Monday, March 16, 2015

Saturday, May 20, 1972: The Beast With 5 Fingers (1946) / The Brute Man (1946)

Synopsis: Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda) is an American living in a small Italian village.  He makes a living partly by fleecing American tourists with "antique" stones, and partly by ingratiating himself to Francis Ingraham, a wealthy musician who owns a mansion in the village.

Ingraham is in poor health, confined to a wheelchair, and he only has the use of one hand.  As a concert pianist this is immensely frustrating for him.  But Conrad, himself a musician, has composed for him a number of pieces that can be played with one hand, something which gives Ingraham some measure of comfort.

One evening Ingraham asks his nurse Julie, his long-time secretary Hilary (Peter Lorre), his attorney Dupreix and Conrad to join him over dinner.  He asks each of them if they consider him to be of sound mind, and they all agree that he is. He then asks them to sign a document naming them witnesses to a new will that he has written.

It is clear that Ingraham is in love with Julie.  So is Conrad; and he tries to convince Julie to come away with him, even though he knows that he has no money and no prospects. Ingraham, he admits ruefully, is the meal ticket for all those around him.  Conrad lives off his largesse; Julie is on his payroll, as is Hilary; and there's no doubt that Dupreix depends on Ingraham for much of his business.

But Hilary has overheard Conrad's conversation with Julie, and he immediately goes and tells Ingraham about it.  Ingraham, thinking that Hilary is trying to turn him against Julie, seizes Hilary's throat, choking him.  Hilary manages to escape, but is left with ugly marks on his neck.  Ingraham tells him to get out of the house.

Late that night there is a tremendous thunderstorm, and Ingraham, calling in vain for Julie, brings his chair too close to the top of the stairs.  The wheelchair tips and Ingraham takes a fatal fall down the long staircase.

The discovery of the body is a great shock to the community, and soon Ingraham's only living relatives show up --  Mr. Arlington (Charles Dingle) and his son Donald (John Alvin). The two immediately start taking an inventory of the house's contents, clearly with the idea of liquidating them. This angers Hilary, who claims all the books in the library belong to him, that they were gifts from Ingraham.

But when the will is read everyone is shocked to discover that Julie has been named as the sole heir.  The Arlingtons are furious, and vow to contest the will.  Dupreix secretly meets with the Arlingtons and agrees to support their claim in exchange for a cut of the estate.


Soon weird things start to happen. There's a light coming from the crypt where Ingraham is buried.  Dupreix opens his door to discover a hand -- bearing Ingraham's ring -- reaching for his throat; he is later found strangled. The piano downstairs is heard to play one of Ingraham's one-handed compositions, but when people go to investigate no one is there.  Later, Hilary swears he saw Ingraham's disembodied hand moving of its own accord.  Arlington is nearly strangled by a hand that seemed to come from nowhere.  And when  police commisario Castanio leads the others to the crypt they discover that Ingraham's hand has been cut off from his body, and a window in the crypt has been smashed -- a window just large enough to allow a human hand to escape....

Comments: We've noted in the past that Warner Brothers didn't dabble in horror movies very often, and on the rare occasions when it ventured out into the boneyard the results were disappointing.  Tonight's feature, The Beast With 5 Fingers, has already aired a few times on Horror Incorporated.  Like Warner's curious misfire The Return of Dr. X, this movie is evidence that horror is a surprisingly difficult film genre to do well, one that shouldn't be attempted by those who don't like or understand it. 

I admire Beast's overall look and set design, and the cast is appealing, especially Peter Lorre as the excitable and increasingly unbalanced Hilary.  As a mystery, it's a little slow out of the gate, but nevertheless it is on fairly solid ground through most of its running time.  But in the third act it falls apart rather spectacularly simply because it can't take its own premise seriously. 

I'll be the first to admit that a crawling, disembodied hand isn't the best idea for a monster, for all kinds of reasons; nevertheless Beast seems to have influenced other filmmakers over the years.  Among them, Sam Raimi:

And let's not forget the dismal 1964 indie opus The Crawling Hand.  It's probably best to see the MST3K version, in which Crow T. Robot points out  (in the scene starting at 1:12:27) that a crawling, disembodied hand would lack not only a brain, but (more crucially) leverage:

Probably the best thing that can be said about a crawling-hand monster is that it's a cheap effect to do -- even the process shots are simple. But then again, a good script is the foundation upon which any movie is built, so thrifty effects only get you so far.  As both The Beast With 5 Fingers and The Crawling Hand amply demonstrate.

The Brute Man

Synopsis: The city is being terrorized by a spine-snapping brute called The Creeper (Rondo Hatton), a grotesque character who prowls the streets at night and seemingly kills at random. The police are under enormous pressure to capture him, but so far they don't have a name, or even a clear description.

One night the killer strikes again, and this time his victims are a professor at Hampton college and a woman named Joan Bemis, whom the Creeper seems to know.

