Monday, May 1, 2017

THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE 1959




     Released at the tail end of the 1950's sci/horror nature rum amok cycle 1959's THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE was also one of those that fell into relative obscurity in the coming decades. Largely unseen as for some reason it was absent from the TV "monster kid" boom of the 60's and 70's with only the admittedly ludicrous looking still of heroine Beverly Garland struggling in the grasp of the title creature (a scene that never appears in the film) that popped up in magazines and books. It was finally given a DVD release by Fox in 2004 and more recently as nice Region B Blu (the UK version of which can be had for less then $10.00).
    Often unfairly lumped in with the hipster "so bad, it's great" crowd, that while having it's share of  unintentional laughs (i.e. the alligator man running about in dress slacks and skinny belt) it's a highly atmospheric little production thanks in part mostly to B&W CinemaScope photography by the great Karl Struss (F.W. Murnau's SUNRISE and the 1931 version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE). It also has a highly capable cast including the above mentioned genre favorite Beverly Garland (IT CONQUERED THE WORLD), George Macready (PATHS OF GLORY) and of course Lon Chaney Jr. doing one of his patented late career drunken lout roles.




    Directed by Roy Del Ruth (this was his last feature in a career going back to 1920), it was produced by the independent company API (Associated Produces) as a co-feature for the company's THE RETURN OF THE FLY and was distributed (and probably partly financed) by 20th Century Fox. Most likely one those screen properties whose fruition worked backwards from a title (and maybe even a poster) as you can picture a group of studio-types sitting around a table throwing out various animal names to attach to a project in conjunction with Fly's return. Access to the Fox production facilities also gave both films the use of the studio's CinemaScope process that for double feature play dates made it that projectionists didn't have to change lenses.
    At a large unnamed city clinic nurse Jane Marvin (Beverly Garland) suffers from a lapse of memory as she is missing an entire year out of her life. Given sodium pentathlon by psychiatrists Bruce Bennett (MILDRED PIERCE) and Douglas Kennedy (THE LAND UNKNOWN) she recounts in flashback her marriage to Paul Webster (Richard Crane THE NEANDERTHAL MAN). On their honeymoon and traveling by train we learn in casual conversation that Paul survived a horrific plane crash and is spite of suffering severe bodily injury he bears no scars or lingering injuries. While stopped at a station he receives a telegram that causes him to suddenly bolt from the train and disappear as the train pulls away leaving Jane alone.


  

    Perplexed she spends the next year trying to track him down and finds a clue in the form of a Louisiana address on his college admission paperwork. Taking a train to the desolate town of Bayou Landing she arrives at the depot of the seemingly deserted town. Spying a wooden crate marked "CAUTION Radioactive Cobalt 60" she takes a seat on it (!!) and in a moment hook-handed Manon (Lon Chaney Jr.) shows up and offers her a ride to her destination which is the mysterious Cypresses plantation. After casually throwing the crate of radioactive material in the back of his truck he and Jane head off the remote plantation where Manon works as the handyman/lackey. While driving through the swamps Manon spies a couple of alligator "wranglers" trussing up a live alligator all the while waving his hook about and cursing the alligators who we learn had chomped it off earlier (he even gleefully runs over one as it crosses the road !).
     Arriving at the plantation the owner Mrs. Lavinia Hawthorne (Frieda Inescort THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE) coldly greets Jane and insists she's never heard of Paul Webster. Discovering that she's missed the last train that day Lavinia allows Jane to stay locking her in a bedroom. Later that night Manon drunkenly shots at alligators in the nearby swamp while a maid warns Jane that the house is "deeply troubled"imploring her to leave immediately.
     Discovering other mysterious goings on including "swamp doctor" Dr. Mark Sinclair (George Macready) preforming creepy skin revitalization via alligators experiments and patients swathed in bandages, Jane soon begins to realize whats up with her errant husband and the purpose of  the experiments - a deduction viewers will guess long before hand.  Along the way, in a pretty shocking scene for 50's drive in/matinee fare, she escapes a near rape by Manon.
     Something that's different here is that there's no actual hero in the film with no leading man to save the heroine from the beasties clutches at the climax and it can be augured (in a 180 degree turnaround) that Beverly's "Jane" is the hero of the film. Sure she recoils at the sight her alligator skinned husband but then immediately runs into the swamp after him - with Garland gamely splashing about in mucky water and skipping over live alligators. Macready's Dr. is no evil scientist as he actually cares about his "patients" and deeply worries about the afflictions which his experiments have caused. Chaney's scenery chewing Manon although viscous & mean isn't even a real villain - just a drunken oaf who inadvertently sets in motion the finale.




