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Posts Tagged ‘monster movie’

Joseph Stefano, screenwriter of Psycho and producer of much of The Outer Limits, had a rule for most of his tenure on the latter: every episode had to have a ‘bear’ – i.e., a big scary creature, which would preferably show up just before the mid-episode ad break (round about the same time as the first Hulk-out in an episode of The Incredible Hulk). I suppose it’s sound enough as a principle, though it sounds quite creatively limiting to me.

The whole issue of ‘when you show the bear’ is fairly important when you’re doing a monster movie, and the consensus seems to be ‘not too early, not too late’ – too early, and you run the risk of running out of things to do with it, not to mention you have less time to build suspense; too late, and the audience will get bored. (Although Hal Chester, who was involved in the making of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Night of the Demon, ensured that the monster got wheeled on very early in both of those, albeit only for a sort of appetising cameo.) Just after the mid-point seems to be the sweet spot, structurally speaking, though of course this isn’t necessarily a good thing if your monster is no good. I think it was Jeff Morrow, star of The Giant Claw, who observed that acting in a monster movie is a bit like going on a blind date: you’re relying on the special effects department to come up with a co-star that isn’t going to make you look stupid.

The movies and TV we’ve been discussing so far all date back to the 1950s and early-to-mid 60s, but some truths are eternal, as the makers of Prophecy discovered in 1979. This was the year that the big studios all bet heavily on horror and monster movies – it was the year of Alien, Nightwing, John Badham’s Dracula, and The Amityville Horror, to name but a few of the more prominent releases, and Prophecy was amongst them. (If you ask me, the most successful films from that year came from elsewhere – let’s not forget this was also the year of Herzog’s Dracula, and the one in which Dawn of the Dead got its American release.)

Everyone’s heard of Alien and Dracula, and some of the other names are vaguely familiar, but Prophecy (like Nightwing) seems to have vanished into movie obscurity, mentioned only as a joke or as a camp cult movie. I don’t recall ever coming across it on British TV – in fact, I’m not sure I’d ever heard of it until I read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, in which he writes affectionately about it at some length. Looking at that book again recently, it seemed to me that there was an obvious gap in my knowledge of cinema – and all sorts of old movies are now available on t’interweb if you know where to look.

Prophecy is directed by John Frankenheimer, who also did The Manchurian Candidate, and is clearly not a low-budget movie. We open off in a forest somewhere (we later learn this is Maine) where some search-and-rescue types are being dragged along by their dogs. Something has got the dogs so riled up they run literally off the edge of a cliff, and have to be lowered down into the ravine below. When the actual search-and-rescue guys go down into the ravine as well, there is some roaring, some screaming and then an ominous silence. Here the film shows the first sign of wanting to be more than just schlock: arty shots of the corpses of the search team strewn around, or in one case still hanging from their harness, are accompanied by light classical music, in a slightly obvious but still decent attempt at juxtaposition.

The light classical music turns out to be coming from an orchestra which includes Maggie (Talia Shire), a nice lady who lives in Washington DC. Her main problem is that she would like to have a baby – and indeed is in the early stages of having a baby – but her husband is oblivious to this, and opposed to overpopulating the planet any further. He is Dr Rob Verne (Robert Foxworth, with hair and beard that make him look like Christ after a perm and some highlights). Verne is the epitome of the scientist as envoy of Apollo – Foxworth is doing principled stoicism non-stop for most of the movie – driven to despair by the awful living conditions of so many in the city. Someone offers him a change of scene and a job which may end up making an actual difference – the Environmental Protection Agency has been called in to mediate in a dispute between a paper mill and the local Native Americans up in Maine. Go for two weeks! Make a holiday of it! Take the wife!

So they go, collected by the representative of the paper company (Richard Dysart), who is initially very agreeable. Here we get the film’s first major misstep – an unforgivably laborious bit of exposition where someone starts talking about something called Katahdin, the legendary supernatural protector of the forest (according to the Indians anyway), not long after Dysart has let Verne know that people have started disappearing in the woods. We also meet the fiercely proud leader of the Indians (played by Armand Assante, who is every bit as Native American as his name suggests), and there is a symbolic axe-vs-chainsaw fight between the paper mill people and the locals, who are blocking access to the forest.

Soon enough Dr Rob is discovering signs that not all is well in the forest – the locals are acting like they’re drunk even when they’re not, showing reduced sensitivity to pain, and there is some freakishly big wildlife too – fish the size of canoes and a tadpole the size of a small dog. An argument with his wife about having a child gets interrupted when he is attacked by a demented raccoon. It takes a committed performance to sell a savage raccoon attack to the audience, and Foxworth… well, maybe he was saving himself for the climax of the movie.

Anyway, the signs are clear – the paper company, who are on the payroll of the more Dionysian branch of science, have been dumping mercury in the water, causing genetic damage throughout the local ecology. As Maggie and Rob have just enjoyed a fish supper from the local lake, there is a real possibility they may not just be taking their work home with them, but keeping it in the family for generations to come. The discovery of squawking, deformed creatures like half-melted bear cubs is an unpleasant indication of what may be to come (Stephen King found the mutant cubs more effective and unsettling than I did).

Well, Dr Rob calls in the authorities, thinking that the mutant cubs are pretty good evidence of environmental wrongdoing, but in the middle of a dramatic confrontation between all the concerned parties, the cubs’ mother (or father) turns up, looking just as messed up as they do. Dr Rob, Maggie, and some sympathetic Native Americans are faced with the problem of how to get back to civilisation before Katahdin the half-melted mutant bear catches up with them and mauls them to death…

So when do they decide to (literally) show the bear in Prophecy? At about the usual point, halfway through – some townie campers are set upon in the woods and quickly despatched. An alternative answer would be ‘much too soon’, however. Most of Prophecy is a B-movie creature feature, an update from the 1950s with the atom age paranoia sifted out and some environmentalist concerns mixed in – this sort of thing is seldom great art, even with someone like Jack Arnold in charge, but it can be effective enough in its slightly naive way. The thing that destroys the movie, totally and utterly, is the monster, which is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever seen put on screen. Every scene with the creature is reduced to unintentional farce by the sheer low quality of the monster suit and the desperate tricks Frankenheimer is obliged to use to try and hide this fact. It’s hilarious. The fact that everyone else is still trying hard to sell the beastie as a terrifying menace just makes it funnier and funnier. (Talia Shire, then having a career spike off the back of Rocky – she is top-billed here – must have felt she was reliving her American-International Pictures apprenticeship, when she appeared in films like The Dunwich Horror.)

Set against how bad most of the special effects are, most of the other problems with Prophecy – the slightly corny presentation of the Native Americans, the weak climax, the fact that there’s a reproductive rights angle to the story which never seems to get fully developed – melt away. Unfortunately, those elements of the film which show promise also vanish like mist when the sun comes out. It’s an interesting companion piece to Nightwing, even sharing a cast member (George Clutesi plays a semi-unhinged Indian elder in both). Prophecy is a worse film, but also more entertaining, too – Nightwing‘s just stuck in a middleground of being stolid, with some duff effects, while Prophecy shows real signs of being genuinely nuts, terrible effects or not.

