When Bearcat Went Dry (1919)

When Bearcat Went Dry (1919)‘You cannot die! First I have a bone to pick with you!’

A small town in the Cumberland Mountains has fallen behind the times and descended into lawlessness. Salvation seems possible when the railroad company send a surveyor to the area, but he is brutally attacked by one of the local gangs…

Six-reel silent melodrama that was thought lost for many years until an incomplete print surfaced, with Dutch intertitles, via a private collection in 1996. As it is, we do have most of the film with only the 1st and part of the 2nd reel missing and what remains runs almost an hour in length. Why is this film of particular interest to aficionados today? Because it stars cinema icon Lon Chaney in one of his last ‘straight’ roles before stardom beckoned.

The setup here should be very familiar to anyone who’s spent a rainy afternoon watching an old Hollywood Western from cinema’s Golden Age. We have the ‘wide-open’ town run by local gangs, the ‘bought and paid for’ sheriff turning a blind eye and the local, upright citizens desperate to install some kind of law and order. One of these miscreants is local rabble-rouser Turner ‘Bearcat’ Stacy (Bernard J Durning) who likes to mix it up with the best of them but has a softer side thanks to the influence of pretty gal Blossom (Vangie Valentine). She returns his love but her father is local preacher Joel Fulkerson (Walt Whitman – no, not the poet!), and so she persuades Durning to clean up his act. This involves staying off the booze, hence the film’s title. But the course of true love doesn’t run smooth…

What shakes things up is the arrival of railroad man Jerry Henderson (M K Wilson). The town elders are all for him, as the iron horse will bring prosperity, schools and tougher laws, but the gangs aren’t so keen, particular the roughnecks led by local saloon keeper Kindard Powers (Chaney). On the run from their somewhat enthusiastic attentions, Wilson takes shelter overnight in the Fulkerson house. Unfortunately – gasp! – Valentine is there alone and, as they are unchaperoned, obviously they have to get married afterwards. lt’s the law of the mountains, or something! Durning’s rather put out about this, but when Wilson is badly injured in a gunfight, he vows to put an end to Chaney’s reign of terror forever.

When Bearcat Went Dry (1919)

‘Stop exaggerating! It’s only a cold…’

This is a fairly typical frontier tale of good against evil. Chaney isn’t called to do anything more than snarl, look menacing and be nasty, which he manages effortlessly, of course. Technically, the camera is fairly static, but there is a decent mixture of long and medium shots (no real closeups) and there’s a lot of good location work, the film being shot in the mountains of Kentucky.

Durning’s solution to the problem of driving out Chaney’s gang is to form a band of vigilantes, who are effective, if not popular with the state authorities. My biggest concern about them, though, is more to do with their appearance. Hoods and burning torches bare rather too close a resemblance to the Ku Klux Klan, who had reformed as recently as 1915. Also timely was Durning’s sobriety pledge; the misguided Wartime Prohibition Act had come into force earlier that year and led shortly to the full-blown Volstead Act and the subsequent rise of bootlegging and organised crime.

This film was released barely two months after Chaney’s breakthrough performance in ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919), a film which is now sadly lost. He starred in seven films released in 1919, and it’s interesting to speculate as to whether Chaney was aware of the sudden change in his fortunes while he was making this one. It was pretty much the last generic villain role he ever got to play.

One for Chaney enthusiasts and film historians only.

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Col Chore ln Gola/Deadly Sweet/I Am What l Am (1967)

Deadly Sweet (1967)‘Water on a woman’s body is like dew on rose petals.’

A young Frenchman in debt to a London club owner finds the man murdered and a beautiful young woman on the scene. Rather than go to the police, he takes her home and begins his own investigation…

Terribly dated Italian murder-mystery that’s often mentioned as an early example of a ‘Giallo’ thriller but is really more of an exercise in over-indulgence by director Tinto Brass. The story is simple enough; unemployed actor Jean-Louis Trintignant stumbles across pretty blonde Ewa Aulin in the back office of a sleazy club owner. Problem is that someone’s hit the bossman over the head with a blunt object and he’s not going to be cutting crucial shapes on the dancefloor anytime soon. Given that he is likely to be a prime suspect himself, Trintignant decides to solve the crime rather than call the authorities, although I suspect the fact that Auliin is rather a cute little blonde may have something to do with his rather insane decision.

