A Journey To The Beginning of Time/Cesta do praveku (1955)

‘I mean, it wouldn’t sound good if it was called bumpy head or bubble nose or whatever.’

Four young boys embark on a strange trip back through the epochs of prehistory when they find an underground river in a secret cave. Their journey becomes a mixture of a grand adventure and a struggle for survival when their boat is wrecked by an unseen creature…

Unusual children’s film featuring the groundbreaking FX work of director Karel Zeman. He’d already made his mark in the Czechoslovakian movie industry with a series of short films, but this was his first attempt at a project of feature-length. Here, he combines model work, animation and stop motion techniques to create a prehistoric world that’s quite an achievement, given the vintage of the project.

Young boy Petr (Josef Lukás) is reading his logbook, reviewing the fantastic adventure he enjoyed over the summer with friends, Toník (Petr Herrman), Jenda (Zdenek Hustak) and Jirka (Vladimír Bejval). When the latter unearthed a fossilised trilobite, the others promised to show him a living specimen. So the quartet embarked in a rowboat down an underground river in a hidden cave. There’s no lead up to any of this action; we’re not told where the children are, how they found the cave, or how it can take them back into prehistory. When the film was released in America, a new opening sequence was shot with four young lookalike actors visiting the Museum of Natural History in New York and then rowing out on Central Park Lake, where they find the cave.

Once they emerge from the other end of the cave, our intrepid quartet finds themselves trying to row through the pack ice of the Ice Age, but expedition leader Lukás is confident it will disperse, much to the relief of the impatient Bejval. Here it becomes clear that the river is a way back through the geological ages of the planet, rather than a doorway to one specific time in Earth’s past. Lukás even has a map folded up in his precious notebook.

As the ice breaks up, Bejval’s spots a woolly mammoth grazing on the shore nearby. This is the first appearance of one of Zeman’s creatures and a mighty impressive animal it is, the smooth flow of its movements even surpassing those of Ray Harryhausen’s more familiar menagerie. It must be acknowledged, however, that these movements are far more limited in comparison. There’s a switch to full animation when actual locomotion is required, although it’s still artfully delivered.

The boys’ next discovery is a caveman’s hideout, complete with jawbone weapon and wall paintings, although the occupant is nowhere to be found. From there, our explorers meet a whole series of creatures, more familiar ones at first such as flamingos, giraffes and elephants, before the river takes them back to more monstrous times. There, they find themselves ringside at a fight between a T Rex and a Stegosaurus (makes a change from a Triceratops, I suppose). Unfortunately, despite its armour, the herbivore comes off badly and expires soon afterwards. The event gives our heroes their one chance of a close encounter with a dinosaur, and they examine and clamber over the corpse in one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

However, it’s around this point that some of the film’s shortcomings start to become apparent. The relationships between the characters are never clearly established, and no mention is made of their home lives or parents. We’re never even told if any of them are related to each other, although you might assume that to be the case, given that Bejval is a few years younger than the other three. There’s also Lukás constantly identifying all the flora and fauna they encounter and writing everything in his logbook.

Eventually, the inescapable conclusion is that this film is intended to be educational as much as entertaining. There’s a distinct possibility that it was designed as a learning tool, perhaps even to be shown in schools. This would explain why nothing in the story is ever explained, and the plot, such as it is, dissolves into a series of encounters with various prehistoric creatures. These have little dramatic weight because there is no developing plot. The destruction of the quartet’s boat suggests that things are hotting up, but, ultimately, the event has no significant consequences.

Of course, it is the SFX that merit attention and admiration today. Most of the dinosaurs were modelled after the paintings and drawings of celebrated Czech artist Zdenek Burian, and Zeman’s skill brings them to life in a way that was remarkable for the time. He presents us with an impressive Trachadon, a Brontosaurus, a Styracosaurus and a group of Pteradons and some of the composite shots where they share the frame with our young heroes are very well done. Those which feature a model of our rowing quartet have stood the test of time somewhat less persuasively, though.

Within a few years, Zeman had created the outstanding feature ‘The Fabulous World of Jules Verne/The Deadly Invention’ (1958), which boasts a seamless mix of live-action and animation. It still holds up superbly over half a century later and has been unjustly neglected. Later projects included ‘The Outrageous Baron Munchausen/Baron Prásil’ (1962) and a return to his Verne obsession with the somewhat less dramatically satisfying ‘On The Comet/Na komete’ (1970). Unfortunately, although acknowledged by professionals in the animation field, he is not well-known to the general public, an oversight that ought to be remedied.

Squarely aimed at children with a thirst for knowledge, Zeman’s first feature may fall short in its dramatic respects, but it’s still a fine showcase for his skills as an SFX artist, model maker and animator.

Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959)

Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959)‘The ancients thought it was evil due to the amount of radioactive damage it precipitated at that time.’

