SF & Fantasy films

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE INVISIBLE RAY. Universal Pictures, 1936. [Boris] Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Violet Kemble Cooper, Walter Kingsford, Beulah Bondi. Director: Lambert Hillyer.

   The Invisible Ray is a science fiction/horror film starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as rival scientists. To no one’s surprise, Karloff’s the completely mad one and he’s out for revenge.

   And when it comes to B-film genre film tropes, this one’s got even more than just a mad scientist. It’s got forbidden love, cosmic rays from beyond space and time, a Carpathian castle, African tribesmen, a blind old woman, a Parisian Gothic setting, betrayal, revenge, and murder. All in less than ninety minutes. Did I mention it’s one the strangest films I’ve ever seen?

   Karloff portrays Dr. Janos Rukh, a creepy looking scientist who lives in his Carpathian home/laboratory with his blind mother (Violet Kemble-Cooper). Rukh has invented a telescope that allows him to see so far into space that he can see Earth’s ancient past.

   And one of the things he sees is pretty amazing – a meteor that crashed into Africa some millions of years ago. So Rukh, along with his wife Diana (Frances Drake), rival scientist Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi), Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton), Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford) and his wife, Lady Arabella Stevens (Beulah Bondi), head out to Africa to find the giant rock and to do some experiments.

   Or something. It’s not exactly clear.

   What is clear, however, is that Rukh finds the meteor remnants and becomes poisoned by them. He calls his discovery Radium X because the meteor is an element out of this world! He ends up glowing in the dark and develops the ability to kill people with his touch. (Just go with it.) Benet (Lugosi) gives Rukh an antidote and they’re off back to Europe.

   But what happens in Africa doesn’t always stay in Africa. Rukh’s wife Diana has fallen in love with one of the expedition members, the boyish Drake. So Rukh stalks around in the Parisian fog and kills some poor sap that happens to look like him (although he really doesn’t) and fakes his own death, allowing his wife to marry Drake. Then he goes on a killing-and-revenge spree. The Stevens couple and Benet are the first to go. Rukh also uses an invisible ray, powered by Radium X, to destroy sculptures.

   If it all sounds both convoluted and ridiculous, that’s because it is. The movie tries to pack in tons of science fiction concepts into one movie, making it feel as if it’s really about four different short films in one tidy Karloff and Lugosi package.

   But that’s not to say that it’s not entertaining, because in a way it is. It’s just not one of Karloff’s, or Lugosi’s, best movies. Not by a long shot. But if you happen to watch The Invisible Ray with no expectations, preferably after midnight, you might just find yourself relishing the utter ridiculousness of it all.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE GIANT CLAW. Columbia Pictures, 1957. Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, Louis Merrill, Edgar Barrier, Robert Shayne. Director: Fred F. Sears.

   It’s not everyday that a hideously looking giant bird from outer space soars through American airspace. Even less frequent, I would guess, would that bird have some form of protective anti-matter barrier allowing it to escape detection by radar.

   But that’s the exactly the case in the Sam Katzman-produced, The Giant Claw, a schlocky creature feature that manages to be silly, enjoyable, predictable, and just a little bit subversive.

   Directed by Fred F. Sears, the story follows Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow) and his mathematician girl friend, Sally Caldwell (Mara Corday), as they alternatively butt heads and team up with the U.S. military in an effort to destroy an extraterrestrial flying bird creature that threatens humanity. It’s obviously not a serious movie, but the two lead actors, to their credit, take their parts seriously enough to make it work.

   As far as the creature, it’s indeed a strange looking thing, with bulging eyes and yes, a giant claw. Plus, it’s got an unusual hairstyle that looks more East Village in the 1980s than monster movie in the 1950s.

The bird’s tenacious, though. It’s immune to both conventional and atomic weapons and has little to no patience for rebellious teenagers. And it may have even seen King Kong, given its decision to perch on top of the Empire State Building at one point during the film.

   If you think about it a bit, you come to realize that the film takes a slightly subversive approach to the military brass, which comes across as all too eager to initially disbelieve reports of the bird creature’s existence, then make its very existence classified once they realize that the reports were indeed true. In addition, they come across more than eager to utilize weapons to destroy it. It’s a theme that certainly not unique to The Giant Claw, but one which is fairly well developed for a late 1950s film.

   I wouldn’t dare call The Giant Claw a great movie. In fact, it’s not really even a good movie in the traditional sense. But it’s got something really good going for it — it’s undeniably great escapism, made to entertain rather than to enlighten.

THE CYCLOPS. Allied Artists, 1957. James Craig, Gloria Talbott, Lon Chaney, Tom Drake, Duncan Parkin. Screenwriter-director: Bert I. Gordon.

   There is some suspense in this rather mediocre sci-fi movie, but not more than you would want to pay more than a quarter for, as you might have, if you were a kid back in 1957.