The police manage to corner their suspect in an apartment house; in order to escape, the Creeper enters the apartment of a young woman named Helen (Jane Adams). Because Helen is blind, she isn't repelled by his appearance. He asks for her help, and she agrees, saying that she has a gift of sensing a person's true nature.  When the police knock on her door, she tells them that she hasn't seen anyone suspicious in the area.

Helen knows only that she's met a man who is in some sort of trouble, and she is certain that he is innocent of whatever he's been accused of.  For his part the Creeper is glad to know someone who doesn't scream and run away when he enters the room, and a rather unlikely friendship ensues.

Soon enough the Creeper has murdered a delivery boy who brought groceries to the waterfront storage shed he's been living in.  Here the police discover an old newspaper clipping of three college chums, circa 1930: Clifford Scott, Virginia Rogers and Hal Moffat. 

When the police look for Clifford Scott and Virginia Rogers they discover the two are now married; and that the third person in the photo, Hal Moffat, was Clifford's college roommate as well as a rival for Virginia's affections. The late Joan Bemis was also a close friend of the trio. A star athlete, Hal's face was hideously disfigured in a lab accident.  The accident seems also to have affected his "glands and nerves", not to mention his mind; because all these years later Hal has decided to get revenge on all those who spurned him in college.

Meanwhile, learning that Helen needs $3,000 to pay for an operation to cure her blindness, Hal decides to get her the money -- even though he knows that she will be repelled by him if she's able to see him.  Nevertheless, he goes to Clifford and Virginia and demands money.  Clifford gives him a box of expensive jewelry, but manages to put a couple of .38 slugs into him before he's murdered himself.

Wounded, Hal delivers the jewelry to Helen, determined that she go ahead with the operation. But when the police find her and tell her who she's befriended, she agrees to help them find their quarry. Angered at her public betrayal, he decides that Helen too must die....

Comments: The Brute Man is spectacularly forgettable, notable only as a Universal horror film that was completed just as the curtain was ringing down on the studio's so-called golden age -- and, in fact, a movie so embarrassing that it was ultimately sold off to PRC for distribution. It was also the last film to star the hulking Rondo Hatton, whose glandular condition (acromegalia) had deformed his features enough to give him a repulsive, brutish appearance. Hatton had no acting talent to speak of, but after a memorable turn in the Sherlock Holmes programmer The Pearl of Death (1944) as a character called "The Creeper", Universal tried to build him up as a one-man horror franchise. He appeared as Gail Sondegaard's creepy manservant in The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946) and then, in a nod to the character he played in The Pearl of Death, as The Creeper in House of Horrors (1946). In this film he was a skulking killer who snaps people's spines. House of Horrors was a smart little movie, and The Creeper was brought back (in what we might today call a prequel) in The Brute Man.

The Brute Man attempted to up the ante by providing a tragic backstory for the character of The Creeper and giving him more screen time than he had enjoyed in the past, but producer Ben Pivar's dream of making The Creeper part of the Universal monster pantheon was clearly doomed from the start. It turns out that The Creeper might be an interesting fellow to see skulking in the shadows near the waterfront, but a little goes a long way.  We don't really want to know his life story, and we don't want to spend a good chunk of the movie hanging around with him.  Moreover, Rondo Hatton died while The Brute Man was still in post-production. Even if he had lived, it's unlikely that The Creeper franchise would have been long-lived; horror films were falling out of fashion, and television -- which would soon run the poverty row houses into extinction -- was already looming on the horizon.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Friday, May 19, 1972: Kronos (1956)

Synopsis:  Late one night in the California desert, a man drives his pickup truck along a lonely stretch of highway.  Suddenly, his radio is filled with static and his truck stalls.  He gets out and lifts the hood, then notices a strange white sphere racing toward him. When the sphere hits him it vanishes, and he calmly lowers the hood of his vehicle, gets into the truck, and heads back the way he came.

Soon the driver arrives at a scientific research facility called LabCentral.  There he knocks out the security guard and barges into the office of the lab's director, Dr. Hubbell Elliot (John Emery). In an instant, the white sphere transfers from the truck driver to Dr. Elliot.  The driver collapses, dead; now Dr. Elliot seems not to be himself.  He immediately goes to a locked cabinet and peruses a file that lists the locations and yields of all the world's atomic power plants.

"Plot her orbit? I hardly know her!"
Elsewhere in the building, three other LabCentral employees are working late: Dr. Leslie Gaskell (Jeff Morrow) is tracking the path of an asteroid, with the help of his beautiful assistant / #1 squeeze Vera Hunter (Barbara Lawrence); Dr. Arnold Culver (George O'Hanlon) is using a mammoth computer nicknamed "Susie" to compute the asteroid's orbit.  But something hinkey is going on: Gaskell is certain the asteroid's course is changing for no apparent reason.  And before long Susie bears this out: the asteroid is now heading directly for Earth.