From there, the mystery develops into a seemingly complex plot involving a stolen photograph, a midget, a kidnapping and the local underworld. Unfortunately, all this is just set dressing and misdirection; in fact, the story is nothing more than a series of opportunities for director Brass to get his cinematic rocks off. We get split-screen, quick cuts, coloured filters, split-second inserts and random switches from colour to black and white and back again. Allegedly these changes to the colour pallet were because of technical issues with lighting some locations, but it was more than likely a deliberate artistic choice. Quite often this seems to be nothing more than a knowing homage (or satire) of the Hollywood Film Noir, but as seen through a 1960s ‘New Wave’ lens.

There are also endless references to pop culture; Trintignant’s tiny flat is decorated with shots of Bogart, Gable and other classic film stars. There are brief ‘pop art’ insert when punches are thrown during fight scenes, much in the manner of the ‘Ker-Blam!’ captions in Adam West’s TV ‘Batman’ show. There’s a scene in a photographer’s studio where Aulin strips behind a screen while Trintignant flails away on a drum kit, eventually getting his clothes off and making like Tarzan as the film speeds up in the manner of a silent comedy. The stolen photograph also turns out to be just the MacGuffin that drives the plot, much in the manner of Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’ (1966), which gets referenced more than once. Rather tellingly, not only do we never see this picture, we never even find out what it’s supposed to show! Yes, my friends, it’s THAT kind of movie.

In the end, the audience doesn’t engage meaningfully with any of the characters because we find out next to nothing about them; they are just archetypes. Trintignant spouts Chinese poetry and shoots a man dead without batting an eyelid, which is odd as l thought he was just supposed to be an out of work actor? Aulin brings a mischievous beauty to her femme fatale that goes some way to explaining Trintignant’s rather wayward decisions, but she gets little opportunity to do anything else. The performers, and their roles, are simply props for the director to use.

Deadly Sweet (1967)

‘Pretentious, moi?’

Trintignant has had an epic career in European cinema and is still acting as of 2019 at the age of 88. He was showered with awards for his role in ‘Amour’ (2012) and starred in Costa-Gravas’ ‘Z’ (1969) and Kieslowski’s ‘Three Colours: Red’ (1994) amongst many other prestigious projects.

Aulin, on the other hand, retired in 1973 at the age of 23, just five years after taking the title role in ‘Candy’ (1968) starring Richard Burton and Marlon Brando. Brass went onto notoriety as director of the infamous ‘Caligula’ (1979), although he did ask that his name be removed from the film when he discovered the producer’s intentions to insert hard-core pornographic footage filmed without the knowledge of the film’s big-name cast. After that, he carved out a niche as a filmmaker specialising in erotica and has enjoyed considerable artistic and commercial success in that arena ever since.

When interviewed about this production, Brass claimed that he ‘wanted to make a film in ideograms; like Chinese writing where a symbol indicates a whole concept.’

And that’s pretty much all you need to know.

The Being (1983)

The Being (1983)‘The ultimate terror has taken form and Pottsville, Idaho will never be the same.’

A rural town in Idaho has been ravaged by terrible storms. In the aftermath, people are missing and locals begin to report sightings of a strange, slimy, man-like creature. A local detective begins to investigate and suspects that events may be linked to the dumping of nuclear waste in the area…

This low-budget monster smackdown opens with our old friend Voiceover Man, and, as per usual, he’s giving it to us straight and serious. What we are about to witness is some heavy shit going down in ‘This Could Be Your Smalltown, USA’. Writer-director Jackie Kong doesn’t waste any time with preamble either, and the opening has a random local getting decapitated in his car by the claws of a (mostly) unseen beast. Detective Rexx Coltrane finds nothing at the crime scene, which is odd considering the gory FX we’ve just witnessed. He does sit in a pool of green gunk left behind on the driver’s seat, though. And that’s weird too.

