Film Review: The Day the Earth Froze (1959)

Also known as: Sampo (original title)
Release Date: August 24th, 1959 (Soviet Union)
Directed by: Aleksandr Ptushko, Risto Orko
Written by: Väinö Kaukonen, Viktor Vitkovich, Grigori Yagdfeld
Music by: Igor Morozov
Cast: Urho Somersalmi, Ivan Voronov, Anna Orochko, Andris Ošiņš, Eve Kivi

Suomi-Filmi, Mosfilm, 91 Minutes (original cut), 67 Minutes (US version)

Review:

“[Ilmarinen hammers a viking ship out of molten iron, greatly distressing Louhi’s trolls] What is to become of us?” – Troll

Cold War fears were real. I think that a lot of them were compounded by the terror and weight brought on by this motion picture, which is the Soviet Union’s worst and most widespread form of torture.

While this made it to America and eventually found itself as a victim to the riffing greatness of Joel and the ‘Bots on Mystery Science Theater 3000, it was still a boring, dreadful dud.

Although, that episode became one of the more memorable ones from its season, as it gave us the whole “sampo” gag. I still don’t know what the hell sampo is, by the way.

This is a Soviet fantasy film and the Soviet’s have actually done some good ones. But this is a film I’ve seen a few times now and my brain just can’t stay awake enough to try and follow the plot. I think the real reason is because there isn’t much of a plot. There’s just this witch that steals your loved ones and demands “sampo” for their safe return.

This is an ugly film to look at whether you watch the black and white or colorized version. That could be due to this being a 1950s Soviet film and because of that there aren’t any good prints of the picture left… or any that don’t look like relics that have been pissed on by vodka chugging Bolsheviks.

Unless you are an MST3K completist, you should give this film a hard pass.

Rating: 1.5/10
Pairs well with: other Soviet tortures of the Cold War era.

Film Review: The Alligator People (1959)

Release Date: July 16th, 1959
Directed by: Roy Del Ruth
Written by: Orville H. Hampton, Charles O’Neal, Robert M. Fresco (uncredited)
Music by: Irving Getz
Cast: Beverly Garland, Bruce Bennett, Lon Chaney Jr.

Associated Producers, 20th Century Fox, 74 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll kill you Alligator Man! Just like I’d kill any four-legged gator!” – Manon

This was a film that I first discovered around six years-old, watching it on the floor in my grandmum’s living room. I loved the big finale and the design of the Alligator Man at the end. It inspired me to draw a picture book about the Alligator Man, which was really my first attempt at a comic book, before I really even got into the comic medium. Years later, I wrote a three-part script outline for a Skunk Ape movie trilogy featuring very similar Gator Men. Needless to say, this movie had a strong grip on my imagination at a very early age. But I actually hadn’t seen this picture in over a decade, so I wanted to revisit it.

I still love it. It’s certainly a film with a plethora of flaws and really bad science when it comes to swamp life but it’s entertaining nonetheless and it’s a real treat for fans of cheesy ’50s sci-fi about genetic science run amok.

Lon Chaney Jr. is in this as a total bastard but he was so good at those roles. Here, he’s a total bastard that yells at alligators because he’s pissed off that one ate his hand years earlier. At one point he tries to run an alligator over and at another point he’s drunk, shooting aimlessly at them but doesn’t even come close to actually hitting any.

What’s really surprising is that this film does use a lot of real alligators. Granted, most of them are pretty small and of a manageable size but I was surprised to see the lead actress, Beverly Garland, running through fake swamps with actual alligators and snakes around her. Maybe they were safely behind glass but the shots came off really well and it created legitimate tension. But at one point, Chaney actually runs out to save her and wrangles an actual snake. It looked to be a non-venomous indigo snake but it was effective and looked so much better than an actor wrangling a fake rubber snake.

The movie does drag in certain points but the story is well-crafted and you care about the good characters. You’ll want to see Chaney get his comeuppance though, especially after he attempts to rape Beverly Garland.

This is a solid movie for it’s genre. It seems to be somewhat forgotten, even in old school horror circles, but it’s definitely a worthwhile picture and much better than the standard for the time.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: Man-Made Monster, the Creature From the Black Lagoon trilogy and The She-Creature.

