They Came From Beyond Space

directed by Freddie Francis
1967 | Amicus | 85′ 

A number of meteors crashes onto a field belonging to a farm in Cornwall. It’s the most curious thing though – usually, meteors don’t fly in a V-formation. The UK government thinks the phenomenon requires investigation and decides to send a group of scientists lead by an astronomer with special interest in the discovery of extraterrestrial life, Dr. Curtis Temple (Robert Hutton), to Cornwall.

There is a tiny problem, though: Temple’s love for vintage cars (slightly prefiguring the Third Doctor, like some of the film’s tone, if you ask me) has resulted in an accident some months ago that left the astronomer with a silver plate in his head, and – at least that’s the opinion of his doctor – still too sick to work away from home, even though he’ll act as fit as James Bond throughout the movie. We all know about the dangerous wilds of Cornwall, far away from civilization, after all.

So there’s nothing to it than to send Temple’s colleague and girlfriend, Lee Mason (Jennifer Jayne) to lead the expedition and send all pertinent data up to Temple.

Alas, things at the crash site fastly become problematic. The meteorites contain alien consciousnesses that take over the scientists, break off all contact with the outside world and slowly begin to infiltrate a close-by village too (starting with the local banker, of course, as if that were necessary). Then, the aliens begin to requisition large amounts of building materials and weapons through government channels.

After a time without news, Temple, as well as someone in government, realizes that something’s not right at all (an attempt by the aliens to take the astronomer over too but fails thanks to that practical silver plate helps Temple’s thought processes there). Temple’s investigations in the village and around the crash site turn up curious developments: it’s not just that the scientists and the dozens of people they have taken on are obviously not themselves anymore, they have built an underground lair all the better to be able to shoot rockets to the moon. Fortunately, Temple is one of those two-fisted scientists from the 50s, and his astonishing abilities (yeah, I know, he must have survived World War II, but how many astronomers really were astonishing commandos and still were when they hit middle-age?) at fistfighting, shooting, and escaping from cells will be very helpful in thwarting the plans of the aliens and their leader – the Master of the Moon (Michael Gough). Not even a strange alien illness part of the aliens’ overcomplicated plan can touch Temple; I suspect the illness is afraid to be infected by Hutton’s well-known right-wing real life opinions about everything.

  
  
  

Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is how you make a 50s alien invasion movie in 1967. This time around, much-kicked Hammer rivals Amicus are throwing their shoestring budget at that old stalwart of British cinema, the alien invasion movie with the American no-name actor in the lead role. One suspects Quatermass and the Pit might have had something to do with that decision, though They Came counters the complexity and intelligence of the Quatermass approach to SF with a tale of a properly dumb alien invasion with a badly delivered 60s peace and love twist at the end that wants me to believe that the two-fisted American scientist whose adventures we have witnessed up to the point is willing to shake hands with aliens who wanted to kill him or make him their slave because they say they now think better of it – twice. Let’s not even talk about these aliens’ idea of secrecy (or the idea of the film’s UK government about how a quarantine works; hint: generally, letting people come and go as they please isn’t a part of it).

This may sound as if I were rather dissatisfied with They Came, but nothing could be further from the truth. The alien invasion plot may be dumb, it is however dumb in the most delightful manner, easily convincing me that I may not live in a world where this sort of plan would sound logical, but I really rather would. Not only are the aliens’ plans and the film’s hero – who reminds me of a more conservative version of one of these non-professional Eurospy movie protagonists – a delightfully groovy age version of 50s traditions (a total improvement on the model, obviously), the way to thwart them is just as beautifully insane, seeing as it consists of knocking one’s possessed girlfriend out, kidnapping her, and using her as a test object while working on a (of course very silly looking) anti-alien-possession helmet, even sillier alien detection goggles and alien re-possession methods with a friendly scientist (Zia Mohyeddin) who just happens to live somewhere in the country close-by, owns many silver trophies and utilities to melt metal. In an especially pleasant development that helpful man is a Pakistani Englishman, not a joke, doesn’t have to die to prove how evil the bad guys are, and will turn out to be save-the-day-competent. Given his role, and how competent Lee is allowed to be once she’s not under alien control anymore, it’s pretty obvious this is a film that may love to indulge in silliness for silliness’ sake but that also has a clear idea of which parts of his 50s models just don’t cut it anymore in 1967.

