Fright Fest: Invisible Invaders (1959)
From another planet comes the Invisible Invaders!
How can you stop what you don’t see?
The dead will destroy all the living!
The living dead threaten all life on earth!
I know, Invisible Invaders? you say. Aliens, you must be joking. Certainly, Tommy, anything Romero-esque would be post 1968 and here you have a review for Fright Fest: Zombies with a film released back in 1959. What gives? Well, I’ll tell you. Yes, the rules still apply, though truth be told this one does kinda skirt the line a bit. The reason I wanted to include Invisible Invaders is due to the ambiance of the film and how obscure it has become in recent years despite its obviously forgotten importance to the history of zombie lore. As per the “rules” and as per the formula of Romero films, the zombies or ghouls or walking dead are not living persons controlled through magic or voodoo, though I do enjoy that variation, it doesn’t quite fit within the spectrum of Romeroism. The rule is simple enough, a person dies, they get up and attack the living, that living person dies and they get up and attack the living, etc. etc. Continue Reading
The Black Scorpion (1957)
Narrator: For centuries, the prayers of Mexico’s peasants have been their only shield against the devastating furies that have wrecked their homes and destroyed their lives. And so today, again they kneel, terrified and helpless, as a new volcano is created by the mysterious and rebellious forces of nature. The Earth has split a thousand times. Whole acres of rich farmlands have cracked and dropped from sight. And millions of tons of molten lava are roaring down the slopes, in a quake recorded on the seismograph of the University of Mexico as the most violent of modern times. To the benighted citizenry of this remote countryside, the most alarming aspect of the phenomenon is the fact that its unabated hourly growth is without precedence, having reached a towering height of nine thousand feet within a few days. And with each added foot, it spreads its evil onslaught into a wider circumference. But what is now most feared is that rescue work will be severely hampered by the hazardous inaccessibility of the terrain.
As we enter into The Black Scorpion, we’re greeted with the above narration, giving no clues to the future horror in which we will soon behold. The premise is basic and strangely different from a majority of sci-fi movies during this very Cold era. A volcano erupts in a little hamlet near Mexico City and the local villagers and animals, mostly cattle, are vanishing. The corpses that have been found are infected with a strange wound and a puzzling poison, biological, natural, and otherworldly found within their bloodstream.
As the story progresses, American geologist Hank Scott, played by well-known sci-fi actor Richard Denning (who looks a hell-of-a-lot like Kenneth Tobey from The Thing from Another World), and his local partner Dr. Artur Ramos (Carlos Rivas), travel to the sight of the temperamental volcano to conduct research and investigate why the sleeping giant has decided to wake. Their investigations lead them into an odd series of findings that eventually reveal the true source of the disappearances of locals and cattle. On their initial venture, they stumble upon a small pueblo that has been completely decimated. They find only one survivor, an infant. The only other person the duo happen upon is the missing constable, eyes frozen in terror and an eerie puncture wound on the back of his neck.
Team Hank then travel to San Lorenzo, which seems nearly overrun with panicked villagers who believe the disappearances and the destruction of their homes are the cause of a demon bull. Hank and Artur seem un-phased by the frenzy or by Major Cosio’s pleading for them to remain in San Lorenzo, not for the safety of the scientists, but so that if something were to happen to them, the Mexican army would not be forced to waste their time in a rescue mission instead of working where they are needed more, with the scared and frightened villagers. Hank simply laughs and continues on with his expedition, which to me seemed odd. They haven’t specified if he was there to investigate the vanishing people and cattle, only that they were there to survey and study the volcano.
Well, this wouldn’t be a quasi-American 1950s sci-fi movie without at least one damsel in distress. For this role, we’re given the lovely Sunset Boulevard showgirl, Playboy Playmate (1958) Mara Corday who plays cattle ranch owner Teresa Alvarez. No stranger to cult sci-fi movies, Mara has been in a few well-known classics, including Tarantula, The Giant Claw, and a number of spaghetti westerns, such as A Day of Fury and The Man from Bitter Ridge, to name a few. Teresa is thrown from her white horse and as one might expect, Hank comes to her rescue. The two seem to fall in love at first sight (barf) and are invited back to her ranch for…well, more than tea I imagine. Before venturing off, Dr. Artur discovers a strange volcanic rock and takes it back with them to the ranch.
At this point, if you’re still watching the film, you might be wondering, where are the giant bugs? And I would agree with you because this is what I was gripping about when I screened the movie late last night. Everything thus far has been “setup, setup, setup,” with little to no release. We’re given a little tease at the beginning, an eerie ringing off screen, but nothing satiable. Don’t worry. The movie is about to pick up the pace.
