Thursday, October 18, 2018

Hubrisween 2018 :: M is for Man Beast (1956)

Somewhere along the base of the Himalayas on the wind-swept and frozen tundra of Tibet we spy two desperate and weary travelers making the final push to reach their destination. Now, this isolated outpost Connie Hayward (Maynor) and Trevor “Hud” Hudson (Nelson) have attained is just a staging area for climbers and explorers looking to head further up into the mountains. And the hope was to catch Connie’s brother, Dr. Hames Hayward, before his expedition departed. Seems there’s a medical emergency her brother was not aware of concerning certain experimental drug treatments he’d taken not reacting well at high altitudes. And when I say ‘not reacting well’ I mean potentially fatal. And so, with no way to communicate with him, Connie and Hudson, who volunteered to escort her, have been on Hayward’s trail and trying to catch up with him for weeks with no luck.

Well, they’ve just missed him again according to Steve Cameron (Maruzzi), a mountain guide with jaw of square, who says Hayward left nearly a week ago to establish a base camp up in the Himalayas. But, as Cameron continues, it seems Hayward’s partner, Dr. Eric Erickson (Lewis), lit out to join him just the day before. Seems those two doctors of anthropology are on an Abominable Snowman hunt. Well aware of her brother’s obsession with finding proof of the mythical creature’s existence, Connie is more interested in finding him than a Yeti right now and begs Cameron to help them on their quest. And while Cameron isn’t sure if they can catch up with Erickson before his party reaches the snowline, where several alternate paths present themselves, meaning they’ll never find ‘em then, he agrees to at least try much to Connie’s relief.

However, Cameron reminds these two travelers of the hardships they’re about to face, and how he hasn’t led an expedition into the area they’re heading without losing at least one man -- let alone a woman. And whether that’s a testament to the dangers of scaling the Himalayas or an indictment on Cameron’s skills as a guide, well, I guess we’re about to find out as these three head out and then up. And up and up and up. And up and up and up and up. And then up and up and up and up and up some more. And when things finally plateau out a bit they spot three dots moving along the horizon about to enter a vast snowfield, who stop when they hear Cameron firing his pistol to signal them after he confirmed it was Erickson’s party through his binoculars.

Told they are still at least a day away from the base camp, where Connie’s brother and the lead sherpa, Varga, are waiting, Erickson orders his man, Kheon (Haffner), to go ahead and set-up camp so his exhausted guests can recuperate before making the final climb tomorrow. Later that night, as they all gather around the campfire, Erickson gets to postulating on his quest and quarry. Theorizing the Yeti might just be the missing link between man and ape, he shows a sketch of the large bipedal cryptid to the others based on all the reported sightings, which are most concentrated where his base camp is located. But this is all conjecture as no one has ever gotten a good look at Yeti -- or proof of one. Lots of tracks, strange hair fibers, and a few brief glimpses. That’s it. And perhaps that’s why Erickson’s goal goes beyond just finding and documenting the creature but capturing one and bringing it back to civilization.

The following morning, Connie expresses concern about the brutish Kheon to Cameron. Seems she doesn’t like the way he keeps leering at her. But is it menace or concern, as the man appears very nervous about something. Perhaps it’s where they’re headed; Yeti country; a place where the superstitious natives fear to tread unless Varga is with them. Here, Cameron flat out asks the man if he’s ever seen a Yeti. To which Kheon replies he has not, and then punctuates that point with an old Tibetan axiom: If you see a Yeti, you die. Meantime, Hudson, who has been vocally regretting his decision to ever help out Connie since they left the outpost has been equally spooked by these Yeti tales. Convinced something’s been watching them for days, and overcome with a premonition that something bad will happen to him further up the mountain, the man refuses to go any further until Erickson puts his concerns to rest, assuring the Yeti are most probably a docile creature. But when they finally reach the base camp, it has been violently torn asunder with no sign of Hayward or Varga. And the only evidence as to what happened here is a series of large footprints that lead off into the snow...

