Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Triptych Of Sci-Fi Classics

“Once they were men. Now they are crabs.” Allied Artists released ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, a fun 63-minute monster movie with one of cinema’s best titles. The 1957 release may be silly, but it has a good script by Charles B. Griffith, who also wrote director Roger Corman’s better-known quickies A BUCKET OF BLOOD and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, and the earnest cast plays it with honesty.

A group of scientists, including rugged Hank Chapman (Russell Johnson, later the Professor on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND), visit the island site of atomic bomb tests to investigate the disappearance of an earlier scientific expedition. Wouldn’t ya know—and of course you would, just read the title—they were eaten by giant crabs? Even better, they’re Highlander giant crabs that take their victims’ Quickening by absorbing the memories and personalities of the brains they eat and taunting their next victims by speaking in the voices of their friends.

The science is, of course, ludicrous, and it would be a danger to take CRAB MONSTERS too seriously, no matter how bright its script may be. It’s fun to see Johnson stranded on an island and struggling to fix a radio seven years before GILLIGAN’s premiere, and the dopey-looking crabs, which were operated on a shoestring by actors Beach Dickerson and Ed Nelson, provide a goofy joy you’d have to be a monster-movie lover to understand.

Shot using familiar Southern California locations like Bronson Caverns and Leo Carrillo Beach and released on a double bill with Corman’s NOT OF THIS EARTH, ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS is an entertaining little picture with laughs of the intentional and unintentional varieties. You probably already know if you’re the kind of person who enjoys fake-looking bigass crabs, so what more can I tell you?

ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS was the second half of a double bill with another Corman science fiction movie. Hefty Paul Birch stars in NOT OF THIS EARTH as Paul Johnson, a citizen of Davanna, a distant planet decimated by nuclear radiation. A character actor who played few leads, Birch is very good playing an alien being unfamiliar with Earth customs, yet intelligent enough to fake it pretty well. He also didn’t get along with Corman and walked off the picture during production (actor Dick Miller says it was because of Birch’s drinking). Lyle Latell, who receives screen credit, conspicuously doubled Birch in many scenes.

Johnson’s mission is to find out whether human blood is fit for Davannan consumption. The script by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna (THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN) is an unusual sci-fi twist on vampire movies with Birch playing a decidedly blue-collar bloodsucker. Beverly Garland (IT CONQUERED THE WORLD) is Nadine, a nurse Johnson hires to tend to him at his home, where he uses a transporter to communicate telepathically with his world and send Earth blood samples home.

Johnson doesn’t literally suck blood. He uses a contraption housed in a metal briefcase to drain his victims’ blood and store it in transparent tubes. He’s one of cinema’s most interesting vampires, subverting most of the clichés that go along with the genre. After he’s through sucking his victims dry, he shoves the corpses into the cellar’s furnace.

Though it isn’t a comedy, NOT OF THIS EARTH is notable for its occasional dry humor. Its most famous scene may be Dick Miller’s cameo as a hipster vacuum cleaner salesman who falls prey to Johnson. Miller’s performance is the film’s liveliest, though he goes a little overboard when he does a double take straight into the camera just before he is killed. Another light moment finds Jonathan Haze, playing Johnson’s houseboy Jeremy, trying to sneak a peek at Nadine dressing and is slapped for his mischievousness. That Haze plays the scene for humor and not for sleaze’s sake provides some goodwill.

NOT OF THIS EARTH may be one of Corman’s favorite films, because he remade it three times: in 1988 and 1995 as NOT OF THIS EARTH and in 1999 as STAR PORTAL. The 1988 version directed by Jim Wynorski and starring Traci Lords as Nadine is extremely faithful to the original with the addition of nudity and more obvious humor; for instance, the three hobos lured to Johnson’s house in Corman’s film are topless prostitutes in the Wynorski version.

