Wednesday, May 13, 2015

For the Love of Science Fiction :: The Film Preservation Blogathon :: It's Terrible, and I Don't Care: Michael Hoey's The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966)

The first time I watched The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966) I realized two things: One, it was pretty terrible, and yet, I kinda dug it. And two, I was struck stupid by a sense that there were two wildly different films, smashed together, locked in a desperate fight for tonal supremacy as the film transpired. Turns out, I wasn't too far north of the truth. And to truly understand the dichotomy of The Navy vs. the Night Monsters, one must first journey back to 1960 when, on his way home from the hospital after the birth of his son, Michael Hoey stopped at a drugstore for some sundries where a certain pulp paperback caught his eye. He wound up purchasing a copy of Murray Leinster's The Monster from Earth's End and, while plowing through it, felt it would make a crackerjack movie. 

A prolific author who had been writing since the 1920s for the likes of Argosy, Weird Tales and Amazing Stories, Leinster (1896-1975) covered nearly all genres but specialized in speculative science fiction. He was the first to publish the notion of home computers and the internet (A Logic Named Joe, 1946), universal translators (First Contact, 1945) and parallel universes (Sidewise in Time, 1935). Leinster was so good he managed to survive the John W. Campbell revolution that put more stress on the science than the fiction in genre-writing. In fact, he not only survived but thrived, producing more than 50 novels, 1,500 short stories and articles, 14 movie scripts, and hundreds of radio and television plays, prompting TIME Magazine to appoint him the Dean of Modern Science-Fiction in 1949.

The Monster from Earth's End was first published in 1959 and echoed Campbell's own masterpiece of sci-fi, mystery, isolation and suspense, Who Goes There?, as it opens with a frantic radio transmission between a cargo plane and a Naval refueling depot on a remote island. Shots are fired, and in-between garbled messages are the sounds of a violent struggle, blind panic, and a desperate effort to get some "thing" off the plane. (We only hear these actions through the radio receiver on the ground.) This mystery deepens when all communications cease as the errant plane erratically circles the island before finally coming in for a crash landing, destroying the radio tower and blocking the runway in the process, effectively cutting the island off from rescue and the outside world completely. From there, things get even more cryptic, creepy, and downright sinister: 

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"When they examined the rest of the plane they found eight bullet holes in the plane's flooring and sides. This included one bullet that had smashed the radio transmitter. But they found nothing else. There was nobody in the plane but the dead pilot. The other two crewman and seven passengers had vanished while the ship was in flight. There had been ten men on the plane when it took off from the scientific base at Gissell Bay. There had been nothing wrong until the plane was within 100 miles of Gow Island. But after screams and shooting the pilot had landed downwind, with his wheels up. It was a belly landing. And there was no other human being on the ship. Also, after landing, the pilot had blown out his brains." 

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After that rousing set-up, the novel settles into a nice groove, mystery-wise, as efforts are made to clear the runway and salvage what cargo they can from the wrecked plane -- mostly Antarctic specimens, including a knot of penguins and several bales of newly discovered vegetation from the peculiarly ice-free warm lakes area near Bunger Oasis. Basically, all they can do is mark time until someone comes to investigate the sudden silence from the base. But "each new day brought with it another bloody death, another mysterious disappearance", with the only clue being a strange corrosive residue that burns and scars at the touch. Aside from a massive bird sanctuary there is no other wildlife on the island, so there is no answer there, deepening the mystery even further as something moves around in the dark, picking people off at random, one by one.

As Hoey read the novel, it reminded him of Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World (1951), a fantastic though admittedly loose adaptation of Campbell's story, where a group of people in an isolated location must fend off a "Killer Carrot from Outer Space." And as things unfold and the mystery is finally resolved, the reader discovers Leinster's story also owes a huge debt to John Wyndam's The Day of the Triffids (1951 -- which was adapted to the big screen in 1963). Turns out the killer wasn't hiding in the vegetation but was the vegetation all along; omnivorous creatures nearly seven feet tall who move around only at night (or a darkened cargo hold) by the roots, baiting, engulfing, dissolving and absorbing anyone or anything unlucky enough to cross its path. Of course, unaware of this, in an effort to save them, these harvested plants were re-seeded near a hot-springs and have since multiplied and threaten to overrun the entire island as Hoey reached the climax of the book.

