Bela Lugosi joins Inspector Charlie Chan on location in Honolulu
For Charlie Chan buffs long familiar with Fox's globe trotting efforts of the 1930s, the presence of 1931's "The Black Camel" must come as a welcome surprise, only the second of Warner Oland's 16 vehicles in the role, and the only one of his first five to survive. His debut in "Charlie Chan Carries On" was such a success that this initial follow up was actually shot on location in Honolulu, and along with the next three, "Charlie Chan's Chance," "Charlie Chan's Greatest Case," and "Charlie Chan's Courage," were all adapted from the original Earl Derr Biggers novels (the 6th kicked off the best remembered period, "Charlie Chan in London" in 1934). The consensus is that this entry stands alone due to the presence of third billed Bela Lugosi as 'world famous mystic' Tarneverro, mere months after earning screen immortality as "Dracula," ably assisting Inspector Chan in his investigation of the murder of Hollywood starlet Shelah Fane (Dorothy Revier), shortly after confessing that she was present in the home of former lover Denny Mayo on the night he was murdered three years earlier, a crime that has never been solved. Tarneverro has long been Shelah's spiritual advisor, answering her summons to Honolulu because of her betrothal to Alan Jaynes (William Post Jr.), who wants a quickie marriage before sailing at midnight. Shelah is attended to by maid Anna (Violet Dunn), butler Jessop (Dwight Frye), and publicist Julie (Sally Eilers), hosting a gathering of Hollywood friends before the wedding, as well as a brief visitation from actor and ex-husband Robert Fyfe (Victor Varconi), in between performances. It's Julie and boyfriend Jimmy Bradshaw (Robert Young) who discovers Shelah stabbed to death, stealing some incriminating evidence before police arrive. Chan's famous aphorisms are already in place, faithfully replicated from the novel, as is the one time only presence of Japanese assistant Kashimo (Otto Yamaoka), more dense than any sons to appear in the series. Director Hamilton MacFadden doubles as the on screen director of Shelah's latest opus, returning ten years later as actor in the streamlined Sidney Toler remake "Charlie Chan in Rio," Victor Jory a worthy substitute for Lugosi. Bela acquits himself quite well with 21 minutes screen time, and among the unbilled are C. Henry Gordon, Marjorie White, and Richard Tucker. This was the first reunion of Lugosi and a curiously uncredited Dwight Frye, certain to attract attention with his suspicious behavior, as well as Murray Kinnell's vagabond artist with his feeble attempt at blackmail. A short and charming sequence depicts the entire Chan family at dinner, his children's use of American slang enough to drive their father back to the 'peace and quiet of murder case!' Solving a baffling murder finds this little nugget: "all foxes come at last to fur store," while the title comes directly from Biggers himself: "death is a black camel that kneels at every gate."
Poverty Row delight for Bela Lugosi's only PRC vehicle
1940's "The Devil Bat" marked the debut horror film from Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), and who better to kick off the new decade than the immortal Bela Lugosi himself, not as a vampire but Heathville mad scientist Dr. Paul Carruthers, bitter over receiving a flat fee for his scented concoctions while his erstwhile partners earned millions (working title "Killer Bats" was retained for its reissue). After creating a new brand of shaving lotion with a special Tibetan herb that drives bats crazy with the urge to kill, he also has an apparatus that enlarges these small winged mammals to giant size to attack anyone foolhardy enough to wear the cologne. Thuddingly predictable it may be, but Lugosiphiles cherish it as one of his very best, as few villains could spend an entire feature film relishing his handiwork with such undisguised glee. Each time a targeted victim is offered an opportunity to try out the Carruthers shaving lotion ("now rub it on the tender part of your neck!"), Bela's eyes light up while he expertly delivers a farewell that goes unnoticed to all but the viewer (29 minutes screen time). For once, the nosy newshound (Dave O'Brien) is almost tolerable, but his photographer partner earns his nickname 'One Shot' when the Devil Bat finally arrives, displaying his true colors by dropping his camera! A huge box office success granted both a sequel ("Devil Bat's Daughter") and a remake (George Zucco's "The Flying Serpent"), yet PRC never again hired Lugosi, instead settling on Zucco as its resident horror star in "The Mad Monster," "Dead Men Walk," and "The Black Raven."
1934's "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" casts Hungarian Bela Lugosi in something of a dual role: Fu Wong the titular character a 'Mad Manchurian' (a Poverty Row Fu Manchu) seeking 12 coins given out by Confucius on his death bed, which would enable the owner to command the Chinese province of Keelat, and his elderly masquerade as herb dealer Li See, whose shop is connected to Wong's inner sanctum through a secret panel. The picture begins with a series of murders that have authorities believing there's another Tong war, Wong's henchmen successfully delivering 11 coins, each corpse identified by a piece of Chinese writing. The downward spiral introduces Wallace Ford as roving reporter Jason Barton, wisecracking with Irish cop McGillicuddy (Robert Emmet O'Connor), various comings and goings repeated endlessly as the elusive final coin is passed from person to person. Arline Judge gets in a few shots as Barton's sweetheart, but the comic relief overwhelms the rest of the film, leaving Lugosi in a vacuum to carry the burden on his own, as he so often did in low budget productions (not enough screen time at 18 minutes). Ford also opposed Bela in "Night of Terror" and "The Ape Man," but this nauseating newshound is his worst yet, on par with Lee Tracy's unfunny antics opposite Lionel Atwill in "Doctor X." This was Lugosi's only film for the original Monogram company, soon to be absorbed into Herbert J. Yates' Republic Pictures, a new Monogram emerging from the ashes to kick off Sam Katzman's infamous 9 picture deal in 1941. An entirely new Mr. Wong inspired by Charlie Chan would later allow Boris Karloff a crime solving respite during the horror blackout of the late 30s, a six film series concluding in 1940 with one shot Wong Keye Luke doing the honors in the closer "Phantom of Chinatown." Concluding a year playing heroes in "The Black Cat" and "The Return of Chandu," Lugosi returned to full time villainy back to back in both this and Columbia's forgotten programmer "The Best Man Wins," before well remembered roles in MGM's "Mark of the Vampire," and Universals "The Raven" and "The Invisible Ray."
