Departments

February 12, 2013
 

The Night of the Blood Beasts (1958)

Starring Ed Nelson, Tyler McVey, Georgianna Carter

Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski

Produced by: Gene Corman

Executive Producer: Roger Corman

Music by Alexander Laszlo

Screenplay: Gene Corman, Martin Varno

 

 

Night of the Blood Beast (1958)

 

‘The first half deserved much better than to be followed by the second half’

During the late 1950s, American International Pictures released a trio of hour-long movies produced by Gene Corman, with big brother Roger as executive producer and Bernard Kowalski in the director’s chair, designed to fill out the bottom half of a double bill with slightly less shabby product from other filmmakers within the AIP stable. They were all pretty sad, as is only to be expected of the American International B-team. After all, if you’re making supporting features for the likes of War of the Colossal Beast and She Gods of Shark Reef, there’s really nowhere to go but up. The first of these offerings from the Lesser Corman was Night of the Blood Beast. What starts off as an effectively eerie crossbreed between The Thing and The Creeping Unknown, with a surprising foreshadowing of Alien, quickly goes off the rails to become the kind of film that ends with a huge, humanoid parrot arguing heatedly with the remainder of the cast outside of a cave in what I take to be the ever-popular Bronson Canyon.

We start off with a conspicuously primitive yet somehow still extremely cool scene of a rocket taking off and going into orbit around the Earth; this blends seamlessly into the conspicuously primitive yet somehow still extremely cool animated main title sequence, which plays like a sci-fi version of the corresponding segments from the following decade’s Poe movies. Piloting that animated rocketship is Major John Corcoran (Michael Emmet, of The Giant Leeches), and he’s in a bit of a fix. Something has plowed into his ship from behind, forcing him to abort the mission, but the equipment that’s supposed to slow his descent into the atmosphere is not performing as advertised. The retro-rockets don’t seem to have the power necessary to cope with so steep a plunge, and when Corcoran deploys the drag chute, it simply tears off and goes zipping away into the upper atmosphere. When Dave Randall (Ed Nelson, from Swamp Women and The Brain Eaters) and Donna Bixby (Georgianna Carter), two technicians from the nearest space agency tracking outpost, locate the crashed rocketship, there isn’t much left of it beyond its massively reinforced control module, and though the cockpit is mostly intact, Corcoran is dead, apparently of internal injuries. There’s also a big-ass tear in the hull, and a great mass of some mysterious, mud-like substance covering what’s left of the rocketship’s outer skin–a mud-like substance which slithers off into the underbrush while Dave and Donna go poking around in search of the rest of the ship’s wreckage. That’s not the only strange thing about the situation, either. When the rest of the team from Project Goldenrod–lead scientist Dr. Wyman (Tyler McVey, from The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler), technician Steve Dunlap (John Baer), and physician Julie Benson (Angela Greene, of The Cosmic Man and Futureworld), the latter of whom was also Corcoran’s finacee–arrive on the scene, Wyman discovers that Corcoran isn’t acting quite the way a dead man should. Sure, he registers no vital signs, but neither does he exhibit any trace of rigor mortis, or of the lividity that should accompany the pooling of his blood in those parts of his body that are closest to the ground. Understandably, the first thing the team does when they get back to the lab is to hook Corcoran up to every diagnostic device they have in the infirmary.

Sure enough, Corcoran’s readings are totally wrong. Though she can detect neither heartbeat nor pulse, Dr. Benson reads Corcoran’s blood pressure at 120 over 70–normal enough, but only for the living. There are other indicators that he isn’t as dead as he appears to be, too, but the precise combination of symptoms corresponds to no condition either Benson or Wyman has ever heard of. And of greater importance still, Julie discovers, while looking at Corcoran’s blood through a microscope, that his entire system is full of big, strange, amoeba-like cells, which effortlessly repel the best efforts of his own leukocytes to destroy them. Normally, such a medical mystery would lead Benson to have Dave radio the nearest hospital, and call in somebody to pick Corcoran up. But that isn’t possible just this second, because the radio doesn’t appear to be receiving or transmitting, even though Dave and Steve can find no indication of anything physically wrong with it. Eventually, Dave decides to go outside to the tower and the external power transformer, and see if he can find anything untoward there. While he’s at it, he is attacked by some large creature, which looms out of the underbrush surrounding the research station. Dave later describes it as being similar in size to a bear, but he’s not at all sure that’s really what it was, and he suspects the handful of shells he fired into it from his pistol bothered it just enough to make it leave him alone for the time being.

