Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Morrow’

John Sherwood’s 1956 film The Creature Walks Among Us doesn’t get off to a very promising start, as we meet insanely wealthy, and likely just insane doctor William Barton (Jeff Morrow) and his wife Marcia (Marilyn lookalike Leigh Snowden), whom you just know is going to turn out to be trouble. They are driving to his boat, berthed in Florida, where a gaggle of interdisciplinary boffins have been assembled for a very special, and somewhat nutty mission: they are going to hunt down and capture the gill-man, still on the run (if that’s the right expression – possibly ‘on the splosh’ would be better) despite being shot at the end of Revenge of the Creature. It’s all a bit flat and on the nose.

Sherwood worked on the two previous gill-man films as assistant director, but you really do miss the presence of Jack Arnold, who had been promoted to more prestigious projects by this point (it is, perhaps, significant that none of these ‘prestigious’ movies has anything like the reputation of his SF and horror work). You can’t help thinking that he would have found a way to lift the film out of the rather pedestrian furrow it pursues, for most of its first half at least. We get to know various scientists on the team, most of whom are quite dull, learn that the relationship between the Bartons is strained on account of his jealous nature, get suggestions that one of the team may have designs on Marcia, and so on.

Finally, and we must be about half-way through the film’s allotted 77 minutes at this point – the pacing is really shocking – the hunt for the gill-man bears fruit as the boffins contend with the creature in the Florida swamps. Someone chucks kerosene over the gill-man and it does seem to be a combination of third-degree burns and chemical tranquiliser which overcomes the proud but ornery beastie. As usual, he is dragged off to be examined, poked, and prodded.

The Creature Walks Among Us probably isn’t quite as good even as its immediate forebear, but it does have one curious idea to offer, which enters the narrative at this point. The gill-man’s, er, gills have been badly damaged when he was set on fire, but a medical examination reveals he does have lungs as well, he just needs encouragement to use them. And so, using the kind of complex scientific procedure known only to mad boffins in 50s SF B-movies, the gill-man is surgically converted from an aquatic denizen of the deep to a land animal. As a result of this, the creature’s whole physiognomy begins to change, losing much of his fish-like appearance and becoming rather more human. He also seems to have been put on a strict diet of those protein shakes gym bunnies live on, as he bulks up like you wouldn’t believe – the original incarnation of the creature had a rather sinous, sinewy appearance, whereas this mutated version is just a hulking tank of a monster. The scientists decide that the now more human creature will need clothes, so he spends the second half of the film wandering around in what look rather like medical scrubs.

Quite what the thinking was behind this transformation in the monster, I really don’t know – it doesn’t really have a material impact on the plot of the film. Perhaps the original gill-man suit was falling to bits after two movies, and the revised costume was cheaper to fabricate. What it does make for is an evem greater sense of the gill-man as a victim of human cruelty and callousness – never mind being stuck in a tank and then poked with a cattle-prod, in this film the poor old gill-man even loses his gills! What is a gill-man without his gills, I ask you? Perhaps he’s just a man. Perhaps that is the point after all.

Certainly the more humanised creature is a rather more subdued and less violent individual than he used to be, and much less prone to forming ill-judged romantic attachments to inappropriate partners. (Perhaps more than his gills got surgically taken off.) In this movie, the humans are quite capable of handling all that sort of thing for themselves, as Barton and Marcia continue to drive each other crazy and Jed the boatman (Gregg Palmer) continues to press his adulterous suit with her. It’s all a bit like something out of a melodramatic potboiler, only with a seven-foot-tall guy in a rubber mask in the mix somewhere, and you know it’s going to end badly for quite a few of the people caught up in it.

That’s the other slightly odd thing about The Creature Walks Among Us – in the first two film, the gill-man was the main menace and driver of the plot, mainly due to (as noted) his habit of fixating on the leading lady. Not only is he much more sympathetic in this film than even the previous one, but he isn’t even the main villain – that role goes to Barton. The gill-man’s role in the climax is a retributive one, as an agent of some kind of natural justice – he’s not really a menace, he’s the one who ensures the villain gets what he deserves. (And yet the film still ends on a sombre, ambiguous note, with the gill-man shambling towards an ocean where he can no longer survive, perhaps choosing death over the cruelty and unfairness of human civilisation.)

I’m probably making this film sound much, much better than is actually the case, because as an actual piece of film-making it’s fairly shoddy stuff, not even lifted much by the presence of competent performers like Morrow and Rex Reason (the two of them also appeared together in Jack Arnold’s classic flying saucer extravaganza This Island Earth). As noted, the pacing is rotten, the budget is clearly very low, and Sherwood just doesn’t have Arnold’s way with the camera. But it does have a couple of mildly interesting ideas to its credit, and one thing about the gill-man trilogy I’ve never seen much commented on is the fact that it really does feel like it has a kind of unity of conception – the three films are all about human beings screwing around with nature in general, and the gill-man in particular. He steadily becomes less of a monster and more of a victim as the three films continue – this is possibly the weirdest and least expected bit of sustained character development in the whole of Hollywood cinema. Or perhaps I’m just clutching at straws. In any case, there are just enough interesting ideas here to make the film worth watching – at least, if you enjoyed Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature, you’ll probably won’t regret watching this one, either.