1932's "White Zombie" was an independent release through United Artists but shot on Universal sets that must have been a comfort to Bela Lugosi as Haitian zombie master Murder Legendre (only once is his name mentioned in the film). Like a similar indie from Lionel Atwill, "The Vampire Bat," exteriors made use of Griffith Park's Bronson Canyon, opening with a ceremonial burial in the middle of the road to prevent the corpse from being unearthed to serve Lugosi, whose feared seaside castle features the ominous presence of a death dealing vulture ensuring no visitors. A betrothed couple arrive on the island to be married at the home of wealthy plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer, also seen in "The Vampire Bat"), his infatuation with the bride (Madge Bellamy) leading him to secure the voodoo services of Lugosi, needing only a pinpoint of an herbal drug in a flower before using her scarf to put her under his spell. While the would be husband wanders the island in a drunken stupor, Beaumont finds that the girl's staring eyes and soulless demeanor prove unbearable, only to find himself victimized by Lugosi's voodoo magic, this time a drink from a glass of wine, amused by his foe's gradual descent into total servitude. All we learn about the character is that each of his zombies were in life his enemies, and if restored would 'tear me to pieces,' with witch doctor Pierre (Dan Crimmins) the only person on the island who has survived 'the land of the living dead.' These are the traditional zombies of fictional lore, not the flesh eating 'ghouls' as described in George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," providing slave labor when needed for the master, a spell that can only be broken by his death. It's a fitting role for the chronically unemployed, newly minted horror star, working under an effective Jack Pierce makeup, and reportedly heavily involved in rewrites of certain scenes and even a spot of directing. Once horribly duped prints have now been granted a much brighter sheen, making the nighttime sequences more spooky though the subpar acting remains a major distraction, the picture dragging badly when Lugosi is absent (nearly 21 minutes screen time, roughly the same as his signature "Dracula").
"Well of Doom" offers series veteran Henry Daniell (his second appearance, after "The Cheaters") some fine scenery chewing in a stunning makeup job designed after Lon Chaney's vampire in 1927's still lost "London After Midnight," his Squire Moloch aided by Richard Kiel's Master Styx in a fiendish scheme to wear down any resistance from Ronald Howard's wealthy Robert Penrose as he's about to wed pretty Laura Dunning (Fintan Meyler). Accompanied by longtime valet Jeremy Teal (Torin Thatcher), Penrose is en route to a stag party when his car is stopped by the giant Styx, looming out of the darkness to seemingly crush the life out of the chauffeur (Billy Beck), after which a demonic character calling himself Squire Moloch forces his two prisoners at gunpoint to get back in their car and drive deeper across the moors. Moloch is a devilish fellow, evil grimace with one tooth missing, long, unkempt white hair beneath top hat, and the ability to light the torches or kill Teal with barely a snap of his fingers. While poor Laura remains gagged and helpless nearby, Penrose finds himself locked in a cell containing a well, inside an abandoned old ruin on his own property, where Moloch claims he was murdered by Robert's father to gain possession of the entire estate, only now returning from the grave to avenge himself upon the son. The finale may prove disappointing on a first time viewing (itself a remake of Tod Browning's "Mark of the Vampire"), but Daniell's magnetic presence papers over the holes in the plot, easily his finest hour on the show (still to come are "Prisoner in the Mirror," "The Grim Reaper," and "God Grante that She Lye Stille"). This was only Richard Kiel's second acting role on television, and though still a novice he acquits himself well delivering his few lines, shortly before his starring debut in the title role of "Eegah."
"The Weird Tailor" marks Robert Bloch's first script of this second season, and like the later "Waxworks" would be included among the stories for an Amicus anthology feature (this one the second segment of Roy Ward Baker's 1972 "Asylum"). Genuinely creepy from start to finish, opening with an embarrassing turn from Gary Clarke as the drunken son of wealthy necromancer Mr. Smith (George Macready), accidentally killed during a black mass, his grief stricken father calling upon sightless spiritualist Madame Roberti (Iphigenie Castiglioni) to put him on the trail of the one man who can help him restore the life that was taken. Where would one expect to find an ancient tome to raise the dead but a used car lot, whose owner (Abraham Sofaer) has been waiting 15 years for someone to meet his price, $1 million, then shortly after is killed in a plane crash (Madame Roberti believes his sins preordained this fate). Smith discovers the spell required and finds the right material for a tailor to shape into a suit for his son, to be sewn by hand during specific night time hours, otherwise the needle cannot penetrate the cloth. The story now shifts to immigrant couple Erik and Anna Borg (Henry Jones and Sondra Kerr), about to lose their tailor shop due to nonpayment of the rent, when Smith miraculously offers a lifeline with a job worth $500 to be paid upon delivery in one week. This couple is not so much weird as incompatible, Erik an unlikable tyrant guilty of physically and verbally assaulting his much younger wife, like a child bride who escapes her unhappy lot in a fantasy world, her only friend Hans a damaged storefront mannikin that now resides in the privacy of her bedroom (their one sided conversations padding out the already brief running time). As if black magic and spousal abuse wasn't enough for 1960s prime time, we have the confrontation between Smith and an insistent Borg, refusing to turn over the suit until he is paid, followed by an attempted strangling when his orders to burn it are not followed by the uncomprehending Anna. THRILLER was known for its uncompromising shock endings, and this one must be considered among the strongest, leaving bewildered younger viewers with endless nightmares for years to come. George Macready was never the most expressive of actors yet adequately conveys his character's obsessions, but the real standout is Henry Jones, brilliantly cast against type and still able to earn a measure of sympathy during his drinking binge with landlord Schwenk (Stanley Adams). The uncredited Dikki Lerner will have another opportunity to show off his pantomime skills in "The Innocent Bystanders," while Jones would be saddled with an even more disagreeable spouse in Bloch's "'Til Death Do Us Part." In "Asylum" the bereaved father would be played by Peter Cushing, the far more sympathetic tailor by Barry Morse.
"Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" was adapted by Barre Lyndon from perhaps the most famous Robert Bloch story prior to "Psycho," reuniting the stars of Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder," John Williams once again the investigator, Ray Milland behind the camera for his only THRILLER as director (in that capacity, he finished with five features and 12 TV episodes from 1955 to 1967). This was the tale that put Bloch on the map, earning a radio version featuring Laird Cregar, and the author himself refashioning the idea into a second season STAR TREK, "Wolf in the Fold" (KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER took a shot with its 1974 debut entry "The Ripper"). Modern New York finds John Williams as Sir Guy sharing his extensive knowledge of Jack the Ripper culled from a 30 year investigation, his deduction being that the killer himself is still compelled to repeat the same ritualistic pattern all across the globe to maintain an immortal existence in appeasing dark powers, every murder spree taking place over a specific number of days. All the ingredients for a classic are there but somebody let it get away, a dull assortment of artistic types and interchangeable, hand wringing policemen bringing things down to an almost comic level, Williams virtually the only standout with one telling statement about his quarry: "a vampire who fattens not on blood but on life itself." Karloff's introduction concludes on a particularly witty note: "it'd be a pity if a member of our audience became dismembered!"
"The Ordeal of Dr. Cordell" stars Robert Vaughn as research scientist Frank Cordell, assisted by fiancee Lois Walker (Kathleen Crowley), who comes unglued after an experiment backfires, his gas mask unable to protect him from an explosive dose in a freak accident. At first he registers no pulse, but an injection of adrenaline from university employer Dr. Brauner (Robert Ellenstein) restores him to normal consciousness, except for the tinkle of even the smallest bell, amplified to such an extent that he is compulsively driven to kill, from an innocent little caged parakeet to not one but two unlucky campus coeds. Unaware of his actions during these raging blackouts, he soon finds evidence of his crimes in his jacket pocket, yet loses sympathy with the viewer by his failure to confess and insistence on recreating the gas to find a cure for his brain's chemical imbalance. John Brahm's "Hangover Square" covered this territory better with Laird Cregar, here we have Donald S. Sanford contributing one of his numerous scripts, the sole episode directed by veteran Laslo Benedek. William Castle's 1972 GHOST STORY episode "Elegy for a Vampire" cast future Barney Miller Hal Linden as a similarly tortured campus professor responsible for his share of coed corpses. Robert Vaughn is perhaps the wrong actor for this part, only the 4th TV role for a young Marlo Thomas (THAT GIRL), and the first credit for Aron Kincaid under his real name Norm Williams, later a Beach Party staple in "The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini" and Larry Buchanan's "Creature of Destruction."
"A Good Imagination" serves up a second Robert Bloch script, a delicious black comedy that perfectly casts Edward Andrews as learned bookstore proprietor Frank Logan, who dispatches his wife's numerous paramours in witty fashion browsing through such certified classics as "Crime and Punishment," "An American Tragedy," "Lady Chatterley's Lover," and "A Cask of Amontillado." Wife Louise (Patricia Barry) is wise to her husband's jealous ways yet oblivious to resist the company of handsome types like Randy Hagen (William Allyn), murdered in his own apartment by a medieval mace on his wall, prompting her brother (Britt Lomond) to hire a private investigator (Ken Lynch) whose attempt to blackmail Logan results in both men poisoned by their intended target. Logan now sets his sights on a quiet summer in a remote country cottage, only to find handyman George Parker (Ed Nelson) yet another new suitor for Louise, biding his time until Edgar Allan Poe creeps into his imagination for a surprising and fitting finale. Andrews excels as the bespectacled serial killer, a deceptively innocent demeanor masking a dark menace that he delivers whenever he removes his glasses, good enough to warrant two further adventures next season, "A Third for Pinochle" and "Cousin Tundifer."
No great shakes but Mary Astor's star presence makes all the difference
"Rose's Last Summer" may be no great shakes with its improbable plot, but in casting Mary Astor in the central role of actress Rose French, former glamour queen of Hollywood, things are more watchable for a change. Undergoing treatment for severe alcoholism, a downtrodden Rose chooses to toast her sudden good fortune with her closest friend, Frank Clyde (Lin McCarthy, later seen in "The Specialists"), but says little about her new job as a 'housekeeper' before paying her landlady a month in advance. Soon both Clyde and Rose's ex-husband (Jack Livesey) hear about her death, found alone in the garden of San Francisco socialite Willet Goodfield (Hardie Albright), whose father made millions on the 'Sweet Marie' doll, the coroner's report confirming Rose died instantly of natural causes with an enlarged heart. Willet and his wife Ethel (Dorothy Green) have been caring for his invalid mother in this rented house, while Clyde's examination of Rose's most recent cardiogram reveals a heart in good shape. Both men decide to look into the background of old man Goodfield and find his inspiration for the valued doll. Unbilled are Richard Reeves as a startled truck driver (a role he would repeat in "Late Date"), while Arthur Peterson (The Major on SOAP) enjoys an eccentric bit as the suspicious Goodfield attorney. The viewer can see where this is going long before the protagonists do, but Mary Astor's star presence is a reminder of Hollywood's tendency to discard even the greatest performers, with echoes not only of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" but also Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Blvd."