The thing that attacked Dave breaks into the lab a bit later that night, causing quite a bit of damage in the infirmary. In fact, our heroes initially think that the creature has run off with Corcoran, because he is no longer on the operating table when they come running in response to the clamor attendant upon the intruder’s rampage. The truth is weirder still, however; John Corcoran has regained consciousness. What’s more, he now seems to be in some kind of mental contact with the creature, and when Julie takes another blood sample, there is no longer any sign of the alien cells. That’s because (as a quick look at Corcoran’s body under a fluoroscope reveals) the parasites have all withdrawn into his abdominal cavity, where they have merged and grown into a collection of monstrous, lizard-like fetuses. Well, I guess that explains the telepathy, now doesn’t it? It also means that Corcoran’s colleagues will rightly look askance at him when he assures them that the creature he inadvertently brought back to earth with him is both intelligent and benign, even after it breaks into the lab complex a second time, kills Dr. Wyman, and devours his head. But while the alien’s beneficence is open to question, it most certainly is intelligent–it ate the old scientist’s brain in order to absorb his knowledge, enabling it to communicate with those of the Goldenrod team who aren’t carrying its spawn. And while it may bill its agenda as a charitable attempt to save the human race from its own self-destructive tendencies, Dave, Steve, Julie, and Donna don’t buy that line for a second. After all, impregnating one man with a brood of space tadpoles and eating another man’s brain for a crash course in the local lingo isn’t exactly a good way to make a first impression.

So many good ideas, so little follow-through… Most people focus on the shortcomings of the monster suit (which really does look like a cross between a giant parrot and a burlap sack), but I can forgive that–at least until after it eats Wyman’s brain and starts talking in his voice. Huge burlap parrots that speak in the grandfatherly tones of an elderly scientist are beyond even my threshold of acceptable goofiness. What bothers me more about Night of the Blood Beast is that it isn’t at all the film its advertising campaign promises, and what we get in practice is much less entertaining in the end than what was initially offered. “No girl was safe as long as this HEAD HUNTING THING roamed the land,” you say? Umm, could I watch that movie instead? Furthermore, the first 25 minutes or so emphasize the awfulness of what is to come by mounting an enjoyably grim and moody treatment of one of my favorite recurring sci-fi themes, an invasion by biological means rather than technological. All is well so long as the audience is kept in the dark about what the alien is and what it’s up to here on Earth, but the more we learn about what’s really going on, the sillier Night of the Blood Beast becomes. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the first act evaporates into a cloud of endless disputation as soon as Corcoran wakes up, as he and his four companions scour the surrounding hills for the monster’s lair, arguing all the while over whether the alien is an unspeakable menace, or simply misunderstood. The climax is a particularly spectacular botch-job, with Corcoran and the monster standing along one wall of a canyon and the rest of the cast on the other, angrily debating the ethics of brain-gobbling for what feels like a quarter of the film, until Dave finally gets tired of talking and throws a few Molotov cocktails. The first half of Night of the Blood Beast deserved much better than to be followed by the second.

Review posted at the invaluable cinema website, 1000misspenthours.com.

Night of the Blood Beast: Critical Reaction

John L. Flynn, a Towson University English professor who has written extensively about science-fiction film, unfavorably compared Night of the Blood Beast to The Creeping Terror (1964), which was also about an astronaut returning from space with a stowaway alien creature. Although Flynn said it lacked the “epic pretentiousness” of that film, he nevertheless said of Blood Beast: “Corman made a career out of making cheap knock-offs of popular films, but he seems to be scraping the bottom of the barrel here.” The Washington Post writer Tom Shales said “it would be hard to find a worse movie” and that the monster “looks like the San Diego Chicken after having been tarred and feathered.” Film critic and historian Steven H. Scheuer said of the plot was a good idea but criticized what he called a “sloppy execution.” Literary and film critic John Kenneth Muir said he considered the film a failure because the monster “simply could not live up to expectations once revealed.” Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide gave the film one-and-a-half out of four stars with the entry: “Well directed, but too low budget to succeed.” Night of the Blood Beast was among several films universally considered terrible that film reviewer Michael Adams watched as part of a book about his quest to find the worst film of all time. However, Adams said he enjoyed it on a B movie level, calling it “cheap but enjoyable and buoyed by its ideas.” John Stanley, who hosted the San Francisco television show Creature Features about science-fiction films, said Night of the Blood Beast deliberately imitated the best scenes from The Thing from Another World. (Source: Wikipedia)

 

Selected Short Subject: ‘Gertie the Dinosaur’ (1914)