At the ranch, while Hank and Teresa nauseously flirt, Dr. Artur, after splitting open the rock, discovers what he originally thought to be a fossilized scorpion, is actually alive and scurrying about on the pool table. Here we can almost feel the mood of the film change, slightly. How can a scorpion survive being capsulated in a rock inside a volcano? It doesn’t make sense. It breaks the laws of nature as we know it. Soon after, Teresa makes contact with her phone repairmen who are suddenly attacked by the true villains of all these bizarre disappearances of people and cattle. Giant black scorpions strike and kill the repair men. Special effects guru Willis O’Brien, who created the stop-motion effects for the original King Kong, gave his talents to the creature of these creatures. And let me say, here and now, without his work, this movie would have absolutely flopped.
Well, for many reasons actually. The script was the oddest mod podge of traditional ‘50s sci-fi (think Atomic-age, mad science), western, horror, and a mix (rip off) of Them! and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Most of the acting was great, but there were cringe worthy moments when you’re going, “Did they really just say that?” Case in point, when Hank and Artur are with a local laboratory scientist, Dr. Velazco, the very “mad” looking fellow asks his assistant for alcohol, distilled water, salt solution, and tequila before conducting his experiment on the poison he found in the blood system of one of the found victims of the scorpions. Hank asks, “Well, the alcohol, the distilled water, the salt solution – I can understand that, but what’s the tequila for?” And, right on cue, the good doctor says, “Well, in your country I believe they call it a coffee break” (enter drum roll here).
The mood of the movie is hard to place. Something strange is going on in the story. People are being horrifyingly eaten alive by giant freaking scorpions. Whole towns are vanishing. Cattle are being devoured. And when you see the scorpions on screen, it is insanely terrifying. O’Brien really did a phenomenal job. Stop-motion has certain qualia about it that get under my skin, especially when used with horror. But the cast seems nonchalant about it all. Hank and Artur venture into the subterranean realm of these beasts, discovering a variety of forgotten species, a very Jules Verne Journey to the Center of the Earth type place, made up mostly of only insects, making it even creepier. But still, these scientists don’t seem all that scared. They’re cool. Too cool.
The ending was even more scandalous. After discovering that the all the creatures were not destroyed with the cave-in, they watch as the “granddaddy” scorpion straight up murders the smaller scorpions, making him king scorpion, as if he wasn’t already. The witty humans lure the uber-giant scorpion into an arena, away from civilians. While the Mexican army batters the beast with tanks and gunfire, Hank manages to finish it off by using an electric cable attached to a spear, of which he somehow was able to thrust into the scorpion’s throat, it’s only vulnerable spot. Finally, electrocuted, the monster is slain.
As the scorpion lays there, smoldering, Hank begins to walk away. Artur and Velasco beckon him to stop so that they can conduct research on the creature. And, I shit you not, in more or fewer words, Hank takes the voluptuous Teresa across her hips and smiles, “I’ve got my own research to do,” or something like that, and the two rush away for what we assume to be…well…you know, while the remaining cast and crew grin in that stupid way people did back in the day when something funny was said.
Okay, my tone is probably giving away more of my feeling of the film then needs warranting. And yes, mentioning again the fantastic work of special effects master Willis O’Brien, and how the scorpions on screen really were disturbing, especially that scene with the phone repairmen, truly horrifying. The rest of the movie though seemed short on talent. I’m not saying it was the fault of the actors, most were really good, despite laughing to myself as it seems a habit of Hollywood to cast Anglo-American in roles that ought to belong to someone else. Also, the use of the ringing effect with the scorpions was (lets no dance around it) a total rip off of Them! Not to mention the whole idea of a prehistoric species surviving and returning to the present day is very reminiscent of The Gillman movies.
The upside to all these failings eventually leads the movie to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 back in the early 1990s. So…there’s that. Overall, The Black Scorpion is mildly entertaining. Not the best of what the ‘50s had to offer in sci-fi; not the worst either.
My Rating: 3/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character-driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò. His paranormal-thriller series, The Subdue Books, including Dwelling, Emerging, and Conceiving, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can check out his work on the altar of Amazon here.
Before you go, Thomas has a new book out he’d like to mention. Conceiving (Subdue Book 3) will release on 11/29. Preorders are available now on Amazon for those looking for eBooks. Paperbacks coming soon. If you haven’t read Subdue Books 1 & 2 (Dwelling and Emerging), no problem. While sure, this news may bring a tear to the author’s eye, he has ensured us that new readers can follow the story easily without having read Dwelling or Emerging. You can preorder YOUR copy of Conceiving here.
