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Friday, November 26, 2010

John Agar - B Movie Actor Extraordinaire

John Agar
Born January 31, 1921
Died April 7, 2002

Marrying America's Sweetheart is a sure way to get your Hollywood career off to a great start and that's exactly what John Agar did when he married Shirley Temple. Agar was twenty-four, Temple just sweet sixteen when they got hitched on September 19, 1945 -- nothing weird about that, I suppose.

Anyway, the six foot three former Army Air Corp Sargeant was on his way to the big time, being groomed by non other than David O. Selznik himself. During his brief period in the sun he appeared with John Wayne in 'Fort Apache'. He was also in 'The Sands of Iwo Jima'.

Things would have worked out well for our leading man, had Ms. Temple not filed for divorce in '49. You just don't do America's Sweetheart wrong and not suffer the consequences, as Agar soon found out: His career took a nose-dive and he found himself relegated to the Bs.

At the time Universal International had a heavy production schedule, cranking out Bs as fast as they could. U-I may not have been MGM, but with its good-looking roster of stars -- Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, Julie Adams, to name a few -- Agar jumped on board with both feet and was soon rolling out B movies from 1955 to 1957. These were the films that would secure his name for all time.

With his work at U-I and later AIP, Agar's career was defined by classics like 'Tarantula', 'Revenge of the Creature', 'The Mole People', 'Attack of the Puppet People' and 'The Brain from Planet Arous'. Not an Academy award winner among them, but classics none the less. What made Agar great was that no matter how menial the roles he always strived -- and somehow managed to succeed -- to present a fully developed, three dimensional character.

In 1981 Agar received the Life Career Award by the Academy of Science Fiction Fantasy And Horror Films USA.

"I don't resent being identified with B science fiction movies at all. Why should I? Even though they were not considered top of the line, for those people that like sci-fi, I guess they were fun. My whole feeling about working as an actor is, if I give anybody any enjoyment, I'm doing my job, and that's what counts." - John Agar

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Brain that Wouldn't Die - 1962

I've always maintained that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. That could very well be the theme of this movie.

This time the mad scientist reanimates the head of his dead girlfriend, keeping her alive in a shallow tray of goo - requisite wires and tubes included. How she can talk with no lungs I don't quite get, but that's the least of our worries with this one.

Our hero - not happy with his fiance's bodiless state - sets off on a quest to obtain the perfect body to stick her head on. So where does a serious scientist go to find a body? A strip club, of course. Why not? He is a man, after all, and men have certain needs. True, he loves her for her brain but a hot body would be nice. He chooses a lousy strip club, though - these ladies wear more clothes than most teenage girls wear to school these days.

Meanwhile, back at the lab, the head is seriously pissed off, moaning over and over "Let me die! Let me die!" and honing her psychic control over the monster in the closet. Yes, that's right, there's a monster in the closet! Apparently it's a failed experiment Doc keeps around for some unknown reason. Add to the mix a shrivel-armed lab assistant, a kidnapped figure model with perfect body and a scarred face and you've got yourself some fine drama here.

Directed by Joseph Green for Rex Carlton productions.

Starring Herb Evers as the good doctor, Virginia Leith as his long suffering fiance, Adele Lamont as the model/body donor.

Original Story by Rex Carlton and Joseph Green, ripped off from Curt Siodmak's classic "Donovan's Brain."

Tag Line: Alive... without a body... fed by an unspeakable horror from hell!

Memorable quote: Kurt (the lab assistant) - "The paths of experimentation twist and turn through mountains of miscalculations and often lose themselves in error and darkness!"

Things to look for: The completely and utterly gratuitous cat fight between two strippers. Good stuff!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Day the Earth Caught Fire - 1961

It's a shame to call this one a B-movie, it's so well done. But as typical with most early SF, this film had little or no budget and little or no hope of being taken seriously by the critics.

