The Strange World of Planet X (1958)

Directed by Gilbert Gunn [Other horror films: N/A]

I’ve seen this British science-fiction/horror movie once before, and as it turns out, I remembered it a bit more fondly than it really deserves. The movie’s not bad, but it does drag quite a bit at the beginning, and save for one scene of note, the special effects were poor (especially coming out four years after Them!), and there wasn’t really enough meat to really keep me occupied.

Sometimes known under the title Cosmic Monsters (as the poster above attests to), The Strange World of Planet X had potential that the film didn’t really reach. Many of the performances were decent (including, in no particular order, Wyndham Goldie, Martin Benson, Alec Mango, Geoffrey Chater, and Forrest Tucker), but the only one that I really loved was that of Mango’s mad scientist.

The story, too, was decently solid, but in a movie that’s barely over an hour and ten minutes, having the first real action start up forty minutes in seems an unwise choice. Additionally, throwing in a more science-fiction subplot didn’t bother me that much, but it was just a bit corny.

When the action does start, we’re treated to mostly unspectacular effects. Insects increase in size, and by that, they’re enlarged image is superimposed over the screen, so about none of the insects look particularly convincing (though the millipedes got the closest). One highlight of the film, though, was what looked like a cricket chewing on a man’s face. It wasn’t really bloody (this is black-and-white, be reasonable), but it was a tad more violent than I’d have otherwise expected.

The Strange World of Planet X is worth at least a single watch if you’re a fan of giant bug movies, but it really doesn’t compare with other classics such as Them! or Earth vs the Spider (which I know is almost universally bashed, but I enjoyed it). Still, this British addition to the genre is watchable, and occasionally enjoyable, though I do wish they sped up a bit to the action.

7/10

The Bad Seed (1956)

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy [Other horror films: N/A]

When I was younger, I saw this film quite a bit. My mother in particular really enjoys this one, so I’ve seen it a fair deal of times. And while I do enjoy many things about it, I’ve never been able to go as far as to say I love it.

A lot of this has to do with some central characters. Nancy Kelly did really well much of the time, but she was really wearing thin on me toward the end. Maybe it’s due to the fact that I’m not a mother, but she didn’t handle her daughter with nearly as much force as she should have. Related, Patty McCormack was an annoying little brat most of the time, and I get that it’s the point, but God, I couldn’t stand any time she went into her ‘you’re the best mother, nicest mother,’ spiel. God, she was annoying, and the fact no other adults were really able to see through it was just disturbing.

Henry Jones was probably one of my favorite characters. I just loved his interactions with McCormack, and he really had the upper-hand a few times. Eileen Heckart played a great drunk, and Evelyn Varden was decently lovable in her own way.

Another thing that sort of rubbed me the wrong way was the stage call at the end. It’s sort of fun in an old movie way, but then it ends at a ‘funny’ scene which takes the somewhat somber finale and instead finishes up on a light-hearted note. From my understanding, that was a carry-over from the stage production, which had a different ending than the film, so made more sense, but here, it just felt really out of place.

Really, The Bad Seed has a solid story and pretty good suspense, but you can definitely tell it came from a play, because many of the conversations have a very stagey feel to them. You know the type – long conversations that take place in one room, few changes in scenery. It’s adapted well here, but it’s not always the most engaging material.

When all’s said and done, The Bad Seed is a good movie with a few untenable characters. Should one be a fan of 50’s horror, it certainly merits a watch, but it’s never been one that I’d go back to that often, even though I do ultimately find the movie above average.

7.5/10

The Fly (1958)

Directed by Kurt Neumann [Other horror films: Secret of the Blue Room (1933), She Devil (1957), Kronos (1957)]

Filmed in glorious color that, for 1958, looks damn good, The Fly is a classic piece of science-fiction horror. Personally, I like most things about it, and it always warrants a watch when the movie comes on. With a great cast, interesting and engaging story, along with a very solid reveal that possibly even rivals the 1925 classic The Phantom of the Opera, The Fly is a movie that’s recommended to all fans of the classics.

The cast here is moderately small but all the better for it. Patricia Owens did most commendably in her role, and you really feel the emotional upheaval she’s going through. At times, her hysterics do become a bit much, but unfortunately for this era, there’s not really much she could have done. David Hedison’s performance too was fantastic, and he’s perhaps one of my favorite versions of a work-obsessed scientist.

