Ghoulish Guests: MonsterGirl’s Five Favorite Movie Monsters

5 MONSTERS IN SEARCH OF AN EXISTENTIAL CRISIS

Steve Habrat (Theater Management) over at Anti-Film School has graciously given me the opportunity to join their 3rd Annual Horror Movie Spooktacular in time for Halloween. And I get to chat about five movie monsters that I consider to be my favorites. If you know me by now, you’ll understand that asking me to narrow down anything to a mere 5 is quite a challenge. But I venture to say that if I did cheat and mention a few who would have made the list, angry villagers won’t be hurling flaming torches at my porch if I do… but I promise to be good.

When you think of existentialism, well, when I the MonsterGirl nerd of all time, thinks of EXISTENTIALISM, Camus, Sartre & Kierkegaard immediately come to mind. When Steve asked me to think of 5 movie monsters that endeared themselves to me, I started to think of what it was, that essence of the thing, that impressed itself upon me so much about each monster’s character. It’s that they are Monsters in Search of an Existential Crisis.

EXISTENTIALISM

Descarte said “I think, therefor I am.”  Existentialists say “I am, therefore I think.”

This philosophy emphasizes a radical skepticism and the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience, an individual who is inhabiting an indifferent universe. Existentialism regards human existence as unexplainable and completely free. In this universe there is no guiding Dogma that can help us. We’re all faced with equally unfortunate choices which ultimately lead to doom and despair. All human endeavors are meaningless and virtually insignificant, so when faced with the fact that existence, humans feel despair. Existential angst is when we are aware of the awful pointlessness to our existence. So life is an unknowable concept with strange forces that spring from this mysterious existence, with nothing that has any meaning, and fighting it is futile. Cheerful stuff…

What is it about monsters that we love? What truly remains with ‘us’ classic horror fans is something deeper and eternally soldered into our collective psyche’s. Something about ‘the monster’ has either caused us to ‘identify’ with them or has triggered a profound fear response that lasts a lifetime.

All monsters, you could say are inherently existential figures because they come from a place of alienation, the unknown and live outside the realm of perceived normalcy. ‘5 Monsters in Search of an Existential Crisis’ seeks to understand how these particular characters are either the epitome of the existential ‘deviant’ (not to suggest deviancy in the context of being perverse but in the sense that they deviate from the norm of ‘accepted’ human nature, like a freak or a sword swallower or a drag queen), or have been placed in the middle of an existential environment.

When you think of the quintessential films that introduced themes of existential alienation into the narrative I think of Jack Arnold’s masterpiece The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) written by the late Richard MathesonDon Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and of course William Cameron Menzies’Invaders from Mars (1953).

Without further ado, here are our 5 monsters stuck in an existential landscape of despair, angst & searching for an identity in a cruel cruel universe.

My 5 Favorites are…! (the curtain lifts)

Frankenstein’s Monster, ‘The Gill Man’ from Creature From the Black Lagoon, ‘The Fire Demon’ from Curse of the Demon, ‘Tabonga The Tree Monster’ in From Hell it Came & ‘Giant Land Crabs’ from Attack of the Crab Monsters!

#1 PHOTO-Frankesteins-Monster-an-existential-man

#2 PHOTO-The Creature From The Black Lagoon

#3 PHOTO curse-of-the-demon

#4 PHOTO-Tabanga

#5 PHOTO Crab Monster

For me the quintessential existential man/monster, (and that’s not a pants monster ) is Mary Shelley’s literary Prometheus re-imagined by Jame’s Whale’s flagrant masterpiece. A man made from the scraps of robbed corpses and brought to life by the electrical secrets of heaven. Yes, Frankenstein’s Monster portrayed by the great Boris Karloff manifested a truly complex enigma of conception, creation, and existential angst who’s both fearsome yet sympathetic.

We can sympathize with the monster, as with Frankenstein, & The Gill Man from Creature From the Black Lagoon. We can find our involvement (at least I can), as one viewed with empathy toward the monster’s predicament. Depending on how much the film constructs it’s viewpoint which leans toward creating pathos in the narrative. Usually permitting these monsters to express human desires, and then making sure that those desires are thwarted and frustrated and ultimately destroyed. ‘The Outsider Narrative” can be seen so clearly in the horror/sci-fi hybrid Creature From The Black Lagoon. Film monsters like The Gill Man form vivid memories for us, becoming icons and laying the groundwork for the classical experience of good horror.

I think Creature From The Black Lagoon is quite a perfect film, as it works on so many different levels. The most obvious is that scientists have invaded a unique creature’s habitat only to force their domination and belligerence on him. And in the midst of this evolves a sort of a skewed Romeo and Juliet romance. The Gill Man never intends to threaten Julie Adam’s character Kay Lawrence. Quite the contrary, it’s the two opportunistic men who tote phallic harpoons around like extra penises on hand to fight each other about questions of ethics, how to conduct scientific research and over Kay like spoiled children.

1.) FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER: As portrayed by the great Boris Karloff

“Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”- Henry Frankenstein

Boris Karloff’s poignant yet terrifying transformation into the Frankenstein’s monster, thanks to the great make-up artist Jack Pierce is the most memorable, indelible ‘classic monster’ for me. Boris Karloff said in 1957 Jack’s words still echo in my mind: ‘This is going to be a big thing!'”

