Monday, December 17, 2018

Dojo Classics - Monster On The Campus!

This is the story of a respected scientist who by dint of an accident involving Gamma radiation becomes an uncontrollable monster.

No, it's not this guy.

This is the story of a man named Donald Blake who finds an ancient secret which gives him access to more power than a normal man and a peculiar proficiency with ancient weapons.

No, it's not this guy.

This is the story a professor wishing to unlock the secrets of evolution who gets bitten by a dead fish and changes into a prehistoric killing machine.

Yeah, it's this guy.

The tale begins on a bucolic college campus when a Coelocanth is delivered to one Professor Donald Blake. The fish, treated with Gamma rays to keep it fresh, is delivered in a partially unfrozen state and its blood seeps onto the street where a German Shepherd laps up a few drops and changes into a ferocious sabre-toothed wolf. The dog gets better. Blake (Arthur Franz) and his girlfriend Madeliene (Joanna Moore) along with BMOC Jimmy (Troy Donahue) miss the critical clues but later Blake in a freak accident gets bitten by the dead fish and transforms into a Neanderthal who kills Molly Riordan, a nurse who wanted to befriend him in various ways. The police suspect Blake, but bizarre hand prints convince them another person must be the killer. Blake despite his blackout and misadventure is in class the next day where he again encounters a prehistoric dragonfly two feet in length. Blood again becomes mixed with his pipe tobacco and before you can "Trog" he's changed again and kills again. At last Blake begins to suspect the truth and goes to a remote cabin to intentionally bring out his inner caveman, but his girlfriend turns up as do the police and circumstances get hairy, to say the least.

This is fun little shocker with a ton of coincidence to explain away a slim plot, but it does offer up some very evocative scenes. The image of Nurse Riordan dangling from a tree by her hair after having died of shock is a keeper. Likewise the scenes on the campus streets featuring long shadows work pretty well. The action is pretty evenly paced, and the acting is pretty good, as this one is filled with veteran character actors who know how to keep it interesting. Whit Bissel is on board too as a skeptical colleague of Blake's, and he's always a blast on screen.

Franz as the dim-witted Professor is just unlikeable enough that you don't really care about his ultimate fate. The movie does do a good job of getting you to care about his victims though. There is very little actually seen in this lower budget affair, but a great deal is very effectively suggested.

I very much recommend this one. If you haven't seen it, it's a hoot.

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Sunday, December 16, 2018

Dojo Classics - This Island Earth!

This 1955 epic is a real entertainer. The colors are bright and inviting, the characters are vivid and lively, and the plot is slick and moves at a pretty neat clip. The story is as hare brained as it's possible to be, but the momentum keeps you from questioning too much what's going on.

The story begins nicely with the introduction of Cal Meacham, a handsome scientist and fancy jet pilot played by the booming-voiced Rex Reason. His jet is saved by a mysterious green ray and almost immediately he and his scientist buddy find themselves confronted with the mystery of Unit 16, a secret bunch of tech suppliers who seem to have unworldly stuff. Meacham builds an "Interositer", an all purpose communication device which puts him in contact with the big-brained Exeter played by Jeff Morrow. Next thing we know he's on a mysterious auto-piloted plane and landing in Georgia in a big house full of scientist big brains and Faith Domergue who plays Dr.Ruth Adams. They end up discovering they are working on atomic power secrets for aliens who then tear up stakes and destroy the lot of them save for Meacham and Adams who get hauled through space to Metaluna, a planet under constant attack. There things get screwier and screwier as Metalunans and Mutants alike try to make their lives even more miserable.

The story clearly wants to be taken seriously, but can't really in the end. The aliens seem to want to invade Earth. If that's the case then what they're doing with the scientists seems pointless. They seem to be just doing things to justify a movement in the plot and that hurts the ability of the viewer to invest. It just never makes sense in that kind of way.

Exeter is an alien who seems sympathetic to humans but it's unclear why that is. Most Metalunans seem to be cold and so what happens to them doesn't matter much, at least emotionally. The humans too seem somehow distant and it limits the ability of the audience to invest and really care. Even the obligatory monster, the Metalunan Mutant is introduced in the final reel and seems a meager threat to everyone involved.