When people – though too few of them do – talk about They Came‘s special effects, they unfailingly mention their quality to be comparable to contemporary Doctor Who (this was the time of the Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, if you’re not quite up on important historical dates). That’s an old chestnut when talking about British SF cinema, yet in this case it is indeed true. Consequently, the effects’ execution has more than just a whiff of cardboard and spit, but it also shares the other, more important part of the Doctor’s legacy, a decidedly British visual imagination that makes up for the unavoidable cheapness and threadbareness. My favourite set piece is the yellow and black striped elevator that sits right inside a typical British country home, exemplifying at once the loving absurdity and the Britishness (for wont of a better word) of the film’s production design. It’s the mix of the local and the strange that gets me every time.

What the Doctor generally didn’t have at the time (though the show did have some good ones) were directors quite like They Came‘s Freddie Francis. Francis, veteran that he was, was someone seemingly unable to not put real effort even into his cheapest and silliest films, and he works his magic here too, milking every possibility to turn the cheap yet creative sets and the landscape of the locations into a cheap pop art dream that feels saturated with colours even when the surroundings are rather brown more often than not, and that builds visual interest even from the smallest thing.

The movie’s pop art feel is even further strengthened by James Stevens’s score that belongs to the jazzy swinging kind you often find in Eurospy movies, though it has a peculiar habit to just fall into an unending series of drum rolls when Hutton punches people in the face.

The cheap pop art feel of, well, everything about They Came From Beyond Space is sign of a film made to treat the old-fashioned tropes of the 50s alien invasion movie with the sensibilities that produced the Eurospy movie. In a wonderful turn of event, Francis’s movie actually succeeds at that mission, for words like “groovy” and “awesome” come to my mind quite naturally when I think about it.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Colossus of New York

directed by Eugene Lourie
1957 / 20th Century Fox / 88′
written by
Thelma Schnee from a story by Willis Goldbleck
original music by Van Cleave
cinematography by John F. Warren
starring John Baragrey, Mala Powers, Otto Kruger, Robert Hutton, Ross Martin, Charles Herbert
released June 19th, 2012 by
Olive Films
video: 1080p / 1.78:1 / B&W / Mpeg-4 AVC
audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono (English)
subtitles: none
discs: single layer BD25 / Region A (B, C untested)
The Colossus of New York is now available on both DVD and Blu-ray through the usual online outlets.

A product of producer William Alland’s (It Came From Outer Space, Tarantula!) brief late-’50s stint with Paramount Pictures, 1958′s The Colossus of New York was never granted the time or resources necessary for it to be truly great in its own right, but in terms of pure style it’s second to none among the genre output of the decade. A bit like Frankenstein by way of Donovan’s Brain but with an odd, temporally estranged sensibility all its own, Colossus really hooked me as a kid in its infrequent television airings. The film was never made available on VHS or Laserdisc (officially), much to my young disappointment, but thanks to Olive Films (and their quest to release seemingly everything that lies dormant in the Paramount back catalogue) Colossus has been resurrected not just on DVD, but in a newly-released Blu-ray edition as well.

The story here, credited to Willis Goldbleck (Young Doctor Kildare) and future parapsychologist Thelma Schnee (better known as Thelma Moss), is a pretty straight-forward affair. Just after receiving the Nobel Prize for his advancements in mechanized industry, genius scientist and father-of-the-year Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin!) is struck down in a freak accident while chasing down his son Billy’s toy plane in a parking lot. The shocked family mourns, but Jeremey’s father (Otto Kruger, Dracula’s Daughter), an ace brain surgeon, refuses to allow fate to deprive the world of his son’s genius. With the help of Jeremy’s less successful brother Henry (John Baragrey, Shockproof), dear old dad transplants Jeremy’s brain into a grand new mechanical body. At first horrified and resentful of his newfound inhumanity, Jeremy, unbound by bodily constraints, soon finds his mind possessed of impossible abilities. Brilliance perverts into deranged hubris, and sympathy turns to revulsion. Jeremy’s once-humanitarian pursuits give way to an insane dictatorial ambition and the Colossus finally looses itself, roasting the toast of the scientific community in the lobby of the United Nations.