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Sometimes, it feels like once you start exploring the world of 1950s SF and monster movies, you can’t stop. Many of these films have a fairly cheesy reputation nowadays, but  looking at them now, some of them are genuinely well-made movies that stand up well, and some of them, though flawed, still have interesting things to say about culture and the preoccupations of society at the time.

Some of them, on the other hand, really are just utter cheese.

Ah, The Giant Claw, Fred F. Sears’ notorious contribution to the SF monster movie genre, which came out in 1957 and clearly shows an awareness of the classic tropes which had developed over the previous few years. Our hero is hunky, if possibly past his prime, boffin Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow), a maverick electronics engineer (oh, heavens) engaged in radar calibration exercises in Alaska. Flying around and indulging in risque byplay with ground-based mathematician Sally (Mara Corday, who’s young enough to be his daughter but still old enough to be Playboy’s Playmate of the Month in October the following year) must come to an end when Mitch sights a UFO! When he radios this in to the army, a full-scale Stock Footage Alert is declared, but nothing comes to light.

Mitch is given a sound rollocking from the nearest general, who only casually mentions that one of the interceptors that were scrambled has inexplicably vanished. And then a polar passenger flight disappears. Gee, general, could it perhaps be that something is eating planes over the North Pole? The general is much more interested in giving MacAfee a hard time than in the wider ramifications of the situation. It’s a tough life as a maverick electronics engineer sometimes.

Mitch and Sally start flying back to New York but en route something tries to eat their plane in mid-air just after the pilot reports a UFO. (And still no-one stops to wonder whether a pattern may be developing.) Pausing only to get mildly trolleyed with a French Canadian who speaks fluent Franglais, Mitch and Sally hop on a commercial flight the rest of the way home. Here Mitch displays his unreconstructed manly values by slipping Sally some tongue while she’s actually asleep, and she displays the fundamental nature of the B-movie love interest by not screaming and actually being rather encouraging about the whole thing.

A film which has been amusingly silly until this point becomes exasperatingly dumb when Mitch grabs a map and plots all the locations at which UFOs have been sighted or planes eaten in mid-air. As Sally correctly points out, there is no discernible pattern to them. Aha! Mitch draws a spiral which intersects all the points neatly. Sally is dumbfounded. I couldn’t help thinking you could do the same thing with any collection of random dots, that’s sort of how spirals work. Nevertheless Mitch becomes convinced something is flying in a spiral pattern and eating every plane it passes – and, what’s more, it’s the size of a battleship! A flying battleship!

The scriptwriters of The Giant Claw, for the first part of the film at least, seem to have been sponsored by the Flying Battleship corporation, as the words ‘flying battleship’ appear much more often than the plot strictly demands, for no apparent reason. If you play the ‘flying battleship’ drinking game during this movie… actually, scratch that, just get sluiced before you start watching, the movie will slide by much more agreeably.

Oh well. Mitch’s silly spiral convinces everybody, somehow, along with a crash-investigation flight also being eaten. This time the menace is exposed – the terror of the air-lanes is a giant bird, the size of a… you can probably guess, actually. (It has to be said that compared to Godzilla, Gamera, Gorgo, Gyaos, Mothra, the Rhedosaurus, et al, ‘the giant bird’ is really a lousy monster name.) What’s more, the giant bird possesses an anti-matter shield which renders it immune to normal weapons and also radar-invisible – this is clearly an attempt to fix a couple of glaring plot holes in a vaguely scientific-sounding way, but the film’s a lost cause by this point anyway.

Yes, the moment the giant bird flaps into view, moving with all the speed and grace of Anne Widdicombe on the end of a rope, and we get the first glimpse of its head, the madly boggling eyes, absurdly over-extended neck and wildly tangled hair giving it something of the look of Uma Thurman trying to act – at this moment the film collapses as any kind of remotely serious drama. The monster puppet is ridiculous, like something a teenage Terry Gilliam would have drawn for a laugh, and scenes which require it to gobble up parachutists, carry off trains like a string of sausages, and – seemingly – dry-hump the Empire State building (see poster) don’t help much either. I was watching Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe again the other day and found myself contemplating that the effects there are starting to look a bit dated, particularly when it comes to the Gyaos bird puppets. Well, I know that nearly 40 years separates that Gamera from The Giant Claw, but even so the Gyaos effects are awesomely sophisticated and convincing compared to anything you’ll see here.

