Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, October 27, 2019


It's a rainy drab stuffy Sunday here in Manhattan, but with the comforting chill of night comes the chance to once more delve into Prime's bottomless cesspool. Tonight, a trio of monster classics, each mean and strange. Do you dare tamper in God's domain along with these stalwart scientists? 

(1957) Dir. Roger Corman
*** 1/2 / Amazon Image - A

Roger was at the top of his pre-60s/Poe phase game for this fast, cheap and fun whizzbang sci-fi / horror film. It's already come, wowed the world, and gone by the time other science fiction films are just starting to get their heads out of their asses. So we've got a group of scientists investigating the effects of nuclear fall-out on local marine life at a super remote atoll (ala Bikini) at the height of the Cold War atomic bomb test one-upsmanship days. The scientists include many of the cast members from THE UNDEAD: Mel Welles, Pamela Duncan, and Richard Garland. Beach Dickerson is a Marine left on the beach with a buddy and a case of dynamite and grenades. What would a bunch of scientists want with this stuff? Beach wonders. Fat lot of good it does against crabs made of anti-matter who absorb the intelligences and voices of the scientists they eat (and then call to the survivors to meet them in the underwater caves, their voices drenched in heavy reverb). Sure the film gets laughs because the crabs are kind of ridiculous (and there was only one at a time) but I'll take a giant life size parade float puppet thing where you can see the shade sash for its eye lids over just some rear screen projection of crab stock footage or something. Corman gets that. His crabs make only a feint towards crabbiness, but they have wild big eyes and booming voices and massive claws- and they rock.

I turn to this film again and again late at night when I need to forget the last film I just watched or allay whatever woes or anxiety. Its Charles B. Griffith script crackles with fast-paced brightness and speed. No sooner have they rolled onto the island than a Marine gets his head chopped off while looking underwater to see what's holding back their raft. I still remember the dirty kick I got from that as a kid (this was on TV a lot) as such sights were rare due to squeaky censors. Speaking of TV, future Professor (sans Marianne) on Gilligan's Island, Russell Johnson is Hank, the radio operator. He strikes 'sparks' with Duncan, though she's betrothed to Garland for some unforeseen reason (is it the hairpiece?). Not that there's any time for such tomfoolery. The crabs are using their atomic powers to slowly destroy the island, whittling the sides of rock to fall into the sea, ensuring the humans run out of places to hide. It's an interesting idea in itself, along with a few dozen others, and then BAM - it's all over. Now you're back on the Prime menu, left to figure it out for yourself. But come back anytime.

(1959) Dir. Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda
*** - Amazon Image - A+

If you don't already have this on Arrow Blu-ray, you're probably not a Mario Bava fan. What's wrong with you? See his Black Sunday, Black Sabbath and Kill, Baby, Kill! and you'll understand. You'll even understand why we love this early--comparatively minor--work, his debut as director, co-working with old mentor Freda. It's an odd but entertaining enough mix of Gothic and sci-fi elements (a kind of Quatermass Catholica), imagining The Blob if coupled to The Mummy, with a giant pulsing amoeba monster with a great weird look of some kind of black wet slimy muslin and jelly blob pulsing its way around, rising from its sleepy tomb deep in a Mayan cave (in Italy and Spain they go to Central America for their mummies) after being stirred to life by curious macho archaeologists. It must have been what drove away and/or ate the Mayans! A naive patriarchal scientist (John Merivale) figures a tiny sample of the thing can't hurt to bring home and study, but it only takes a little lightning storm or cosmic rays from a passing meteor or something to get it all swelled up again.  While he's off dealing with the big one at the lab, his take-home sample of the Caltiki engorges as well. Soon it's devouring his entire house; he Italian army blasts the villa to run via flame-thrower-mounted tanks in a fiery climax.

Meanwhile a racist German archaeologist (Gérard Herter) who touched the thing back in the tombs and lost his hand from its poisonous weird rabies/gangrene combination, is now insane and will stop at nothing to ravish the scientist's pretty wife (Didi Sullivan), all while his own darker-skinned woman (Daniele Rocca) fumes from the shadows. As he chases the blonde wife all around the mansion (brilliantly under-lit by Bava to emphasize his impure intent), the blob gets bigger and bigger, breaking all sorts of glass, slithering around the halls and through the doors and foyers of the lower level of the house most enjoyably while Didi and her child cower on the ledge above, all brilliantly lit by Bava's startling black-and-white cinematography, deftly preserved for the immaculate HD prime stream. In the sparkling restoration Caltiki itself looks divine, deep black but with Bava's brilliant lighting capturing the glint of light off the slimy weird fabric/scales/ooze as it splits into smaller versions all growing ever larger as they devour flesh and trees alike during the climactic dark night.

The first 1/4 is the best, with the expedition to the rainforest all rendered brilliantly via Bava's masterful use of mattes, mirrors, and miniatures, replete with time out for a sexy native dance set to bongos while the men leer and the women scowl. Parts get too soapy or too dry in spots but blame that on Freda if we must. Bava fills Caltiki with his beautiful camera movements, mattes (the Mayan ruin exteriors are depicted using nothing but a photo and some smoke) and lighting schemes so--if nothing else--it's damned atmospheric, beautiful, and bizarre. In other words, just fine for the Halloween festival curation purposes of this, an accursed Kuersten Prime-a-thon (in Italian with optional English subtitles).

(1957) Dir. Ray Kellogg
** 1/2 / Amazon Image - A-

Casual fans may wonder, but for those of us of a certain age, the SHREWS was one of the better afternoon creature feature offerings on local TV-- we weren't particularly convinced by the monsters - easy enough to tell they were shaggy dogs with wigs and false teeth, but they're terrifying because--as the doctor explained--their digestive juices are so corrosive that even a tiny prick from their fangs is fatal. We kids could dig that. As adults, it's fun to see Gunsmoke regular Ken Curtis as a drunken owl-hoot pining for blonde research assistant Ingrid Goude and trying to off his chief rival, the laconic charter captain (James Best). We'd grow up to see Curtis tangle with so many John Ford characters in similar circumstances (i.e. The Searchers) and Best chasing the Duke boys around the backroads of Hazzard county, and we'd think 'I know those two dudes from somewhere'. And the big climactic use of overturned oil drums lashed together and used as protection for the survivors' escape to the coast was something no kid who saw it in the 70s ever forgot. It was the kind of thing we could vividly imagine ourselves doing, and it wasn't until Tremors-- with its savvy incorporation of the 'carpet is lava' furniture-hopping game--that  we'd see our exact type of imaginative invention so succinctly expressed. Catching it on early morning TV as a kid, it was like our last nightmare of the night was still playing. Even today there's something unsettling about these monsters, chewing through walls with their venomous corrosive saliva, and Curtis just waiting for a chance to get you in a room with one so he can once more have no competition for sultry Goulde. And there are cocktails. Lots of cocktails. 

Prime has a color version but their black-and-white version is the best (the one with the shrew tail wrapping itself around a woman's shoe).

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