Directed, produced and co-written by Val Guest ("The Quatermass Experiment", aka "The Creeping Unknown"), this is a truly marvelous film with a heightened sense of realism that should be envied by modern film makers.

This is a fine examples of a cold war film, using a semi-documentary style to highlight the folly of the nuclear arms race, the uncontrolled race to oblivion that was a constant background to life in the 1950s and 60s.

When the Russians and the Americans simultaneously detonate two nuclear bombs - one at the north pole, one at the south - the Earth is tilted off its axis, causing storms, floods and earthquakes. But wait! It gets better. Soon after it becomes obvious to everyone that something has gone horribly wrong when a solar eclipse occurs two weeks early. There's a priceless scene where a British government lackey tries unsuccessfully to explain to the public that astronomy is not an exact science and really, isn't it just amazing we're able to predict anything at all about the movement of the planets?

Our hero (Edward Judd), a hard hitting, hard drinking, washed out wreck of a newspaper reporter isn't buying what the government is selling. With the help of Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro), an attractive young lady from the secretarial pool at the Ministry, he busts the story wide open, falls in love (of course), dries up and becomes the ace reporter he used to be.

In the end it is decided that the only way to put things right is to explode four more nuclear bombs simultaneously in the hopes that this will shove the Earth back in to position! Ironic, don't you think?

Most of the central drama takes place in the newsroom of the Daily Express newspaper and it is from a news reporter's vantage point that we watch all of London descend into madness. Special effects man Les Bowie did a bang up job considering the minuscule budget he had to work with. The scene where the Thames dries up is very effective in particular.

The newspaper's editor is played by the real life former editor of the real Daily Express, Arthur Christiansen. Christiansen also served as a technical adviser on the film, giving the scenes shot at the paper added realism.

At the end of the movie we are shown two possible front pages for the next day's edition hanging from the presses. One with the banner headline "World Saved," the other "World Doomed." We are never told which one is used as our hero walks out into the deserted streets of London to report on what will be either his greatest or his last story.

Things to look for:

A very young Michael Caine plays a policeman directing traffic.

The protest scene against the atom bomb was not filmed for the movie - it was an actual, live demonstration. Guest placed his actors and his cameras down in the thick of things and shot it as it was happening, again adding to the overall sense of realism that makes this movie so great.

Janet Munro starred as Ann Pilgrim in "The Crawling Eye" (aka "The Trollenberg Terror") and was in "The Swiss Family Robinson" (a fond childhood memory) and "Darby O'Gill and the Little People". But to my mind her greatest accomplishment was giving birth to the stunning Caroline Munro who was in dozens of films including "Star Crash", "James Bond: The Spy Who Loved Me", "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad", "Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter" as well as an appearance in Adam Ant's "Goody Two Shoes" video. Yep, quite the versatile thespian, Miss Caroline.

For those of you too young and too lucky to have lived through it, the cold war was a very frightening time. I remember "Duck and Cover" drills at school, where we were told if we only dropped to the ground and covered ourselves with newspapers when we saw the "Flash" we would be fine. Of course, no one ever explained that if you actually saw the flash of a nuclear bomb you'd be instantly blinded. Well, at least that way you couldn't see what was coming next, like total vaporization. I suppose these drills were meant to placate a concerned population. Nowadays, of course, we're all too sophisticated to believe everything the government tells us. Kind of sad when you think about it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Flight to Mars - 1951

In a nutshell, five astronauts fly to Mars where they discover advanced and seemingly friendly inhabitants. Unbeknownst to our heroes their hosts plan to use their spaceship's technology to help them invade Earth. As expected, the clever Earth people outwit the Martians and return safely to Earth.

Inspired by the successes of "Destination Moon" and "Rocketship X-M" the year before, Monogram pictures slapped together this poorly written bit of fluff in five days and it shows. Lots of stock footage, space suits from "Destination Moon" and a rocketship interior borrowed from "Rocketship X-M" are good indications of a pretty low budget.