Like a lot of kids who grew up in Los Angeles, notoriously bad filmmaker Jerry Warren had a dream of making it in showbusiness. And luckily for him, but perhaps unluckily for us, his dreams came true. After high school, Warren formed a small combo band, Jerry Warren and the Pets, managed to get signed by Arwin Records, but not a whole lot came of that. But while his musical career stalled, Warren’s skill as a jitterbug dancer got him noticed by several talent scouts and landed him some bit parts as a background dancer in the Ole and Johnson vehicle, Ghost Catchers (1944), and George Sydney’s barn-burner musical, Anchors Aweigh (1945). And it was during one of these productions where Warren became enamored with one of the producers and took his advice to heart: “In this town,” he said, “producers are the ones that have it all.” And so, seeing where the real money was to be made, well, then, that’s what Warren would do: produce a film, setting him on his crash course with B-movie infamy.

But it took Warren almost a decade to scrounge and scam several people and police departments (long story) out of the $30,000 needed to set up his production company, Associated Producers Inc. (API), and bankroll his first feature, Man Beast (1956). And Warren wasn’t alone. By this time in the mid-1950s independent productions were springing up all over Hollywood; and reading the trending breeze it became obvious a monster movie would be the most marketable and easiest to sell to an exhibitor. As for his subject matter, the world had become positively Yeti-addled around this same time with tales of Abominable Snowmen running around the Himalayas thanks to constant reports of tracks and sightings of some strange beast during the conquest of Mt. Everest. And when eccentric Texas oilman and notorious cryptid hunter, Tom Slick, prepared to mount his first of many fabled expeditions to find proof of the creature’s existence, the time was ripe to cash in on this phenomenon, cinematically speaking.

And while W. Lee Wilder’s Snow Creature (1954) beat him to the punch (-- a film so bad even I won’t review it), Warren had no problems settling for second place. And to pull off his vision and stretch his budget out as far as he could, the first time producer and director secured the rights to -- and relied heavily on, some stock footage of mountain climbers from Allied Artists that most likely traced back to their Monogram days. This footage appears to be Alpine in origin, explaining why the characters look like the Von Trapps traipsing around in the snow and scurrying up rocks, who, honestly, don’t really look properly outfitted to tackle the harsh climate of the high Himalayas. But, I’m sure that was the least of Warren’s worries as he and editor James Sweeney used the footage rather deftly as he cut in the inserts of his actors culled from the Pasadena Playhouse with an eye for casting people who kinda sorta matched the footage -- meaning he got there were two men and one woman on the vintage reels and cast accordingly, and then molded his plot around this trio. (Just don’t ask where the backpacks went, and get used to those close-ups of boots.)

To get those live inserts, Warren took his novice cast and crew to the area around Bishop and Lone Pine, California, near Mt. Whitney in the Sierras, using Owens Valley as a substitute for the Himalayas. So, at least some effort was made to match things up as cast and crew trudge around in the snow, climb a rock, hug a cliff face, stop, sit, smoke, and dump the plot. (Lather. Rinse. Repeat.) Also of note, to get the needed scenes at the mountain outpost, Warren and his band of merry filmmakers committed a felony, jumping the fence and trespassing on the Paramount Ranch to utilize an old and still standing Mongolian set there, and managed to get the footage they needed and then got back over the fence without getting caught. For the interior scenes, Warren rented out the Larchmont Studio on Melrose Avenue; the same place Ed Wood shot most of his films -- Bride of the Monster (1955) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).

And like with the equally notorious Wood and a lot of other low-budget filmmakers of any era, Warren was a tell, don’t show, kinda filmmaker by necessity because telling the audience something was always a helluva lot cheaper than actually showing them anything on screen. And while B. Arthur Cassidy was the credited screenwriter for Man Beast, odds are pretty good that was a pen name for Warren. And while his initial set-up is rather tepid and moves with all the urgency of a melting glacier things start to get a little weird once the expedition reaches the destroyed camp and the narrative takes an extremely perverse and morally deviant turn as we breach a whole ‘nother level of exploitation concerning bestiality, of all things, and a cross-breeding of species endgame as Erickson and Cameron return after a long reconnoiter but found nary a sign of their missing comrades only to find the not-so-missing Varga (Skaff) waiting for them back at the camp with the others.