Mary Shelley created a transfixed symbol of existential angst..The gentleness that Boris Karloff imbued his character with will always touch my heart so deeply. Most memorable for me is the scene with the blind priest who breaks bread and shares his humble shack with his new ‘friend’ in Bride of Frankenstein my favorite of the three films where Karloff portrayed the monster.

From Wikipedia-Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is a novel written by Mary Shelley about an eccentric scientist Victor Frankenstein, who creates a grotesque creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. Just a brief mention in regards to the literary source, Victor

The opening narrative of the film goes like this: “We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation.; life and death”

#6 PHOTO Henry & his monster

Victor Frankenstein possessed great hubris. As many a mad scientist seeking the secrets of life tend to be. I suppose you must have that kind of insane drive to push back against the boundaries of the knowable to discover what lies beyond. BUT, when a man tries to act as God himself, one who creates life from the dead, challenging the biological fact that it is ‘women’ who give birth, who produce that life in the end. Ultimately, Victor Frankenstein’s monster is an existential failure. He justifies his work to Dr Waldman “Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and stars, to know what causes trees to bud and what changes darkness to light? But if you talk like that people call you crazy…! Well, if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.”

That scene is shattered with the imposing first sight of the monster. Jack Pierce’s, extraordinary make-up onBoris Karloff combined with the actors facial expressions and gestures are sheer brilliance.

Boris Karloff conveys a dead man’s angst who’s brought to life by a heretical scientist, inhabits his new world with such wonder, conflict and rage, so exquisitely it’s actually painful to watch as he is scorned and tormented as a ‘thing.’ who never asked to be created in the first place.

For the sake of brevity I’ll call him Frankenstein although he is ‘the monster.’Frankenstein has become an accepted name for Victor’s/Henry’s in the film version scientific yet unorthodox achievement.

And like that of Grendel, Frankenstein is the ultimate existential monster and Karloff gives him a child like quality that wrenches at your heart with pathos. Born into an unknown world, unaware of his purpose in life, why he was created and essentially who he is.

Karloff recalled “I don’t think the main screenwriter Bob Florey, really intended there to be much pathos inside the character. But Whale and I thought that there should be. We didn’t want the kind of rampaging monstrosity that Universal seemed to think we should go in for. We had to have pathos, Whale wanted to leave an impact.” And they certainly achieved that with Karloff’s performance and Whale’svision.

And I say this because he is born a black slate, tabula rasa. Only to have men of science and the surrounding community, some inherently belligerent, some like Henry’s assistant Fritz who are abusive and brutal who torture the monster, defining who he is because of his ‘difference’. It’s after Frankenstein’s first rampage that the monster evokes our sympathy.

At first the monster is like a new born infant. Henry tells him to sit down, but he doesn’t understand the word yet. He follows the doctor’s gestures and hand signals.

Again Karloff,“Whale and I saw the character as an innocent one {…} Within the heavy restrictions of my make-up I tried to play it that way. This was a pathetic creature like us all, had neither wish nor say in our creation and certainly didn’t wish upon itself, the hideous image which automatically terrified humans whom it tried to befriend. The most heart rending aspect of the creature’s life, for us was his ultimate desertion of his creator-it was though a man in his blundering searching attempts to improve himself was to find himself deserted by God.”- from Karloff More Than a Monster- Stephen Jacobs

This sentiment is at the essence of why Frankenstein is such a profoundly existential character, his crisis of alienation and detachment from his creator. In Cynthia Freeland’s book, The Naked and The Undead she cites Gregory Mank: “From the beginning Karloff’s approach to his ‘dear old monster’ was one of love and compassion. To discover and convey such sympathy was an outstanding insight.-considering that rarely has an actor suffered so hideously by bringing to life a character.”

#7 PHOTO Boris The Bride of Frankenstein

The hours of make-up and constructing the heavy suit Karloff had to endure, wearing it on the set during long days of shooting eventually crippled his legs, and left him extremely bow legged and in immense pain.

Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Cliveand his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) go to a graveyard and steal a body. The fanatical Dr. Frankenstein believes that life can be created from death. He challenges the systems of morality for an ambiguous crack at being God like. We therefore shift our allegiance and empathy toward the monster who becomes the central figure of the story. And now that he’s been forced into existence he wants Henry to create a mate for him and why not! All god’s children got a girl…

Again if I could have had a few more choices The Bride would have been on my list in a flash of lighting! I adore Elsa Lanchester and Franz Waxman’s score is perhaps one of the most evocative themes I just can resist becoming ebullient when ever I hear it!

With his bizarre experiments Henry defies the laws of nature, and the mortal contract with the universe and dares to try to give birth to his own creation. When he sends his assistant to steal a brain, the cruel knucklehead mistakenly takes a criminally insane brain without the Dr. realizing it. Shutting himself off from the outside world and his fiance Elizabeth (The gorgeous Mae Clarke) she arrives at the castle to see what’s going on. Meanwhile, the constructed body from scraps, sewn together from various bodies of several dead men is strapped to the slab and raised up into the violent electrical storm. Lightening surges into the body of the monster and soon… “Look! It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive… It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!” – Henry Frankenstein.