I can see why Prophecy has become a sort of cult favourite, for the same reasons it has vanished into obscurity. It’s really, even by 1979 standards, a very old fashioned monster movie, driven along by that brand of technophobia which closely resembles the nature-in-revolt horror film. There are plenty of monster movies these days which are just as bad, but there’s often a knowingness to them. Prophecy is never less than very serious-minded and earnest. You have to admire it for that even as it makes the film even more ridiculous. Hardly even a Good Bad Movie, but nevertheless oddly cherishable in its way.

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[The offices of the Fairly Big Movie Corporation, Hollywood, circa 1957. J.D. Hoffenhoff, top banana, sits at his desk puffing on several cigars. A script department minion cringes before him.]

J.D.: So tell me again what all this is about, Lou.

Minion: Well, boss, we had what you might call a kind of delegation of faculty members from great American universities.

J.D.: Hmm. Sounds like a loada intellectual pinkoes to me. What did they want?

Minion: Er, well, they had an idea for a film they thought we might want to make. They even got Jack Arnold and Bob Fresco to help them with the story for it.

J.D.: Hey, isn’t Jack Arnold the sci-fi movie guy? Didn’t he do Black Lagoon for Universal?

Minion: Yes indeed, boss, and he also did that big spider picture, and the one about the guy who shrinks. I think Fresco helped him with the spider film.

J.D.: Hmmm… they weren’t trying to pitch a sci-fi movie to you, were they?

Minion: Well, kinda, yes. But this one is a bit different to normal, maybe.

J.D.: Okay, let’s hear it.

Minion: Well, it’s called The Monolith Monsters and it opens – of course – with a voice-over talking about how rocks and meteorites and so on, you, know, bits and pieces of the universe, they’re all landing on Earth all the time.

J.D.: ‘Bits and pieces of the universe’? That line had better not be in the script.

Minion: Er, of course not.

J.D.: Hmmm. Need someone with gravitas to deliver that kind of a spiel. Is Orson free?

Minion: If he isn’t, we’ll find someone who sounds like him. Anyway, we see a meteorite heading for Earth and landing in the desert – it’ll be cheap, we can reuse footage from It Came From Outer Space or another movie like that. Anyway, shiny black rocks go everywhere…

J.D.: Shiny black rocks? Is that all? No aliens? No giant ants? No giant bean pods?

Minion: Guess not, boss. Anyway, we see a guy from the Department of the Interior driving around, and he stops and picks up one of the rocks, then takes it back to town. Then we do some character stuff, introduce some of the townspeople.

J.D.: All sounds a bit dull to me. How can we introduce some terror and excitement into this picture?

Minion: Um… well… how about if, nearly every time we see the black rocks, there’s a big da-da-DAAAAH sting on the soundtrack? Regardless of whether anything scary or exciting has happened yet.

J.D.: Could work. Do the rocks turn out to be eggs of horrible monsters?

Minion: No.

J.D.: Are the rocks the remains of strange alien creatures who want to conquer Earth?

Minion: No.

J.D.: Are the rocks Communist?

Minion: I don’t think so, sir. Well, there’s a windy night which means some water ends up spilling on the rocks, and something weird happens when geologist guy goes to look at them. When the hero finds him, geologist guy is weirdly dead, turned to stone, and his lab has been trashed –

J.D.: So geologist guy isn’t the hero? What’s the hero’s job?

Minion: He’s a different geologist. We’ve got Grant Williams pencilled in for him, he was the shrinking guy in that shrinking guy movie we were talking about. Meanwhile the love interest – we’re looking at Lola Albright – has taken a party of schoolkids into the desert and one of them brings back another chunk of the funny black rock. She tries washing it, and ends up dumping it into a tub of water, which starts bubbling.

J.D.: Is the fact that the rocks get all weird when they’re wet meant to be some kind of plot twist, or mystery? Because it’s coming across as a bit obvious the way you’re telling it.

Minion: I’m sure it’ll be better in the movie, boss. So, the little girl’s house also gets wrecked, covered in tons more black rock, and her parents are petrified. She’s also turning to stone, but slowly, so there’s a bit of tension.

J.D.: Also, you can’t kill a kid in a movie like this. So the rocks are –

Minion: They’re some form of silicon life which respond to getting wet by sucking all the silica from anything nearby, and using it to grow to an immense height – at which point they topple over, shatter, and the process begins again.

J.D.: I was going to ask if the rocks are bad, but I guess you’ve answered that. Hang on though – if the rocks are in the desert, they’re not really a danger, are they? I mean hero guy and his buddies can just take their sweet time going out to the desert and collecting them all. I mean, it’s not like there’s suddenly going to be torrential rain, or anything. So what happens next?

Minion: Er, well, there’s sudden torrential rain, and the giant spiky monoliths it creates bear down on the town. Can hero guy come up with a solution before the silicon rocks spread everywhere?

J.D.: Okay, I don’t need to hear the rest of it. Hmmm. You know, I’ve nothing against a sci-fi movie, but this one seems a bit – I don’t know – wilfully strange, somehow. How did those university guys get involved?

Minion: Ah, well – and just to clarify, sir, this next part is entirely fictitious – they kind of feel that quite a few disciplines haven’t had a fair crack of the whip in this Golden Age of Sci-Fi B-movies we’ve been living through. You know, astronomers and astrophysicists, atomic scientists, even entomologists and marine biologists, they’ve all had movies where they get to be the hero. And some of the other types of scientists are kind of seeking redress for that.

J.D.: So they want to do a movie where the hero is a geologist?

Minion: Seems like, sir. It’s not just that, though. As well as geology, the script makes a few shout-outs to meteorologists, too, during that sequence with the torrential rain, and later on – well, it seems like the faculty of civil engineering got wind of what was happening, and insisted that they –

J.D.: I get the idea. So you’ve got a wacky sci-fi monster movie where the actual monsters are piles of rocks and the day is saved by hitting things with a rock hammer, forecasting the weather and knowing how a dam is built? I guess it certainly has originality going for it. What are the special effects going to look like?

Minion: Er – good enough, boss, with luck.

J.D.: And who’s in line to direct it?

Minion: John Sherwood, sir. He says that if this movie isn’t a massive hit, he’ll give up directing entirely. So what do you think, boss? Do we go with The Monolith Monsters?

[A lengthy pause.]

J.D.: Nah. It sounds much more like Universal’s kind of thing.

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Would it have been possible, I ask myself, to watch Nathan Juran’s The Deadly Mantis again and not write about it afterwards? Constant Reader, I think not: the watch-assimilate-write process has become almost reflexive at this point, to say nothing of the fact that writing about The Deadly Mantis will, in some small way, justify the fact that I expended about an hour and a half of my finite and precious lifespan in watching the damned thing again.