Though his role isn’t quite a big as the name would imply, it’s always great to see Vincent Prince in an early horror appearance (certainly some movies, such as The Invisible Man Returns, House of Wax, and The Mad Magician predate it). Price’s character is also solidly sympathetic, and especially toward the end, when with Herbert Marshall’s character, you really get some feeling from the both of them.

Another thing that I adore about this film is the presentation and set-up. We get thirty minutes of story before we finally get the extended flashback that tells us how the actions at the beginning of the movie occurred and make sense. Invasion of the Body Snatchers from two years previously did the same thing, as certainly did The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but neither one had a thirty-minute beginning before jumping into the flashback, which is something I always forget when I saw this as a kid, but thought was sort of nifty when I see it now.

On a related note, the fact that this movie’s in color really solidifies the opening scene as pretty graphic, especially with that blood splatter. This is the late 1950’s, about six years before H.G. Lewis would craft Blood Feast, so even though it’s not that much in comparison to later works, it really stands out in color. Also, speaking of gruesome, that final scene, while somewhat memorable for it’s hokey feel, was pretty terrifying. I know it looked, for lack of a better word, somewhat bad, but still, the implication was certainly depressing.

This is rightfully a classic, and like I said, it’s always worth a watch, and perhaps the best movie featuring a fly ever.

8.5/10

Attack of the Puppet People (1958)

Directed by Bert I. Gordon [Other horror films: Beginning of the End (1957), The Cyclops (1957), War of the Colossal Beast (1958), Earth vs the Spider (1958), Tormented (1960), Picture Mommy Dead (1966), Necromancy (1972), The Food of the Gods (1976), Empire of the Ants (1977), Burned at the Stake (1982), Satan’s Princess (1989), Secrets of a Psychopath (2015)]

I wasn’t much impressed with this late 50’s flick at all. Though it was decently well-paced and had a somewhat interesting and innovative story, not to mention a few solid performances, the film just felt somewhat off to me.

The best I can say about this is that John Hoyt has a very solid (and somewhat hammy) performance as a lonely, somewhat unstable doll-maker. Hoyt’s character was sort of sympathetic (though honestly, they easily could have thrown more of an origin), and decently creepy near the finale. The only two others who make any difference at all are June Kenney (who appeared also in 1958’s Earth vs the Spider and 1961’s Bloodlust!) and John Agar (who was in such classics as Revenge of the Creature, 1955’s Tarantula, 1956’s The Mole People, 1957’s Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, and others), and neither one really bring a whole lot to this picture.

Admittedly, Kenney does occasionally have a solid ‘little innocent girl’ feel to her, and due to the plot turn taken about twenty minutes in (which sort of took me by surprise, if I’m being honest), she’s placed in a rather compromising position. A big part of my problem with this, though, are the reactions of the other characters reduced in size – that is, to relax and enjoy the fact that they no longer have any worries. When they sort of change attitudes when alone with Kenney and Agar’s characters, I didn’t feel much more pleased with them, and it’s around that time what was a somewhat taut flick begin falling flat for me.

The special effects are okay, but The Devil-Doll (1936), a film with a somewhat similar idea to this one, was almost more impressive in terms of what they could do on-screen, and it’s perhaps not really surprising coming from a director like Bert I. Gordon, who, while he’s done some films I enjoy, is somewhat well-known for his lower-budget features. In fact, there’s a minute or two of a previous film of his, The Amazing Colossal Man, in this film, playing at a movie theater. Solid advertising, brah.

Attack of the Puppet People had potential, but after a certain point, despite the somewhat quick-moving and interesting story, this just didn’t possess that feeling of dread I was looking for. Certainly a lower-class tier flick for the late 50’s (which was a decently prolific and solid time for the horror genre), Attack of the Puppet People (which, by the way, is a somewhat misleading title) just didn’t do a lot for me, and I couldn’t see myself watching this a second time all that willingly.

5.5/10

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Directed by William Castle [Other horror films: Macabre (1958), The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), Homicidal (1961), Mr. Sardonicus (1961), The Old Dark House (1963), Strait-Jacket (1964), The Night Walker (1964), I Saw What You Did (1965), Let’s Kill Uncle (1966), The Spirit Is Willing (1967), Shanks (1974)]

I can nary think of a more charming movie than this late 50’s feature starring Vincent Price. It’s opens on a hokey note, it ends on a hokey note, and it’s just an entirely fun ride throughout.