But the mysterious Varga has no explanation about what happened to Connie’s brother or what happened to the camp, saying Hayward ran off into the night claiming he heard something. Varga pursued but lost him in the dark, returning to the since ravaged camp only a short while ago. And so, the search for the missing Hayward will resume in the morning. But at some point during the night, all the other sherpas apparently abandoned them and disappeared. Thus, what’s left splits into two parties with Varga and Erickson heading east, with Varga pointing out where all the Yeti sightings took place to his eager companion, including where one of Erickson’s overzealous Yeti-hunter colleagues died, while the other three head west. Neither Connie, nor Hudson or Cameron trust Varga or his story. And the ever paranoid Hudson begs Connie to give up, head back to civilization, and leave it up to a properly equipped search party to find her brother before they all meet the same fate as everyone else whose gone in search of a Yeti.

And turns out Hudson wasn’t so paranoid after all as several Yeti have them all under covert surveillance as the search for Hayward proves fruitless. And stranger still, these creatures appear ready to attack the group on several occasions only to be constantly waved off by Varga until some tracks Hudson discovered lead them all to a cave. Here, Varga gives the clandestine signal and the Yeti charge en masse. Hudson is killed in the resulting melee but the others manage to hold the monsters off with flares and Cameron’s pistol. Again, Varga shows his treachery by taking one of the dead Yeti’s clubs and beans Cameron with it, knocking him out. And then, one clumsy jump cut later, we’re inexplicably back at the campsite where a concussed Cameron finally comes around.

Convinced it was Varga who struck him, Connie believes Cameron but Erickson does not, saying the sherpa acted heroically in saving them all. To throw off the scent, Varga returns Cameron’s pistol and encourages Erickson to return to the cave with him to study the beasts’ habitat further. He happily agrees. Cameron begs to come along, too, but asks if they can wait until morning to give his head a little more time to recuperate. They agree. But fearing Varga is leading them into a trap, and unsure of what his endgame is, Cameron arranges for Connie to pack up as much food as she can carry and then, once the men clear out, abandon the camp and meet him at a predetermined spot down the mountain a bit. He hopes to talk Erickson into joining them in this retreat, but will leave him behind if he refuses to see reason. Connie adds if Varga finds her first, she won’t hesitate to suicide-out by jumping into the nearest and deepest ravine she can find.

Sure enough, as they trudge back to the cave, Varga signals the Yeti who trigger an avalanche that overwhelms Cameron, who was bringing up the rear. And while Erickson wants to search for him, Varga forces him into the cave at gunpoint. Once inside the primitive lair, Varga at last reveals his true nature and what he’s up to. And what Varga is, is part Yeti -- his mother was human, his father … was not. And as the appointed leader of the Yeti, Varga intends to weed the beast out of the bloodline completely through a series of kidnappings and selective breeding -- five human women in total have already been procured as breeding stock. Six, once he rounds up Connie, whom he intends to impregnate personally, “hedge-hopping” two generations of half-breeds ahead of schedule, beaming about how his offspring should turn out to be “interesting.” He also vows to destroy any expedition that comes searching for his people, including Erickson, saying perhaps they will meet again in another incarnation before he is shot dead.

Meantime, an anxious Connie awaits Cameron’s arrival unaware a Yeti is lurking nearby and ready to pounce. When Varga suddenly appears, he claims Cameron was killed in an avalanche and Erickson was badly hurt by the same and needs her help back at the cave. She refuses and a struggle ensues, where Varga reveals he killed all the others, including her brother. But! The rumors of Cameron’s death were a bit exaggerated as he springs to the rescue. And after using all of his bullets to deal with that Yeti sentinel, Cameron and Varga must have it out in a pretty well-staged brawl. 