Teens are then attacked at the drive-in after the creature hides in a couple’s car. And l don’t mean it’s concealed in the trunk or hunkered down on the back seat. Apparently, it was hiding in the dashboard!? Again, it leaves no evidence of its murderous spree and the absence of the locals is blamed on the recent storms. This makes no sense at all, especially as all we’ve seen of this apparently apocalyptic weather is a few black clouds in one shot at the start of the film. As far as I could tell, it never even rains.

Coltrane teams up with waitress Marianne Gordon to investigate further (standard police procedure I guess) but faces resistance from potato magnate and town mayor Jose Ferrer, who wants everything hushed up (as local bigwigs always do). He does agree to call in scientist Martin Landau, though, which sounds helpful, although we have just seen him on local TV arguing that dumping nuclear waste in the local aquifer is completely safe. Also wandering about in the background is distraught mother Dorothy Malone, whose young son has been missing for several days. Curiously, no-one else seems worried about this at all; the local constabulary preferring to spend their time hitting on young female motorists and arresting a guy for fishing without a licence. Priorities, l suppose.

The Being (1984)

‘Hello Girls!’

At first glance, this seems to be just a selection of random script pages from other monster movies stapled together without much care or attention. The action scenes are poorly staged and the story has an odd, disjointed feel to it. The creature FX aren’t too bad, although closeups and mid-shots don’t match and the thing seems to be moving around on wheels which doesn’t help.

lt is hinted in one scene that the monster is actually Malone’s son transformed by toxic waste, but this is never resolved or even mentioned again. It would explain why Malone’s character is in the film, though, as her presence is completely pointless otherwise. lt also doesn’t help that Coltrane is such a lifeless hero. Rarely changing expression and obviously dubbed throughout, our leading man is a complete charisma vacuum and his romance with Gordon unconvincing at best.

Our scaly fiend also has an odd fetish for motor vehicles; hanging out at the scrapyard, hiding in Ferrer’s garage, attacking drivers, and even flying out of an alley and through the open door of Coltrane’s squad car. There’s also a redundant subplot about Ferrer’s wife (Ruth Buzzi) running a moral crusade to stop the opening of a local massage parlour, which would seem to be intended as satire. She’s also appears in a bizarre dream sequence crying blood and riding a broomstick!

The Being (1983)

‘No, I don’t need to see a script, I’ll do it!’

Top-billed Landau had a curious career. There were several peaks; on TV as a member of the IMF on ‘Mission: Impossible’ and then as the Commander of Moonbase Alpha in ‘Space:1999’ a decade later. There were big screen plaudits and an Oscar nomination for Woody Allen’s ‘Crimes and Misdemeanours’ (1989) before he won the statue for his wonderful performance as Bela Lugosi in ‘Ed Wood’ (1994).

But, in between those triumphs, he appeared in some very odd, low-budget obscurities, a lot of them for television. There was a film about the life of model Anna Nicole Smith and another about evangelist Billy Graham, as well as ‘The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man’ (1987) and ‘The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island’ (1981)! He also did guest slots on dozens of popular TV shows. I guess the guy just liked to work.

Ferrer also had an Oscar, winning for ‘Cyranno de Bergerac’ (1950) and getting nominated two years later for ‘Moulin Rouge’ (1952). Unfortunately, his career was on the slide by the 1970s and he was taking gigs like ‘Zoltan, Hound of Dracula’ (1977) and playing the title role on infantile TV mini-series ‘The Amazing Captain Nemo’ (1978). Malone had been a second-lead in big Hollywood productions such as ‘Young At Heart’ (1954) with Frank Sinatra, and Douglas Sirk’s ‘Written On The Wind’ (1957) for which she also won the Oscar! The fact that this film contains three Academy Award winners is quite mind-boggling.