Two archaeologists stumble across an underground cavern while exploring the ruins of a Mexican pyramid. It contains a shrine to the Mayan goddess Caltiki and seems to be a significant find, but only one of the scientists makes it back to camp and he is in shock. Their colleagues investigate and find that not everything in the caves is dead…

Low-budget Italian science-fiction horror film from director Riccardo Freda (billed here as Robert Hamton), but completed by cinematographer Mario Bava, who was shortly to gain international recognition as a director himself with ‘The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday’ (1960). Apparently, that was a project given to him because of his efforts at bringing this picture in, although I have heard the same thing said about the rescue act he performed on ‘The Giant of Marathon’ (1959) after director Jacques Tourneur left that production.

Things are not going well for archaeologist John Merivale. His latest expedition to the Mexican pyramids has had no luck in explaining the sudden migration of the Mayans from their homes in the southern lowlands in the postclassic period. What’s more, wife Didi Perego (billed as Didi Sullivan) is getting quite fed up; it’s not exactly her idea of a second honeymoon. Meanwhile supposed best friend, and serious player, Gérard Herter is bored with partner Daniela Rocca and has his sights on Perego. Then colleague Arturo Dominici staggers back into camp, half out of his mind and babbling something about Caltiki. Merivale mounts a rescue expedition to bring back Dominici’s missing partner but only finds his camera instead. This does provide everyone with the opportunity to watch what is probably horror’s first-ever ‘found footage’ but provides no real clues as to what’s going on.

Returning to the cavern, shit gets real when they wake up vengeful god Caltiki, who rises from the depths of an underground pool. Considering they’d worked out that the water was the reason their Geiger Counter had been doing cartwheels, sending one man down there in a diving suit does seem like an interesting decision. Especially when it turns out that the bottom is strewn with the skeletons of sacrificial victims, and they’re all decked out in priceless jewels! After all, we know no good’s going to come of robbing the dead, don’t we?

Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959)

‘I’ve no idea, I’ll just consult my Mayan textbook.’

In a later twist, we find out that the Mayans knew all about radioactivity too! Now, I know they had a funky calendar and were advanced for their time, but I think that might be going a bit far. Herter gets infected by the beast before Merivale runs it over with a truck and it burns up in the resulting fireball. Unfortunately, back in civilisation, Herter goes all ‘Quatermass Xperiment’ (1955), and a visiting comet turns up at a very inconvenient time…

Freda and Bava were great friends who had worked together previously on Italy’s first post-war horror film ‘I Vampiri’ (1957). When Freda left the project because the producers withheld some of the promised budget, it was Bava who completed it, something he was to do on several other pictures in the next couple of years without receiving any screen credit. Apparently, this lack of recognition annoyed Freda, and he concocted a plan to help Bava on his way to be a director in his own right, something the great man was too shy to do himself. Freda took the directing job on this film fully intending to walk out and leave the suits at the Galatea Studio with no choice but to let Bava direct the rest of the picture. Whether this is true or not, Freda did quit and Bava did finish the film, although it’s not entirely clear how much of it each of them shot. It’s difficult to be sure as Freda was as much a visual stylist as Bava. Still, the general opinion is that most of the scenes involving the actors were Freda’s work and Bava handled the parts of the project that involved the SFX and, considering there are more than a hundred FX shots in the film, that is an awful lot of the finished product.

How are the SFX? Well, considering the vintage of the film and how little money was available, they’re pretty good. For a start, the film was shot just outside Rome, but the Mexican ruins are mighty convincing, especially considering they are images painted on sheets of glass that were placed in front of the camera. Similarly, the big telescope seen in the observatory is cut out of a magazine! Bava filmed the actors through a small hole in one side of the picture so they would appear in the same shot. Yes, that sounds awful, and it’s not incredibly convincing, but I’ve seen an awful lot worse and, as a budget solution, it’s hard to beat.

Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959)

‘God, I need a shower!’

The monsters are heroically portrayed by rags covered in rotting cow innards. Mostly these were manipulated like hand puppets but, in scenes where full-size versions were required, unfortunate members of the crew were inside. You see, the film was shot in the height of summer and decomposing tripe doesn’t react all that well in such circumstances. The smell must have been unbelievable.

Not surprisingly, this also proved to be quite a challenge for the cast, especially Herter who had to get up close and personal with the creatures on more than one occasion. For the most part, though, the monsters move around Bava’s miniature sets, and these models are pretty effective. However, the late encounters with flame throwers and toy tanks are somewhat less impressive.

What does drag the film down is the human side of things. The marital discord between Merivale and Perego is severely underdeveloped, and there are too many talky scenes with little life or vitality. This film was Merivale’s only leading role, and he lacks the dash and charisma to make anything of it, although the script gives few of the cast anything to work with.

Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959)

‘It’s not one of your better culinary efforts, dear.’