This is yet another of the Atomic Bug movies which were such a mainstay of B-movie SF throughout the mid to late 1950s, and most of the tropes are in full effect. I suppose you could divide these films up into two groups: ones where the giant bugs are realised through the use of photographic blow-ups, and ones where the special effects are basically achieved through using puppets. (Not much place for stop-frame animation in the world of 50s B-movies, unless you were Ray Harryhausen, of course.) This is one of the latter, although they do use a live insect at one point for a long shot. Puppets would have been, I suspect, more expensive to realise, and this might lead you to expect that a puppet movie like Deadly Mantis would be a higher-budget, more prestigious production. In this expectation you would be badly wrong.

Things get off to a frankly unimpressive start as the camera roams across a world map, seemingly at random, before settling on a small island near Antarctica, which then explodes for no reason whatsoever. ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,’ intones a stentorian voice-over, which in B-movie world means that spontaneously detonating Antarctic islands are counterbalanced by melting glaciers in the Arctic – one of which contains, well, a praying mantis the size of a jet airliner. (I hope you are not going to allow headspace to silly questions along the lines of ‘what’s that doing there, then?’)

Titles roll and then the film makes one of the peculiar gear-stripping shifts of tone which may in fact be its most distinctive feature: we find ourselves, somehow, in the midst of a patriotic American public information film, as the stentorian voice-over becomes much more cheery. The virtues of radar as a protection from those dreadful (but carefully un-named ) Commies are extolled, details of the US radar defence umbrella are given, and finally we are shown the process by which the Distant Early Warning system has been constructed. Virtually all of this takes the form of stock footage.

Radar even turns out to be useful when the film runs out of stock footage and has to resort to hiring actors: one of the DEW outposts picks up a strange blob on the screen, closing on their location; a high-pitched buzzing is heard and then the roof falls in. This is one of those movies which unthinkingly sticks to tropes and conventions which it really has no reason to be using. The movie is called The Deadly Mantis. We have even seen the deadly mantis defrosting. So why the director keeps the deadly mantis off-screen and attempts to generate a sense of mystery about just what could be responsible for the destroyed outpost and various other early bits of mayhem is rather baffling (and, ironically enough, infinitely more mysterious than anything in the actual movie).

Square-jawed DEW commander and Air Force officer Joe Parkman (Craig Stevens) eventually turns up a giant spike which he has no idea what to do with; he asks the Pentagon, who ask the Museum of Natural History, who get onto ace entomologist and silver fox Nedrick Jackson (William Hopper). The fact that Nedrick Jackson is a scientist is signalled by the fact he wears a white lab coat even in his office. Soon enough he and the obligatory Token Love Interest character (a slightly matronly Alix Talton, but it takes all sorts, of course) are flown up to the Arctic to hunt for the beastie.

Suffice to say the mantis attacks an Eskimo village in Greenland (more creative use of stock footage ensues) and then the DEW HQ itself, before heading off south at 200mph. The Ground Observer Corps is roped in to keep an eye out for the monster, which includes giving them a picture of a praying mantis. Presumably this is so they don’t raise a false alarm if, say, Mothra happens to be passing and they get confused.

It all wraps up with a sequence quite blatantly ripped off from Them!, with the mantis at bay in the Manhattan Tunnel and the infantry being sent in to finish it off. (The caption to a photo from the climactic sequence, featured in my copy of the 1985 book Monsters and Horror Movies, snarkily makes it clear that ‘those are not supposed to be toy cars’.) But then this is par for the course for a movie which is almost completely derivative, with virtually no identity of its own. The deep-frozen monster is a steal from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, with perhaps a touch of The Thing from Another World thrown in, but it does increasingly turn into Them! or one of its knock-offs as it proceeds. That procession is made possible only by the regular and heavy use of stock footage. There’s virtually no mantis in the mixture, just a lot of other sources stitched rather clumsily together.

Is there anything positive to be said about The Deadly Mantis? If so, I’m really struggling to find it. I suppose one of the things that really kills the movie is that – unlike even in other terrible monster movies like The Giant Claw or Beginning of the End – the characters here are bland and flat, just shuffled around on screen to suit the plot rather than having anything approaching personalities. The role of protagonist is awkwardly split between Joe and Nedrick, with the result that neither of them is a particularly strong presence.

If you have never seen an Atomic Bug movie from the 1950s and then suddenly find yourself afflicted by a burning desire to watch one, and the only exponent you have available to you is The Deadly Mantis, then… well, what kind of situations are you putting yourself into, for heaven’s sake? Plan your life better. Watching movies like this should not be a priority under any circumstances. Now just go and sort your life out.

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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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These days, doing a series of sequels is so often part of the game plan when a movie is made that the key personnel are frequently signed up on multi-film contracts right from the outset. Sequels weren’t always so respectable, nor profitable, and so it’s rare to find all the major cast members coming back in older films of this type. Sometimes, the reappearance of even a relatively minor cast member can feel like a pleasant surprise.

So it is when Nestor Paiva reappears as Lucas the boat captain in Jack Arnold’s 1955 movie Revenge of the Creature, reprising his performance from the same director’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. Paiva’s the only speaking character to come back (Ricou Browning is still in the monster suit for the underwater sequences), but it’s still a welcome touch of continuity when he does. Following all the shenanigans of the original film, word has got out of the existence of the prehistoric gill-man, supposedly a missing link between terrestrial and marine life (though Lucas declares it to be nothing less than a being of demonic power, stronger even than evolution itself!). Ocean Harbour, a water park in Florida, has hired fish-wrangler Joe Hayes (John Bromfield) to bring it back alive for study and display. With admirable briskness he does just this, even though it involves the customary bout of wrestling with the gill-man and the use of what I believe is sometimes known as dynamite fishing. The gill-man is dragged back to civilisation (Black Lagoon, we hardly knew ye) and installed in a tank, manacled to the bottom.

It turns out that Joe Hayes is not in fact the hero of the movie, for this honour goes to animal psychologist Clete Ferguson (John Agar, something of a fixture of Jack Arnold’s SF films). Clete decides to head on down to Florida and check the gill-man out, but not before the moment for which Revenge of the Creature is probably best known and perhaps most notable. One of Clete’s lab assistants gets a theoretically amusing bit about some of the experimental rats: the actual gag is pretty lousy, our interest stems from the fact that the assistant is played by Clint Eastwood, making his big-screen debut. Well, you gotta start somewhere, I suppose: there’s not much here to suggest that Clint would go on to become one of the most popular and acclaimed film-makers of the late 20th century, but there’s only so much you can do with a duff gag about rats and a lab coat. (For his next movie with Agar and Arnold, Clint was promoted to jet pilot, playing the guy who bombs the monster at the end of Tarantula!.)