Richard Matheson's only contribution to the series
"The Return of Andrew Bentley" boasts an August Derleth story published in WEIRD TALES, adapted by Richard Matheson ("The Incredible Shrinking Man"), and directed by leading man John Newland, then current host of ONE STEP BEYOND, yet another promising beginning (like "Dark Legacy") dissipates into drawn out exposition and a rushed finale. Newland's Ellis Corbett is accompanied by wife Sheila (Antoinette Bower) to pay an urgent call upon wealthy uncle Amos Wilder (Terence de Marney), who insists that he will die and must exact a promise from his nephew that he keep watch over his grave so that it is not disturbed. By the following evening, the old man gives up the ghost during an organ recital, and after the door to his tomb has been secured we finally see that which he feared, Reggie Nalder as Andrew Bentley, a rival sorcerer who was killed by Amos two years before but now seeks to claim his corpse to walk the earth again. Newland was always better behind the camera, entirely too vacant and laid back on screen, setting a bad example for the entire cast, much hand wringing to comic effect, and a miscast Oscar Beregi totally out of his depth in a serious role, more often a figure of amusement. Nalder, previously seen in "The Terror in Teakwood," looks the part but remains silent and prone to squinting, poor Ken Renard from Newland's "Pigeons from Hell" required to expire in hysterical fashion once more. Apart from Terence de Marney, nothing seems to gel on this occasion, a pity since it was Matheson's only script for the Karloff series.
"Hay-Fork and Bill-Hook" initially builds up intrigue about witches in modern Wales but quickly bogs down in endless exposition that ultimately leads to a numbingly weak conclusion. Druid stones have stood for 1100 years near the country village of Dark Woods, and the ritual murder of hedge cutter Thomas Watson (Lumsden Hare) has brought Scotland Yard's Harry Roberts (Kenneth Haigh) to investigate with new bride Nesta (Audrey Dalton) in tow. Local authorities like Sir Wilfred (Alan Caillou, here performing double duty as writer and actor) and Constable Evans (Alan Napier) don't seem to be much help, even after the wicker basket burning of an elderly woman in a second killing. Events are discussed rather than seen, the first victim stabbed by pitchfork then a stake driven through his heart and a cross carved on his throat, the locals with a long history of such maniacal doings to dispatch witches (Christopher Lee would enjoy one of his finest screen roles in a Scottish variation on pagan rites, 1973's "The Wicker Man"). Alan Napier and Doris Lloyd make for a frosty mother and son, Audrey Dalton given less to do than in "The Prediction" (her best would be "The Hollow Watcher"), Kenneth Haigh a lackluster lead, soon to share the screen with George Harrison in the Beatles classic "A Hard Day's Night." This was Napier's meatiest part in the series, his lower class characterization at odds with the role of Alfred on TV's BATMAN, a pleasant reminder of his early Hollywood vehicle "The Invisible Man Returns," in which his sniveling colliery foreman was terrorized by Vincent Price's invisible protagonist. He even delivers a choice line with an admirably straight face when Audrey gushes about how well the trees grow: "they have nothin' else to do!" Alan Caillou would go on to script two better entries, "The Terror in Teakwood" and "La Strega," prior to big screen efforts like Bert I. Gordon's "Village of the Giants," George Hamilton's "Evel Knievel," and William Shatner's "Kingdom of the Spiders."
A minor footnote among a plethora of classic episodes
"Dark Legacy" proves a mere trifle as the first season winning streak dies down, dual roles for Harry Townes ("The Cheaters") yet neither truly effective in an occult story that drags its feet to an underwhelming climax, the last of three series appearances from Alan Napier ("The Purple Room"), here reteamed with Doris Lloyd from "Hay-Fork and Bill-Hook." Dying sorcerer Radan Asparos wills his most prized possession to his nephew Mario, at this time a struggling stage magician wed to assistant Monika (Ilka Windish), a book of spells that summon the demon Astaroth in exchange for a life. Cousins Doris Lloyd and Richard Hale ("The Incredible Doktor Markesan") and butler Milton Parsons all vanish from the scene with attorney Napier once the estate is dealt with, leaving Mario to go through his inheritance page by page with fellow magician Toby Wolfe (Henry Silva), to the chagrin of a hysterical Monika. Required to come up with something fresh to maintain his position for nightclub owner Vince Fennaday (Ned Glass), Mario chooses to call forth the forces of darkness while alone in his study, claiming the life of Monika's dog Peter to which he lies and states that the mutt ran away. His new tricks are masterful yet truly frightening, and his arrogance in proving his newfound abilities to the disbelieving Wolfe lead to self destruction. The old age makeup for Radan evokes only chuckles, while Townes' over the top rantings show director John Brahm struggling to reign in a believable performance, but the next two episodes would be so good that this minor footnote would be easily forgotten.
Among the handful of truly terrifying episodes, the very best the series could offer
After 14 episodes that may charitably be described as less than thrilling, virtually all crime entries with occasional tension but no genuine background in supernatural terrors, enter "The Cheaters" from a 1947 Robert Bloch story published in WEIRD TALES, adapted in superior fashion by Donald S. Sanford and directed with stylish glee by veteran John Brahm. For the first time, viewers experience a greater fear factor than ever before, a gloomy tone immediately set by the Jerry Goldsmith score accompanying our introduction to Henry Daniell as Dirk Van Prinn, renowned 19th century alchemist and creator of a pair of spectacles engraved with the Latin phrase 'Veritas' (meaning 'Truth'), whose mirror reflection after donning them proves so horrifying that he hangs himself before morning. His failure to destroy those lenses means that more people will learn not so much the truth about themselves as what is revealed in the hidden thoughts of those devious charlatans around them, each character arc captured neatly in separate segments primed to close for every commercial break. Paul Newlan's Joe Henshaw is a modern day junkman who finds the glasses inside a secret panel in Van Prinn's decayed lab, mocked for his penniless existence by his wife (Linda Watkins) and young assistant (Ed Nelson), soon to learn that their clandestine affair and lust for riches means an early grave for Joe, beating the lovers to death with a crowbar before a policeman (John Mitchum) guns him down reaching for 'the cheaters.' Top billed Mildred Dunnock is then introduced as Miriam Olcott, the aging aunt to ambitious socialite Edward Dean (Jack Weston), forever despairing over 'Mother Olcott' and her disconcerting bad habits, a seemingly innocent face hiding a dishonest sneak thief. She can only confide her fears to caregiving trustee Clarence Kramer (Dayton Lummis), and after purchasing Van Prinn's spectacles finds that she is to become the victim of an 'accident' perpetrated by Clarence once they're alone in the house. A fitting defense by hat pin precedes the two being engulfed in flames by a careless glass of brandy, allowing the Deans to inherit Miriam's wealth and hopeful status in the eyes of a suspicious community, a costume ball where Edward is dressed as Benjamin Franklin resulting in his trying on the Van Prinn glasses during a game of poker, revealing his most influential guest a card cheat hiding two aces. The resulting scuffle sees unpublished author Sebastian Grimm (Harry Townes) accidentally killing their outraged host, curious about the lenses that Dean had worn which allowed him access to each man's thoughts. Grimm's ambitions get the better of him, financial success outweighing any fears as he plans to visit the rotting Van Prinn house to don the spectacles at the stroke of midnight, seated in the same chair where the previous owner was driven to take his own life. A masterpiece from start to finish, bolstered by a strong cast, Jack Weston's serious turn more convincing than his later incarnation in "Flowers of Evil." Miriam Olcott is the one character who proves to be no paragon of virtue with her predilection for taking things that don't belong to her, for once we can imagine her being wrong and remain absorbed in watching every step of this self awakening. The finale fittingly caps the circular nature of 'what goes around, comes around,' Henry Daniell's facial expressions denoting stark terror without dialogue, to Harry Townes in a nightmare enhancing makeup job from unheralded Jack Barron. The very best THRILLERs offered up deliciously bleak atmosphere and an uncompromising climax denied a happy ending, it all begins right here and continues with the following episode, William Shatner's "The Hungry Glass."
