Saturday, October 7, 2017

Hubrisween 2017 :: B is for The Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes (1955)

As an opening prologue bombastically and basically gives the whole movie away, top-loading the whole shebang with a truncated montage of what few action sequences there are to come, while a morose narrator -- sorry, an eeevil alien presence monologues about his master plan of possessing the smaller-minded creatures to take over the world he covets, I guess a viewer could just stop right there and save themselves an hour and change. But! Nope. We are here for the duration, so, once this evil alien despot is done bloviating, giving way to a fairly nifty, artistically rendered credit sequence by Paul Julian -- again, bad sign when your opening credits turn out to be the most interesting part of your movie, we cut to the story proper, which begins near the desert of rural California on a parched farm, where the owner, Alan Kelley (Birch), barely ekes out of living raising dates with his wife and daughter.

Overwhelmed these last few days by a projected sense of dread and a strange malfeasance in the air, Alan returns home after a hard day’s work only to resume a running argument with his wife, Carol (Thayer), over the future of their daughter, Sandy (Cole). And while the father insists Sandy will go to college, the mother counters, saying they can’t afford it. And by the time she gets to the “Well, I never went to college” verse, we get to the real reason as Carol finally confesses as to why she’s been so upset lately. Stuck in a dead-end marriage in the middle of nowhere, Carol is terribly jealous of the opportunities Sandy will have that she never got -- even to the point of hating her daughter for this. Realizing Sandy has overheard this spleen-venting, Carol tries to apologize for that last remark but now no one is listening.

Seeing her apology is going nowhere, Carol quickly shifts the argument toward Carl (-- though he’s referred to mostly as “Him” during the film), a mentally handicapped mute who had served with Alan during the war, I think, and suffered a traumatic brain injury, whom she and Sandy both find creepy and uncomfortable to be around as he works for them as a hired hand. But Alan refuses to let him go over some sense of obligation that is never properly explored, insisting the man is harmless. Well, maybe, maybe not, as this latest argument concludes with Carol scolding and chasing Duke, Sandy’s dog, out of the house, who has managed to figure out how to open the screen doors. And so, Sandy, still feeling the sting of her mother’s harsh words, gathers up the chastised dog and storms off to the swimming hole, where Carl has followed and now watches her from the bushes until he is caught, scolded for being a peeping tom, and skedaddles.

Meanwhile, back at the house, we learn the only thing Alan and Carol can agree on is that strange feeling emanating from the surrounding desert is at least partially responsible for their current woes. And it’s not “just the loneliness, and isolation; there’s something more, something actively malignant working to bring out the worst in them.” And here, Carol confesses if Sandy does go away, leaving her all alone out here, the mother is convinced she’ll lose her mind. Alan, ever the dunderhead, pushes this no further, shrugs, and goes back to work. After he’s gone, a shrill, high-pitched whine grows louder as something gets closer until it blows by over the house, and whose backwash shatters most of the windows and breakables in the home, including Carol’s precious family heirloom china. Assuming a low-flying jet from a nearby airbase is to blame, a furious Carol calls the Sheriff to report it but this quickly goes nowhere.

Meantime, Alan is startled when a blackbird slams into the windshield of his car. Stranger still, when he gets out to examine the carcass, a whole flock of blackbirds attack, forcing him back into his car. Outrunning these belligerent birds, Alan stops at a neighbor's farm. There, Ben Webber (Conklin), listens to his tale and then relates how his milk cow, Sarah, has also been acting strangely lately, too, but chalks it up to that low flying mystery jet putting her on the prod. On the way home, Alan picks up Sandy, who lost Duke at some point and can’t find him. However, the audience knows where Duke went, as he’s followed a familiar high-pitched humming to it’s source; some kind of impact crater further out in the desert, where a strange metal object lies half buried in the sand at the bottom. And then the humming starts to get louder as the machine starts to glow.