The rest of the cast are also worth a look. Buzzi was a comedienne who became famous on ‘Laugh- In’ and was a familiar face on US screens with guest appearances on many other TV shows. Gordon was married to country music superstar Kenny Rogers and often appeared on the syndicated show ‘Hee-Haw’. Further down the list we find Murray Langston, most famous for doing stand-up with a bag on his head as ‘The Unknown Comic’ and there’s a small role for cult author-singer Kinky Friedman. It’s an eclectic cast, to be sure, but few of these supporting performers were well-known outside of the United States.

The Being (1983)

‘Well, it’s probably a toss up between ‘Cyranno de Bergerac’ and ‘Zoltan, Hound of Dracula’…

The film has an interesting production history. lt was actually shot in 1980 under the title ‘Easter Sunday’ but premiered as ‘Beauty and The Beast’ (a title that makes no sense whatsoever). lt then sat on the shelf for 3 years before getting a general release under its current name, possibly after some heavy editing. Little known star Coltrane is listed in the film’s credits as ‘Johnny Commander’ about 20 seconds after we see a screenshot identifying him as Coltrane. Actually, in real life, he was producer Bill Osco, which goes some way to explain his rather flat performance in the film.

Even more curious are the captions that come up after the fade to black, telling the audience what happened to the characters next. They are obviously intended as jokes but seem out of step with what’s gone before. A quick look into director Kong’s background and we find that she was responsible for three other films: all comedies. Add that to the presence of some of the supporting cast, and it raises an obvious question: was this actually supposed to be a comedy? Taking everything into account, and looking back at it, l guess it probably was.

Perhaps if I’d been more familiar with some of the supporting cast, l would have picked up on the ‘comedy’ vibe at the time. As it was, I completely missed it. Oops.

Fantômas: The False Magistrate/Le Faux Magistrat (1914)

Fantômas - The False Magistrate/Le Faux Magistrat (1914)‘My husband has a fever. I had to turn on the gas heater.’

A seemingly impossible jewellery robbery sees the gems disappear from a locked hotel room and their buyer robbed by daring thieves on the road. Fantômas is suspected but how can he possible be responsible when he’s locked up in a jail cell in Belgium?

The fifth and final of director Louis Feuillade’s series of films based on the popular character created by authors Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain. Sadly, this is not so well preserved as the other entries, and there are a handful of lost scenes replaced by explanatory captions. It’s actually based on the twelfth volume of the books, which the authors turned out at such a rate they delivered over 30 of them in three years! The reason behind this was that there were published monthly in a magazine format, which must have been financially lucrative for all concerned but did mean that the writers had little or no chance to plan their overall story ahead.

The film begins with a daring theft carried out by villains Laurent Morléas and Jean-Francois Martial; lieutenants in the Fantômas gang. Meanwhile, Inspector Juve (Edmund Breon) is still obsessed with putting his hand on the collar of the masked man, even though he has been arrested and is safely jailed in Brussels. Determined that he stand trial for his crimes in France, he arranges for Fantômas (René Navarre) to escape, taking his place in the Belgian jail! This is a plot device almost ridiculous beyond words, and was gently spoofed over half a century later when Inspector Andrea Bosic arranged for Glenn Saxson to escape the hangman’s noose in ‘Kriminal’ (1966). That title character owed more than a slight debt to our main man here.

Breon’s ‘cunning’ plan is that two of his men will track Navarre and arrest him as soon as he steps onto French soil. It all goes wrong, of course, and the masked man is soon on the loose again. Which begs a question…well, several of them, in fact. Why don’t the prison guards notice the switch of inmates, and what exactly was Breon’s plan anyway? Now he’s stuck in this Belgian prison, and presumably for a very long time. After all, I doubt that Navarre was arrested for a traffic violation. But Breon can secure his release by proving his true identity to the prison authorities, right? Well, I don’t know, because he doesn’t even try. Ok, so he’s just helped a prisoner escape which would make for a tricky diplomatic situation, I guess, but is he just going to sit there for the rest of his life? It is probably the least secure prison in movie history so he can probably just walk out any day, but, again, he doesn’t even attempt to leave. Maybe he likes the food.