#8 PHOTO- Frankenstein smoking

Frankenstein emerges from his electrifying awaking into a dire world he did not ask to come into. To be shunned and controlled and reviled within only a few moments of his awareness. He has no chance to make his own choices or choose his own journey, He’s automatically an outsider who threatens those who perceive him as different thus dangerous.

Frankenstein is an ‘object of the grotesque’ in this typified mad scientist /monstrous creation movie where a scientist is obsessed with the ‘secrets of life itself’, his creation turns out to be a monster, the assistant is deformed in some way and often is antagonistic to the monster setting off a provoked rampage, and the lab is fabulous with scientific regalia and various apparatus in an isolated setting.

Ken Strickfaden’s designs or ‘special electrical properties’ buzzing light shows knobs and bottles and tubes in Henry Frankenstein’s lab are astounding. Charles D Hall’s art direction & set aides in the creation of an ambivalent scenery where science and morality conflict. The outside world is lenses as an ordered world, stylistically counter posed to the clandestine dark and unorthodoxy of Henry’s laboratory. James Whaleinjected a lot of camp into the Gothic sensibilities.

Frankenstein is labeled a ‘monster.’ Therefor, he causes suffering to others and perpetuates the idea that he is in fact ‘a monster’ But most of us can see him as an existential anti-hero. It is the law of the existential philosophy that says HE must be responsible for his actions. Actions that have justification but still have no bearing on the violent things he does. We are conflicted because we sympathize with his dilemma. Like a confused child who asks where do I come from?. Why am I here? Who is my creator? Why have they abandoned me and what is friendship? Watching Frankenstein journey through a hostile landscape is painful for me as he’s chased by angry villagers with flaming torches.He only wanted to see the little girl float like the flower… He’s strung up on a cross like an obvious Christ figure, beaten, chained, drugged and sought after to be deconstructed, he is a figure in an eternal existential crisis. A monster who doesn’t understand if he’s a man or truly a monster.

Interesting noteBela Lugosi turned the part of the monster down because he didn’t want to grunt and John Carradine refused to play monsters at all, also rejected the offer to play Frankenstein.

2) THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954)-THE GILL MAN

” There are many strange legends in the Amazon. Even I, Lucas, have heard the legend of a man-fish.”

An amphibian man driven out of his home by otherizing anthropologists must defend his realm. Ethnocentric colonialist men who dare study a guy who was just lazing around, dreaming with the fishes and suddenly falls for the beautiful Julie Adams. Chaos ensues. How can he adapt to the intrusion of the outsiders, since his world has become disordered and his sexual desire has been awakened. The films stars Richard Carlsonas David Reed and Richard Denning as Mark Williams. The two men who invade The Gill Man’s quiet life.

Ricou Browning portrayed the creature in the water, and Ben Chapman played the creature on land.

The Gill Man remains in the warm existential depths of the water… the lagoon his endless cycle of existence, thriving until he is invaded by scientific hubris. While in the lagoon he is connected to the creator of his world, remaining bound to a body of water that is symbolic of the eternal maternal womb. He is then forced out of his habitual life where he then becomes ‘otherized’ his crisis begins. With an ‘Outsider’ narrative the familiar then becomes monstrous. Our perceptions are focused on how this ‘being’ shatters the mold of normalcy. He transforms the ordinary world into something provocative and forces the outside world to define him, once again as with Frankenstein, he is perceived as a thing, as a creature.

#9 PHOTO Creature From the Black Lagoon & Kay

A film like Creature from the Black Lagoon can suggest to us the recognition of our notions of conventional sexuality and gender as well. The Gill Man has no genitalia, Ooh I said that word in a Movie Monster post. He’s similar to a frog ( I love frogs) yet has the stance of a man who begins to have sexual designs on the heroine.

While he is placed in a role that sees Kay as the ‘object’ of his affection, he’s sort of an androgynous amphibian, and yet he suggests that there are alternatives that exist in the realm of desire. The film has sexual symbolism throughout, as the outside world intrudes on an ambiguous sexual being living in the womb of the water, now unleashed as a sexual threat to women.

Phallic harpoons abound. The scene where he swims a slight distance away from the object of his desire, under the murky waters while Kay unaware, moves through the water with pleasure above him, barely hinting at an erotic intimacy between the two. Under the water the creature is not a threat to Kay, he’s almost shy, as he barely touches her leg yet swims off as if he’s conflicted with uncertainty about this new experience. William E Snyder is responsible for the striking underwater footage, that creates an erotic spacial world of shimmering light.

#10 PHOTO The Creature swims with Kay

The creature shows a fascination toward Kay, and she sort of shares a kind of bond, as both are threatened by the domination of the two male scientists. She tells the men to leave him alone, that it won’t bother them. Mark wants to capture the creature as proof of his discovery, rather than just study him in his own habitat. Mark wants both Kay and the creature, to possess them as objects. There are several scenes where Kay and the creature stare at each other as if they see something in common within themselves. Harry Essex wrote the screenplay, hated the script at first so he added the Beauty and the Beast theme, to give the creature more of a sense of humanity.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon is relentlessly sexual. Inhabited by mostly male characters, scientists who travel to the deep Amazon in search of undiscovered animal life. Hoping to find fossils they confront The Gill Man instead. The creature reacts violently to their intrusion into his quite domain, but he quickly becomes attracted to Julie Adams character Kay, the only female on the expedition who looks smashing in a one piece bathing suit and swims like she’s in the water follies.

