Queen of Outer Space (1958)

Queen of Outer Space (1958) movie poster

director Edward Bernds
viewed: 09/12/2015

The high camp potential in this 1958 Zsa Zsa Gabor sci-fi pic is right there on the poster, right there in the title.  And in the finer print you’ll see the screenplay is by the great Charles Beaumont from a story by Ben Hecht.  But the most ironically amusing part of the film is its overarching sexism.

Lt. Mike Cruze: Oh, come off it! How could a bunch of women invent a gizmo like that?
Lt. Larry Turner: Sure, and even if they invented it, how could they aim it? You know how women drivers are!

It’s onto the planet Venus that a rocket ship from Earth crashes, stranding three American space pilots and a genius scientist.  They had been en route to a space station, but the space station blows up by some mysterious force, the same force that directs them to Venus.

And Venus is entirely inhabited by women, gorgeous, gorgeous women in short skirts.  The women took over the planet when the men essentially ran everything into the ground and now the ladies keep the men imprisoned on a moon and run everything.  Zsa Zsa isn’t the Queen you would assume from the poster, but rather a scientist, who finds the totalitarianism of the female leadership needing a change.

Camp it is.  Camp of the 1950’s sci-fi kind, infused with a healthy dose of the period’s predominant sexism.

Burn Witch Burn (1962)

Night of the Eagle (1962) movie poster

director Sidney Hayers
viewed: 05/18/2014

If you’re a psychologist who disdains the supernatural, you better hope that your wife is not secretly a witch.  And if she is and then you find out and make her destroy all the totems that she’s acquired to protect you from evil and ensure ongoing luck and happiness, you better hope that you don’t have another witch colleague who has been long gunning for your downfall.  Things might get hairy.

This is a very nice sort of obscure British horror film, co-written by both Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, two of my favorite writers from The Twilight Zone.  I suppose that it’s no accident then that this film has the feel of a sustained Twilight Zone episode.

The film reminded me of a couple of cool movies, notably Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957) and Mark Robson’s Val Lewton production of  The Seventh Victim (1943).  Demons, witches, and devil worship, oh my!  Quite excellent stuff.

7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)

7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) movie poster

director George Pal
viewed: 03/02/2012

I’d never actually seen the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, though I’d read about it and seen a number of stills from it as I was growing up.  As part of our George Pal series, I figured it would be a good change up from the stuff we’d recently been watching.  The other two Pal films we’d seen, The War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960), both had been really good.   On top of that, the script was by Charles Beaumont, one of the best writers from the television show, The Twilight Zone.

It’s the story of a small Southwestern town, early in the 20th Century, a town under the oppression of a tough guy landowner who is trying to get everyone to sell out their property to him.  In comes the diminutive figure of Dr. Lao, a “Chinaman” in the classic sense of the cliche, riding a donkey and smoking a long pipe.  He shows his magic early on as he brings his circus to town.

His “faces” are characters all played by Tony Randall, everything from a snake to Medusa to the Yeti to the god Pan.  His little circus reveals truths to the villains of the town, amusements and magic to the others, and ultimately brings about the happy endings that a film like this must have.

Pretty early on, Felix noted to me, “This film has racist stereotypes of Chinese people.”  Well spotted.  Though, I’m not sure it’s as racist as all that.  Part of Dr. Lao is his fluctuation in character and voice (he has even more voices than faces) and as the film plays out, his most painful Chinese accent is employed mainly when people anticipate it the most. Like when the boy first meets him and he can’t understand him when he’s speaking in Randall’s normal voice, he’s forced to slip back into the L’s for R’s and R’s for L’s.  It’s more troubling than racist.  It’s certainly not intended meanly.

Felix later said that it was the worst film we’d seen in a long time.  Clara enjoyed it more.  Me, I was a bit disappointed in it.  It’s a light children’s film, humorous and unchallenging, but lacking in major sparks or charms.  Pal only has one major animation piece in the film, the Loch Ness Monster the grows from the little catfish gives the film its finale.  Maybe its best sequence.

A young Barbara Eden appears as the lonely schoolteacher/librarian, looking very lovely.

Premature Burial

Premature Burial (1962) movie poster

(1962) dir. Roger Corman
viewed: 12/08/09

The B-side of the Roger Corman/Edgar Allen Poe disc of The Masque of the Red Death (1964), Premature Burial unlike the others of Corman’s Poe movies, stars Ray Milland.  Also, unlike the other film on the disc, I am not entirely sure that I’d ever seen it before.

However, like The Masque of the Red Death, Corman’s style is solid and workmanlike, following the story and building the drama within.  Unfortunately, there is not a lot there.  I’d always understood that Poe himself had a fear of being buried alive, and that is what Milland’s character has, an abject fear of falling into a state of paralysis, which is what he believes happened to his father, and then being stuck in a coffin to suffocate and die.

The film opens with the unearthing of a body with a lid scratched and bloody from the victim who had been entombed alive, and it’s one of the film’s most effective sequences.  But Milland, who looks a bit old for his female lead, the lovely Hazel Court, spends most of his time fretting about what could happen and builds himself a special tomb with lots of escape hatches.