The exception is Herter, who chews the scenery to great effect. His performance may not be subtle, but it’s what the story requires to keep the audience engaged. In an interesting side note, it was an open secret that actress Rocca was the mistress of the head of Galatea at the time. When his wife eventually found out, she withdrew her financial backing and the studio folded!

Rather pleasingly, Bava credits Elle Bi as his scientific advisor on the film. This was actually the first credit for the director’s teenage son, Lamberto, who went onto a long career as a director of horror films himself, notably ‘Demons’ (1985) and its sequel. Apparently, the friendship between Bava and Freda cooled as the years passed. Both became eager to credit the other with creative responsibility for this film. Whether this was because of the quality of the project is unrecorded.

A reasonably enjoyable science-fiction b-picture; elevated by some excellent technical work but somewhat hampered by a script and performances which never really come to life.

Captive Women/3000 A.D. (1952)

Captive Women (1952)‘You are the first of all Norm women to come to a Mutate husband of her own free will.’

More than a thousand years in the future, the atomic war has left the world in ruins. What remains of the population is divided into warring factions of Norms and Mutates; those who escaped the disfiguring effects of radioactivity, and those who have not.

Unusual, low-budget science-fiction from producer Albert Zugsmith (with a title by Howard Hughes!), which was the first film ever to depict a post-nuclear holocaust society. We’re over a thousand years into the future here, and all that remains after the bomb is a twisted New York skyline and scattered scraps of humanity living in the wreckage. Our virtuous heroes are the cave-dwelling ‘Norms’, untouched by the nuclear scourge and busy preparing for the wedding of the chief’s son, played by cult movie legend Robert Clarke.

Our hero’s bride-to-be is dark-eyed Gloria Saunders, who proves to be less than an ideal romantic choice. For a start, she happens to be the daughter of the high priest (not usually a good sign) and she’s carrying on behind the scenes with the ambitious Jason (Douglas Evans), who’s hungry to sit in the big chair currently occupied by Clarke’s father. Across the river (via a hidden tunnel) are the Mutates, led by Riddon (Ron Randell). They’re ugly and scarred and their main preoccupation seems to be kidnapping ‘Norm’ women in the hopes of birthing ‘clean’ children. On the bright side, they’ve kept their faith in God, while the Norms worship the devil! Also mixing things up are the nasty ‘Up River Men’ led by Stuart Randall.

The film opens with more than five minutes of ‘flashback’ stock footage, including planes, trains, the UN building and the inevitable mushroom cloud. Wonderfully self-important VoiceOver Man informs us that what we are about to see might really happen and he seems to be enjoying the possibility far too much. Given that the film only runs 64 minutes, it’s quite a chunk of the film’s total length. When the future finally arrives, it turns out to be a small, poorly-lit sound stage peopled by extras dressed in what appears to be left over costumes from a low budget production of Robin Hood! The dialogue is similarly old-fashioned and formal and most of the women have been relegated to cooking the grub and serving the ale. Weapons of choice are bows and arrows and quarterstaffs, and Clarke tops it all off with a nifty Errol Flynn moustache. His character is even called Rob!

Captive Women (1952)

‘Get Thee to Nottingham Castle, Robin!’

Up-River Randall and his goons conquer the Norm’s stronghold with the aid of the treacherous Evans and bad girl Saunders. Evans gets his predictable comeuppance, of course, while Saunders becomes Randall’s new woman and lords it over everyone including feisty heroine Margaret Field. But, not to worry! Robin and Little John (sorry, Clarke and his anonymous sidekick) team up with the Mutates to restore the balance of power. Because they might be ugly but their quite a nice bunch, despite forcing themselves on kidnapped women for the past few decades. It helps that their leader is the handsome Randell, who’s hardly scarred at all really. So he’s ok.

The script here is by Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg and includes a surprising amount of Biblical references. We never see any evidence that the Norms are practising Satanists (no surprise, there!), and a less generous commentator than myself might think that’s just an excuse to give Randell the opportunity to pontificate about his faith in the Lord, although he is quickly interrupted by rabble-rouser William Schallert. However, later on, we get a direct parallel to Moses parting the Red Sea, which Clarke is happy to appropriate as a plan (thought he was supposed to be a Satanist?!) All this action moves along at quite a fair clip, but nothing that happens is remotely surprising.

Writer Pollexfen was used to plundering the classics, given his scripts for ‘The Son of Dr Jekyll’ (1951) and ‘The Daughter of Dr Jekyll’ (1957) and it’s pretty clear this one owes more than a slight debt to H G Wells’ ‘The Time Machine.’ Clarke went on to cult movie godhood with a CV that includes ‘The Man From Planet X’ (1951) (which also featured Field and Schallert), ‘The Astounding She Creature’ (1957), ‘Beyond The Time Barrier’ (1960), the title role of ‘The Hideous Sun Demon’ (1958) (which he also directed!) and a few projects with bad movie legend Jerry Warren, including ‘The Incredible Petrified World’ (1959) and the bat-shit crazy ‘Frankenstein Island’ (1981). Randell appeared in slightly more legitimate productions such as musical ‘Kiss Me Kate’ (1953) (playing Cole Porter!), ‘The Story of Esther Costello’ (1957) and Christ biopic ‘King of Kings’ (1961).