The Gill Man evokes our sympathy who has become an ‘object’ to be controlled, dominated and assaulted by the outside world. It’s the scientific men who become the ‘aliens’ the bad guys and the creature another existential anti-hero.

#11 PHOTO creature-from-the-black-lagoon-1

3.) CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957) – THE FIRE DEMON

“It’s in the trees!”

The incredible Jacques Tourneur directs Curse of the Demon, a well staged monochromatic cerebral fairytale of the uncanny. An existential romp into the dark corners of the human psyche. Reminiscent of the RKO Val Lewton shadow plays of the 1940s, like Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man all directed by Tourneur. We are trapped inside a claustrophobic environment woven from a story about the natural world conflicted with the unreality of myth, superstition and paranoia.

Summoned by a wicked man, corrupted by a feeling of primacy Dr. Julian Karswell (with a brilliant performance by Niall MacGinnis) who has learned how to conjure up an authentic demon and ancient powerful forces when he translates a book called The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons. The term ‘Casting the Runes’ based on the M.R James story, refers to Karswell’s ability to telegraph long distance curses by using runic symbols on parchment paper. Karswell’s cult is named The Order of the True Believers.

The Fire Demon is the manifestation of Karswell’s existential angst. And now, the demon must do what he is fated to do, taunt and hunt down the chosen one who holds the runic parchment. Going down the railroad tracks of life like a fireball in the sky, or as musical icon Kate Bush would say from Hounds of Love, “It’s in the trees.”

#12 PHOTO- fire-demon-in-the-trees

Karswell’s own hubris, trying to control not only the natural world but the unnatural world at first puts him in a place of extreme power. His first victim Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham).

Harrington pulls up the to grand estate called Lufford Hall. There he pleads with Karswell who is quaintly playing a game of cribbage with his mother, to stop the curse. It’s interesting the juxaposition of the film’s portrayal of the two sides of Julian Karswell, The nobleman adapted to a quaint and elegant way of life, and the more sinister leader of a devil cult. Harrington begs him, “Stop this thing you’ve started and I’ll admit I was wrong and you were right.”

Mother offers Harrington some tea, which Karswell promptly says “It won’t be necessary.” The chilling affirmation that it’s too late for Professor Harrington. The clock strikes nine, and Karswell pretends he will do whatever he can. When Harrington moves out into the impenetrable darkness, arriving home, thinking he is safe, an odd swirling sparkling cloud begins to take shape. Lit from behind, it becomes more distinct until we see the figure with smoke bursting from it. As Harrington tries to escape by getting back into his car, he crashes into a set of power lines which fall down on the car with sparks flying. The Professor is illuminated in black silhouette as he scrambles to get away from the wreckage.

It is then we see in close up, the face of the fearsome beastie baring his demonic horns, vicious teeth and threatening, drooling expression. Although assumed that the downed electrical cables killed Harrington. we see a giant foot stomping down on him as he dies screaming.

Karswell, a magician, leader of a cult of devil worshipers and all around mommy’s boy, lives in fear that he will be exposed publicly as the leader of a devil cult, threatened by the press and an over zealous skeptic Dr, John Holden played by Dana Andrews who is on a mission to bring Karswell’s doings into the open.

Holden “Well, what do you expect me to do? Nobody’s free from fear. I have an imagination like anyone else. It’s easy to see a demon in every dark corner. But I refuse to let this thing take possession of my good senses. If this world is ruled by demons and monsters we may as well give up right now.”

He muses, “I know the value of the cold light of reason… but I also know the deep shadows that light can cast.”  this is a paradoxical statement for a man who challenged superstition as a young boy, purposely walking under ladders and not scampering away from the sight of a black cat.

Karswell curses Holden, by slipping him the parchment that decries “time allowed 3 days” Holden must cut loose the ties that bind his rigid skepticism. He must now secretly pass the parchment back to Karswell reversing the curse and marking the summoner of the Fire Demon who will eventually be torn to pieces by the winged demon he has invoked.

The Fire Demon reminds me of a cat. which is why I love him so much… beyond his imposing presence and title I think he’s sort of cuddly and toothsome, though smoke doesn’t emanate from

their little furry bodies thankfully, my Siamese Daisy does drool… And at times Mishka & Vera Belly do sort of raise hell.

Here the demon while being the central focus of the title, is as much an existential monster as is the film’s villain who creates an untenable landscape of angst, despair and conflict within the parameters of freedom and self-will. In keeping with the idea of existentialist thought there really is no God, good or evil that can protect you. Karswell alone, makes choices which ultimately lead to his destruction, diminished by his lack of control, though he thinks he lives in a world of his own making. Karswell creates an existential exploration for all the characters involved, it is his magic that conjures the anxiety that floats around the heavy air in the story.

Dr. Julian Karswell: “Listen, mother. You believe in the supernatural. I’ve shown you some of its power and some of its danger.”
Mrs. Karswell (Athene Seyler): “Yes, Julian

Dr. Julian Karswell: “Well, believe this also. You get nothing for nothing. This house, the land, the way we live. Nothing for nothing. My followers who pay for this do it out of fear. And I do what I do out of fear also. It’s part of the price.

