The Master Key (1945)

Article #1301 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 10-6-2004
Posting Date: 3-5-2005
Directed by Lewis D. Collins and Ray Taylor
Featuring Milburn Stone, Jan Wiley, Dennis Moore

Federal Agent Tom Brant must contend with a Nazi conspiracy to gain the secret of a machine that will extract gold from seawater.

Each episode of this serial opens with a curious disclaimer, to the effect that the events in this serial never happened and could never happen, but that doesn’t make the serial any less fun, and that we should imagine ourselves in the year 1938. I found this disclaimer curious to say the least, and I didn’t really figure out why until after I finished watching it, and then noticed that the serial was released in 1945. In fact, it was released on April 25th, 1945 (according to IMDB), just a few days before Hitler took his own life. I’m willing to bet that the serial was originally planned to take place in the present, and the disclaimer was only added after Hitler’s suicide took away the timeliness of the story.

This one is by Universal, and the credits sequence makes it look like it’s going to be another GANGBUSTERS. Such is not the case; it’s not bad, but it doesn’t capture the atmosphere of the credits and remains fairly tame. It’s also a lot talkier (and with less action) than either the Republic or the Columbia serials, so this may be for the more patient serial fans out there. The most interesting touch is that the reporter uses a gang of kids that hang out in an abandoned theater to help find the Nazis, though I hear much of this footage is from Dead End Kids/Little Tough Guys movies. The fantastic aspect is the gold-sifting machine called the Orotran. Milburn Stone would later go on to play Doc on “Gunsmoke”.


The Terrible People (1960)

Article #1300 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 10-5-2004
Posting Date: 3-4-2005
Directed by Harold Reinl
Featuring Joachim Fuchsberger, Karin Dor, Fritz Rasp

A criminal vows to murder all the people responsible for his capture, arrest and execution. Sure enough, after the execution, the various parties responsible begin to die one by one.

This is another of the German Edgar Wallace adaptations made during the early sixties, and it starts out with a bang; the first scene recounts the capture of the criminal, and the second scene has him confronting his captors and making his promise, and then the credits roll while we watch a clock tick off the last minute and a half before the execution. It does get somewhat confusing and a little slow during the middle section of the movie, but these are only minor annoyances, as the movie has so many interesting characters (including a squeamish police photographer who is genuinely amusing) and so many surprising moments (the staircase murder will definitely catch you off guard), that its flaws are easily forgotten. Originally, I thought I’d figured out what the final twist would turn to be (I found one character in particular to be highly suspicious), but the movie actually reverses the twist to present an ending that is quite satisfying and more logical. The fantastic aspect is that the executed convict keeps appearing at the sites of the murders, so speculation is rife that a ghost is on the loose; however, it would be giving too much away to verify whether a real ghost is at work here. I quite liked this one, though I will admit that it takes a little time to warm up to the style of these krimis.

Silver Needle in the Sky (1954)

Article #1299 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 10-4-2004
Posting Date: 3-3-2005
Directed by Hollingsworth Morse
Featuring Richard Crane, Sally Mansfield, Robert Lyden

Rocky Jones must escort several VIPs to an Interplanetary Conference, unaware that an outlaw planet has plans to kidnap them.

You know, I’ve been so nice to these Rocky Jones movies that I’m a little bit afraid that I may be making them sound better than they really are. For the record, they’re talky and static, the plots are naive and don’t hold up to close scrutiny (for example, if you’re going to have an exchange of hostages with the agreement that neither side will be armed, you really should have someone frisking the participants), the acting is uneven, and it engages in cute melodrama at time. The special effects are also quite primitive. Yet, for all this, I think they work. The primitive special effects do have the necessary sense of wonder. The cute melodrama doesn’t overwhelm the story, enough of the acting is is better than you’d expect, the plots may be naive, but they’re not quite as simplistic as they might have been (the average Rocky Jones movie is more complex than the average serial), and even if it’s talky and static, it never grinds to a halt. I think the reason for this is that they’re built off of episodes of a TV show, and when you’ve got only thirty minutes of airtime, you can’t afford to grind things to a halt. Yes, they’re a bit slow and talky, but it’s that relaxed, riding-easily-in-the-saddle type of slowness that actually makes it easy to watch. As it is, my worst complaint about the Rocky Jones movies is the character of Cleolante played by Patsy Parsons; her petulant, fit-throwing character is totally unconvincing as the tyrannical leader of an outlaw planet. Still, if you’ve never seen a Rocky Jones movie, I wouldn’t start with this one; it’s singularly devoid of action. You’d be better off starting with CRASH OF THE MOONS.