     When you pay to see a movie titled ALLIGATOR PEOPLE you better see a alligator person and in spite of its maligned main monster the movie does deliver and is no better or worse then what should be expected, plus does add to the film's charm and place in the genre.  The makeup by Dick Smith (no, not that Dick Smith) probably would work best if kept in the shadows (think Val Lewton) with the scaly skin makeup effects on the partial gator men being pretty effective. The entire sequence at the begiining with Garland and the two psychiatrists feels kind of tacked on (the film would work fine without it) and was added to most likely beef up the running time as the film also gets bogged down a bit with lots of running about the swamp and creeping about the mansion.
     Although some sources site Louisiana as a filming location the swamp & plantation setting have a very dusty southern California look to them and were most likely filmed on standing sets (probably at the Fox Ranch in Malibu). With its lighting and B&W scope photography ALLIGATOR PEOPLE has a unique look among the 50's big bug/reptile features. Del Ruth doesn't use the scope screen for any real atmosphere (mostly just having two talking heads on either side of the screen) and it's the lighting which really helps elevate the look of the film.
    The professional cast elevates the sometimes talky script cast with Macready's line readings bringing a depth and seriousness to the proceedings while Beverly as usual jumps into her role with both feet. Garland always played strong resilient women and in her work for Roger Corman, he obviously saw this casting her in such roles as SWAMP WOMEN and GUNSLINGER while even in IT CONQUERED THE WORLD she shoulders a rifle and strides off to Bronson Cavern to hunt down the invader from Venus.












Friday, April 14, 2017

THE NECROMANCY 1972

Bert I. "Mr. Big" Gordon's take on ROSEMARY'S BABY
 and all things Satanic 70's with Orson Wells and Pamela Franklin !


"Life To The Dead And Death To the Living...."




    During the 1970's when he wasn't appearing on Johnny Carson or shilling on TV commercials for wine that's located on the bottom shelf in chain grocery stores Orson Welles lent his presence and distinctive voice to a wide ranging slate of projects including this 1970 effort from Bert I. "Mr. Big" Gordon (THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN & EMPIRE OF THE ANTS). Gordon who leading up this seemed to be attempting a "throw everything against the wall and see what sticks" style of film as his output included family matinee fare, a (very bad) sex comedy and thrillers before jumping on the 70's Satan bandwagon with this project.
   Written, produced and directed by Gordon it was shot in 1970 but legal wrangling kept it unreleased until 1972 when Cinerama released it often double billing it with their Euro imports such as the 1972 version of BLUEBEARD with Richard Burton. In 1983 it was re-edited with additional nude scenes shot (by persons unknown and a bit from the original shoot) in a satanic orgy with the original lopped off and Fred Karger's invocation score replaced by a cheesy 70's synthesizer where it was released under the title THE WITCHING. There are some surviving stills that show that Gordon originally filmed a hardwr cut before trimming it down.


 I love phone shots in movies !


