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DVD Reviews

HTF REVIEW: Cult Camp Classics Vol. 1: Sci-Fi Thrillers



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#1 of 6 Ken_McAlinden

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Posted July 06 2007 - 08:11 AM

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Cult Camp Classics Vol. 1: Sci-Fi Thrillers
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)/Queen of Outer Space (1958)/The Giant Behemoth (1959)

The Films

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman(1958 - 65 minutes)

Directed By: Nathan Hertz (aka Nathan Juran)

Starring: Allison Hayes, William Hudson, Yvette Vickers, Roy Gordon, George Douglas, Ken Terrell, Frank Chase, Mike Ross

Allison Hayes plays Nancy Archer, the wealthy spouse of philandering Harry Archer (Hudson). Harry is having a less-than discrete affair with Honey Parker (Vickers), but loves Nancy's money a bit too much to divorce her. Throughout the film, Honey has several helpful suggestions ranging from exploiting Nancy's mental instability to administering an overdose of the sedative doctors have provided her. Nancy's mental instability and need for the sedative are in turn fueled by encounters she has with a balloon-like space vessel piloted by a bald 30 foot tall alien man. Nancy has trouble convincing others about what she has seen, but when a sedated Nancy starts growing at an alarming rate, her doctor (Gordon), her ever-loyal butler (Terrell), her local Sherriff (Douglas), and his Deputy (Chase) must contend with the results of her close encounter of the low-budget special effects kind, including trying to figure out how to keep her away from Harry and Honey when she regains consciousness.

Knowing that this film's place in history has more to do with its poster than anything actually captured on celluloid, I went into my first viewing of it with more than a little trepidation. I should not have worried, though, because it is actually a lot of fun to watch. While most low-budget sci-fi films antagonize their audience by dragging the uninteresting elements of the story out unnecessarily until the sci-fi mayhem is unleashed (see "The Giant Behemoth" below), this film inverts that notion by presenting a marital infidelity plot tilting more towards film noir than soap opera that is relatively well played by the cast and infinitely more interesting than the sci-fi elements.

The cast is way above average for this type of enterprise with Hudson and Vickers displaying a fun chemistry, Hayes sympathetically playing her character's declining mental state, and Frank Chase mugging inoffensively as the comic deputy. There is even a well-staged fight between Hudson and Terrell that is more believably brutal than what one would see in most Hollywood A-pictures of the same era. Technically, the film is well photographed, with director Juran employing his skills as an Oscar-winning art director to strategically light his sets in a way that belies the film's ultra low budget….

…Which brings us to the subject of the film's special effects. They are bad -- unbelievably bad. I am talking about the worst optical compositing work you will ever see in a major motion picture. I once accidentally achieved better when I double exposed the last picture on a roll of 35mm film on a vacation trip. The filmmakers also pay absolutely no heed to the logic of scale for either the space giant or for Nancy. The spaceship has standard human-sized entrances and hallways. Nancy's bedroom accommodates her sedated body very well even when she has supposedly grown to a 50 foot size and the room seems 50% filled by her (plaster? Papier-mâché?) hand. As unexpectedly entertaining as all of the parts of the film not having to do with the spaceship and giant are, almost everything that does have anything to do with them is just a very special kind of bad.

With all of that being said, the film's efficient 65 minute running time proves to be a virtue, there is a thimble-deep feminist subtext if you want to see it, and it is just about as entertaining during its surprisingly good passages as during its hilariously bad ones.

Queen of Outer Space (1958 - 80 minutes)

Directed By: Edward Bernds

Starring: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eric Fleming, Dave Willock, Laurie Mitchell, Paul Birch, Patrick Waltz

"Queen of Outer Space" tells the tale of an intrepid group of space adventurers led by Capt. Neal Patterson (Fleming) and his crew of astronauts including horn-dog Lieutenant Larry Turner (Waltz) and sardonic Lieutenant Mike Cruze (Willock). They are directed by their Base Commander to take the learned Professor Konrad (Birch) out to investigate the strange goings on at a space station. As they are approaching the station, it is suddenly destroyed by a piece of cheap cel animation. The same flash of light strikes their ship and hurtles it off course until it crash lands on the planet Venus. Far from uninhabitable as scientists, including the Professor, had previously believed, they find that the planet is entirely populated by women (specifically -- hot women in their 20s and 30s with bright-colored mini-skirts who fortunately speak English, usually without a Hungarian accent). They are ruled by the tyrannical masked Queen Yllana (Mitchell) who has banished all men to a Venutian satellite and is none too happy about Earth-men landing on her planet. Imprisoned, the men are aided by the beautiful Talleah (Gabor) a member of Yllana's court who employs their help in an effort to overthrow the Queen and prevent her plan to destroy the Earth with her Beta Disintegrator.