The Woman in Green (1945)

Article #1298 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 10-3-2004
Posting Date: 3-2-2005
Directed by Roy William Neill
Featuring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Hllary Brooke

Sherlock Holmes is called in by Scotland Yard to help investigate a series of murders of women in which the victims’ right forefingers are cut off.

One of my source books for fantastic films includes all of the Sherlock Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone because the compiler decided to include all movies of any series which did have fantastic elements in some of the entries. That explains why the book included PURSUIT TO ALGIERS, which has no fantastic elements. This is, however, one of the series which has definite horror elements; the gruesome serial killer element is one, of course, and the other is the role that hypnotism plays in the story. Still, I should point out that the movie doesn’t play up its horror elements, and remains very much a mystery. It’s efficient and highly entertaining, with Henry Daniell well cast as Moriarty, and Rathbone and Bruce up to their usual level. Bruce is particularly buffoonish in this outing, and gets his comeuppance when he tries to prove that hypnotism is a sham. I’d actually seen some of the Rathbone Holmes movies years ago, but I didn’t remember them well enough to know which ones I’ve seen. I did, however, remember a scene involving the ledge of a tall building, and it’s here in this movie.

White Pongo (1945)

Article #1297 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 10-2-2004
Posting Date: 3-1-2005
Directed by Sam Newfield
Featuring Richard Fraser, Maris Wrixon, Lionel Royce

An expedition searches for a white gorilla that is believed to the the missing link between man and ape.

Years ago, I saw IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD in the theatre, and they showed a scene of a man being mauled by a white gorilla; quite frankly, I thought the scene was hilarious, and since I was unable to catch the title of the film, I spent years looking for it armed only with the knowledge that it was about a white gorilla. When I read the description of WHITE PONGO in a catalog, I purchased it in the hope that this was the movie. I was wrong. Nor was I impressed.

I’m tempted to dismiss this one as another Double-Stuffed Safari-O, but it actually avoids that description; it has some safari in it, but it doesn’t swamp the movie. Still, there’s really not much to it; it’s a fairly ordinary jungle movie with a white gorilla. There’s the usually tired subplots, including a love triangle (which turns into a love quadrangle when a certain simian also becomes enamored with the only woman on the expedition). There are lots and lots of scenes of the white gorilla looking at things through the brush. Other than that, the only real comment I can make is that Pongo is pronounced Pon-guh.

Incidentally, I did finally found the other movie I was looking for. It was called THE WHITE GORILLA of all things, and someday it will get a write-up of its own.

The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

Article #1296 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 10-1-2004
Posting Date: 2-28-2005
Directed by John Hough
Featuring Bette Davis, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Kyle Richards

When a family moves into a secluded mansion in the woods, the daughters begin to have strange experiences involving an unseen presence in the woods.

If you look at this movie from the point of view of its striking out in a new direction from the usual Disney fare, the movie does have a certain success; it manages to avoid the incessant cuteness that infects almost all of the other Disney live-action features up to this point. However, on its own terms, I’m less than impressed. Part of the problem is that the script is poorly written and somewhat muddled. Another problem is that Lynn-Holly Johnson gives a very weak performance; her line deliveries show a distressing lack of variety, so that everything she says sounds the same. The movie also tries a little too hard for big scares when it should be aiming for a Twilight Zonish eeriness; as it is, much of it comes across as shrill and forced. It also doesn’t help that certain elements of the film keep reminding me of THE SHINING. It’s a bit of a shame; there’s some interesting ideas here, and the occasional scene comes off well. Bette Davis gives the best performance here, but even she seems swamped on occasion by the poor script and the lack of equally talented fellow performers with whom she can interact. The best scene involves a church bell; it just barely beats out a scene in a mirrored fun house which I really liked until one jarring camera zoom broke the spell.

Venus Meets the Son of Hercules (1962)

Article #1295 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-30-2004
Posting Date: 2-27-2005
Directed by Marcello Baldi
Featuring Roger Browne, Jackie Lane, Linda Sini

Tammanus (the son of Jupiter) comes to earth to save a kingdom from an attack by evil foreigners. However, he falls for a mortal woman and gets caught up in the machinations of a schemer to the throne.

This one is just plain weird, and I’m not even sure I can quite put my finger on the reason why. The hero is actually a god in this one, though he becomes sporadically mortal; still, he appears only intemittently in the story. The movie itself jumps back and forth between the cheesy (the dubbing and the dialogue) to the spectacular (the opening battle sequence is actually quite impressive at times) to the arty (the entire dance sequence in the temple of Venus) to just plain surreal (the encounter with Venus and the end of the movie). It has a comic relief character who is actually somewhat amusing; I was even a little scared for him when he almost dies in the final battle. I also has one of the strangest torture sequences I’ve ever seen (involving two spiked walls, a narrow wooden plank, and gallons of burning hot water). It also gives you a chance to see a Greek God prance around in his dark blue underwear. The soundtrack isn’t really awful, but it does seem to belong to a different movie. The climax involves a giant man-eating plant. And it begins and ends with the catchy “Son of Hercules” theme.

