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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Celluloid Zeroes present Political Science Fiction: The Parallax View (1974)


The Celluloid Zeroes celebrate Election Day 2016 by looking at politically-themed horror and science fiction movies of the past to distract us from the horrors of the present. Join us, won't you?


Written by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (and an uncredited Robert Towne), based on the novel by Loren Singer
Directed by Alan J. Pakula

Warren Beatty:  Joseph Frady
Paula Prentiss:  Lee Carter
William Daniels:  Austin Tucker
Hume Cronyn:  Bill Rintels

I wasn't around to experience the paranoia and self-loathing of America as the Sixties turned over into the Seventies, but I can tell from the art that had been produced at the time that it was no Goddamned fun at all. "Art," a mass communications professor of mine used to say, "is anything that communicates." And the pop culture produced by America in the Nixon years was communicating in the language of rage-fueled screams. There was also a boom in conspiracy theories at the time--one of the most common ones being the secret truth behind the Kennedy assassination; certainly the official story that a lone nut with a gun decided to change history all by himself, not influenced by anybody else at all, wasn't enough for some people. 

Come to think of it, that's the official story to both of the Kennedy assassinations, and also for that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Given that a whole lot of prominent left-wing politicians were winding up dead at the hands of lone nuts who were unconnected to any other social movements or organizations, it's no wonder that the national mood (at least according to some of the movies I've seen) was of bitterly suspicious paranoia and fatalistic acceptance of approaching doom.

Well, this review is scheduled to go live on Election Day 2016, where the United States of America will decide whether or not "loud man from television show" is enough of a curriculum vitae to become the most powerful man on the planet. And if you think things looked dire in 1974, imagine how we're going to look with four decades' hindsight if a man who can be provoked into a week-long tirade by a tweet gets to control the American thermonuclear stockpile. Actually, if that happens, we'd better hope that radioactive cockroaches have a sophisticated oral tradition because there's no chance that humanity's going to make it to the end of a Trump presidency if someone from China says something mean about him on television.

I guess I'd rather spend some time in a fictional world where evil is in unquestioned control of my country, but that it's a corporate villain rather than a single human one. Because at least a corporation is going to try and perform in a manner that makes money. There's no point in being the richest man on the cinder that used to be Earth, so an evil CEO looking to reshape the country into something favorable to his company (over a dozen or so of the little people's dead bodies) is preferable in many ways to the evil that could potentially be in charge in January of 2017. I'm sure that the filmmakers thought this was going to be a horror movie, but I wonder if they ever saw things getting so bad in real life that their film would be a comforting escapist entertainment.

The film starts in Seattle (you can tell that's where things are taking place because of the Space Needle and a totem pole sharing the same shot). It's the Fourth of July, and "Senator Carroll" is going to make an appearance with reporters and gawkers thronging around the streets. Word on the street (literally on the street; it's a parade marching down the streets in Seattle) is that the Senator is going to run for President in a year (which sets the film in 1975, I guess, a year after its release, and just far enough in the future to be The Future while still looking recognizable to everyone in the audience at the time). The Senator--whose political party is pointedly not given--waves to everyone, gets into the elevator at the base of the Space Needle and goes up into the monument in order to press the flesh with some supporters away from the turmoil and crowds at ground level. We first meet Joseph Frady, the doomed-as-fuck protagonist, trying to scam his way past a security guy in an eye-searing necktie and burgundy suit (apparently the Secret Service had business casual days in 1974). Frady gets shut down and has to stay back down on the ground with all us mere mortals as Senator Carroll ascends to the Olympian heights. It's totally not foreshadowing that the inevitable local marching band is playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" as the elevator keeps rising.

Just as Senator Carroll starts to make a speech that's meant to launch the next phase of his political career, two shots ring out and his blood splatters the windows of the Space Needle. It's telling that the one journalist we've seen in the film so far is on the outside observation deck so there's a barrier between her and the Senator as he's killed--she's separated from the events as they happen. A red-jacketed waiter with a pistol is immediately grabbed by the horrified bystanders--what we the audience sees, and they do not, as the second man in a waiter's jacket also with a gun making a discreet exit. The known gunman makes a break for it and goes to the top of the Space Needle, scuffling with three men who pursued him in a wordless sequence and eventually falling from the top of the landmark to his death. 

A Congressional committee investigates the killing of Senator Carroll, and after four months of hearings they hand down their conclusion:  Carroll was killed by an unstable madman who wanted to be famous and to protect the country from what he saw as a political threat. According to the seven-member committee, there is no evidence whatsoever of a larger conspiracy around the killer's actions. So don't ask any questions about that. The credits roll over a still of the committee and a dissonant brass fanfare.

Three years later (so...1977?) that journalist who didn't get to the Space Needle at the start of the film social-engineers his way into a middle-class house by claiming to be looking for an escaped parrot; he gets to their back porch just in time for a police narcotics raid to smash its way into their front door looking for dope that pretty obviously isn't going to be there. His presence as the narco squad throws the middle-aged couple around and breaks their stuff looking for smack earns him a trip downtown, where he is not booked on any charges but is threatened by police. Joseph Frady sasses them back, pointing out that he's not the one who did anything wrong in that situation. He's just a reporter who witnessed firsthand a textbook example of police brutality, and he leaves without having to post bail and in one piece. Then it's back to the newspaper offices where we learn that Warren Beatty might well be a Method actor, cause he looks like he actually knows his way around an electric typewriter. Frady gets told that his story is going to be spiked, and that he's not allowed to do any more tweaking of the local drug squad. His editor informs Joseph that he's not going to commit any more shenanigans in pursuit of stories and gives him the rest of the day off.

Over at the Hawaiian-themed flophouse hotel where Frady lives, the manager (who looks like the person Joe Pantaliano was cloned from) tells him that there's some mail as well as four phone messages from the same person waiting for him. The message leaver, Lee Carter, shows up in person--just in time for Frady's girlfriend to walk out irritated at his former squeeze knocking on the door of his hotel room--and tells the newspaper reporter that she believes that she's the target of a murderous conspiracy. She's got a crumpled old newspaper article on the Senator Carroll assassination and tells Joseph that half a dozen people in the news photos have died in the past couple of years in various accidents. Or "accidents", if you believe her. She believes she's next on the list, along with Austin Tucker (Carroll's chief of staff). Tucker thinks that they saw something they weren't supposed to as they witnessed the killing, but neither he nor Lee can think of what that might possibly be. And Lee's the television reporter who saw Carroll's blood hit the window after he was shot--she was on the scene and paying close attention through the shock and trauma she was feeling at the time. Which is a good reason for her to think she's going to be on the death list, if indeed there is one.

Frady doesn't buy the conspiracy angle at all; he quotes the various ways the dead people from the news photos bought their farms, and they're all pretty plausible (dying of an allergic reaction to a wrongly prescribed antibiotic is an awful way to go, but it's hardly suspicious of anything but colossally bad luck or homicidal negligence on the part of a doctor). But he also only lists four of the eighteen people in the pictures in question, and Lee tells him that two more have died since the last time she tried to tell him about the conspiracy that she thinks is knocking witnesses off. Six deaths out of eighteen people randomly captured in a few photographs over four years isn't exactly a smoking gun, but it also does seem at least a little hinky. The problem, of course, is that two points are always colinear and three are always coplanar. If you have a few data points they're going to look connected because the human mind appreciates patterns and finds them everywhere.

Lee wants to go to Salmontail, which is a small Washington town where one more witness just suffered an accidental death (drowning while out fishing). Frady pretty much openly doesn't care about any of this death conspiracy bullshit and provokes Lee into a crying jag--which I can see, because if I thought I was one of a rapidly shrinking pool of potential murder victims and someone I trusted wasn't listening to me it'd set me off pretty quickly. Frady attempts to look and sound like less of an asshole and fails; the next we see of Lee is her body on a medical examiner's table. She was drunk and sedated and then killed in a car wreck; the pathologist says it's an obvious suicide. Which makes Joseph wonder if there might have been something to this "conspiracy death list" business after all.

Well, just because there's a nebulous criminal conspiracy bumping people off who happened to see something they shouldn't have is no reason to go off half-cocked. Frady starts out by talking to a source of his who used to be an FBI agent (but is now officially persona non grata at that agency). He wants a fake ID and a falsified background so he can pass as just the right kind of antisocial misfit. The former Fibbie comes up with a name and a persona while talking to the reporter (looks like "Richard Martin" is going to have a conviction in his past for exposing himself to women). 

And then up in Swallowtail, Frady enters a bar, his demeanor completely different from his earlier brash irreverence (and his voice pitched just barely above a whisper). He's quiet and contained, and orders a glass of milk instead of something like a shot and a beer. The cowboy-hatted drinkers at a nearby table aren't going to let that offense to their sense of machismo stand, because someone else's drink choice is something that must be audited and mocked by Real Men. Joseph beats the ever-loving shit out of the man who tried to antagonize him in a donnybrook that travels the entire length and breadth of the bar as well as the gift shop. Turns out that the guy he stomped a brand new mudhole into is a sheriff's deputy, and the older guy he was drinking with is the county sheriff (who didn't want to stop the fight because he enjoyed watching his jerkoff deputy take a beating).

Introductions thereby made, the sheriff and Frady get to talking, and Joseph learns that the judge who drowned in Swallowtail did so when a dam released hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. There were alarms and warning lights, but apparently the judge didn't notice any of them and was wiped out by the flood waters. The sheriff points Frady to the dam's watchman, who bought a brand new hunting shotgun right after the "accident", and the two men go check out the dam. While Frady fishes (and looks for anything suspicious around the drowning site) and the sheriff chats from the shore, the klaxons go off at the dam. They're loud enough to get the attention of a dead man, and it turns out that there never was a watchman at the dam--the sheriff pulls his duty weapon on Joseph and plans to keep him in the path of the water until there's two sudden drownings in the same spot to explain away. But Frady's resourceful enough to lay the authority figure's face open with his fishing lure and drag him into the path of the water. Serves you right, asshole. The pair fight as they get swept downstream and Frady survives, while his would-be murderer does not.

Over at the sheriff's house (arriving via stolen police car), Joseph pokes around a bit and finds a briefcase full of documents from the Parallax Corporation, but has to get the hell out when the deputy walks in to see what's going on--and there's a great shot where Frady and the deputy are both in the same frame on opposite sides of an interior wall, neither one aware of the other's presence. Joseph leaves through a window and steals the deputy's car (!), which the other man notices and pursues in the sheriff's vehicle. Some fancy driving gets Joseph out of immediate danger but he smashes into a supermarket and makes tracks on foot, escaping by hopping into the bed of a freight truck that happens to be going the right way ("anywhere but where all the cops are coming from"). 