This is a great movie to have fun with, but as thought-provoking sci-fi it falls a bit short. It's a dandy romp though and very much recommended.

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Saturday, December 15, 2018

Dojo Classics - The Mole People!

This is the one! This is my favorite of Universal's 1950's monster flicks. It's as bizarre as movies of this era get. I can remember seeing this one on Saturdays or on Halloween Eve marathons and being pretty dang frightened of the Mole People.

The story is told in elaborate and brilliant detail here, but in brief, four archeologists find evidence of a lost Sumerian society high atop a forbidding mountain and seek it out, only to find themselves and the society itself lost in the depths of the Earth. The people have become albinos and live in extremely limited circumstances. They enslave the native Mole People, and see the surviving archeologists as gods. This lasts a while, but the High Priest wants power and plots to burn the men in the fire of Ishtar. But the Mole People revolt and the society crumbles. The surviving men find themselves with an opening to the sky and escape in the nick of time.

John Agar is ideal in the role of Dr.Roger Bentley, an idealistic man who is not afraid to stand up for what he believes to be right even at the cost of his own life. His friend Dr.Jud Bellamin played by Hugh Beaumont stands by him through all the trouble. Nestor Paiva is Professor Etinne LaFarge, a man who lets his fear tear away at him. Paiva's struggles really add an element of emotion to a story that unfolds pretty straightforwardly. Without LaFarge we'd have little to care about as our heroes seem to face trouble unabashed.

Cynthia Patrick plays Adad, a throwback in the Sumerian society who is taken in by our heroes after they release her from punishment. Her story almost becomes the center of this tragic saga toward the end. Alan Napier as the High Priest Elinu is delightfully conniving and gets his quite handily.

The movie though also has a peculiar prologue provided by Dr.Frank Baxter, an English professor who waxes on for many minutes about different theories of Earth and how it might be hollow. This is an odd way for the movie to begin, especially since it goes on so long, but it does seem to work for me. I note that the Warren Magazine fumetti of the movie dispenses with this prologue and gets right into the action.

The Mole People has lots of great touches. The way the opening titles seem to rise out of the Earth is fantastic. The great lair of the Mole People looks like something out of Dante's inferno. The movie has a relentless progression that takes you from the relatively mundane into the utterly fantastic, slowly raising the ante step by step. This is a well constructed story with a highly capable cast and crew, a truly professional effort all the way around.

I give this classic my highest recommendation!

If you want to read the great fumetti from Warren Publishing, check out this link.

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Friday, December 14, 2018

Dojo Classics - Cult Of The Cobra!

This 1955 Universal effort is an out and out horror movie. The premise of Cult of the Cobra is a bit busy, but basically six American soldiers at the end of World War II are sporting about Asia and stumble across a Cobra Cult called Lamians whom they offend mightily and so get cursed with death. Then a woman who can become a cobra begins to kill them off one by one.

The movie stars the magnetic and properly exotic actress Faith Domergue as the fatal "Lamia" or cobra woman, and a gaggle of handsome leading men types as the doomed G.I. Joes. Richard Long plays Paul Able who along with his best buddy Tom Markel played by Marshall Thompson date the same girl played by Kathleen Hughes. Along with their buddies Rico Nardi (David Janssen), Pete Nortan (William Reynolds), and Carl Turner (Jack Kelly), they fly home after the thrill-seekers had a harrowing encounter with the Cobra Cult which ended in the poisoned death of Nick Hommel (James Dobson). Once there the two rivals soon discover that brainy Paul has won the girl and somewhat bitter Tom finds solace in a mysterious but beautiful woman named Lisa Moya played by Domergue. She then knocks off the boys one by one before she is ultimately discovered.

There is a real chummy quality between the men which gives this movie some machismo charm. They seem really to like each other despite disparate personalities and backgrounds. But this esprit de corps is challenged by Moya's beauty and by the death which stalks them all.

The upbeat nature of the men's relationships is countered by the women in the movie who are disruptive and downright dangerous. In addition to the obvious threat posed by Moya, the woman Julia who the two leads vie for seems more than a bit manipulative in the way she ultimately handles both guys and unaccountably blind to the heartache she causes. I don't think she's supposed to be such a heartless character, but circumstances do not make her seem all that charitable.