When told of this, Dr. Elliot shrugs, suggesting that Susie might have made a mistake; in any case, there is nothing anyone can do about it.  Gaskell finds Elliot's attitude perplexing.  He implores Elliot to contact the government immediately -- missiles loaded with nuclear warheads must be fired at the asteroid while it's still in space.  If the object isn't destroyed, Gaskell says, its impact could cause enormous damage.

Susie! Speak to me!

Reluctantly, Elliot agrees.  Soon a trio of missiles are launched at the asteroid.  All three strike their target.  At the same moment Dr. Elliot collapses to the floor, unconscious.  But to Gaskell's astonishment, the asteroid is left completely intact and its course is unchanged.  The object splashes into the sea,  a few miles off the west coast of Mexico.  On a hunch, Gaskell and Culver travel to Mexico to see if they can determine the asteroid's makeup.  Gaskell is surprised but eventually delighted when Vera shows up as well.

Back in the States, Dr. Elliot, moving in and out of a trance-like state, is being treated by a psychiatrist.  In his lucid moments, he tells the shrink that an alien intelligence has gained control of him, and is forcing him to betray the human race.  The alien race is trying to absorb all the Earth's energy, and will succeed if given time. 

The following morning, the scientists in Mexico awake to discover that in the same place in the ocean where the object landed, a 300-foot robot now stands....

Pretty sure that wasn't there when we went to bed last night.

Comments: It Came From Outer Space and War of the Worlds, both released in 1953, were popular films that helped launch the cycle of sci-fi movies that followed over the next decade.  And they were archetypal: embedded in each were tropes that we would see repeated again and again, in countless films such as tonight's feature from 1957, Kronos.

First of all, we have a hero scientist who isn't interested in bringing the dead back to life, or otherwise breaking the laws of nature -- those obsessions belonged to the gloomy movie scientists of the 1930s and 40s. Both It Came From Outer Space's John Putnam (an amateur astronomer) and War of the Worlds' Dr. Clayton Forrester (a physicist) are deeply moral men who are only interested in learning the truth about a strange phenomenon, even when the search for truth risks ridicule or even bodily harm.

Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is an early example of the hero-scientist in the movies, looking a bit like Clark Kent the moment before he turns into Superman

Moreover, Putnam and Forrester are carefully presented as more than just eggheads.  Along with their intelligence and curiosity they are quite deliberately shown to be masculine types, successful with women and ready for fisticuffs or more if the need arises (Forrester clobbers a Martian intruder with a metal bar; Putnam keeps a .38 in the glove compartment of his Ford Crestline). 

The brooding social misfits of the Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi era are gone. In their place are men who are responsible and well-adjusted members of society.  in War of the Worlds, Forrester gets along easily with the people of the small California town he visits, gamely participating in a Saturday night square dance, and is treated with great respect and deference not only by the local minister (and the minister's fetching daughter) but by the hard-nosed General Mann as well.  Putnam in It Came From Outer Space is more of an odd duck in Sand Rock, Arizona, but he eventually earns the grudging respect of the local authorities (even though his story is initially discounted by the Sheriff, the astronomy professor and the local newspaperman, the working-class telephone linemen Frank and George are immediately on his side). And even in his lowest moments he has Ellen, the prettiest girl in town, patiently waiting for him to pop the question.

The tightly-wound John Putnam (Richard Carlson) was kind of a fish out of water in Sand Rock, Arizona. But he is never without allies, and has the added virtue of always being right.

Kronos borrows a lot from these films, both consciously and unconsciously. Jeff Morrow's affable manner and athletic build are reminiscent of both It Came From Outer Space's Richard Carlson and War of the Worlds'  Gene Barry.  Like the love interests in these two films, Vera is a knockout who spends most of her time trying to get her distracted scientist boyfriend to pay attention to her.

When the giant robot Kronos threatens the Earth, and the armies of the world fail to defeat it, they turn to science for answers. The postwar optimism about scientists -- what can't they do? -- lives uneasily alongside the notion that science might yet unleash powers that even our vaunted military can't handle.

LabCentral may superficially resemble War of the World's fictional Pacific Tech, but it's also a stand-in for the entire postwar scientific community. The image of the scientist is no longer Boris Karloff furtively mixing chemicals in a secret lab; now science is an open activity, glamorous and well-funded and busily paving the road to the future. This golden age of scientist-heroes in the movies didn't last long, as the optimism about both science and scientists faded and Americans' more reflexive distrust of intellectuals came to the fore once again. But it was an interesting time.

Kurt Neumann had directed countless B-movies through the 30s and 40s, including any number of quota quickies and Tarzan movies. He rushed the Destination Moon ripoff Rocketship XM to theaters in advance of its more expensive rival, while still maintaining a look that belied its meager budget.  Kronos is made in his usual straightforward, workmanlike style. Neumann is probably best known for The Fly (1958) a big hit that he unfortunately never lived to see released; he died in 1958, at the age of 50.