Horror movies


THE MIGHTY GORGA. American General Pictures, 1969. Starring Anthony Eisley, Megan Timothy, Scott Brady and Bruce Kimball. Written and directed by David L. Hewitt.

   Required viewing for bad movie buffs, this ranks right up there with Mesa of Lost Women and Robot Monster. Unlike those alternative classics, Mighty Gorga is in color, but that doesn’t help much — you can still see it.

   Anthony Eisley, once a star on network TV (Hawaiian Eye) stars as a circus owner fallen on hard times (not unlike the actor himself) who journeys to Africa in search of Great White Hunter Tonga Jack Adams, who can lead him to a legendary-jungle-monster-cum-boffo-box-office-attraction. Africa in this case appears to be the woods behind somebody’s back yard and the familiar landscape of Bronson Canyon, the perennial location of B westerns, here augmented by the sounds of jungle wildlife on the soundtrack: exotic birds (Bop-ooop-ooop-whaah-whaah-whaah!) lions and elephants, never seen but gamely referred to by the assorted players looking off-screen.

   It turns out Great White Hunter Tonga Jack Adams has been missing since the last safari; not to fear, though: his comely daughter (Megan Timothy) is running things in his absence, despite sabotage from a competing Great White Hunter, played by Scott Brady. Driven to desperate measures, Tony and Megan trek off into the ersatz jungle, guided by Tonga Jack’s treasure map.

   (Incidentally, Brady’s sabotage consists of setting fire to April’s animal compound, which might have been more convincing had the scenes matched up: he sets his fire at night and the characters react to it in the daytime — just a hint of things to come.)

   Writer/Director Hewitt ratchets up the tension (?) by cutting away frequently to scenes of the giant ape Gorga plodding amok through the jungle (?) terrorizing a native village that seems to be built of bamboo screens and 4’ x 8” plywood sheets, and it’s fitting to put in a word here about the monster: The Mighty Gorga is played mostly by someone in the top half of a really bad gorilla suit, with immobile features and cute button eyes. I say “top half” because we only get to see The Mighty G from the waist up, photographed from low-angles with bushes (standing in for tree-tops) in the foreground to attempt the illusion of height. Nice try.

   Anyway, our trepid explorers finally meet up with Mister G just in time to see him fight a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a burst of truly deplorable special effects. The T-Rex is represented by a plastic toy resembling a Pez Head, and for the fight scenes The Mighty Gorga is played by a hand puppet (his stunt double?) and his only visible wound is to get a splinter in his finger, which is removed by our plucky heroine, thus earning the monster’s undying gratitude, and there’s a lesson here for all of us, if we only look for it.

   Well, I know you’re all anxious to hear how this all comes out for yourselves, and I won’t spoil the ending for you except to say that Great White Hunter Tonga Jack is reunited with his daughter, they find the lost treasure (which looks like stuff from the clearance bin in the “Everything-for-a-Dollar” store) romance blossoms, the volcano explodes and—damn, I gave away the ending, didn’t I? Oh well, these reviews can’t all be gems of critical insight.

   But to conclude on a cheerier note, I should add that the acting in The Mighty Gorga is mostly better than you’d expect. Anthony Eisley, Kent Taylor and Scott Brady had all seen palmier days, but they trudge through this with admirable resolve and not a hint of embarrassment.

   Megan Timothy, who mostly appeared in Russ Meyer films, does the heroine duties capably, and really the only thespic disappointment is Bruce Kimball (star of several 60s skin-flicks) as the Native Medicine Man; decked out in a sarong and Cleopatra wig, he spends the movie summoning the monster with enthusiasm, but seems unable to get the New Yawk out of his voice, resulting in lines like: “Oh, Mighty Gawga, de infidels have come ta steal yoah treashah!” Immortal stuff for fans of bad filmmaking.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

MAN MADE MONSTER. Universal, 1941. Lionel Atwill, Lon Chaney Jr., Anne Nagel, Frank Albertson, Samuel S. Hinds. Director: George Waggner.