This is a movie I’ve loved since I was a kid, and everything I liked about it then still stands to today. It has a great cast, a fantastic vibe, a fun story, enjoyable conclusion, and it’s an all-around solid film with virtually no flaws (which is somewhat amazing, but it stands true – I can’t think of a single problem with this film).

Of course, Vincent Price being the star has a lot to do with it. Before this film, he appeared in a few horror films, such as The Invisible Man Returns (1940), House of Wax (1953), The Mad Magician (1954), The Fly (1958), and if you’ve a broader view of the genre, Tower of London (1939). In my opinion, though, it was this film that fully brought him into a long career in the genre, going on to star in many fantastic films (such as The Tingler, The Bat, Pit and the Pendulum, The Haunted Palace, The Last Man on Earth, The Oblong Box, and Theater of Blood, not to mention the many I’ve not seen yet, such as House of Usher and Diary of a Madman).

Vincent Price is a legend, and is, in fact, my favorite actor in the genre. In House on Haunted Hill, his character’s fantastic throughout, and pretty much every line of his is one I’ve loved since I was younger. His performance here alone warrants a strong rating for the film (especially toward the conclusion), but he’s far from the only solid performance.

Pretty much everyone in the movie does admirably. If Richard Long is a bit on the generic side, you still have Carol Ohmart in her fantastic role as Price’s wife, Alan Marshal in a more cerebral role, Elisha Cook Jr. as a drunken doomsayer, and Carolyn Craig as the innocent, wide-eyed younger woman (it’s tragic that Craig killed herself about ten years after this came out). Julie Mitchum didn’t do that much here, but she was fun too, and Leona Anderson provided us with one of my favorite pre-1960’s scares. And let’s give it up for the Skeleton, who, as the credits say, played himself.

I loved the opening and closing of this film. With Vincent Price narrating the origins of the party (“She’s so amusing,” he says, chuckling) and introducing the main characters, to Cook Jr. closing us out with a direct plea to the audience, complete on both ends with great spooky sound effects (screaming, ghosts wailing, chains clanging, the whole works) that just put you into the mood.

This would easily be in my top ten horror films for the 1950’s, perhaps of the whole pre-1960’s – House on Haunted Hill is a fantastic movie that oozes charm and occasionally has some legitimate scares too. Nothing really stands out in any negative fashion here. The conclusion is fun, and, if it’s your first-time viewing, somewhat a surprise. The atmosphere is great, and really, when it comes down to it, this is my favorite Vincent Price movie (of his films I’ve seen so far), and having seen it many, many times, it definitely stays atop of the crowd. William Castle, who directed many other favorites of mine, definitely made a winner here.

10/10

Them! (1954)

Directed by Gordon Douglas [Other horror films: Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944), Zombies on Broadway (1945), The Fiend Who Walked West (1958)]

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t have that much to say about this film. It’s a classic for a reason, and though I’d not seen Them! in many years since this most recent rewatch, it’s clear to me that this will likely always been considered a classic, despite some personal dislikes in the latter half of the film.

There was little to criticize insofar as the performances went. Both James Arness and James Whitmore were great co-leads, and Joan Walden made for a solidly strong woman, especially during the excursion into the anthill. Personally, though, it’s Edmund Gwenn who I suspect will stick with me the longest, as I rather loved his absent-minded portrayal (and gave us some of the few comedic scenes this film had).

As far as the horror goes, there were some good, suspenseful sequences near the beginning that definitely had a creepy vibe to them, though after the point in which we saw the first ant (a great scene in itself, actually), I think they somewhat quickly lost the terrifying vibe. It had a more epic feel, to be sure, but the ants themselves lost something in that transition.

Which is a small shame, because while the shift makes a lot of sense story-wise, I didn’t care that much for it. Oh, I enjoyed the investigation portions quite a bit (and they sometimes reminded me of what you might see on Dragnet), but going for a wider scope, a more disaster movie type plot, it lost a little of what it had before.

None of this is to say I don’t like the movie, it’s just that I didn’t love the second half of the film. It was still great, especially the sequences that took place in the sewer system, but I didn’t love it. Even so, Them! remains one of the better giant insect movies, perhaps one of the best, of the 1950’s. It has great performances, a fun story and setting (once they left New Mexico for California, though, I thought it lost a little of the magic), and fantastic effects for the time period. There’s a lot to enjoy about this film, so give it a shot if you’ve not already.