With Cameron victorious, he and Connie flee down the mountain. But a recovered Varga manages to get ahead of them, and prepares to repel down the mountain to cut them off at the pass and renew the fight. Fortunately, the half-man half-Yeti’s mountaineering skills are lacking as his anchoring spike gives way and he plummets to his death. With that, Connie begs Cameron to get them (and the audience) the hell outta there. He gladly complies.

Aside from the gonzo-but-genetically-questionable motives of the villain, one of the few other bright spots in Man Beast is the Yeti itself. The costume was an off the rack rental which began life as the albino gorilla in Sam Newfield’s White Pongo (1945), where it was worn by Ray “Crash” Corrigan. Warren changed the creature’s head a bit -- it looks like he just ripped the snout off, and pressed it into service rather effectively. Here, it was worn by actor Jack Haffner, and I liked the scenes where a slow pan away from the interminable dialogue reveals a Yeti has been observing the protagonists the whole time, catching the audience off guard a bit on a couple of occasions. I also liked the scenes where they emerge from the fragile snowpack, with multiple edits giving the illusion of more than one creature lurking about. 

And the Yeti attack in the cave is a minimalist nightmare of action set against a pure black backdrop (-- most likely nothing more than cheap muslin), illuminated by the harsh light of phosphorescent flares that borders on the avant garde; though this does breakdown a bit in a total Flintstones moment when, since the production could only afford one costume, they edited together the exact same shot of a Yeti running across the black screen five or six times to give the illusion there was a veritable army of snowmen attacking. All that was missing was the sound of Fred’s galloping feet. That, was hysterical.

Now. During the pre-production phase of Man Beast, Warren ran across Brianne Murphy, a wannabe actress and rodeo trick-rider, who had crashed the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus on opening night at Madison Square Garden in 1954, sneaking in dressed like a clown and inserted herself into several acts. This chutzpah landed her a job with the traveling circus as a staff photographer until she sought greener pastures in Hollywood, where she met Warren and his co-producer, Ralph Brooke. And just like with the circus, Murphy fudged her credentials and got hired on as a production assistant, helping out with casting, makeup, wardrobe, and script-supervising; but she really gravitated toward the camera, loading film, pulling focus, shooting a scene; and she even wound up in the Yeti costume for several pick-up shots.

Once the film wrapped, Murphy helped Warren punch up the credits and press-kit for the film, too, inventing lead actor Rock Madison out of thin air -- a combination of Rock Hudson and Guy Madison, most likely, to trick less discerning ticket-buyers, who was not only given top billing but was credited with a character who does not even appear in the film at all in an effort to make the cast look bigger and make the film seem grander so Warren could charge more when he tried to sell it. But Warren couldn’t find a distributor for just a single feature. And so, he managed to get his hands on a copy of Gregg Tallas’ Prehistoric Women (1950) and hit the road with Murphy, selling Man Beast and Prehistoric Women on a double-bill State by State and territory by territory. Two months later, they were married in Las Vegas and the two started concocting a follow up feature. And while trying to secure financing through one of her relatives, Murphy hit upon the notion if they cut more corners they could actually make two features for the same $30,000. And that’s how Teenage Zombies (1959) picked up its co-feature, The Incredible Petrified World (1950), which sort of set Warren on his path of making even cheaper and even worse films.