   In the same year that he took on the role of the hapless Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941), Lon Chaney Jr. portrayed Dan McCormick, also a doomed protagonist, in the quasi-Gothic horror film, Man Made Monster. Both movies form part of Universal Studio’s timeless horror canon. George Waggner, who also produced the 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera, directed both films, which were released just months apart.

   Man Made Monster and The Wolf Man explore similar themes. A man transformed by powers beyond his control into something hideously monstrous, the duality of good and evil in every man, unrequited love, and the contrast between the pre-modern period of castles, horse-drawn carriages, superstition, and the modern era of automobiles, electricity, and science.

   That said, Man Made Monster is more of a Frankenstein-inspired mad doctor film than a supernatural creature film. Case in point: veteran horror film actor Lionel Atwill is cast as Dr. Paul Rigas, a conniving and creepy scientist who transforms the cringe worthy naïve Dan (Chaney) into an electro-biological murdering fiend. To no one’s likely surprise, Dr. Rigas’s creation develops a mind of his own and eventually ends the evil doctor’s time on Earth.

   Lon Chaney is actually quite good in this film, although not nearly as good as he would be in his skillful portrayal of Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. In Man Made Monster, his character, Dan McCormick, is a carnival entertainer who does tricks with electricity. Soon after the film begins, we see a bus crashing into a power line.

   As it turns out, Dan is the only one to have survived the horrific incident. Apparently, he has built up some sort of immunity to electricity. But he doesn’t really know what the word “immunity” means, leaving us to believe that the guy’s just not all that bright.

   Still, he’s willing to go visit Dr. John Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds) at his laboratory and to take part in some experiments to try to figure out how he survived what should have been a fatal electrocution. I should mention that Dr. Lawrence houses his lab in an estate complex known as The Moors and that Lionell Atwill’s character is a worker in the lab. Once we see him, we all but know Dan’s fate is sealed.

   Early on during his sojourn at The Moors, however, everything seems to be going okay for Dan. He’s living at this somewhat Gothic estate, playing with the Lawrence family dog, and flirting unsuccessfully with Lawrence’s niece/secretary, June (Anne Nagel). Without much success, because she’s otherwise occupied with her emerging love interest, newspaperman Mark Adams (Frank Albertson).

   Soon enough, though, Dr. Rigas demonstrates that he has his own wicked plans for Dan. With Lawrence out of town, Dr. Rigas (Atwill) conducts a series of bizarre experiments on the hapless Dan, transforming him into an electro-biological man-creature hybrid that needs constant bolts of electricity to survive. Rigas wants to create a race of electrically powered men who will be enslaved to men with superior intellects. Men like him. Or something.

   Altogether, Man Made Monster is a well-paced, solid horror movie. It’s not a classic, but it’s quite good. Chaney had some duds in his later years, but in this short little film, he really shows how talented an actor he can be. Watch for the scenes in which his character repeatedly drones the following three words: “I killed him.” The lines are chilling and Chaney delivers them well.

   Also worth looking for is the penultimate scene in which the family dog attempts to revive a dying, or dead, Dan McCormick (Chaney). It’s actually pretty heartbreaking, if you really stop to think about it. In many ways, it’s indicative of what this film’s really about: a scientist with an outsized ego preying upon a simple, cheerful man, dooming them both.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES. American International, 1971. Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Hugh Griffith, Terry-Thomas, Virginia North, Peter Jeffrey. Director: Robert Fuest.

   The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a movie that defies easy categorization. A horror film with strong comedic elements, it manages to be satirical, surreal, disturbing, a murder mystery, and and a Gothic love story all within its running time of slightly over ninety minutes. With lavish art deco settings, a soundtrack consisting of music from the 1920s, and some genuinely disconcerting moments of visual horror, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a film, love it or hate it, that you won’t soon forget.

   Veteran horror actor Vincent Price stars as the title character, a hideously disfigured doctor/organ pianist living in an old English manor with an art deco interior. He’s seeking revenge against the nine physicians he holds responsible for his wife’s death on the operating table. Caroline Munro, in an uncredited role, portrays Phibes’s deceased wife.