Now don't get me wrong, I love this picture. In fact, I bet I've seen it twenty times. The acting is a bit wooden, the direction by Lesley Selander is plodding and methodical and the writing is bad but it has one thing going for it -- A hot Martian woman in a micro-mini-skirt. If you love long legged former models turned actresses ( and who doesn't? ) then you'll absolutely fall in love with Marguerite Chapman ( also in "The Amazing Transparent Man"). She's an absolute knock out. While Miss Chapman had no aspirations of becoming a model or an actress she went on to make more than thirty pictures and even has a star on Hollywood Boulevard.

Cameron Mitchell is the jaded newspaper reporter who tags along to record the trip for posterity. Mitchell is probably best known for playing Buck Cannon on the TV western "The High Chaparral." (Any one else out there old enough to remember that one? Any one? Any one?)

Also starring Arthur Franz ("Invaders from Mars", 1953 and "The Atomic Submarine", 1959), Virginia Huston, John Litel and Morris Ankrum ("Earth versus the Flying Saucers", 1956, "Invaders from Mars", 1953) as Ikron, the friendly Martian scientist.

Favorite quote: Steve Aboott (Mitchell) -- "Dr. Lane, I once heard of a man who climbed a higher mountain than anyone else alive, but he was never able to get down again. What's left of him is still up there."
Dr. Lane -- "The point is, Steve, he made it."

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Earth versus the Flying Saucers - 1956

Man, I love this movie! SF movies from the pre-Soyuz era have a certain innocence about them that I love and this is one of my favorites. We've all become a little jaded by regular launchings of the space shuttle. We see it take off and land on the ten o'clock news and think, "Ho-hum, another trip to space. Big deal." But remember, back in the fifties it was a big deal. We hadn't done it yet, we hadn't been up there. "Earth vs the Flying Saucers" is just one of many imaginings of what rocketry could look like. Clips of V-2s (very popular in fifties SF) are interspersed to add realism.

In "Earth vs the Flying Saucers" we have a couple of young rocket scientists who just happen to be newly-weds, played by Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor. I want you to notice something here: one of the scientists is a woman. True, her role is still more or less secondary to that of the husband, but she's portrayed as intelligent and capable, possessing a keen scientific mind, and this is 1956, mind you.

Special effects are supplied by Ray Harryhausen, grand old man of stop motion photography. Any flick with Harryhausen doing effects is worth watching.

Once again, intrepid young scientists are faced with overwhelming odds. An invading force of flying saucers launch an all-out attack on Earth. Impervious to bullets, bazookas, mortars, cannons, they seem unstoppable. All seems lost until the hero figures out they are susceptible to one thing - high frequency sound. Armed with their new weapon they defeat the invaders, sending disabled saucers crashing into more than one famous Washington, DC landmark.

Hokey? Sure. Contrived? A bit. But you definitely need to add this one to your must watch list.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

THEM! - 1954

I love a good giant bug movie and this is one of the best. This film did so well for Warner that it was quickly imitated by a slew of others including Tarantula (1955), The Black Scorpion (1959) and The Deadly Mantis (1957).

A lot of the giant bug movies of the fifties have similar themes - the dangers of nuclear weapons, Mother Nature run amok - and this one is no exception. Something strange is happening out in the desert and it's up to James Arness (the Thing from The Thing) to figure it out. What they discover are giant mutated ants, transformed by the radiation from a nearby nuclear test site. These insects are HUGE yet they are attracted by minuscule amounts of sugar, which they never seem to actually consume. Ignore that and the movie is quite enjoyable.

Them! was originally to be filmed in color, so when the model shop built the giant ants they made them quite colorful. Joan Weldon (Dr. Patricia Medford) said that they were actually quite beautiful. In this case, a budget cut actually turned out to be beneficial - in black and white the ants are much more effective. You have to forgive the cheesy appearance of some the bugs but, hey, this was years before computers were common place and CGI, well, forget about it. Still, considering the budget and the technical limits of model building at the time, this move stands out as one of the best bug movies ever made.