Being a resourceful chap, Frady gets back to the newspaper office without too much further incident, and in a late-night meeting comes across as just the kind of paranoid ranter that he dismissed earlier in the film. Because, let's face it, "all the witnesses to this already-solved political killing from four years ago are getting murdered" does not sound like the kind of thing a rational person would say. Not only that, but even the sheriff trying to kill Joseph can be explained away (as can the bank book the reporter found with $107,000 in it, which is more than most hick town public servants can expect to put away for retirement in 1974). There was a scandal a few years back and that sheriff, along with two deputies, were all indicted. Once he saw a reporter sniffing around his turf, obviously the sheriff wanted to avoid further scandal and planned to kill Joseph out of pre-emptive self defense. The only problem with this theory is that Joseph Frady gave a fake name when he signed in at his hotel and claims he never told the sheriff he was a reporter (which might even be true, but why would the sheriff come up with a fake watchman at the dam as a way to get Frady killed if he didn't think the man was investigating him?).

Frady's editor refuses to advance him any of his salary so he can go looking for Austin Tucker, so he decides to take a slightly different tack. Talking to a behavioral psychologist friend (who is introduced playing Pong against a chimpanzee and beating the hell out of it), Joseph asks for advice on his interpretation of the Parallax mail-in personality test; he thinks they're casting a wide net looking for loners that are hostile and angry, and can have those emotions channeled in a productive (for Parallax) way. He thinks that whatever the Parallax Corporation is, they're interested in violent loners. And with a little coaching from a genuine psychologist, he can learn how to answer their questions so that he can look like the kind of unstable personality they're looking for. His psychologist friend does him one better, and administers the test to a criminally insane orderly in the lab--by the way, what the hell kind of liability insurance does a psych lab have if they have a chimpanzee and a criminally insane dude running around with minimal security precautions?

While he's having lunch and reading the paper, Joe gets approached (from behind, without him noticing) by someone who says he can lead the newspaperman to the reclusive and paranoid Austin Tucker. Before he'll be allowed into Tucker's presence, Frady has to consent to a strip search ("Are you out of your fuckin' mind?") but eventually relents because he wants to get to the truth about what's going on, and Tucker was in the same room as Senator Carroll when he was assassinated and is currently still alive. Tucker's first question is something a justifiably paranoid person would ask--who sent Frady to look for him? The second thing he says is that he'll pay $10,000 to be left alone and left out of whatever story Frady's writing; Tucker says he's lived through two attempts on his life so far and isn't planning to hang around till someone gets lucky the third time.

Tucker, Frady, and Tucker's bodyguard / security goon sail out into the Pacific on Tucker's personal boat, since the former politician's assistant has decided to talk, but nowhere that he can be observed or approached. And he busts out a handheld photo viewer that has one of the pictures Lee Carter was using to keep track of people that were marked for death on it; also on the viewer is a shot of one of the waiters at the Space Needle on the day Senator Carroll was murdered. Tucker doesn't quite explain anything to Frady yet, possibly thinking that the journalist has been sent to end his life, but that shot of an unsmiling man in a waiter's vest means something to the recluse. 

Neither Joseph Frady nor the audience figures out what that might be, though, because without any warning other than a shift from a closeup to a long shot, a bomb explodes on Tucker's sailboat. It burns to the waterline and Frady's presumed dead (along with Tucker and his security guy). Frady sneaks back into his editor's office while he's sacked out at his deck chair and sees that his own paper reported three deaths in the sailing "mishap" rather than two, then wakes the sleeping man up and scares the snot out of him for a moment before finding out that his own close call and then (reported) death convinced his boss that there might just be something to this "list of people who were in this photo all winding up dead" business. But when the editor says he's going to call the police and the FBI to report what he knows about the ongoing shady business Frady warns him that talking to anyone in law enforcement could wind up getting him killed. 

Next thing that Frady wants to do is pretty clever:  He asks his editor to print an obituary and then together the two men are going to fake a will with the editor named as executor. All of Joseph's belongings will get moved out of his hotel room and donated to charity (if they want 'em). And while he's thought to be dead, he'll have a chance to try out for Parallax, who are the real villains behind everything. Oh, and one other request, while Frady's asking for things--he doesn't want anything in the paper about the mysterious happenings around the Senator Carroll killing and the way all those witnesses keep dying. His editor thinks they could blow the lid off the political assassination from four years ago. Frady thinks they can expose the company that's been recruiting assassins and blow the lid off of a dozen killings (and coverups) or even more. With no ceremony whatsoever, the two men agree that Frady will stay "dead" and try to figure out what's going on with the mysterious Parallax corporation.

So when he's living in some crummy apartment somewhere "Richard Paley" gets a personal visit from a Parallax representative named Jack Younger, telling him that he'd scored very well on a personality test. Well, he actually says they were "very interesting scores", which could mean dozens of different things, couldn't it? The man from Parallax says that "Paley" might well qualify for unusual work for Parallax, which would make the the test-taker rich and give him a rewarding job, and give Parallax a finder's fee for locating someone capable of doing the work that needs to be done.

While talking to Jack, "Paley" burns his hand on his stove and lashes out in anger, putting on exactly the kind of show that Parallax is looking for from its unstable violent loners. Younger tells him that his aggressive tendencies are exactly what the corporation is looking for, and leaves a business card (and instructions to call if "Richard" wants to progress with the organization). Which, of course, Frady does, making his way to a nondescript corporate office in a skyscraper. Whatever Joseph thought was going to happen when he went to the Division of Human Engineering for a job interview, it wouldn't have been what he gets. There's a single chair in a room, wired with sensors to detect the physiological responses from the person sitting in it. 

Then he's shown a film with a collage of contrasting images (which is also shown to the audience in a single unbroken and unmoving shot). Half of the things he's shown are positive images of (white) people in love and being cared for my parents who love them but the other half of the time, it's Nazi rallies and Communist leaders; the pictures get bleaker and show poverty and misery, death and destruction along with shots that show isolated lonely figures stranded in a photo. This is the point where I started cringing in sympathetic fear for Joseph Frady, because whatever Parallax is looking for in him, they're not going to find it. And if they're willing to kill a dozen people to clean up after what certainly looks to be a successful operation, whatever they're going to do to a nosy reporter won't be any fun. Even more so if they somehow find out that he was supposed to have been killed in a previous Parallax operation.

The film starts to get darker and more frightening; a woman's screaming face appears more than once, as do guns, a lynched body, and shots that show an American flag in an American Nazi's office as he gives a Fascist salute. Chaos, sex, death, hopelessness, homosexuality, monsters, fire, a child about to be beaten by his father and (oddly enough) a Jack Kirby drawing of Thor show up in a quick disturbing montage before the film slows back down and resumes showing the viewer monuments to dead presidents, the flag, and peaceful rural scenes again. Then an announcer asks "Richard" to proceed to the Parallax offices (without giving the slightest hint about what he can expect next). But Frady spots the man from Tucker's photo leaving the building and follows him from a discreet distance.

Well, it's probably not good news that the Parallax man goes to an airport and checks a bulky suitcase with a luggage handler outside (and, in these paranoid post-9/11 times, it's amazing that there's no security checking the luggage that's going onto a plane). Frady gets to the airport and determines which jet has the fateful package on it, runs onboard (again, with no security preventing him from just buying a ticket that day and hopping onto the runway to catch his flight). As the Parallax man watches from a parking garage, the plane takes off and soars off to its destination. And on board, Frady goes to get a newspaper to read during the flight and  hears one of the passengers in First Class refer to someone on board as "Senator", as well as saying that the politician is "following in Carroll's footsteps". Yes indeed, if Parallax has anything to say about it, along with the other sixty or eighty people on board the 707...

There's an interesting tracking shot of Frady walking back to his seat after being kicked out of first class by the stewardess--when he walks up to the first class cabin the camera pans right and left and the viewer gets a look at every single passenger on the plane; old, young, men and women, and a mix of races (it's a real cross-section of humanity). But on the way back it's just a medium closeup of a worried looking Warren Beatty. He's surrounded by dozens of people in a narrow metal tube and he's completely isolated by his knowledge that something horrible is going to happen to everyone on the plane (including him). I was stunned and amazed to find out that one of the flight attendants was taking payments for plane tickets while the jet was already in flight (which must have been a real thing if audiences in 1974 were going to swallow the rest of the story).

After going to the john on board, "Richard Paley" leaves a note written in soap on the bathroom mirror that there's a bomb on board and then thinks better of it, writing the message out on a napkin and handing slipping it into the stack of napkins during beverage service. Which means that it gets discovered without him being noticed as the one who did it, and the plane (full of people smoking cigarettes, another signifier for 1974) heads back to the airport because even if it's a joke, the flight crew has to take it seriously. The flight returns to Los Angeles because of a sudden mechanical problem the pilot just noticed right this second, and after the passengers get off the plane it explodes (offscreen, so they don't have to put a gigantic Michael Bay style effect in a paranoid thriller that isn't really an action movie).

When "Paley" goes home to his crappy apartment, there's a guy from Parallax already there sitting in the dark (courtesy of an unscrewed light bulb) to make him a job offer for $25,000 in cash. The "Manufacturers Intelligence Group" can use someone with Richard Paley's skills and psychological makeup in their security program. Thankfully Frady's got enough on the ball to play along and not show just how terrified he's got to be. That goes double for when the Parallax man tells him that there's a Richard Paley who served in Vietnam and died there, and by the way, who are you really, Mister Paley"? Frady comes up with a new name and an embarrassing background as a way to explain why he was impersonating a dead man, which hopefully is going to hold up when Parallax checks up on him a second time. The recruiter tells his prospect that Parallax appreciates anti-social misfits and can give them a sense of true worth, which is even more valuable than a paycheck (and speaking as an anti-social misfit myself, I'd run the other way as fast as I could if someone tried to tell me I was secretly awesome and well suited for a mystery job halfway across the country).

Well, it turns out that Joseph bugged his own apartment and he's got the Parallax man on tape; the next thing we see is his editor listening to the conversation in his office and accepting a delivery order from a new guy from his preferred takeout place (and it's not surprising to see it's the man from Austin Tucker's photo viewer, per se, but it does register on the blood-freezing scale pretty high). Well, it's probably not too terribly surprising when a late-middle-aged man who lives for his job and eats greaseburgers regularly dies of a coronary, but the film's already mentioned a drug that induces cardiac arrests (and when the homicide investigator tosses the editor's petty cash back in his desk drawer, the envelope full of tapes from Joseph's stash is nowhere to be found).

I'm sure the word didn't get back to Frady about what happened to his boss (who is also the only person who knew he was still alive), and he continues on the assignment for Parallax, with his contact letting him know there's a man from the organization who'll meet him and set him up. The name that "Richard Parton" gets from the recruiter is Ben Harkins; when Frady spots his contact at the hotel he calls his room from the lobby and gives him a set of utterly fictitious instructions (the poor sap's gonna get yelled at by his managers at Parallax when this all shakes out, but at least he's being shunted to Hawaii as part of Frady's scheme). Frady goes back to the Parallax headquarters in character and complains that his contact never showed up to meet him. You can tell it's a thriller from 1974 because the hero outsmarted his antagonist instead of beating him to death or chucking him off a building.