   But the doctor isn’t about to commit murder by any ordinary method. No, he’ll have none of that. Rather, he decides to use the Biblical plagues as his guide. So there’s death by bats, frogs, locusts. You get the picture. Aiding him in his diabolical quest for revenge is his beautiful but mute female assistant, Vulnavia (Virginia North) who appears in a series of both stunning, and stunningly odd, outfits throughout the film.

   As the bodies of physicians pile up, the quasi-bumbling Inspector Harry Trout (Peter Jeffrey) takes the lead on the case. Trout, who is occasionally called “Pike” by his boss (got to love fish humor!), is well meaning, but is consistently late to the scene of the crime.

   Trout teams up with the lead physician on the deceased Mrs. Phibes’s case, Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), to solve the murder mystery and to catch Dr. Phibes. It’s feared that Cotten, or at least his firstborn son, is an eventual target.

   It’s all good fun, with lots of dark, understated humor. There’s death by golden unicorn impaling, a bizarrely enchanting dance scene with Price and North, and so much more. It’s all quite difficult to describe, but suffice it to say, Price is simply magnificent in his portrayal of one of the strangest villains ever. He’s creepy, campy, devious, and satirical. That said, if you don’t particularly care for Price, you probably ought to skip this movie.

   Similarly, if you try to take The Abominable Dr. Phibes too seriously, you won’t enjoy it. But if you want something that’s both offbeat and memorable, watch this film late at night, the later the better. They don’t make movies like this much anymore, horror films that are also intelligent comedies. And that’s pretty frightful.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN. United Artists, 1956. Guy Madison, Patricia Medina, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro, Pascual García Peña, Eduardo Noriega, Julio Villarreal, Lupe Carriles. Directors: Edward Nassour & Ismael Rodríguez.

   Imagine you’re watching an average B-Western about a goodhearted rancher from Texas in both a business and romantic rivalry with a mean-spirited rancher from Mexico. The movie is in color; the acting by Guy Madison and Patricia Medina isn’t all that bad; and the foreboding Mexican landscape is well integrated into the storyline.

   So you keep watching. Somewhat entertained, somewhat bored, and now and again remembering the film was billed as a creature feature. Then nearly an hour into the film, a giant, deeply angry stop-motion T-Rex (a fairly impressive special effects achievement considering the film is from 1956) makes its way out of the local swamp and wreaks all sorts of havoc on cows and humans alike.

   That’s The Beast of Hollow Mountain for you. Based on a story idea by King Kong special effects innovator, Willis O’Brien, it’s all good fun. While not a particularly great film, the mid-fifties movie is actually quite entertaining provided you go into it with the right mindset.

   The last twenty minutes or so, when the T. Rex finally emerges from its mountain hideaway, make up for the fact that you had to wait an entire hour to see the creature. This too long a delay really does make the film significantly less compelling than it could have been.

   But getting back to the dinosaur. What a creature! The giant feet making an impression in the mud, the giant teeth and red tongue, and eyes that convey anger. It’s a far more impressive movie dinosaur than the one that appeared in The Giant Behemoth, which I reviewed here. That said, at least in that particular film, we actually got an impressive political backstory as to why the dinosaur decided to stomp all over London. In The Beast of Hollow Mountain, all we really know is that local legend held that there is a – you guessed it, a monster – in the mountain.

   There are some fairly harrowing moments, such as when the dinosaur claws at — and peers into — the roof of a shack where two would-be victims are cowering, and when protagonist Jimmy Ryan (Madison) swings back and forth on a rope hanging from a limb of a tree, luring the dim-witted dinosaur to its swampy doom. And listen for the birdsongs. Whether they were deliberately recorded or whether they were merely picked up during filming doesn’t much matter. They really help establish an atmospheric setting for the world’s first, and dare I say, preeminent, dinosaur western film.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. Universal Pictures, 1943. Ilona Massey, Patric Knowles, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, Dennis Hoey, Lon Chaney Jr. Screenplay: Curt Siodmak. Director: Roy William Neill.

   Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man is a horror film starring Lon Chaney Jr. In this quixotic production, Chaney reprises his role as Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man, the eponymous character of Curt Siodmak’s 1941 horror classic about a man who, against his own volition, turns into a werewolf during the full moon.

