The Unknown Terror (1957)

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three star

Common wisdom tends to posit Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now as an art film upheaval of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, but I think there’s something undeniably pulpy in the film’s final act that compromises that reading. Marlon Brando’s infamous performance as Colonel Kurtz is an intensely weird vision of madness that elevates the material in a last minute left turn, but the more I mull over the character the more he plays like a true archetype of a mad villain than a modern subversion of that trope. This rings especially true after watching the drive-in horror cheapie The Unknown Terror. The villain of The Unknown Terror is a mad scientist type who has won over the hearts of a remote Mexican community by “conquering the God of Death” with First World medicines, an act of “charity” that has made him something of an unchecked deity among the locals. Much like Kurtz, the wicked Dr. Ramsey loses control of his hubris and lets the newfound power go straight to his head. He also loses his sanity and becomes enraptured with the natural world, dangerously so. The idea that Dr. Ramsey would be modeled after Kurtz isn’t too much out of the ordinary, given the influential nature of Conrad’s novel, but the way his character is played for cheap drive-in thrills in The Unknown Terror points to a pulp aspect of Brando’s odd mode of scenery chewing in Apocalypse Now, an energy he would later repeat in The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Even outside of its context under the umbrella of Heart of Darkness adaptations/bastardizations, The Unknown Terror is still an entertaining slice of schlocky sci-fi horror. In a way it plays like the major studio productions in the decades before its time that promised to have something for everyone: music!, adventure!, romance!, scares!. Yet, it still avoids feeling entirely like cookie cutter tedium, since each of these individual elements are executed surprisingly effectively. The musical performances are badass calypso tunes about a mysterious Cave of the Dead that haunts local superstition, featuring menacing lyrics about how Man has to “suffer to be born again.” The adventure is an Indiana Jones-style spelunking effort meant to retrieve a man lost to the Cueva Muertes, a cave believed to be a physical manifestation of Purgatory, where you can hear the screams of the damned. The romance is a love triangle disturbed by a crippling accident in the past & a seething air of jealousy that bubbles to the surface in the rescue mission attempts to recover the missing explorer in the Cueva Muertes. The scares are, of course, what they find in the cave and what has been driving the once reputable Dr. Ramsey to the point of madness. What Ramsey has been hiding from the villagers is that the screams coming from the Cueva Muertes are not at all the screams of the dead, but rather the screams of the very much alive survivors of his cruel science experiments on unsuspecting human subjects.

The same way the evil scientist of The Flesh Eaters cultivates & weaponizes a pre-existing, natural virus, Dr. Ramsey orchestrates the horrors of The Unknown Terror by cultivating & weaponizing a killer fungus. The Cueva Muertes is covered in a very peculiar fungus that spreads through “binary fusion,” latching onto parasitic hosts, namely humans, and transforming them into hideous fungus monsters.  The visual effects of this cave fungus are more or less on par with what you’d expect from this era of filmmaking. The “monsters” are men in Halloween costume getups. The “fungus” covered set looks like a combination of a Buck Rogers alien terrain & a nightclub foam party with a science fair volcano theme. What makes The Unknown Terror at all memorable is the strength of its ideas within its cookie cutter genre film shape, dragging in the specificity of its Of Human Bondage disability shame & the Heart of Darkness vibes of its mad scientist villain to elevate the auto-pilot material, when it didn’t need to try nearly as hard to fulfill its destiny as double bill drive-in fodder. I would never suggest pairing any film with Apocalypse Now, since Coppola’s supposed masterpiece is already an overlong three hour affair, but I do think The Unknown Terror shines some unexpected light on how that film mixes a little genre film cliché into its overreaching art film ambition, especially when it comes to the character of Kurtz. The Unknown Terror is entertaining enough even without that connection to a beloved 1970s classic, but the way it resembles the standard-issue shape of so many of its contemporaries means it wasn’t likely to be remembered otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet

The Monster Maker (1944)

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three star

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After being remarkably impressed by the ahead-of-its-time meta horror of 1958’s How to Make a Monster I was curious to know if there were any previous films that similarly depicted movie set horror mayhem. Turning to the very similarly titled 1940’s work The Monster Maker turned out to be a complete dead end in that regard. Despite what you might assume given their near-identical monikers, The Monster Maker is less of a precursor to How to Make a Monster than it is a distant echo of the Bela Lugosi classic The Raven. Both The Monster Maker & The Raven feature mad scientist types with Eastern European accents lusting after young women they meet at concerts who happen to closely resemble their long-deceased wives. If there were any doubt that this connection were a mere coincidence, consider that the wicked Dr. Makoff (aka The Monster Maker) is indicated through close-up shots of his eyes to have hypnotic powers (a Lugosi trademark from the horror legend’s Dracula days) & that his deceased wife’s name was Lenore, the same as Lugosi’s in The Raven & the narrator’s in its Poe-penned source material. I went into The Monster Maker expecting a groundbreaking work of meta horror & ended up watching a photocopy of a far superior work I had already seen.

Derivative or not, The Monster Maker gets by just fine as an old school creepshow. The dastardly Dr. Makoff, inevitably spurned by the woman who resembles his wife, hatches a wicked plan to steal her hand in marriage by any means necessary. Namely, he injects the poor girl’s concert pianist father with “Formula x54” (or some such nonsense) that rapidly debilitates him with a glandular disease with horrific disfigurement of the head & hands among its chief symptoms. As Makoff is the sole expert in the field of this particular disease, all medical roads lead the girl’s now visibly-deformed father back to the wicked doctor’s “care” so he can negotiate for her hand in marriage in exchange for an experimental cure. Makoff does his best to accelerate the severity of the situation, explaining “For a professional pianist, it’s fatal . . . that is, for his career I mean,” and only his morally adept assistant has the power to set the record straight and limit his villainous power. It all amounts to a kind of non-starter of a climactic confrontation, but the film’s “monster” make-up & villainous cruelty make for a suitably entertaining example of classic horror spookiness.

I can’t laud The Monster Maker as a “lost classic” or any other kind of hyperbolic praise, but I will way that the film’s 3% score on the Tomatometer is vastly unjust. The film has its campier flourishes, like when a vicious “gorilla” (read: actor in a gorilla suit) attack materializes out of nowhere in the third act or when Makoff is experimenting with very sciency science equipment in his sciency science lab, but for the most part it works as a grim, small cast horror. Critics at the time of its release complained that the film lacked action in its monster mayhem, but I think what’s much more interesting is the abhorrent behavior of the film’s villain rather than the violence of his “creation”. Makoff has a fascinating, horrifically bleak backstory similar to a Don Draper scenario that wonderfully complicates & darkens his quest to reclaim his connection with his deceased wife that really elevates the film above its campier tendencies in certain moments. If The Monster Maker were released today it would undoubtedly face claims of being “problematic” for the way it treats physical deformity & disability as a source of terror, but given the time of its release I believe those sins can be reasonably forgiven. I went into the film expecting an entirely different kind of monster than what the evil Makoff delivered, but I still enjoyed the inhumane cruelty of its central conflict for what it was as a derivative work of genre cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Friday (1940)

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twostar

After the last gasp for air in Universal Pictures’ famous monsters brand with the re-release of Frankenstein & Dracula as a double bill that resulted in the creatively bankrupt Son of Frankenstein, there wasn’t much work to go around for actors Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi. The drought that followed for the eternally typecast horror movie heavyweights is perhaps what turned up the heat on their professional rivalry & turned their next collaboration, 1940’s Black Friday, into such a disastrous bore. A bland gangster film with only the slightest hints of horror or sci-fi in its formula, Black Friday is a shameful what-could’ve-been experience, one made dull by Lugosi & Karloff’s refusal to play nice & share the scraps that Hollywood had left for them to fight over.

In Black Friday, Boris Karloff plays a brilliant neurosurgeon who saves his close friend’s life by replacing his brain with that of an infamous mobster. Once a meek college professor, Karloff’s buddy starts to show personality traits of the gangster his surgeon-savior-friend effectively murdered to extend his life. The split-personality professor now has the hots for the deceased gangster’s showgirl girlfriend, drinks & smokes with the same mannerisms, threatens violence in a way far outside his normal character, and (much to Karloff’s surgeon’s piqued interest) talks of a hidden fortune stashed before his death. Rival gangsters & the showgirl dame rush to uncover the fortune before the surgeon can beat them to it, while he’s not fighting off suspicion about what happened to his once genteel friend. It’s even less exciting to watch this all unfold than it sounds, exhausting even for a feature barely more than an hour in length.

If you’re asking where Bela Lugosi fits into all of this, you’re not alone. The original script cast Lugosi as the troubled neurosurgeon & Karloff as the split personality professor-gangster. That formula might’ve actually been interesting. Alas, Karloff insisted on playing the surgeon & instead of taking the role of the professor-gangster Karloff had left vacant, Lugosi was relegated to the much smaller part of a rival gangster. Perhaps the reason they didn’t switch roles outright was that playing the rival gangster allowed Lugosi to avoid ever filming a scene with Karloff. It also allowed him to continue their onscreen meta rivalry that dated all the way back to the actors’ first collaboration, The Black Cat. As a result, although Lugosi is second billed he only has a bit role in the film and does not appear in a single scene with his rival.

There are only a few isolated moments of interest in Black Friday. The film’s opening credits play over a calendar reading Friday the 13th & are followed by an intense death row march that promises a much more horrific vibe than what follow. The film’s sole moments of outright horror are a brutal car crash stunt & an onscreen brain surgery, both motifs echoed from earlier Karloff-Lugosi collabs The Black Cat & The Raven. Watching Lugosi play gangster & Karloff don surgical gear are fantastic images, but aren’t put to much use. The only line of dialogue that really stuck with me was when Karloff’s daughter pesters him about his professor friend’s sudden change in personality & he snaps, “Haven’t you guessed?! The operation I performed was a brain transplantation,” as if that were the most obvious explanation for the change. The rest of Black Friday is a forgettable slog made hopelessly dull by two great actors who were visibly tired of working with each other on occasional projects & fighting over the scraps of the rest.

-Brandon Ledet

The Invisible Ray (1936)

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three star

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One thing Universal Pictures definitely got right in their series of Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi collaborations was allowing the two actors to stray from their legendary roles as the Frankenstein monster & Count Dracula. Unfortunately for Lugosi, the 1936 picture The Invisible Ray only allowed him to stray as far as the role of a mad scientist, something he had played almost as often as he portrayed the world’s most famous vampire. Fortunately for the audience, the film made enough room for two mad scientists, so Karloff & Lugosi could continue living their offscreen professional rivalry in meta, fictional contests. Karloff always gets top billing in these pictures, which I’m sure drove Lugosi mad, but in their first few movies together they typically traded the narrative spotlight back & forth. In The Black Cat they shared it. In The Raven Lugosi stole the show. In The Invisible Ray Karloff actually earns his top billing, playing the more interesting, omnipresent mad scientist of the pair.

The best The Invisible Ray has to offer is in the spooky mad scientist sci-fi horror in the the two segments that bookend the duller half of the film. The promise of this antiquated sci-fi horror glory is apparent as soon as the film’s “Forward”: “Every science fact accepted today once burned as a fantastic fire in the mind of someone called mad. Who are we on this youngest of planets to say that the INVISIBLE RAY is impossible to science? That which you are now to see is a theory whispered in the cloisters of science. Tomorrow these theories may startle the universe as a fact.” So what “science fact” are we to look forward to in the future? Apparently an alien element known as Radium X, delivered to Earth via a “few thousand millions of years” old asteroid crash has been discovered by Karloff’s maddest-of-all scientist. Karloff has a million & ten different uses for Radium X that range from curing blindness to the creation of a sort of death ray. Too bad exposure to the element causes his skin to glow in the dark & the gentlest of his touches to kill on contact. Lugosi’s less-mad scientist wants to use Radium X to help prove his vague theories about how “the Sun is the mother of us all,” and although the two men work together on the element’s discovery & procurement, they disagree on its practical applications, something that gives Lugosi’s dissenter the moral high ground once Karloff’s touch becomes luminous & deadly. In a lot of ways this reflects their real life professional rivalry, seeing how they both had a distaste for one another, but worked on eight feature films together anyway.

I’ve skipped over a lot of the film’s second act shenanigans, which involve a lengthy expedition to Africa in the quest to harvest Radium X from the asteroid crash site. This being a 1930’s film, there’s a lot of unseemly representation of black characters in these scenes as subservient, easily frightened native tribesmen, but if nothing else this is the first instance I’ve seen of a non-white character having a speaking role in any Karloff/Lugosi collaboration so far. There’s also some thought given to how women’s contributions to the scientific community, represented here in Karloff’s much-suffering wife & mother, are often attributed to men. Of course, these instances of non-white, non-male representation are a little thin & undercooked. At best, it’s a modest start & not much more. As I said before, the best The Invisible Ray has to offer is in its mad scientist spookiness. Early scenes featuring a Frankenstein-esque castle being repurposed as a planetarium provide some great, oldschool outer space weirdness, which combined with Karloff’s transformation into The Very Visible Man supplies The Invisible Ray with its most memorable elements. Karloff is particularly captivating in the film, whether he’s donning a stunning welding mask & cape combo (complete with rubber gloves), glowing like a nightlight, or dispensing of his enemies with the simple act of a genteel handshake. By comparison, Lugosi’s presence is far more understated, distinguished only by a goatee that makes him look like a mid-90s alt bro. The Invisible Ray was far from the pair’s best collaboration at the time of its release (that would be The Black Cat), but it’s also far from their nadir. In short, it’ll do.

-Brandon Ledet