Universal Monsters in Review: Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man (1943)
Looking back on the start of this series, I’m wishing we’d done these reviews in chronological order instead of random selections. Tracking the progression of certain characters now that we’re in our twilight hours of Universal Monsters in Review, it is becoming quite difficult. Considering especially Frankenstein’s monster, which has already appeared on film four times since the original 1931 fright flick. AND, ole Frank-in-monster has also changed hands twice already, from the granddaddy, Boris Karloff (who defined the role as Monster), to Lon Chaney Jr. (who played the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein) and now with Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, and the more questionable of choices for Universal Studios, Bela Lugosi. Later on, Glenn Strange will also don the endless hours of makeup and prosthetics in future Frankenstein movies. As for the Wolf Man, his progression is much easier to follow. In fact, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man is considered to be a direct sequel from the original 1941 The Wolf Man. It ALL can get rather confusing. Oh well. What is done is done. Perhaps moving forward in our discussion here, we should consider Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man has not a direct sequel from Ghost of Frankenstein, but rather, a sequel for The Wolf Man. And besides, most of these movies are basically stories in and of themselves, holding only quasi connections to the originals. As I will be your host for the evening, shall we begin our review?
Here’s a synopsis so that we’re all on the same page:
Larry Talbot’s (Lon Chaney Jr.) grave is being robbed, but strangely, despite the passing of four years since the events of The Wolf Man, his body is remarkably preserved. And covered with blooms of Wolfs Bane. The grave robbers soon realize that perhaps Mr. Talbot is not as dead as they originally believed. The next scene, we find Larry in an asylum, recovering from an operation performed by good natured yet strictly scientific Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles). Inspector Owen (Dennis Hoey) finds him there, too, wanting to question him about a recent spate of murders. Talbot escapes and finds Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the old gypsy woman who knows his secret: that when the moon is full, he changes to a uncontrollable werewolf. She travels with him to locate the one man who can help him to die – Dr. Frankenstein. The brilliant doctor proves to be dead himself, but they do find Frankenstein’s daughter, Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Ilona Massey). Talbot begs her for her father’s papers containing the secrets of life and death. She doesn’t have them, so he goes to the ruins of the Frankenstein castle to find them himself. There he finds the Monster (Bela Lugosi), whom he chips out of a block of ice. Dr. Mannering eventually catches up with him only to become tempted to to use Frankenstein’s old equipment to fully power the monster.
Before this series, in the long ago, before I had ever dreamed of becoming a published author and creating my own tales of fright, Frankenstein meets the Wolfman was the first Universal Monster movie I had seen. I’d watched bits and pieces of the other movies before, scenes made infamous and those that became direct inspirations for other movies that I had watched. But this one, this was the first. Gathered together with a group of buds for a “guys movie night.” The host’s dogs, Bear and Willie, begging at our feet and scheming for morsels of popcorn. Displayed on the big screen of some monstrous TV birthed from the late 90s, my eyes beheld for the first time, in its completion, a Universal Monster movie. Later on, inspired by this film, would go on to watch The Wolf Man, and then later Dracula and Frankenstein, and so on and so on. There is not much that I remember from that first screening, only that it did ignited a desire to see the others, to return to the past of cinematography. And my History in Film classes in college certainly helped with that desire too. Going back and watching the movie again, for this review, after consuming most of the others, all of the originals, the story played out a little more defined in my mind. And at bottom, I have to say, this is not a Frankenstein movie, at all. This is a Wolf Man movie. And it is a movie about certain ideals and the dangers of obsessive behavior and mob mentality.
The story focuses almost/nay exclusively on Larry Talbot’s quest for an end to his life. The movie opens at the Talbot crypt four years after the events of the original Wolf Man film. And Larry is still somehow alive, though seriously injured. The place on his skull where his father had struck him with the silver cane is fractured. Next, we see Larry’s collapsed body being discovered by police and ushered quickly to the hospital. The doctor, a very scientific minded Dr. Mannering, is shocked at how fast Larry recovers from his surgery. Its all very supernatural. Keep that word in mind while watching this movie. Screen writer, Curt Siodmak, the creator of The Wolf Man character, is taking us on a journey in which the ideals of supernaturalism and science (logic) will clash, head to head. I found it somewhat thought provoking that Larry is completely obsessed with ending his life and that the monster, representing science, is a misunderstood creature…well, until the end in which he becomes an unstoppable machine. There’s a quote from Siodmak that I used in my debut novel, Reinheit, it goes, “You’ll find superstition a contagious thing. Some people let it get the better of them.” And while watching Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, you get a sense of what he’s saying. The villagers on the stage of this idyllic Germanic town, full of song, wine, and good cheer, also harbor anger and resentment, not just to the Frankenstein name, but also strangers and gypsies, mostly fueled by antagonists who insight the rage of the community by reminding them of the injustices that had transpired in the past. Is all this starting to sound familiar? Considering Curt Siodmak was a Jew escaping the growing threat of Nazi Germany, it ought to sound familiar.