Meanwhile, the Parallax recruiter takes a meeting with plenty of unsmiling people in suits; we don't find out what's going on there but it's safe to say that things are looking bad for Frady when and if they find him again. The security meeting takes place in a skybox at a convention center that's getting ready for a political rally of some kind (the tables have red, white and blue cloths and there's a marching band practicing when we see it). Judging from the other times Parallax has been spotted anywhere with politicians, and from the Sousaphone player who blatantly does not know what he's doing, it looks like another misfit loner is going to shoot his way into the history books. 

But this time things are different. Joseph Frady is up in the catwalks looking down at the meeting space. Think about the scoop you'd get by simultaneously foiling an assassination and exposing the group of shadowy manipulators that are killing progressive politicians for money.

Of course, Parallax has been doing this for a long, long time and they're ready for just about any contingency that might come up. Sure, Frady realizes how dangerous they are because of the number of witnesses that have died from the one killing that he knows about, but you don't get offices in a mirror-windowed skyscraper off of the promise of one targeted political killing. He was paranoid, and the film suggests that there is no level of paranoia too great for the Seventies in America. When he finds himself near a planted gun and with a horrified onlooker pointing at him from below, Joseph Frady realizes that Parallax turned their own potential exposure into one more domino to fall in their meticulously planned scheme. The politician that was pursuing the youth vote is still dead, and a former journalist who faked his death and killed Austin Tucker is the lone crazy man who shot him.

But don't worry--the lone crazy man didn't get out of the convention center, and America remains safe because a good guy with a gun (belatedly) took out the bad guy with a gun who shot a left-wing politician for no reason. Nothing to see here any more. Nothing to concern yourself with. Go back to the game, or go out to see a movie. America remains safe, under the careful watch of its guardians. And a Congressional board of inquiry took nine months to investigate, eventually determining that Joseph Frady was obsessed with a previous political assassination and went on to try and carry one out in a fit of delusional psychosis. There's no evidence of a conspiracy whatsoever.

Holy shit, this was an intense movie. A political horror film about a doomed protagonist that finds a little knowledge and proceeds to ensnare himself further and further--it's a Watergate-era version of The Wicker Man or a non-supernatural Lovecraft film. But instead of a charismatic Scottish lord or a godlike being from beyond time and space it's just a group of men in an office deciding who lives and who dies--and Frady never meets anyone higher-up than the recruiter over the course of the story. For all that he uncovers, he never scratches more than the surface of what Parallax is up to. And coming after a decade marked by political killings by the double handful, the slogan on the top of the movie poster is completely true:  Murdering someone you see as a political threat is as American as apple pie. The only difference between 1974 and 2016 is that street executions get broadcast live over the internet now, but the man with the gun still goes free virtually every time.

What a wonderful time to be an American.
______________________________

Other Celluloid Zeroes have their own entries for the Political Science Fiction roundtable.

Micro-Brewed Reviews is perfectly fine, and you're the paranoid one wondering about The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Psychoplasmics peers into The Mist and doesn't like what they see about the human condition.

The Terrible Claw Reviews takes a look at Shin Godzilla.

Web of the Big Damn Spider reviews A Report on the Party and Guests.



Monday, October 31, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 26: Zombeavers (2014)


HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.



Screenplay by Al Kaplan, Jordan Rubin and Jon Kaplan
Directed by Jordan Rubin

Rachel Melvin:  Mary
Cortney Palm:  Zoe
Lexi Atkins:  Jenn
Hutch Dano:  Sam
Jake Weary:  Tommy
Peter Gilroy:  Buck

Sometimes the title is enough to see why a producer cut the filmmakers a check. This one's just barely out of the gold standard of exploitation movie titles like Blacula or Shriek of the Mutilated, but if video stores were still a thing this would get rented twice a month for decades just because it was called Zombeavers. You know exactly what you're getting with a title like that. You're getting beavers, and they will be zombies (probably from toxic waste exposure, the "just add water" of monster explanations). The cast will be made up of five stereotyped jerks who go into the woods and get gnawed down to the Final Girl, who will combat the zombeavers and will triumph, but with one of those "it's not really over" endings that have been in use for about half a century in monster flicks.

I'm saying the plot probably isn't going to be all that original, but sometimes you just want to watch a movie that does what you expect and want it to do. Bonus points if there's some originality and wit, or at least some cool makeup effects from the monster attacks and a quotable line of dialogue or two.

And since this is movie 26 of HubrisWeen, I could use the B movie equivalent of comfort food right now.

Some honky-tonk piano music plays on the soundtrack as the black screen fades up to show the side of an open-backed transport truck. It's a medical waste disposal business that promises discretion, environmental safety and effectiveness. And, yeah, it pretty much looks like I called the Monster Creation Cause correctly. There's two guys in the cab (a quiet one and a chatty one, and when the chatty one says he dated a dude briefly, the quiet one resigns himself to his fate with a fake-jovial "Can I hear all about it?". Some more vaguely stoned-sounding conversation later, the driver smacks into a deer standing in the literal middle of the road and a canister of chemical whatnot gets launched from the truck bed, down a hill and into a river. The first gory sight gag of the film ensues when the quiet one goes out to check the grill for damage and pieces of the deer fall down onto the pavement for the entire duration of the shot.

Roll credits! There's an animation that shows beavers in the river along with the barrel of nasty mutagenic chemicals, falling trees, people running away from the beavers, and a hunter using a telescopic scope (as well as an axe, a pickup truck, and some "Scooby-Doo" style shots of the people continuing to run from red-eyed beavers). So far there's some actual cleverness on display, I'm happy to report. The barrel drifts into a beaver dam and then immediately springs a leak so high-pressure bright green Evil Chemicals can spray out. The delightfully unconvincing beaver puppets don't seem too concerned about it at this point.

I have to say, the sheer obviousness of the setup is making me enjoy the movie more. I get the feeling the director and writers are doing exactly what they set out to do. That's a novelty in low budget horror cinema, and at least so far the filmmakers are skilled enough to make things entertaining rather than just cliched.

Now it's time to meet some of the Expendable Meat characters--they're sorority sisters on a getaway. One of them is a college student named Jenn, crying in the bathroom of a gas station when she gets a text from her boyfriend, who appears to have cheated on her ("I'm sorry" is all I've got to go on textually, but I don't think he killed her dog). Interrupted by a loud fat middle-aged trucker who blocks the door when she tries to leave, Jenn goes back to the car driven by her friend Mary, with other friend Zoe holding a little dog named Gosling in the back seat. Mary's rules for the weekend are no texting and no boys--it's a girls' mini vacation up at the requisite cabin in the woods. Jenn's the Wronged One and Zoe's the Slut (she's got a collection of presumably solicited dick picks on her phone); Mary is The Nerdy One (she wears glasses), but is also The One With the Car Keys.

But enough of that setup and characterization, it's time for a Threat-Establishing Casualty as a local man loses his fishing pole to whatever yanked it out of his hands in the lake before a POV shot jumps him and the screen cuts to black. Back to Mary's car as they approach the cabin, Zoe also shows that she'll be The Dumb One for this movie, in that she thinks the raft on the lake is a big piece of scrap lumber that someone dumped there. The trio gets out of the car, showing that the wardrobe department for the movie wanted to see who would wear the shortest shorts. I think Jenn takes it, but not by much. Zoe's dog runs off to go pee on as much of the new environment as he can, and a middle-aged neighbor teleports in to say hello to everyone. Zoe takes some delight in being rude to the new arrival, so she's not just The Slut and The Dumb One but The Sarcastic One as well. Mrs. Gregerson goes back to her own house or possibly cabin next door after dissing the hell out of Zoe in return (I think she meant to do it on purpose, but I'm not totally sure) and then it's time for a half-submerged POV camera to look over at the three young women for a little while.

Inside the cabin, Jenn discovers that she can't get a cell phone signal out in the sticks. Mary gives her friend a pep talk about not getting back together with her asshole boyfriend when Zoe discovers that her phone can't contact a cell tower either; the "no social media or texting" part of the weekend turns out to be physically impossible to defy. Then, because it's about fifteen minutes into the film, the trio put on swimsuits and it's time to lie on the raft and tan. Zoe removes her top because it's that kind of movie and she's the designated slutty one, but the expected "something swam past me in the lake" sequence doesn't happen here. We do get to see the fisherman's #1 DAD cap float by in the background but none of the characters notice it.

When Jenn sees the local beaver dam she wants to go see if any of 'em are at home (Zoe says they're just big rats that can swim, and wants nothing to do with this, but eventually joins the expedition). There's a nice bit of physical staging where the toxic green crud and the medical waste barrel aren't immediately visible to the protagonists but they see the chemical goop soon enough. They theorize that it's beaver urine, used to mark the animals' territory--which is not that bad a guess, but it utterly wrong. An encounter with a rogue bear ends with a redneck hunter firing a shot into the air to spook the animal into leaving, then the hunter ogling the girls and correcting their mistaken assumptions about wild bear behavior. The hunter's name is Smyth, and he's enjoying himself just a little too much as he derides the women for wearing swimsuits and having tattoos. Because it's just simple country folk who live out wherever it is in Indiana that this movie takes place, and none of them like to have fit and attractive college kids show up in bikinis (or topless). Another POV shot tracks the three women as they go back to the cabin.

That night it's beer, popcorn and a gave of "Would You Rather" where the questions quickly turn Cards Against Humanity wrong, but outside there's a low-slung POV shot coming towards the cabin. It's probably not a zombeaver, though, unless they're carrying flashlights. Someone starts thumping on the cabin walls and Zoe goes off with a flashlight to see what's what. SPOILER:  It is the three women's boyfriends, who thought they were being clever by scaring the shit out of their special lady friends. Zoe's boyfriend Buck turns out to be just as much of an asshole as one would expect for this kind of film. Mary's guy is named Tommy and appears to be a frat-joke type (he's got a letterman jacket). Mary says the guys have to leave out of respect for Jenn's feelings, but Jenn herself says it's all right if they stay. She's not interested in her boyfriend Sam touching her, though, and they spend some awkward together time on the couch while the other two couples are noisily breaking in the bedrooms elsewhere in the cabin.

Sam doesn't want to explain why there's a picture of him making out with someone else at a party (we don't see her face, so there's a pretty good chance it'll wind up being Mary); Jenn slaps his face twice and he goes in for a kiss; I thought the movie was going to do the "they really like each other after all" bullshit but instead Jenn knees the son of a bitch in the groin. Good! Do it again!

In the afterglow, Mary's distant and Tommy wonders what's up (other than his inability to bring her to climax). She says she's worried about Jenn, but her boyfriend doesn't quite buy it. Later that night Jenn's going to take a shower but gets startled by a beaver with Evil Dead style solid white eyes; she's in her underwear when she runs screaming for Sam to do something about its presence. Her friends accuse Sam of having done something to her to set her off like that, but then switch it up and start sarcastically talking about keeping the intruder as a pet. Eventually Jenn, who thinks the animal might have been rabid, sends everyone into the bathroom to look (Sam, armed with a baseball bat, takes point until Tommy gets tired of him not going into the room). Of course there's nothing there, and of course Buck starts talking shit about it being a really scary bathroom.

