Transformers – Men into Monsters – By Philip Smolen

When I was in 8th grade, I was already going through “the change”.  It was a very confusing time for me because my Catholic upbringing was telling me to ignore that part of my anatomy south of my waist, while “’that part” would transform at the most inopportune moments and make its presence impossible to ignore.

The worst example of this came one day during first aid class. Once a week the nuns sent our class to the auditorium where we learned the basics of lifesaving from a state certified instructor. The teacher (an old timer who forgot what it meant to be 13) alphabetically broke the class into two person teams, one boy and one girl. I was working with the most physically developed young girl in our class, and just looking at her usually got “that part” all worked up. One week it was time to practice CPR (an early version of it anyway), so the girl had to lie down, while I was told to kneel in front of her, open my legs and allow her head to lie between my thighs. I then had to lean forward, interlock my hands and physically place them on her chest to simulate chest compressions (remember these were the days before resuscitation dummies were developed). Being a young gentleman, I gingerly placed my hands on her rib cage. When the instructor came by to check my position, he angrily grabbed my hands, telling me I would break her ribs with my hands where they were. He then forcefully moved them backward so that they were right on her sternum (and lightly touching her breasts). The combination of her head between my legs and my hands against her breasts was more than “that part” could stand, and it stiffly and forcefully made its presence known. I spent the remainder of the class hunched over, in a vain attempt to hide my embarrassment. After more than 40 years, I think my psyche is still damaged from that episode.

After that incident, I noticed that I began to identify very closely with movie heroes who went through physical changes. And during the 1950s there were an abundance of films where the hero would transform into a horrible monster. Usually the event occurred during the pursuit of some lofty scientific goal, or when an evil scientist who was out to prove his insane theories to a doubting world, needed an experimental subject. For whatever reason, these movies were usually made on a low budget but often had the benefit of one or two good actors who could portray real emotion onscreen.  So let’s take a look at five economical examples of the “men into monster” genre from the fabulous 1950s.

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1. THE WEREWOLF (Columbia, 1956) – Director: Fred F. Sears

In the Pacific Northwest town of Mountain Crest, a stranger named Duncan Marsh (Steven Ritch) stumbles into a local bar and buys a drink. He asks the bartender if he knows him. When a mugger tries to rob him of his meager pocket money, Marsh and the thug fight in a nearby alley. Only Marsh emerges and he’s become a fearsome snarling beast – a werewolf! Apparently Marsh was involved in an accident recently and was treated by Dr. Morgan Chambers (George M. Lynn). Chambers is perfecting a serum derived from wolves that will protect people from atomic radiation!  Marsh unwittingly became his first test subject. Afraid that his secret research will be exposed if Marsh is captured, Chambers and his assistant travel to Mountain Crest under the guise of helping the local sheriff (Don Megowan) catch the werewolf. With the local authorities and the scientist gunning for him, Duncan Marsh realizes that the sands of his hourglass are running precariously low.

The Werewolf is a prime example of an exploitation film. It is an efficient and entertaining popcorn movie that gets in and gets out without any frills. Its chief asset is a wonderful and genuine performance from Steven Ritch as the tormented Marsh. Although not the star (Don Megowan is the nominal lead), the film revolves around Ritch. He conveys true anguish and terror at what he’s become. And it is his scenes that hold the film together.  While the werewolf makeup is merely average, director Fred F. Sears (who unfortunately died in 1957) puts together a couple of really great scare scenes. The first is the fight between Marsh and the mugger. Sears keeps the camera on the actors’ feet, so the audience can’t see Marsh change. It’s truly frightening when the monster then emerges from the darkness. The other great scene is when Dr. Chambers goes to the jail to silence Marsh forever. He enters Marsh’s cell and turns the sleeping man over only to come face to face with the monster he created. I remember literally jumping out of my chair when I first saw that scene. Released as the second feature to Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (which Sears directed as well), The Werewolf is a great low budget gem from the 1950s.

Quotable Movie Line: “Doctors should be able to cure more than broken bones and runny noses.  I want to cure an entire world. I still have my ideals.”