   It begins with three men and a girl (Gloria Talbott) trying to locate the girl’s fiance,or his body, whose plane went down in a mountainous area of Mexico three years ago, an area so forbidding they are, well, forbidden by local authorities to travel there. Of course, they do so anyway, landing safely (barely) in a small plane built for four.

   Turns out that one of the men (a rather dissipated-looking Lon Chaney), who has financed the venture, has an ulterior motive: uranium, and it turns out that the valley where they’ve landed is loaded with the stuff. It also turns out that the valley is chock full of giant beasts. Connect the two facts, and I think you can figure out where this is going right away, but it takes our four adventurers a while. It has to, or else they’d get right back in the plane and get the heck out of there.

   They don’t but they soon wish they had. The special effects are awful quite primitive, and the giant guy with one eye is really hokey ugly. The fact that Gloria Talbott is rather fetching, even in coveralls, does not make up for a really inferior work of art on the monster’s makeup job.

   The movie, while still mildly entertaining today, was really made for someone who was maybe nine or ten in 1957. Or to be honest, for someone who was nine or ten in 1957 and for whom the nostalgia factor is greater than the judgement of someone seeing it now for the very first time.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER. American International, 1960. Robert Clarke, Arianne Arden, Vladimir Sokoloff, Stephen Bekassy, John Van Dreelen, Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan, Darlene Tompkins. Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

   Beyond the Time Barrier is a low budget science fiction film directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, whose The Amazing Transparent Man I reviewed here. Filmed over a ten days in Dallas at the same time as that rather disappointing film about an invisible bank thief, Beyond The Time Barrier follows U.S. Air Force pilot, Major William Allison (Robert Clarke, who also produced the film) who, after inadvertently breaking the time barrier in his planet, jettisons forward to the year 2024.

   As it happens, the society Major Allison encounters is a dystopian one. After landing his plane, he is captured by agents from a city-state called The Citadel. Within its walls are dying remnants of human civilization ravaged by a plague that began in 1971. There are also mutants, but they are far less threatening than the ones in the movie, The Time Travelers, which I reviewed here.

   The leader of The Citadel, Supreme, (Vladimir Sokoloff), and his henchman, Captain (Red Morgan), are less than pleased with Allison’s arrival. Fortunately, Supreme’s lovely granddaughter, the mute telepath, Trirene (Darlene Tompkins), has romantic feelings toward the good major and, in any case, she can read his mind and thinks he’s not such a bad guy after all. There’s a budding relationship between these two, but one that never ends up going anywhere. It’s too bad, especially since we learn that Trirene is the only one left alive who isn’t sterile.

   The main focus of the film is Major Allison’s quest to find a way to get back to the past, possibly to prevent the future from happening. Aiding him in his endeavor are some Russians from the past who also ended up at The Citadel.

   Unfortunately, the film really doesn’t really take the paradoxes of time travel that seriously, making significantly less impressive than it could have been. That said, the ending does demonstrate that the filmmakers understood at least one potential aspect of time travel. There’s also a message about the dangers of atomic testing.

   It’s not the standard science fiction B-film plot, nor the somewhat mediocre acting, however, that makes Beyond The Time Barrier worth watching.

   Rather, it’s Ulmer’s direction, notably his exceptional use of geometry that makes it worth consideration. Triangles and pyramids are omnipresent in The Citadel. Spheres, both black and white, are also prominently displayed in different locales within the dystopian city-state.

   This use of geometry as a replacement for big budget special effects really does pay off. Look for the scene in which Trirene (Tompkins) looks at her reflection in a triangular mirror. It’s not exactly on the same level as the role of mirrors and reflections in Gothic horror films or in films noir, but it’s nevertheless very creative.

   In conclusion, Beyond The Time Barrier is a significantly better movie than the disappointing The Amazing Transparent Man. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a great film, it’s a perfectly watchable one.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN. American International, 1960. Marguerite Chapman, Douglas Kennedy, James Griffith, Ivan Triesault, Red Morgan, Cormel Daniel. Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

   The Amazing Transparent Man is a low budget science-fiction film directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. As you might expect, there’s an evil villain with a dim henchman, a semi-mad scientist, and a guy and a gal caught up in the whole mix. Not to mention an uncredited guinea pig with the privilege of being made invisible first.

   Although The Amazing Transparent Man is not a particularly good film, it undeniably has its moments and low budget charms. While the acting is overall unmemorable, the special effects are actually fairly decent and the cinematography is quite good, particularly for an early 1960s science fiction B-film. The film’s music by Darrell Caluker, especially the eerie sequence during the opening credits, isn’t bad, either. In fact, it’s pretty haunting and worth listening to, even if you don’t make it through the rest of the movie.