And of course that's when the beaver pops out of a cabinet, snarling and screeching, so that Tommy has to play the chorus to "Have I the Right" on it with the baseball bat to end the threat. The beaver is tossed in a garbage bag and dropped out on the porch and everyone talks about how much they don't want to get rabies (and rabies shots). There's a split vote on "go home or not", but everyone's too intoxicated to drive at that point anyway. The eventual decision is to sleep on it, possibly go back in the morning, and Jenn says she's sleeping in Mary's room rather than trust any of the guys. Mary's hesitant to go along with that, which means it almost certainly was her and Sam making out in the unclear photo. Oh, and out on the porch? The beaver that was clubbed to a bloody pulp is still snarling and writhing in its Hefty bag coffin.

The next morning, Smyth is setting animal traps out on his patch of hunting grounds and the six students go out for a swim. Jenn notices the torn-open trash bag on the porch with bloody animal tracks leading away from it (which sure do look like something got out of the bag). She's the only one who is sensible enough to not want to be there, though. Out on the lake, Jenn stays on the shore while everyone else (including the dog) is on the raft. While Tommy, Buck and Zoe are swimming in the lake, Mary and Sam have a little talk about that Facebook photo and it turns that yes, they were making out at a party. Mary feels worse about it than Sam, and their conversation plays out as the other three people talk Jenn into taking a swim. As she walks into the lake we do get the "Something swam past my foot!" dialogue and lots of underwater POV camera shots.

Jenn refuses to go any further into the lake, and when Buck plunges underwater Zoe assumes he's playing a joke. Then the blood starts spreading and he resurfaces holding his own gnawed-off foot! Tommy gets pulled down and everyone swims for the raft; while Tommy improvises a tourniquet for Buck's ankle, Jenn runs inside to call for help on the cabin's land line. But, of course, the beavers have already clawed and chewed through the phone lines for no reason. The entire beaver colony starts circling the raft (though we only see two on the screen at any point, which makes me think there were two puppets that the production could afford to build). Jenn gets attacked in the cabin by another zombeaver while the ones in the lake start breaking through the raft boards to get to the people panicking atop it. Sam chucks Gosling in the water as a distraction, and as the poor thing dogpaddles for his life, the beavers turn to follow him. Usually the dog lives in movies like this, so I commend the filmmakers for being nasty enough to have that distraction work.

Back in the cabin, Jenn fights off the beaver that attacked her the previous night (it's essentially in two halves connected by bone and gristle, and still snarling hours after taking a kitchen knife through the skull, pinning it to the table. The stress fractures start to show in the group when Zoe, good and pissed off that Sam killed her dog, drops a big enough hint about the Mystery Photo that Jenn puts two and two together accurately. Zoe points out that Jenn is the last one to know what was up, but Tommy points out that he didn't know either. Yipes! Jenn says that's not the biggest concern facing them at this point, and she's both right and sensible.

Then the beaver nailed to the kitchen table starts slapping its tail on the wood to signal the other ones outside and we get a neat shot of several sets of beavers' eyes gleaming in the night when Sam tosses the severed head of the in-the-cabin beaver out to them. A plan is sketched out:  Tommy will drive Buck and his severed foot (in a bag full of ice) to the hospital, where hopefully he can get it reattached. Zoe says she's going with them, and isn't taking "that's a terrible idea" for an answer. And since Tommy parked farther down the road for "sneaking up and scaring the women" purposes, he needs to borrow Mary's car for the suicide charge.

Buck and Tommy three-legged-race for the car and Zoe piles into the vehicle along with them, which cranks up on cue after the plot-required failure to start ("It's a hybrid! You have to finesse it!"). They drive off; everyone still in the cabin wonders if they should have left (since the plan actually seemed to work). Then an undead beaver takes a leap at a window and leaves a streak of blood on it. Sam figures it's time to start boarding up windows and otherwise prep for the siege. Remember Mrs. Gregerson from the very start of the film? She heard the hammering and yelling from the cabin next door and has an argument with her husband about whether or not they need to go see if something's up over there. Mr. Gregerson stays seated in his easy chair reading a magazine and reaches down to scratch his faithful by unnamed dog; he winds up displaying affection to a rabid undead beaver instead. There's no way that shot works even within the logic of a not-very-serious horror movie, but I like it anyway.

In the car, heading for the hospital, there's the inevitable tree across the road to block egress from the killing ground. There's a pickup truck (probably Smyth's) with guns and an axe in the bed. Tommy tells Zoe to drive her boyfriend back to the cabin while he grabs more weaponry and goes for help on foot. Mere seconds after he says that's his plan the poor guy gets squashed like a bug under a falling tree (offscreen, as the stunt was probably too unsafe to try and do in real time). Remember, even undead beavers make pretty talented lumberjacks. Smyth shows up as the cavalry and shoots one of the rodents, then gets Zoe and Buck into his pickup and drives off for help and medical attention. Smyth declares that the beavers are probably suffering from giardia (there was an outbreak forty years ago or so), but it must be a mutant strain because the beavers aren't dying even after sustaining trauma that should drop them like a bad habit.

Back at the cabin, the windows and doors are boarded, blocked and duct-taped, but it turns out beavers can gnaw through the barricades. Sam stabs one in a really odd manner that suggests the actress didn't want to injure the puppeteer. Commendable dedication to safety, but it doesn't really look like she's fighting for her life. The futility of keeping beavers out with wood is discussed and Sam, Jenn and Mary all get to do some of that "try not to damage the prop or hurt the puppeteer" fighting against the zombified beavers. Smyth's truck returns (I thought it was on the other side of the downed tree, but it apparently wasn't). While the inside-the-cabin people pry boards off the door, Buck notices the beaver swarm forming on the cabin's lawn. Zoe and Buck go for the next cabin over while Smyth shoots at the pursuing rodents. They make it to the neighbors' place and discover that there's some disarray but nobody's home. That's probably a good sign. Then Zoe discovers Mr. Gershenson's body and sees that the phone lines inside that house have been chewed through.

Over at the cabin, Sam earns her Smart Girl merit badge by reading up on beavers to see what the trapped protagonists might reasonably expect from the animals outside. When Sam gets to the point where beavers are listed as monogamous Jenn brings up the "my boyfriend cheated on me with you" point and Sam comes across as even more of an oily creep than he had previously. I did like him saying that they can't turn on each other because it's just what the beavers would want, though. The nature guide lists tunnel construction as a skill beavers have and everyone looks down at the floor nervously.

Then it's time to go to the neighbors' place again, where Smyth says that the hospital won't be able to do anything to save Buck's foot because it's been kept directly on ice, which damages tissue too much for microsurgery. Plus the road is blocked, and Buck's too heavy to carry on foot to the hospital even without the issue of homicidal beavers all over the place. Next morning's a safer time to go for medical help but Smyth does say he's willing to burn Buck's stump closed to give him a better chance at survival.

That night, Jenn makes her way into Mary's bedroom and starts what Mary (and the audience) assume is a seduction attempt right before a hitherto unknown side effect of the zombeaver bites makes itself known--Jenn's teeth fall out as the new bucktoothed chompers grow in, her fingernails develop into claws, and she contracts a case of adult onset lycanthropy / undead drooling and biting disease. Of course, Jenn isn't the only one who got bitten, and that means there's anywhere from one to three zombie-bite casualties in the neighbors' house waiting to reveal themselves. Which Buck does, tearing Smyth's throat out with his teeth and chasing Zoe upstairs after she shoots the hunter, accidentally mercy-killing him when she was trying to save him from her erstwhile boyfriend.

At Cabin Number One, Sam and Mary are in a room with the doors boarded up to keep Jenn out when the beavers gnaw their way in through the floorboards, and in Cabin Number Two, Zoe winds up doing a Texas Chainsaw High Dive out of the second-story window when Mrs. Gregerson gets up from her deathbed and tries to attack her. There's a brief weird moment where Sam and Mary play high-stakes whack a mole in the room before escaping for the bathroom and another brief escape. Mary tells Sam to strip down and examines him for bite and scratch wounds; he's clean, but when she strips off it's time for a desperation fueled lovemaking session. While this is going on, one of the zombeavers (played by possibly the most creepily adorable puppet seen so far) bites into a wall near an outlet, sets itself on goddamn fire, and runs directly into the drapes so the whole cabin can burn down too.

As if that wasn't enough of a problem, Sam gets written out of the script when Zombie Lycanthrope Beaver Jenn bursts through the floor and rips his favorite parts of his anatomy off with her teeth. Mary's now inside a burning cabin with the doors nailed shut in her underwear, but thankfully Zoe busts Smyth's pickup through the cabin wall. The escape attempt is very, very brief and culminates in Zombie Castor Canadensis Smyth shooting at the truck and Zoe crashing into a tree in the confusion. Oh, and that bear from earlier has been bitten so there are several human zombeavers to deal with as well. But none of the menaces are as fast as the pickup truck, so Zoe's able to get out of the area after going past all the shambling monsters and over Jenn (who was on top of the truck for a little while). At the downed tree, Mary and Zoe continue on foot and find a zombified Tommy still pinned under it. Poor guy never even got to be a monster in the attack at the end.

Mary turns out to have swiped a pistol from Smyth's truck and holds her friend at gunpoint, fearing that somewhere among her open wounds Zoe's got an infected beaver bite or scratch. But it turns out that when Jenn kissed her earlier that passed the virus along, and she's the one who turns out to be metamorphosing as the sun rises. Thankfully Zoe's got an axe, so she winds up living through that trauma as well. We hear her killing Mary rather than seeing it, which is probably the right choice. After all, we've spent pretty much the entire movie with those characters and losing one near the end shouldn't be a gory awesome set piece.

As Zoe limps off into the uncertain future, she winds up taking a Bummer Ending right to the face as the idiot driver from the pre-credits sequence doesn't see her in the middle of the road, and nobody with any knowledge of what went down at the lake will be able to give a police statement without a Ouija board.

Well, what do you know? I made it to the end of HubrisWeen for the fourth consecutive time! It's really tough to avoid zombies when you're doing the Z movie for this event, but at least this one was more about animal attacks and lycanthropy than the usual shuffling moaners (even if it did hit lots of the same Romero-type plot points). It's easily the best possible movie that could be called Zombeavers, with plenty of quietly weird jokes going on (I'd say other than the inherent absurdity of the premise, the horror-to-comedy mix is about 70-30 here). None of the actors pissed me off, which is also not what I would have expected from a comedy horror movie about undead aquatic rodents. Heck, there's even a song that recaps the plot over the end credits sung in a swingin' hepcat Rat Pack style; whoever came up with that idea knew just what they were doing and what kind of movie they were trying to make. They succeeded utterly.

And there's a post credit stinger that teases the possibility of Zom-bees as a sequel. Because of course it does.


"That's it for this year, everyone. Time to take a haunted carriage ride back to the land of imagination and rest up, because there's only 339 days until the next HubrisWeen!"

Sunday, October 30, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 25: Zaat (1971)


HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.