8/10

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)

Four Skulls

Directed by Edward L. Cahn [Other horror films: Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), The She-Creature (1956), Voodoo Woman (1957), Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), Curse of the Faceless Man (1958), It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Invisible Invaders (1959), Beauty and the Beast (1962)]

While perhaps a little hokey, The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is actually somewhat progressive as far as horror flicks from the late 1950’s go. I noticed this when I first saw it in October of 2017, and reaffirmed it just now, which certainly helps it stand out among a crowded field of peers at the time.

When watching horror films from the 1950’s, it’s easy to forget that not too long after the end of the decade, H.G. Lewis came onto the scene and significantly altered what directors dared to show, all in dazzling color. Here, while still in crisp black-and-white, we happen upon some rather grisly scenes for the time (after-effects of decapitation, sandals made out of human skin, the process of making shrunken heads shown in more detail than anticipated), as though expecting a more violent turn in just four years’ time.

It’s certainly a movie that feels ahead of it’s time, and the unique story (a curse by headhunters on the Drake family due to their actions centuries past), combined with the early gore, really create a pretty fun, if not sometimes hokey, experience.

Most of the cast, at least to me (and I admit I have limited experience with non-horror flicks prior to 1970) are unknowns, but most do a reasonable job. Both protagonists, played by Grant Richards and Valerie French, felt a bit stale at times, but generally were good on screen. Eduard Franz was better, though admittedly, his character didn’t do that much over the course of the film. The antagonists, though, were both enjoyable – Henry Daniell had sort of a cheap, knock-off Lugosi feel to him, but he was always a good presence, and his henchman, played by Paul Wexler, certainly looked good, and the effect of his lips being sewn together was pretty creepy.

Edward L. Cahn is a director I’ve spoken about before (a few of his movies, such as the woeful Curse of the Faceless Man and fantasy-filled Beauty and the Beast are both on the site), and of the movies I’ve seen directed by him, this is one of the best. It! The Terror from Beyond Space and Zombies of Mora Tau may both exceed this one insofar as personal enjoyment is concerned, but this film is still a lot of fun even after multiple viewings.

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake may not appeal to many horror fans of the more modern tastes, but if you’ve a liking to some of the classics from the 1930’s through mid-1960’s, I’d consider giving this one a go. I think this movie will come as a pleasant surprise.

8/10

The Black Sleep (1956)

black sleep

Directed by Reginald Le Borg [Other horror films: Calling Dr. Death (1943), Weird Woman (1944), Jungle Woman (1944), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), Dead Man’s Eyes (1944), Voodoo Island (1957), Diary of a Madman (1963), House of the Black Death (1965), So Evil, My Sister (1974)]

In some ways, The Black Sleep feels quite a bit like a Hammer film, despite being an American production. It does have a good story, solid cast, and pretty tense ending, but I couldn’t absolutely find myself in a position to love it come the credits.

Recommended to me by an online friend who knows I dabble in the more classic entries of the genre, much in this movie certainly came across a pleasant surprise. The story is pretty fun, and has a twist thrown in there too. Some scenes, such as the dungeon sequence, were rather frightening, and felt more out of a 60’s or 70’s horror film than a 50’s (in fact, some of this movie reminded me quite a bit of Mansion of the Doomed from 1976).

The cast is superb. Basil Rathbone and Herbert Rudley did well as the main characters, Rathbone of course being a rather well-known actor (as he played Sherlock Holmes in quite a few films, including the 1939 Hound of the Baskervilles, a classic), and while I don’t know Rudley, he was convincing in his role. Lon Chaney Jr. (who needs no introduction) didn’t have a big chance to showcase his abilities here, but still exceeded in the role he was given. The same is true for Bela Lugosi, who played a mute, but given that this is his final movie performance before his death later in the same year, that can be excused.

Tor Johnson (perhaps most infamously known from The Beast of Yucca Flats) gives a strong performance here, despite not really appearing until near the end of the film. Patricia Blair isn’t a name I’m familiar with, but I liked her as the main female character in the film. Lastly, both Akim Tamiroff and John Carradine were notable in their roles, though Carradine probably was the most forgettable.