Anyway, Clete arrives in Ocean Harbour where he quickly becomes fascinated by the gill-man, and very nearly as interested in glamorous icthyology student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) – who, to be fair, is extremely pretty and meets the ‘must look good in a bathing suit’ requirement of this kind of film with flying colours. While Clete and Helen are supposedly studying the gill-man, what they actually seem to be doing more closely resembles a rather cruel training regime, heavily dependent on the use of what looks like an underwater cattle-prod (I’m sure there must be health and safety issues with that). Poor old gill-man clearly hasn’t figured out that these surface girls are nothing but trouble and that age-gap relationships never work (especially when the gap in question is between the Devonian Age and the Anthropocene), and falls hard for the lovely Helen. Eventually he busts out, jumps in the sea, mysteriously doesn’t die from osmotic shock, and starts causing all sorts of trouble.

The film’s been a bit of a mixed bag so far, but at this point it takes a definite turn in the direction of Jaws – The Revenge. Clete and Helen decide to take their minds off things by going on a bit of a holiday together (it’s all outwardly very respectable so as not to outrage the censor, but they’re clearly going to be at it like rabbits), and check into a motel on the edge of the Everglades. What a very extraordinary coincidence it is that it is next to this very establishment that the gill-man should clamber out of the swamp and come sniffing around. Clete and Helen try to get on with their holiday, but the finny stalker just won’t quit, and there is bound to be trouble before the film reaches the end of its 82 minute running time…

Even post-Shape of Water, it’s hardly as if Creature from the Black Lagoon is an unequivocally acclaimed movie, so it’s hardly surprising that its sequels have an equally schlocky reputation. This is no great injustice, however, as Revenge of the Creature (I think the working title Return of the Creature from the Black Lagoon has a better ring to it, but it is fairly on-the-nose) is not some great overlooked classic, either as sci-fi or as a monster movie. It starts off sort of acceptably okay and then quickly becomes quite variable – the middle section, in which the gill-man is chained up in his tank while Clete and Helen blandly romance each other in between bouts of shock therapy, goes on for a long time without very much happening, while the final section is just a bit silly, and saddled with an ending which is abrupt and unsatisfactory – you can almost see the film-makers hitting the 82-minute point and then calling it a day.

Taking the creature from the Black Lagoon out of the Black Lagoon was probably a necessary step for the sequel, but it does rob the film of something of the original’s atmosphere. I can see there’s something to the school of thought that the first film is, on some level, an eco-fable about the destruction of the environment, but that doesn’t seem to have carried over as such – what is interesting, though, is that there seems to have been a deliberate attempt to make the gill-man more sympathetic this time around. He is blown up, dragged off to civilisation in a coma, chained to the bottom of a tank, repeatedly electrocuted, and so on – if only he didn’t have these wildly over-optimistic designs on pretty girls in bathing suits, the audience would probably be rooting for him.

As it is, the film is just too silly to really get that involved with. The script and setting aren’t as interesting as in the first one, but in every other respect, while it’s a step down, it’s no more an outright disaster than Creature from the Black Lagoon. It doesn’t do anything particularly interesting or original with the gill-man, but it’s sort of mildly diverting – no more than that, though.

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Studio blockbusters these days have such massive resources behind them that it is very rare for them to be technically substandard in any appreciable way: art direction, production design, sound, special effects, and cinematography, all of them are usually no worse than extremely competent, and frequently excellent. So if you go to see one of these films you can at least be assured it will be pretty to look at and listen to. For this not to be the case would be about as surprising as the film missing a major sequence simply because they forgot to switch the camera on.

However, because this has become so standard, it follows that achievement in these areas is not in and of itself grounds to praise a movie, unless it really does feature something exceptional. All that this technical accomplishment has done is throw into sharp relief which films have good scripts and directors, and which are – not to put too fine a point on it – a load of old nonsense assembled by a hack. This brings us to Jurassic World: Dominion, directed by Colin Trevorrow. (This looks very much like a fridge title, like you couldn’t have guessed.)

For once the film takes pity on the casual filmgoer and opens with a brief recap of the state of play following the end of the last installment: following the escape of a dozen or so dinosaurs from a mansion somewhere in North America, four years later the prehistoric beasties have spread worldwide, multiplied seemingly like crazy, and are now a major pest, threatening to cause an ecological collapse. (If you think this doesn’t particularly make sense, well, what can I say, you’re right.)

What’s really striking is how little this situation informs most of the plot of the rest of the film, which has nothing to do with this clash of wildlife from different eras (unless you count the interactions of the multi-generational cast). The first main plot thread instead concerns tough former dinosaur trainer Duke Thundervest (Chris Pratt), who is still very reliant on his ability to calm down any dinosaur just by holding up his hand, and his wife Brenda Bigeyes (Bryce Dallas Howard) [Note to self – double-check character names before submitting final copy]. They have retired to the wilderness to raise their adopted teenage clone (Isabella Sermon) and are also occasionally looked in upon by one of Duke’s pet velociraptors, which has been through a sort of virgin birth experience. Bad guys working for an Evil Corporation kidnap both the clone and the baby velociraptor, which makes Duke and Brenda both cross and sad.

Meanwhile, and you may well be noting that dinosaurs do seem to be a bit tangential to everything that’s happening, giant locusts are threatening to devastate the world’s food supply – or at least those parts of it not controlled by the same Evil Corporation from the other plotline. Working the case is Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and to help her, in a strikingly vague and general way, she recruits her old boyfriend Alan Grant (Sam Neill). We get another take on that scene where a character repeatedly says ‘I’m done, I’m finished with all that’ before immediately going off on one more adventure, which in this case also includes one of those moments where two characters call each other by their full names just for the audience’s benefit (‘Ellie Sattler!’ cries Alan Grant. ‘Alan Grant!’ cries Ellie Sattler).

Grant and Sattler are knocking on a bit for blockbuster movie characters, but they date back to the original 1993 Jurassic Park and so they have been allowed in for reasons of pure nostalgia. Sure enough, when they fly off to the Evil Corporation’s hide-out, it is with the help of their old acquaintance Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who is one of the boffins in residence there. Needless to say, Duke and Brenda are heading in the same direction, but can there be anything more than a spurious and contrived link between the kidnapped clones and the giant locusts? (Answer: no, not really.)

The original Jurassic Park still stands up really well today, I would argue, mainly because it understands how to do a story about dinosaurs: the scientists responsible are misguided and quickly got rid of, and the film becomes a simple question of how not to get eaten. There is a unity of focus and purity of intent which is completely absent from the more recent films in the series. This film has an actual villain with a nefarious plan and various henchmen; stopping him and dealing with the minions is initially far more prominent in the movie than any dinosaur-related peril. From being the focus of the film, the dinosaurs become a kind of set dressing – the first act and a half often resembles a Bourne or Mission Impossible film in which people just happen to keep driving past a triceratops. Some of these sequences are very well staged – for example, a car-chase around Malta featuring laser-guided attack-dinosaurs – but it’s hard not to get the impression that somebody somewhere is missing the point.

