perhaps the gayest camp alien since Bunny Breckinridge in Plan 9 from Outer Space, decide to investigate the planet emitting them. Sensing life on that unfamiliar planet called Earth, they decide to go in for a closer look using their "tele-scanner" and then send out a "spectographic probe," which determines that Earth's atmosphere will sustain them. Now with all the information they need, they plan on landing and enacting a series of "phases" because their own planet has been ruined by atomic war but... gasp! What's that? A missile being fired in their direction? No problem, they just use their lasers to shoot it down. What they don't realize is the missile is actually a rocket. Because all their recent attempts at space travel having been ending with a big kaboom, scientists at NASA must now resort to drastic measures in order to finally get a rocket into the air.

Army vet Colonel Frank Saunders (Robert Reilly) becomes the golden boy of the newly-planned space mission. Scheduled for a "49 million mile trip" all the way to Mars (well, it's actually 140 million, but who's counting), Frank will be the very first astronaut to make the journey all on his own. Mid press conference, Frank strangely become frozen with a goofy smile plastered on his face. He's taken back to a lab where Dr. Adam Steele ("Jim" / James Karen) and his assistant Dr. Karen Grant (Nancy Marshall) peel back his scalp to reveal a "brain" full of wires, knobs and other electric gadgets. Yes, Frank is a robot, an "astro-robot" to be more specific, and he's going to be NASA's way of learning all they can about extended space travel minus losing any more human lives. After being repaired, Frank's ready to go and the next rocket is launched. The aliens quickly shoot that rocket down too but this time Frank manages to eject from the craft and parachute safely back down to Earth. The aliens then decide they need to hurry up, get down there and silence him before he has a chance to tell NASA what's happened.

After the aliens track Frank to Puerto Rico, they send out some laser-gun-armed assassins, who immediately zap a hunter who takes a shot at them and then manage to shoot off half of Frank's face (transforming him into monstrous "Frankenstein" of the title). Frank pummels one of the aliens and takes off again, but the evil princess isn't too happy ("This is a clear case of failure!") with her men and decides to feed the "failure" to Mull, an atomic mutant kept in a cage who roars like a lion. Frank and his half melted face runs into a young couple on the road and strangles the guy to death after he attacks him, ambushes a guy chopping coconuts and then hacks him up with a machete and has other cute little misadventures but when reports come in to Cape Kennedy about what's been happening, Dr. Steele, Karen and General Bowers (David Kerman) all fly down to San Juan to try put a stop to it.

Meanwhile, the aliens decide to skip over Phase 1 (making a detailed survey of Earth) and hop right along to Phase 2, which involves capturing female "breeding stock" to help repopulate their planet. Why? Well, as the theme song keeps reminding us, "That's the way it's got to be." A bikini-clad blonde is first on their list and is dragged back to the spaceship and examined by the Princess, who makes her raise and lower her arms (?) before nodding her approval. They next invade a poolside dance party, where they shoot a guy wiggling his butt on the diving board and then round up all of the good-looking women and take off. Once back at the ship, the ladies are put through a lame-o "purification ceremony," which involves them being placed on a conveyor belt and covered with a sheet. Karen herself ends up being kidnapped and thrown in a cell right next to Mull. Eventually, Adam (who's managed to find Frank hiding in a cave and fixes him), the General and endless military stock footage come to the rescue.

"I'll give you something to mull over!"

Winning a coveted place in such bad movie books as "Son of Golden Turkey Awards" and being featured in such compilations as IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD (1982) and The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made (2004), where it ranked #7 overall, is enough to get one's hopes up pretty high, eh? After all, I think we've all been burned a time or two by supposed SBIG films that fail to really deliver. The good news with this one is that while it's certainly a clear case of failure, it's also quirky, bizarre, often very funny, extremely entertaining and strangely charming. The sets are cheap, the dialogue is silly, the amount of stock footage haphazardly edited in throughout is astonishing and there are several lengthy and utterly pointless montages thrown in here just because they could. One features our scientist heroes riding around Puerto Rico on a moped. Another is a montage of NASA footage set to a hilariously inappropriate rock song that has nothing at all to do with what's being shown. Why? You got it! Cause, "That's the way it's got to be..."

Though the final bout between "Frankenstein" and the Space Monster that the title promises lasts all of 60 seconds (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman had the same problem), I thoroughly enjoyed the makeups and creature designs here. The cast is also very entertaining. The big name here, particularly for horror fans, is James Karen. A late bloomer in Hollywood, Karen was in his early 40s when he made his feature film debut here and his career wouldn't really start taking off until a decade later when he became a busy character actor. After putting in a terrific performance in THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985), Karen became a cult figure and appeared in many other genre films over the next few decades. Now in his 90s, Karen is still a busy actor. Hanold, a June 1959 Playboy Playmate who also appeared in the cult classic THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE, seems to be having a lot of fun playing her villainess role and Cutell is downright hilarious as Hanold's minion, complete with frequent eye rolls and goofy facial expressions. Bruce Glover even shows up here in an early appearance as another bald alien.