Now, Michael A. Hoey was born in London, England, the son of character actor Dennis Hoey, who played Inspector Lestrade in all those Basil Rathbone-fueled Sherlock Holmes movies for Universal. When the family moved to Beverly Hills, Hoey decided he wanted to follow the old man into the business. And after washing out as an actor, he caught on as an assistant editor and dialogue coach before serving a brief producing stint at Warner Bros., where he oversaw the production of Palm Springs Weekend (1963) that started a long working relationship with director Norman Taurog, which found Hoey eventually collaborating with him on several vehicles for Elvis Presley, including writing credits for Stay Away, Joe (1968) and Live a Little, Love a Little (1968). Before all of that, however, Hoey was efforting to get his own horror movie made independently. 

Seems after finishing Leinster's novel, Hoey acquired a two-year option on it for $1000 and set to work on a screenplay, which stuck pretty close to the source material with the notable exception that the pilot didn't commit suicide but slipped into a mute state of shock, but prone to violent outbursts, instead, to throw a suitable red-herring into the mix. When it was finished, Hoey shopped his script for The Nightcrawlers to several studios and independents but found no takers for several years, and then he got a call from producer George Edwards.

Meantime, Jack Broder had decided he wanted to get back into the picture business. Back in 1946, when William Goetz rechristened Universal as Universal International, in a (misguided) effort to add more prestige to the new brand, he terminated the studios B-unit, nixing all those supporting comedies, musicals, westerns, creature features, and serials. He also had no interest in UI's back catalog, opening the door for Broder, who negotiated a 10-year deal (1946-1956) for the reissue rights for his Realart Pictures, which re-released a ton of films as double-features, most notably Universal's classic monster movies and Abbott and Costello comedies, which, ironically enough, outdrew Goetz's new product in most cases. However, theaters would not pay premium prices for reruns so Broder pushed his assistant, Herman Cohen, into making a batch of new features for Realart, netting him the somewhat embarrassing Bride of the Gorilla (1951) and Bela Lugosi Meets the Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) both of which deserve there own write-ups because the making-of tales for those are far more entertaining than the finished product -- but the LAST thing this review needs is another side tangent because I also wanted to talk about how Realart and Ed Wood inadvertently spawned American International pictures and *eyegitty**eyegitty**eyegitty* *ahem* Anyhoo...

By 1965, the era of double-features he used to provide was in its final death throes, but Broder was determined and had managed to scrape together enough cash for two flicks to fit the bill. One was already set to film, Women of the Prehistoric Planet; the brainchild of writer and director Arthur Pierce, whose plot is a little more ambitious than that title would imply but executed to fit it perfectly. Now, a lot of sources claim Roger Corman was an uncredited financier for this endeavor. And besides money, he also provided a line-producer, Edwards, and a star, finagling a trade of commitments which netted the TBD'd second feature Mamie Van Doren and, I'm sure, saved the always frugal-minded Corman a little cash. (This turned out to be a rare film for Van Doren as, for once, her character did not require her to be Mamie Van Wowsers, allowing her to play the character straight and narrow. And she tried hard. A lot.) As I mentioned before, it was Edwards who dusted off a script for The Nightcrawlers and gave Hoey a call. And though he didn't have a lot of money to offer, he finished the pitch with these magic words: would you like to direct it?

The plan was to shoot both pictures back to back with the same crew and sets, with WotPP slotted to go first. It was Broder who came up with the new, more exploitative title for Hoey's movie, much to the director and casts' mortification, and whose fantastic poster art kinda gave the whole game away. (But, admit it. That poster art is what brought us all here in the first place, amIright?) Yeah, Broder was a hands on executive producer, taking a page from the Sam Katzman playbook. (He even had a toadie, second-unit director Wyott Ordung, to spy for him.) The only problem was, by all evidence, unlike Katzman, Broder had no idea what he was doing -- and he was far, far from done interfering with the production. 