Back at the house, Alan and Sandy take in the damage and try to console Carol, who is having none of it; her mother’s irreplaceable china appears to be the last straw for her. Then, Deputy Sheriff Larry Brewster (Sargent) shows up to check on the reported damage and, after making sure his girl, Sandy, is okay, they head back into town together. After spying on all of this, a jealous Carl has a violent fit, drops his axe, and then retreats into the small shed he resides in, locking the door behind him, allowing him to brood amongst all his tacked up nudie pictures in solitude. And when Alan heads to town for some supplies, Carol is once again left all alone at the house when Duke returns. But this is not the same friendly dog. Nope, this is a snarling and savage beast that pursues Carol around the house and proves too fast when she tries to shoot him. Out of bullets, Carol flees outside and pounds on the shed door, but Carl refuses to let her in. And when Duke charges in for the kill, a desperate Carol grabs for Carl’s discarded axe and prepares to defend herself...

Back in 1954, the newly minted American Releasing Corporation was one of the bidders looking to distribute Roger Corman’s first film, Monster From the Ocean Floor (1954); a film Corman had produced for a mere $12,000. But James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, the founders of ARC, lost out to Robert L. Lippert, who made a killing on the film. Meanwhile, taking the money he had made on that deal, Corman financed his next picture, The Fast and the Furious (1955). And while both Republic and Colombia showed an interest in this fugitive road race thriller, Corman had been around long enough to know if he took the deal it would take forever to see any turnaround on his end of the money; and needing the money upfront so he could spend it on his next picture, Corman gave Nicholson and Arkoff 30 days to come up with a better offer. And after borrowing some money for a cross-country bus tour, Nicholson (and sometimes Corman), barnstormed the film through several cities looking for regional distributors who would book the film -- all looking for cheaper product and a larger share of the box-office profits, signing up almost 25 in total, including their biggest catch, Joseph E. Levine, out of Boston.

And so, with tentative finances set, a deal was struck with Corman. ARC would distribute The Fast and the Furious through their new network along with Corman’s next two films, guaranteed, which would be financed by the advances from those sub-distributors. And so, with the princely sum of around $120,000 in front money to finance both follow-up features, Corman set to work. First up was a western, Five Guns West (1955) -- sort of a proto-, paired down version of The Dirty Dozen (1967), where five criminals are recruited by the Confederacy for a dangerous mission in exchange for a pardon. Here, Corman faced a dilemma. Both the western and the follow up feature, which was slated to be science fiction in nature, were supposed to be shot in color, which would escalate production costs considerably. And so, the producer made a fateful decision and hired himself to direct the western for no pay in order to save some money. After all, how hard could that be?

Well, Corman found out quick enough, as he spent most of the rain-plagued shoot throwing up as he battled his nerves and struggled to get the film finished on time. And by some miracle, he did. However, he also went way, way, way over budget, leaving him with just $30,000 left to deliver a second finished film or he would default on his distribution deal. And according to his contract, if Corman went over budget, he would have to make up the shortages out of his own pocket. Money he didn’t really have. Luckily, Corman had gotten wind of a screenplay written by Tom Filer called The Unseen, where a malevolent non corporeal alien intelligence attempted to conquer the world by controlling animals and weak-minded humans (-- which kind of mimics an old Al Feldstein story published by EC Comics in Weird Science several years prior.)

This all sounded perfect to Corman, especially the non corporeal part, meaning the alien threat would be an invisible threat and save him thousands in production costs. And to save even more money, the film would be shot in both black and white and non-union. Thus, Corman, now a member of the DGA, could not direct it -- at least not “officially." Thus, Corman tabbed Lou Place, who had served as his assistant director on Five Guns West, to direct, with an assist from David Kramansky, who moved up from production assistant (-- and eventually to director when Place asked to have his name removed from the credits); and Everett Baker, a film scholar and teacher at UCLA, would handle the cinematography. And with Corman ghost-directing from the sidelines, location shooting near Palm Springs was almost completed when the unions finally got wind of the production and threatened to shut it down unless everyone joined up and got paid union wages.