   Along for the ride through this fairy tale land are Iloney Massey as Baroness Elsa Frankenstein, Patric Knowles as Dr. Frank Mannering, Talbot’s physician, and Bela Lugosi as a rather underwhelming Frankenstein Monster. Saving the film from its preposterous premise, encapsulated so clearly in the film’s title, is the skillful direction of Roy William Neill. (I reviewed Neill’s Gothic masterpiece, The Black Room starring Boris Karloff, here).

   The plot is basic enough. Grave robbers come across the Talbot tomb in a very eerie looking cemetery somewhat reminiscent of the one seen in the beginning of Lew Landers’s The Return of the Vampire (reviewed here). Their attempt to rob the family tomb is thwarted by Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man who turns out not to be so dead after all.

   Ever since he was initially bitten by a werewolf and transformed into one himself, Larry simply cannot die. He kills at night during the full moon and he hates himself for it. He simply wants to die. Indeed, that’s what takes up the majority of the film’s time — seeing a somewhat pathetic and moping Chaney/Talbot wonder around from place to place trying to find someone who will help him end his cursed existence. One person he seeks out is the elderly, mysterious Gypsy woman, Maleva, portrayed by the Russian actress, Maria Ouspenskaya, who had the same role in Siodmak’s The Wolf Man.

   Talbot and Maleva make their way through central Europe where Talbot encounters Baroness Frankenstein (Massey) and urges her to turn over her father’s records. He wants to learn how her father’s experiments might help him die. Talbot also inadvertently discovers an iced over Frankenstein Monster (Lugosi) and releases him from his frozen tomb. One really has to suspend disbelief to make it through this part of the film.

   Soon, Dr. Mannering (Knowles), who was Talbot’s physician earlier in the movie, shows up and decides that he’s going to become a mad doctor. He ends up both strengthening the Frankenstein Monster and, with the assistance of a full moon, turning Talbot into a werewolf on the same night.

   Finally, the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man go at it, fighting as monsters do. It’s actually a fun little sequence with memorable camera angles and a visually stunning Gothic laboratory setting. But the monster versus monster fight doesn’t last long. One of the townspeople, against the advice of the mayor (Lionel Atwill), decides he’s going to sabotage the Frankenstein Castle and kill the monsters.

   When the movie ends — too abruptly, it should be noted — it would seem as if both the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man have been laid to rest. (The 1944 sequel, House of Frankenstein, reviewed here by Dan Stumpf and by Walter Albert here, will demonstrate that this was not the case).

   While Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man isn’t a particularly good horror film, it’s actually a fairly decent monster movie. True: Chaney’s character really doesn’t do much but whine and beg people to help him die. And Lugosi is not Karloff. But Roy William Neill’s direction makes the film an enjoyable, if admittedly mindless, viewing experience. Quirky camera angles, great settings, and skillful uses of shadow and lighting make this transparent effort by the studio to capitalize on the successes of both Frankenstein (1931) and The Wolf Man significantly better than it could have been in a far less capable director’s hands.

  HORROR EXPRESS. Benmar Productions/Granada Films, 1972. A Spanish/British production; released in Spain as Pánico en el Transiberiano. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Telly Savalas, Julio Peña, Silvia Tortosa, Ángel del Pozo, Helga Liné, Alice Reinheart. Director: Eugenio Martín.

    “The following report to the Royal Geological Society by the undersigned, Alexander Saxton, is a true and faithful account of the events that befell the society’s expedition in Manchuria. As the leader of the expedition, I must accept the responsibility for its ending in disaster. But I will leave, to the judgement of the honorable members, the decision as to where the blame for the catastrophe lies…”

   I’m sure I’m not the only one, but I love movies that take place on trains, and all but one half of one percent of this one does, so what does that tell you? And any movie with both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in it has got to be worth watching, and doubly so when they’re on the same side — well, friendly rivals, I would say.

