Saturday, April 8, 2023

Cardboard Science: You didn't get paid to be eaten by prehistoric animals, did you?


Written and directed by Bert I. Gordon

Spoilers: as the film would have it, high, but practically mild by the standards of anyone with the intellectual faculties of a six year old

There are two matters vying for first priority when it comes to Bert I. Gordon's second film, 1955's The Cyclops, and both involve me admitting to the possibility of some kind of error.  But as I have already repeated one of my potential errors in this very reviewI did it in the first half of the first sentence!I suppose that's the one to clarify first.  Just now, I called The Cyclops Gordon's second film, and this is sort-of wrong.  It depends on how much emphasis you place on theatrical release, and if that's your absolute determiner, then that's it, I'm wrong, and The Cyclops is Gordon's third, arriving in theaters a full month after Beginning of the End's June 1957 release.  Yet in every respect The Cyclops was made before it.  It was funded by "B & H Productions, Inc.," what I presume to be the alter ego of Bert Gordon and his co-producer Henry Schragewhose career is enfolded entirely into Gordon's, so that together with a name suggesting a descendant of the founder of Centier Bank, I wonder if he was more along the lines of a Chicagoland financier having some fun in California, brought in touch with Gordon through his Midwestern contactsbut whatever the case, they pulled The Cyclops together in the immediate aftermath of the baffling commercial success of Gordon's first film, King Dinosaur.  However, while Gordon's new movie was literally in the can, possibly for as long as a year, it sat on a shelf at its distributor, RKO, throughout that studio's dissolution, until eventually Allied Artists bought the rights and the prints during the fire sale, and, for their part (and perhaps strategically), failed to get it into theaters until Beginning of the End had proven itself a rather more justifiable success than Gordon's first.  If I'm being honest, I'm not sure I knew this industrial backstory before I started insisting that The Cyclops was only Gordon's second film.  I think I just knew it in my bones, that it could never have been anything past a second film.  Or maybe it just smoothed the graph of Gordon's early career for me.  It's easy to be foggy about the release dates and release order of a man's movies when he's churning out three of them a year, but beyond that there was always something more appealing to the narrative that Beginning of the End was just as much the beginning of Gordon's real career, as a legitimated, professional, and just plain good filmmaker.

Which brings us to item 2, my further insistence that The Cyclops is a piece of shit that deserves little more than a footnote mention in B.I.G. history, an opinion I've repeated basically every time that it or either of Gordon's two crypto-remakes of The CyclopsThe Amazing Colossal Man and War of the Colossal Beast, have come up.  That was my opinion on first viewing, and it was an opinion I heartily endorsed when I foisted The Cyclops onto Brennan Klein for the annual crossover we do where we intrude on each other's respective corners of psychotronic cinema, whereupon he likewise decided it's a piece of shit.  And it is, still, somewhat my opinionthe problems I had with it didn't vanish into thin air on a second watch, even if they've receded a littlebut my claim that it's outright terrible, and undeniably worse than the more-polished but less-passionate copy of it Gordon made in the form of War of the Colossal Beast, I'm afraid I have to recant.  Maybe it has more to do with watching it on the heels of King Dinosaur, which is objectively terrible, so that practically anything would look good afterwards; by the same token, maybe what I really regret about my previous badmouthing is referring to the two as some sort of pair, jointly representing the "pre-professional" phase of Gordon's career, because a fresh viewing of King Dinosaur (and its genuinely-obscure predecessor, Serpent Island) truly emphasizes what pre-professional is, whereas The Cyclops is merely bad in the ordinary ways that 50s sci-fi cheapies could be bad.

Things begin reasonably well: for starters, we learn (if you can hear, I'd say you couldn't mistake it, even before his screen credit shows up) that Gordon's met his composer, Albert Glasser.  As for the movie itself, we open in Mexico, where we find a young woman, Susan Winters (Gloria Talbott), presently pleading her case before a sympathetic but firm official (Vincente Padula).  What she wants is permission to conduct an aerial and ground search of the remote Tarahumare Mountains, where her fiancé, Bruce Banneroops, I mean Bruce Barton (eventually Duncan Parkin)was lost in a plane crash three years earlier, which is how long it's taken her to get the money to put together her team, Bruce's friend Prof. Russ Bradford (Jim Craig), pilot Lee Brand (Tom Drake), and Lee's hanger-on Marty Melville (Lon Chaney Jr.).  We even have some fairly effective dialogue, particularly a pointed bit where the official runs through her party's roster, noting that Lee is an expatriate who may not even have a pilot's license anymore, while Marty is a known financial fraudster with a specialty in mining and who's been seen poking around with a Geiger counter; as for Susan herself, it's funny that she picks these specific guys to go look for another guy who, even if he might've survived for some indefinite period, pretty surely died at some point at in the last three years.  "Don't you believe me?" she asks.  He replies, "I do, because I am a romantic man."  Of course, he still insists a cop go with them to ensure there's no funny business in the forbidden zone, and... none of this ultimately matters to the story because after they hatch a plan to dispense with the officer (which you assume is going to be somewhat cleverer than Marty tapping him on the shoulder and knocking him out), the fact that they're fugitives from Mexican law informs nothing about the plot, and isn't even really mentioned again.