 

 

2. MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (Universal International, 1958) – Director: Jack Arnold

At a local university, biology professor Dr. Donald Blake (Arthur Franz) is thrilled to receive his latest specimen, a prehistoric coelacanth from Madagascar. But almost immediately after receiving it, strange things begin to happen. First a student’s dog drinks some of the water dripping from the coelacanth’s box. Almost immediately it grows fangs and proceeds to attack the student. Later Dr. Blake cuts himself on the sharp teeth of the prehistoric fish. He passes out and when he wakes up he finds his house vandalized and his friend’s young assistant dead. After that there are a series of gruesome murders all seemingly committed by a prehistoric brute with amazing strength. And after each attack, Dr. Blake wakes up with no short term memory (and a ripped shirt). Dr. Blake’s fiancée (Joanna Moore) begins to wonder if there may be a connection between her betrothed and the murders. And it seems that the local police investigator (Judson Pratt) is starting to wonder as well.

By the late 1950s Universal had given up its sci-fi pedigree. While they produced some classics earlier in the decade, most of their later productions were little more than exploitation B movies.  Monster on the Campus is a perfect example. It’s a by-the-numbers thriller with good production values, decent music and a capable supporting cast (Judson Pratt, Ross Elliott, and even 50s teen heartthrob Troy Donahue!), but the parts just don’t add up to anything special. It’s a strictly ho hum affair. This was the last Universal film directed by the great Jack Arnold and it’s one of his least interesting. While he sets up the everyday normalcy of campus life well in the early scenes, he generates very few thrills in the later fantastic ones. It actually seems as if Arnold himself is totally uninterested in the film. And that’s a shame. I always remember having trouble staying awake for Monster on the Campus no matter what hour of the day it was on. It’s the “man into monster” movie that works better than any pharmaceutical grade sleeping pill!

Quotable Movie Line: “Man is not only capable of change, but man alone, among all living creatures, can choose the direction in which that change will take place.”

 

 

3. THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON (Pacific International, 1958) – Director: Robert Clarke

Dr. Gil McKenna (Robert Clarke) receives an overdose of radiation while working at his prestigious research company (Atomic Research Inc. – really that’s what the company’s named!). He seems to miraculously recover, but several days later when exposed to the sun’s rays he turns into a monstrous lizard-like creature. It seems that his radiation poisoning has changed his genetic structure so that any intense exposure to sunlight will turn him into this walking nightmare. Gil withdraws from society and goes on a path of self destruction, drinking and carousing with nightclub singer Trudy (Nan Peterson). Despite his best efforts, he’s exposed to sunlight again, transforms, kills several citizens and becomes the most hunted man in Los Angeles. Can science and the love of Gil’s fiancée (Patricia Manning) save him before he’s blown away by the LAPD?

The Hideous Sun Demon is a legendary cheap monster movie that every baby boomer remembers well. Shot in LA over the course of 12 consecutive weekends, this no budget wonder played forever on the “Creature Features” movie shows during the 1960s.  This was B actor Robert Clarke’s Citizen Kane. He produced, directed, helped out on the screenplay and portrayed the doomed McKenna. Despite the obvious cheapness of the production and all the clichés, there’s grittiness to the location shooting that adds immensely to the film. While watching it you get the feeling you’re watching a TV police procedural. It’s great seeing Clarke as the Sun Demon running around LA.  And the Demon costume created by Richard Cassarino is as impressive as some of the other creature costumes of the decade. A lot of people make fun of The Hideous Sun Demon, and it’s a hard film to defend. But a lot of people also remember it fondly. Count me in with them.

Quotable Movie Line: “The radiation from that isotope caused a peculiar and subtle change in the cells of Dr. McKenna’s body…his whole appearance has changed into something scaly, almost lizard like.” 

