The Wasp Woman (1959)

Directed by Roger Corman [Other horror films: The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), Day the World Ended (1955), It Conquered the World (1956), Not of This Earth (1957), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), The Undead (1957), War of the Satellites (1958), A Bucket of Blood (1959), House of Usher (1960), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Premature Burial (1962), Tales of Terror (1962), Tower of London (1962), The Raven (1963), The Terror (1963), X (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (1990)]

I didn’t go into this one with high expectations, and I got pretty much what I thought I would out of it. I didn’t really think The Wasp Woman was horrible, and the story itself wasn’t that bad, but I do feel that this is pretty forgettable, and following The Fly by a year, somewhat laughable.

It’s more than that, though, because even though the design of the wasp woman is pretty terrible, at least the scenes in which she appeared had some action. Otherwise, the movie was pretty damn dull, and while I can appreciate some set-up, this movie really dragged things out with little reason (especially given the film is just a little over an hour).

The only individual here who I really thought stood out at all was Michael Mark, who played the foreign scientist who led to the creation of the horrifying wasp/human hybrid. Mark certainly wasn’t amazing, but he was amusing from time to time, and given much of the rest of the cast was stale, I guess I’d give him kudos for keeping things fresh.

The finale here seems a bit rushed, and it took the characters in the film more than a little time to realize that people have been dying, so as for suspense, well, I’d look elsewhere. There’s not even much an emotional impact, as the titular wasp woman, played by Susan Cabot, wasn’t particularly sympathetic.

Of course, the design of the Wasp Woman itself was pretty silly, but I suspect they cobbled something together the best they could with what they had, so while it didn’t look stellar, I don’t really hold that against the film. The bigger issue here by far is the lackluster story, and the fact that even at just over an hour, The Wasp Woman dragged like nobody’s business.

All said and done, The Wasp Woman is a weak outing from Roger Corman, who did plenty of actually good movies, such as Pit and the Pendulum, The Little Shop of Horrors, The Haunted Palace, and A Bucket of Blood. Hell, even Attack of the Crab Monsters, a film rather flawed, was more fun than this. The Wasp Woman is just dry and lacking much of interest, and it’s not a movie I suspect I’d watch again any time soon.

4.5/10

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

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 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