Mrs. Karswell: “But if it makes you unhappy. Stop it. Give it back.
Dr. Julian Karswell: “How can you give back life? I can’t stop it. I can’t give it back. I can’t let anyone destroy this thing. I must protect myself. Because if it’s not someone else’s life, it’ll be mine. Do you understand, mother? It’ll be mine.”

I particularly love the film’s envisioned demon who does resemble ancient text illustrations though infused with less of a historical accuracy and possesses more dramatic exaggerated flare. His presence does have more of an impact when he is barely seen as he descends from the sky through the trees as a ball of fiery gas, sparking the night with fury and dread.

What gets incorporated into the plot’s existential nature as well is Freud’s concept of The Uncanny, which also represents the field of an unknown world. “Uncanny is what one calls everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden and has come into the open… there’s no doubt that it belongs to the realm of the frightening of what evokes fear and dread” -Freud

#13 PHOTO-the-fire-demon-on-the-train-tracks

#14 PHOTO-chasing-the-runes

The Fire Demon is an unknowable character attached to a mysterious sphere, subject to the summoning of an ambitious yet ruthless magician who tinkers in the black arts. The Fire Demon finds himself manifested in the natural world in order to fulfill the contract of a curse where the victim is marked having been given possession of a runic spell cast on a piece of parchment paper.

He is another character being used as an ‘object’ this one of an awesome fear & execution, Though we see very little of him, his presence is felt in the way the air seems to tingle wet and heady as if it could spark just before an electrical storm. The smell of sulfur, the crackle and hiss of electricity in the air. The effusive smoke, then the fireball that lights up the trees is magnificent. The Fire Demon is summoned to kill, then recedes back into the nether regions, an unknowable place in our consciousness.

An uncanny beast beyond the limits of our natural world he lives in the moment when he acts as killer. An existential nightmare where man in this case Karswell makes up the meaning yet all the actions are meaningless in the end. As what comes with his responsibility to command his place in the order of things, he realizes he has now power, and collides with the consequences of his actions, leading to anxiety, panic then ironically his own death at the hands of The Fire Demon. Karswell grows too self important and his hunger for freedom from the bonds of conformity. Karswell lives in an anxious state of empowered narcissism but is very aware that his grip on control is a tenuous one.

From Soren Kierkegaard 1813-1855 Freedom and Dread

“Utter self-reliance, however, is a frightening prospect. Although we are strongly inclined to seek human freedom” Kierkegaard noted that Contemplation of such a transcendence of all mental and bodily determinations tends only to produce grave anxiety in the individual. Genuine innocence entails an inability to foresee all the outcomes, which thereby renders one incapable of gaining control over one’s own life.”

The use of sound in Curse of the Demon which is it’s U.S release title, the British being Night of the Demon, is especially evocative and effectively connected to the feeling of dread and danger the imagery creates. Arthur Bradburn was the sound engineer and Charles Crafford the dubbing editor.

Thanks to Jacques Tourneur’s experience working with Val Lewton who produced a collection of classical, cerebral shadow plays the film’s atmosphere is sheer perfection. And we can’t forget the breathtakingly evocative cinematography by Ted Scaife. Tourneur uses the shadows to cause dread. With wonderful special effects by Wally Veevers.

In a universe filled with unexpected and unknowable truths, The Fire Demon hails from a place of mystery. The unknowable and awesome realm of the netherworld. He is also out the reach of reason, an ‘otherworldly other.’

From {Cinefantastique Vol 2 #4 Summer 1973} Jacques Tourneur –“I wanted at the very end, when the train goes by, to include only four frames of the monster coming up with the guy and throwing him down. Boom, boom- did I see it or didn’t I?…But after I had finished and returned to the United States to English producer Frank Bevis, made this horrible thing, cheapened it. It was like a different film”

So is The Fire Demon otherworldly nonsense or I read somewhere it was referred to as “eerie hokum”? The debate can go on as to whether making the demon visible to us lessened the dramatic aspects or cheapened the film as Tourneur stated. Critics agree with Tourneur that seeing the demon ruined the picture. Apparently it’s a common assertion that the scenes with the visible demon were inserted into the film against Tourneur’swishes by producer Hal Chester. That his insistence on showing the actual demon was exploitative and crude. Dennis Gifford says that it wasn’t so much that Tourneur didn’t want to show the demon, it’s that he didn’t want to use it as the predominant feature, as a ‘hammer’ to hit the audience over the head with.

#15 PHOTO-Fire Demon-curse_of_demon

From my perspective as someone who loves the classical horror genre, the expectations of showing the demon immediately in the prologue just sort of satisfies our journey as cinematic voyeurs that there is a palpable and imminently frightening force at work in terms of the graphic context of the film. Then we can sit back and take in the beautiful subtlety of the camera work with it’s use of light and shadow. The long shots of the corridors, the sound effects, the bursts of light in the trees in the darkest night, the visual cues that distort reality at times, bring about a very menacing quality to the film even with the literal use of the demon. The screeching iron sound of the train mixed with the whirring flapping of fiery wings is astounding. I remember that moment as the demon is assailing the screen, almost as if he were riding atop the train, both hurling at us at an incredible imposing speed and force.