I said it was fine so far, though, didn't I?  Well, I suppose the flaws are only incipient, but they come out over Tarahumare when Marty, having a small freakout (including punching Lee and seizing the controls), causes them to make an unexpected landing.  They're pretty close to where they wanted to go, however, so while Marty discovers that they landed on what amounts to a giant pile of uranium, worth "millions! billions!", Susan and Russ are off discovering what that radiation entails, which is, quelle surprise, a land of mutated giant animals.  Eventually, they're confronted with something even more dangerous, a mutated giant man, his visage a grotesque distortion of humanity, one eye completely covered by overgrown scar tissue and a mouth that isn't correctly covered by his skin at all, so that much of it is on the outside of his face, altogether nauseating to behold.  Though mute and almost mindless, he takes an interest in the party, particularly Susan, and they have to outwit this grunting, screaming colossus.  Yet there's something very familiar about him.  Who could he be?

He's Bruce.  This is the most blatant problem the screenplay ever coughs up, for while it is obviously Bruce, it takes Susan, like, most of a solid day of in-universe time to figure this "twist" out.  There's some implication, at least, that Russ figured it out pretty much the instant he saw the cyclops, and has been trying to spare Susan's feelings by not forcing the realization upon her, but as much as Susan's whole character is to be locked body and soul into the "denial" stage of grief, this is drawn out to a damaging and even comedic degree.  It doesn't help that the cyclops's improvised homestead in a cave is festooned with parts from Bruce's plane, while I assume the modesty-preserving fabric he's wearing across his loins is Bruce's clothing.

The compensation, however, is that he is totally awesome.  We have to wait a while, probably too long, for our cyclops, and even once the cyclops makes his presence known at all (which isn't until we're getting perilously close to the back half of the back half), Gordon's still teasing, with POV shots homaging and/or ripping off Jack Arnold's similar POV shots from the similarly cycloptic creatures in It Came From Out Space.  But when we do get him, the Jack Young makeup (remixed just a year later for Glenn Manning's mutilation in War of the Colossal Beast) is absolutely excellent, and quite terrifying, too, particularly regarding the way the skin seems to have melted over his right eye and the right side of the mouth has opened up into a permanent pained snarl.  Larkin's own contortions are almost as indispensable to the effect, furrowing his brow under the applique so that it looks like his head is literally pulsing with indistinct rage, while the way he moves his jaw renders the ruin of his mouth even more disturbing than it had to be.  All this, and I doubt he could even see out of the thing (even his "good" eye is freakishly mutated).  Gordon gets a lot of mileage out of this horror imagery, having Bruce pop up out of the bottom of the frame to startle us at least twice, and correctly reasoning that even lingering on Bruce's face in well-lit close-up won't actually demystify it; if anything, it makes it more disturbing.  Paul Frees supplied the yowls and howls and these are just as essential; they are the vector by which an element of pathos, something Gordon unaccountably neglects pretty much the entire film (not least by treating the cyclops's identity as a "reveal"), finally enters the pictureonce the Odyssean struggle reaches its climax and Bruce is left mewling like a nonverbal child I'm not ashamed to say it's genuinely affecting.  It's also upsettingly gory for a 1957 film.

Before we arrive at Bruce, we have Mr. B.I.G.'s now-customary menagerie of giant animals, courtesy Gordon and his wife Flora.  If Beginning of the End is a step beyond this, and I'd say it is, this is still a full-on quantum leap from King Dinosaurbesides other techniques, the Gordons had at last figured out the contact-printing process to at least a quasi-professional degree.  The effects rise to the level of telling a parsable story, even if the encounters with the dangerous beasts of the highlands they represent are not always persuasive, and frequently enough are just ghostly and translucent.  But sometimes, quite miraculously, they even are persuasive, when by strong effort or lucky happenstance they manage the right lighting conditions and the lizards, etc., look like they maybe actually do exist in the same plane of reality as the humans.  The best is probably the very first (but then, it is a more conventional matte shot), involving a very large mouse hanging out on a log discovered by Susan and Russ, just in time for a giant hawk to swoop down, and eat it.  Once again, animals were harmed in the making of this film, though as this is also the kind of animal harm I could observe several times a day if I had the patience to watch the hawks in my backyard long enough, it's not as hateful as, for instance, forcing reptiles to fight.  Which of course they also do in this movie, though it's so startlingly low-tempo in its presentation here I even wondered if I've not been tricked into finding these things more objectionably abusive than they really were: they "battle" so incredibly stiffly that it could just as easily be two lizards sedated, posed on each other, possibly glued together, and spun around like an axel.  (Though if that conveys to you, "the lizard fighting still sucks," it should.)  Bruce also fights a boa, which is fun, and it's charmingly clear that Larkin is refraining from actually choking or even putting any pressure on the neck of this expensive snake.  The tarantula is a bit of an embarrassment.