Towards the end the dinosaur-related peril does improve a bit, with dialogue like ‘Are there dinosaurs in the mines?’ (the answer turns out to be a surprising ‘no’, technically, as the beasties in there are actually synapsids) and the usual chasing about. However, the decision to bring together the entire surviving principal casts of both iterations of this franchise, and also to include a bunch of new protagonists to broaden out the ethnicity of the genome a bit, results in some heroically unwieldy sequences, almost resembling a coach tour gone astray rather than the heroes of a blockbuster movie. (In the practically obligatory helicopter flight to safety at the end of the film, people are very noticeably having to sit on each other’s laps as there just wouldn’t be enough space otherwise.)

The whole thing is actually quite unwieldy and off-kilter, and conspicuously badly-written in places (one character, presented as a hard-bitten and self-interested mercenary when they first appear, undergoes a rapid and complete change of attitude and loyalty for no obvious reason at all). At least there aren’t any made-up dinosaurs this time – a tyrannosaurus gets wheeled on, rather like the Rocky Balboa of the Cretaceous Era, for a climactic tag-battle against a giganotosaurus, along with a therizinosaurus (another slightly off-the-wall choice). It seems like we are supposed to feel some kind of sympathy and attachment to this grizzled old thing, simply because it also was a fixture of the older films.

Speaking of grizzled old things… as noted, the eventual message of the film is the importance of life-forms from different geological ages getting along with each other. The only way it actually incorporates this idea is by putting Sam Neill and Chris Pratt in the same scenes during the final act. I have to say that the three elder stars really do make the most of their opportunity here and manage to be funny and charismatic and generally lift the film; it’s not a great experience even so, but without them I can only imagine it being a horrendous slog. Something awful seems to have happened to Chris Pratt: a light has flickered out behind his eyes and he is notably boring all the way through (he’s much, much more entertaining in the Thor trailer which is running before Dominion in most places).

(In my head I imagined an entirely different Jurassic Park sequel with Neill and Dern’s characters: a touching autumnal romance about two characters rekindling their relationship during an entirely peril-free visit to a quiet and extremely well-run dinosaur sanctuary. I’d pay to watch that. It would have more going for it than Dominion does, anyway.)

In the end Jurassic World: Dominion is the kind of sequel that feels like it exists only because the people responsible felt obliged to make a sequel. It doesn’t feel like there was a bold new idea or a radical reinvention of the concept burning in anyone’s mind. It just takes up all the bits from the recent films, adds a few really old ones, along with some new ones that don’t really belong, and idly shuffles them all around a bit half-heartedly. The result is a film which happens in front of you for a couple of hours, gradually getting louder, and then stops. Possibly you will have been entertained occasionally during all of this. But it feels like the work of a franchise which has gone extinct and just hasn’t noticed it yet.

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As we have observed, The New Avengers is not a show which is afraid to revisit concepts and storylines from the parent shows – up to and including doing a direct sequel, of sorts, to an episode from nearly a decade earlier. So for it to take another run at the notion of influential figures being replaced by enemy duplicates (previously utilised in The Man with Two Shadows and They Keep Killing Steed) is not really a surprise. The unexpected thing about Faces (a collaboration between Dennis Spooner and Brian Clemens, though I wouldn’t like to guess who did which bit) is that it should be quite so ramshackle as a piece of writing.

The premise is as follows: two tramps played by Richard Leech (fourth of four) and Edward Petherbridge are settling down to a dinner of barbecued rabbit one night when they spy a Rolls Royce cruising by – and in the back is a man who is the spitting image of one of them! Either they are providentially close to his home, or very fast on their feet, because when Leech’s double decides to take a dip in his private pool they are on the scene to put an arrow in him (Petherbridge, like many tramps, is a crack archer) so his down-and-out double can replace him.

It gets even more ridiculous: having adopted this new identity less than a minute earlier, Leech is entirely untroubled when Steed turns up, greeting him with a genial ‘Hello, John!’ How does he know Steed’s name? It’s vaguely alluded to that Leech’s character has fallen on hard times from a fairly elevated position, but there’s no suggestion he actually knew Steed in his earlier life, nor does Steed indicate he knew someone who was a lookalike for the man Leech has replaced (though, as noted, he has previously met three different duplicates of him, along with six duplicates of Edwin Richfield, four Peter Bowleses and Julian Glovers, two Peter Cushings and Christopher Lees, etc).

Anyway, from this frankly wobbly beginning we are invited to believe that the lust for power and influence seizes the two tramps, and they recruit a disgraced plastic surgeon to run a mission for the needy in London. The homeless population is apparently bursting with duplicates of the rich and powerful, whom they proceed to spend five years substituting for their originals.

Buying the premise is probably the most demanding thing about watching Faces, because it really does require you to put your disbelief in a iron death-grip. If you can put all this to one side, the episode is not unrewarding – Patrick Macnee gets some good material as an unusually driven Steed (though we meet yet another of his never-heard-of-before best friends who is basically just there to die), and there is some clever plotting – working independently of each other, Gambit and Purdey both infiltrate the mission undercover and (obviously) are recruited to replace themselves. (Given the episode is arguably making some kind of comment about class divisions and the resulting institutionalised envy in British society, there’s also a curious little scene where Steed gently but firmly puts Gambit in his place for not coming from the ‘right’ background – he has the temerity to turn up to a clay-pigeon shooting contest with a pump-action shotgun, for instance. It’s mildly done, but Steed seems quite in earnest.)

The result borders on farce, albeit with a few genuinely serious moments, but it’s well-enough played to make up for a lot, and at least it seems aware of its own ridiculousness (it concludes with Macnee near-as-dammit breaking the fourth wall and quipping to the audience). Well-enough to make up for the outrageous implausibility of the premise? Probably not, for me, but your mileage may differ, of course.

Something much more agreeably bonkers rocks up next in the form of Spooner’s Gnaws, which also has a rather familiar feel to it – it’s supposedly another riff on the central idea of the same writer’s Thunderbirds episode Attack of the Alligators, but an awful lot of sci-fi B-movies could also end up charged with inspiring the story.

Kicking the story off on this occasion are the activities of two avaricious government research scientists, Thornton (Julian Holloway) and Carter (Peter Cellier), who plan to steal a load of top-secret research materials and set up in the private sector, working on ways to grow giant tomatoes. As you would. This they manage to do, even after Thornton (who is a proper mad scientist) kills the agent routinely tailing him: the fact Thornton is never under suspicion suggests the dead man was really shoddy at his admin, although this in itself probably doesn’t mean he deserved to die. Anyway, off they go into the wide world of private enterprise, where it’s much easier to overlook little incidents like Carter accidentally pouring half a vial of atomic growth hormone down the sink…

At this point there’s another one of those awkward narrative jumps as we leap forward to the anniversary of Mr Bad Admin’s death – I don’t expect anyone’s ever attempted to write a definitive New Avengers timeline, but it would be an odd-looking beast with (presumably) up to a dozen episodes ‘nested’ inside Last of the Cybernauts..?? and Gnaws, both of which take place over more than a year.