Story by Ron Kivett and Lee O. Larew
Screenplay by Don Barton and an uncredited Arnold Stevens
Directed by Don Barton and an uncredited Arnold Stevens

Marshall Grauer:  Dr. Kurt Leopold
Wade Popwell:  The Monster
Paul Galloway:  Sheriff Lou Krantz

Well, damn. Looks like I'm busting out the blank tile rule again this year because there aren't that many October-appropriate movies that start with Y (which is one of the two letters I had to pull the ripcord on). Ironically enough, those are the two letters I warned someone about when he wanted to join our merry band of OCD sufferers and write HubrisWeen reviews earlier this year. He wised up (or "chewed through the straps", to hear Dr. Freex tell it) but the point remains valid. J and Y are often the hardest ones to find. O isn't easy either, or X. Pretty soon I'm gonna have two W flicks and two Z flicks in a row, or use movies with numerals as the starting characters.

But enough of that crap, it's time to watch a movie whose title doesn't tell you a goddamned thing about what's going to happen. Which is probably a good idea, because "mad scientist turns himself into a lungfish monster" is a great premise for people who enjoy the peculiar charms of the Adult Onset Lycanthropy genre but I don't see mass audiences charging to a drive-in to watch The Human Lungfish Strikes! or something like that.

The film starts with a closeup of some seaweed and the unseen narrator calling it "Sargassum:  The Weed of Deceit". The narrator is obsessed with a fish that blends in to the sargassum thanks to its skin coloration and textutre. Apparently he likes that fish the way I dug Gila monsters when I was in grade school. After seeing the sargassum fish for a while we also get some stock footage of a shark and a scorpion fish as well; then, out of nowhere the narrator gives a pretty good Mad Science laugh and says he's not insane, they are. I'm assuming it's a pretty general "they". He also says that today's the day he'll become "one of you"; "you" being "a fish" instead of "some stock footage", probably. 

Then the narrator, revealed as a middle-aged guy standing on a beach, says that once he's changed himself into a fish he'll conquer the universe with the help of his oceanic brethren. That's got to be at least a score of 8.2 on the standard ten point Malign Hypercognition Syndrome scale, although I'm at a loss to imagine how one will conquer the universe with a bunch of fish (even ones that can blend in with sargassum). Over the credits, the mad scientist (who is named Dr. Leopold, but we won't find that out for a while) walks to his laboratory and a folk song about sargassum plays on the soundtrack. I do not know what the deal is with sargassum, but I will say it's a terrific word to type. Once the song runs out we're treated, if that's the word, to a real-time sequence of Dr. Leopold trudging to his lab in some kind of industrial space. While mixing up a bottle of chemical goop (that's supposed to make gigantic fish that eat human flesh), Leopold's voiceover says the formula can be expressed as "Z sub A, A sub T" or ZAAT. So, hey, title completion very early in the film.

Leopold has an octopus in a really small tank. That can't be that much fun for the poor creature; they're very intellegent. Maybe it'll sneak out of its prison and go catch a movie or something. While we get a look at the octopus, we also see Leopold looking over his recipe for making a fish creature and he recites the procedure (which I guess he wrote himself, unless he's working with the equivalent of shake-and-bake for his mad science revenge plot). While Dr. Leopold pulls a lungfish out of its tank he thinks about its Encyclopedia Britannica entry and then puts it back in the tank. Did I just watch the mad scientist try to take his fish for a walk?

It took the doctor twenty years to come up with his scheme, which means he went bad reasonably young, I guess. He does some SCIENCE! with some colored liquids and shuffles over to his gigantic day planner Aztec calendar wheel, upon which he has drawn and written what he's been planning to do for the last seven years. Today (or a day very soon) is the day for "Self Transformation", so we'll watch Dr. Leopold flip some switches on a control board and there will be a buzzing noise on the soundtrack for a little bit. Twelve minutes into the film and there hasn't been a single syllable of spoken dialogue, but we do get to see Dr. Leopold take his shirt off and shoot himself up with a gigantic syringe of what I assume is ZAAT. Then, again in real time, he plods over to a big water tank and lowers himself into it after turning on some more equipment that has blinking lights on it. I'm a complete sucker for low-budget computer noises in science fiction movies, so the beeping boops in this section are plenty entertaining to me. Add in the Geiger counter noise for no reason and show off Dr. Leopolds saggy old-man boxer shorts as he prepares to lower himself into the ZAAT tank and you've got some prime "we don't particularly know what we're doing" material for the film.

Dr. Leopold has rigged up a block and tackle to lower himself into the transformation tank, which he does (and sinks below the surface). Lights blink and bubbles froth in the tank, and after about thirty seconds Dr. Leopold has been transformed into a bipedal lungfish monster in a pretty decently realized low budget monster suit. He sees that he doesn't look much like a catfish but doesn't mind too much, then plods over to his mad science day planner and crosses "Self Transformation" off his to-do list. He scribbles a little dot over the hand-drawn map of Florida and picks up his spray bottle of ZAAT. The voiceover says "And now, another big challenge for you," as the stuntman in the fish monster suit tries to walk down stairs without falling (SPOILER:  He succeeds). 

I hope you like Strolling Monster footage, cause that is exactly what is on the menu now. Dr. Lungfish wanders around a bit in a forest, squirting ZAAT at a lungfish like it's a cat he wants to stay off the furniture. Then he goes for a refreshing dip in what I presume are the Everglades (this film is severely allergic to even the most basic exposition). Some clips of fish and amphibians mix in with shots of Lungfish Man squirting some ZAAT in the water while the Geiger counter noises go off on the soundtrack. Also on the soundtrack--some electronic bleeps that go faster and faster while nothing on the screen speeds up. It seems stagey and artificial even for this film.

Off on a sandy patch of land, Sheriff Lou Krantz and Rex Baker, a marine biologist from the DNR (I think) talk about the presence of walking catfish in the area while the Creature From The Industrial Building peers at them from the shallows (and, to be fair, I thought that was a cool shot). Then Leopold goes back to his lair, making me wonder to myself where he keeps his keys. He's got no pockets. He crosses off the picture of Florida on his big elaborate circle of Mad Science and then a voiceover of another scientist berating Dr. Leopold for tampering in God's domain pops up as an auditory flashback to earlier days. A scientist from his past yells at Dr. Leopold for unrealistic theories and tells him to cool it with his experiments. Given that the human lungfish stomps off in a slow fury after thinking about that, I'd bet we're going to see some LUNGFISH VENGEANCE at some point.

But not any time soon. The next scene is Sheriff Krantz and Dr. Baker getting on each other's nerves while Dr. Baker, wearing what appears to be a pajama top, does some chemistry while the sheriff calls him "boy" (which comes across really badly because Dr. Baker's a black dude) and grumbles about walking catfish breaking into peoples' garages, which sounds like a particularly Florida kind of problem to me. Dr. Baker has found elevated levels of radiation on the water samples he's going through, which means some kind of pollution in the area. He's probably thinking more along the lines of industrial runoff than "grudge-holding manfish with a bottle of chemicals", but if he's a decent enough scientist he'll figure it out sooner or later.

And then we go back to Dr. Leopold swimming in the Everglades in some honestly pretty cool underwater photography (though the film can't seem to decide if he's in three feet of water or fifteen). He spies on a young woman out camping and painting a landscape before going back to his busy schedule of swimming around and squirting ZAAT from time to time. Stock footage of some animals react to the ZAAT exposure by dying, and Dr. Baker starts taking a few more samples of either lake water or animals.

Meanwhile, somewhere close by or not, Dr. Lungfish sees one of the scientists who laughed at him at the University out fishing with his wife and sun. The fish creature swims under their boat and tips 'em into the water, where he drowns the scientist and his son and pursues the man's wife, who screams and faints, but survives the ordeal. Over in the morgue, Sheriff Krantz and Dr. Baker look at the dead scientist's body, which has claw marks on the side of its neck. Baker says it's a claw mark while the sheriff says it's a fish bite. And back in his Vengeance Pad, the fish monster crosses off one of the two pictures on his big vengeance chart before fixating on the remaining one. 

Over at the hospital, Sheriff Krantz gives a brief impromptu interview to a journalist, wherein the audience learns that 1) the sheriff is just dogshit at giving interviews, and 2) the ZAAT in the lake has apparently seeped into a reservoir or something because area people are getting sick from exposure to it. Over in the lake, Dr. Baker is fishing with a net to get samples of animals that might show more radiation contamination; Dr. Fishman swims into his net and tears it to pieces in a fit of anger. Which gives the doctor a pretty good look at the thing Leopold turned himself into and one of the puzzle pieces re:  what the heck is going on here slips neatly into place for the marine biologist. A lengthy phone call to someone or other gives us Dr. Baker's half of the conversation about the stuff we just saw happen in the movie.

Then it's time to watch Lungfish Man stalk that woman who was painting the wilderness; her dog notices the mutated scientist but she doesn't. Then the monster stalks the other scientist that pooh-poohed his theories back in the day; like virtually everyone else in the film, that guy's planning to go fishing later so the Leopold Beast sneaks up on him while he's goofing with a rod and reel. The guy goes down, his neck fatally clawed, to be discovered later (I guess). But enough of that monster attack shit, it's time for a Winnebago with INPIT written on the side to pull up and the jumpsuited people inside to walk past paparazzi (...huh?) before talking to Sheriff Krantz about the strange deaths in the area. Although the movie doesn't let us know what INPIT means right here, it's the Inter-Nations Phenomena Investigative Team. Think of them as Global Frequency on a budget and without the specialized skills.

After some more stalking, Leopold snags that wildlife painter lady and pulls her underwater when she goes for a swim. Turns out he's going to sneak her back to his lab and try to turn her into the Bride of Lungfish; this attempt fails when a fuse blows (or something) and the electrical equipment craps out. Either the ZAAT poisons the victim or she drowns, but either way there's not going to be a female lungfish creature in Dr. Leopold's life any time soon--especially after he wrecks a bunch of his gear in a fit of rage. It's too bad, because he pinned a sketch of a woman up on his big day planner wheel scheme explainer, and now he has to make another sketch and kidnap another woman after tossing the body of his first abductee in a previously unseen tank of super-strong acid.

Right around that time the Woman From INPIT goes looking for water samples in what I thought was the Everglades but which the film now informs me is a landlocked spring. I guess this means the lungfish beast won't be teaming up with or fighting the were-jellyfish from Sting of Death. ALAS! Anyway, the INPIT researcher calls back to her base of operations to get data about just how much radioactivity ought to be in the water in Florida and while she (and the audience) wait for the results on that request the guy from INPIT and Dr. Baker string up a big net to try and catch the fish creature that Baker saw tear his tiny net to pieces. The INPIT agents think they're dealing with some kind of mutant lungfish that has become homicidal, which does seem at least a little more plausible than "mad scientist turned himself into an amphibious creature and killed people he disliked from his academic career".

That night the INPIT crew and Dr. Blake are hanging out in the RV talking about whether or not the monster's going to be a redneck (yes, really) when Dr. Leopold swims into the net they've strung across the mouth of the spring. Their Winnebago has some kind of monster detector alarm amongst its accoutrama, so they pile out to see what's going on with the net after it chimes. The creature's good and tangled up in the net, too, but manages to escape and attack the trio of investigators on the shore. The man from INPIT stabs the monster while the woman gets some photographs of it before it dives back into the spring and presumably escapes.