Because after those two films, Warren really didn’t bother with shooting original inserts any more -- and if he did, it was usually just John Carradine sitting in Warren’s garage next to a potted plant, and relied totally on stock footage and foreign films already shot by others in the Netherlands, Mexico, Panama, or Chile, which he would then butcher and splice back together with some nonsensical narration that usually just made things even more confusing, resulting in some spectacular and exploitable, and most importantly, salable titles like Invasion of the Animal People (1962), Terror of the Bloodhunters (1962), The Violent and the Damned (1963), No Time To Kill (1963), Attack of the Mayan Mummy (1964), Face of the Screaming Werewolf (1964), Creature of the Walking Dead (1965), and Curse of the Stone Hand (1965). But all of them are worse than terrible, and boring as hell. Some of the pilfered footage does look amazing, and makes you wonder what the original film was all about and why the hell Warren didn’t just dub them over and release them as is? Warren did briefly return to actual filmmaking with the all original feature, The Wild World of Batwoman (1966), to cash in on the Batman TV series mania, but was sued into changing the title to She Was a Hippy Vampire. And while it has its moments, it’s also pretty insufferable.

Which brings us back to Man Beast and why I find it to be such a frustrating experience after having already seen a good chunk of Warren’s later catalog first. Sure, all of Warren’s earmarks are there. It only runs 65 minutes, with 40 minutes being nothing but repetitive stock footage abuse, 20 minutes of static dialogue scenes inserted into that footage, and five minutes of passable action. And yet there was some ambition and effort to make it engaging at least on some level.

Again, Sweeney’s editing to match the footage is pretty good and fairly seamless. I love how perversely bonkers the plot gets even though, just like with everything else, we never get to see anything and are just told about Varga’s lecherous and lascivious schemes; so don’t get too excited to see any Yeti nookie -- for that you’ll have to check out The Beast and the Vixens (1974), but I wouldn’t really recommend that. And, yeah, as it plays out, Varga’s motives don’t really jive with his actions -- I mean, Why did he save them in the cave? His actions make no sense, then, except in editing because the film simply wasn’t long enough yet. And I love the stock music used by Josef Zimanich and the sound design that amplified the constantly howling wind, adding a sense of dread and menace to the ear even though the eyes are kinda glazed over. And I can appreciate the effort to get the actors out into the snow and rocks when it would’ve been much cheaper and easier to just shoot them against a white backdrop on a sound-stage.

So, there was a spark of potential there in Man Beast. A small spark, sure, but with a little fanning? Who knows. And the end result, I think, is a first effort that was no worse or less interminable than Roger Corman’s or American International’s earliest efforts. But unlike Corman or AIP, Warren didn’t seem to learn anything from this experience or evolve as a filmmaker. Instead, he got worse. Much worse. And worse still, he simply didn’t care. In an interview with Tom Weaver, Warren stated “I was in the business to make money. I never, ever tried in any way to compete, or to make something worthwhile. I only did enough to get by, so they would buy it, so it would play, and so I'd get a few dollars. It's not very fair to the public, I guess, but that was my attitude toward [filmmaking]."

Warren and Murphy’s marriage and partnership didn’t last more than two years. But Murphy used her experience working with API as a springboard to become the first female cinematographer to get her union card, working in TV and film, earning both an Emmy Award and a "Scientific and Engineering" Academy Award in 1982. Warren, meanwhile, left the business for over a decade before returning one last time for Frankenstein Island (1981), which might just be the worst thing he ever did. And while one could argue that he was one of the worst filmmakers of all time, there should be no doubt that Jerry Warren was definitely the laziest.

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 the collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 13 reviews down with 13 to go! Halfway home! Up Next: The Battle of the Jesus Freaks!

Man Beast (1956) Jerry Warren Productions Inc. :: Associated Producers Inc. / P: Jerry Warren / AP: Ralph Brooke / D: Jerry Warren / W: Jerry Warren (B. Arthur Cassidy) / C: Victor Fisher / E: James Sweeney / M: Josef Zimanich / S: Rock Madison, Asa Maynor, George Skaff, Tom Maruzzi, Lloyd Nelson, George Wells Lewis, Jack Haffner,


Dr. Freex said...

" And while one could argue that he was one of the worst filmmakers of all time, there should be no doubt that Jerry Warren was definitely the laziest."

Pretty sure something like that is chiseled on his tombstone.

W.B. Kelso said...

[MST3k/] He just didn't care. [/MST3k]

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