After mulling over his options, with the completion deadline looming, a panicked Corman went with Plan B: he dismissed all of the crew and finished off the film himself over the course of two days, hiding out and shooting on a small sound-stage with Floyd Crosby behind the camera. Crosby was an interesting guy, who won a Golden Globe lensing High Noon (1952). And while never officially on the Blacklist, Crosby found himself on the unofficial “Greylist” which found him equally shunned by the majors. But, he landed on his feet with Corman and would go on to a long career shooting for him and other films for the minor majors. Funnily enough, though, while watching the film, it’s the location footage of Baker that really elevates the otherwise moribund material of The Unseen. It’s eerie and effective, and the whole film appears to be dying of thirst.

There’s also some pretty effective sound-design during the animal attacks as the film relied heavily on what you hear and not what you see. That’s right. In this film, not only do we not get to watch the paint dry, we get to listen to someone else describe the paint drying. And sometimes we even get to hear someone describe how someone else describe how the paint dried. Good times. And with no money, the film was also scored fairly effectively with a bunch of stock library cues and public domain music to set an otherwise non-existent mood.

Thus, with no alien to speak of and no action either, it’s left to the actors to keep everyone awake. And while I kinda dig the family drama that centers around Carol, with whom I genuinely sympathize with, there isn’t a whole lot else there -- and so, we latch onto whatever we can. What little we do see of Carol’s meager existence was bad enough. Alan is never around, either out failing as a farmer or always running into town; and now Sandy is about to leave her behind, too. Is it any wonder Carol is lashing out at everyone around her? And then, surprise, surprise, the script actually gives her an arc and eventual redemption in the middle of all those cut-rate animal attacks. Kudos to Lorna Thayer for elevating Carol Kelley well above the ‘as written’ rote bitch caricature threshold. Everyone else is fine, I guess, and serviceable enough for this hackneyed plot, with only Leonard Tarver’s performance as the silent and menacing Carl getting even close to what Thayer brought to the table as she’s isolated even further from her family after Carol winds up killing Duke to save herself.

Of course, Sandy doesn’t believe her story about the dog going crazy, which only drives the wedge between them even deeper. Later, as Sandy wanders in a daze grieving, she suddenly snaps out of her stupor in the middle of the desert with no idea how she got there. Stranger still, a mesmerized Carl seems to be on the same course until she gently takes him by the hand and leads him back to the farm. When they get back, Carol also seems to have “woken up” a bit and snapped out of her morbid funk. And as the family reconciles, Sandy relates her strange trip into the desert, claiming to have been drawn out there by a strange humming sound.

Then things kinda escalate the follow morning -- but remember, that’s a relative term when dealing with a somnolent flick like this, when neighbor Ben is trampled to death by Sarah the cow. Meanwhile, back at the Kelley homestead, Carol is assaulted by their clutch of chickens when she tries to gather up some eggs. Now, you would think Alan would be the one to put the pattern together since he was the one who was attacked earlier by some fine feathered fiends, but, nope, Carol is the one who theorizes all the animals are revolting against them just so patriarchal and patronizing Alan can say she’s only imagining things. (And why hasn’t she left this guy yet?) Elsewhere, Carl is finishing his chores until he hears that humming sound again, and then follows a dove off into the desert.

I’m sure I failed to mention that Sandy’s 18th birthday is fast approaching, too, which explains why she and her mom are currently in the kitchen trying to bake a cake. (One of the film’s running themes is using Carol’s culinary failures to represent her failure as a wife and a woman. But now that she’s reconciled, we finally have success. Oy.) Then, Sarah the cow wanders into their yard just as Alan discovers Ben’s trampled body several miles away. A curious Sandy goes out to investigate and nearly gets trampled to death. And when her mother moves to save her, she almost gets trampled to death, too. Then, a shot rings out and Sarah falls dead. (Hamburgers for supper, yay!) Seems Alan, thinking there may be something to this animal revolt after all, beat feet back to the farm. And when he tries to phone the Sheriff, several birds attack and knock out both the phones and the electricity.

Then, all attempts to leave by car are thwarted by swarming birds, which culminates in a full blown assault on the farmhouse by the avian hit-squad. And worse yet, they seem to be under the control of some hidden intelligence. Meanwhile, Carl has finally reached the crater Duke the dog found earlier (-- a huge editing gaffe as it's suddenly night out). And as the hum gets louder, Carl tries to cover his ears but then a light flashes and he collapses to the ground. Meanwhile, meanwhile, Deputy Brewster managed to trace the broken off call to the Kelleys and is on his way to investigate but comes across Carl wandering along the road. Offered a lift, Carl gets in back but then clobbers Brewster, running the car off the road. (He’s already sabotaged the Kelley’s lone car.)