The utter awfulness of the monster is a shame as the rest of the film shows glimmers of promise. Okay, so a lot of the plot depends on anyone in a position of authority acting like a moron for the first half of the film, at which point the military’s utter contempt and disregard for Mitch and his ideas magically turns into enraptured, paternal devotion, and the decision to use a voiceover to narrate a number of key scenes rather than use dialogue is an odd and almost suspicious one. But some of the incidental dialogue between Morrow and Corday has a certain charged frisson to it – there’s an extended metaphor about baseball which is clearly meant to be racy stuff, but unfortunately the closest I’ve ever got to understanding baseball is playing rounders and that was in 1987. And, given the pseudoscientific bafflegab which makes up much of the plot – the writers seem to think that just talking about anti-matter and nu-mesons is enough to give the film credibility, regardless of whether they do so remotely accurately – there’s a performance from Edgar Barrier as a senior boffin which actually has vestiges of gravitas about it. He battles the cheese to a standstill before retiring with dignity.

Dignity and credibility are not much in evidence anywhere else in The Giant Claw. Jeff Morrow, in an oft-told anecdote, snuck out of the film’s premiere as soon as it became clear that gales of laughter would meet every appearance by the giant bird, fearing he might be recognised if he left with everyone else.  It was an understandable response – but then so is the laughter. The script is never consistently strong, but the death-blow for the whole undertaking is the airborne special-effects catastrophe The Giant Claw itself is attached to. The beast’s resemblance to a colossal turkey is eerily prophetic.

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Not that long ago I was writing about the seminal giant mutant ant movie Them! and took the opportunity to declare that it is, basically, not cricket to knock old pieces of SF on the grounds that their special effects are not up to scratch by modern standards. The thing about films like Them! and The Thing From Another World is that, generally, their makers were fully aware of the shortcomings of their effects budgets and engaged in all kinds of sleight-of-hand to tell the story with minimum use of monster suits and props and so on.

As we progress through the 1950s, however, we begin to encounter a new breed of SF movie, which in its own way has much more in common with the modern variety. A very good example of what I’m talking about is This Island Earth, made in 1955 and one of the first colour SF films.

The improbable Rex Reason plays Cal Meacham, an expert on nuclear electronics who finds a mysterious force beginning to affect his life – a strange alien energy saves him from a plane crash, and an unknown agency sends him inexplicably whizzy electronic components and instructions on how to assemble them. The finished result is an interociter, which for all Meacham’s declarations of wondrous omnipotence is basically just a videophone with a built-in death-ray feature. Via this device Meacham is lured into joining a secret scientific thinktank run by the mysterious Exeter (Jeff Morrow).

At the thinktank Meacham meets an old girlfriend (Faith Domergue) and learns that Exeter and his assistants are not above a spot of brainwashing to ensure the assembled boffins play ball in their quest to develop unlimited atomic energy for purposes unknown. Meacham and his girlfriend decide to do a runner, not unreasonably, only to discover the fairly obvious truth: Exeter and his friends are aliens, using human geniuses for their own ends. Exeter abducts the fleeing earthlings and whisks them off back home with him…

Hmmm. The thing about This Island Earth is that it isn’t really an alien invasion movie or a monster movie, though it contains elements of both. If anything, it is a close cousin to the modern blockbuster event movie, in that it’s all about the visuals and the effects and the gosh-wow factor. And the movie is packed with them, in garish, eye-popping technicolour: flying saucers sweep across the screen, comets streak by, spacecraft swoop low over the devastated and war-torn surface of the planet Metaluna, and so on.

The initial stages, concerned with the mystery of who Exeter is and what he’s up to, are moderately engaging. The problem is that, once the cosmic odyssey begins, the plot goes into a total flatline. Meacham and his squeeze make the spectacular voyage to another world, fall out with Exeter’s boss, decide they don’t like the place, and go straight home – all in a relatively short length of screentime. It all looks very pretty but at the end you’re left with a vague sense of so what? Spectacular as they are, all the visual effects are there telling an extremely scanty and actually rather uninvolving story.

Rex Reason is clearly a jock at heart and fully deserves to be third billed in the cast list. Doing his best in a part that’s still underwritten is Jeff Morrow as the initially rather ambiguous Exeter – Morrow clearly has a lot to offer this role but doesn’t get dialogue anything like as good as, say, Michael Rennie’s in The Day The Earth Stood Still.

If you dig for it there’s an anti-nuclear message at the centre of this film, with the destruction of Metaluna a vision of Earth’s own future – ‘thank God it’s still here!’ cries Reason upon returning to his home planet – but it’s very much implied. Also somewhat of interest to me are the signs that This Island Earth was a key influence on the relaunch of the comic book Green Lantern in the late 50s – the image of the jet influenced by a strange green ray, the concept of humans acting as the servants of enigmatic aliens, even the appearance of the Metalunans in one key scene – all of these, and the movie’s general sense of being an exhilarating cosmic romance, seem to me to recur in the version of Green Lantern which was launched only a year or two after this film’s release.

Either way, This Island Earth is striking enough to stay watchable, on the first encounter at least. It doesn’t have depth or wit or much to say for itself, but in this it surely has a vast amount in common with so many SF movies of the last thirty years. It’s wrong to knock old movies simply for being made when special effects were rather more primitive – but I don’t have any kind of problem with criticising films that attempt to use special effects and visuals in the place of a decent story and characterisation, no matter when they were made: and it’s in this category that This Island Earth really belongs.

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