First things first, it must be said that the eponymous Colossus is as indelible a thing as was ever to emerge from the mid-century golden age of science fiction. There’s a decidedly classical influence on the design, which is heavily reminiscent of various sculptures of Roman dignitaries. Indeed, the 8-foot-tall Colossus even looks more sculpted than mechanical, its ambiguous, unalterable expression set as though in marble, and its broad shoulders boast a suitably noble robe. The shear magnitude of it begs the obvious question – why would Jeremy’s father construct such a large body for his dead son’s brain, except to more easily facilitate its inevitable malevolent turn? Beyond the necessity of having a monster, I always thought there was a certain elegant sense to the doctor’s design for the Colossus. Blinded by his own single-minded determination to see the world benefit from his son’s mind, the father devises a self-same monument / benefactor whose appearance directly reflects the importance he attributes to his son’s intellect. In his arrogance he can’t possibly see the monstrosity of what he is creating, obvious as it it may be to the rest of us.

Adding a bit of welcome psychological complexity to the proceedings is Jeremy’s brother Henry, who assists in his father’s scheme as a way of garnering some paternal attention for himself, so long deprived of the same by Jeremy’s position as the favored son. Henry’s resentment of his brother’s success doesn’t end there, however. With Jeremy’s body hardly cold, and his brain chilling in an aquarium in the household lab, Henry begins positioning himself as suitor for his brother’s widowed wife and fatherless son. It’s no surprise, then, when the robotic Jeremy sets his death-ray sights on his errant brother, a move that cements his megalomania and sets him on his murderous course.

Of pre-eminent art director Eugene Lourie’s four forays into feature film direction (the other three of which are quintessential dinosaur-on-the-loose movies), The Colossus of New York always struck me as being the most interesting, if not exactly the best. A lot of that, I suspect, is to do with the literal timelessness of it all. The various machinery on display – laboratory equipment, an airplane, automobiles, a television set, even the Colossus itself – are all quite modern, but the style is something else entirely. Despite its contemporaneous trappings The Colossus of New York feels much older, oozing an aesthetic that recalls the end of the silent era – as a kid I remember having trouble telling just when the film was supposed to be taking place for this very reason. In addition to the moody expressionist lighting and occasional diffused close-ups, themselves enough, taken with the black and white photography, to secure the film’s old-school pedigree, Colossus features another throwback, brief bursts of undercranking that speed-up some of the action set-ups. The clincher here, however, is the piano-only score from prolific composer and music arranger Van Cleave, itself a novel solution to a strike by the Musicians’ Union at the time of production. Van Cleave’s score, written for three keyboardists, has also seen something of a resurrection as of late, courtesy of a CD release (along with the same composer’s work for Jack Arnold’s The Space Children) from Film Score Monthly.

The Colossus of New York isn’t a perfect film. Constrained by the aforementioned time and budget it can’t help but feel smaller than it ought to (even the primary location, the Spensser family estate, is only a table top miniature in its wide shots), but with a brisk running time of less than 70 minutes one can’t accuse it of overstaying its welcome. Perhaps most notable now for the brief appearance of Ross Martin (Experiment in Terror), here only a few short years away from his immortal turn in TV’s The Wild Wild WestThe Colossus of New York nevertheless maintains a unique appeal, if for its eponymous monster and retro style alone. Frequent readers know where I stand on this sort of cinema, and for fans of the same Colossus is a must-see.

Previously available only in gray-market dupes from old television screenings, Olive Films’ officially licensed Blu-ray treatment of The Colossus of New York is nothing short of a revelation. Presented in 1080p with the open-matte photography cropped comfortably to 1.78:1, the image here is unrestored but, given the nature and age of the production, I can’t complain. There’s plenty of minor damage to ponder – frame-specific specks, flecks, scratches, emulsion marks and so on – and there’s a persistent printed white hair visible at the center of the right side of the frame for a lengthy stretch, from roughly 9:30 to 33:30, but given the quality of the transfer otherwise I was undeterred.