Just two years prior to making this, director Gaffney had received an Oscar nomination for producing the documentary short Rooftops of New York (1961)! It played U.S. theaters on a double bill with the British voodoo revenge tale Curse of the Voodoo aka Voodoo Blood Death (1965). In the UK it played under the title Duel of the Space Monsters and was co-billed with The Curse of the Fly (1965). Both of these pairings seem mismatched but sometimes, ya know, that's the way it's got to be.


Till Death (1978) [copyright 1974]

Directed by:
Walter Stocker

While heading down a stretch of deserted road late at night, Paul Ryan (Keith Atkinson) is forced to pull over his car to the side because of extremely heavy fog. He hears a faint moan and then a female voice calling to him, gets out to investigate and spots a woman - who looks vaguely familiar - dressed in all-white off in the distance. Paul walks in the woman's direction, goes through an iron gate into a cemetery then down some stairs and eventually ends up in front of a crypt door... with his name on it. Inside is a casket. Paul cautiously opens it, finding the rotting corpse of a woman inside. The corpse then slowly starts to rise and comes toward him. Paul tries to flee, but finds the gate he entered through is locked tight. He turns around and the woman slowly continues to get closer and closer and closer... Though this opening sequence is all just a nightmare our protagonist is having, it also serves as a lesson to us all that you don't need a whole lot of money to create a creepy, atmospheric scene, as this does just that very simply and very cheaply with just one man, one zombie, some simple music, a fog machine and some carefully placed lights. Unfortunately, the film never quite reaches the same level of eeriness again after this first scene.

After Paul wakes up in a sweat from his awful nightmare, he gets a phone call from his fiancee Anne Martin (Belinda Balaski, in her film debut). The two are set to be married. Like today. So off to the church they go to get hitched and then they're off again toward their honeymoon destination. On the way there, the two are forced to pull over the car to the side of the road when an impenetrable bank of fogs rolls in. Paul soon spots a woman dressed in white standing off in the distance who starts calling his name. Sound familiar? Anne doesn't see or hear anything, though, and when Paul gets out to investigate he's unable to find the woman and almost falls over a cliff! The newlyweds then get to talking about their future together and she puts his mind at ease when she assures him, "I'm never gonna let you go" and then expresses excitement about "being on the threshold of a tremendous new experience." The fog rolls out, and the two take off.

Already exhausted from the trip, Paul gets distracted while he's driving, a van barrels down on them and he crashes through a guardrail. Anne is thrown from the car and dies. Paul, who was in the car when it flipped numerous times down the rocky embankment, somehow manages to survive but with serious injuries. He's rushed off to the hospital and physically recovers (aside from now having to use a cane), but it's his psychological state that worries his doctors the most. He's depressed, blames himself for the accident and sometimes even believes his wife is still alive. At the resistance of Dr. Walker (Keith Walker, who'd go on write Free Willy), who thinks Paul should remain at the hospital, chief physician Dr. Sawyer (Bert Freed) decides to release him, thinking that going back to his job and being around friends and family is just what he needs.

After leaving the hospital, Paul immediately goes to Eden Glen, the graveyard where Anne is buried. He's shown around by kooky, talkative eccentric Dr. Hilton (Jonathan Hole), who then escorts him to "Eternity;" the mausoleum where Anne's body is entombed. Dr. Hilton then takes off to attend to other business, leaving poor Paul all alone, The shock of seeing his late wife's tomb becomes too much for him. He flashes back to the good old days and then passes out. When he awakens, he discovers he's been locked inside for the night. A black cat mysteriously turns up to comfort him, but then he hears a woman crying, followed by the sound of knocking and Anne's voice pleading for him to let her out. Paul uses some tools workers left behind to break open her tomb, drags out her casket and finds Anne inside... alive. Or is she? It's best not to reveal any more of the plot so that's all you're gonna be getting from me.

This is a sincere, well-intentioned movie very much about grief and learning to accept (or not) the loss of someone you love and miss who's passed away, but it can't quite pull off what it wants to pull off as powerfully as it wants to pull it off thanks to highly uneven writing and acting. The pace drags in the mid-section, the sets are extremely cheap-looking and the 10-minute-long pre-credit nightmare sequence, while the creepiest in the entire film, is obviously there just to pad this 71-minute movie out. Not that this doesn't have its merits. It does. Some interesting things happen along the way, especially toward the end.

Filmed starting in 1972, copyrighted 1974 and not released until 1978, this long-forgotten chiller comes courtesy of former actor, college professor and WWII vet Walter Stocker, who'd previously appeared in The Madman of Mandoras (1963), which later had all new footage added and was reedited to become They Saved Hitler's Brain in 1968. This was a family project for Stocker. His son, Gregory Dana Stocker, wrote the screenplay and his daughter, Pamela Stocker, was the associate producer and in charge of wardrobe and props. Supposedly all three were heavily involved in most aspects of the film. Marshall Reed, a veteran of hundreds of westerns in the 40s and 50s, appears as the reverend who marries Paul and Anne and also produced and helped edit the movie. Bruce Kimball, under his real name Bruce Kemp, also has a small role. The special effects are by Roger George, who'd go on to work on films like Repo Man and The Terminator.

Here in America, this was never released during the video era and was only shown on TV in the early 80s (Pittsburgh's "Chiller Theatre" ran it in 1981 and 1982). I'm actually not sure if this ever even played in theaters or not. The only official VHS release I'm aware of was from Video Form Pictures in the UK circa 1984.

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