Next up is the sheriff giving an angry interview to a reporter while surrounded by dozens of angry townspeople (it's a pretty cool crowd scene, honestly; they got plenty of people to be in it). While there's a monster on the loose, the plan is to send all the townsfolk away to the nearby city of Fort Dunn for the Red Cross to treat as evacuees; the remaining people will lock their doors and keep a gun handy in case the monster comes by. And somewhere in there the sheriff will try to do something about the monster, probably.

There's also a cool shot of the monster peeking in at the INPIT guy's hospital room (while the INPITters and Dr. Blake are looking at photos of Dr. Leopold's current configuration). There's some romantic tension between the two INPIT staffers that barely registers, and they wonder what kind of venom the sea monster they've been tracking might have. Then it's time to see Leopold stagger back to his lab, suffering the effects of the stab wound that he sustained when attacking the investigators. The interior monologue returns after a pretty lengthy absence, where we learn that Dr. Lungfish is indeed planning to kidnap another woman and turn her into a fish monster as well. Then he has a flashback to the botched experiment that killed his first victim, even though we just saw that about five minutes ago. Since he is a literalist kind of mad science unholy mutation, he sketches out another pretty woman and pins it to his revenge board before stomping out to carry out the next phase of his plan (or, perhaps, re-try to carry out the current phase of his plan).

So I'm starting to think the sheriff isn't a very good detective, because it's after multiple fish creature sightings that he remembers Dr. Leopold from back when he was a human, and how he bought an old research station as war surplus from the Department of Whoever It Is That Manages Sea Labs And Sells Them To Mad Scientists. INPIT has the lab listed as a possible source of radioactive contamination, and Dr. Blake and everyone else is still treating the monster as a mutated fish that's attacking when it feels threatened rather than a grudge-holding dweeb that made himself into a creature. Turns out the two dead scientists used to work in that lab back in the day; two others that are connected to the facility get a call from their friendly neighborhood deputies to warn them about the monster and its apparent mad on for people who used to work at the lab.

The creature goes for an awkward stroll at night, still hurting from the wound in its side. At length, it makes its way down to a pharmacy and forces its way in, looking for the really good painkillers. Whatever Leopold found in a refrigerator, he drinks a bottle of it and almost immediately gets woozy. For some reason the lungfish man knocks a whole bunch of stuff off the shelves before going out into the night again. He walks past the sheriff's station where the deputy fails to notice the monster outside, then walks to a porch where his obligatory two necking teens / victims declare that their map speck town is too dull to attract a monster. The boy gets reasonably gorily slashed to death and the creature drinks some of his blood. The sheriff charges towards the location where he heard the girl on the porch screaming, but finds a folk guitar-and-flute duo performing and settles in to watch the show.

...WHAT?

The interminable concert goes on long enough for the monster to walk up to the building, hear what's going on, and stomp off into the darkness. The sheriff leads the hippies off like he's the Pied Piper of Haight-Ashbury and they saunter down the darkened streets of the town with a police escort. They wind up at the sheriff's department, put into the cells for their own protection (and without a single word of protest from anyone who just got locked up). Then the monster strolls past the INPIT vehicle to the accompaniment of a musical sting. Yet another shot of him peeking in through a window at humans lets him see the two INPIT agents making out in the guy's hospital bed. Filled with anger because he's the only one of his species and doesn't get to canoodle with anyone, the creature goes off into the night.

Sheriff Krantz stops off at the drug store to start working on the theft report there, only to find Blake and the INPIT dude are already there taking fingerprints and analyzing the slimy inhuman footprints on the floor. They're forced to conclude that the creature was intelligent enough to realize that it needed something from the drugstore and then got it (which is a rational conclusion, yes, but how were they going to explain it to each other than the bog monster figured out how to read?).

In the morning everyone goes looking for the monster, but not in the lab where they knew an obsessive scientist used to hang out. The INPIT guy has a Geiger counter, because of course he does, and he leads the sheriff off in search of whatever's setting it to full crackle (working theory:  atomic fish monster). And Leopold, in his lab, has another syringe of Monster Juice ready to stick into the woman from INPIT once he kidnaps her. This would be a fine time for the tension to ratchet up and the action to build, but instead the woman from INPIT takes a phone call from headquarters and the two guys looking for the monster wander around a lot.

Oh, and here's where the sheriff says that there used to be a mad scientist named Leopold who lived in the area and wanted to turn people into fish. Which is the kind of thing you don't want to hear about a week into the investigation, damn it! Who hired this man? At least the INPIT guy flips out about as much as I did. Nobody notices the six-foot-tall lungfish creature wandering around the town in broad daylight as it stalks the woman from INPIT, who is changing out of her jumpsuit so the audience has a woman in her underwear to ogle before they take a look at her taking a shower (from the outside and blocked by the curtain). She starts typing some correspondence while the monster slowly walks past the window behind her, which would be a really suspenseful shot if the movie wasn't moving so ponderously.

Evntually she gets abducted by Leopold, but not before she dodges him once and throws some stuff at him, which gives her points for not being a helpless victim. But she still leaves the house in a fireman's carry over the monster's shoulder. The three dudes who left her alone charge very belatedly to the rescue and find the place empty. The INPIT guy makes a command decision:  it's time for all of them to go to the lab that Dr. Leopold bought and take care of this fish monster problem once and for all. The sheriff and Dr. Blake go in the lawman's Jeep while the INPIT investigator drives a sight gag of an aquatic dune buggy into the spring. It's even less impressive than it sounds, because the thing stalls out in the water. He winds up ditching the ludicrous little vehicle and heading off on foot, toting a rifle. He flounders around in the swamps by the spring like a compete moron, making me wish it wasn't too late for the movie to order in a different hero.

Meanwhile, Dr Baker and Sheriff Kranz make it to the research station and find that there's a generator still running, which supplies the place with power. The Leopold monster eventually makes its way to the woods near the lab, with the INPIT guy in tepid pursuit. The sheriff and Dr. Blake poke around a little bit while waiting for the climax of the film to show up, draining all the tension out of the film. They find the big Revenge Planner Wheel and realize that something really really odd is going on, but don't openly state that they figured out Dr. Leopold turned himself into a lungfish monster.

Eventually, and I do mean eventually, the monster shows up and realizes that the jig is at least on its way to being up. He sets the woman from INPIT down and claws the sheriff to death after a short fight in which a man with a gun decides to bring a stick to a monster fight. That gives Leopold the opportunity to carry his kidnap victim to the transformation tank, which Dr. Blake fails to notice as he riffles through Leopold's notebook. So the woman from INPIT gets shot up with transformation juice, and Blake hears her scream from the Science Chamber before Lungfish Man can dip her in the pool. He also brings a stick to a monster fight and gets his ticket punched after putting up a very poor showing for himself (academicians do not know how to brawl). But he sabotages some of the equipment before he goes and also gets the monster trapped briefly in a tiny net, and also makes an attempt to keep the abductee from getting dunked in the tank before he expires. That just leaves the guy from INPIT to show up in a belated cavalry charge before his colleague gets mutated into a She-Fish.

That guy finally does show up with a rifle, putting a few slugs into the Leopold monster as it walks into the ocean. As does the woman from INPIT, who I guess is being hypnotically compelled to do that or something. There isn't even a voiceover at this point to explain it. Heck, for that matter, I don't know if Leopold is wounded or dying when he goes into the surf toting a big canister of ZAAT during the denouement. 1971 means that it's time for a Bummer Ending, even if the movie didn't really set it up ahead of time.

Well, you might be surprised to hear me say this, but I wish that Don Barton got a chance to make a second movie after this one failed to make much of an impact at the box office. There's enough that goes right (the monster suit is pretty nice, especially for the budget, and I was hugely impressed by the underwater sequences) to make up for the plodding and repetitious script. There's about twenty minutes of fat that could have been trimmed pretty painlessly from this one, and about five minutes of explanations that should have been added in somewhere. I wonder if Barton didn't realize he could edit a sequence in where the sheriff explains about Dr. Leopold earlier in the movie--as things are, the main forces of law and order in the film come off incredibly badly.

But hey, filmmaking is an art and it's a craft and it's a skill, and like most things of that nature you learn how to do them by doing them. There are plenty of directors who had their shots and never went on to do much of anything else, and their potential went unrealized. It's a real shame, because there's the shape of something really interesting and compelling in this movie underneath the goofy strolling and runtime-padding musical numbers. With a couple more practice films under his belt there's no reason that Don Barton couldn't have been someone fondly remembered for a half a dozen regional hits. Unfortunately, profitability trumps all other concerns when it comes to cinema. Or even movies. Or flicks, which this one definitely was.

What do you think, Joe?


"I want to buy a vowel. And turn all the other Neopets into fish monsters."

Saturday, October 29, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 24: X The Unknown (1956)


HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.


Story and screenplay by Jimmy Sangster
Directed by Leslie Norman (and an uncredited Joseph Losey)

Dean Jagger:  Dr. Adam Royston
Leo McKern:  Inspector "Mac" McGill
Michael Ripper:  Sergeant Harry Grimsdyke
Edward Chapman:  John Elliott

This is a movie that exists in its final form because Nigel Kneale didn't trust Hammer with his best-known fictional creation. It was going to be a second film about Bernard Quatermass, the science hero that I've written about twice on the Checkpoint already. But Kneale, Quatermass' creator, wasn't interested in a quickly produced sequel to the film The Quatermass Xperiment coming out and possibly treating his character poorly. Having seen The Return of Count Yorga, a one-year-later quickie sequel to Count Yorga, Vampire, for this very HubrisWeen I have to say I'm entirely on Kneale's side in the dispute. So what was Hammer Studios to do?

Well, they had an idea for a really cool monster and an existing plot outline. They just scrubbed Quatermass from the story and added in an American hero (which would help sell the movie in the States). It's a neat transitional film from Hammer; one of the last black and white films before they started making their Dracula and Frankenstein movies in bright bloody color, as well as one set in the present day instead of making it a period piece like most of the famous Hammer flicks. It's also a flick that's about England's place in the world after the British Empire was just a memory, and about the rise of nuclear weapons as a threat to stability and to human life itself (remember, the English were bombed for eight months as part of the Second World War, causing untold destruction, suffering and death with conventional explosives). One can imagine that thoughts of city-wrecking bombs from the sky were more a returning nightmare for them than a fresh one like it was for United Statesians like me and most of my readers.

In 1956, the Soviet Union already had atomic weapons, and bombers from Vladivostok could get to London faster than they could reach Washington, D. C. The civilian atomic program existed in England, with the first commercial reactor in the country generating its first kilowatts a mere three months before this movie was released. This will be the second "atomic monster" movie I've seen from Hammer Studios and in both cases there isn't a giant scorpion to be found. The first English nuclear paranoia film I watched had innocent children as the atomic creatures and the British government as the background villains. This one is similar to the next year's The Monolith Monsters, in that the creature isn't something that can be reasoned or communicated with; however, instead of needing to make contact with the alien meteorites in the American film, mere proximity to the monster can be fatal in the British one. Radiation can be lethal at a greater distance than chemicals, after all. And while I'm certain the English government said the nuclear power plant was completely safe, there's a certain distrust of official pronouncements in that country's national character. It probably had something to do with the idea that the Great War would be over by Christmas 1914 instead of going on for another four years of barbaric slaughter. Oh, well. Live and learn (except for the 887,000 Britons who could no longer do the latter after they ceased doing the former).