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1973
1961's "X-15" was a sincere attempt to capture the space race in relation to the same theories espoused in George Pal's "Destination Moon," that American grit must triumph at all costs over the evil Soviets. Sincere does not also mean enjoyable, as this feature debut for director Richard Donner takes to the sky more than Christopher Reeve in "Superman," but otherwise remains grounded in dramatic cliches rehashed from Ivan Tors' "Riders to the Stars." Screenwriter Tony Lazzarino, a former Air Force radio operator, had shopped around an idea for a picture about NASA's Bell X-2 since 1958 before the flashier, rocket powered X-15 was chosen, first Bob Hope then Frank Sinatra giving the green light for United Artists, even allowing a brigadier general in the Air Force reserves the role of uncredited narrator to open and close the film, actor James Stewart. The flight details are accurately portrayed in the clouds while we listen to James Gregory's operations chief pontificate on the ground as to their various setbacks being reported by the sensational press, shooting at California's Edwards Air Base with its expansive, empty riverbeds. These gallant pilots don't have much time for the women in their lives, an early role for Mary Tyler Moore as David McLean's fiancee (they never wed), and a genuine starring turn from Charles Bronson, whose aviator is the only one who fails to make it to the end. Robert Mitchum and Jeffrey Hunter were originally announced before falling out, as well as director John Sturges, the title changed from EXIT, BEYOND THE UNKNOWN, and TIME OF DEPARTURE. What it lacks is an actual story to tie these events together, aeronautics experts just about the only species on two legs who will enjoy this trip down memory lane, 8 years before the moon landing that will be documented by "Footprints on the Moon: Apollo 11." Bronson had been a USAAF aerial gunner during the war, and James Stewart was over 30 when he enlisted in 1941, a strong family background in the military dating back to the Civil War, both do what they can here but are let down by a stodgy script.
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1970
1964's "Crack in the World" was a British-US coproduction from producer Philip Yordan shot mostly in Spain just two years after his classic "The Day of the Triffids," but an upgrade from Allied Artists to Paramount. As expected, it's a large scale story on a modest budget that delivers the goods with fine special effects aided by expertly integrated stock footage of natural disasters, a science fiction epic without any need for giant monsters. Dana Andrews stars as Dr. Stephen Sorensen, head of Project Inner Space, an underground facility pinpointing the exact spot for a nuclear missile to penetrate the inner layer and reach the molten lava beneath, intending to divide the various minerals into new sources of energy. Opposing this idea is Dr. Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore), fearing that one misstep could literally force an earth shattering response the likes of which mankind has never seen. Influential world leaders such as Sir Charles Eggerston (Alexander Knox) give their approval after a consultation with Sorensen, recklessly going ahead rather than risk the collapse of the entire project, plus a fatal cancer he keeps hidden from even his lovely young wife Maggie (Janette Scott). As the lava spurts toward the sky it appears that Sorensen's theory was correct, only to learn soon enough that openings beneath the floor of the Indian Ocean begin a series of earthquakes that claim thousands of lives. Rampion had threatened to quit but now does all the legwork to see how another warhead can successfully halt the destruction. It was the largest indoor set built at Madrid's CEA Studios, at a cost of $100,000, a wise investment that added to the realism and achieved box office success. Moore and Scott were previously teamed as husband and wife in "Triffids" (in a separate section directed by Freddie Francis), while veteran Alexander Knox was typecast as authority figures, particularly in Hammer's "These Are the Damned." Hollywood import Dana Andrews, as effective as he was in 1957's "Curse of the Demon," shares some good moments with Janette Scott but this love triangle proves entirely predictable, his self sacrificing gesture a necessity for the exciting finale. Julian Halevy (a pseudonym for Julian Zimet) would score a double whammy in 1972 with coauthor Arnaud d'Usseau, "Horror Express" pairing Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as rival anthropologists battling a knowledge draining alien aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, and "Psychomania" offering one final role for George Sanders just before his tragic suicide, whose dark powers raise a motorcycle gang from the dead.
