Grand Merci! – By Philip Smolen

In the 1950s, the majority of fantastic films produced for the American market were made by smaller independent production companies. While it’s true that most of the genre-defining films of the decade were made by major studios, these companies each only released anywhere from two to four fantastic-themed movies during this time. The exception, of course, was Universal Studios which produced sci-fi films throughout the decade (thanks to the producing/directing team of William Alland and Jack Arnold). For the most part though, films with a sci-fi/horror theme remained the domain of small independent companies.

One of the most distinctive examples of this was a company called Gramercy Pictures. Set up by young filmmakers Arthur Gardner, Arnold Laven, and Jules Levy, Gramercy produced four sci-fi/horror films during the later part of the decade and released them all as double features through United Artists (UA). In the 1950s, UA was not the big studio that it became in the 1960s and 1970s (thanks to the immensely popular James Bond films). Back then, UA was very similar to Allied Artists; a film studio that was growing, and specialized in picking up and releasing lower budget films of every type.

One reason Gramercy’s genre films were so effective was that like the Alland/Arnold team for Universal, Gardner, Laven, and Levy actually liked sci-fi and horror. They didn’t thumb their noses at the subject matter and really tried to deliver the best product their budgets would allow. They used real locations which gave the movies a more documentary feel (and lowered production costs as well). They hired better quality actors who could sell the fantastic aspect of these movies, and they used expert behind-the-scenes technical artists from other major studios to make their films seem bigger and more prestigious.

Another reason for their success was that the four screenplays for these films were written by a young woman (Pat Fielder) who strove to create something significant. Fielder initially started as a production assistant/secretary for the company, but while Gramercy was producing their first genre effort (1957’s “The Monster that Challenged the World”), the original script by1950/60s sci-fi veteran David Duncan couldn’t be used because it was written with a Japanese locale. Gardner, Laven, and Levy approached Fielder and asked her to develop the screenplay. She agreed and was encouraged by the producers throughout the 8-week writing process.

For the most part, Fielder’s screenplays are terrific, and they feature credible characters (including several single moms which was unheard of at that time), and eerie but believable situations. She anchored her fantastic stories in 1950s reality, which then allowed the fantastic aspects to jump right off the screen and terrify millions of young, impressionable kids (I know, I was one). These screenplays also opened the Hollywood door for Fielder (which at that time was still pretty much an all men’s club) and allowed her to have a solid career writing for movies and TV.

So this month, let’s take a look at the movies from Gramercy’s Pictures. They were a dependable supplier of fantastic films during the late1950s. Though quaint and tame by modern standards, these movies are remembered fondly and had a generation of baby boomers leaving their room lights on overnight in order to avoid nightmares!

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1. THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957) (Director: Arnold Laven)

Over at the Salton Sea (in California) a recent earthquake has unsettled the cadre at a nearby naval station including its new Inspector John Twillinger (Tim Holt). Later, Twill and his team find members of their parachute and recovery group dead at sea. They are all stunned to find that the causes of death in these men were cellular collapse (from lack of blood and any other bodily fluid [eewww!]) and a stroke (from fear). What’s worse is that local residents who go swimming in the Salton Sea are now turning up either dead or missing. A dive team sent to look for a girl discovers the reason for the deaths: the earthquake has released scores of giant snail-like creatures (called Krakens) from an underground sea bed. Twill seeks the help of base scientist Dr. Jess Rogers (the great Hans Conried) and together they begin the hunt for the monsters. After successfully destroying them with explosives, Twill and Dr. Rogers get ready for Miller time, but are shocked when they return to the base and find that a lone Kraken egg that they were keeping for research has hatched and is trying to snack on Twillinger’s would-be sweetheart (Audrey Dalton) and her young daughter (Mimi Gibson)…

After 55 years, “The Monster that Challenged the World” still remains one of the most satisfying giant monster movies (GMMs) of the 1950s. Pat Fielder’s screenplay very rationally builds its case for the giant slugs (even having Conried refer to an actual “Life” magazine article which describes centuries-old dormant shrimp eggs hatching). Fielder uses the classic GMM “Them” (1954) as a template, and borrows several elements including the hunt for missing persons and the hero’s search for the monster’s lair. Director Laven generates a surprising amount of tension in a number of scenes as characters either ignore official warnings or go swimming anyway with inevitable results (my favorite is when the nasty old night watchman gets munched). The actors are also a cut above a lot of the decade’s other GMMs. Tim Holt (from John Huston’s “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” [1948]) and Audrey Dalton are a good romantic couple and Hans Conried conveys earnestness as the lead scientist. My favorite cast member though is Hal Taggart playing a creepy local bureaucrat who at first seems like a pest, but ultimately supplies Holt with the vital clue he needs to locate the monsters. But the star of the film is the huge hydraulic sea slug created by special effects veteran Augie Lohman (who had a long and colorful career). With its vacant eyes, stubby legs and nasty pinchers, the slime dripping Kraken remains a real treat for classic sci-fi fans. Even in 2012, the creature is still an impressive bit of special effects magic. It was a unique menace back then and still packs quite a good monster wallop today.