    After their baby boy is born dead Lori Brandon (Pamela Franklin THE INNOCENTS and LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) and her husband Frank (Michael Ontkean TV's THE ROOKIES & TWIN PEAKS) decide to move from Los Angeles to the small town of Lilith where Frank has accepted a position at a toy factory owned by Mr. Cato (Orson Welles). While driving there the couple witness a fiery car crash where at the scene Lori finds a creepy rag doll with fingernail clippings in the doll's pockets (which would seemingly send any sane person screaming straight back to the big city). After they inexplicably run out of gas Frank hikes to a station and Lori is drawn by the sounds of chanting to a strange funeral overseen by folks in black robes whom all suddenly disappear and the returning Frank insisting she dreamt it all.
    Upon arriving in Lilith the find everybody nice & friendly in a Stepford Wives and/or satanic cult sort of way and while at dinner with Mr. Cato he strangely explains that his workers create "magic rather then toys". Paying special interest in Lori. Mr. Cato encourages her to read a black arts book entitled Grande Grimore while at the same time she begins to noticing disquieting things about town as they are no children or adults over the age of 30 besides Mr. Cato. She also befriends a strange young woman & coven member (Lee Purcell MR. MAJESTYK) who runs a local store filled with mysterious bric-a-brac.




     Drawing on many tropes from various movies as anyone whose seen ROSEMARY"S BABY can guess the motives of husband Frank (although compared to Cassavetes Broadway aspirations in ROSEMARY'S BABY, Frank and his desire to be a big wig in toy factory seems a bit trivial). NECROMANCY doesn't break a whole lot of new ground but Gordon does maintain an atmosphere of slowly encroaching dread along with parading a checklist of occult movie set pieces including flashes of a goat headed demon, images mysteriously appearing on tarot cards and in goblets along with robed figures chanting. There's also a WTF rat attack which suddenly appears out of nowhere as well as a bizarre pre-credit sequence with Franklin floating through space. Awash in bright sunshine it has a definite post-Manson 70's hippie California vibe to it (it was filmed in Los Gatos) and would make an excellent double feature with 1971's BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN.
     Pamela Franklin who had appeared as a child actress in Jack Clayton's classic THE INNOCENTS in 1960 and Hammer's THE NANNY from 1965 was one of few genre actors who moved easily into adult roles such as the sadly fallen through the cracks AND SOON THE DARKNESS from 1974 and the outstanding THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE in 1973. Franklin (who's never looked prettier) has an odd accent here as it floats from British to American (sometimes in the same sentence) but does an admirable job with Gordon's sometimes head-scratching dialogue. She meant her husband Harvey Jason (COLD TURKEY) on this film and they remain married to this day and he owns the Mystery Pier bookstore in West Hollywood.
    Wells with a large prosthetic nose reads his lines with all the somber tones of a Shakespeare tragedy and seems to be trying to channel Vincent Price in one of his Corman/Poe roles. Although obviously slumming it here he bring a sense of nobility to the proceedings.
     Code Red's Blu-Ray release of Gordon's original theatrical version  oddly has a MPAA PG rating card at the beginning of the film but then finishes with an R card. Featuring some topless nudity (courtesy of Sue Bernard from FASTER,PUSSYCAT KILL ! KILL !) and some fleeting Pamela boobies it was one of those 70's movies that as released straddled both ratings and could have very easily carried a PG in spite of the bare flesh.

"We'll sell no wine before it's time" 





  





Wednesday, March 8, 2017

THE OUTER LIMITS - THE FORMS OF THINGS UNKNOWN 1964

"And as imagination bodies forth
the forms of things unknown, the poets pen
turns them into shapes and gives to airy nothing..."
                                              William Shakespeare




Original Air Date May 7 1964

"Mr. Hobart tinkers with time,  just as time has tinkered with Mr. Hobart..."