Film Review: Prince of Space (1959)

Also known as: Yūsei Ōji, lit. Planet Prince (Japan), The Star Prince, Prince Planet, Invaders from the Spaceship, Invaders from Space (alternate titles)
Release Date: March 19th, 1959 (Japan)
Directed by: Eijirō Wakabayashi
Written by: Shin Morita, Masaru Igami
Music by: Katsuhisa Hattori
Cast: Tatsuo Umemiya, Joji Oda, Hiroko Mine

Toei Company, 57 Minutes (Part I), 64 Minutes (Part II), 85 Minutes (DVD cut), 121 Minutes (full cut)

Review:

“You there! Discharge the caustic vapors!” – Phantom of Krankor

This isn’t the first Japanese superhero character but he is a very early example of one before the superhero tokusatsu genre took off. This is sort of an early prototype for more famous characters like Ultraman, Kamen Rider and the Super Sentai team (Power Rangers in the States).

Like several tokusatsu “films” that are released to American audiences, this one was comprised of episodes of a television show. In Japan, the original show consisted of 49 episodes that were broken up into multiple segments. Some of the segments were edited into a two-part film series, which was released theatrically in Japan. Once this made it over to the States, those two separate films were edited into one very choppy motion picture.

Like many other tokusatsu show to movie edits, this one was featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It appeared in the original first season when the show was just shown locally in Minneapolis. This movie was never recycled into the show once it went national on Comedy Central.

Being that I am a fan of tokusatsu entertainment, I’m always eager to check out some of the more obscure offerings. While I found this entertaining, due to the nature of what it is, it was still a poorly edited mess and rather boring.

The special effects are dreadful, even by the tokusatsu standard. But in this show’s defense, this did come out well before stuff like Ultraman. That classic tokusatsu show wouldn’t debut until 1966.

Unless you are a hardcore fan of tokusatsu or a Mystery Science Theater 3000 completist, you won’t get much benefit from watching Prince of Space a.k.a. Planet Prince a.k.a. The Star Prince a.k.a. Prince Planet a.k.a. Invaders from the Spaceship a.k.a. Invaders from Space.

Rating: 2.75/10
Pairs well with: other really early examples of tokusatsu, most of which was bad until Godzilla and Ultraman took the world by storm and became top franchises.

Film Review: North by Northwest (1959)

Also known as: The Man In Lincoln’s Nose, The CIA Story (working titles)
Release Date: July 1st, 1959 (Chicago premiere)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Ernest Lehman
Music by: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Martin Landau

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 136 Minutes

Review:

“Now you listen to me, I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed.” – Roger Thornhill

I feel like I’ve been reviewing a lot of perfect films, lately. But it’s not because I magically stumbled upon a treasure trove of perfection. The reality is, most of these films I had planned to revisit and review anyway but since the FilmStruck streaming service is closing down Nov. 29th (this may be posted after that) I wanted to squeeze in as many movies from that service as possible. But this isn’t about FilmStruck and I’m working on an article about that anyway.

I saw North by Northwest when I was really young. And then, a few years ago, I got the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen, which is how everyone should watch this the first time, if they are presented with the opportunity to do so.

I love this movie and in some ways, it almost feels like what could have happened had Alfred Hitchcock ever directed a James Bond film in the classic era. However, this predates the James Bond movie franchise by a few years, so Hitchcock was ahead of the curve. Plus, the main character isn’t a spy but is a man that has become the victim of a mistaken identity. So it has a solid Hitchcock trope already in place and while this doesn’t globe-trot, it sees our protagonist travel to different parts of America.

The film is perfectly shot, superbly acted and everyone that comes on screen has amazing charisma and personality that is fine tuned to work within the picture but not to overpower or dilute the scenes for the sake of performance. Also, the one on one chemistry between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint is magical.

North by Northwest boasts some top notch, high octane action sequences that were far better than anything you’d see in 1959. Between the crop duster scene and the big finale on Mt. Rushmore, this was a film ahead of its time but very grounded in the concerns and real world worries of the late 1950s.