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1969
1965's "The 10th Victim" was an Italian-French adaptation of Robert Sheckley's 1953 short story "Seventh Victim" that led the way for other foreign satires like "Danger Diabolik" or "Barbarella." Director Elio Petri spent a number of years fleshing out a proper script with several writers, eventually joined by producer Carlo Ponti once Marcello Mastroianni became involved (the two had recently completed "Marriage Italian Style"). As if that wasn't enough, newly minted sex goddess Ursula Andress from the James Bond debut "Dr. No" replaced Ann-Margret for the female lead, her on screen chemistry with Mastroianni matched by their torrid off screen relationship. The picture may not have lit fires at the box office but it proved to be influential on future efforts like Roger Corman's 1975 "Death Race 2000" from director Paul Bartel, also set in a not so distant future where legalized violence is depicted as acceptable for public consumption as a way to abolish war. Here the televised games are called 'The Big Hunt,' a Swiss computer matching opponents in two categories, 'Hunter' and 'Victim,' the former supplied all the background and habits to make for an easy stalking, the latter given nothing to indicate the identity of his pursuer. Each successive kill proves financially beneficial to the survivor, and those who reach the full amount of ten hunts receive a special bonus of $1 million (five kills apiece as hunter or victim). Making things even more difficult for the 'Victim' is targeting the wrong assailant, for it means 30 years behind bars when incorrect. The opening in New York sets the proper tone, Ursula's American Caroline Meredith the victim chased through the street by a dogged yet poor shooting pursuant, winding up in a private art gallery where he spies a bikini clad seductress wearing a mask, who promptly fires a bullet loaded brassiere! Caroline's latest triumph was her fifth as victim and ninth overall, ready to begin her final hunt in Rome, where Marcello Mastroianni as Marcello Poletti is to be her prey, six kills left in his wake (his previous role as hunter used exploding boots to sabotage a horseman). Poletti has waited years for his marriage to be annulled while juggling a marriage minded mistress (Elsa Martinelli), his wife (Luce Bonifassy) wasting every penny he earns from his hunts so that even his collection of science fiction comics and trivia must be repossessed (he also supports his still living parents, apparently forbidden in this outlaw society). He instantly suspects that this gorgeous blonde trying to wangle an interview on Italian men at the Temple of Venus is merely a trap to claim her tenth victim, so he too sets up his own response at a country villa where a crocodile awaits a human meal. Both participants have also included live television coverage for greater profit, one false step likely to prove fatal in this odd yet compelling mating ritual. Once the rules are established and players identified, it's both a game of cat and mouse and battle of the sexes, neither side budging an inch as the stars carry their material with great aplomb, though the climactic series of twists almost sinks the premise. Ursula has never looked more stunning, soon to join Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in the Hammer remake of H. Ryder Haggard's "She."
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1968
1966's "Attack of the Robots" (Cartes Sur Table or Cards on the Table) was a French-Spanish example of the growing Eurospy genre spoofing the James Bond films, scripted by director Jesus Franco and Jean-Claude Carriere after their previous collaboration "The Diabolical Dr. Z." A more lighthearted affair for European star Eddie Constantine, most popular in France as detective Lemmy Caution (over a dozen films since 1953), here as Interpol agent Al Peterson, whose rare blood type makes him the perfect bait for an organization requiring only susceptible test subjects to become unwitting human assassins of prominent political figures. The picture opens with a slew of such killings, the perpetrators identified by their dark complexion, pressed suits, and horn rimmed glasses, ultimately the work of Lady Cecilia (Francoise Brion) and her obedient husband Sir Percy (Fernando Rey), avoiding detection by sending their automatons across the globe but nervously eyeing Peterson on their Spanish turf of Alicante. Sophie Hardy as Cynthia keeps tabs on Peterson through a one way mirror in her closet, while Chinese spies led by Lee Wee (Vicente Roca) involve themselves by offering a generous bribe for whatever Peterson uncovers. Constantine wears a bemused look as he blunders from one location to another, finally tracking the villains to their hidden island lair by donning the glasses of a dead killer, which only work to subjugate the will of his specific blood type (their dark skin turns white after death, never regaining their lost humanity). Unencumbered by the zoom lens that would ruin many a later Franco effort like Christopher Lee's "Count Dracula," this is much like his entire 60s output, highly watchable if undistinguished, granting Fernando Rey less to do than in his earlier stint as "Goldginger" opposite Franco and Ciccio. Plots to use robot duplicates in place of people was a highly popular one at the time, from Frederick Stafford's "OSS 117 Mission for a Killer" to Richard Johnson's second Bulldog Drummond update "Some Girls Do," usually laced with humor.
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1968
1960's "Reptilicus" is a reminder that Samuel Z. Arkoff wouldn't distribute just any piece of junk through AIP, at least not until after prompt litigation and much tinkering. The same duo responsible for 1959's "The Angry Red Planet" try their hand at local color by shooting in Denmark, screenwriter Ib J. Melchior and director Sidney W. Pink (via their Cinemagic company) attempting a traditional giant monster on the loose with atypically hilarious results. Things begin well, as routine oil drilling comes up with bloody flesh and bone, deduced to be part of a 70 million year old prehistoric reptile, its tail transferred to a laboratory in Copenhagen. Scientists also surmise that the beast could have been as long as 30 feet, the frozen fossil eventually thawing to reveal itself not only to be alive but also able to regenerate itself, a process completed during a fierce electrical storm. The finished monster reminds one of Big Bird from Columbia's "The Giant Claw," and its few flying scenes (a dark outline gliding across the screen) were removed for AIP's dubbed release, plain table top backgrounds in which plastic models are smashed by a drooling rubber prop with immobile claws and wings. So much footage is devoted to the amorous escapades of the young women that impatience sets in quickly, only to become apathy once the big reveal finally arrives. The stone faced military leader is stymied by the fact that blowing it to bits would mean that every piece could grow into another gigantic menace, compounded by the very first instance of a monster that shows contempt for its own movie by throwing up before the audience does (a little Hollywood animation not seen in the Danish version). An inconclusive ending also leaves a bad taste in viewers' mouths, in particular the very real threat of a sequel that fortunately never came to pass! Similar postproduction special effects disasters on "Konga" and Pink's own "Journey to the Seventh Planet" could have soured Arkoff on foreign investment, release held up for over a year, yet he still picked up Pink's "Pyro" for the US market, a Barry Sullivan vehicle minus any science fiction elements.