To fill out his cast, Hoey looked to some old friends. He knew Anthony Eisley from his days at Warner Bros., where the actor had been unceremoniously dumped from Hawaiian Eye (which is too bad because he was great in that series), and cast him as the lead character; the XO suddenly thrust into a leadership role, facing life or death choices, all the while romancing Van Doren -- and in over his head on both counts. Hoey's work with Presley on Tickle Me (1965) netted him Ed Faulkner, the über-paranoid meteorologist and never-had-a-chance corner of a fairly forced love triangle, and Sonny and Red West as some mobile plant-kibble. Throw in Bobby Van as the comedy relief and Walter Sande and Pamela Mason as the fuddy scientists to explain everything and Hoey was ready to film. He had ten days.

Behind the camera, the production scored a coup with Stanley Cortez as the cinematographer. In a career that included working with Orson Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), he was now shooting things like this, The Angry Red Planet (1959) and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966). The director and the cameraman gelled rather quickly, overcompensating for the lack of budget and cheap sets by keeping the lights down low with plenty of contrasting shadows and kept what little light there was covered in colored gels, making things nice and murky and moody, bringing to mind the minimalist surreal beauty of William Cameron Menzies's Invaders from Mars (1953) in some instances.

To bring the "nightcrawlers" to life, Hoey had requested Gene Warren's Project Unlimited, a protégé of George Pal, who had won an Academy Award for his work on The Time Machine (1960). What he got was Edwin Tillman, who I'm sure did the best he could with the pittance Broder gave him. And what he delivered was an anthropomorphized and rubbery stump topped off with Rastafarian leaf-toupee and a few stubborn dreadlock-cowlicks, which required a lot of 'help' from the actors whenever the monster 'attacked' by obligingly running right into them, giving them a hug, and wrapping themselves up in the branches to be dry-humped to death. 

When they first wheeled them out on set, Hoey refused to film them but eventually just turned the lights down even lower. To his credit, some of the scenes are quite effective. I especially dug the scene where the berserk pilot flings himself at one and slowly dissolves away. Pitching in on the make-up effects, and faring much better, was Harry Thomas, who had worked with everyone from Cecil B. DeMille to Ed Wood. Thomas provided the grue for all those acid burns, the charred body of the jettisoned plane passenger (-- a great shock moment), and the bloody stump when one unlucky sailor (Billy Gray) gets his arm torn off in the film's best executed sequence -- it's genuinely creepy and effective. Honest.

When the production wrapped, Hoey turned over a tight and snappy, and little clumsy, and little goofy, and a little nasty (-- I appreciated the fact that he not only killed off the comedy relief but he also killed off the comedy relief's dog), 78-minute no-budget thriller to Broder, and then moved on to his next gig: scouting locations for the forthcoming Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) for American International. Things, went a little awry from there. From the very beginning, Broder had demanded a 90-minute picture. But like with every other asinine suggestion he'd made during filming, Edwards and Hoey had ignored this edict. Thus and so, unknown to Hoey, Broder commissioned Pierce to write new material, reassemble the cast, shoot new footage, and re-cut the picture to make the magic 90-minute mark so the producer could sell it to TV. And we've all seen how that turned out. And if you haven't, well, you're in for a real treat. And when I say 'treat,' I mean a big sloppy turd-burger of a movie.

If you could take a giant enough step back and look at the whole picture from beginning to end, it's easy to pick out Pierce's additional scenes. All the blatant comedy bits are his. (The weather balloons. Oh, god, the weather balloons.) The entire opening sequence on the plane with the pilot and crew was his; and everything they added was redundant as Dr. Beechum (Sande) gives the exact same plot-dump on what the plane was carrying two scenes later. However, these additions do give us the scene where the crewman investigates the hold and is so immediately frightened by what he sees, he makes a beeline for the door and jumps out of the plane. (All that was missing was a rousing chorus of "Yakkity Sax.") Also, all of those inserts of the Navy brass off-island, repeating everything that just happened every time they show up were shoehorned in as well. 