Fantômas - The False Magistrate/Le Faux Magistrat (1914)

‘Think it over, creep!’

We’re also faced with another idiotic plot contrivance later on. On the run, Navarre needs a new identity so he kills an old man for his papers. It turns out his victim just happens to be a magistrate on his way to a take up a post at the Paris law courts. Convenient, eh? He’s soon settled into his new office, blackmailing a Marchioness and reconnecting with his old gang. This means teaming up with Morléas and Martial to retrieve the booty from their jewellery heist.

Rather brilliantly, they’ve stashed the gems inside a church bell, which is only accessible by climbing more than 50 feet into the air on a rickety ladder! Visually, these are the film’s most impressive moments, but, again, it’s a pretty silly setup and more suited to the comedic sensibilities of someone like Buster Keaton than a serious thriller. It does make for a rain of pearls, diamonds and blood on a funeral party later on though, which is a nice touch.

Presumably, it was the advent of the First World War that temporarily put an end to the exploits of Fantômas, but, truth be told, things were beginning to look a little tired anyway.

The film is technically impressive at times but does suffers from rather muddled plot development, perhaps inevitable given the circumstances surrounding the creation of the original source material.

Valley Of Head Hunters (1953)

Valley of Head Hunters (1952)When the Romans attacked the Carthaginians, Hannibal thought of a lulu of a tactic.’

Unscrupulous slave traders discover low-grade oil in the jungle and plan to secure the mineral rights at any cost. They persuade a native chief to reform an ancient tribe of head hunters and seize control of the region…

After almost two-decades as MGM’s ‘Tarzan’, ex-Olympic multi-gold medallist Johnny Weismuller took the short bus ride from Culver City to Gower Gulch, where he signed with Columbia Studios to appear in a series of films as ‘Jungle Jim.’ These cut-price African adventures were made under the watchful eye of producer Sam Katzman and his independent film company. Katzman had begun in low-budget Western programmers in the mid-1930’s before graduating to Monogram Studios where he supervised movie serials and horror quickies with Bela Lugosi. His ‘cash careful’ approach caught the eye of executives at Columbia and they signed him to a deal in 1948.

This 11th entry finds Weismuller teaming up with old friend and interpreter Ellen Shaw (Christine Larson) and clean-cut Lt Barry (Steven Ritch) who has just returned from military school. Their mission? To bring cold-blooded trader Arco (Robert C Foulk) and his right-hand man Pico Church (Joseph Allen) to justice. But these wicked pair have plans of their own. While executing his usual business model of kidnapping native women, Allen has stumbled across a pool of oil in the jungle. It might be low-grade stuff but it can be used to refine copper. Sensing a mineral bonanza, Foulk sets out to stir up unrest and move in. He’s got previous too; orchestrating the native uprising that took the life of Larson’s father.

Valley of Head Hunters (1952)

Events as at the weigh-in had got out of hand…

The ‘Jungle Jim’ series was pretty much the definition of ‘conveyor belt’ filmmaking and here the main creative team includes director William Berke (six in the series) and writer Samuel Newman who wrote five in total. However, although it shares many of the elements (and even some of the footage!) of other episodes, there’s something a tiny bit different going on here. You see, if you’re looking for straight drama, this is probably the best in the entire series.

For a start, it takes its story pretty seriously and there’s definitely an edge to proceedings not present in other entries. In the opening sequence, Allen callously empties his revolver into a wicket basket containing a helpless native girl when the police close in. We even see the corpse later on. When he catches up with the murderer, Weismuller puts him in a lion trap that will snap his neck if he doesn’t talk. Also the ‘friendly’ natives use their spears on the bad guys when they’re lying stunned on the ground. All of which is a little darker than what the films usually had to offer.