Detail is surprisingly crisp where DP John F. Warren’s (Torn Curtain) photography allows, and contrast is rich. The image appears free of any undue digital manipulation, and a fine layer of film grain is visible throughout. I have to admit that I was at first taken aback by the meager technical specifications (the brief feature is granted a modest single-layer Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 23.5 Mbps), but aside from some minor posterization the show never really suffers for them. Audio is healthily related by way of a lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 monophonic track, and Van Cleave’s score sounds especially strong. As is becoming too common for these sub-licensed releases there are no subtitles, and par for the course for Olive Films, with the exception of a functional menu the disc is void of any extra content.

I’ll not argue the virtues of high-price boutique label releases here, as it seems I’m doing that practically every other article these days. Suffice to say that, being very fond of the picture and having paid premium prices for bootleg copies in the past, I thought the disc was well worth what I put into it. Olive Films’ The Colossus of New York was never going to be the must-own Blu-ray property of the year, and it was never intended as such, but those keen on the film’s unique brand of sci-fi are certainly encouraged to indulge.

Screenshots were captured as native resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

The Colossus of New York

Year: 1958   Runtime: 70′  Director: Eugene Lourie
Writers: Thelma Schnee, Willis Goldbeck   Cinematography: John F. Warren   Music: Van Cleave
Cast: John Baragrey, Mala Powers, Otto Kruger, Robert Hutton, Ross Martin, Charles Herbert, Ed Wolff

When altruistic scientific genius Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin) is run over by a truck – which is the sort of thing that can happen when you’re running onto a street chasing your son’s toy plane – his father, genius brain surgeon William (Otto Kruger) takes the personal loss and the loss to humanity extremely badly. Once I had spent some on-screen time with his surviving son, the semi-genius electronics scientist Henry (John Baragrey), I could understand the old man’s feelings quite well, for his father’s very pronounced preference for Jeremy has turned Henry into a giant prick.

So disturbed by Jeremy’s loss is William that he uses his own scientific talents to steal and save his son’s brain. It’s all for the best of humanity, you see, and certainly hasn’t anything at all to do with William’s inability to face the death of his son. After some SCIENCE(!) using water tanks, electrodes and other very scientific implements, the brain is as good as new. Now it’s time to build a new body for Jeremy’s brain, and who better to help out there than Henry? Henry has spent the months in between trying to take his brother’s place with Jeremy’s wife Anne (Mala Powers) and son Billy (Charles Herbert), but has been met with a polite indifference he has been unable to parse or wear down; Anne is drawn to the (comparatively) least prickish man in the film, Jeremy’s former partner in science John Carrington (Robert Hutton), but that’s not something Henry realizes. Do I even need to mention the Spenssers don’t find it necessary to tell Anne they’re playing with her dead husband’s brain?

So William and Henry build a huge, lumbering robot body with a face like an expressionist sculpture for Jeremy, because we couldn’t have the man look into a mirror and not have a breakdown, right?

Given how his brand new body looks, and that his dear family tells him his wife and son are dead, the newly mechanized Jeremy takes quite well to the whole situation. Sure, he has a complete breakdown and asks his father to destroy him until the old arse convinces him otherwise, but afterwards he starts on his new experiments that are supposed to make the poles usable for food growth, or something of that sort. Science(!), I dare say. All this does obviously take place in William’s lab right in the cellar of the house Anne and Billy live in, too, but hey, when Anne hears something like the horrible screams of her husband when he first sees what he’s been turned into, the charming Spenssers can just tell her she’s hallucinating because of the strain she has been under, right?

But then, in a development nobody could have seen coming, Robo-Jerry develops fantastic ESP powers, like random precognition, hypnosis and later on the ability to shoot death rays out of his eyes, as you do. I’m sure he won’t put the mind whammy on his father to be able to visit his own grave on the first anniversary of his death where he surely won’t repeat a scene from a Frankenstein movie with his son.