Captive Women (1952)

‘You can get married so long as you don’t play that Bryan Adams song.’

But the real success stories lie elsewhere. Supporting actor Schallert went onto a screen career that lasted over 65 years, only ending with his death in 2016 at the age of 93. His credits include featured roles in ‘Gremlins’ (1984), ‘In The Heat of the Night’ (1967), ‘Colossus: The Forbin Project’ (1969), ‘Charley Varrick’ (1973), ‘Innerspace’ (1987), and TV appearances on ‘Roseanne’, ‘True Blood’, ‘Star Trek’, ‘ER’, ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ and dozens of other hit shows. You may not know the name, but you’d certainly recognise the face.

Director Stuart Gilmore was three times Oscar nominated as an Editor, for his work on ‘The Alamo’ (1960), ‘Airport’ (1970) and ‘The Andromeda Strain’ (1970). He also fulfilled the role on ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ (1941), ‘Journey To The Centre of the Earth’ (1959) and ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ (1967), among others.

This is a production with some points of interest, but not a great level of entertainment value. There are also some very mixed messages about the importance of physical appearance, although the film’s heart does seem to be in the right place. Unfortunately, its moral and physical conflicts result in highly predictable outcomes and the cheesier aspects rob the drama of any real punch.

Watch for curiosity value.

Savage Mutiny (1953)

Savage Mutiny (1953)‘Well, Major, you’ve no doubt been wondering about the scientific expedition I brought in here last week…’

Leading a force of government troops, Jungle Jim wipes out a cell of foreign agents living in the interior. This clears the way for ‘Jungle Project X’; the first atom bomb test to be made in Africa. But some of the enemy spies are still around and plan to disrupt the project by stirring up the local population…

The tenth of the ‘Jungle Jim’ series finds muscle-bound ex-Tarzan Johnny Weismuller in gainful employment as some kind official enforcer for the Anglo-American government. Yes, he’s no longer working as a trail guide (specialising in the discovery of lost cities, fabulous diamonds and missing scientists) but rooting out the Commie threat on behalf of Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam Katzman, that is. Yes, the penny-pinching producer serves up yet another slice of no-budget jungle fun with the help of veteran director Spencer Gordon Bennet and writer Sol Shor.

After clearing out the local Red Threat (or so he thinks!), Weismuller heads back to HQ for to his next mission. Chief of Staff Major Walsh (series veteran Lester Matthews in yet another different role) is under orders too; those of ‘radioactivity expert’ Dr Parker (Nelson Leigh). The boffin is planning to drop an atom bomb on the island of Tulonga (the name of which has been helpfully added to the printed wall map in marker pen). Matthews points out that the island is inhabited, but Leigh assures him that it’s the perfect place to test the effects of radioactivity, so it’s all fine. The native tribe can just come to the mainland for a holiday. They might have never left the island before, but Matthews reckons Weismuller can relocate them all in a couple of days.

Savage Mutiny (1953)

‘Come on, lads, we’re only 4-0 down and we’ve got the wind with us in the second half…’

Obviously, it’s not entirely fair to impose modern day attitudes on a piece of entertainment more than half a century old, but it’s still eyebrow-raising when Wesimuller simply goes along with all this. Especially considering he’s supposed to be a long-time friend of the tribe’s headman, Chief Wamai (Charles Stevens, born in Arizona). Still, I guess that uprooting a unique indigenous people from their natural environment and obliterating their culture and homeland with an atom bomb isn’t that bad, is it? The government are going to rebuild their village and let them move back a week or so afterwards!

Also on the plus side, they’re going to get inoculated against any nasty, civilised germs by Angela Stevens from the World Health Organisation. Unfortunately, she loses her ‘carrying case containing the vaccine’ during the journey. Yes, Weismuller retrieves it from some stock footage hyenas, but the description kind of suggests that one shot of something is all they’re going to get anyway. With that quality of medical care, it’s no surprise they start getting seriously ill once they’ve made the trip, but it’s actually because they’ve been sprayed with radioactive dust by despicable commie trader Kroman (played by Gregory Gaye; a real live Russian, ladies and gentlemen!) All of which goes to show that the nasty effects of radiation exposure were even known to Hollywood scriptwriters at the time. As was the fact that you can survive a nuclear explosion by turning your back and simply looking the other way. You don’t even have to lie down. Which is good to know.