But then there’s Tamba, the Talented Chimp. Tamba gets an oblivious Weismuller to carry his pack, Tamba shoots the hat off our hero’s head, Tamba steals Larson’s clothes when she’s having a dip, Tamba gets hopped up on ether which allows him to somersault in slow motion! Ok, so he does free Weismuller by making like a bush but he is more of a hindrance than a help and his usual comedy schtick is strangely at odds with what’s going on elsewhere.

And yes, of course, Larson gets her foot caught in a tree root (women, eh?) and faints when she’s threatened by a panther. And, of course, Weismuller has to fight the stuffed toy, which must have been a chore as he’d already killed it in at least two of the previous films. I guess the big cat just couldn’t take the hint. Worse still, the second act really drags on as our heroes visit various tribes in an attempt to secure their mineral rights, and this effectively kills off any vague sense of excitement that the film possesses.

Valley of Head Hunters (1953)

‘Do you have to tread on my feet every time?’

Larson did lots of ‘b’ pictures, mostly Westerns and retired in 1958. She’s probably best remembered now for an alleged love affair with Ronald Reagan when he was first married to Nancy Davis. Ritch was a jobbing actor, who enjoyed more success as a writer, penning a couple of noir movies including the inventive ‘Plunder Road’ (1957) and episodes for hit TV shows like ‘Wagon Train’. Foulk enjoyed a long and very successful career as a TV character actor, appearing on ‘Lost In Space’, ‘The Big Valley’, ‘Rawhide, ‘Perry Mason’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’ among others. Newman delivered a dry run for ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) with ‘Invisible Invaders’ (1959) and tangled with goofy intergalactic ‘big as a battleship’ buzzard puppet ‘The Giant Claw’ (1957).

There are no Nazis, Moon Men or cave men with furry wellington boots here, but, of course, those are the elements that provide the greatest entertainment when watching Jim’s exploits today. Instead, we have a fairly standard jungle adventure enlivened by some surprisingly dark moments.

The Eyes of Annie Jones (1964)

The Eyes of Annie Jones (1964)‘You’ve no idea how Peruvian head hunters get around these days.’

A jealous man murders his lover, but suspicion falls on her womanising brother. The police treat the crime as a disappearance until the sibling’s aunt brings a teenage orphan into the family home. Can the girl’s alleged supernatural abilities expose the true nature of the crime and the perpetrator?

Rich, promiscuous cougar Geraldine (Jean Lodge) is off for some fun in the sun when she finds herself headed for a very different destination; a shallow grave in the woods behind her house. Her death will leave the family mills in the hands of her wayward brother (Richard Conte) who has been managing the business (badly) since his return after a few decades in the States. However, there’s no evidence of a killing so local plod Victor Brooks is forced to treat the situation as nothing more than an unexplained disappearance. This ‘softly softly’ approach doesn’t sit well with busybody Aunt Helen (Joyce Carey), who decides that wayward 16-year old orphan Annie Jones (Francesca Annis) can help.

Everyone moves into Lodge’s house for some reason(!) and developments and revelations follow. Annis finds Conte’s lost cufflink, goes into a mediumistic trance (an ability not previously mentioned!), and out for a sleepwalk near the grave site. There’s also a sinister taxi-driver hanging about in the bushes and detective Brooks manoeuvring all the pieces into place via a quick chat and an unfinished pint down the local pub. Unfortunately, there really isn’t a great deal more going on than that. This small budgeted British thriller is resolutely minor stuff.

However, proceedings benefit hugely from the presence of Conte as he oozes bad boy charisma throughout; providing a textbook example of how an actor can rise above mediocre material due to sheer craft and professionalism. Here, he brazens things out with wife Mrytle Reed when she catches him conducting something more than dictation with his dimwit secretary, and injects every cynical put-down with a world-weary self-loathing that creates a three-dimensional and believable character.