This feels like Hitchcock’s biggest movie and in retrospect, I can’t think of one that comes off as grander in scale. Also, as great as his movies are, it’s hard to think of one that is more fun and entertaining. This really isn’t just a perfect film, it is the perfect Hitchcock film and really encompasses his best tropes, his style and everything that made his work at his peak, some of the best motion picture releases of all-time.

Movies this good are few and far between. While I love just about everything that Hitchcock has ever done, this may be the tip of his grand and near perfect iceberg.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: other Hitchcock films of the 1950s.

Film Review: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Release Date: October 14th, 1959 (Chicago premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Abraham Polonsky, Nelson Gidding
Based on: Odds Against Tomorrow by William P. McGivern
Music by: John Lewis
Cast: Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Ed Begley Sr., Gloria Grahame, Shelley Winters, Robert Earl Jones (uncredited)

HarBel Productions, United Artists, 96 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll kill you and everything you own!” – Bocco

Wow. I’m probably going to have to adjust my Top 100 Film-Noir list after seeing this picture for the first time in a really long time. It’s pretty damn incredible and much better than the majority of what you’ll find in this great genre or style or whatever you want to classify noir as.

I guess the thing that I love most about this movie is its tone. Unlike most film-noir pictures, it doesn’t have the pristine look of the style. It doesn’t spend a lot of time on manufactured sets with studio lighting. This film gets outside and has a real urban grittiness to it. Even some of the shots of streets look different and almost have this sort of haze, as opposed to the typical crispness you see in a noir picture. However, they did use infrared film in some scenes, which was a deliberate attempt at making this have its own unique visual pizzazz.

The cast in this film is also pretty stacked. You have Harry Belafonte, noir legend Robert Ryan, Ed Begley Sr. and two superstar female leads in Gloria Grahame and Shelley Winters.

This film is a heist picture but it’s the story leading up to the heist that is the most compelling. Especially in regards to Belafonte’s character. He also has to deal with a lot of racial hatred in the movie and it served as a good historical look into the social climate in America at the time, as this was just a few years away from the large Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

This is well written, well acted, looks great and doesn’t have any real down time or dull moments. I was engaged by this picture from the start all the way to the big, sudden finish. And sure, the finish takes its cue from a better known film-noir picture but man, it was a perfect exclamation point to cap off this intense and emotional ride.

I also want to point out that the musical bits in the film were awesome. That brief moment where Belafonte fears for the life of his wife and children and loses it to the music in the club was emotional and narrative perfection.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: Touch of EvilThe Third ManWhite HeatHe Walked by NightThe Killing, Naked City and Night and the City.

Film Review: Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

Also known as: Grave Robbers From Outer Space, The Vampire’s Tomb (working titles)
Release Date: July 22nd, 1959
Directed by: Ed Wood
Written by: Ed Wood
Music by: stock recordings compiled by Gordon Zahler
Cast: Criswell, Bela Lugosi, Gregory Walcott, Vampira, Lyle Talbot, Tor Johnson, Mona McKinnon, Duke Moore, Tom Keene, Paul Marco, John “Bunny” Breckinridge, Conrad Brooks, Ed Wood (cameo)

Reynolds Pictures, 79 Minutes

Review:

“But one thing’s sure. Inspector Clay is dead, murdered, and somebody’s responsible.” – Lieutenant John Harper

I’ve reviewed several films by Ed Wood but I put off his most famous picture for quite awhile. I wanted to wait for a rainy day to revisit it. But then a friend and I got drunk and decided to watch the Rifftrax Live version of the film.

For those that don’t know, Ed Wood is widely considered to be the worst director of all-time. Frankly, that’s bullshit, as there are many directors who are much worse than Wood. He just got famous for being bad. And yes, his films aren’t good but Wood was able to get his enthusiasm and love across, even if his movies were cheap, terribly acted, terribly directed and had scenarios that were hardly believable even for 1950s science fiction.

There is a charm to Wood’s pictures and Plan 9 From Outer Space wears that charm on its sleeve. It’s a jumbled mess of a lot of ideas, crashing together and competing with one another but Wood’s ambition here is hard to deny.