And surely, the knowledge that his father and brother not only haven’t bothered to build him a decent robot body but have also lied to him about his wife and kid won’t turn our Jerry a wee bit mad! Man, this transplanting brains into robot bodies business really is pretty difficult.

  
  
  

As you know, Jim, art director and production designer Eugene Lourie did occasionally – and quite successfully – dabble in the direction of 50s giant monster movies. The “monster” in The Colossus of New York is, despite what the film’s title and marketing tagline (“Towering above the skyline – an indestructible creature whose eyes rain death and destruction!”) might suggest, not one of the giant kind trampling New York into tiny pieces, but rather a brother to the misunderstood creature Frankenstein created. Interestingly, Jeremy, with his ability to speak and think coherently and his planned acts of destruction late in the film is closer to the creature of Mary Shelley’s novel than the more childlike creature of the Universal movies, something that I have difficulty seeing as an accident in a script as clearly literary as that Thelma Schnee delivered for the movie.

Schnee’s script is a very interesting effort, managing to surround the silly parts and the plot holes you’d expect (and demand) of a film like The Colossus with more complex characters than you’d generally find in a 50s SF/horror film and some pretty poignant scenes concerning the most dysfunctional family I’ve seen in a genre movie from the 50s. Quite contrary to the traditions of the time, where acting the dick usually makes you the hero of the piece, The Colossus actually seems to realize how dysfunctional and horrific its characters actually are, and makes their flaws the true reason for the minor catastrophe the film’s plot culminates in. Sure, there’s a short discussion (acted with great gusto by Kruger, who seems to have quite a bit of fun with his mad scientist role throughout the film) about the soul early on in the film, and some of the mandatory “tampering in god’s domain” speechifying at its end, but it’s also clear that the film’s heart isn’t in these explanations. Everything bad that happens here comes from the characters’ inability to treat each other like actual, complete human beings.

Of course, a complex, yet heavily flawed (and a bit too short), script like this could be easily ruined by the wrong direction style. I’m pretty happy to report that the script at hand wasn’t adapted by a poverty row point and shoot director like – say – William Beaudine, but the clearly more art conscious Lourie, who had no problem recognizing a Freudianized version of Frankenstein when he saw it and used the opportunity to turn his film into as much of a visual homage to early Universal horror movies as a film set in the New York of the 50s (not that we get to see much of it – most of the film takes place in three rooms and a graveyard) can be. For my tastes, Lourie is very successful at it too – at least so successful that most of his film’s theoretical silliness turned out to not feel silly at all while I was watching, because the film’s finely developed atmosphere turned most of what it surrounded into something serious and riveting.

The Horror!? is a weekly cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, an aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Man Without a Body

postercompany: Filmplays Ltd.
year: 1957
runtime: 75′
countries: United States
and United Kingdom
directors: W. Lee Wilder
and Charles Saunders
cast: Robert Hutton, George Coulouris,
Julia Amall, Nadja Regin, Peter Copley,
Sheldon Lawrence, Michael Golden
not on DVD in the USA

Plot: The heirless head of a self-made financial empire discovers that he is dying of a brain tumor.  Hoping to ensure the continued expansion of his power and wealth, he gets in touch with a group of experimental scientists so that they might resurrect the disembodied head of the long-dead prognosticator Nostradamus, whose brain he intends to implant into his own healthy body . . .

What a delightfully preposterous example of transplant horror this is!  You may find yourself asking how anyone, egomaniacal millionaire or not, could possibly think that digging up the 400-year-old remains of Nostradamus, removing the head, and bringing it back to life so that they can use the brain as their own is a viable alternative to simply asking one of their contemporaries to look after the family business when the inevitable occurs, but that would be missing the point.  THE MAN WITHOUT A BODY isn’t about an aging and ailing patriarch handing off his legacy to the next generation, it’s about a man without a body.  Common sense is optional, but disembodied heads are not.