There were also a couple of Conte’s countrymen on the other side of the lens: director Reginald Le Borg and writer Louis Vittes. De Borg had worked steadily in the ‘B’ movie arena since the 1940s, even helming one of Universal’s ‘Classic Monster’ movies, albeit minor entry ‘The Mummy’s Ghost’ (1944). He probably got that gig due to the good work he delivered on the ‘Inner Sanctum’ series which also starred Lon Chaney Jr. ‘Weird Woman’ (1944) and ‘Calling Dr Death’ (1943) are both fine examples of what can be achieved with limited resources. However, those projects were big productions compared with some of his later work, which included the dreary ‘Voodoo Island’ (1957) with Boris Karloff and ‘The Black Sleep’ (1956) which featured a multitude of veteran horror stars.

The Eyes of Annie Jones (1964)

‘It’s not what it looks like!’

However, it’s probably screenwriter Vittes who is the most telling presence here. He did write a few pictures for the big screen such as ‘I Married A Monster From Outer Space’ (1958) and ‘Bengazi’ (1955), (where he may have first crossed paths with Conte), but the vast majority of his work was in television. Hit shows like ‘The Wild Wild West’, ‘Rawhide’, ‘The Invaders’, ‘Bonanza’ ’77 Sunset Strip’ and ‘The Virginian’ all used his scripts.

There is the unmistakable feel of the small screen about this film as well. Even at a shade over 70 minutes, the story feels quite padded and would probably have worked much better as a 50-minute show on a mystery anthology series. Aside from Conte, the rest of the cast get precious little to work with, although Annis certainly displays some talent. Unfortunately, for an orphan raised in the slums of Liverpool, her accent wanders in the direction of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art more than once and the rest of the time resides in the vicinity of Bow Bells.

Conte had been across the pond before, starring in the similarly unambitious spy thriller ‘Little Red Monkey’ (1955) almost a decade earlier. That was a curious project in a way, as he was still a bankable name in Hollywood at the time, having top-lined Film Noir classics ‘Thieves Highway’ (1949) and ‘The Big Combo’ (1955) as well as starring opposite big names like Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd, Judy Holiday, Susan Hayward and Gene Tierney. By the time the 1960s rolled around, however, he was playing second leads to stars like John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, as well as appearing on a lot of television. A prominent supporting role in Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’ (1972) led to a late career renaissance in Italy where he featured in a rash of crime and Giallo pictures. He died in 1975.

Annis went onto a long and distinguished screen career, most famously playing the notorious Victorian beauty Lillie Langtry on British television, and Lady MacBeth in Roman Polanski’s 1971 film of The Scottish Play. She also had featured supporting roles in big-budget tentpoles like ‘Krull’ (1983) and ‘Dune’ (1984) for director David Lynch, and recently appeared in ‘King of Thieves’ (2018) with Michael Caine and Charlie Cox.

A forgettable little mystery thriller, assisted by professionalism all round and a good, charismatic performance from its leading man.

One additional point of interest. The murderer is caught at the end of the picture, of course, but a little smart talking would be all that was required to evade prosecution. The police don’t really have any hard any evidence to secure a conviction. Not for murder, anyway. Can’t help feeling that was probably not what the filmmakers intended!

The Cremators (1972)

The Cremators (1972)‘The sand dunes, like vast creeping monsters, kept travelling around.’

A scientist discovers some strange, glowing rocks in a tidal pool by a lake. The stones attract a huge fireball that incinerates a postman. Could these strange events be linked to a meteorite that fell into the lake three hundred years earlier?

Ultra-low budget science fiction stinker from writer-producer-director Harry Essex, which displays the tell-tale signs of significant financial and production difficulties. The film is very choppy and disjointed indeed, and there’s even voiceover in a couple of places that seems designed to cover an absence of synchronised sound. There’s also a worrying amount of stock footage sprinkled all through its scant 72-minute running time. This includes a lot of star patterns, breaking waves, a hammerhead shark, birds, algae, sailing boats and repeated shots of what looks like the top of a lighthouse. After a while, I realised it was where the lead character was supposed to be living. Probably. I think.