I always felt like Wood was someone that just needed a good creative partner to help steer his projects and refine them. Ed Wood was the ultimate fanboy and everything he made was a sort of mashup of all the things he was a hardcore fan of. It all just lacks refinement and a budget… and sometimes common sense and continuity.

Plan 9 From Outer Space is Wood’s magnum opus and it has the best cast that he was ever able to assemble. Okay, maybe they weren’t talented from an acting standpoint but he got known icons in the movie like Tor Johnson, Criswell, Vampira and Bela Lugosi, who died before this was actually made but shot footage with Wood for a future project.

As bad of a film as Plan 9 is, it isn’t unwatchable. Okay, it may be unwatchable for a modern audience that doesn’t understand the context of what this is, how it came to be and the legend of the man behind it. But with that being said, you don’t try to push Tommy Wiseau’s The Room on an audience that happily paid to see Transformers 5. For those that understand and appreciate things like this, it’s a worthwhile motion picture to experience.

There are aliens, vampires, ghouls, UFOs and an airplane cockpit that looks like it’s from the set of an elementary school play. There are a lot of things to love about this picture, if you’re into cheesy ’50s sci-fi and horror.

Plan 9 From Outer Space is something special. It has stood the test of time because of its flaws and how its director has become a legend of sorts. But maybe its still talked about because it has a bit of magic in it too.

I would suggest watching the biopic Ed Wood to understand the context of the film and its backstory. Plus, Ed Wood is one of my favorite movies of all-time and is still Tim Burton’s best.

Rating: 4.25/10
Pairs well with: Other Ed Wood films from the era: Bride of the MonsterNight of the Ghouls and Glen or Glenda? Also, the biopic Ed Wood, which was directed by Tim Burton and starred Johnny Depp as Wood.

Film Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Release Date: May 4th, 1959 (UK)
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Written by: Peter Bryan
Based on: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Music by: James Bernard
Cast: Peter Cushing, André Morell, Christopher Lee

Hammer Film Productions, United Artists, 87 Minutes

Review:

“I warned him! What could have possessed him to come out here alone?” – Sherlock Holmes

The Sherlock Holmes franchise is possibly the biggest of all-time, as the character has had more literary stories than I care to count and an endless stream of movies and television shows going back to the invention of celluloid. Maybe there are more live action Dracula adaptations but one can’t deny that Holmes has owned pop culture before the term “pop culture” entered the mainstream lexicon.

It’s only natural that Hammer would take a crack at a Holmes story after their success at adapting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, along with their versions of The Mummy and their other horror successes. Plus, they had the uber talented Peter Cushing at their disposal, who was definitely Hammer’s perfect man to play the world’s most famous detective. Add in Cushing’s best friend and the man he worked with the most, Christopher Lee, and you’ve got a solid cast. However, this also teamed the great duo up with Hammer’s third best male lead, André Morell. And then on top of that, this was directed by Hammer’s premier director, Terence Fisher. To put it simply, Hammer assembled their dream team to give life to the literary work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

What I most enjoyed about this film, is that even if it takes some liberties, it doesn’t do what you would expect Hammer to do. What I mean is that it doesn’t give the story a supernatural twist. It could have been easily turned into a werewolf movie or had a bunch of black magic stuff but it kept things grounded in reality and honestly, that made for a better picture than conjuring up some sort of unnatural threat.

While I always loved seeing Cushing and Lee together, Cushing spends more time with Morell, which is fun stuff to watch, as I love both men and wish that they got to play off of each other more often. Morell should have been in more films with Cushing and Lee, as the three men are sort of Hammer’s Holy Trinity.

This is a very straightforward Holmes picture that does the material some justice and is a nice experience, overall. It has that standard late ’50s/early ’60s Hammer visual aesthetic, which just makes this cooler and helps to make it fit within their catalog of horror titles from that time.

I love Holmes pictures and I love Hammer, so this is certainly a film I really enjoy and appreciate for a myriad of reasons.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: Other early Hammer films starring Cushing and Lee. Also, the Hammer film with André Morell that deals with the undead: The Plague of the Zombies. I also like pairing this with another Hammer classic that stars the super cool Oliver Reed: The Curse of the Werewolf.