This, is the greatest tragedy as it adds nothing and totally torpedoes Hoey's intended film completely. See, Pierce redid the crash sequence so the radio was no longer knocked out, giving the island a lifeline to the mainland, which makes most of Lt. Brown's (Eisley) later decisions a lot less crucial and decisive and his angst over the same a lot more idiotic. Broder also ordered a complete overhaul of the ending, which had ended rather ambiguously, demanding the insertion of a stock-footage jet attack (including a nonsensical flyby by the Blue Angels); the same stock-footage shot used over and over and over and over again, and commissioned Jon Hall to create some miniatures for those planes to shoot at again and again and again and again. The result, was pretty abysmal, and pathetic, with some actual cacti doused in diesel subbing in for the creature's final demise. Kinda sad, really.

Circling back to that first encounter with The Navy vs. the Night Monsters, this severe tonal shift in the climax had me giggling, thinking the production had simply run out of money, threw up its hands, and said, bring in the napalm to play us out and we'll call it a day. Again, I wasn't too far from the truth. Both filmed endings are kind of a mess but, in truth, Leinster's ending in the novel was even worse and even more stupid. And these conflicting premises should not work, at all, and yet they kinda do. I'd still be anxious to see a 'phantom edit' of the film with all of Pierce's inserts removed, but I'd settle for a decent print of the film period. Sadly, when Image Entertainment and Wade Williams were releasing a ton of B-Pictures on VHS and DVD several years ago they recorded a commentary track with Hoey moderated by Tom Weaver but they couldn't find a decent enough print for the release and scrapped the extras and went with the dog-eared and washed out copy that's still floating around to this day. *pfeaugh*

This film is terrible. I totally get that. I just dig it. And I dig it a lot. And if there is any bright side to all of this, unlike, say, Top Gun (1986), I doubt The Navy vs. the Night Monsters ever deluded any audiences members into signing up to be a naval aviator only to wind up scraping birdsh*t off a runway in Guam for four years. So, there's that. And there ya go. 

Sources: Elvis, Sherlock and Me by Michael Hoey (2007); I Was a Monster Movie Maker: Conversations with 22 SF and Horror Filmmakers by Tom Weaver (2011); Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes by Tom Weaver (2000). 


This post is for the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark. This year’s theme is science-fiction, and the entries thus far have been amazing. Hope you enjoy, and please click on the link below and donate to help restore the silent film, Cupid in Quarantine. The goal is to raise $10,000. So give what you can, won’t you? Thank you!


Klaatu. Barada. Donateo. 

The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966) Standard Club of California Productions :: Realart Pictures Inc. / EP: Jack Broder / P: George Edwards, Roger Corman / AP: Madelynn Broder / D: Michael A. Hoey, Arthur C. Pierce / W: Michael A. Hoey, Arthur C. Pierce, Murray Leinster (novel) / C: Stanley Cortez / E: George White / M: Igo Kantor, Gordon Zahler / S: Mamie Van Doren, Anthony Eisley, Walter Sande, Bobby Van, Pamela Mason, Edward Faulkner, Kaye Elhardt, Billy Gray


Joe Thompson said...

It is rare for me to encounter a movie I have actually never heard of. I can see how you might dig this one. "only problem was, by all evidence, unlike Katzman, Broder had no idea what he was doing..." We don't sufficiently appreciate the accomplishments of Jungle Sam Katzman. This was a fun review.

Marilyn Ferdinand said...

This is a terrific post, full of terrific backstory for films that might be dismissed and for offering a different angle on Mamie Van Doren. I note the killer vegetation showed up in the form of a woman in the Canadian series "Lexx," and I am always a sucker for a good dismemberment. I will seek these out. Thanks for participating in the blogathon.

W.B. Kelso said...

I thank you both. And thank you, once again, Marilyn, for throwing out such a wide net for contributors.

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