     In May 1964 the first season of ABC's anthology series The Outer Limits came to end with its mediocre ratings leaving its future somewhat in doubt. Created by Leslie Stevens who wrote and directed two of the season 1 episodes including the THE GALAXY BEING which was the series pilot and CONTROLLED EXPERIMENT (which was the only comedy episode produced during the series run), it was producer/writer Joesph Stefano (writer of Hitchcock's PSYCHO) was the primary driving force during the series initial season run.
    Unlike most other TV series of the time that were shot mostly "flat" and unimaginably THE OUTER LIMITS benefited from work by academy award winner cinematographer Conrad Hall (IN COLD BLOOD) and direction by Gerd Oswald (A KISS BEFORE DYING), John Brahm (THE LODGER) and Robert Florey (MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE ) among others, all of whom elevated the look of show with stylized lighting and camera angles bringing to mind German expressionism and giving each individual episode the feel of a 51 minute movie.
     It was Stefano who first came up with the idea of a weekly creature (or "bear" as they were refereed to buy the creators) to be featured and he gradually took the show away from its straight sc-fi origins.  Always a huge fan of Gothic horror he jumped at the chance when ABC proposed a new show titled The UNKNOWN that would feature more horror based story lines. Unfortunately the series was cancelled and the new initial episode THE FORMS OF THINGS UNKNOWN was reworked with a different ending being shot downplaying the horror elements where it was broadcast as the finale to THE OUTER LIMITS first season.




    Combing elements of European art house cinema, German expressionism and Gothic horror along with a bit of plot inspiration from Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic DIABOLIQUE from 1955 it looked unlike anything seen on American TV up to that point. Coming across as a disjointed nightmare brought to life, its filled with beautifully atmospheric photography by Conrad Hall, a creepy score by series composer & co-producer Dominic Frontiere (later used in THE INVADERS) and disorienting obtuse compositions by director Gerd Oswald. Containing excellent performances by Vera Miles (it what might be her best role), David McCallum, the wonderful & sadly under appreciated Barbara Rush and it what would be his final role Sir Cedric Hardwicke it stands as one of the highlights of fantastic television.
      A Rolls Royce speeds through the countryside (with a road sign indicating France) and at the wheel is the sadistic Andre (Scott Marlow THE COOL AND THE CRAZY) accompanied by his two mistresses the stronger and more domineering Kassia (Vera Miles PSYCHO) along with the more fragile Leonora (Barbara Rush IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE). After announcing they are going to Lenora's father in order to blackmail him Andre stops the car and stripping down to swim trunks wades out into a pond. Shot in deep focus with a Vaseline smeared lens in one of the more weirdly erotic scenes ever seen on TV he forces the two women to wade out to him fully clothed in order to serve him a martini.




    The women however have slipped a leaf from "the highly toxic Thanatos tree" in his drink and watch silently as he gasps for breath and dies in the water. Stuffing his corpse in the trunk of the Rolls they head to look for a spot to bury when they become lost in thunderstorm and take refuge at a lonely country estate inhabited by only two people. Greeted at the door by a blind servant Colas (Sir Cedric Hardwicke THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN) they're introduced to the presumed master of the house Tone Hobart (David McCallum THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.).
    Hobart reveals that he's created a "time tilting" device that allows the dead to be brought back to life. Contained in an upstairs room down at the end of long forced perspective hallway lit by a single row of bare bulbs it consists of hundreds of different clocks all connected by fine steel wire to a central pillar. Leaving the house in order to bury Andre's body Kassia discovers the corpse missing from the trunk and its shown that Tone has procured it and taken up to his device.




   Consisting of fractured story line which leaves many gaping holes in the narrative (which might be the result of the re-editing from the episodes original form) with both characters and plot points that aren't what they first appear to be (especially in the case of the relationship between Tone & Colas), it could be said that the entire thing is just a visual piece of style over substance. It's interesting how it looks forward to both the look and nonsensical plots of the then burgeoning genre of Euro-horror and remains a fascinating if flawed early example of pushing the boundaries of TV. There's an underlying sense of eroticism running through the plot (that Stefano's script does a wonderful job of keeping just under the radar) that starts the broadly hinted at ménage à trois relationship between Andre, Kassia and Leonora that continues with the tension between the more domineering Kassia and the submissive Leonora.
   McCallum who earlier had appeared in the classic episode THE SIXTH FINGER where he played a simple Welsh coal miner who as result of genetic experiments is thrust 1,000,000 years ahead in the evolutionary scale here brings as almost child like open eyed wonder to his role along with sad ruefulness to what he's created. A criminally under rated actresses, Barbara Rush does her best here with a weak role as all she does is constantly scream and jump at the slightest movements and her character is the weakest link in the plot.