It’s hard for me to say where the downsides of this movie arise from, given that so much of the movie (from the cast to the story) is pretty good. Suffice it to say, maybe the bulk of the film, dealing with a scientist who is above the morality of mere mortals, felt more akin to a 30’s or 40’s throwback film than to the 50’s. At the same time, I could easily see Hammer looking at this movie as a way to influence their Curse of Frankenstein, which came out the following year.

Whatever my personal shortcomings of the film are, I won’t deny that this is a classic that unfortunately seems to be overlooked by many nowadays. I didn’t know much about it before jumping in, but I was mostly pleased by the film overall, and if you’re a fan of the classics of the genre, given the cast this film has, I’m somewhat sure you’ll be pleased also.

7.5/10

Night of the Blood Beast (1958)

Night of the Blood

Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski [Other horror films: Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), Black Noon (1971), Sssssss (1973)]

Despite the fun title, this late 50’s flick, produced by Roger Corman, ends up being a pretty dull affair.

There are portions of the film which do possess a decent atmosphere. Due to the small cast, there’s a sense of seclusion prominent also, which I think helps add to the feeling of dread (it’s never quite captured well, but that was the intent). A few decent shots of blood certainly helped a little, but given the design of the monster was pretty laughable, it’s somewhat hard to take seriously.

The cast did just as well as you would expect. Nothing too over-the-top, nothing too hammy, but also nothing that really positively stood out. Michael Emmet, Angela Greene, John Baer, Ed Nelson, Tyler McVey, and Georgianna Carter put in adequate enough performances, and though far from great, I somewhat doubt the acting would be one’s main concern when watching the film.

Really, it just comes down to the fact that it’s a slow-going movie. No, nothing as bad as Curse of the Faceless Man, which came out the same year, but if you get through this without feeling either bored or drowsy, I award you. The director of this picture, Bernard Kowalski, also directed the more enjoyable Attack of the Giant Leeches (from 1959) and much later, Sssssss (1973).

From his horror legacy, such as it is, I imagine many would consider Night of the Blood Beast to be his least favorable entry to the genre. Perhaps, for a dark and rainy night, this movie’s atmosphere could be amplified to an almost-threatening nature, but in most cases, this is a pretty weak film. Sad to say that my views haven’t much changed since the last time I saw it.

5/10

The Manster (1959)

Manster

Directed by George P. Breakston [Other horror films: N/A] & Kenneth G. Crane [Other horror films: Monster from Green Hell (1957), Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman (1958)]

I know, I know, this movie has a terrible title, but really, it’s not that bad. In fact, while it’s not a favorite of mine from the time period, it’s a rather serviceable flick.

The plot isn’t too far removed from other flicks you might find from the late 1950’s – a mad scientist injects an American man with a serum, and the man slowly turns into a monster. Certainly not overly special, but it is done decently well.

The cast all did a pretty okay job, despite most of them not really being all that well-known. Peter Dyneley played the desperate, possibly going crazy, main character very well. Playing the mad doctor, Tetsu Nakamura (who was also in the classic Bijo to ekitai ningen, or The H-Man, from a year earlier) did fantastic, and even though throughout most of the film, his character was one of a cold heart, he had a good emotional scene toward the end. Jerry Itô (who was in Mosura, or Mothra, in 1961), did a good job playing a police superintendent.

Perhaps the surprising standouts, though, include two individuals who never have never before or again acted: Norman Van Hawley and Terri Zimmern. Hawley, playing a friend of the main character, really came across as a deeply concerned friend, and pretty much shined throughout the film. Zimmern did great with her role, as a hesitant accomplice to the mad doctor’s plans. Why neither acted before or again is beyond me, as I thought both did pretty well.

Special effects were pretty well-done, including a legitimately creepy scene about 45 minutes in, and a disfigured woman who appears every now and again (her story itself is pretty tragic, once we hear it). We even get a little splatter of blood at the beginning (sure, it’s black-and-white, but it still looked decent). I won’t deny it got a bit hokey toward the end (and by a bit, I mean a lot), but I think it still sort of mostly worked.

Some of the pacing was a bit off. The first chase sequence was fine, but a second and third? Come on, guys. There was some decent suspense in the movie, but the ending felt rushed (which isn’t really that different from many movies around the same time period, to be honest). Still, overall, I think The Manster (god, I hate the title) is still a decent movie, and I can easily see myself watching it a third time if I’m ever in the mood for a decent 50’s flick. Not amazing, but like I said, it’s serviceable.

6.5/10