❉ Ken Shinn on a mighty Science Fiction Nonuple Feature that would make Richard O’Brien weep with envy.
‘Let me tell you something, do you like monster movies? Anybody? I love monster movies. I simply adore monster movies. And the cheaper they are, the better they are.’
Frank Zappa there, in 1974, introducing his song Cheepnis. And, in the process, hitting a pop-cultural nail squarely on its noggin.
The decade from roughly 1950 to 1960, following hot on the heels of World War Two, saw an explosion in the number of science fiction and horror films coming out of Hollywood. Some of these were prestige productions of one kind or another, such as The Thing From Another World, The War Of The Worlds, and Forbidden Planet – movies with major talent and budgets behind and in front of the camera. But the vast majority weren’t so fortunate. Poverty Row productions with little in the way of big-name stars or extravagant special effects, they had to compete for their little slice of market interest and the general zeitgeist of years filled with a mixture of eager frontier spirit and technological nightmare. Lacking the big bucks to capture the box-office and drive-in dollars of the enthusiastic public with wide-screen extravaganza, they were forced to think on their feet, and inject imagination and chutzpah to make their marks.
And now Fabulous Films have decided to commemorate these shoestring epics with a new 9-disc box set, The Killer ‘B’ Movie Collection. The roster does include some justly well-known triumphs of the form, as well as a fair share of intriguing, more obscure curios. How best to deal with them? That’s easy, Professor. One by one as they appear on the collection, forming a mighty Science Fiction Nonuple Feature that would make Richard O’Brien weep with envy.
The Blob – a classic 1958 cheapie starring the then almost-unknown Steven McQueen, this boasts one of the simples yet most effective monsters of them all – a big red blob which exists only to eat everything in its path and grow bigger and more threatening as it does so. Can the World’s Oldest Teenagers save the day? This also comes equipped with one of the silliest yet most marvellous theme songs ever penned. A strong opener with real staying power. Urp!
The Angry Red Planet – this 1959 tale turns the gaze outwards to the stars, and discovers only terror when we try to poke our noses into the Cosmos, as the first manned mission to Mars returns to Earth with just two survivors of the original crew. A flashback narrative reveals the fates that befell their friends on a far-off and hostile world, involving many genuinely inspired savage alien creatures and some odd but fascinating use of animation.
Doctor Cyclops – going back a little further to 1940, this inventive film from the director of King Kong brings us another tale of big things menacing smaller things, as an evil Yellow Peril scientist played by Albert Dekker uses radiation to shrink a party of unsuspecting scientists to a foot high in his Peruvian jungle hideaway, apparently just because he can. Featuring innovative effects work, this small-scale story of purely human evil and courage will appeal to those with a fondness for the later likes of Land Of The Giants.
Reptilicus – a real curio in terms of its Danish-American production, and a must for any fans of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms or Godzilla, this 1961 film kicks off with the unearthing of the bloody tail of a previously-unknown dinosaur in Lapland…but the tail isn’t as dead as it seems. This monster, like a starfish, can readily regenerate itself from any fragment, and it isn’t long until the full critter is blazing a trail of havoc across Denmark as it heads for Copenhagen. Can Science and the Military stop it? Keep watching the ice floes…
The Man From Planet X – back in 1951, strange things were afoot. An alien had landed on Earth with ambiguous intentions, he could speak only in musical tones, and oddest of all California was doubling for Scotland. This interesting curio is fascinatingly enigmatic at first, and for much of the running-time we’re left guessing as to who is the real monster – the almost fey extra-terrestrial, or greedy humans. As so often in our lives, the final revelation is ‘six of one, half a dozen of the other’ in this low-key, atmospheric yarn from renowned director Edgar G Ulmer.
The Creature Walks Among Us – having surfaced from the Black Lagoon and sought his Revenge in his two previous outings, the formerly-amphibious Creature suffers hideous burns requiring extensive surgery in this 1956 offering, which leaves him a figure of Frankensteinian pathos, able to survive on land but not, apparently, for long in the water which was his home. Unlike the previous two outings, this is a surprisingly moving, almost elegiac, story, with the Creature the bewildered outsider mixed into a tragic love triangle. If ever a monster movie were a weepie, it’s this one.
The Time Travelers – if you want proof that the B movie can offer bizarrerie and enigma worthy of the art house, then look no further. Finding room to fit in a cameo from superfan Forrest J Ackerman, this 1964 tale of human experimentation into temporal travel via a pseudo-scientific portal throws its unwitting protagonists forward to an Earth ravaged by nuclear war, then back to an unsettlingly changed present day, before rushing headlong into a dizzying, disorientating ending that Andy Warhol would have given his left nad for. Bleak, bewildering, and rather wonderful.
The Deadly Mantis – in 1957, melting polar ice caps release a terror such as Mankind has never seen from its ancient resting place. Not an intellectual carrot as in 1951, but a much more imposing critter – a 200-foot long praying mantis, with a taste for human flesh, and the power of flight. And yes, they did build a 200-foot papier-mache model, with hydraulic systems – although smaller models and a real mantis are on hand to help out. Perhaps the purest example of the ‘big bug’ film in this selection, with Washington firmly in its beady sights, detouring via an Eskimo village.
The Beast With 1,000,000 Eyes! – yes, the exclamation mark is part of the official title. No true B collection worth its salt would be complete without Roger Corman making his inimitable mark, and here he is to round out this roster in fine, penny-pinching style. The title is accurate, though it is also a big cheat – that chutzpah in full force here. A small-scale invasion on a ‘date ranch’ somewhere in the Californian desert in 1955, with legendary monster-maker Paul Blaisdell doing his best with an eleventh-hour job, and a conclusion of purest American cheese – with a hefty dose of divine intervention symbolism.
Perhaps unsurprisingly with films of this vintage, there are precisely zero extra features to be found on these 9 discs, but what you will have are crisp, clear prints of well over 11 hours of pure pulp fantasy enjoyment, more than enough for a self-respecting marathon, all made on 50 cents and a baloney sandwich per day.
So, what are you waiting for? Lay in plenty of popcorn and sodas, smuggle in a fifth of rye, and go – to the All-Day, Nonuple-Feature, Picture Show!
❉ ‘The Killer B‘ Movie Collection‘ (DVD) is out now from Fabulous Films, Cert 15, 719mins, DVD PAL Region 2. RRP £39.99.
❉ Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult. His 54 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.