Mr. Fast and Furious – By Philip Smolen

During the 1950s United Artists financed movies from a myriad of independent producers (we discussed Grammercy Pictures in Rogue Cinema’s October issue) and did their best to compete with all of the major Hollywood studios. They released films from every genre including sci-fi, horror, drama, crime, comedy and action. And while they were a very frugal company, most of their films were never poverty-row productions. Unlike their infamous cheap brethren like American International and Allied Artists, UA spent more on their movies and tried to give them a more polished look. But just like their economical counterparts, they also insisted that their projects be developed and produced as quickly as possible. So it was fortunate that during this decade, UA partnered with one of the most prolific writer/producers to ever come out of Hollywood – Robert E. Kent.

Kent’s an amazing Hollywood story. Born in 1911, he started writing screenplays in 1937 and continued to write develop, and produce films until 1970! Kent was such a prolific screenwriter that he sometimes used a pseudonym (James B. Gordon) to disguise the number of films that he worked on during the year. He was so fast he could sometimes produce six screenplays in 12 months! While none of his films can be called “A” productions, they were still all solid exploitation or “B” movies. By the time Kent put down his smoking typewriter for good, he had written over 90 screenplays and even wrote several songs for some of the musical films he wrote!

During the 1950s, Kent worked as a writer for Mr. Exploitation himself – the great Sam Katzman. Kent contributed screenplays for such Katzman classics as “Drums of Tahiti” (1954), “The Miami Story” (1954), “Don’t Knock the Rock” (1956) and “The Werewolf” (1956). One man who came to know Kent during this time was Oscar-nominated cinematographer Richard Kline (who also worked for Katzman). In an interview with the fabulous Tom Weaver, Kline talked about Kent:

“Katzman had the most proficient and fastest screenwriter ever, Robert E. Kent; as fast as he could type, that’s how the script came out. I’d walk by his little office, the door would be open and he’d say “Oh, hi Richard!” and we’d talk about a ballgame from the night before and he’d still keep typing while we were talking about the ballgame! A lovely man and [laughs], even though I never really read one of his scripts, I know he was a very competent writer; he really knew the technique of writing. Sam would throw him an idea or show him a newspaper item and say, “Here, make a story out of this,” and Kent would knock out a completed script in no time at all. I can’t imagine that there were many screenwriters who wrote more screenplays than he did!”1

Kent learned much about film production from the economical Katzman while writing for him, and during the later part of the 1950s, he decided to branch out and develop his own film projects. He started numerous production companies (such as Vogue Pictures, Premium Pictures, Zenith Pictures, and Admiral Productions) during this time and released many of his endeavors through United Artists. These films became staples on TV during the 1960s, and his fantastic-themed movies frequently showed up on shows like “Chiller Theater” and “Creature Features.” So here’s a look at four of Kent’s sci-fi/horror offerings from the 1950s that were released as double features. They were a special part of watching fantastic films on TV and continue to bring smiles to the faces of baby boomers like me.

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1. IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958) (UA- VOGUE PICTURES) – Director: Eddie L. Cahn; Producer: Robert E. Kent

In 1973 (!) the first interplanetary expedition to Mars crash lands on the red planet. Six months later a rescue ship arrives but finds only one survivor, Colonel Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson). Carruthers tells the others that his entire crew was killed by an unseen menace. No one believes him, especially when a human skull is found with a bullet hole in it. Carruthers is placed under arrest and the rescue ship blasts off for Earth. However, soon after takeoff, mysterious deaths begin to occur. It isn’t long before the crew realizes that Col. Carruthers is right and that a blood thirsty alien has stowed aboard their ship. The armor plated monstrosity proves impossible to kill and the crew struggles to come up with new ways to defend themselves. What’s worse is that the Martian’s continued assaults keep squeezing the astronauts into a smaller and smaller area of the ship. Unless they come up with a method of destroying the rampaging beast, their spacecraft may arrive home without any human life.

“IT! The Terror From Beyond Space” is probably one of the most fun “B” movies from the 1950s. Its chief asset is a clever screenplay from noted fantasist author Jerome Bixby (who also wrote several other sci-fi films as well as some great “Twilight Zone” episodes). Bixby uses several ideas from 1951’s “The Thing from Another World” (a film he admired greatly) including the isolated location and unstoppable nature of the main menace. These help create a creepy, uneasy feeling throughout the film since you’re never sure exactly where the monster will strike next. The movie also benefits from a good 1950s style monster suit from low budget effects veteran Paul Blaisdell. His Martian looks mean and nasty (though its perpetual scowl is somewhat silly), and sports gigantic shredding claws that are capable of ripping through the ship’s center steel hatches. Unfortunately, veteran director Eddie L. Cahn doesn’t add much since he shoots the film in mostly medium shots instead of adding some tight close-ups which would have increased the tension and the feeling of claustrophobia. His plodding pace drains some of the considerable suspense established by the screenplay. But, the film is further enhanced by some good performances (specifically Paul Langton as a sympathetic astronaut and Dabs Greer as a concerned scientist), and it also features a good music score from Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter which helps compensate for Cahn’s unimaginativeness. A little more effort from the infamously fast director could have elevated “IT!” to classic status. As it stands, it’s still one of the best “B” movies of the decade and one that producer Kent was rightfully proud of.