Anyway, twelve months on, Thornton and Carter are happily growing giant solanaceae, and everyone but Gambit and Purdey seem to have forgotten about the mysterious murder of the bad admin man. Steed’s concern is with very odd seismographic readings under London – it’s almost as if something very large is moving around in the sewers…

Gambit is sent into the (reasonably clean, dry, and well-lit) tunnels to investigate, and turns up various oddities – Steed’s initial thought was that the Other Side were up to something involving subterranean bugging, but he runs into one of their security men (Jeremy Young, fourth of four) who has exactly the same idea (the Other Side have their own seismographs, it seems). He also meets a maintenance man (Keith Alexander, a supporting artist in a couple of Gerry Anderson projects) who complains that someone has been dragging enormous sacks of grain into the sewer – normally this would attract every rat in the network, but they are surprisingly thin on the ground…

A moody little squeaker. (Or maybe not so little.)

Well, the actually number of rats in the sewers may have been dramatically reduced, but by bodyweight the rat population is still in very good shape, because – as I’m sure you’ve figured out – Carter and Thornton’s atomic growth hormone has found its way into one rat in particular, which is now the size of a van and nibbling its way through everything in its path, including maintenance workers, tramps, and anyone else in an area adjacent to a sewer access point. Late 1976 and early 1977 was truly a blissful time to be alive if you were into this sort of thing, as – a few weeks after Gnaws first aired (this was effectively The New Avengers‘ Christmas episode) – Dr Who also did a story where a sewer full of giant rats was a key plot point. The poorness of the BBC rat costume is often criticised, but at least they took a swing at putting the actual rat in-frame with the leading actors. Gnaws‘ approach is to film a real rat on model sets and rely on slick editing for the rest of it, but I’m still not sure it completely works.

As you might expect, this is a somewhat polarising episode – I’m not sure anyone really loves it, but there are certainly some people who absolutely hate it. I agree it has its issues – it can’t seem to decide whether to be a spoof or a pastiche of 50s monster B-movies, and as a result the tone fluctuates constantly between self-mocking goofiness and genuine horror (I watched Gnaws again for the purposes of this piece not long after Behemoth the Sea Monster, and was a little surprised to find it had earned its own entry in The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Guide, where it got a respectable two-and-a-half out of five brontosauruses – but then again the same book gives both On the Town and Bringing Up Baby five out of five, and they don’t even have monsters in them). Also, any episode of The New Avengers which basically resolves by Gambit arriving with an enormous gun has got serious foundational problems.

But on the other hand, it does have a certain kind of goofy charm to it, there are some nice performances, and the fight between Jeremy Young and Joanna Lumley is upper-bracket stuff. Possibly most importantly, this was one of the episodes I watched with young nephew not long ago, and this was probably the one he enjoyed the most – certainly he got the most absorbed by it, at several points showing a distinct desire to hide behind the sofa (decor choices prevented this from really being an option). Saying that Gnaws really succeeds as a piece of mildly scary children’s TV is an odd thing to say about an episode featuring a violent opening murder and six men being killed and in some cases devoured by a giant rat, but it’s some sort of success. In any case, I find it impossible to genuinely dislike the episode.

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Bert I Gordon’s 1977 film Empire of the Ants kicks off with some close-up footage of leaf-cutter ants going about their business, while a basso profundo voice-over does its best to make them seem menacing. The nature-documentary tone of most of the commentary doesn’t help its cause much, and it winds up by pushing the dangers of ant pheromones particularly hard, which initially seems like a stretch. To anyone not familiar with the Bert I Gordon oeuvre it gives the impression that we’re in for one of those nature-strikes-back eco-horror movies.

Indications that things may be a bit more out there come during the opening credits, which depict barrels of radioactive waste being dumped into the sea off the Florida coast. At more than one point the credits stress that this movie is based on an H. G. Wells story, which is technically true, but also in a very real sense completely fraudulent. One of the barrels of gunk (which resembles silver paint) washes up on beach, where the local ants clearly find it very tasty.

From here we find ourselves pitched into what feels like a very different kind of story. Joan Collins, in the midst of the career slump to end all career slumps, plays Marilyn Fryser, a thrusting young property developer intent on attracting new investors for her new project Dreamland Shores, a resort community on the Florida coast. (All incredibly authentically Wellsian, I think you’ll agree.) Various people duly turn up to be shuttled about by Collins, her assistant, and grizzled old boat captain Robert Lansing, and it gradually starts to feel like a conventional disaster movie, albeit one made on a punitively low budget with a cast of obscure and generally uncharismatic performers working with a pedestrian script.

A lot of horror and SF movies have to negotiate this kind of slow start and they generally do it by establishing the characters and building up atmosphere, or at least a sense of mystery. Empire of the Ants fumbles this (although I think the low budget may be at least partly to blame), which makes the opening section of the movie pretty hard going. I was rather put in mind of Frogs, another American International horror movie from a few years earlier which also concerns itself with nature getting stroppy while rich people squabble dully in the foreground.

However, this being a Bert I Gordon production (the man behind Beginning of the End, Earth Vs the Spider, The Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast, and other works in a similar vein), when Empire of the Ants finally kicks into gear it does so with an insane level of ambition for a low-budget film from the late 1970s. After various badly-done POV shots of compound eyes balefully watching the bickering potential investors, two of them wander off only to find themselves confronted by ants the size of horses with appetites to match. The ants themselves are realised by a mixture of composite shots mixing blown-up footage with the live actors, and – when some close-up mauling is required – giant ant puppets which are waggled in the direction of the cast.

The results are bad, but quite often not nearly as bad as you might be expecting, and the sheer guts of the film for attempting this kind of storytelling do deserve a grudging respect of sorts. In any case, I would say it’s still the case that the script and acting in this movie ends up letting down the special effects – though you should take that as more of a sign of just how awful the writing and performances are than any indication of genuine quality in the visual effects department.

Collins and the other survivors end up staggering through the jungle trying to reach a boat that will take them to safety, and at this point I did find an icy sense of horror beginning to consume me – not because the film was particularly frightening, but because I’d just looked at my watch and realised this sucker still had the best part of an hour to go.  However, the script has a bizarre left turn up its sleeve, which you might consider Exhibit B in defence of Empire of the Ants – it may be a terrible, trashy movie and an unrecognisable travesty of Wells, but it’s not entirely without some interesting ideas.

The investment party survivors pitch up in a small town not far from ant territory, where they tell their tale to the local sheriff (the ubiquitous character actor Albert Salmi) and the other townsfolk. They seem strangely unconcerned and tell them all to just calm down and relax. When they attempt to leave town under their own power, a police roadblock is in their path. The sheriff orders them dragged off to the local sugar refinery, which appears to be working flat-out.

Yes, here’s where all that opening guff about ant pheromones pays off: the queen ant of the giant brood has installed herself in a booth at the sugar refinery where she is spraying chemicals at the local people (they queue up obediently) which turn them into brainwashed slaves of the giant ants. The townspeople are producing sugar by the ton, which the giant ants turn up to munch several times a day. The ants have this in mind for Collins, Lansing and the others, of course.