The film starts off with soldiers on an exercise in Scotland in the scenic location only a low-budget English movie could provide:  they're in a muddy gravel quarry in the winter. A lone corporal with a Geiger counter goes looking for a buried slug of some radioactive material, presumably to get used to the care and feeding of radiation-detecting equipment. I hope that's a mildly irradiated piece of metal he found, because otherwise the higher-ranked he handed it off to are going to have a rotten time of it in the very near future. One of the younger soldiers says he hasn't had a chance to carry out the training exercise yet and the officer tells the sergeant to bury the metal slug somewhere close so everyone isn't out in the cold all day while the kid tries to find it. Sounds reasonable to me. (Also, the officer points out that in a real "someone go out there with a Geiger counter and track down the radioactive thingy" situation, the protocol is to find the chunk of material, mark it, and get the hell away from it unless one is in a full-body protective suit. Those Brits are so sensible.)

The final soldier to go on the search for the test material wanders all over Hell's creation looking for it, and goes so far off course that his lieutenant (?) goes out into the slushy mud to see what's going on. Turns out the kid's found a really good signal, but nowhere near where it's supposed to be. While the lieutenant and a major go looking for the test slug (because it's Army property and also because it's not polite to leave even mildly radioactive things out in a field. While everyone's attention is on that search, the kid standing by the spot that had the inappropriately high radiation reading notices the puddle on the ground in front of him, which should have a thin scum of ice on top, is boiling. A small fissure opens in the ground near the unfortunate soldier, followed by an explosion of fire and cloud of probably lethally radioactive smoke.

The scene shifts to the "Atomic Energy Establishment" in Lochmouth, Scotland. A voice on the PA lets Dr. Adam Royston (our Quatermass substitute) know that the facility director needs to see him with a quickness, interrupting some kind of experiment to determine the energy output of radioactive cobalt (I think). In his own lab, Royston sets up an array to work on something that the film doesn't particularly explain but which involves a hugely elaborate Erector set, a desk radio that starts playing an electrical tone rather than classical music when the radioactive metal goes near it, and tiny wobbling radar dishes. Royston learns that he's got to go talk to the head man at the research facility and resigns himself to a walk to the main building since the man who told him he's got a meeting going on came on a bicycle built for one. 

The MFIC of the research station, John Elliott, tells Royston that he doesn't get to pick and choose what science he's going to do; instead, he'll follow orders and carry out the experiments that have been selected for him. It's the atomic energy research version of the "Your methods are too risky" / "My methods get results" cop movie scene, but in a polite and sedate British manner. Eliott also tells Dr. Royston not to have the facility administrators working on science any more; their job is logistics and typing, not monitoring proton decay. As a punitive measure, Royston's the one who gets volunteered to go out into the freezing muddy filth at that military test site and try to figure out what happened when the ground cracked upon and fire exploded out of it.

When Dr. Royston gets to the mystery spot, there's no radiation to be found at all (which he chalks up to untrained doughboys trying to work a Geiger counter), but the two men injured by the blast are showing burns on their skin and symptoms of radiation poisoning. Royston (in a weird, halting cadence that suggests to me that Dean Jagger hadn't learned his lines and there wasn't money for a second take) says he'll have the research station send him some equipment so he can try to determine what happened. That takes time, though, and the major is talking to some irritated civilians who would like to know what's going on in their little postage stamp of native soil--and since he isn't particularly scientifically literate and nobody's figured out what's going on at this point, there's only so much he can tell them.

It's something of a relief when the sergeant tells Major Cartwright that Dr. Royston wants to talk to him--that's when the major is able to tell the civilians that they're on War Department property and under his authority, so when he tells them to stay put they can like it or lump it, and lumping it involves being escorted to the property line by Sergeant Grimsdyke. Dr. Royston doesn't have a lot he can tell the major about the crack in the ground--it looks to be forty or fifty feet long, perhaps three feet wide, and when Royston tosses a rock into it neither he nor the military officer hears it hit the bottom of the chasm. The decision is made to go back to the lab to fetch equipment with a longer scanning range than the stuff that was brought out this time, and also to rope off the pit so nobody falls into it by accident.

In the car ride back to the research station, Royston and his assistant talk about the fissure and try to figure out just how deep it might actually be, and also ponder what kind of seismic activity would have been going on in Scotland (which does have mountains and such in it, but it's hardly the kind of place you'd imagine having earthquakes, blasts of radioactive steam and bottomless crevasses opening up in the middle of nowhere). And it also comes up that earthquakes aren't radioactive, so it may not be that both events had a single cause. I would be remiss in my duties as a B movie reviewer if I didn't mention that the rear projection in the car's back window jumps all over the place like a cricket and that first-time viewers who notice this are gonna miss the ominous Science Talk completely.

In a nifty transition, the car drives by a pair of wee Scottish tykes who are planning to sneak to a spot that's supposed to be haunted so they can look for the local rural legend (one of whom is played by a very young Frazer Hines, who would portray a Highlander companion of the second Doctor for 117 episodes, a series record). Willie, the one who swore to check out the haunted spot, creeps through the mist and darkness in the woods towards a ruined castle tower, but sees something coming for him and flees as a POV shot (which can't get into the woods after him through the trees, so he's safe) moves towards him accompanied by an electrical crackling and buzzing noise. He beats feet and the other kid runs back to town along with him in a state of abject terror.

Back in town, Willie the young explorer is in the hospital with severe radiation burns; Dr. Royston confirms what happened to a doctor in private and then stomps all over that man's desire not to tell the kid's parents anything distressing. Ian, the kid who didn't get burned, gets a quick meeting with Royston after church the next day. Royston needs to find out what happened to Willie and asks politely and persistently where the pair of boys were the night before. Then it's time for Royston to visit the ruined tower himself, wearing no protective gear of any kind but toting a Geiger counter. He doesn't even turn the thing on till he's inside the structure (which is being used as the site for a still brewing the Highlands equivalent of moonshine). The bootlegger turns out to be hacking sick, which might be the result of sleeping in an unheated stone chamber in the winter, or it might be the result of exposure to the radioactive slug Royston was using in those Erector set experiments back at his personal lab.

But how the heck did a chunk of irradiated metal get from a locked and lead-lined box in a lab building over to a medieval fortress / booze production center? Well, part of the explanation is determined when Royston goes back to his lab and sees that it's been broken into, with scorch marks and mud covering several surfaces. It's the same mud that Royston found at the tower, but what it's doing in either place, let alone both, is currently a mystery. While we're toting up mysteries, Royston has another one to consider--the cylinder of radioactive tritium is supposed to be hazardous to human life for twenty-eight years, but the sample he has is completely inert. And the lab was locked when Royston got back to it, so whatever broke into his lab and consumed the radiation from his tritium sample did so without damaging the door (or even opening it). Ahhh, the impossible that is happening anyway. I love getting to see it all month long in HubrisWeen.

Over in the facility director's office, he's having a chat with Inspector McGill, of the UK branch of the Atomic Energy Commission--as one can imagine, any crimes that take place at a facility that has radioactive materials are crimes where the local constable calls in someone who has more clout and experience. The director declares that the scene of the crime is a private facility instead of being connected to the research station he oversees and tries to blow McGill off (who tells him to eat shit in the most polite and understated manner possible). Which leads to an interview with Dr. Royston at a cafeteria as the scientist works his way through a distressing-looking meal. The inspector admits that he doesn't have any idea what happened to young Willie (who succumbs to his injuries--that's right, Little Willie won't go home), but that he's willing to entertain any possibilities that present themselves. He's a cop, not a scientist, but he knows that effects have causes, and he'd sure like to bring a few of each category together and see what's been 1) fatally burning people with radiation and 2) eating radioactive materials around the region.

The human cost of whatever's going on is demonstrated by Willie's grieving parents, who leave his hospital room just as Royston and McGill arrive. Willie's dad gives Dr. Royston a piece of his mind as well as articulating the creeping paranoia about the nuclear era (though his dialogue gets buried under the syrupy strings on the film's score, undercutting what could have been a quite effective scene). Just as McGill and Royston walk down the hall discussing science's culpability in Willie's death, a totally shady-looking guy sneaks out of the hospital's X-ray room and places a phone call where he confirms something will be done in two minutes.

Well, I was expecting industrial espionage or a Soviet agent, but it turns out the shady-looking technician was scheduling a quickie with one of the nurses on staff. The doctor's apparently quite the lady-killer, with the nurse telling him she's heard good stuff about his safety-booth assignations with the other women on the hospital's staff. But before things can progress past a Fifties Kiss, the equipment in the X-ray room turns on by itself and that crackling and buzzing sound shows up, along with a POV shot that stalks the doctor and kills him while the nurse looks on and screams (as you do). The radiation damage is so profound that the doctor's entire fucking head melts (!) in a brief shot, which is all the more shocking for its quick impact. The radium safe in the X-ray room has been scorched and melted, just like the lead box in Royston's lab. and that weird mud is in evidence as well (just like at the tower and Royston's workshop). 

The nurse has gone insane under the pressure of what she's seen, which is pretty standard for this sort of film (but means she won't be able to tell anyone what she saw), and Royston stacks up another impossibility to go along with all the other ones that have been happening--nobody saw anyone suspicious in the hospital before or after the attack, and it looks like the only way into the radiation room is an air-conditioning grille cemented to the wall. It wasn't melted through like the safe, and it's still fastened securely where it's supposed to be, but that's the only method of ingress that Royston's found. Inspector McGill says there's no way something big enough to kill the doctor and burn through the radiation safe could have fit through the tiny holes in the A/C grille, but Royston has an intuitive leap and figures out that whatever they're looking for, it's got a liquid body rather than a solid one. Which is just as impossible as all the other things that have been going on--but now the impossibilities seem to be connected rather than discrete. So there's just one massive Thing That Cannot Happen with several different manifestations rather than half a dozen completely different impossible events going on at the same time.

Dr. Royston, now realizing that the fissure in the earth is probably the home of whatever it is that's been killing people and hunting down radiation sources, says he's glad the major never stationed soldiers there like he originally requested. Which turns out to have happened, and their midnight tea break is interrupted by an odd noise and a weird glow off in the distance. Both men are too creeped out to check the glow out when it's in evidence, but when Private Haggis (yes, really) checks things out after the glow recedes he screams in terror and leaves behind a mud-covered Thompson machine gun. Corporal Webb is no luckier when he goes to see what happened to Haggis, so when Royston and company arrive at the site there's just two more deaths to add to the tally but no more information.