The scenes in the L.A. storm tunnels foreshadow scenes to come in movies like Alien, even down to the use of flame throwers to destroy the queen's eggs.

*** Look for Leonard Nimoy as an Air Force sergeant and Fess Parker as the 'deranged' crop duster confined to a mental ward to keep him quiet.

Great line, typical fifties paranoia --
Robert Graham: And I thought today was the end of them.
Dr. Harold Medford: No. We haven't seen the end of them. We've only had a close view of the beginning of what may be the end of us.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Beast with a Million Eyes - 1956

This is what happens when you create the movie poster first -- no script, no plot, no guidance, just a poster and a miniscule $23,000 budget. Shot in the desert with a non-union crew, a no-name cast and special effects that included an over-sized coffee percolator as an alien space ship, this movie rivals "Plan 9 from Outer space" for pure ineptness.

This film was so low budget and so badly done (but what do you expect for 23 grand?) that the exhibitors rebelled when they flew out to see the finished product, the product they were supposed to show in their theaters! Where was the beast? Where were the million eyes? One exhibitor reportedly offered to pay for a re-shoot, saying they should just burn this one.

But James Nicholson (co-founder of AIP with Samuel Arkoff) wasn't one to give up. He locked himself in the editing room with the print and a knife, scratched all the frames where the monster and its coffee pot were visible, and emerged with a film that, while still pretty bad, at least was no longer a total embarrassment. Now, instead of a silly looking little creature sitting in a coffee pot, there were lightning bolts and flashes of light like death rays or something. Good enough that the exhibitors were able to show the thing to the public.

What's sad is that the basic idea behind the story is interesting: an alien life force arrives on Earth and takes over the will of animals to use as weapons against us. The invader is defeated in the end when an intelligent family shows it love -- something it can't stand.

This was the only film directed by David Kramarsky, who must've thought better of the whole directing thing after this fiasco.

Look for Dick Sargent, long before "Bewitched", as the deputy.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

What can I say? I love this movie. It has to be one of my top three all-time favorites, right up there with THEM! and The Thing (the original, not the Kurt Russel verison, although I like it as well).

1954 was a great year for science fiction/horror movies. In addition to Creature there was Devil Girl from Mars, Gojira (Godzilla), Killers from Space and more.

Like so many black and white films this movie is strong on atmosphere (It was originally shot in 3-D). The main setting is deep in the Amazon jungle, specifically in the Black Lagoon (what a great name), and the shadows and textures add a dimension of eerie-ness you just don't get with color.

As a kid this movie struck me for several reasons, not least of which was the beautiful Julia (Julie) Adams as the heroine. This ivory skinned, dark haired beauty drove me wild in her short shorts and one-piece bathing suit. I was in love! It was easy to see why the gill man fell so hard for her.

What makes this film stand out though is the underwater action, especially the scene where the heroine, the very picture of innocence and purity, swims in the lagoon while below her, hidden in the depths of the shadows, the creature mimics her every stroke, shadowing her, observing her. There's something creepy about swimming in open water in that you truly have no idea what lies beneath you. Jaws played on this fear in much the same way as Creature, but with far bloodier consequences. It's that feeling you get when something brushes against your leg or foot and you have no idea what's down there. It can scare the crap out you, let me tell ya.

Two men played the creature - Ricou Browning did the underwater work while Ben Chapman played the gill man above the water. There was no room in the gill-man costume for air tanks so Browning did all of his scenes while holding his breath. Clever editing aside, try holding your breath during some of those scenes and see how long you last. Browning had to hold his breath for up to five minutes at a time while trying to act menacing and keep himself from drowning.

Richard Carlson plays the hero, one of the best leading men from the '50s Bs. Richard Denning and Whit Bissell are two other well known B-grade names in this film. Denning played leading roles in several films, but this was the first movie I ever saw him in and I never quite trusted him after that - I just knew he was bad news after the way he treated the gill-man.