Director Bennet was a Hollywood veteran who spent many years working on movie serials, and there’s a sequence in a burning hut that will ring a bell with any fans of that medium. Likewise, author Shor was a regular on the staff at Republic Studios, contributing with a stable of writers to such classic chapter plays as ‘The Adventures of Captain Marvel’ (1941), ‘The Drums of Fu Manchu’ (1940), ‘The Mysterious Dr Satan’ (1943) and ‘The Crimson Ghost’ (1946). But the presence of these two stalwarts adds little that’s new to the seasoned formula; Bennet having already directed ‘Voodoo Tiger’ (1952) in the series, and going on to helm ‘Killer Ape’ (1953) and final entry ‘Devil Goddess’ (1955).

One of the better entries in the ‘Jungle Jim’ series when viewed today, but most of the enjoyment comes from the dated aspects of the story, rather than from anything that the filmmakers put up on the screen intentionally.

Tamba (the talented Chimp) probably does more backflips in this one than any other, though. So,there is that. You know, for die-hard Tamba fans…

The Rocket Man (1954)

The Rocket Man (1954)‘Keep your eyes peeled for that guy from Jupiter!’

An alien spaceman gives a young orphan a special ray gun with the stipulation that it can only be used in the service of good. The boy is sent to live with a kindly justice of the peace just as an evil local businessman makes a move to close the orphanage.

Underwhelming, unambitious juvenile shenanigans that boasts a surprisingly noteworthy cast and production credits. The action kicks off when local TV stars ‘Captain Talray and his Outer Spacers’ pay a visit to a small town orphanage and hand out presents to the little boys and girls. Seven year-old mischief-maker Timmy (George ‘Foghorn’ Winslow) is at the back of the line and only gets offered a couple of model spaceships from the bottom of the box. Oh, golly! He wanted a space gun instead like every self-respecting, red-blooded young American would. Luckily, a mysterious figure in a spacesuit obliges! Oh, boy!

Later the same day, Timmy is sent to live with kindly magistrate Spring Byington, who knows he’s a good boy at heart, even after he steals a quarter out of the church collection plate. She also takes in parolees from the local prison, despite living alone with pretty young daughter Anne Francis. Yes, she’s a trusting old soul but this is Small Town Hollywood USA after all, so there’s really nothing to worry about, especially when the jailbird turns out to be handsome hunk John Agar! Unfortunately, even this paradise has a serpent and the slippery snake in question is local politician Emory Parnell, who has (somehow) discovered that the orphanage is sitting on a rich oil field! So it’s up to Timmy and kindly Mayor Charles Coburn to foil his dastardly schemes! Gee whiz, it sure is lucky that Timmy has his magic ray gun, isn’t it!?

Of course, you don’t have to watch this picture to know exactly how everything will turn out. This is formula kiddie entertainment from the 1950s, and only one step removed from an episode of a TV sitcom. And what is that step? Well, mostly it’s the cast. Coburn’s comedy ‘grouchy old man with a heart of gold’ routine had been popular for decades and had even nabbed him an Oscar for ‘The More The Merrier’ (1943). Byington had also been nominated by the Academy for Frank Capra’s ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ (1938). Both were seasoned professionals and highly respected within the industry.

The Rocket Man (1954)

‘Why don’t you just go back to your planet Arous and become master of the universe then? See if I care!’

Even the younger players are worthy of note. Francis went onto science fiction immortality having a dress made by Robby the Robot on the ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956) and television success as ‘Honey West’ in the 1960s. Agar did not reach those heights but remains a cult figure after extended wrestling matches against ‘The Mole People’ (1956), ‘The Brain From Planet Arous’ (1957) and ‘Zontar, The Thing From Venus’ (1964) as well as several other unwelcome visitors to our little planet. He also married both the ‘Daughter of Dr Jekyll’ (1957) and Shirley Temple, although only one of them in real life.

Further down the cast we find Beverly Garland, who became legendary producer Roger Corman’s go-to girl when facing extra-terrestrial threats. She faced down giant crustaceans (‘Attack of the Crab Monsters’ (1957)), an alien in a suit and dark glasses (‘Not of This Earth’ (1957)) and, most impressively, an intergalactic carrot monster in ‘It Conquered The World’ (1956). Winslow earned his ‘Foghorn’ nickname for his deep voice on the radio but, despite having teamed up with Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Russell for ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1952), he never made the transition to screen stardom.

But the biggest surprise here is the participation on script duty of a 29 year-old Lenny Bruce! Yes, the notorious, ground breaking comedian whose provocative standup routines landed him in hot water with conservative America and eventually in jail after being convicted on obscenity charges in 1964. There’s no evidence of anything like that here, of course, apart from perhaps the presence of a corrupt, blowhard authority figure who needs to be exposed and forced from office. Bruce flirted with the movies a little before he found his true calling, scripting three other low budget films, and even acting in ‘Dance Hall Racket’ (1953) with then wife Honey Friedman.

This is simple, inoffensive entertainment for kids. The science fiction element is little more than an incidental plot device, but it’s an undemanding watch, even if you have to bear the entirely predictable plot developments.