This film is what the phrase "Cult Camp Classic" is all about. Every single element of the production, inclusive of script, costumes, sets, performances, and music, is honed to a perfect campy edge with nary a redeeming artistic quality in sight. If you like bad 50s sci-fi movies, welcome to the compulsively watchable casually misogynistic ground zero – in CinemaScope!

Those looking for subtext will not exactly be rewarded intellectually, but the planet Venus does present a distinctly Freudian nightmare. I know that sometimes a ray-gun is just a ray-gun, but wait until you see the control levers for the Beta Disintegrator. Some of the costumes and props look like they were recycled from "Forbidden Planet", and most of the rest seem to be made out of cardboard.

If you are the sort who appreciates bad movies, this is a can't miss proposition. If you are more of the "life's too short" mindset or must avoid cheese due to lactose intolerance, then I urge you to steer clear at all costs.

The Giant Behemoth (1959 - 81 minutes)

Directed By: Eugène Lourié

Starring: Gene Evans, André Morell, Jack MacGowran, John Turner, Leigh Madison

"The Giant Behemoth" concerns the investigation by American marine biologist Steve Karnes (Evans), who is visiting the UK for a lecture on the effects of nuclear testing on marine life, into a series of mysterious human and marine life deaths due to radiation exposure near the coast of Cornwall. As a trail of radioactive mayhem along European coastal waters grows, he becomes increasingly suspicious about the cause, eventually discovering the source to be an electrically charged prehistoric creature mutated by radiation into a giant sized nuclear behemoth. Worse yet, the creature appears to be heading straight for the River Thames.

"The Giant Behemoth" is most noteable for being one of the final screen credits for stop motion effects pioneer Willis O'Brien. Aside from that distinguishing feature … well … it has a really cool poster. The film was originally conceived as a story about a blob-like nuclear monster, but the financial backers wanted a monster more like the one from Lourié's earlier "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms". They won their argument so effectively that "The Giant Behemoth" more or less feels like an inferior remake of "Beast...".

Like Nathan Juran who directed "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman", director Eugène Lourié had an accomplished career as a production designer and knew how to light black and white photography to make a low budget film look much more expensive. Also similar to "Attack…", the cast of "The Giant Behemoth" are surprisingly good, although they occasionally stumble over some of the more ridiculous things they have to say. I was particularly amused by the paleontologist character played by character actor Jack MacGowran. He puts a somewhat silly spin on the usual bad science dialog spouted in these movies by playing the character with a geeked-out enthusiasm.

Where "The Giant Behemoth" goes most noticeably wrong, though, is in the long, drawn-out pace it effects to keep the audience at bay until the inevitable monster attack sequences. Drawing things out before anticipated special effects mayhem can work well if it is used to tautly draw suspense or if the creature mayhem proves to be so good that the audience will forgive what has gone before. Unfortunately, the investigation by Evans moves at a snails pace, and all "The Giant Behemoth" has to offer is a couple of pretty good stop motion monster sequences in the film's final twenty minutes. All other sequences involving the monster are accomplished via either an animated underwater glow or non-animated glimpses of a monster that looks like a bathtub toy. One particular scene where the "bathtub toy" monster attacks a ferry boat on the Thames was assembled so sloppily that you can actually see the metal base of the model in frame above the water line.

The Video

All films are presented in 16:9 enhanced transfers.

The black and white transfer for "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman" fills up the entire 16:9 enhanced frame. For the most part, it features excellent sharpness and a solid range of grayscale. Some of the day for night scenes are lacking in shadow detail, but the majority of the film looks remarkably good. There is occasional film damage including some vertical scratches in later reels. Compression and edge ringing artifacts are minimal to non-existent.

The 2.35:1 color transfer for "Queen of Outer Space" has the most noticeable film grain of the titles in the set. It features eye-popping color and decent contrast. Shadow detail is hard to assess since even the scenes where the astronaut heroes are in caves making out with space babes or fighting off a dog-sized spider stay pretty brightly lit. Edge enhancement is not an issue, and compression is decent, although not always able to keep up with the film grain patterns.

The black and white transfer for "The Giant Behemoth" fills up the entire 16:9 enhanced frame. It is another very sharp transfer with excellent contrast. Exteriors, optical, and effects shots show a bit more wear than the interiors, but I could not imagine the film looking much better than this. The film was produced independently in Britain (where it was titled "Behemoth the Sea Monster") and likely framed for the 1.66:1 aspect ratio. While the framing will appear a bit tight if you are watching on a 16:9 monitor with overscan, I did not notice any significant compromises in composition. Like a lot of British films from the era, this transfer features prominent "cigarette burn" reel change markers every 18 minutes or so which seem to be applied to earlier generation elements than was the practice for Hollywood films.

The Audio

All three films are presented with Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio tracks. All three sound very good with minimal levels of hiss and noise and pretty good dynamics and fidelity. Zsa Zsa Gabor's dialog in "Queen of Outer Space" is so crystal clear that at times I could swear that I understood what she was saying. No foreign language dubs are included beyoind the original English tracks.