So in spite of the chaos the men cause in this story, it's the women who seem truly to be the dangerous ones.

The movie has a few really neat scenes, though few are actually very scary. The scariest is a death that is handled off screen and is only suggested and shown in aftermath. That's the kind of restraint this film might've made better use of from time to time to maximize the threat. I did see some attempts in the movie to evoke the manner of a Val Lewton flick, with some startling jolts from time to time, though they aren't nearly as effective. The general antiseptic nature of the movie is really after all what undermines its ability to scare, right from the Las Vegas nature of the Lamians and their dance skit to the generic studio lot feel of the sets.

This does seem like a movie ripe to be remade, and I can see a very sexy version of this made today with the right cast, and set in a more modern setting. it would sure be the snot out of the endless parade of backwoods slasher flicks they seem intent on churning out endlessly.

I can't say it's a classic, but it's a pretty decent movie nonetheless.

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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Dojo Classics - The Monolith Monsters!

The Monolith Monsters is another of those Universal classics which played often in the television market I grew up in. This downright weird sci-fi monster flick featured some of the most curious aliens ever seen on the big screen.

The story is simply that a black glistening meteor comes to Earth and its unique qualities cause the fragments to grow in contact with water and these stones then leech the silicon from human bodies sometimes killing the unsuspecting individuals who innocently gather these unusual specimens. The rocks then take advantage of some rainfall in the desert to grow to immense size, becoming monoliths which fall and shatter from which more monoliths rise. They then begin a relentless march down a valley directly toward the small town of San Angelo which will allow them to spread in all directions threatening the whole of country if not the Earth.

The threat of the Monoliths is faced down by Dave Miller (Grant Williams) a geologist who lost his partner Ben Gilbert (Phil Harvey) to the meteor's threat. Cathy Barrett (Lola Albright) is a teacher and her student Ginny comes into contact with the meteor and is rushed to a hospital for elaborate treatment in an iron lung.

Dave's teacher Professor Flanders (Trevor Bardette) is along for the ride giving Dave the value of his sage experience. Along with mopey news reporter Martin Cochrane (Les Tremayne) and smart-ass Sheriff Dan Corey (William Flaherty) this gang beats down the threat of the monoliths before they get to the town. How they do it is the mystery of the movie.

The movie can be criticized for offering up a too clever-by-half solution to the menace, but I find I like how the threat is analyzed and then ultimately put to rest. This is one where brains are the only weapon able to even slow down the threat, let alone do it in. Coincidence may play a larger role than some are comfortable with, but it works for me. But it has the virtue of a solution which is hidden in plain sight, and that's always fun when it unfolds before you.

This is a vintage effort of its time, full of good actors going about their craft with precision. There's a perhaps too chummy tone at times, especially at the end, but overall this is a good cast in a decent movie with a really excellent menace.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Dojo Classics - The Deadly Mantis!

The Deadly Mantis is a hoot of a movie. Despite its somewhat wonky and overly direct title, and some belabored special effects, this movie works for me every time I've seen it, and that's plenty. There is a ruthlessness to the storytelling, a relentlessness to the forward momentum in this one that overcomes all the internal lapses in sense and logic.

The story begins of all places in the Antarctic region where a volcano erupts which triggers a tremor at the top of the globe in the Arctic region releasing a giant iceberg which holds captive but still alive a mammoth prehistoric Praying Mantis. We then get a quick course in the nature of the United States long range radar defense network. The first sign of trouble is the disappearance of part of that network, a remote weather station, then the loss of a supply plane, and later still an attack on an Eskimo village. The threat slowly but surely becomes known as first Colonel Joe Parkman (Craig Stevens) investigates and later paleontoligist Dr.Nedrick Jackson (William Hopper) and his girl photographer Marge Blaine (Alix Talton) are called on to help identify the mysterious assailant. This trio become our focus as the Mantis makes itself known in a direct attack on a military base threatening the three directly. The Mantis then heads south as do our heroes and the scene shifts to the East Coast of the United States especially the Washington DC and later the New York City areas. The Mantis is public enemy number one and the whole force of America's aerial defenses are called upon to act and track this invader. They do and the conflict becomes increasingly personal and close-up as the Deadly Mantis is confronted.