Back at the research center, Dr. Royston gives a pretty awesome Science Gibberish explanation of what he thinks is happening--some sort of life form that could best be described as an intelligent glob of minerals has found a channel to the Earth's surface, which it hadn't been on for hundreds of millions of years, and is now feeding off of what it finds in its new environment. There's something about increased gravity every fifty years and earthquakes in places that shouldn't experience them and the life form being "pure energy" instead of a mobile glob of the Earth's mantle. Whichever ones made it to the surface in previous gravity cycles died of starvation, but now there are radioactive things on the surface that the creatures can eat. I wasn't hugely impressed with Dean Jagger up until this point, but he does a fantastic job as the academic spitting out terms that don't make any sense in order to explain the previous forty minutes of narrative. What it boils down to is this:  The movie's monster is a ton or so of mobile, radioactive, potentially sentient mud.

The project head thinks Dr. Royston is either spinning a yarn or possibly suffering from a brain tumor; Inspector McGill and Major Cartwright think there might be something to his idea (and Royston's the protagonist, so he's gonna be right). He walks out of the meeting after the forces of law, order and military force say that they think Royston's possibly right and the remaining men hatch a plan to try and figure out exactly what they're dealing with. Which means sending some poor schmuck down into the fissure to see if they can find the monster.

Instead of the Major having to order one of the soldiers down into the crevasse, Royston's assistant Peter volunteers to get a little field work in, even though it's suicidally dangerous. A seat-on-a-rope and hand-cranked winch are set up and he gets lowered down into the chasm with a Geiger counter to see what he can find out. Partway through the descent Peter finds the skeleton of one of the liquefied soldiers that were guarding the fissure (in a rather well-handled reveal), and tells the soldiers to keep sending him down even after that particular memento mori lets him know the risks of what he's doing. And, of course, mere seconds after he sees the skeletal remains of the soldier his Geiger counter goes absolutely nuts, auditorily burying the needle as the unseen formless creature surges up the chasm at him. Peter's pretty slow on the uptake as to what the noise means but then yells in panic for the winch operators to pull him up; he narrowly escapes with his life, and after Royston bundles him in a car to be driven away to the official debriefing Major Cartwright says the military orders are to kill or contain whatever it is that's down in the chasm. Killing the creature is assumed to be done after hosing the top of a bottomless chasm with a flamethrower and dropping a couple demolition sharges in, while containment will be accomplished by pouring a concrete patch over the top of fissure and calling it a day.

Yeah, I don't think it's going to work either. 

Inspector McGill returns to Royston's workshop as the scientist is doing some soldering and fixing the damage from the mud creature's visit; quite sensibly, Dr. Royston asks what good two feet of concrete are going to do against something that has shoved its way through a mile of solid stone. The AEC man thinks that a couple grenades and flamethrowers probably killed the thing, but I'd like to point out that nearly everyone that has gotten within ten feet of the monster has died of radiation poisoning--the soldiers at the fissure didn't even get a mild suntan. It might not have been anywhere near them when they dropped the bombs down and figured that'd do it. After a demonstration of his Erector set experiment, Royston says the lethally radioactive metal in the sample jar is just a piece of mud that emits radiation, and sensibly asks how one could possibly kill mud. McGill (and the audience, I'm sure) doesn't have an answer for that.

Dr. Royston's about to lose one of the few people willing to listen to his wild-ass theories when the inspector is recalled to London to present a report on the shenanigans and goings-on around the research station. McGill believes--as does Royston--that the mud creature is going to go around or through that concrete patch and attack again, and there's nothing anyone knows to do about it yet. Although there might be a way--for years, Dr. Royston's been trying to work out a way to make radioactive materials inert without the corresponding atomic blast that usually results from the process (I'm not sure how much sense that makes, but roll with it). If his process actually works, and can be used on the mud monster, they can make it inert--hopefully before anyone else dies from exposure to it. If it doesn't work, there won't be a place on Earth that's safe from attacks from that creature until every last piece of radioactive material has been consumed and it dies of starvation or flees back underground for whatever it normally eats in the heat and pressure of the Earth's mantle.

Also, considering Dean Jagger's age and that the movie takes place in 1956, I think there's something quite noble going on with Dr. Adam Royston. If he's got a doctoral degree in nuclear physics, he'd have to be one of the first people to do so. I think Royston's probably someone who worked on the Manhattan Project in some capacity back in the Forties and who is trying to figure out if there's a way to take all those chunks of radioactive metal in all the missiles and bombs in the USSR and United States and turn them into paperweights. I'm not aware of any other movies from this time period that feature a scientist trying to make nuclear war impossible--usually the military-industrial complex types in these movies are worried about the Soviets winding up more advanced than our side or trying to build a weapon to defeat a technologically superior foe. In X The Unknown, there's an American nuclear physicist trying to put himself and hundreds of other atomic scientists out of a job.

Two plot points collide right after Dr. Royston explains what he's trying to do in his little workshed; first, it's time to take the radioactive cobalt out of the atomic pile at the main research station. Second, the mud monster oozes through and around that concrete patch like it wasn't even there. (See? No way did a flamethrower and a concrete patch actually kill a monster without organs.) Well, once it bubbles out of the ground--and the first look at the oozing, bubbling tide of mud is pretty impressive, especially for the year it was made and Hammer's budgetary restrictions--it's going to go looking for a snack. While McGill calls to unsuccessfully petition his superiors for another day in the field to wrap things up, another cop at the station takes a call about a fatal road accident where the bodies in the car are melted. Which he thinks is idiocy from the officer on the scene and McGill knows as the sign that something terrible is about to happen.

When Inspector McGill gets to the accident scene he's able to confirm that it looks like the mud monster was there and then needs to find a telephone so he can call the research station and let them know the creature is oozing towards them at that very moment (the beat cop on the scene doesn't have any way of getting in touch with anyone, and the nearest public telephone is miles away, which is the kind of plot detail that makes sense in 1956 and perhaps wouldn't fly sixty years later). At the research station, Dr. Royston is getting chewed out by the director for pulling the cobalt out of the atomic pile without permission when McGill calls in and says four more people are dead and the mud monster is on the loose. That's more important than putting a cobalt test behind schedule, of course, so it's time for a "plot where the monster has been before on a map" scene--and I love those--which means Royston gets to draw a line on a map with a grease pencil that goes right across the Lochmouth research station. Pants, meet shit.

McGill hightails it back to the research station just as Dr. Royston is trying to come up with a plan to get the cobalt far enough away from the mud monster that it won't be able to sense it (and kill anyone in its path while trying to reach the cobalt so it can eat it). The director comes within an ace of telling the American crackpot he was right to shut down the atomic pile before running off to work on logistics for their last-ditch plan. It boils down to "put the cobalt on the back of a transport truck and drive like hell", which could just mean that the creature will go after it and kill dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people while pursuing the cobalt--after all, nobody knows how far away the mud monster can still smell the stuff. For that matter, if the truck drives past another food source for the monster it might just divert itself towards an unprepared victim and kill more people that way. It is not a good plan, is what I'm saying. The plan is bad and Dr. Royston should feel bad for having come up with it.

The point is moot, though, because the creature's already at the research station's entrance shack, making short work of the guard at the gate. The mortally injured guard manages to set off the station's fire alarm before he melts and there's general panic as everyone tries to escape the creature (and the score overpowers the dialogue again; bad job, DVD mixers!)

The mud blob rolls down the road towards the station (and then over it), going for the cobalt in its case. At least nobody's near it to get killed while the monster feeds, but I literally have no idea what Dr. Royston says to do for the inevitable last-ditch plan to defeat the creature because the string sections drown out his voice completely and I don't have subtitles on the disc I'm using for this. So a helicopter and a cop car are pressed into service to do...whatever it is...while the villagers near Lochmouth evacuate their homes and hide inside the church to stay out of the path of the monster as it oozes back to its home.

The mud creature turns out to have some kind of pain-avoidance reflex, and turns away from some almost passably animated downed power lines to roll down the main street of Lochmouth (the physical effect of the mud monster is much better than the animated one and the model work for the power lines). The sheer radiation in the air makes it impossible for the men in the helicopter to inform anyone else of the monster's change in itinerary--there's nothing but static on either end when they try to communicate. And back at the church there's a little toddler girl wandering around as the creature breaks through a stone wall; her proximity to it means she should be a melted popsicle by the time the priest runs up to grab her, and he shouldn't live through the rescue attempt at that range either. But the BBFC probably wasn't going to approve a script with a melting child in it back in 1956, so she lives and the priest lives after saving her. 

The mud monster eats the cobalt and grows larger, which fits into Dr. Royston's operating theories about the creature. He also theorizes that every time it feeds on a nuclear power source it will be able to sense its food at greater distances, so killing it at the fissure when it goes back home to digest its cobalt extra value meal is of paramount importance.

So back to Dr. Royston's private workshop it is, while he screws around with the Erector set radar dishes and manages to remove the radioactivity from a sample slug without blowing anything up. Well, almost without blowing anything up. There's no time to come up with a better plan so Dr. Royston goes off to the fissure with some radioactive bait for the monster to try and use two synchronized spinning radar dish things to solve X The Unknown so it equals zero.

At the fissure site, there's gawkers that have to be taken out of the way and a Jeep with some radioactive stuff in the back to serve as an enticement to the monster. The hope is to get it to haul its bulk up to the surface and then subject it to the spinning-radar-dish treatment so it'll die before it realizes that it's under attack. If something goes wrong with the process, the two tons of radioactive mud will explode just like the speck of test material did, and everybody in the area (and probably the town, and possibly down in Edinburgh) is going to die. Because it's a monster movie, the Jeep carrying the radioactive bait won't start until Peter's behind the wheel--a named character can make the machine work where a no-mark day player can't, of course.

Eventually the monster makes its appearance (Peter moves the Jeep suicidally close to the fissure to attract it, since it just ate a big meal and might not have room for dessert), the spinning radar dishes go into action and the mud monster goes up in what fellow HubrisWeen participant Dr. Freex described once as "a fiery, smoky foof". Thankfully, a big foof isn't explosive enough to kill everyone there at the fissure and a test with the Geiger counters that everyone in the movie carries around like a fashion accessory gets postponed as there's a second foof from the crevasse that shouldn't have happened. I think Dr. Royston killed the monster as it was budding to create an offspring, so his plan worked better than even he knew. And so the world is saved by American knowhow and Scottish obedience.

This one's a real treat--I'm a total sucker for "work together to kill the monster with Science!" plots, and even though it's not a real Quatermass movie enough of the template shows through to hit all the buttons I want it to hit. There really wasn't much of an English flavour to this one thanks to the lead being a Yank, but thankfully all the various supporting players are stiff-upper-lip and English to give the viewer a sense of where it's taking place (in fact, the two soldiers guarding the fissure at night are killed right before a tea break). This was Jimmy Sangster's first screenplay for Hammer Studios, and he would go on to write more than a dozen of the studio's smash hits before jumping ship to likely make a whole lot more money working for American television. At the same time that X the Unknown was the end of one era for Hammer (present-day stories in black and white) the filmmaker who wrote it was about to launch the studio into its hugely profitable and successful next phase.

Not too bad for a movie where the villain is a big pile of wet dirt. 


"Okay, there's got to be a Geiger counter on this thing SOMEWHERE. I'll let you know if I find the mud monster."