Quotable Movie Line:

Ann Anderson: “Do you know what happened to Keinholz?”
Mary Royce: “Every bone in his body must be broken, but I’m not sure that’s what killed him.”

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2. THE CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN (1958) (UA- VOGUE PICTURES) – Director: Eddie L. Cahn; Producer: Robert E. Kent

In modern day Pompeii, a geological expedition unearths a fascinating discovery in the volcanic ruins – a complete human being preserved and encased in a protective layer of solidified volcanic ash. The team led by Dr. Paul Mallon (Richard Anderson) is also amazed to find low levels of radioactivity emanating from the ash. Little do Anderson and his team realize is that the ash’s radioactivity has also preserved the life force of the body inside. Artifacts (including a strange bronze medallion) around the body reveal that it is the remains of Quintillis Aurelius, a Roman who was secretly in love with a slave girl. Soon after being placed in the local museum, the sightless Quintillis lumbers back to life and goes about searching for his long lost love, killing anyone who gets in his way. Fortunately for him Quintillis doesn’t have to look far since Anderson’s current girlfriend Elaine Edwards (Tina Enright) is a spitting image of that long lost maiden. So the dust covered Pompeiite crashes through the young woman’s apartment and carries her off. Unfortunately for Quintillis, he starts heading off into the Mediterranean Sea which has a nasty dissolving effect on his ashen coating.

Unlike “It! The Terror from Beyond Space”, “The Curse of the Faceless Man” isn’t very good. While the film also boasts a screenplay by Jerome Bixby, this is the least effective of his 1950s screen treatments. Part of the problem is that the film relies too much on narration to explain the creature’s actions. It’s not clear whether this was Bixby’s doing or added during post production by producer Kent, but the narration deflates any tension that might have been created (This technique was used to much better effect in Bixby’s “The Lost Missile” [1958]). There is so much narration in the film (which over explains every minute action and thought of Quintillis) that after a while it becomes comical. It’s so bad that I remember wondering if the narration would also let me know when the Roman would be going on his bathroom breaks! Another problem is Quintillis himself. Makeup great Charles Gemorra did his best to create a realistic ash-covered man, but the lack of facial features (or really any distinctive features at all) reduces its credibility and effectiveness. It just looks like a bad prop from an Abbott and Costello 1950s horror spoof. This movie is further hampered by lackluster performances from its leads especially Richard Anderson. The future “Six Million Dollar Man” co-star is colorless as Dr. Mallon. Only Adele Mara as Anderson’s former lover adds any depth and nuance. When you add in typical ho hum direction from Eddie L. Cahn, “The Curse of the Faceless Man” is doomed to second feature status, which coincidentally is how it was released (as the 2nd feature to “It”). It’s not special in any way and instead is merely harmless, drab 1950s sci-fi. But at least it was another notch in the belt for producer Kent.

Quotable Movie Line: “I can’t figure out the wound on the back of his head. Nothing in here could have caused it. The shoal on the back of his skull was just wiped away.”

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3. INVISIBLE INVADERS (1959) (UA- PREMIUM PICTURE) – Director: Eddie L. Cahn; Producer: Robert E. Kent

Invisible non-corporal aliens from the dark side of our moon (they have lived there for 20,000 years!) have developed a great invasion plan. They will land on the earth and inhabit the bodies of the recently deceased and use those bodies to do their handiwork. They start with the body of famed scientist Dr. Karol Noymann (John Carradine), and before long the dastardly aliens are hard at work raising the dead and destroying the world’s infrastructure (cue tons of stock footage). It’s up to a hardy band of researchers led by hard-charging Major Bruce Jay (1950s sci-fi stalwart John Agar) to develop a new weapon that will destroy these pesky aliens. Compounding Agar’s problems are the cowardly Dr. John Lamont (Robert Hutton) and a woman assistant (Jean Byron). The three protagonists mix as well as oil and water. After many failures, the team finally manages to come together and produce a sonic gun that will annihilate the invaders (or at least force them to leave their human hosts). The only problem now is that the team has to try out the super weapon – not only against the hordes of dead people that are right outside their lab, but also on the invaders’ invisible ship that seems to be controlling the invasion.