This main man is scientist lane Thorne (Marvin Howard), who spends his time taking notes on the local ecology lakeside. His discovery of a handful of strange stones doesn’t seem like a big deal at the time but posting a sample off to colleague Dr Seppel (Eric Allison) has some unfortunate consequences for the mail carrier. Specifically, a close encounter with a huge fireball that turns him into barbecue. ln other developments, Mason, the hippie (Mason Caulfield) interrupts his full~time job of running around on the beach like a crazy man (hey, he’s a hippie, after all) to bring Howard a dying cat. A quick dissection turns up another couple of these mysterious stones.

So, what’s going on? Well, we already know from the opening sequence that a strange fireball splashed down into the lake a long while ago. Why it’s on the move now is something Howard and Allison struggle to discover while working in his laboratory (heroically played by a large, cluttered table in a room somewhere). Much to Howard’s frustration, local law enforcement and the relevant authorities feel that the outbreak of mysterious deaths is down to lightning strikes but at least he gets to start a (rather sudden) romance with coastguard’s daughter Maria De Aragon.

The Cremators (1972)

‘It’s behind you!’

All of these developments provide the audience with just one thing; a lot of talk. Often this takes place in rooms so poorly-lit that the principal’s faces are wrapped in shadows and, on one occasion, in complete darkness! There are very few transitions between scenes (Essex often just cuts to stock footage) so we are left with conversations that seem unfinished and the quality of the light often changes in the blink of an eye.

Yes, these problems are obviously down to an almost complete lack of budget, but that still doesn’t make the results any more palatable. This is little more than bits and piece welded together with library footage and an over-excited musical soundtrack that desperately tries to convince the audience that something is happening. By far, the best aspect is the SFX. Sure, they aren’t great and are limited to the giant fireball and the glowing stones, but they are of a far higher quality than the rest of what’s on offer. And we do get a hilarious scene where scientist Allison tries to stop the fireball by shooting his rifle at it! Why on earth does he think this will have any chance of working? Because…science, I guess!

This was all based on a story called ‘The Dune Roller’ by Judy Ditky (writing as Julian C May) and had already been filmed. In fact, the earlier version is better in almost every department, apart from the SFX. This is quite a commentary on the quality of Essex’s version as the original was an episode of TV anthology show ‘Tales of Tomorrow’ and was broadcast live in 1952! In Essex’s defence, however, the slight story works far better as a 25-minute presentation.

Essex had a slightly odd Hollywood career. He was primarily a screenwriter, responsible for the original story of Lon Chaney Jr electric-shocker ‘Man Made Monster’ (1941) before working on a number of hard-boiled crime pictures in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including the excellent ‘Kansas City Confidential’ (1952). He’s best remembered, though, as the screenwriter of two cult science-fiction pictures: ‘It Came From Outer Space’ (1953) and ‘Creature From The Black Lagoon’ (1954). He also directed a couple of times in the 1950s, delivering the first ever screen appearance of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer in a decent adaptation of ‘l, The Jury’ (1952) but, by the 1960s, he had drifted into television and did not direct again until ‘Octaman’ (1971). That film was truly woeful, but it did mark the first work of legendary FX technician, Rick Baker.

The Cremators (1972)

‘George who?’

Allison appeared in lots of small roles over many years; sometimes in notable titles such as ‘Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid’ (1969). De Aragon’s credits are limited to a dozen films, but she did appear as one of the low-budget ‘Wonder Women’ (1973) and wore the Greedo makeup and costume for some pick-up shots for ‘Star Wars’ (1977)!

This is painful stuff. Of course, allowances must be made for the obvious lack of any kind of reasonable budget, but it’s still a truly abysmal viewing experience. Just try to get through it in one sitting. I dare you.