The Extras

All three films in this set arrive accompanied by full-length audio commentaries. "Queen of Outer Space" and "The Giant Behemoth" are also accompanied by their original theatrical trailers presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound.

The commentary track for "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman" features sc-fi and horror film scholar Tom Weaver and actress Yvette Vickers. Weaver is always easy to listen to, and has obviously done his homework before recording this track. He has an easy rapport with Vickers and does a good job of coaxing stories out of her concerning the film's production, her co-stars, and her own personal history before and after "…50 Foot Woman". From his collection of memorabilia, Weaver occasionally refers to a copy of the Script from the film with Vickers' handwritten notes. For her part, Vickers sounds both gently amused by and grateful for the enduring popularity of the film. My favorite exchange involves an anecdote by Vickers about how she was up for a part in the Douglas Sirk film "The Tarnished Angels" and disappointed when she did not get it. Weaver points out that she is probably better known today for "Attack…" than if she had gotten the part in the more prestigious Faulkner-adapted A-picture. Weaver interjects several other anecdotes about the film, its cast, and key creative participants throughout the commentary as appropriate.

The commentary track for "Queen of Outer Space" again features Weaver, this time with actress Laurie Mitchell. Weaver is armed with his usual battery of notes about the the film's production, and again does a good job of coaxing Mitchell into sharing various anecdotes about the film, her-co-stars, and her career before and after "Queen of Outer Space". At one point, Weaver presents Mitchell with a replica of her Queen Ylleana mask. They even run through a couple deleted scenes from Weaver's copy of director Edward Berns' script with Mitchell reading her own part and Weaver filling in for Eric Fleming.

After listening to two very enjoyable commentary tracks hosted by Tom Weaver, I was very disappointed with the commentary for "The Giant Behemoth" from special effects artists Dennis Muren and Phil Tippet. The whole commentary feels like they are marking time waiting to talk about the stop-motion sequence. They make several statements showing that they both have not done any homework going into the commentary (At least learn the actors' names, guys!) and that they are not paying particular attention to the movie itself as it plays out. It is occasionally amusing to hear them offering up Mystery Science Theater 3000-style comments at the expense of the filmmakers, but they tend to be repetitive and occasionally misinformed. As encyclopedic as their knowledge of vintage effects is, the DVD producers probably could have gotten a better commentary out of any two randomly selected subscribers to "Famous Monsters of Filmland".

Packaging

All of the films are packaged in standard Amaray-style cases with cover art derived from vintage promotional art. The cases are in turn enclosed in a thin cardboard box with a cover image showing a montage of the film cover art.

Summary

These three vintage sci-fi films have been treated to audio-video transfers so outstanding that the seams in their shoestring budget effects are likely even more obvious then when they appeared in theaters. All three films receive commentaries, with the Tom Weaver hosted tracks for "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman" and "Queen of Outer Space", being particularly outstanding for genre fans. If cult camp classic sci-fi is your cup of radioactive tea, there is absolutely no reason not to pick up this set. Hopefully, Warner Bros. will continue to dip into their Allied Artists catalog with the same care taken in presenting these three films.

Regards,
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#2 of 6 WillardK

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Posted July 06 2007 - 11:13 AM

Nice reviews of these collections.
A couple from this set were shown during "summer camp" at a local museum recently. I saw Queen. It was loads of fun watching it with an audience of assorted geeks and their unsuspecting guests. Subtext?... How about: Kill All Ugly Women! My favorite parts were the chase scenes done in high heels.
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#3 of 6 Russell G

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Posted July 11 2007 - 04:12 AM

Great job with these reviews! This is the one set I still have left to watch. I noticed you seem to have saved the "Woman In Trouble" for last. You might regret that choice... Caged was pretty great but the others... not so much Posted Image
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#4 of 6 Ken_McAlinden

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Posted July 11 2007 - 05:43 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Russell G
Great job with these reviews! This is the one set I still have left to watch. I noticed you seem to have saved the "Woman In Trouble" for last. You might regret that choice... Caged was pretty great but the others... not so much Posted Image
I'm done watching, but the words for the review are coming slowly. "The Big Cube" and "Trog" have left me speechless. Posted Image

Regards,
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#5 of 6 Russell G

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Posted July 11 2007 - 07:52 AM

ha ha!! I bet they have. The Big Cube had hot redhead girl and TROG had... nothing much worth talking about other then the worst mask I've ever seen.

I guess thats why I don;t review movies profesionally Posted Image
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#6 of 6 Corey3rd

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Posted July 15 2007 - 05:19 AM

These films left me with a new found respect for Bert I Gordon. While he didn't make either The Giant Behemoth and Attack of the 50 Ft Woman, his takes on the genre were a little bit more entertaining. He also knew how to push his budgets to get a little bit better SFX on the screen. Both of these films rely too much on their great posters to maintain their legacy.
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