I wish Captain Talray and his Outer Spacers would come to my town. They never have! It’s just not fair!

Invisible Avenger/Tômei Ningen (1954)

Invisible Avenger (1954)‘Yes it seems he was studying these things, experimenting with protein collision using the Cyclot Theory.’

A motorist runs over an invisible man in the street. The authorities reveal that he was one of two survivors of a wartime experiment. Panic grips the country as a gang of criminals take advantage of the situation, blaming their crime spree on the surviving soldier…

Five years after Japanese science fiction got a kick start with ‘The Invisible Man Appears’ (1949), the box office went ballistic for ‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters’ (1954). Tucked away in the Big G’s mighty shadow was another production from Toho Studios; a return to the H. G. Wells story of scientific misadventure and ‘things that man must leave alone.’

As with the first Japanese ‘Invisible Man’, our unseen hero foregoes the usual ‘mad scientist and his reign of terror’ for reluctant involvement in criminal activity, as he is forced out of hiding to prove his innocence of a string of robberies. The gang recruit an elderly watchman to assist in their latest caper, promising him the money he needs for his blind granddaughter’s eye operation. Of course, they dispose of him instead, leaving the girl to rely on her neighbours; a kindly clown and a nightclub singer who spends most of her time resisting the advances of her boss, who might just have some skeletons in his closet.

As per usual in a Japanese film, the drama is played totally straight and the cast take the more outlandish twists and turns in the script in their stride. Principals Seizaburo Kawazu (the clown) and Yoshio Tsuchiya (the reporter) both later appeared in Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimbo’ (1962) and Tsuchiya had already worked with the great director on ‘The Seven Samurai’ (1954). It’s a brisk and efficient production all round, with decent direction and black and white photography. The story does threaten to get a little mawkish at times but stops short of getting too sentimental, although there are few surprises for the audience along the way.

Invisible Avenger (1954)

🎵Don’t you love farce?
My fault, I fear
I thought that you’d want what I want
Sorry, my dear 🎵

In a way, the film foreshadows the development of the character as a secret agent in the 1970s on US television. The NBC Network launched former ‘Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ David MacCallum as ‘The Invisible Man’ in their 1975 season, who tried to cure his invisibility while working as an operative for the Klae Corporation. When that didn’t take, the network tried again with the unintentionally hilarious ‘Gemini Man’ featuring Ben Murphy working for INTERSECT and turning himself invisible with a digital watch. Unsurprisingly, it was cancelled after only 5 episodes had been broadcast.

The SFX here are courtesy of Eiji Tsuburaya, who provided the same service to ‘The Invisible Man Appears’ (1949) and was head monster-wrangler for Toho until his death at the end of the 1960s. It appears there hadn’t been a huge amount of technical progress in the five years since the first film, but still the usual motifs are efficiently delivered. After all, where would we be without the floating cigarette and the sinking seat cushions? By this point, Tsuburaya was able to use his own name, having been forced to hide behind a corporate identity in the post-war years, due to his work for the defeated regime during the conflict.

Although no great shakes, this is pleasing production, assisted by its relative brief running time of 70 minutes. Further adventures for the Japanese version of the character followed in ‘Invisible Man Vs. Human Fly’ (1957).

Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957)

Daughter of Dr Jekyll (1957)‘We’re not dealing with a man. We’re not dealing with anything human.’

A young couple visit her guardian to celebrate her coming of age, but she has a surprise waiting. She’s actually a rich heiress, but she’s also the child of the late Henry Jekyll, who locals still fear prowls under the full moon as a werewolf…

Dreary, low budget programmer with some quality talent but dismal production values and a terrible script with a mystery so transparent that it’s obvious after ten minutes exactly how the story will develop. Writer-producer Jack Pollexfen must bear the lion’s share of the blame, especially as he was just rehashing ‘The Son of Dr Jekyll’ (1951) which he’d written half a dozen years earlier!

Our leads are John Agar and Gloria Talbott, a couple with extensive histories in these kinds of shenanigans. Agar was the star of ‘Tarantula’ (1955), ‘The Mole People’ (1956) and ‘so bad it’s good’ cult classic ‘The Brain From Planet Arous’ (1957). He went onto deal with the ‘Attack of the Puppet People’ (1958), ‘Invisible Invaders’ (1959) and ‘Zontar, The Thing From Venus’ (1966) among others. He was also Shirley Temple’s first husband. Talbott began her career with bits on TV before graduating to major supporting roles in ‘We’re No Angels’ (1952) starring Humphrey Bogart and ‘All That Heaven Allows’ (1955) with Rock Hudson. But her movie career never took off and she was soon appearing in pictures like ‘The Cyclops’ (1956) (which was released on a double bill with this), ‘I Married A Monster From Outer Space’ (1958) and ‘The Leech Woman’ (1960).