1963's "War of the Zombies" had a rather generic Italian title, "Rome Against Rome" (Roma Contra Roma), earning a third for its television airings, "Night Star, Goddess of Electra," a later example of the dying genre of peplum, soon replaced by the Spaghetti Westerns. We do have a heroic figure in Ettore Manni as Gaius, stalwart Roman centurion sent to recover a treasure confiscated by sorcerer Aderbad (John Drew Barrymore), deriving his powers from the one eyed moon goddess which gives him hypnotic abilities over all humans, his intention to raise all the warriors slain in battle to prove invulnerable in combat with the living. Gaius falls for beautiful servant girl Rhama (Ida Galli), much to the displeasure of Tullia (Susy Anderson), wife of the duplicitous governor, using an effigy to attack Gaius while accusing him of murdering her husband. The film comes alive whenever Barrymore is the focus, on a cavernous set with huge glaring idol at its center, papering over the listless backstabbing subplots left over from previous muscleman epics. Ida Galli, better known as Evelyn Stewart in later vehicles like "The Murder Mansion," had previously graced Mario Bava's exemplary "Hercules in the Haunted World," boasting none other than Christopher Lee as its blood drinking villain, while Susy Anderson recently essayed a more bland part in Bava's "Black Sabbath." The climax must be ranked as a disappointment, using stock footage from Edgar G. Ulmer's 1959 "Hannibal," the undead army appearing as transparent phantoms rather than a corporeal menace. Manni is no bare chested warrior, easily overshadowed by the flamboyant Barrymore and both female leads, the strong horror angle helping it stand out from a mostly routine pack, surpassed by Gordon Scott in "Goliath and the Vampires."
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1972
1961's "The Giant of Metropolis" (Il Gigante di Metropolis) kick started a 40 year starring career for Denver-born Gordon Mitchell, with over 150 credits up until his death in 2003. 20,000 BC is when our story takes place, the lost continent of Atlantis and its great city of Metropolis still reigning over the earth, with only Mitchell's bare chested Obro daring to oppose the despotic ruler Yotar (Roldano Lupi), so feared for his advanced scientific methods to maintain power over an enslaved populace. He ignores warnings of an impending natural disaster, hopes to grant his son immortality despite objections from the boy's mother, and fears the arrival of Obro for his incredible prowess as an unbeatable warrior. Obro becomes mostly a supporting figure with the focus on the villain's multiple tasks, the first half putting our hero through a series of tests, a single one on one battle with a knuckle dragging Neanderthal whose own club is used against him, the second providing him an opportunity to swat guards like flies with barely a whiff when not rescuing Yotar's beautiful daughter (Bella Cortez). It's understandable to see Obro lose a battle with pygmy cannibals due to being outnumbered, but only embarrassment results when he's defeated by a shaft of light! As many as six screenwriters cram as much as possible into this curious mixture, a death ray, TV monitors, brain transplants, mind control, and the expected destruction of Atlantis. Ads for the picture promised 'Dwarfs of Death,' Mitchell's bout with the flesh eating pygmies proving there is strength in numbers. Another mentions 'women who live forever,' which would make better sense if it referred to the little tyke promised immortality by his all powerful father, while the tagline 'the city destroyed by cataclysm' sets up the climactic flood, with all their scientists unable to prevent the earth from shifting on its axis. The action is quite repetitive, as our barrel chested hero uses a weapon that might be charitably described as looking like a feather duster to drop every opponent in thuddingly dull fashion. For male viewers, we have a brief appearance from Liana Orfei as the scantily clad Queen, Cuban-born Bella Cortez as the Princess who finally opposes her father. Despite the many deviations from type it remains an overly talkative outing lacking the great action set pieces that helped Gordon Scott's superior entry "Goliath and the Vampires."
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1970
1961's "The Amphibian Man" (Chelovek-Amfibiya) was that rare Soviet title that crossed the Atlantic relatively intact, bypassing Roger Corman for a straightforward dubbing job that reduced the running time from 96 to 82 minutes but otherwise remained as faithful to its source as the Czech "Voyage to the End of the Universe." Only a year or so before John Lamb's "The Mermaids of Tiburon" offered a beautiful tail to tell for masculine viewers (as played by Diane Webber), here we have a male version to engage the female contingent. Vladimir Chebotaryou and Gennadi Kazanskiy are listed as codirectors of this adult fairy tale of love beneath the waves, kicking off in typical Hollywood frenzy with reports of a strange aquatic creature terrorizing South American beaches (shot off the scenic Crimean coast), convincing wealthy sea captain Pedro (Mikhail Kozakov) to switch from pearl diving to monster hunting while his reluctant bride Guttiere Baltazar (Anastasiya Vertinskaya) only agrees to marriage for the sake of her financially strapped father (Anatoliy Smiranin). An attempted escape goes awry when she dives into the water and loses consciousness as a menacing shark approaches, rescued from certain drowning by the 'Sea Devil' that Pedro is searching for, hardly the fearsome description of the papers but an all too human figure (Vladimir Korenev) wearing an elaborate costume of webbed hands and feet. The young man is named Ichtyandr, son of renowned scientist Salvator (Nikolai Simonov), who was forced to transplant a shark's gills to replace his offspring's damaged lungs, enabling him to exist above and below the water, essentially a first step to create a utopian society that will live in freedom beneath the sea. Guttiere is unaware of the identity of her actual rescuer (Pedro takes the credit), and is startled when Ichtyandr calls to ask if she's all right from his place on the ship's anchor, so smitten with this never before seen vision of loveliness that he braves the big city against his father's wishes to find her. For one who has lived a sheltered life away from the trials and tribulations of humanity, the lad is literally a fish out of water when dealing with greed and prejudice, still making a strong impression on the girl, who feels a flattering connection to him for his unwavering admiration for her. Pedro is never far away to squash their blossoming romance, and her refusal to accept his unconditional gift of pearls shows how misplaced pride can often be. An audience used to viewing wild stories set in outer space may well be taken aback by this tender, inner space venture, fabulous underwater photography and solid characterizations ensuring great success in its native Russia (a reported 65.5 million theater goers), yet for decades poor quality prints in the West have done it few favors. "The Amphibian Man" and "The Mermaids of Tiburon" both share the need to supply a villain to provide conflict, perhaps unnecessary and almost guaranteeing a downbeat finale.