Back at the house, the attack apparently over, the shell-shocked but still standing Kelleys are going ahead with Sandy’s birthday party. But when the invited Larry Brewster is a no show, her parents console a distraught Sandy, saying they will all go and look for Larry together after, somehow, deducing strength in numbers reduces the malignant Whatever’s power and influence. And so, the Kelleys are out looking for Larry, who’s recovered from that knock and is now out in the desert looking for Carl, who in turn is being drawn once more to the crater. (Isn’t this fun?) And they all wander, and they wander, and they wander some more until another reel is done. And at some point, Carl winds up snatching Sandy and carries her to the crater. No. Wait. He’s heading back toward the house. No. Wait. Now he’s heading for the crater. (Never clear if this is another editing gaffe or an attempt by Carl to fight this alien influence.) Then, Alan and Carol find Larry and they search for Sandy and Carl. (Sensing a pattern here.) Anyhoo, they all wind up at the crater, eeeeventually, and the grand puppet master behind all these shenanigans finally reveals itself and emerges from what turns out to be a spaceship embedded in the bottom of the crater. And just like with everything else in the movie thus far, this big reveal is completely underwhelming and totally botched in the execution.

Now, for those not in the know, American Releasing Corporation would soon morph into American International Pictures by 1956 once the company had found its legs with a proven formula for what would sell and what wouldn’t. And as the legend of this proven formula goes, the folks at AIP would come up with a title first, a poster and promotional campaign second, then float that out to the distributors, and whatever got a nibble would then have a script commissioned to match it, and then, and only then, would the film get made.

This, of course, did not happen with The Unseen. For it wasn’t until the film was in production that Nicholson cooked-up a new and more exploitable title, The Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes (1955), based on the script’s notion that one mind-controlling alien could see through all the eyes of the animals and humans it possessed. And from there sprung a delightful promotional and advertising campaign for the film complete with an advance poster, claiming the film would be shot in Wide Screen and something called Terror-Scope (-- both extreme fallacies), courtesy of Al Kallis, which seemed to forgo the esoteric notion of the alien being just a force of evil that possessed its way to conquest and instead showed a multi-optical demon, with fangs, a pug nose, and tentacles, menacing some girl in a bikini (-- later changed to her unmentionables and a flimsy négligée). And when they sent this campaign out to their distributors, most were ready to buy it sight unseen. In fact, Joseph E. Levine was so enticed by these promotional materials he promised to bring another bigwig to the distributor’s screening, who he promised could get the filmed shown in New York City.

Thus and so, things were looking pretty good for the upstart ARC -- at least it was until they got a work print of the film from the lab, took a look, and saw nothing that resembled a monster -- at all; just a lot of talking, ambling through the desert, and a “space ship” that consisted of what looked like several kit-bashed together items scrounged from the desert, including what appears to be a coffee pot for the main body, wrapped in Christmas tree lights, with a sad little whirligig contraption stuck on top of it, wobbling away, which is EXACTLY what it was. Now, what happened next is the stuff of cinematic legend. It has been told many times over the years, been embellished, contracted, and contradicted many times from several different sources. However, after really digging into this baffling chain of events, which eventually saved American Releasing Corps. from extinction, I think what happened next went a little something like this:

After the in-house screening, and one hurried phone call to Corman later, their producer finally admitted to running out of money and how he did the best he could under the circumstances. Knowing the whole shebang was riding on the success of these first few features, Nicholson gave Corman Forrest J. Ackerman’s phone number and told him to find them a monster as soon as possible. However, that fix would take some time. And with that distributor screening looming, a desperate Arkoff called Levine and suggested he and his friend skip the screening altogether but Levine could not be swayed. And so, in desperation, Nicholson attacked the actual film itself with his car keys, scratching holes into the emulsion, trying to give the pile of garbage in the desert multiple eyes, and then added a few more scratches to emulate some kind of death ray. He then took ink from his pen and smeared it all over the negative. And when they spooled it up, it was a mess but it kinda looked like the junk was firing off … something.