   Christopher Lee plays Professor Saxon, a British anthropologist, on board the Trans-Siberian Express from China to Moscow, along with the frozen body of a monstrous-looking humanoid discovered in a remote Manchurian cave (as if remote and Manchurian never appeared in the same sentence before). A colleague, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing) is also on board, but only fortuitously so.

   Or even luckily so. Both men are needed, as it so happens, since the creature in its sealed crate must be responsible for the series of mysterious deaths that quickly ensue — but how? — even before the train starts off on its long trek through the isolated snow-covered Siberian wasteland — the eyes of the victims sucked purely white, their brains wiped clean, as smooth as a baby’s bottom. (We get to view the makeshift autopsy on the moving train.)

   There is an explanation, a science-fictional one, but the real fun is watching a pair of true professionals (Lee and Cushing) enjoy themselves immensely, or so they make us believe. (Cushing’s wife had died just before filming began, and he nearly backed out of his role.) As for Telly Savalas, as a loudly flamboyant Cossack officer (to put it mildly), the less said the better, at least by me.

NOTE:   The video link above is of the final four or five minutes only. To see the movie in its entirety, go here.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH. Allied Artists Pictures, 1959. Gene Evans, André Morell, John Turner, Leigh Madison, Jack MacGowran, Maurice Kaufmann, Henri Vidon. Directors: Douglas Hickox & Eugène Lourié.

   The Giant Behemoth is an America-British science fiction/horror film starring Gene Evans (who appeared in several Samuel Fuller films and in Richard Fleischer’s Armored Car Robbery, which I reviewed here) and André Morrell (Quatermass and the Pit).

   The two actors portray scientists tasked with stopping a giant radioactive dinosaur from reeking havoc on England. Think Godzilla transported to Cornwall and London and you’ll have a pretty good idea what this film is all about.

   That’s not to say it’s simply a throwaway creature feature with amateurish acting and even worse special effects. It’s not. Ukrainian-born director Eugène Lourié, who had worked as a production/set designer for such directors as Jean Renoir, Max Ophüls, and Samuel Fuller, clearly put care into the project. Indeed, while no cinematic masterpiece or a classic worthy of academic scholarship, The Giant Behemoth is actually a solid 1950s sci-fi film, one that showcases the fact that worries about the effects of atomic testing were hardly limited to Japan.

   The plot is about as straightforward as you would expect. Dead radioactive fish wash up on the Cornwall beach and American marine biologist Steve Karnes (Evans) is on the case. He partners up with British scientist, Professor James Bickford (Morell) to figure out what is going on.

   It turns out there’s a giant Paleosaurus on the loose. Oh, and it’s radioactive too. (And why wouldn’t it be?) The two men work with the British military to stop the behemoth, but not before the growling giant lizard stomps around London a bit, wrecking a power station and picking up a car and dumping it in the Thames.

   The film can definitely feel dated at times. It takes suspension of disbelief to fully appreciate the film for what it is, namely a better than average monster movie. The movie neither goes for cheap thrills, nor demonstrates implicit contempt for its audience. Slow moving at times, The Giant Behemoth admirably avoids the stilted, laughably amateurish acting that plagued too many of the creature features of that era. Both Evans and Morell appear to take their roles seriously. The story’s not much, but then again it doesn’t need to be.

   By far, the weakest aspect of the film is that it’s so obviously a knockoff or, if one is feeling charitable, an homage, to Godzilla. And as in the original Japanese version, we don’t see much of the creature for the first thirty minutes or so. It’s in the ocean somewhere doing whatever dying radioactive dinosaurs do. We’re supposedly just waiting in suspense for the guy to show up. Problem is: in The Giant Behemoth, the oversized angry dinosaur takes a bit too long to appear on the screen in its full glory.

   The movie does, however, succeed in having some great moments. While the special effects are, in many ways, completely antiquated, there are a couple of scenes in which the dinosaur is lurking about London that just look just fabulous in crisp black and white. I’ll take those over most lavish and expensive computer graphics any day.

   I wouldn’t call The Giant Behemoth a great film by any stretch of the imagination. But, provided you know what you’re getting yourself into, that doesn’t stop it from being a surprisingly enjoyable one.

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