Waiting at the old homestead (seen from the outside it’s a bad model surrounded by twigs) is the usual crew; a flighty maid, the ‘can do’ housekeeper and the sinister handyman. Master of the house is Arthur Shields, an Irish character actor more famous for appearances in John Ford films, specifically ‘How Green Was My Valley’ (1941) and ‘The Quiet Man’ (1952). He was probably more often that not mistaken for his brother Barry Fitzgerald, who won an Oscar for ‘Going My Way’ (1944). He fills in our golden couple on the grisly history of the place, and shows them Jerkyll’s hidden laboratory (a table with some test tubes), which is hidden behind a bookcase that moves when you look inside the helmet of a suit of armour. It appears that the good Doctor was actually a werewolf who can only be killed by a stake through the heart and having his head cut off! A strange mixture of monster mythologies to be sure!

Daughter of Dr Jekyll (1957)

‘Darling, I told you not to wear that jacket…’

The director was Edgar G Ulmer, who has since taken on cult status as a ‘low-budget auteur’ on the back of such interesting projects as ‘Bluebeard’ (1944), ‘Detour’ (1945) and Karloff-Lugosi classic ‘The Black Cat’ (1934), which was his only major studio film.

But there’s little even the most talented director could have done with this hodgepodge of clichés. For a start there’s a lot of talk of ‘trouble in the village’ but we never see that location and the population is almost solely represented by the handyman and a torch-bearing mob, who look suspiciously like they’ve been spliced in from another movie.

There’s also one of the most unconvincing screen murders ever, and Agar wearing a striped jacket that makes him look like he’s changed into his pyjamas or is about to welcome punters to his fairground sideshow. It’s worse for Talbott, who gets a horrible ‘instant victim’ role which sees her disintegrate into an extended bout of hysteria that lasts for most of the film.

Agar once said: ‘Most of my movies didn’t get released – they escaped.’ Perhaps this one would have better remained behind bars!

The Son of Dr Jekyll (1951)

Son_Of_DrJekyll_(1951)‘Legends don’t die – they have to be killed.’

A young scientist whose researches ‘border on witchcraft’ discovers that his father was the infamous Dr Henry Jekyll, who died 30 years earlier. Determined to clear his father’s name, he opens up the old family home and starts poking through his father’s laboratory and his papers…

Minor horror programmer from Columbia Studios that stars former swashbuckler and matinee idol Louis Hayward in the title role. The film opens with a flashback to the death of Jekyll Senior, as he’s pursued down a London Street by a torch-bearing mob who would probably have been more at home chasing Frankenstein’s Monster through the alps around Ingoldstadt. They’re after Hyde because he’s just killed his wife in a cheap boarding house, leaving their infant son behind. Strangely enough, I don’t recall Hyde being married in Robert Louis Stevenson’s original story, but I can imagine that the wedding reception was a lot of fun. The torches come in handy as they burn up Jekyll’s house and the mad scientist as well. Curiously, the whole Jekyll and Hyde situation seems common knowledge 30 years later when young Jekyll faces similar treatment by the public at large.

Although the film retains some level of credibility for the first half hour, the ridiculous contrivances pile up quickly after that, demanding a higher level of suspension of disbelief that the average viewer can hope to attain. A series of crimes and events combine to put young Hayward in the cross-hairs of both police inspector Paul Cavanagh and nasty newspaperman Gavin Muir, as well as the locals who seem ready to condemn with no real evidence at all. Actually, there’s some critique about the workings of the gutter press and mob rule here, but, not to worry, it’s buried pretty deep beneath the overall silliness.

Son Of Dr Jekyll (1951)

‘My god, it was you! You wrote the script!’

In production terms, we’re in definite B-movie territory with director Seymour Friedman (‘Counterspy Vs Scotland Yard’ (1950), ‘Khyber Patrol’ (1954)) and scriptwriter Jack Pollexfen, who, rather brilliantly, turned the same trick again with ‘Daughter of Dr Jekyll’ (1957)!  Cavanagh and Muir were refugees from the Rathbone-Bruce ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series, and Lester Matthews was the hero of Lugosi-Karloff classic ‘The Raven’ (1935). Heroine Jody Lawrence was Marilyn Monroe’s’ foster-sister when they were in their teens.

Although it’s a fairly painless way to spend 78 minutes, it’s often rather slapdash and makes little effort to remain realistic. Young Jekyll is accused of attacking a young boy, arrested the same night, and finds himself in full court facing witnesses the next day! Wow. The wheels of justice sure moved fast in the old days.

Invisible Man Vs Human Fly (1958)

Invisible Man Vs Human Fly (1958)‘Professor Hayokawa Murdered — Insatiable Rampage of Bloodlust’.

An unhinged scientist has perfected a method of shrinking himself to the size of a fly, and uses his invention to revenge himself on former colleagues. An invisible laboratory assistant helps the police to track him down and foil his nefarious schemes.

