Monday, May 15, 2017

Brains and Brawn

IT! (1967)

"We're facing a new form of life that nobody understands;" Austrian Herta Padawer - billed as Kim Parker - grapples with a FIEND WITHOUT A FACE.

EVEN though Arthur Crabtree's FIEND WITHOUT A FACE was shot in England by Amalgamated Productions, its Canadian setting, use of US Air Force stock footage, and casting of expatriate American and Canadian actors - even the British players are dubbed - make it seem like your typical Stateside fifties monster movie. At an American experimental station in Winthrop, Manitoba, Operation Dewdrop is being developed to increase awareness of nuclear attacks from Siberia. Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson) is brought in to investigate a number of unexplained civilian deaths, where victims have punctures at the base of the head and that the brain and spinal cord have been "sucked out like an egg through those two holes." Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves) has been draining the base's reactor to create living mental beings, but when the power is boosted, they change from their invisible form to disembodied brains with spinal cord tails and "feelers."

To add to the non-British flavour, the celebrated stop-motion monsters were created (and filmed) by K. L. Ruppel and Florenz von Nordhoff in Munich. The "battle with the brains" climax has since been replicated in everything from ISLAND OF TERROR to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD; the celebrated finale is also an early example of movie gore where - in black-and-white photography - Ruppel's liberal spreading of raspberry jam from a saucepan made an excellent substitute for blood. This siege is repulsively reinforced by Peter Davies and Terence Poulton's sound effects, as the bullet-ridden organs splutter puddles of the red stuff ("at least they're mortal"). Because of this sequence, FIEND WITHOUT A FACE was heavily censored in England, banned completely in the Republic of Ireland, but only slightly cut by the MPAA when MGM released the picture in America.

"To revive a body ... I've done that. But to revive a brain ..." Bathed in eerie blue, the head of Kathleen Breck is the star of THE FROZEN DEAD.

Based on Amelia Reynolds Long's The Thought Monster - a short story published in Weird Tales brokered to the producers by her agent, Forrest J. Ackerman - FIEND WITHOUT A FACE is typical in its Cold War paranoia of science going haywire in an isolated region, but was one of the first science fiction films to address the issue of nuclear energy rather than nuclear weapons. Dubbed "tepidly macabre" by Monthly Film Bulletin and "primitive" by Daily Variety, it is indeed conventionally structured, but despite its naïve final solution, modest budget and obligatory tight-fitting female sweater, when the creatures eventually materialise they seem to enjoy invading in numbers, providing more zest than the human cast.

THE FROZEN DEAD and IT! are two horrors from Gold Star, high on insanity but low on flair. Shot back-to-back at Merton Park Studios, both pictures were written, produced and directed by Herbert J. Leder, a film professor at Jersey City State College whose major claim to fame was providing the screenplay for FIEND WITHOUT A FACE. THE FROZEN DEAD sees renegade Nazi scientist Dr Norberg (Dana Andrews) struggle to resurrect cryogenically suspended SS officers, much to the chagrin of his superiors. When his niece Jean (Anna Palk) and friend Elsa (Kathleen Breck) arrive and Elsa is decapitated, her sentient severed head pleads to be put out of its misery ("bury me, bury me"). Taking its cue from cult classic THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE, Elsa develops telepathy to warn of the sinister plans - as well as control a row of severed arms - and the ramshackle zombies are led by Norberg's brother (a role which provides an early credit for Edward Fox). Playing more like a sixties slab of American exploitation, its one-note sombre atmosphere is only occasionally lightened by outrageous German accents.

Roddy McDowall contemplates the "Mid-European primitive" Golem of IT!, played by Alan Seller. In his 2009 book Trashfiend, Scott Stine describes the monster as "a sculpture of Zippy the Pinhead moulded from half melted candle wax."

Much more playful but also suffering from an unnecessary bloated running time, IT! is the only British horror film to portray the legend of the Golem of Prague. Arthur Pimm (Roddy McDowall), a deranged young museum assistant revives the stone monster and looks after the mummified corpse of his mother by bringing her prized jewels. Annoyed at being passed upon becoming the museum curator, and his one-sided infatuation with Ellen Grove (Jill Haworth) - daughter of the first deceased custodian - Pimm orders the statue to wreak vengeance on his enemies, and makes the Golem "destroy" Hammersmith Bridge in an attempt to impress his love. This destruction, and the nuclear warhead finale, strips IT! back to its meagre budget; McDowall also hams up his supposed tortured role as the monster ultimately shirks into the ocean. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Hiding Behind the Sofa


The 1975 DOCTOR WHO adventure TERROR OF THE ZYGONS not only featured a most effective titular scary monster, but also illustrated themes of body snatching and manipulation of authority figures.

SINCE its return in 2005, DOCTOR WHO has continued to unsettle children with tales of gas-mask zombies and Weeping Angels. These injections of the uncanny into familiar, home-grown surroundings mirror the classic era of Autons on Ealing High Street and Daleks emerging from the Thames. But by possessing an "edited highlights" style and a computer-heavy sheen that distances and detracts, the reboot has lost the gravitas of horrors steeped in the Gothic tradition, which made the Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes era so memorable. Consequently, the new show struggles for emotional depth, as characters and companions drown under the weight of one thing after another, thus diminishing the "frighten factor" considerably.

Fear is the most effective way to grab our attention. Some of the most successful Public Information Films draw on arresting images to hammer home their points (1973's "I Am the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water," for example, aims to scare children away from ponds and rivers by masking a set of scenarios with a bank-hugging Grim Reaper). The limbic Amygdala - within the temporal lobe of the brain - hard-wires this fear-conditioning for self-preservation; the Amygdala has a close association to memory, so scare tactics from youth are subsequently used to mould behavioural trends in years to come. Cultivation Theory states that television could influence the mind to march in step with everyday perception, enlarging the assimilation of disturbing images by pure repetition.

A parasitic seaweed is sucked up by an offshore drilling rig in the 1968 DOCTOR WHO tale FURY FROM THE DEEP. Possessed by the entity, Mr Quill (Bill Burridge) launches his gas attack in the show's first genuinely unnerving sequence.

As a special feature on the BBC's DOCTOR WHO - THE DEADLY ASSASSIN DVD release of 2009, the sixteen-minute documentary THE FRIGHTEN FACTOR aimed to answer what exactly the show's fear element is, by interviewing a diverse panel of "experts" from educational psychologist to church minister. The bombastic theme tune can be a frighten factor itself, so apparently can The Doctor, as well as being a parent/uncle surrogate for the viewer. Although the programme's visual use of everyday objects (dolls, dummies et al) and detrimental authority figures play with a child's conforming worldview, the child attempts to play out these images within the comfort of their own homes, so it becomes an enjoyable experience. As the resident educational psychologist explains, it is this consumption of live action visuals that makes it resonate so effectively, as opposed to cartoons which are too abstract to have the same effect.