Of course it doesn’t make sense in any coherent way, but it at least takes the film off in a new direction, and it sets up the conclusion – without going into details, there is a lot of running around and screaming and ant puppets on fire, and while a handful of our heroes manage to escape it is still not really clear what actually happens to Joan Collins (beyond her miraculously getting a second act to her career courtesy of Dynasty, of course). It’s a trashy ending to what’s essentially junk cinema – I suppose you could argue this is another of those cautionary tales about not messing with the environment, but that’s hardly touched upon throughout most of the story. Most of it has no moral premise or depth to it; it’s purely and simply about people running away from unconvincing giant ants.

There is surely a place in the world for stories about people running away from giant ants (convincing or otherwise). I like to think there is also a place for films which don’t let things like budget shortfalls or lack of special effects equipment get in the way of their storytelling. But Empire of the Ants is not really a great advertisement for any of these things. There is something undeniably impressive about the film’s uncompromising approach to a task for which is manifestly very poorly equipped. But that doesn’t mean the resulting movie is any less staggering to watch.

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Reckless use of atomic energy upsets the natural order of things, spawning a terrible monstrosity which rises from the sea and threatens the dominion of man, devastating a famous city while scientists work desperately to find a way to resolve the situation. Given a capsule synopsis like that, it’s not entirely surprising that Behemoth the Sea Monster is often dismissed as simply a low-budget rip-off, a minor work cluttering up an already overcrowded genre. Well, maybe. In some ways I feel it’s the very familiarity of many features of this film which make it interesting, if not exactly essential. (This film also trades under the title The Giant Behemoth, which is just a bit too close to a tautology for my tastes.)

Okay, so, basic information first – this is a British-American film, released in 1959, and co-directed by Eugene Lourie and Douglas Hickox (Hickox’s debut production). Already connoisseurs of the loopier kind of genre film (and sometimes it’s hard for me to imagine anyone else hanging around this blog) will have pricked up their ears, for Hickox would go on to make the brilliant (and almost entirely different, in terms of sensibility) Theatre of Blood, while Lourie’s name appears on a number of interesting and accomplished films, most obviously The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Gorgo.

It’s over a decade now since I made my first vaguely systematic attempt to write about American sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s, but watching Behemoth get underway brought it all flooding back – it so closely adheres to the conventions of the genre that one could make a pretty good case that this is an archetypal exemplar of it (despite not actually being an entirely American film itself). It opens with the requisite cod-Biblical quote, declaimed over stormy seas, before a montage of A-bombs going off and a rather poetic monologue about scientists investigating the aftermaths of such blasts. This comes from imported American star Gene Evans, playing (but of course) visiting nuclear physicist Dr Steve Karnes, who is addressing some sceptical establishment scientists. The scene is a familiar one, but the dialogue is unusually well-written and the substance of Karnes’ speech is still strikingly on-point today – the ocean is not some bottomless dustbin for all the world’s rubbish and poison, but part of our environment, and what affects the tiny creatures at the bottom of the foodchain will eventually reach us, with unforeseeable consequences. Needless to say Karnes gets a cool reception, but local eminence Professor Bickford (Andre Morell, basically reprising the same performance he gave in Quatermass and the Pit on TV a few months earlier) is sympathetic and respectful.

Nevertheless, in terms of establishig the theme of the film, this whole scene is a bit on-the-nose and is basically just there to introduce the two lead characters nice and early on. When a bit of actual plot becomes essential, we go off to Cornwall where a nice old fisherman, checking his tackle on the beach one evening, is killed when… well, it’s initially unclear, for there is some radiophonic noise and a sudden flare of intense light. But we know this movie is called Behemoth the Sea Monster so we suspect the answer will prove to be an outlandish one.

The old man’s death is followed by masses of dead fish washing up on beaches all around Cornwall. Mixed in with the fish is something which looks a bit like mashed potato but virtually burns the hand off one young fisherman who tries to pick it up; we are left to conclude for ourselves what the lethal mash actually is. (The experienced viewer will not be surprised by the strict delineation in the movie between the working class (brave, headstrong, essentially helpless), the military (brave, organised, essentially helpless), and the scientific establishment (brave, brilliant, and capable of doing virtually anything if given enough time and resources). The few women characters in the film don’t benefit from such careful character development, though they are certainly less brave.)

Karnes and Bickford hit the scene and eventually conclude that something big and radioactive is lurking off-shore – unfortunately it proves to be undetectable by radar or sonar, which pads out the movie a tad. But, like any respectable sea monster, Behemoth rapidly gets bored with hanging around out in the sticks and sets course for London, though not before frying a local farmer and his son first. The trail of car-sized footprints tips our heroes off to what they’re up against, and they check in with eccentric paleontologist Dr Sampson (Jack McGowran), who seems more delighted than anything else by the prospect of seeing a live relict dinosaur (Behemoth is, we are informed, a paleosaurus from the fictitiosa group – a close relative of the rhedosaurus, if one were inclined to be ungallant). Suffice to say he probably changes his opinion when Behemoth nukes his helicopter while he’s attempting to observe the creature.

Well, you get the idea – and even if you haven’t, the chances are you’ve probably seen another film with something very similar going on. Thankfully the film is soon able to stop counting the pennies, abandon its attempts at something approaching documentary realism, and splurge on the big stop-motion monster rampage stuff which is what the audience is here for: Behemoth sinks the Woolwich car ferry (this would probably have been a big deal at the time), tears down a few cranes, appears to demolish Westminster Bridge, and generally wreaks havoc in London, while the scientists are desperately concocting a means to eliminate this menace… but is it already too late?

I fished out my dog-eared copy of The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Companion to refer to while watching Behemoth the Sea Monster and found it received only a distinctly average rating of two brontosauruses out of five. This strikes me as a bit unfair, but also perhaps understandable, as this is in many ways the awkward middle child of three very similar films directed by Lourie in the course of a decade – it doesn’t have the bravura animation sequences of Ray Harryhausen to boost its climax, just some quite primitive and clearly underfunded work from an elderly Willis O’Brien and his team, nor does it have the colour or scale or brilliant central twist of his final film. So what’s the point of it, if it brings nothing new to the party?

Well… new is a relative thing, after all, and what makes Behemoth quite striking, if you’re not prepared for it, is quite how seriously everyone is taking the story. This kind of film is often dismissed as basically just kiddy-fodder nowadays, simply because even the best effects have dated so poorly they now seem laughable, but the film is trying to make serious points about the environment and ecology, albeit in a monster-horror-movie idiom. It seems to me that Lourie wasn’t just repeating himself – he’d clearly seen what Ishiro Honda had done with the ‘atomic sea monster’ idea in the first Godzilla film, producing an movie of extraordinary resonance and bleakness, and was attempting to incorporate some of that atmosphere back into an English-language genre movie.