This is a whopper of a bug, and a whopper of a movie. The reason I like this movie is unaccountable nostalgia for it from the many Saturday afternoons viewings as a kid no doubt, but these days I still find it a charming entertainment, never dull really because of its careful construction. This is less a monster movie than what I'd have to dub a military procedural flick. Like police procedural television shows the fun comes often less from the specific crime but from watching the steady application of police practice to figuring out the crime and catching the villain. Dragnet is a great example and in more modern times Law and Order (the first one). The small irony here is that Craig Stevens is best known for his role as Peter Gunn and William Hopper as "Paul Drake" on Perry Mason.

The Deadly Mantis feels like that to me. A movie which is a tutorial in American air defense and at the same time showing how those defenses work in harmony to protect the homeland from an exotic but still palpable threat. The Mantis is a pretty decent stand-in for an aerial attack from a foreign land (you know who I mean), and his rapacious nature sure doesn't understate the nature of the real threat many in the audience would've felt upon seeing this sci-fi adventure.

There are a lot of "bus" gimmicks in this movie too. The term from Val Lewton's movies, refers to any quick scares which turn to be benign. That happens in this movie a lot, and one of them is actually a bus for real. It's a cheap thrill and works for first viewers very well, though not so much on repeated viewings of course. This is fun movie in this modern time far removed from the threat it symbolizes, and I'd argue the movie which makes the best and most effective use of stock footage of any I've ever seen. This gives the movie a sense of being of its time more fully than many of these William Alland Universal movies feel.

The Deadly Mantis ain't a great movie, but it's a dandy entertainment and a blast back to a pre-satellite era when the United States was defended less by eyes in the sky but by a myriad of dedicated and hard-working eyes on the sky.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Dojo Classics - Tarantula!

Tarantula is one of those Saturday afternoon classics that made me fall in love with science fiction and horror stories. This Jack Arnold flick was in heavy rotation with other movies from Universal's 50's library, all of which I'll get to later, and it gave me the creeps exceedingly well for all its sunny sets.

The titular monster is pretty scary in its own right, but that takes at least half the movie to develop. The early parts of this monster epic are taken up with deformed men in pajamas raising all sorts of questions and creating all manner of trouble for our protagonists.

Our hero Dr.Matt Hastings flies back into the town of Desert Rock, Arizona just in time to be summoned by the sheriff (played to the hilt by Nestor Paiva) to identify a mysterious body which turns to be the partner of Professor Deemer (Leo J. Carrol), a somewhat eccentric but generally kindly scientist isolated in his desert home. The dead body is overcome with the symptoms of acromegaly, but the symptoms for this chronic but not immediately fatal disease seem to have come on with amazing swiftness. That's the core mystery for the first half of the flick and its pursued by Hastings even as Stephanie "Steve" Clayton arrives to take on a role as assistant to the scientific operation.

Between bouts of flirting, the mystery is unraveled bit by bit by the pair, as Deemer is attacked by another deformed man and his lab burned out. A Tarantula at least six feet across escapes. Then cattle start to die, leaving only stripped bones and pools of venom. It's not until the movies' third act that the full-sized Tarantula appears, but then appear he does in spades. It lumbers around the landscape at will attacking people and threatening the town of Desert Rock itself.

This movie has it all. A small threat created by the insane and deformed men, and the large threat of the Tarantula. The jovial John Agar is in perfect form as Hastings and he's well matched by Mara Corday as Clayton. Paiva heads up a dandy cast of sidekicks and characters who inhabit the town, though the town itself seems straight out off the back lot, which of course it is. That doesn't mean the natural settings are any less effective, as putting this story in the desert is an ideal choice not only for hiding the monster, but creating a sparse and isolated mood for the story.

The use of a real Tarantula is very effective and makes this one above average, and a movie that holds up remarkably well over fifty years later. The damage it causes is well realized, in particular a truck which is convincingly flung off the road.