But as far as pulp sci-fi horror for babies goes, it's not unsuccessful, and if "Susan is slow on the uptake" was the only problem (and even that problem is probably better-defined as "Gordon has clumsily written Susan as unwilling to contemplate the truth"), I'd give it a pass.  Oddly, Gordon's very first "real" movie may have wound up with the best-on-paper cast he'd ever put together for the next 59 years, with at least a couple of great movies between Craig and Chaney, and to some degree this is even borne out in the actingCraig, Drake, and Talbott are all reliable and Craig, given both scientific curiosity and lovelorn affection for Susan to play, is perhaps even "good"and if Chaney isn't anywhere close to good, for he is in every instance embracing the worst aspects of Marty-as-written, he's at least never lazy.

So there we go with the problems again, and while we can talk about pacing or bad effects or artificially dumb characters, all the really severe problems are just Marty and Chaney over and over again: from his premature hysteria about downdrafts while they're still on the plane to his constant whining about getting back to "file a claim" to this rich uranium discovery, Gordon does nothing to keep you from constantly asking why this incoherent maniac is even here.  He serves the role of "antagonist" but only ever manages to be an irritation, and he doesn't even make sense on his own terms: I don't pretend to know Mexican policy about state lands in 1957, but I'm pretty sure they didn't just hand you mining rights worth millions or billions like it was the Yukon in 1898, and they definitely wouldn't after you'd slugged a cop.  The entire Mexican setting is so weirdly disconnected from this plot anyway; if a Mexican authority had gone with them, after all, at least then the diverging interests might have begun to make sense without one of the characters needing to be an annoying asshole.

But at this point I'm practically just asking, "why isn't this The Amazing Colossal Man?", and that's unfair.  It's true that that film exists principally to re-do The Cyclops and turn its kiddie matinee into a humane, meaningful atomic-era parable, but I don't necessarily want to reject The Cyclops just because being a kiddie matinee was its only goal.  I will reject it, because it's slapdash as hell, but it's (ahem) grown on me a bit.  I doubt I'll ever be ready to call it good, but I'm worrisomely close to talking myself into believing it's not bad.

Score: 5/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • That's some pretty unlikely geology they've got there in Tarahumare!
  • Movies need their premises, so that's fine, and I rather like the self-effacement to the lines Gordon gives his characters when one asks if they're prehistoric dinosaurs, and the other admits, no, they're just big animals.
  • Radiation turns off your pituitary gland and when it does, bam, thirty foot lizards.
  • However, they make a thing out of the absence of microfauna, which sort of makes sense: as the animals grew, perhaps not all at the same rate, everything would get funneled up to the top of the new food chain.  What's questionable about this is that they're wandering around a perfectly unaffected forest, that hasn't been smashed to pieces by giant lizards or, for that matter, suffered significantly from the stated absence of the microfauna flowering plants depend on to reproduce.  Wouldn't this ecology collapse in, like, just a few years?  Then again, Gordon forgot to tell his sound designers about this, who pipe in "creepy birdsong" library effects within minutes of Lee mentioning how strange it is that there aren't any small animals around, such as birds.
  • On the plus side, Gordon found the least-manicured stretches of the California park he was shooting in, and they stand in fairly well for "unaccountably undiscovered patch of northern Mexico." 
The morality of the past, in the future!
  • After their capture, Lee develops an obnoxious habit of inventing, then continually magnifying, his degree of Native American descent, to show what a good outdoorsman he is, though I'm not sure to what extent "being an Indian" would prepare you to fight a freaking giant.  Anyway, the even more serious objection is that you just cannot start a running gag 55 minutes into a 66 minute movie.
  • Just how did a vast stretch of radioactive land filled with giant half-invisible iguanas evade the Mexican government, anyway?  It's not the Upper Amazon here.  How did a giant hawk not get some attention?
  • Jeez, you couldn't have given the blinded mutant you left to starve a coup de grâce?  I thought you liked him.
  • "You sound like you're enjoying this."  "As a scientist, I am."

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