So, when he does end up going into this paralytic faux-death, and gets buried alive, you’ve got to think, “A lot of good that did him!”

Really, it’s not that compelling overall, though the film was also co-scripted by Charles Beaumont.  It’s just a bit thin for a feature film.

What is interesting is the semi-psychedelic dream/nightmare sequence when Milland imagines he’s been entombed in his special crypt but none of the escape hatches are working.  The best moment may be when the poison he tries to drink is just a cup full of writhing worms.  It’s the visual effects more than the actual footage that is interesting, oozing green and yellow, it shares a parallel to The Masque of the Red Death in its dream/psychedelic sequence, but nowhere as interesting.

You can see why it’s a B-side.

The Masque of the Red Death

The Masque of the Red Death (1964) movie poster

(1964) dir. Roger Corman
viewed: 12/06/09

Roger Corman is known for many films mostly as a producer of low-budget horror and/or exploitation films, but he also has a more critical notability for the several films that he directed himself from the works of Edgar Allen Poe.  Actually, he made seven altogether as director, of which The Masque of the Red Death is considered to be the height of his production values.  And it’s interesting, for a man who was more known for adding blood and keeping budgets tight, even claiming at one point that he never lost money on a movie, his approach to Poe is relatively true to the tone and story, focusing on mood and atmosphere over the flowing of the fake red stuff, even in a film about “the Red Death”.

And Corman employed some of his solidly notable assistants in this film, from co-screenwriter Charles Beaumont, one of The Twilight Zone‘s best writers as well as an excellent horror/science fiction author to cinematographer Nicolas Roeg who would go on to make Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) among others.  Corman is notable for getting all number of filmmakers, actors, and other film professionals their starts, so it’s little wonder to see him working with all kinds of quality folks.

This film also benefited from Corman’s finageling of filming in London (apparently to get tax breaks) and being able to use sets that had been constructed for larger budget productions set in a similar era.   And the inimitable Vincent Price as the villainous Prince Prospero, the devil-worshipping, murderous noble who celebrates in debauchery while the poor in the countryside fall to the plague, the “Red Death” of the title.

Overall, the film is workman-like in its dedication to its material, a straight-forward, only occasionally surreal interpretation of the story.  While the narrative additionally empoys the story from another Poe piece, “Hop Frog”, the whole thing holds together well.  It’s not really frightening nor ultimately powerful to my estimation, but it’s still hard to fault altogether too.

The best sequences are perhaps those in which the red figure of death appears on a hill, where ultimately at the end he is joined by other multicolored “deaths”.  You get some of the sensibility of Beaumont here, if I don’t miss my guess.  And Roeg’s camera has occasion to drift into more subjective and strange visuals.  Actually, the credit sequence at the end is quite striking.  In all, this is probably of Corman’s Poe films that I’ve seen the most and/or most-recently.  As a left-over from Halloween, and paired with Premature Burial (1962) on the disc, I’ll be watching at least one more of these before my Halloween cycle ends.

Brain Dead

(1990) dir. Adam Simon
viewed: 01/08/08

This film was leftover in my queue from Halloween, kind of like that candy that never gets eaten.  I actually queue up a lot of movies, 411 at last count from Netflix.  And I move them around.  I try to go for themes and connections sometimes, but I also like variety.  So, I’d left Brain Dead in the upper part of my queue despite it no longer being Halloween.

It turns out, not that I would have suspected otherwise, that it’s a film that I probably saw back in the early 1990’s on video at some point.  It stars Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton, moderately early in their careers, certainly before they achieved higher levels of stardom and filmmaking.  It’s funny, too, because this film feels more 1980’s than 1990, but that’s part of its charm.  This is the kind of movie that doesn’t seem to get made anymore.

It’s a horror film, but much more of a psychological horror film, not without humor or camp.  Pullman is a brain surgeon at a university, who is much more interesting in toying with brains in jars than with ones in humans.  The movie poster takes its signiture image from a brief early moment in the film: a human face is stretched out on some wired platform, and the scientists prod parts of a brain attached to it with electrodes to make it twitch and wink.  This never comes up again, but it is interesting.

Paxton’s character is a friend of Pullman’s, who convinces Pullman to toy with the brain of a now insane scientist/accountant, played by the inimitable Bud Cort.  Cort has gone insane and the parent company for whom he worked is trying to extract some lost information from him.  A car crash occurs, throwing Pullman into a nightmare dream state, conflating his life and identity with Cort’s institutionalized cuckoos.  From that point on, the film cuts from one scenario to another, into new rooms, different locations, varying tortures.  It’s a headtrip sort of film more than anything.  And it works, largely, especially with its earnest low-budget charm.

Adapted from a story by Charles Beaumont, one of The Twilight Zone‘s top writers, its more substantive and clever in its off-beat perspective than a lot of films of the genre and period, and certainly unlike anything being produced these days.