Script writer Charles Bennett who had collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock on several films & actor Andrewsfelt that seeing the demon in a literal way, pulled you out of the subtle atmosphere of the film. After seeing this film about a hundreds times, I have to disagree. The film is balanced with the right amount of atmosphere with the few scenes where the demon manifests, and in it’s way, reinforces the idea that the world is a mysterious playground filled with things to be feared and acknowledged. It still holds up today as a classical piece of artistic horror.

The Fire Demon’s fearsome visage was drawn by special effects master George Blackwell, (Masque of the Red Death 1964, The Abominable Dr. Phibes 1971) who took his inspiration from wood carvings of medieval depictions. It gives the film a few moments of graphic savagery rather than the understated hostility that bubbles under the surface of the urbane yet cherubic Karswell.

Curse of the Demon possesses an eerie charm and sense of noirish dread. Tourneur having directed the noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1947) I personally love to see the demon materialize out of the cloud of fiery vapors. The phosphorescent glow of a train, it’s thunderous motion, coincides with Karswell’s brutal death at the hands of his own demon. Full close up, claws, fangs horns and snout, snarling clawing, thrashing the chosen victim till he’s a lifeless rag dolls left on the railway tracks of an existential life…

There are so many incredible moments to Curse of the Demon. Not only is he one of my favorite film monsters, but the film itself is on my top ten classic horror list. I’ll be writing more extensively about the film itself with the plot summary and overall impressions and all, but for the sake of this piece, I’m focusing on the ‘monster’ and not the film itself. Just quickly-One of my favorite scenes when Holden and Joanna (Peggy Cummings (Gun Crazy)who plays Prof. Harrington’s daughter) arrive at Lufford Hall where Karswell is entertaining children for a Halloween party and to spar with Holden’s infuriating skepticism conjures up an old fashioned wind storm. It’s a marvelous scene in a film that possesses some of the most striking images and psychological horror, throughout with the usage of darkness and light as only Jacques Tourneur can envision.

4.) FROM HELL IT CAME (1957) – TABANGA TREE MONSTER

“They called it Tabanga!”

Kimo (Gregg Palmer) was just an ordinary island prince until his jealous brother in law wanted the to rule the people of his village.. Stabbed thru the heart with a tribal dagger, Kimo puts a curse on the people who betrayed him. But he also dooms himself to walk the earth as a tree monster. (I love trees.) And this guy in particular is cheeky, cheesy and down right hilarious to watch. As he bounds through the island terrain condemning those who put him to death, left  wandering, with his pulsing heart. The Tabanga has no deep thoughts about his roots, he lives in the moment on a mission, the old superstitions of the island have freed Kimo of death, a freedom that pulses within a tree trunk and ravages the young island girls.

A man now transformed into a menacing ‘monster’ his world is now alien to him and he has chosen to wreak vengeance on those who betrayed and tortured him to death. He is transfixed as a figure outside the realm of the natural world. While not as sympathetic as Frankenstein or The Gill Man, watching Tabanga trundle through the terrain with his satirical expression carved in wood? is just too hilarious not to be beloved.

#16 PHOTO-from-hell-it-came-

An atomic research group goes to a pacific island to treat the ‘natives’ ( gosh I hate that phrase but they loved to use it in the 50s it was so cinematically anthropological of them… right) for burns and a disease caused by radiation fallout that was drifting from the local U.S. A-Bomb tests off the Nogasa atoll.

The local witchdoctor Maranka (Baynes Barron) blames the Americans and uses this to incite conflict within his people, in order to control them. He has the chief, Kimo killed accusing him of conspiring with the Americans to make his people sick from the ‘Black Plague’ that has been afflicting his tribe. Prof. Clark: ‘He’s afraid of losing his patients to modern medicine. He wants to keep them steeped in their centuries-old superstitions. They worship him like some kind of high priest!”

Before Kimo is killed, he vows “I will come back from the grave to revenge myself... in death I will be stronger than you in life.”

They stab him through the heart with a dagger, pounding it into his chest and placing him in a tree and he is buried. Soon after, assuming the radiation has been effecting the environment of the island, Kimo comes back to life as Tabanga the legendary Tree Monster of his tribal folklore. He goes on a murderous rampage.

#17 PHOTO-from-hell it came

Linda Watkins is the highlight of this film as Meg Kilgore. Watkins always brings a comedic edge to her sassy nature. Here as Meg Kilgore she embodies a farcical ‘hysterical woman’, she adds an anxious cheekiness to her role.

She sees Kimo’s murder and is almost killed herself. She tells the scientists at the compound what happened. They need to find a cure for the plague before the islanders will trust them.

Paul Blaisdell designed this kooky monster though he didn’t construct him. The film blends island magic and science, fear of ‘natives’ as savages who equally fear ‘outsiders’ as invaders who bring about death to their culture and their people.

Again we have the “Outside Narrative” as the Americans intrude and Tabanga while not sympathetic as a silly walking stump with a face right out of Mel Blanc’s imagination, is now living in an even more hostile world.