   The plot is fairly straightforward, although awfully bleak if you actually stop and think about it. Bank robber Joey Faust (a mean-looking Douglas Kennedy) breaks out of prison and is picked up in a car by Laura Matson (Marguerite Chapman). She drives him to the home of Major Paul Krenner (James Griffith), who is holding German émigré scientist, Dr. Peter Ulof (Ivan Triesault) and his daughter hostage. Ulof mentions to Faust that the Nazis forced him to perform experiments in concentration camps, including unbeknownst to him, on his then wife. It’s all sorts of depressing.

   Krenner has been forcing Ulof to experiment with nuclear materials, with the ultimate aim of creating an army of invisible soldiers. It’s a plan that strains credulity, even for a science fiction film. The major’s plan is to have Matson and his henchman, Julian (Red Morgan) hold the fugitive Faust hostage, turn him invisible, and have him steal more nuclear material from a tightly guarded facility nearby.

   But the scheming Faust has other ideas. He realizes that invisibility has its advantages in the high-risk profession of bank robbery, and he convinces Matson to drive him into town for a heist. Problem is: the nuclear material providing him his new power was unstable, leading Faust to fade in and out of visibility, allowing bank employees to identity him. Faust and Matson then flee back to Krenner’s house in the country, where Faust and Krenner fight.

   Then all of a sudden, the whole place blows up in an atomic cloud, leaving you not feeling particularly sorry for anyone but the guinea pig. Dr. Ulof survives, but it doesn’t much matter since he’s dying of radiation poisoning. It’s an ending that I certainly didn’t expect , and it made the whole mediocre affair a much darker film than many other movies of its kind.

   In conclusion, Joey Faust is one mighty doomed protagonist. Looks like the tough guy would have been better off staying in the big house after all. But then again, there wouldn’t have been any movie had he done so.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE TIME TRAVELERS. American International, 1964. Preston Foster, Philip Carey, Merry Anders, John Hoyt, Dennis Patrick, Joan Woodbury, Delores Wells, Steve Franken, Berry Kroeger. Screenwriter/director: Ib Melchior.

   The Time Travelers is a science fiction B-movie starring an assortment of character actors who were likely familiar to movie audiences at the time of its initial release, but who are less well remembered today.

   Although considerably dated in many ways, The Time Travelers remains a fun, albeit somewhat campy, low budget film about the possibilities and hazards of time travel. The film likewise provides a glimpse into an era before television shows such as Star Trek and Doctor Who brought these concepts to a wider audience.

   It begins with two scientists, a Teutonic-looking Dr. Erik von Steiner (Preston Foster) and Dr. Steve Connors (Philip Carey), along with their blonde female assistant, Carol White (Merry Anders), working in a Los Angeles university laboratory. What separates their workspace from others like it is a large window on the far end of the room. This window is designed to be the means by which the scientists, should their experiment work, can observe the future.

   Along comes a goofy technician named Danny McKee (Steve Franken, cousin to U.S. Senator Al Franken), who tells the scientists to end their experiment.

   It’s all too little, too late, of course. Something goes wrong. The group inadvertently creates not just a window, but also a portal, to the future. 2071 A.D., to be exact. (107 years forward from 1964). Suffice it to say, the future looks bleak. That, of course, doesn’t stop McKee from jumping through the portal into the foreboding landscape. The other three follow.

   Earth 2071 A.D. isn’t a particularly nice place to live. That’s the understatement of the year. A nuclear war has decimated the planet, leaving horrifying, mutant humanoids at ground level and a very small number of normal humans dwelling below ground.

   The underground human survivors are led by Dr. Varno, portrayed by John Hoyt wearing what appears to be a light blue jump suit of some sort. The colorful costumes, it should be noted, are just one of many aspects that make the film very much a product of the mid-1960s.

   In any case, Varno, along with the other survivors and an extremely creepy array of androids, are working on a plan to fly a spaceship to Alpha Centauri so as to build New Earth. Naturally, they plan to be in a state of suspended animation along the way. (It’s a long trip, after all.) Initially, the plan is for the stranded time travelers to accompany the survivors out beyond the stars.

   But, alas, that is not to be. A malicious politician, Councilman Willard (Dennis Patrick), ends that idea, forcing the four time travelers to rebuild their time machine. After a genuinely unsettling fight scene between mutants and androids, the four time travelers, along with Varno and others, end up returning to 1960s California, only to experience one of the paradoxes of time travel.

   It’s actually a clever little twist ending, one that I admittedly didn’t see coming. More significantly, it demonstrates that the filmmakers took science fiction tropes seriously. More to that point: well-known sci-fi guru Forrest J Ackerman makes a very brief cameo appearance.

   The Time Travelers may neither be a classic, nor a great film. But it’s far better than many other low budget science fiction of its time and significantly better than a lot of the science fiction cinema out there today. The movie definitely has its moments, such as when Dr. Varno states: “Time, itself, is an anachronism.”

   Silly at times, it’s worth watching, provided you know full well that you’re watching a B-movie designed to entertain rather than to provoke serious reflection and debate.

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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