There’s no denying that “The Invisible Invaders” is slow moving, sci-fi cheese. But for some reason I loved this movie as a kid (what do you want? I was a kid). I think it was the idea of seeing dead corpses rising and moving around again that freaked me out (remember, this movie came out 10 years before “Night of the Living Dead”!). I remember imagining what I would do if one of my dead relatives showed up at my door and started destroying everything. Now that idea is never properly developed in the film, which is a shame since it could have bought out some real horrific moments. Instead, we get the usual lame dramatics as a motley collection of people is thrown together during a crisis and have to learn to work together. And to me it seems like the aliens are just as stupid as the earthlings. I mean why don’t they just remain invisible? I think that earthlings would find invisible aliens (in invisible spaceships) scarier than old dead white guys stumbling around in their funeral suits. But what hurts “Invisible Invaders” most is its cheapness. There are no good effects at all in the film. Producer Kent reuses tons of old stock footage and even drags out Paul Blaisdell’s Martian costume from “It! The Terror from Beyond Space” again, (it’s only shown as a negative image). The one new effect (having the invisible aliens drag their feet on the dirt) looks absolutely ridiculous and makes them appear like slow moving, drunken idiots. There’s no defending “Invisible Invaders”. It’s silly, boring and cheaply made and the worst sci-fi film that Robert Kent produced. It’s not even as good as its co-feature, the equally cheap, but far more imaginative “The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake.”

Quotable Movie Line: “The invasion of Earth has started. Within three days the dead will destroy all the living and we will rule the Earth.”

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4. The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959) (UA- VOGUE PICTURES) – Director: Eddie L. Cahn; Producer: Robert E. Kent

Reclusive millionaire Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) is informed of his brother’s death, just when the man turned 60. When he travels to his brother’s estate to attend the service, he is shocked to find that his brother’s head has been removed from his body. Drake realizes that the decades-old curse that was placed on his family by a South American Indian tribe has struck again. And what’s worse is that Drake knows that he is the next victim. That night he is haunted by a terrible vision of three floating skulls. Later Drake is visited by a murderous Indian named Zutai (Paul Wexler), whose lips have been sewed together by his master, the evil Dr. Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell). Drake is saved by his butler and the next day his daughter Valerie (Allison Drake) finally convinces him to call in a police investigator (Grant Richards) to help solve the disappearance of his brother’s head. But the rational thinking detective is ill prepared to enter the eerie world of voodoo and curses.

As a young boy I could not watch “The Fours Skulls of Jonathan Drake.” The scene with the floating skulls was so terrifying that I always ran screaming from the room. It was only when a friend dared me to watch that I forced myself to sit through it. Of course, when it was over, I bragged to him and said how the film was stupid and didn’t scare me, but that night I had a hard time falling asleep. I kept seeing the floating skulls, the shrunken heads and the horrible sewn lips of Zutai! Those images from the film stayed with me for a long time. Viewing the film as an adult, I see that although the film is very tame, those three images are still quite evocative. The shrunken heads created by Charles Gemorra are really creepy and very realistic. Also, the entire head shrinking process that Henry Daniell dispassionately employs throughout the film remains unnerving and unpleasant. The film also has some good performances, especially from leads Daniell and Franz. Daniell plays up Dr. Zurich’s darker malevolent aspects and that helps sell the horror. And Paul Wexler’s silent Zutai remains a classic horror henchman. While modern day horror fans would scoff at a cheaply made film like “The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake”, boomers like me who watched it as young children continue to enjoy its primitive virtues.

Quotable Movie Line: “When the head of a strong, valiant enemy is properly taken, the possessor acquires the spirit, the soul, the vital spark that kept his enemy alive – a degree of immortality.”

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As the 1950s segued into the 1960s, Kent continued to write and produce. Some of his later writing credits include Roger Corman’s “The Tower of London” (1962), Edward Small’s “Twice Told Tales” (1963) [which was released through one of Kent’s companies] and one of Sam Katzman’s final films “Hot Rods to Hell” (1967). His production companies also made many more films including Nathan Juran’s “The Flight that Disappeared” (1961), Reginald Le Borg’s “Diary of a Madman” (1963) and the western “Arizona Raiders” (1965) with Audie Murphy. And in 1970 “The Christine Jorgensen Story” fittingly became Kent’s final cinematic credit (as screenwriter and associate producer) and perhaps his greatest exploitation achievement. The film was a semi autobiography of one of the world’s first well known transsexuals. After the film was released, I can almost imagine Kent thinking to himself, “Where do I possibly go from here?” To me that answer is obvious: into cinematic history, Mr. Kent!


Citation

1. Weaver, Tom. A Sci-Fi Swarm and Horror Horde: Interviews with 62 Filmmakers. Jefferson, North Carolina; McFarland and Company, 2010. Pg. 109-110.

Selected References

IMDB. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0448839. Accessed on November 27, 2012.

IMDB. http://www.imdb.com/company/co0193427/?ref_=fn_al_co_1. Accessed on November 27, 2012.

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

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (21st Century Edition). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2010.

Weaver, Tom. A Sci-Fi Swarm and Horror Horde: Interviews with 62 Filmmakers. Jefferson, North Carolina; McFarland and Company, 2010. Pg. 109-110.