This is most obvious in the sequence where the monster first comes ashore and attacks London. Some of the acting from the extras is charmingly awful, it’s true, and the monster is notably less charismatic than other equivalent beasts, but there’s a real sense of panic and terror in some of the scenes featuring fleeing crowds – the camera is much closer to them than is usually the case with a crowd-fleeing-from-giant-monster shot – and as Behemoth blasts them with atomic rays we see them tumbling to the ground, flesh covered in gruesome radiation burns. This is not kids’ stuff; nor is the way that (in the ferry sequence) it is firmly established that women and children are amongst the victims. In terms of monster-related grimness, I’ve seen nothing like it except in the original Godzilla.

All that said, I still found Behemoth to be slightly hard work – it’s not a complete rip-off of any single film, but that doesn’t mean there is a single element of it that is genuinely original. All of its ideas come from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, or Godzilla, or other sci-fi monster movies of the period – whatever creativity is involved just concerns how the different ingredients are mixed together. If you’re genuinely interested in atomic monster horror movies, then the subtle difference in the formula here will probably be enough to make it a rewarding watch for you. If not, then there are several other movies telling basically the same story with much more impressive results.

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Most people, if shown a movie, could probably take a pretty good stab at guessing when it was produced. Even without the obvious clues – well-known dialogue, famous stars – there are all manner of subtle little technical and stylistic things that can tip one off to the time a film was made. Most of the time the evolution of cinema as a visual art form seems quite gradual, with only tiny incremental changes – but then, to stick with the evolutionary analogy, there are occasional moments of punctuated equilibrium, when things change quickly and drastically: the arrival of sound, and then colour; the introduction of a format like cinemascope; the arrival of the modern blockbuster around the time of a revolution in special effects technology; the rise of CGI.

All of these are obviously huge changes, but sometimes you look back at an old film – or, strictly speaking, a couple of old films – and you are struck by the fact even during those apparently static periods of slow and gradual change, progress was still taking place.

By the time that George Waggner directed The Wolf Man in 1941, Universal Picture’s initial cycle of monster and horror movies had been underway for a decade: as well as the initial versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, the studio had also made The Invisible Man and various follow-ups like The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Frankenstein and The Mummy’s Hand. They’d also had a go at a werewolf movie, Werewolf of London, without much success (consensus is that it was a bit too similar to a recently-released Jekyll and Hyde movie).

This second take on the theme of lycanthropy is done more in the style of Frankenstein and Dracula, by which I mean it occurs in what feels almost like the borderland between the real world and something out of a fairy tale. This sense is only heightened by the decision to set it in Wales – presumably as distant, exotic and romantic a land as central Europe, as far as most Universal executives were concerned. Certainly, in terms of authentic Welshness, the film is about one percent convincing.

There’s something very odd about the near-total refusal of American horror movies in the first half of the 1940s to engage with real world events of the period, but there we go: it’s practically a genre convention at this point not to mention the war then raging. Certainly nobody mentions it in and around the country estate of Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), where much of the film takes place. Tragedy has recently struck the family with the death of his eldest son and heir, occasioning the return from America (naturally) of his estranged younger son, Larry (Lon Chaney Jr.). (The age gap between Rains and Chaney is, if we’re going to be exact, about seventeen years, or, to put it another way, not quite big enough to convince). Larry initially seems like an amiable, well-meaning guy, which is what the plot requires, although events soon take a rather odd turn.

Sir John’s pride and joy is a big telescope, which he appears to use to spy on the local village as much as for astronomical research, and Larry avails himself of this too: and soon he is peering at the most beautiful girl in the village (Evelyn Ankers) in her bedroom. What can I say – autres temps, autres moeurs. Soon he is beetling down to the village to chat her up properly, apparently not having clocked that it’s a bad idea to admit to ogling someone through a long lens when asking them out.

Still, it’s Wales, and they do things differently there. Having bought a cane with a silver wolf on its pommel (yes, all kinds of plot is brazenly being laid in here) from young Gwen’s shop, Larry ends up taking her and her friend Jenny to the local gypsy camp for what must constitute some very cheap and not very thrilling thrills. The other two go off for an evening walk while Jenny gets her palm read by a gypsy named Bela (Bela Lugosi). Unfortunately, all Bela can read in her palm is a pentagram, which translates as ‘imminent death’.

Yes, Bela Lugosi is a werewolf in this one, though he is let off having to put on the makeup: he turns into an actual wolf. Bela attacks Jenny and Larry has a go at saving her, bashing Bela on the head with his silver cane and getting nipped in the process. Needless to say this kind of incident causes a stir, even in Wales. The natives get ugly and dark imprecations are muttered, blaming Larry for the whole thing.

Needless to say Larry has problems of his own, as Bela’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) fills him in on the details of being a werewolf. (The age gap between Lugosi and Ouspenskaya is only six years, which I suppose makes the Rains-Chaney gap seem a bit more reasonable.) Soon Larry finds his toes getting hairier and hairier, and he is gripped by savage primal urges…

(In an odd deviation from what you might expect, the film never provides the full man-into-monster transformation sequence, beyond a shot of Chaney’s bare feet gradually turning into something more like paws. There’s also obviously something rum about the fact that it seems like the very first thing the wolf man does after changing into a savage, inhuman beast is put his shirt back on – I mean, there were obviously very good reasons for not wanting to have to make up Chaney’s arms and shoulders, it’s just a weird bit of continuity.)

What’s obviously missing from all of this is any real mention of the full moon as the trigger for the wolf man’s appearances, and what’s unexpectedly present is a sort-of association between werewolves and Satanism (the pentagram which both Bela and Talbot are marked with, and see on their victims). So we are still in a kind of half-way house between the folkloric werewolf (very much akin to a vampire) and the Hollywood breed, which this film did the most to inaugurate.

Still, the film’s innovations came to be ‘how werewolves are’, in terms of popular culture, in the same way that the Universal versions of Dracula and Frankenstein likewise define their subjects. Not bad going, considering that Lon Chaney Jr isn’t quite in the same league as Karloff or Lugosi (I always find him to be a stolid, doughy sort of performer), and the wolf man make-up also leaves something to be desired: if the film was called The Boar Man it would probably be better, but I can understand that was never going to fly.

Here we come to an odd thing: for while The Wolf Man is appreciably not up to the same standard as the first Universal monster movies and lacks some of their iconic power, it is – by almost any rubric – an appreciably slicker, more competent, more modern production. Tod Browning’s film in particular betrays its stage origins in countless ways; this is much more genuinely cinematic, and more entertaining as a result. We’re talking increments rather than a quantum leap – both films retain the ‘rude mechanical’ comedy relief characters, in this film a policeman called Twiddle – but the use of a much more modern visual grammar is immediately apparent.

Are we stumbling towards the suggestion that The Wolf Man is in some sense a triumph of style over substance? I’m not sure I would honestly go that far, not least because I would call it a decent example of a foundational horror movie rather than a particularly great film in its own right. But it’s true that the way in which the story is told complements the premise in a way that wasn’t always the case with the earlier films, and this goes a long way towards making up for the fact that the premise itself is only a pretty good one on this occasion. An engaging bit of horror history, anyway.

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