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1980
From the Czech Republic comes 1958's "The Fabulous World of Jules Verne" (Vynalez Zkazy or Invention of Destruction), Joseph E. Levine's stateside release of director Karel Zeman's stylized realization of the 19th century author's many works, earning instant acclaim at Expo 58 in Brussels, winning the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival. Though no box office success in the US it was universally heralded by critics, Verne's 1896 novel "Facing the Flag" merely the starting point for a visual feast requiring almost no dialogue, presented in the Victorian style of line engravings used to illustrate his ideas to current readers, filmed with a mixture of stop motion and live action, often done in camera. The actual story is easy to follow and faithfully recreates several fictional characters treated as real people, from Robur the Conqueror (played by Vincent Price in "Master of the World"), Victor Barbicane (played by Joseph Cotten in "From the Earth to the Moon"), and the ever popular Captain Nemo, portrayed in multiple films by such fabled actors as Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Lom, and James Mason. Submarines appear with flippers, airships fly under man made pedal power, a squid oozes black ink when injured, virtually half the picture taking place beneath the waves as a multitude of fish swim by. The narrator reveals himself as the knowing assistant to a scientist researching a new explosive used for evil purposes by a group of pirates, their secret island hideaway inside a dormant volcano whose only entrance is an underwater tunnel. Quaint in its time but relatively undated for that very reason, this entry continues to fascinate unsuspecting viewers lucky enough to encounter it.
1960's "Battle of the Worlds" (Il Planeta Degli Uomini or The Planet of Extinct Men) marks only the second science fiction entry from Italian director Antonio Margheriti (under his usual pseudonym Anthony Dawson), perhaps his best given that "Assignment: Outer Space" did not fare well internationally, plus the towering screen presence of an aging Claude Rains in the central role of Professor Benson, very similar to his just completed Professor Challenger in Irwin Allen's "The Lost World." A rogue planet dubbed 'The Outsider' has entered our galaxy and is believed to be on a collision course to destroy the earth, the scientific community casually brushing off Benson's assertion that it will merely pass by without incident. The old man soon learns that 'The Outsider' has slipped into orbit around our planet. Causing a wave of destruction and suicides to force an exploratory ship to examine it more closely. A small force of saucers are dispatched to obliterate the ship, so Benson himself is finally allowed to take charge in the battle, reasoning that 'The Outsider' is something of a 'Noah's Ark,' a relic from a dead world that can be reprogrammed to go back where it came from. The climax offers a race against time, Benson's crew desperate to return to their vessel and take off before nuclear warheads target 'The Outsider' in a blaze of glory. Top screenwriting workhorse Ennio de Concini was coming off Mario Bava's "Black Sunday," and continued working in all genres throughout a prolific career, the 70 year old Rains giving this one a stronger edge with an over the top performance that commands the screen, cantankerous yet lovable, an outsider himself who would prefer to die knowing the truth than live without knowledge. Rarely seen outside the confines of his greenhouse, scribbling calculations on flower pots, Rains easily dominates a cast of barely outlined characters, one couple ready to wed who suddenly end their relationship, another happily married and working in tandem from Earth to Mars. Margheriti's 1965 "Planet on the Prowl" would feature the same type of underground world for its finale, what appears to be a living, breathing organism with brain cells and arteries that bleed crimson. Rather than waste the talents of a fine actor, this low budget vehicle actually gives him something tangible to sink his teeth into, delivering in spades for a film that never receives much love, mostly relegated to horrid, washed out prints.
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1976
1960's "First Spaceship on Venus" (Der Schweigende Stern in East Germany or Milczaka Gwiazda in Poland, literal translations of "The Silent Star"), a Communist bloc import that was granted a straight dubbing job by Crown International, heading a hugely successful double bill with "Varan the Unbelievable," a Toho title from Japan. East Germany's government approved a favorable budget to celebrate their 10th anniversary, but vetoed coproduction with Western nations like France, so Poland proved the right substitute. Adapted from the 1951 novel "The Astronauts" by acclaimed Polish author Stanislaw Lem, the final script went through 12 screenplays among three different writing teams, Berlin-born director Kurt Maetzig no friend of Hitler's Nazi regime because of his mother's Jewish heritage. Like Toho titles such as "Battle in Outer Space," Hollywood's feeble efforts look even worse compared to the well mounted special effects on display, a plotline that echoes "12 to the Moon" with its multinational crew, a pacifist message against nuclear war that would do Ishiro Honda proud. Released in Europe at 93 minutes, the US cut loses nearly 15 minutes of exposition for an overall better pace, kicking off in the year 1985 (1970 in the original) for the discovery of a mysterious magnetic spool in the Gobi Desert that appears to have first landed on earth in 1908, a team of scientists blasting off at the 16 minute mark for its likely point of origin, our sister planet Venus. This is where it most resembles its Hollywood brethren, the crew involved in various tasks (even chess) during the 31 day voyage until reaching their destination midway through, sending out a scout ship to find a place to land. It's a convincing color palette highlighting elaborate sets for Venus, but all they find of its long dead inhabitants are dark shadows, having annihilated themselves through nuclear testing with their equipment still functioning and deadly. Familiar music cues pop up from better known titles "The Wolf Man," "Destination Moon," and "This Island Earth," perhaps influencing Roger Corman and others to look for suitable material behind the Iron Curtain (Czechoslovakia's "Man in Outer Space" and "Voyage to the End of the Universe" received a faithful translation through AIP).