The theme of this film, at least what I see is the theme, is lust. Lust for power and glory on the part of the ambitious scientist, Dr. Mark Williams, and pure, unadulterated sexual lust from the creature and it is their lust that brings their downfall, a typical, if not overdone, theme of 1950s films. Remember, this was a time in America when conformity was something to be desired. People were expected to live by the rules, to follow society's norms and in the movies of the early 50s those who deviated from the norm, those who broke the unwritten laws always got it in the end. And so the poor creature was doomed the moment he laid his eyes on our heroine, and Dr. Mark Williams was doomed the moment he laid eyes on the creature.

This movie is now available in a box set with its sequels - Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). Of the three, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is far and above the best, but the box set is definitely worth having if you love the gill man.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

I Love a Good Bad Movie

Picture this: It's Friday night and everyone else is asleep. I'm all alone in the basement. The lights are off. The only illumination comes from the flickering TV screen. I sit enthralled as bizarre stories unfold before me in glorious black and white as I watch “Creature Features,” “Night Frights,” or “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.” It doesn't matter to me whether it's the “Werewolf of London,” “It Came from Outer Space” or “Monster on Campus,” it's all good and I love every minute of it. Some nights it's a double feature and I won't get to bed till three in the morning but who cares? I'm thirteen years old and tomorrow's Saturday – No School! So I stay up, sucking in every second of cinematic magic. You have to remember, this is before VCRs, this is before Tivo. If I miss a second of one these jewels I may never get to see it again, ever. Oh, the horror!

As far as cinema goes, those were my formative years. We didn't go out to movies all that often when I was a kid so I had to make due with hacked up, commercial infested science fiction and horror flix from the fifties and sixties. (Fifties films were my favorites, what with the giant bugs and all. Who could resist “The Giant Mantis,” or “Them!”? Great stuff for lonely teenage boys.)

I think there is magic involved for anyone who truly loves movies, especially low budget gems like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and it is this – You must totally and completely suspend your disbelief. If you are unwilling or unable to do this you might as well stick to documentaries.

I assume that if you are reading this then you, my friend, possess this magical ability that all too many people have lost. Maybe the secret to B movies is that the worse the movie, the more disbelief you must suspend.

Maybe that's why my family thinks I'm crazy.

What's all this then?

B Movies!

I love B movies, those movies my wife refers to as 'Bad Movies.' What people like her fail to understand is that to the true B lover there is nothing 'bad' about these old science fiction and horror movies. Low budget, yes, that's a given, bad acting, low production values, of course. You have to understand, these movies were typically made on minuscule, sometimes nonexistent budgets. But that doesn't mean they're bad, not by any means. Okay, some are bad, I'll give you that. But then some of Hollywood's big budget block busters are just as bad ( try watching 'Pennies from Heaven' with Steve Martin sometime, or 'Dick Tracy' staring that wonderful actress, Madonna). 'B' doesn't mean 'Bad' just as 'A List' doesn't make Paris Hilton a wonderful human being. So don't condemn a movie because of its B status. You may just be robbing yourself of a wonderful cinematic experience.

So, this Blog is my tribute to the wonder that is low-budget film making at its best or worst. There will be no rhyme or reason as to how and when I'll talk about these gems - I'll just go by instinct, by my gut. Some may disagree with my thoughts about a particular film so, in that case, all I can say is “Get Over It!” It's my Blog and I'll type what I want to.


Monday, January 4, 2010

Let's give it a try, shall we?

So I finally broke down and set up my own blog.  It's interesting, this idea that anyone can post whatever's on their minds in the hope (or fear) that someone somewhere might possibly find anything of value in it.  Is it vanity, curiosity or a desperate grasp for attention that drives us to share our thoughts with complete strangers?  Maybe it's a mild form of exhibitionism.  I hope not - I don't want to be thought an exhibitionist.  Well, maybe a little. ;)