Daei Studios were Toho’s main competition in the Japan’s Science Fiction arena during the 1950s and 1960s, and here they deliver an unusual mash-up of a mad scientist and a standard police procedural. So, on the one hand, we get familiar crime picture clichés such as tepid gunplay and a shady nightclub, but we’re also offered a floating head and a villain whose miniature size apparently allows him to fly!

Despite the outlandish elements, the script and cast play it completely straight. Things start off impressively with some inexplicable murders, which are slickly edited and quite unsettling. However, it doesn’t take too long before we know what’s going on, and any sense of mystery has been surrendered to some obvious, and pretty goofy, plot developments. Our young hero owes his invisibility to the side effects of a professor’s experiments into the effects of cosmic rays but his presence is a godsend to the local forces of law and order who find themselves up against it when dealing with our microscopic villain. There are some pretty huge gaps of logic if you look at things too closely, but it’s all acceptable enough if you’re prepared to go along for the ride.

Invisible_Man_Vs_Human_Fly_(1958)

(Human Fly not pictured) Probably…

The SFX are predictably variable, given the era when the film was made, although the invisibility is realised in the acceptable manner first pioneered by SFX technician John P Fulton in the golden era of Hollywood. Indeed, the production is professional in every department, and it’s no easy matter to point out any obvious flaws, but proceedings are simply never very creative or inspired. And exactly why the Human Fly makes a buzzing noise is a bit of a puzzle…

The Daei Studio never played more than second fiddle to Toho, despite plugging away for more than a decade. Probably their biggest success came with the ‘Majin’ series, which featured a giant statue come to life, but even that was a pale comparison to the global recognition enjoyed by Mothra, King Ghidorah and the Big G.

The Woman Eater (Womaneater) (1958)

The_Woman_Eater_(1958)‘The body for you, the brain for us!’

A top scientist returns from a dangerous African expedition with a tree that he hopes to use in his search for an elixir to bring the dead back to life. Police investigate a sudden spate of missing young women in the district while a garage mechanic meets a dancer at the local carnival and gets into a spot of fisticuffs defending her honour.

Brilliantly cheap and inept British horror thriller, which is saddled with a ridiculous plotline, priceless dialogue and a cast who don’t look like they’re in on the joke. Our top man and all round egghead is George Coulouris, a familiar face in supporting roles, who had been a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and had appeared in ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941)! By the look of his filmography, he hardly ever stopped working, and this project was probably just a quick paycheque that he tried desperately to forget.

Coulouris is Doctor Moran, a top scientist/explorer/medical man, who has a funny turn watching a tribal ceremony in deepest Africa (heroically played by the studio with added pot plants). Of course, he brings native witchdoctor Tanga (Johnny Vaughan) back to Blighty, along with this carnivorous tree thing. How he got them through customs, god only knows. Hang on, a carnivorous tree?! Yes, you read that right. Apparently, sacrificing young women to it whilst Tanga plays toms-toms is a sure and approved scientific way of working. The only problem with his experimental methodology is that he doesn’t have an endless supply of raw material, and even the dozy local police begin to notice something strange is going on.

Meanwhile, in a different film, we meet hula dancer Vera Day (‘Cor blimey, Guv’nr!) She’s getting a hard time from her boss at the local carnival (heroically played by the studio with added bunting). Things get ugly and heroic garage mechanic Fortescue St John Farqhaur (Peter Wayn) steps in to give the rotter a damn good thrashing. Ok, ok, so that’s not the character’s real name, but Wayn sounds as if he’s just been for tea and crumpets with the Queen and is probably the least convincing grease monkey in cinema history. Acting in the 1950s in the U.K. meant compulsory training at RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and graduates were always ridiculously well-spoken. It was known as ‘BBC English’ and the sad evidence is there for all to see, but mostly hear, in British movies of the era.

The Woman Eater_(1958)

God, I hope Orson never sees me in this…

Our lovebirds wander into the doctor’s fiendish web when bottle blonde Day gets a job working at the big house, much to the disapproval of housekeeper Mrs Danvers, sorry Mrs Santor, played by Joyce Gregg. Unbelievably, Coulouris falls for Day almost immediately and he declares his love in no uncertain terms. But she’s not impressed; Wayn’s already asked her to marry him, despite the fact that they’ve only known each other a couple of days.

You have to feel sorry for the Doc; what with strangling Gregg in a rage, the police closing in, Tanga smirking suspiciously, and his monster urgently needing a spot of din-din’s, what’s a mad scientist to do? How the plant actually devours its prey and why it only seems to eat buxom young women is all a bit of a mystery really, but you know how it is…there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the mind of a producer of cheap B-movies.

lt’s all very formulaic, of course, but wonderfully silly, aided in no small part by the non-existent budget, choppy editing and a director who seems more interested in the contents of Day’s tight sweater than anything else.

For lovers of bad movies, it’s a neglected classic!