#18 PHOTO- it camefromhell 1957

When scientists Dr. Bill Arnold (Tod Andrews) and Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver) see an odd stump like growth protruding out of the ground around Kimo’s grave, Norgu a friend of the murdered prince tells them about the legend of an earlier chief similarly slain by his enemies. He was buried with seeds and the chief became a tree monster. Lightning tore it loose from the ground and it killed many “They called it Tabanga…the Tabanga vanished into the forest. Some say it went into the quicksand.”

Kimo’s death dagger is jutting out of the stump. Highly radioactive the stump has a human heartbeat and oozes a greenish substance similar to blood. Norgu warns them to pull the thing out by the roots and throw it in the quicksand. Prof. Clarke ( John McNamara) tells him “What you fear is scientifically impossible.”

“You know what... Terry shudders, I have an eerie felling this thing knows what we’re saying.”

Of course they’re told by Washington to study the Tabanga.That night the doctors uproot the tree and perform an operation. Bill bumps into the dagger which pushes it further into the heart causing it to stop beating. But Terry transfuses the tree man with formula 447 to keep him from dying and he winds up going on a rampage wrecking the lab and seeking out those who betrayed him.

“Why don’t we psychoanalyze the monster? Maybe it’s mother was scared by an oak tree” Bill jokes.

Even the islanders can’t destroy Tabanga that easily, they lure him into a covered pit, and set fire to him, but he rises up. Grendel clearly recognizes his existential condition, he doesn’t know if he’s a monster or a hero. Kimo was a good man betrayed by his woman and a few power hungry men, now as he has transcended his body he is compelled to fulfill his destiny as the Tabanga.

Kimo is faced with the same philosophical question? Am I a man or a tree monster? You could also say that Kimo died for trusting the outsiders, and their culture. A tragic existential figure in the guise of a comical monster that’s a scream… And he’s not just throwing apples as in The Wizard of Oz, The Tabanga tree throws women into quicksand. What a symbolic eternal death.

5) The Giant Land Crabs- ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS

” Once they were men…. Now they’re land crabs!”

#19 PHOTO-attack_of_crab_monsters_

In Corman’s fabulous romp Crab Monsters devour their victims assimilating their consciousness so that they may nourish themselves as well as speak. They crumble the island down around them as the scientists are left with hardly any stitch of land to stand on. All the while taunting them with the disembodied voices of their friends who have fallen victim to these giant crustaceans. Personally I don’t eat crab, but these guys are delicious fun. As the humans who now inhabit the monstrous shelled mutations, as they think about life in new terms.

Near a remote South Pacific atoll, they are doing atomic tests. Turbulent tidal waves smash against the island destroying buildings and causing the inhabitants to go missing. The storm subsides and a group of scientists are sent there to study it’s radioactive conditions on the island and uncover what might have happened to the previous McLean expedition who vanished.

Professor Jules Deveroux a geologist says “Strange… you can see only a small part of the island from this spot, yet you feel a lack of welcome. Lack of abiding life eh?”

Ed Nelson in his first film appearance as Ensign Quinlan says “I felt the same when I came here before, to rescue your first group. I not only knew they were gone, but that they were lost, completely and forever. Body and soul” In an act of premonition Jules answers “Maybe their bodies are gone but who can tell of their souls, eh?” He stops and ponders then, “Maybe if I call to them, they will answer. Their ghosts will answer.” Once he calls out McLean’s name flocks of seagulls scatter. A haunting moment that prefigures the rest of the mayhem.

The scientists prepare their gear in the renovated house. Quinlan goes back to oversee the supply raft’s arrival. A sailor falls off the boat. Underwater, a darkly moving shape opens it’s eyes. We hear him scream in horror. The other two men pull up a headless body.

The cheekiness of the film inhabits the landscape ironically with ordinary little land crabs moving about their business, crawling around on the sandy shore. Richard Garland plays Dale Drewer, Pamela Duncan plays Martha Hunter, Leslie Bradley plays Dr Karl Weigard, Russell Johnson is Hank Chapman and Richard Cutting is Dr. James Carson.

They discover McLean’s journal that notes an unidentified piece of flesh like that of a worm measuring twenty four by eight inches, making the creature almost 5 feet long. The flesh also resists any cutting.

One of the memorable moments of the film is when Dale and Martha are in the house, when a ‘clicking’ noise creates a creepy, eerie leitmotif. It also signals when the giant crabs are closing in. When Martha and Dale go scuba diving for specimens a large ‘rock’ she was using as a landmark vanishes. Dale mentions that he had seen a large black shape moving closer, but except for the land crabs and seagulls, there is no sign of life on the island.

Suddenly Jim calls to the group to show them a deep pit where there used to be a path.The island has been experiencing odd tremors since they arrived.

Martha is awakened by a ghostly voice, “It is McLean… help me Martha, help me” urging her to go to the pit. Against Karl’s warning Jim ropes himself down into the pit. “You don’t know what’s down there”Martha objects. “What could be there other than earth, water and a few land crabs.” While Martha holds a lantern for Jim until he’s out of sight she hears the clicking sound and calls out to Jim. There’s another tremor which knocks her out and Jim falls screaming into the pit.

The clicking sound is really a memorable theme of the movie, as when the two sailors inside their tent begin hearing the mysterious noise and remark, “Sounds like a kid running a stick across a picket fence.” Just before they open up the tent flap and get devoured by an unseen giant land crab monster!