If you've never had the chance to catch this one I highly recommend it. It doesn't scare me like it did so many years ago, but it's still a fantastic entertainment. One oddball connection with these sci-fi classics is that in another Universal monster mash (Cult of the Cobra) Edward Platt, the "Chief" of CONTROL from Get Smart had a small but pivotal role as the leader of the Lamians, and in this one Leo J. Carrol or "Alexander Waverly" of U.N.C.L.E. fame has a big part. Spymasters galore it appears!

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Monday, December 10, 2018

Dojo Classics - The Incredible Shrinking Man!

This Universal classic is one of those movies I've seen so many times that I forget to really watch it. This time however, it had been long enough since I'd seen it last to make the experience somewhat fresh. I was most impressed.

The first thing most folks will point to in this movie is the special effects, and they are impressive. The out-sized props are wonderful to see as Scott Carey continues to diminish and world becomes more and more alien and dangerous to him. But what really struck me this time was the psychology of the man himself.

Scott Carey as played by Grant Williams is a happily married man who while on holiday comes into contact with a mysterious mist which turns out to radioactive. Many months later contact with a pesticide triggers a transformation in him and he begins to grow smaller and smaller. Doctors are able to stabilize him for a short time, but eventually his shrinking results in him becoming a six inch man living in doll house on his living room floor. A moment's carelessness and he is assaulted by the family cat and sent flying into the basement. Thought dead, he is left alone in the basement universe to fend for himself and how he copes with those challenges are what showcase the film's greatest moments.

Carey's mental state wears down as his body gives way on him. And the comparison to less exotic diseases is easy to make. When Carey becomes approximately the size of a small human, that is when the movie makes its few mistakes. The use of a normal-sized human being to pretend to be the midget Clarice (April Kent) and potential (momentary) love interest for Carey has always fallen on its face for me. The movie is reasonably tough in many of its presentations, but fails here to deal head on with the very theme it purports to explore.

On a brighter note, I was really impressed this time with Louise Carey played by Randy Stuart. Her dedication to her husband, despite his self-admitted tyranny over her is remarkable. I've heard the cliche that two people "grow apart" too much to take it seriously, or as little other than an excuse. But in this film, it is literally the case, and it's tragic to watch.

Carey's slow and steady coming to terms with his destiny is what elevates this movie. It becomes in its final sequences a truly transcendent heroic saga, and he becomes a creature unlike us, yet so similar that we feel what he feels as he melts into the very landscape around. His ego is literally obliterated as he becomes part of the larger world.

Good stuff, and Richard Matheson's script based on his own novel is well up to the challenge. And Jack Arnold's direction is efficient and effective. This is a subtle movie about serious stuff, but sadly it gets tossed in with other less serious efforts all the time. It's as good as they get.

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Sunday, December 9, 2018

Murders In The Zoo!

Just watched Lionel Atwill at his heinous height in Murders in the Zoo. This 1933 pre-code horror flick also stars Kathleen Burke, the woman most famous as the "Panther Woman" in Island of Lost Souls. Add in a bumbling Charlie Ruggles for humor and rather stiff Randolph Scott for classic heroics and you have a movie my friends. In fact the hero of the piece ends up being the girlfriend Gail Patrick who doesn't even rate a poster mention.

The word that came to mind after I finished it was "ghastly". We see Atwill dispatch some people with a cold-blooded effectiveness that leaves you breathless at times. The movie opens with him sewing the lips shut of a man who kissed his wife, and a who then is left to tied to survive in a savage jungle.  The metaphor of the zoo itself, a place where wild animals are barely restrained by the slimmest of civilized precautions is evident as the sophisticated Atwill is as deadly as any snake, cat, or other critter aching to get loose.

The movie is lurid and creepy and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's like there's danger everywhere, and man himself is not removed really from the savagery on every front. One harsh part of this flick is seeing the zoo conditions which were I assume standard at the time, and are pretty rugged and even cruel. So if you can get by man's true viciousness to his fellow creatures, then you might enjoy this drama about his cruelty to his own kind.  If you can get a copy or catch sometimes on the television, I say do so. It's worth the effort.

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