The deeper meaning in Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man is commendable, but there are still some unresolved issues with the movie itself. I felt like the entire movie was brilliantly set up and had a wonderful progression as we followed Larry on his quest toward suicide. The end felt tacked on. Dr. Mannering’s character did not feel fully vetted nor relatable. His motivation seemed very sudden. From wanting to take Larry back to the hospital to becoming obsessed with seeing how powerful he could make the monster. Everything until then was golden. And like with most Universal films of this era, the final scene was very abrupt. With the manic villager blowing up the dam, releasing the river, destroying Castle Frankenstein, along with the Wolf Man and monster, and the town itself, presumably, all happens within a span of 60 seconds. Boom. Boom. The End.
Judging the film as a whole, yes,while Mannering’s character did feel very unbelievable regarding “re-charging” the monster, and with the ending being rushed to its final conclusion, the other meanings are hard to dismiss, how our obsessions, be it science or superstition, will ultimately destroy us in the end. Its a powerful message, especially when considering the history of the screen writer and the decade in which the film was made. Looking at the film as a direct sequel to The Wolf Man, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man was an excellent continuation in the story, introducing new branches to the werewolf mythos. The casting couldn’t have been more perfect. Except for perhaps Bela Lugosi as the monster. To me, despite trying very hard to be a dim witted creature, he still sounded too suave. Watching Bela as Frankenstein’s monster was too disconnecting and his mannerisms seemed desperate to separate himself from his more iconic role as Dracula. Honestly, some actors just aren’t built to play certain roles. One could surmise the same about Chaney and how he should never have played the Mummy. My favorites for the film were Maria Ouspenskaya, who was was once again wonderful, as was Lon Chaney, likewise at his best as the very tragic and sad Larry Talbot, both utterly magnetizing and wonderfully depressing.
My rating: 4/5
Universal Monsters in review: Werewolf of London (1935)
Diving deeper into the chambers of Universal Classic Monsters, today we bring to you a strange and unusual tale of a botanist who, while researching a mysterious flower in Tibet, is bitten by a cursed and lowly creature. Coming from last weeks dreadful The Mummy’s Hand, I’m pleased to once again find myself pulled into a movie with directors, producers, and actors that’ve taken a story so fantastic as the Werewolf of London and created something phenomenal. Much as many of the Universal classics, and unlike the famed 1941 The Wolfman, we are torn into a battle between the supernatural and the discoveries of modern science. A reoccurring theme, I think, especially among these earlier films. Fears of the things man dabbles in, and the repercussions of progress and so-called modernity. I found Werewolf of London a wonderful film and wish I’d seen it sooner. I’m a fan of werewolf tales, as much as our guest writer I think. With Werewolf of London, its interesting to see a take on the lore set within the confines of science. Very interesting. But enough of that. Let us see what our esteemed guest has to say!
Werewolf Of London
A look back at a Universal Classic
By: JR Park
Werewolves have always held a fascination for me. At the tender age of six I watched Michael Jackson scream “Go Away” to Ola Ray in the Thriller video as he transformed with excruciating detail into a monster. It terrified and excited me. Thirty years later and I have still not recovered.
Vampires, ghosts, zombies and undead serial killers have all provided me with horrific delights since I was bitten by the horror bug all those years ago, but no monster has held the same intrigue to me as the werewolf. The development of cinematic lycanthropes have certainly been a rapid one in the hundred years since they’ve appeared on film, and as we look back to their origins we find a creature oh so similar, and yet very different from the beast that stalks the moonlit world of the modern era.
Werewolf of London was Universal’s first werewolf film, released in 1935, six years before the much more successful and remembered Wolf Man. The critical reaction was unfavourable at the time, calling it out dated, and given unflattering comparatives to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a film that had been released only a few years before and became a hit.
The plot to Werewolf of London involves a British botanist venturing to Tibet in search of a flower that grows and blooms only under moonlight, known as the mariphasa. Keeping to the horror film standard for which we all know well today, the good botanist, Wilfred Glendon and his companion are warned against his quest. ‘Somethings are best not to bother with,’ is the vague caution they are offered, as they causally ignore the rumours of demons in the valley. It’s not long into their descent down said valley before they encounter the strange bloom. And it’s not long again after that that a snarling wolf-like beast attacks the doctor, leaving him wounded and scarred.
Back in London and Wilfred has managed to bring home a specimen of the plant, but is irritated that the fake moonlight he projects onto the bloom causes it no reaction. Then it’s a cut to a party scene with laboriously long dialogue that doesn’t seem to go anywhere until we meet fellow botanist Dr Yogami who seems to know an awful lot about werewolves.
From the knowledge of Dr Yogami, and Wilfred’s diligence research in text books, we encounter the mythos for this film’s lycanthrope sufferers, and the driving plot of the film: 1) a person bitten by a werewolf will turn into a werewolf themselves during the full moon, 2) the plant, mariphasa, is not a complete cure, but is an antidote to stop each transformation, 3) the werewolf must kill at least one person per night of the full moon or become permanently afflicted.
We got that so far? To make matters worse we are left with the lingering words from Dr Yogami, ‘The werewolf instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves the best.’ Bummer.
Eventually the first transformation scene comes around, and let’s be honest, that’s the bit everyone’s waiting for in any werewolf movie. The scene is handled well with Wilfred stumbling through his laboratory passing pillars as he goes. Each pillar he passes, he comes out the other side more horrific. It’s nicely handled and a good piece of drama that doesn’t disappoint.
But what of the monster itself?
This is a very different design to the snarling, furry faced Lon Chaney Jr of the Wolf Man. Although both sets of makeup were created by the same man, Jack Pierce, his original design was toned down, the studio asking him to make it more human in appearance.
But it’s not just its physical form that makes the creature in this film more human that its savage successor. This monster has the decency to pick up its hat and coat before it begins prowling the dark streets of the city; and even manages to speak in the final act of its death throes.
The influence of Jekyll and Hyde is apparent in these scenes, and it’s interesting to think that this monster would only become popular when it shook free of the chains of another creation and fully relished in its own monstrous mythos.
But back to the plot: Wilfred, now as a werewolf runs to the plant, knowing it will cure him, but as he stands over the strange flower a memory of his wife pops into his head. The monster takes over, filling him with the desire to kill the thing he loves the most (remember the words from Dr Yogami?). This attack fails and so he satisfies his bloodlust with a random woman wondering the streets.
Ashamed of his actions, Wilfred rents a room in an Inn to hide away. This is the first time we get to see the wolf man as a tragic figure, something we’ll see a lot more of in the films that follow. But the four walls provide no prison and he’s back out again, killing, this time in a zoo. There’s a fun little twist in the movie that I won’t spoil, but ultimately the monster sets himself upon his wife before being shot. Mortally wounded, Wilfred rolls to face the policeman holding the gun and thanks him for the bullet, before apologising to his wife (how very British of him).
So is the film any good? The werewolf make up is okay, and the transformations are pretty effective; the first one handled well and the rest being made of dissolving stills, which is something us modern viewers would expect from a Universal werewolf movie. Its major problem is the long periods of dialogue, which in themselves would be okay if they were handled well, but sadly the acting is poor. To begin with I blamed the time period, but a shining light in the film not only gave me some much needed entertainment, but it also highlighted as a comparative, how starch-like stiff the other actors were.
During the scene where Wilfred looks to rent a room he enters a pub and meets two ladies with whom to rent from. These two characters had fast, snappy dialogue, were forever drunk or drinking, and played with a comic melodrama that stole the show. In fact the performance of these two were so strong that I’d recommend watching the movie just for these two, despite how fleeting their appearances are. Good acting is good acting, no matter which period the film is made; just as funny is always funny.
So Werewolf of London helped birth the cinematic werewolf we know of today. It had the changing by moonlight, the tragedy of the affliction and the fascination of the transformation. And although it in itself is not a great movie, it helped pave the way for something far, far better. To quote a line from the opening scenes of the film, ‘Without fools there would be no wisdom.’
And I got through the whole thing without mentioning Warren Zevon. Almost.
JR Park draws from the crazy worlds of exploitation cinema and pulp literature for his literary inspiration. His family are both equally proud and disturbed by his literary output, dragged from a mind they helped to cultivate. He resides on the outskirts of Bristol in the UK and hopes one day they’ll let him in. Mr. Park is the author of several twisted tales of morbid doom, includingUpon Waking and Terror Byte and Punch. He was also featured with a horrifyingly wonderful short in the horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. Besides giving his readers terrifying nightmares, Mr. Park is also one of the founding members of the up and coming UK Publishing team, The Sinister Horror Company, active in promoting other writers and attending numerous conventions.