 

A Brief History of Gertie the Dinosaur

 

Pioneering animator Winsor McCay

Winsor McCay had made two animated films before “Gertie.” The first, “Little Nemo” (using characters from his popular newspaper strip), debuted in 1911. “Little Nemo” used four thousand animation drawings. McCay then hand-colored the 35mm frames to achieve a very striking effect. The film was used in his vaudeville act. There is no storyline to “Little Nemo”; it is more of an experiment in movement. The animation is quite precise and the effect very dreamlike.”Little Nemo” was well received, and McCay began work on his second film, “The Story Of A Mosquito” (aka “How a Mosquito Operates”). A one-year project, “The Story of a Mosquito” tells of a mosquito’s encounter with a drunken man. The film was a big hit, but theatre patrons suspected that McCay was performing some sort of trick with wires. Motion pictures were quite new, and movie audiences knew little about the animation process. The idea of a drawing coming to life was almost unheard of.

McCay decided to animate a dinosaur to prove that his drawings were moving. He began work on “Gertie” in 1913 with the help of a young neighbor, John A. Fitzsimmons. Fitzsimmons traced the backgrounds onto rice paper, and McCay did all the drawings of Gertie. Ten thousand drawings were inked on rice paper and then mounted on cardboard for registration. By mounting them on cardboard, McCay was able to flip the drawings through a primitive machine to check his work.

Winsor McCay’s ‘The Story of a Mosquito’ (aka ‘How a Mosquito Works,’ 1912

Without guidance, or anything but his own experience to rely on, McCay produced an astonishing piece of animation that holds up even to today’s standards. McCay painstakingly animated details such as particles of dirt falling, and water dripping. He gave Gertie personality and emotions. We see her eating, drinking, playing, and even crying.

In February of 1914, “Gertie the Dinosaur” debuted in Chicago as part of McCay’s vaudeville act.

McCay, brandishing a whip, would appear onstage to the right of a movie screen. He would first speak to the audience, explaining how animated films were made, photographed, and projected. He would then introduce Gertie as “the only Dinosaur in captivity.” At the crack of the whip, the film would start.

At first, Gertie shyly pokes her head out from behind some rocks in the distance. She is hidden, and the audience has no indication of her height and girth.

Winsor McCay stars in his own ‘Little Nemo’ animated short from 1911

McCay encourages Gertie and cracks the whip several more times. Finally, Gertie hops out from behind the rocks, and lumbers towards the audience. On her way to the foreground, Gertie picks up a rock and swallows it whole. As she reaches the foreground, she casually, bites off most of a tree and eats it.

McCay cracks his whip, and commands Gertie to bow to the audience, and to raise her foot. At one point Gertie gets angry and snaps at McCay. The animation here is tremendous as Gertie lunges forward towards McCay. McCay scolds Gertie, and she begins to cry.

McCay appeases Gertie by offering her an apple. In a wonderful example of interaction with Gertie, McCay appears to toss an apple towards Gertie. The apple appears on the screen, and Gertie catches it in her mouth.

As the act proceeds, Gertie continues to be distracted from obeying McCay. A sea monster momentarily appears in the lake, a four-winged lizard flies across the background. At one point a Wooly Mammoth, “Jumbo” walks across the screen in front of Gertie. She picks him up by the tail and hurls him into the lake. While Gertie dances in triumph, Jumbo squirts her with water. She retaliates by picking up a rock and throwing it at him.

Gertie becomes thirsty from all of her activities, and decides to take a drink from the lake. She drinks the lake dry.

In the film’s finale, McCay himself walks onto the screen and becomes part of the animation. He cracks his whip, and Gertie obediently places him on her back. Together they walk off camera.

The act was an instant sensation, and Gertie became one of the first cartoon “stars.” Although no film exists of McCay performing the act, in September of 1914 a film with a live-action prologue and epilogue was produced. In the film McCay makes a bet with friends that he can bring a dinosaur to life. McCay’s stage dialogue with Gertie was replaced with inter-titles, and the film still kept much of its charm.

Winsor McCay in 1908, sketching at the Actors Benefit for Crippled Children

A film with a “star” and a storyline, “Gertie the Dinosaur” became a landmark in the history of animation.

Of the ten thousand drawings used to make the film, only about four hundred are known to exist.

McCay went on to create several more animated films, and made one of the first to use cels rather than paper. “Gertie” still stands as his masterpiece, an innovative work that influenced later animation pioneers including Walt Disney and Walter Lantz.

(From Van Eaton Galleries)