Quotable Movie Line: “The eyes – the eyes. Get the eyes!”

2. THE VAMPIRE (1957) (Director: Paul Landres)

In a sleepy California town, a delivery boy enters the laboratory of Dr. Matt Campbell (Wood Romoff) and finds the researcher slumped over his desk. The boy runs to get local doctor Paul Beecher (John Beal). When Beecher arrives, Campbell gives him a bottle of pills and gasps out that his experiments have at last succeeded before he dies. Later that day, (while seeing his patients) Beecher feels a terrible headache coming on and asks his loving daughter Betsy (Lydia Reed) to get his medicine from his coat pocket. Mistakenly, Betsy gives him the pills that Campbell gave to him. The next day Paul awakens refreshed, and rushes over to see Carrie Dietz (Hallene Hill) a patient with a heart condition. While examining her, he notices two small marks on her neck. When Carrie awakens, she’s terrified of Paul and immediately dies. The Doctor is perplexed and later that night he realizes that his daughter gave him Campbell’s pills instead of his regular headache medicine. The pills are extremely addictive and Paul takes them again. The next morning local sheriff Buck Donley (all time fave Kenneth Tobey) tells Paul that there’s been another death. Paul begins to realize that the pills Campbell gave him are more than just addictive. They have transformative properties as well. Paul consults his friend Dr. Will Beaumont (the always affable Dabs Greer) and finds out that Campbell was working on ‘regression treatments” with the pills prepared from a serum from vampire bats. Paul is now convinced that the pills are changing him into a monster and confesses his thoughts to his friend. Beaumont doesn’t believe it and says that he’ll stay with Paul and help him through his addiction. Later that night, Paul changes into a horrible scaly vampire creature and kills Will. When he realizes what he’s done, Paul writes a suicide note and prepares to kill himself with a drug overdose. But he’s surprised by his nurse Carol (Coleen Gray) who has decided to come in to work early. She tries to dissuade Paul, but he changes into the monster right before her eyes. So it’s a good thing that when Carol starts screaming, Buck and his trusted police sergeant just happen to be right outside Paul’s door.

For a low-budget (reportedly around $115,000) second feature (it was the co-feature for “The Monster that Challenged the World”), “The Vampire” has a lot going for it. Chief among its virtues is a good, caring performance from Broadway actor John Beal as the afflicted physician. Just as in 1956’s “The Werewolf” (which featured a good tortured performance from Stephen Ritch, who becomes an accidental monster) Beal show us the torment and pain that Paul’s going through. He is horrified that he’s killing the very people he tries to help, but he’s powerless to stop his overwhelming addiction to Campbell’s pills. That makes his transformation into the titular menace that much more satisfying to watch. And just as in most other Gramercy Pictures, “The Vampire” is full of good performances, including Kenneth Tobey, Coleen Gray, Lydia Reed, and Dabs Greer. There’s also a very good music score by Gerald Fried. But what really makes this picture work is Fielder’s screenplay. While she deals in a clichéd subject, she develops exceptional characterization. That is amazing for a low-budget thriller from the 1950s. She also tries very hard to give us a real scientific explanation for vampirism. While that’s not as successful, it is different and it’s refreshing for the monster to not develop from radioactivity. Director Paul Landres also includes some good scary scenes as the modern-day monster stalks his victims. “The Vampire” remains an efficient little thriller and certainly a cut above most 2nd sci-fi features from the 1950s. It’s chock full of tasty cinematic elements.

Quotable Movie Line: “I know it has something to do with those pills of Campbell’s. I started taking them by mistake. And they’ve done something terrible to me. They’ve turned me into a horrible thing, a beast. They’ve made me kill people.”

3. THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958) (Director: Paul Landres)

In another small California town the Mayberry family is busy sprucing up their house for the arrival of cousin Belac from Europe (who they’ve never actually met). Little do they know that their cousin has been murdered on a train and his identity has been assumed by that most evil of fiends Count Dracula (Francis Lederer). The Count has been feeling the heat in Europe and has decided to come to America and start an army of the undead here! Dracula charms the Mayberrys and is particularly interested in young, pretty Rachel (Norma Eberhardt). She has also taken a fancy to the Count (as a surrogate father figure), not realizing of course what evil plans he has in store for her. Rachel’s boyfriend Tim (Ray Stricklyn) thinks there’s something fishy about his girlfriend’s cousin, but any attempt to probe for information angers Rachel. Not long after the vampire arrives, a string of bizarre deaths throws the small town into a panic, including the strange death of one of Rachel’s closet friends Jennie (Virginia Vincent). But not even the arrival of a special policeman from Europe (John Wengraf) will be able to save Rachel from joining the undead unless the teenager can wake up and recognize that evil now lives in her very own house.