And with Corman still scrambling on his end, this tampered-with version is what they wound up having to show the distributors in what would turn out to be a failed Hail Mary. Even before it was over, Levine was chasing the other disgusted New York  distributor out of the theater. And those that remained behind weren’t so happy either, but were swayed with a promise that an actual monster was forthcoming. Levine, meanwhile, was a little more philosophical and practical over this disaster as he either whipped out his checkbook on the spot or called Arkoff later and offered to buy the title and promotional materials for $100,000 (-- other sources say $200,000), with plans to burn what he just witnessed and start over from scratch. But Nicholson and Arkoff turned the generous offer down, perhaps foolishly at the time, hoping the man who got them into this mess in the first place could also get them out of the same jam. Levine, of course, would go on to form his own production company, Embassy Pictures, and found great success with his own outlandish titles and ad campaigns when he imported films like Godzilla King of the Monsters (1956) and Hercules (1958).

Salvation did come in the form of Paul Blaisdell. Sort of. When all other F/X technicians proved too expensive (-- the allotted budget for the upgrade was a mere $200), Ackerman suggested Blaisdell, who had illustrated a couple of book covers for Ackerman, and who had hinted at wanting a crack at doing some special-effects work. And after negotiating another $200 to cover parts and labor, Corman gave Blaisdell his opportunity. Told all the monster had to do was open an airlock, point a raygun at the hero, and then fall over dead, Blaisdell set to work creating both a new flying saucer for the crater and a ferocious looking hand puppet to serve as the monster -- which was still 999,998 eyes short. Blaisdell would later explain this was just another creature under the true Beast’s influence, who forced it to take him to Earth. Dubbing his winged creation "Little Hercules" the 18-inch tall prop was very articulate and, as instructed, could pick up a toy raygun to shoot at the film’s protagonists for the climax.

Unfortunately, the puppet was such a big hit when it came time to film the new climax, everyone was on set to watch and got in the way. Unable to operate it properly, the footage didn't turn out very well, so in the end, the creature's brief appearance is mostly obscured with a superimposed eyeball (-- again, ONE eyeball --) and a swirling effect. Also, Blaisdell's had to chuck his original model and rebuild the miniature spaceship because it didn't come close to matching the already shot mock-up. (Blaisdell also built a miniature desert landscape for the ship's final launching sequence., which also had some problems according to several sources). Upon completion, these newer sequences were then spliced into the old and, not taking any chances, they cobbled together that opening montage to explain the lack of the creature that appears on the poster, essentially negating all suspense to come, leaving the characters to play catch up while the audience quickly loses patience with them, and screened it again.

And while it was still a giant hodgepodge of nonsense and lofty script ambitions they could never hope to expand upon topped with a leaden, pious ending, The Beast with a Million Eyes was quietly released into enough theaters to manage a profit -- thanks in most part to those very misleading posters and newspaper ads, allowing ARC and soon to be AIP to learn from this lesson and to at least make a token attempt to have the action onscreen match what is shown in the promotional materials; and then rode that successful formula for nearly three decades of exploitation classics as Nicholson kept coming up with outlandish titles and slightly disingenuous, bait and switch marketing campaigns, while Arkoff kept juggling the finances to keep the company going for at least one more picture, and then another. And as a tribute to the formidable skills of these hucksters, we kept falling for it over and over and over again. And we didn't seem to mind one bit.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's two down with 24 to go! Up next: The Ghoul Goes West!

The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955) San Mateo Productions :: Palo Alto Productions :: American Releasing Corporation / EP: Roger Corman / P: David Kramarsky, Samuel Z. Arkoff / AP: Charles Hannawalt / D: David Kramarsky, Lou Place, Roger Corman / W: Tom Filer / C: Everett Baker, Floyd Crosby / E: Jack Killifer / M: John Bickford / S: Paul Birch, Lorna Thayer, Dona Cole, Dick Sargent, Leonard Tarver, Chester Conklin, Bruce Whitmore

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