By now, you should know whether you want to catch this one or not.

Varan the Unbelievable (1962)

Article #1294 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-29-2004
Posting Date: 2-26-2005
Directed by Jerry A. Baerwitz and Ishiro Honda
Featuring Myron Healey, Tsuruko Kobayashi, Clifford Kawada

In experimenting with a method of purifying salt water, the military unwittingly revives and angers a giant monster.

Poor Varan! When it was time for him to make his trip from Japan to the U.S., the powers that be decided that his flying scenes (the only thing that really separates him from Godzilla) don’t make the grade, so they’re lopped from the American release. To compensate for this, they shoot a lot of footage of Myron Healey and friends to fill out the running time. Now I don’t think adding footage to movies like this to make them more accessible to Americans is necessarily a good idea, but at least GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS did it respectfully, and KING KONG VS. GODZILLA at least made the footage in question a little fun, and both of them managed to still tell a coherent story. This one is a mess, however; not only does the new footage seem totally uninterested in fleshing out the monster footage, it gets caught up in its own dull subplot about Myron Healey trying to deal with his wife’s concern about his reputation. Furthermore, it’s edited with a cuisinart, and when it was released on home video, not only did they not bother to find a decent print, but they recorded it at EP speed. The resultant mishmash of a movie is a dull bore, with the odd scene here and there that makes you wonder what the original was like. Varan himself never really became a hit; except for a token appearance in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (the costume was in such poor shape that they could only use it for a few seconds), he would never appear in another movie (unless he appears in GODZILLA: FINAL WARS). As it is, this is the worst example of the Americanization of a kaiju I’ve ever seen, though GODZILLA 1985 certainly gives it a run for its money.

Unnatural…The Fruit of Evil (1952)

(a.k.a. ALRAUNE)
Article #1293 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-28-2004
Posting Date: 2-25-2005
Directed by Arthur Maria Rabenault
Featuring Hildegard Knef, Erich von Stroheim, Karlheinz Bohm

Several men fall in love with a woman who is believed to be the daughter of a noted professor, though in truth he created her through a process of artificial insemination.

It’s a bit of a shame that this version of the story is the easiest one to find; it’s okay, but it’s somewhat uninspired and can’t hold a candle to the 1928 version with Paul Wegener and Brigitte Helm. On the plus side, it has Erich von Stroheim in the role of the professor, and he’s always fun to watch. It also has some nice moments here and there, and the ending (which is very different from, though more conventional than the one in the Helm/Wegener version) is good. Still, it comes across for the most part as a rather uninvolving soap opera, and has none of the visual splendor of that earlier version. The dubbing doesn’t help much, either, and my somewhat ragged print (which is short of the running time by 13 minutes) is a definite minus. If you can find it, opt for the 1928 version.

Unknown Island (1948)

Article #1292 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-27-2004
Posting Date: 2-24-2005
Directed by Jack Bernhard
Featuring Virginia Grey, Philip Reed, Richard Denning

Several adventurers journey to an island reputed to have living dinosaurs on it.

PRC may have been one of the cheapest of the Poverty Row studios, but they did make their share of fairly decent genre flicks that managed to work within the budget limitations. However, I don’t think an epic dinosaur adventure movie (in color) really lay within their means, and as you might expect, the dinosaurs are singularly lame. The brontosauruses have the movement range of one of those bobbing birds (though the brontos move much slower), and the Tyrannosaurs are obviously men in uncomfortable suits who move so slowly that Kharis the mummy could outrun them; the most impressive move I could see from one of these beasts was their ability to fall down, and that’s not a compliment. My print wasn’t really good enough for me to tell if the puppets were slurpasaurs or vice versa, but it doesn’t really matter. The most palpable horror in the movie is a guy in a somewhat doctored gorilla outfit, and it doesn’t speak well for the movie to say that I didn’t realize he was a giant monster until he goes one on one with one of the Tyrannosaurs late in the movie. These aren’t the worst dinosaurs I’ve seen in a movie (THE MIGHTY GORGA, anyone?), but I don’t think anyone was impressed.

Given the quality of the dinosaurs, it’s no surprise that most of the story concentrates on the human characters. Still, even these are disappointing; the basic conflicts are the usual triangle (with a lecherous sea captain thrown in for extra excitement), and a variety of rather cliche situations and characters. There’s not much to recommend here, though I will express surprise that the thing was even made. And even cheap dinos like this still can be a little bit of fun.