It’s a pity that screenwriter William Grote never lent his name to anything else, as his work here makes for wonderfully dumb entertainment.  Kudos are in order for his bypassing of typical mad-scientist stereotypes, as Dr. Merritt (Robert Hutton), the man tasked by rich madman Brussard (George Coulouris) with revivifying the head of Nostradamus, is actually praised for his work throughout by colleagues and the authorities alike.  When Merritt makes the snap decision to graft Nostradamus’ dying head onto the body of his brain-dead colleague a fellow physician supports it as a fine example of his following the tenants of the Hippocratic oath – nevermind the ethics of having resurrected long-dead human remains to begin with.

Grote’s script unflinchingly supports the veracity of Nostradamus’ powers of prognostication, of course (fine by this skeptic, who can recall a particulalry crazy disaster film that wouldn’t exist without the same).  When he is first awakened Dr. Merritt and his colleagues waste no time in flattering him with reassurance that his prophecies have come true, which Nostradamus is, naturally, already aware of.  “I have always lived in the future,” he tells Merritt, as dim-witted assistant Dr. Waldenhouse (Sheldon Lawrence) rattles on about airplanes, submarines, and light bulbs.

Brussard, on the other hand, seems to have never heard of the fellow – not until he takes a fateful trip to a London wax museum, that is.  A tour guide’s rehearsed spiel about Nostradamus’ presumed awesomeness is all it takes to convince him that travelling to France, an alcoholic quack physician and two lackeys in tow, to desecrate the 16th century poet’s crypt is the right thing to do.  He never bothers to think that Nostradamus might not be down for his scheme for power-grabbing from beyond the grave, and is blindsided when the prophet leads him to destroy his own empire through faulty stock predictions.  “For the first time in my life I trusted someone else – you ruined me!”

001 002 003

All of this is good schlocky fun, but Grote’s last minute diversion into monster-on-the-loose territory is perhaps the biggest reason for hunting THE MAN WITHOUT A BODY down.  Brussard, crazed beyond all reason and brandishing a pistol, confronts Dr. Merritt’s cobbling together of his dead lab assistant and Nostradamus’ head, leaving the confused creature wandering the London streets.  The sight of Dr. Merritt’s Frankenstein creation, looking a bit like a demented mascot for dental health, ought be enough to send even the most jaded of b-movie aficionados into fits of laughter.  The poor thing doesn’t even do anyone any harm, opting to end its life by hanging itself in the roping of a school bell tower.  Audiences are left with a final perversely hilarious image of Nostradamus’ head, stuffed in a gigantic cast, dangling from a makeshift noose while the body, apparently attached with little but masking tape, crashes to the floor below.

Augmenting Grote’s ludicrous screenplay are a few wonderfully gruesome creations by production designer Harry White [CURSE OF THE FLY].  One wall of Dr. Merritt’s lab is dominated by a rack of tanks full of living human organs, while another corner shows a disembodied but very alive human eye stuck amidst a spiderweb of wires and apparatus.  Nostradamus’ head, too often a cheap mock-up sitting on a lab table with a few tubes sticking out of its neck, is far less interesting in comparison.  Cinematography by Brendan J. Stafford makes for some interesting compositions but can’t really cover for the silliness of the direction of W. Lee Wilder [KILLERS FROM SPACE] and Charles Saunders [NUDIST PARADISE].

Performances are mixed but acceptable, and George Coulouris, formerly of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre, steals the show as the deranged Karl Brussard.  Robert Hutton does what he does best in making asinine dialogue sound entirely 004reasonable while keeping his hands in his coat pockets for extended periods of time.  Veteran actor Peter Copley is a welcome sight, making the most of a minor role that couldn’t have taken more than a day to shoot, while newcomer Sheldon Lawrence’s cumbersome line delivery is a definite sore spot.

THE MAN WITHOUT A BODY is another in a laundry list of older genre titles distributor Paramount Pictures has yet to give any kind of home video release – a damned shame in my estimation, though the studio’s recent leasing of some of its holdings to Legend Films for DVD release is a promising sign.  Officially available or no, this is a fine piece of obscure camp cinema that should find a welcome audience in fans of others of its ilk (the meaner-spirited THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE, for instance).  Highly recommended.