“The Return of Dracula” stopped running on TV in the early 1970s, and I hadn’t seen it since I was a teenager, so I approached viewing it again with some trepidation. Would it be as good as I remember, or would it turn out to be dismal and dreary? I was so surprised to rediscover just how wonderful this little horror film is. Fielder’s screenplay is simple and direct and reveals how easy it is for evil to smoothly set up and corrupt a sleepy California town. With a nice smile and a few kind words Dracula ingratiates himself with the Mayberrys and is able to launch his evil plans totally unencumbered. He takes advantage of the trust that everyone has for one another. And this works in the film because Fielder’s screenplay treats the town’s wholesomeness and decency as a natural part of American suburban life. She even treats Tim’s love for Rachel as genuine and doesn’t resort to silly 1950s lover’s lane clichés. Francis Lederer is remarkable as Dracula and he uses his European looks and natural magnetism to his advantage. He’s smooth and suave and you can see the evil in his eyes. Lederer is so good that he doesn’t even need fangs to convince you he’s Dracula. Just like Bela Lugosi back in the 1930s, his style and intensity are totally compelling. It’s a classic vampire performance. For me the only cheesy scene in the film is when the authorities stake Jennie. It’s a bit jarring to see the film jump from cool black and white photography to grainy, faded color just so we can see the gooey red blood spurt from Jennie’s body, but I guess that was a key selling point back in 1958. Forgotten by the public after the emergence of the successful Hammer Dracula series, “The Return of Dracula” is an admirable attempt to bring classic horror into modern times. And it is infinitely better than Hammer’s similar attempt to do so 14 years later (“Dracula AD 1972”).

Quotable Movie Line: You only fear the unknown. Only this casing, this clumsy flesh stands between you and me. You are already balanced between two worlds. Eternity awaits you now.”

4. THE FLAME BARRIER (1958) (Director: Paul Landres)

Carol Dahlmann (Kathleen Crowley) has come to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula to search for her missing rich husband Howard who has been reported lost there for several months. She can’t claim his inheritance unless she has proof of his death. It seems that Howard used some of his millions to launch a satellite in the sky which crashed in the Mexican jungle. She hires Matt Hollister (dry Arthur Franz) and his alcoholic brother Matt (Robert Brown) to take her into the jungle and search for evidence of Howard. As they head inward, evidence starts to mount that maybe Howard is still alive. They find fleeing villagers, deserted huts, and strange native corpses that melt into skeletons. Finally after a grueling trek, they arrive at Howard’s camp. But when entering a nearby cave, they discover the satellite and are horrified to learn that a protoplasmic life form entered the satellite while in space. The globular mass has now burst forth from the capsule, killed Howard and is rapidly growing. What’s worse is that it’s protected by a magnetic field that grows geometrically every two hours. If the trio can’t figure a way to destroy this protoplasmic mass, all life on Earth will be consumed and “Dahlmann’s Folly” will become its dominant life form.

I have always loved blob movies. There’s something about their single-mindedness that scares the crap out of me. But that said, “The Flame Barrier” is one of the worst blob movies of all time. There is nothing to recommend here. The main problem is that Pat Fielder’s screenplay (from an earlier draft by 1950s vet George Worthing Yates) has absolutely no action. The first 45 minutes are a dull and dreary jungle trek as Crowley, Franz, and Brown make their way to Dahlmann’s camp. But once they get there, nothing happens! The three actors wring their hands and lament how the world will be consumed by this outer space horror, but the monster does absolutely nothing except sit there in the cave. It’s a totally static creation. The beast doesn’t even pulsate and look threatening, so there’s no monster payoff. That’s probably because the movie’s budget was so low (under $100,000) that the menace is represented by yards and yards of cellophane! I can see that Fielder may have been trying to give the film a Quatermass kind of feel, but she doesn’t add any of the elements that made those films great. With a monster that has the mobility of a refrigerator, the actors are forced to carry the film. They look upset and spout bad pseudo-scientific jargon, but none of them distinguishes themselves. In fact the best performance in the film goes to a chimpanzee that the trio finds at Dahlmann’s camp. Made as the second feature to “The Return of Dracula”, “The Flame Barrier” has none of “Dracula’s” energy, charm, or drive. Its poverty-row budget prevented the Gramercy team from giving the film their best effort and it remains a totally wasted and forgettable sci-fi thriller.

Quotable Movie Tag Line: “The first satellite that returned to earth… and the hell it brought with it!”

Soon after the release of “The Return of Dracula” and “The Flame Barrier”, the Gramercy team broke up. Gardner, Laven, and Levy went on to produce numerous TV westerns in the 1960s including “The Rifleman” (1958-1963), “The Big Valley” (1967-1969) and several of Burt Reynolds’s “good ol’ boy” movies in the 1970s. Fielder continued writing for TV into the 1980s, and contributed teleplays for those 1960s shows as well as “Baretta”, “Starsky and Hutch” and the big glossy sci-fi miniseries “Goliath Awaits” (1981). But their careers were forged with these four entries. And in interviews all of them remain very proud of the Gramercy films. They should be. For the most part, they were intelligent and effective thrillers. Just thinking about them brings me back to my childhood and gives me goose bumps. And at my age that just doesn’t happen that often anymore.

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Selected References

Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1992.

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2010.

Weaver, Tom. Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers: Writers, Producers, directors, Actors, Moguls, and Makeup. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1988.

Weaver, Tom. I Talked with a Zombie. Interviews with 23 Veterans of Horror and Sci-Fi Films and Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2009.