Just a few months after the Russians launched Sputnik I in 1957, Allied Artists had a timely science fiction quickie in theaters on a double bill with ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN. WAR OF THE SATELLITES was reportedly written very fast by Lawrence Goldman (KRONOS) from a story by producers Irving Block and Jack Rabin, and Corman directed it in eight days (Corman claims Charles B. Griffith wrote the original screenplay). It has some good ideas, but it’s too talky and cheap to be very interesting. The casting of Corman repertory player Dick Miller as the leading man works pretty well. In fact, all of the actors (you can even see the director playing two roles) are quite good, considering the speed of production and Goldman’s slack screenplay.

WAR OF THE SATELLITES, like many sci-fi movies of the era, includes a soapy love triangle with the space operatics. Aliens are warning Earth to abandon its space program and destroying manned satellites that try to penetrate a mysterious barrier. Pol Van Ponder (Richard Devon), head of the Sigma rocket program, plans go up in the next satellite himself, along with right-hand man Dave Boyer (Miller) and Sybil Carrington (Susan Cabot). Dave is in love with Sybil, who is attracted to Van, who has no romantic interest in her. Before the launch, Van Ponder is killed by the aliens and replaced with an exact double that can split into two Van Ponders. The idea is to sabotage the mission, but the satellite goes up anyway.

The sets are spartan, but imaginatively conceived by art director Dan Haller, who uses arches without flats to extend corridors without seeing walls. Block and Rabin’s special effects are decent. Van Ponder’s duplications are created using routine split-screen, but some shots that incorporate miniatures, matte paintings, and live action are really nice. Shots of the satellites in space look chintzy though, because the models are too small to look believable.

Although it can’t be considered among the upper echelon of Corman’s work, WAR OF THE SATELLITES has enough going for it to make it worth watching once. For one thing, plenty of fan favorite Dick Miller, although his role as square-jawed hero doesn’t allow him to engage in the comic wiseguy stuff he does so well.

You can now own all three Corman pictures on Shout Factory’s new 2-DVD set celebrating the director’s Sci-Fi Classics. This Roger Corman’s Cult Classics set includes ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS and NOT ON THIS EARTH on one disc and WAR OF THE SATELLITES joining some choice extras on another. ATTACK and EARTH are presented in wonderful anamorphic 1.78:1 prints and appear to be uncut (ATTACK is taken from a British print), whereas SATELLITES is a full-frame presentation that looks quite good, but not as good as the others.

For ATTACK and EARTH, Shout Factory has provided audio commentary tracks with Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas, noted film experts and the authors of UNIVERSAL HORRORS. Weaver is excellent; he knows his stuff and is articulate and prepared. The Brunas brothers, not so much. In fact, right off the bat, Michael Brunas claims Russell Johnson is the narrator of ATTACK’s opening scene, but he isn’t. Weaver solo or with another expert who can speak interestingly would have been a better choice. The trio are still worth listening to, if only because of their enthusiasm and genuine love for the films. They don’t fawn though—they have fun giggling at the films’ sillier moments.

Also included separately from the films are the prologues added for television screenings. They were considered too short to air in 90-minute slots, so director Herbert L. Strock (I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN) pieced together prologues consisting of aimless stock footage and repeats of scenes to add a few minutes of running time. These prologues are patently absurd, but of historical interest.

No extras accompany WAR OF THE SATELLITES on Disc 2. However, Shout Factory has compiled a 35-minute featurette on Corman that consists of various talking heads discussing how awesome the producer/director is. And what a cast—everyone from Hollywood A-listers (composer James Horner, editor Mark Goldblatt), genre filmmakers (Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante), familiar actors (Peter Fonda, Harry Dean Stanton), ex-ingenues (Belinda Balaski, Cindy Weintraub), directors, special effects men, and even Corman himself. I didn’t learn anything new about the man, but it was nice to see the love for him.

Finally, you’ll have a blast with the Roger Corman trailer gallery—more than two dozen previews of films directed by Corman, including not just the three movies included on the DVD, but also THE INTRUDER (starring William Shatner), his Edgar Allan Poe pictures for AIP, the medium-budget World War II actioner THE SECRET INVASION, and FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, Corman’s last feature to date.

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