 

 

4. THE FLY (20th Century Fox, 1958) – Director: Kurt Newman

Andre Delambre (David Hedison) is a dedicated young scientist. Andre lives with his wife Helen (Patricia Owens) and young son Philippe (Charles Herbert). Andre lets his brother Francois (Vincent Price) run the family business while he concentrates on pure research. He is trying to perfect a matter transmitter, which will allow a person to travel from place to place instantaneously. However, Andre is frustrated by the constant delays. One night when he thinks the machine is working perfectly, he places himself in the transmitter. However, Andre fails to see the small fly that has also entered the device. Tragedy ensues and Andre rematerializes with the head and hand of a fly. His only hope is if he or his devoted wife can find the fly that now bears his head and return it to Andre’s lab.

The Fly is simply one of the most gripping sci-fi films from the 1950s. It was such a prestigious film for its time that when it was first shown on network TV in the 1960s, it was given a premium nighttime slot, unheard of for a monster film. One of the joys in The Fly is that it takes its time to tell the story. Andre and Helen are such a likeable couple that their misfortune becomes doubly tragic. Here is this great researcher who wants nothing but good for mankind and he’s struck down horribly, while the shock of his affliction nearly drives his wife mad. The film was directed by Kurt Newman who also directed Rocketship XM and Kronos. Kronos did so well at the box office that 20th Century Fox chairman Spyros Skourus looked into doing another sci-fi film.  So Fox rolled the dice and The Fly paid off handsomely. All of the actors give good performances, but special honors have to go to David Hedison who has to mime once he becomes the fly. You can sense Andre’s frustration and growing fear as the insect part of him begins to take over. Featuring excellent Fox production values and a classy script by James Clavell (yes, that James Clavell), The Fly remains a great sci-fi movie.

Quotable Movie Line: “Help me, Helllp Meee!”

 

 

5. FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (MGM [UK], 1959) – Director: Robert Day

At a secret Air Force base in Arizona, Commander Chuck Prescott (Marshall Thompson) is overseeing the experimental Y-12 rocket program. The pilot of the Y-12 is none other than Lt. Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards), Chuck’s younger irresponsible brother. During flight Dan repeatedly disobeys orders and pushes the experimental craft past its limitations. Despite harsh warnings from his older sibling, Dan continues his reckless ways. Then on the next flight, tragedy strikes and the craft’s canopy is destroyed exposing Dan to the harsh near space environment. Chuck manages to regain control of the Y-12 from the ground, but when he gets to the crash site, Dan is gone. Just about the same time, a series of gruesome murders begin. It seems that there is a maniacal monster out there that needs human blood to survive. To Chuck’s horror he discovers that the monster is Dan who has been transformed by the space dust in the upper atmosphere. He’s now a deformed freak with a constant need for human blood. Chuck furiously tries to save his brother, but how does one change a monster back into a man?

First Man into Space freaked me out as a kid. It starts out as a straight military drama with two hard headed competitors who just happen to be brothers. Then after 30 minutes, it becomes a horror film as Dan emerges a bloodthirsty monster and proceeds to kill people left and right. I had never seen a film do that before. It was great. Director Robert Day does a terrific job keeping the viewer off guard, so that when the horror starts, it’s all the more intense and surprising. The mostly British cast is fine and Marshall Thompson is a steady leading man (as always). But it’s Bill Edwards who gives the best performance here. Despite being in a stiff rubber costume, Edwards does a great job conveying Dan’s agony and torment over his metamorphosis. First Man into Space is one of the most unusual sci-fi horror films from the 1950s. It’s a thrilling and scary adventure that still satisfies.

Quotable Movie Line: “I’ll get off your back as soon as you realize that we’re developing a piloted space plane and not a record-breaking hero!”

Of course, there are many more films to add to the man into monster sub-genre such as Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman (1959), Gene Nelson’s The Hand of Death (1962) and Kenneth G. Crane’s The Manster (for a great review of The Manster, please see Duane Martin’s review at B-Movie Central). But when I need to get in touch with that 13-year-old inside me, these are the five that I think of and return to. After more than 50 years, most of them are still solid monster movies.

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Selected References:

Hankin, Mike. Ray Harryhausen – Master of the Majicks. Volume 2: The American Films. Los Angeles, California: Archive Editions, LLC. 2008.

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

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies (Two Volume Set). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1982 and 1986.

Weaver, Tom. Attack of the Monster Movie Makers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1994.

Weaver, Tom. Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks.  Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1998.