#20 PHOTO crab monster

Again, a great moment for me is when Martha and Dale are besieged by a crab monster who breaks through the ceiling in the room where the radio is. When Dale opens the door to investigate a giant claw attacks him, but is frightened off by the charge of electricity from the radio. The room is demolished leaving a gaping hole in the wall. Martha says looking through the hole “Once there was a mountain. When we first arrived there was a mountain there.” “We are unquestionably on the brink of a great discovery!… it’s not likely that that discovery is of a pleasant nature” Karl imagines.

With another tremor causing a cave in, where the rocks sever Jule’s right hand. Now they begin hearing Jim’s disembodied voice. Jules is sedated in bed. Sam and Ron the sailors who have been devoured in their tent have now joined Jim. Jules has been aroused by the voices of the sailors Sam and Ron who claim they’ve found Jim, telling him he must come to the pit alone, which he does.

“Where right here Professor” Ron’s voice lilts as a giant claw grabs Jules.

It’s harder to talk about the giant crabs in the same terms as Frankenstein or The Gill Man because these are of course crustaceans effected by the radiation. What gives them primacy is the fact that they have assimilated the personalities of the people they devoured. So you have to look at the creepiness of a giant clawed crawler with human consciousness and the ability to communicate with disembodied voices of the recently eaten victims. I mean a giant crab with a French accent is sublime. It’s just too wonderful not to adore mes amies!

At this point Jules invites those who are left to come to the cave. “I am here too!” says Jim. “My leg no longer troubles me, it’s almost exhilarating, Will you come?”

When I was a little MonsterGirl the idea of these crabs (which by the way are horrifically adorable as hell to me now) talking and luring people to their death was a scary concept, and I was too young to grasp the campiness of it all, it just scared the heck out of me in that, well like poor Jim says ‘it’s almost exhilarating,’way.

Dale Drewer: “If there is a single cause, then that cause is outside of nature as we know it.”

Dr. Karl Weigand: “No, I cannot tell you that… but I can tell you this. Everything that has happened from the death of the first sailor to the destruction of our radio must be somehow related. They are too far from the normal scheme of things to be separate accidents.

When the revelation finally hits the remaining party Karl expounds, “Composed of free atoms, the crabs are like a liquid with permanent shape. Any matter therefor , that the crab eats will be assimilated in it’s body of solid energy.{…} And the brain tissue, which after all is nothing but a storage house for electrical impulses”

Dale adds, “This means that the crab can eat it’s victim’s brain absorbing it’s victims mind intact and working.”

The Giant Crab closes in on the remaining survivors… They fire into his massive claw.

“So you have wounded me… I must grow a new claw. Well and good. For I can do it in a day. But will you grow new lives when I have taken yours from you!”

Here is the existential crisis at hand. People’s identities have been transfixed in a new world out of the mysterious experience of transmigration of the soul itself. Trapped in a crab creature that lives outside the world of known science and logic.

Radiation was the working theme in a majority of these ‘giant monsters’ films of the 50s. Wreaking havoc like the giant ants in Them, The Monster That Challenged the World, Tarantula, Beginning of the End, The Giant Mantis, the list of atomic age carnage goes on and on…

#21 PHOTO-crab-eye-close-up

Corman had said in Alan Frank’s book The Films of Roger Corman-“Shooting My Way Out of Trouble.” “I think it’s success had something to do with the wildness of the title….{and} with the construction of the story line.”

Fun fact: The underwater crab was stuffed with styrofoam which made it really buoyant, so it had to be weighed down in order to keep it below the surface of the water!

 About MonsterGirl:

Jo Gabriel is the MonsterGirl behind the blog The Last Drive. Founded in 2006 as a way to channel her passion for film and retro television shows, The Last Drive In started out covering favorite TV anthology shows (like Boris Karloff’s Thriller), various classical horror and sci-fi films, and sharing Jo’s great fondness for classic dramatic television and character actors. Obscure gems and cult oddities.

The blog grew to include cheeky and thoughtful musings, and a lot of heart and nostalgia for the days of double features, drive-ins, late night features (like Chiller Theater & made for tv movies like ABC’s Movie of the Week), the golden age of Hollywood who gave us inimitable stars like Bette Davis.

And the site features Jo’s new love of film noir, probably her most beloved genre after classic horror.

A proud New Yorker, Jo is primarily a prolific singer/songwriter whose music is compared to Kate Bush. She is self-taught at the piano and hopes to start performing out in New York City again soon. She has gypsy lineage and loves her tribe of cats that let her live with them. Currently she’s writing and working on her new album, and sometimes sings standards with her siamese Daisy. She wishes Boris Karloff had been her Grandfather and Vincent Price her uncle.

To visit MonsterGirl’s The Last Drive In, click here.

To purchase her music, click here.

Advertisements

Posted on October 19, 2013, in FEATURE and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Frankenstein’s monster, the Demon AND Tabonga…I freaking love it! Nice job! ML

  2. Wow, all old B&W classics from the golden age of sci-fi & horror! Great choices !

  3. Wow that was long haha. Good stuff though 😀

  4. Brilliant piece and all outstanding monster choices! I especially LOVE Night of the Demon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: