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The Atomic Submarine (1959)

The Atomic Submarine #1

by Steve Habrat

In the heyday of saucer men science fiction movies from the 1950s, most of the films saw the extraterrestrial visitors descending from the stars and roaming the dry landscapes of earth. They landed their shiny UFO right smack dab in the middle of Washington DC in the thoughtful The Day the Earth Stood Still and they sneakily attempted to turn American citizens into mindless clones in the chilling Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Heck, we even visited their home planets in such Technicolor classics like This Island Earth and Forbidden Planet. In 1959, director Spencer Gordon Bennet aimed to change the aliens-on-land mold with his low budget B-movie effort The Atomic Submarine, a serious-minded aquatic adventure that finds its spacemen seeking shelter and attacking earthlings from under the sea. While it certainly doesn’t rank with the classics mentioned above, The Atomic Submarine is still quite an impressive effort for a low budget science fiction outing. It features some heady political debates, some grand special effects that include underwater UFOs and a Cyclops alien complete with slimy tentacles, and a cast of veteran actors that keep the drama and tension high inside the cramped hallways of their Tigershark submarine.

The Atomic Submarine begins by explaining that a handful of ships and submarines have been mysteriously destroyed as they pass through the North Pole. In a frenzied attempt to halt the destruction, the authorities quickly close off the North Pole to any ships or submarines that may be passing through. An emergency meeting is called at the Pentagon between Commander Dan Wendover (played by Dick Foran), Secretary of Defense Justin Murdock (played by Jack Mulhil), and scientist Sir Ian Hunt (played by Tom Conway), who all begin debating how to handle the situation. A plan is devised to send the atomic submarine Tigershark out into the disaster zone and track down what is causing all the attacks. A crew is soon assembled, which includes Lt. Commander Richard “Reef” Holloway (played by Arthur Franz), Dr. Clifford Kent (played by Victor Varconi), and pacifist scientist Dr. Carl Neilson, Jr. (played by Brett Halsey). Shortly after setting out, the crew stumbles upon a saucer shaped underwater craft, which they quickly assume is an Unidentified Flying Object. The order is given to attack the UFO, but to the astonishment of the crew, the torpedoes that are fired do nothing to the ship. With no alternative options to bring the saucer down, the crew begins devising a way to destroy the ship, but their situation becomes even graver once they learn of the extraterrestrial’s plot to invade Earth.

Made with a measly $135,000 dollars, The Atomic Submarine is a science fiction film that doesn’t shy away from showing off for the viewer. The early sequences are minimal, with a group of guys stuffed into a room talking strategy with a bunch of flashing monitors and buttons behind them. Bennet will occasionally cut to the outside of the Tigershark as it glides proudly through a valley of icebergs. At times, it is glaringly obvious that Bennet is simply showing us a close-up of a child’s model submarine submerged in a swimming pool, but these close-ups do add a grand scale to the high tech piece of underwater machinery. As the film progresses, Bennet works up to a sleek UFO complete with a single glowing window on the top that leads the crew to nickname the ship ‘Cyclops.’ The UFO is unique in the sense that it is a living organism that can deflect bombs, a science fiction first! By the end of the film, the few members of the Tigershark crew manage to make their way inside the UFO and snoop around the inside of the ship. They are not met with alien monitors, neon lights, or other ornate decorations, but rather pitch-black open spaces with a single walkway cutting through the darkness and a weapon that can burn the guys to a crisp. Then there is the alien himself, which looks like a bigger version of the extraterrestrials that prowled the deserts of It Came from Outer Space. He truly is nifty and the filmmakers did manage to make him pretty intimidating.

The Atomic Submarine #2

What ultimately separates The Atomic Submarine from the rest of the other science fiction films of the 1950s is the slew of veteran actors gently guiding the film. Dick Foran is quietly in control as the no-nonsense Commander Wendover, a man ready to give the order to fire rockets straight at their extraterrestrial antagonist. Arthur Franz is the true star here as Lt. Holloway, the brave playboy who detests the pacifist Dr. Neilson and has a shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude towards the situation that they find themselves in. Franz also nabs the film’s best line when he comes face to, um, face with the alien menace at the end. Halsey is subdued as the young Dr. Neilson, the liberal-minded son of one of Holloway’s closest friends. Halsey is probably the youngest actor in the entire film and barely given the chance to save the day, strange considering that the fresh faced all-American is usually the one that is sticking it to the invading alien force in these types of B-movies. The other interesting aspect of The Atomic Submarine is the fact that there isn’t a damsel in distress anywhere near the action. In fact, there is barely a female face to be found outside of the blonde bombshell Joi Lansing. She shows up near the beginning as Lt. Holloway’s smoldering distraction for a drunken evening.

It is no secret that the science fiction films of the 1950s warned us of the dangers of the bomb, radiation, mutation, and the Reds while always reminding audiences to keep an eye on the sky. The Atomic Submarine is certainly no different than most of the other B-movies of this era in terms of coming with a message, but it seems to shake its head at some of the liberal mindedness that these films were remembered for. Midway through the film, there is a heady confrontation between Dr. Neilson and Lt. Holloway about how to approach the alien ship. Neilson argues that violence shouldn’t be the first response while Lt. Holloway is ready to bring the firepower. It is certainly a show stopping debate, but it’s especially interesting because it seems to be tapping into the tensions that were leading up to the counter culture movement, something that was only a few short years away. Overall, while it certainly won’t be remembered as one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, The Atomic Submarine is without question one of the more unique, measured, finely acted, and thought provoking B-movies that filled out a cheapie double bill. Come for the impressive underwater UFO and stay for the unsettling final showdown.

Grade: B

The Atomic Submarine is available on DVD. It is available in the Monsters and Madmen set by the Criterion Collection.

Universal Movie Monsters Sequel Mini Reviews: The Mummy

by Steve Habrat

As dark and ominous as they come, the exotic Boris Karloff film is certainly a spine-tingling adventure. While the original Karloff film is a stand alone film, Universal refused to let the Mummy franchise shuffle back into the tomb and in 1940, they rebooted the series with more action, more suspense, more terror, and more mummy. If you wish to read Corinne Rizzo’s review of the Boris Karloff classic, click here. Without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s mini reviews of The Mummy reboots. Read on if you dare…

The Mummy’s Hand (1940)

After unemployed archeologist Steve Banning (Played by Dick Foran) and his assistant, Babe Jenson (Played by Wallace Ford), stumble upon the whereabouts of the hidden tomb of Egyptian Princess Ananka, the duo sets out to find funding for their new expedition. The duo finds funding from jolly American magician Slovani (Played by Cecil Kellaway), who tags along on their quest with his beautiful daughter Marta (Played by Peggy Moran). The group believes that this new discovery will make them wealthy beyond their wildest dreams but they accidentally awaken an ancient curse that stirs Kharis (Played by Tom Tyler), a mummy that guards the tomb of Princess Ananka. As Kharis slowly rips his way through the members of Banning’s expedition, the sinister high priest Professor Andoheb (Played by George Zucco) is revealed to be controlling the mummy and he has his eyes on a bigger prize—Marta.

While more of a remake of the 1932 Boris Karloff original The Mummy, The Mummy’s Hand actually manages to be a bit more entertaining than the Karloff classic. Heavy on the serial style action and lighter on the creepy-crawly horror, the film certainly flirts with a B-movie aura but that only adds to the fun to be had. Where the original film only allowed us to see the mummy for a total of five minutes at most, director Christy Cabanne doesn’t shy away from showing us this undead fiend. He never takes on a human form in this Mummy installment and I must say that I enjoyed the film even more because of it. While Karloff was certainly creepy in the role, Tyler’s mummy is a hellish sight to behold, especially when we get a revolting close-up that reveals black holes for eyes and a twisted gimp arm. The mummy ends up being an indestructible puppet for a less interesting puppet master but he still manages to make your skin crawl when he shuffles in for the attack.

The Mummy’s Hand certainly has its fair share of comic relief to break up this roller coaster ride. Ford’s Babe Jenson is a mouthy sidekick that delivers one sly remark after another. Foran’s Banning is the typical tall, dark, and handsome hero who is constantly throwing himself in between the attacking mummy and Marta, who is usually tied up and screaming. There is also the buffoonish magician Slovani, who seems like he is only in front of the camera to perform some mildly impressive magic tricks but you won’t hear me complaining about him. At just barely over an hour, the film’s evil plot suffers a bit but the characters are all so animated that we barely even notice the moldy story. The film also hilariously borrows footage from the original Mummy movie and shamelessly steals the score from Son of Frankenstein, a cheap approach but never very distracting. Overall, The Mummy’s Hand may not send you fleeing in terror from it but as a rollicking serial-esque romp with a few tense spots, I don’t think you can really go wrong with it. Grade: B+


The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)

Thirty years after Steve Banning (Played by Dick Foran) sent the mummy Kharis to a fiery grave, an Egyptian high priest named Mehemet Bey (Played by Turhan Bey) travels to America with Kharis (Played by Lon Chaney, Jr.) to eliminate the surviving members of the Banning expedition and any descendents they may have. As the body count rises, the local citizens believe that they have a flesh and blood killer on their hands, but all hell breaks loose when they discover that the killer may be supernatural.

About as rickety as they come, The Mummy’s Tomb barely clocks in at an hour. Ten minutes of that hour are dedicated to giving us a quick refresher over the events of The Mummy’s Hand. This refresher comes in the form of lifting key scenes from The Mummy’s Hand and interlacing the scenes into a story told by the much older Banning. The other fifty minutes of The Mummy’s Tomb speeds by with plenty of nonstop suspense that is surprisingly effective even if it was made on the cheap. The overall appearance of the mummy, this time portrayed by Universal’s favorite son, Lon Chaney, Jr, is especially ghastly. Here, the mummy is missing an eye and has a charred mug that makes him even more repulsive than he already is. Chaney isn’t really given room to do anything creative with the roll and he basically resorts to mimicking the movements of Tom Tyler. Honestly, you wouldn’t even know it was Chaney in the make-up unless you were told.

The Mummy’s Tomb has a difficult time settling on one hero, bouncing in between the aging Banning and his valiant son John (Played by John Hubbard), who is forced to once again destroy the shuffling ghoul with fire.  Wallace Ford pops in for a cameo as Babe, a cameo that doesn’t ask him to do anything except run down a dark alley and make a half-assed attempt to get away from the mummy. Surprisingly, Bey gives a fairly measured performance as the mummy’s puppet master. He is basically after the same thing that Andoheb was after but he is a bit creepier about it. Over before you even realize it, The Mummy’s Tomb is creaky B-movie horror that has an impressive monster, a unique setting, and plenty of atmospheric shadows to make this a quick fix that satisfies a monster movie craving. Grade: B-


The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)

Taking place many years after the events of The Mummy’s Tomb, the year is now 1970 and yet another new High Priest, Yousef Bey (Played by John Carradine), has traveled from Egypt to Mapleton, Massachusetts, to find the body of the mummy Kharis (Played by Lon Chaney, Jr.) and his dead lover, Ananka. Yet before Yousef can make it to Mapleton, Kharis is accidentally awoken from his slumber and begins attacking innocent civilians. When Yousef arrives, he discovers that Ananka’s soul has been reincarnated in the body of a beautiful young Egyptian woman named Amina Mansori (Played by Ramsay Ames). Meanwhile, the local detectives race to destroy the mummy before he can kill again.

Doing virtually nothing to set itself apart from The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost shuffles by on basically the same plot as its predecessor. I will admit that, in a way, it is sort of funny the way the script continues to rehash the mummy’s origin and recycle the same plotline. Yet you will find yourself unable to dislike The Mummy’s Ghost because it finds Chaney giving the moldy monster a small amount of personality and the film packs a pretty bleak climax. Here, Kharis is sent into uncontrollable rages as his lover is yanked just out of his deathly reach and the way that director Reginald Le Borg allows Kharis to stalk the shadows of suburbia are very effective even if it is a bit obvious that Chaney is limping around a set. The film also gets a boost from the presence of Carradine, who seems more comfortable in an Egyptian fez than Dracula’s cape.

As the film goes on, the rest of the cast slowly fades into the background. Robert Lowery plays the same hero that we have seen in the previous Mummy films. Here he is Amina’s brainy boyfriend, Tom Hervey, who may not be able to quite save the day. A clever and surprising touch for a film that is so formulaic. Ames is the eye candy as she prances around and faints at the mere mention of Egypt or the sight of Kharis. Rounding out the main players is Frank Reicher as Professor Norman, who examined some of the mummy murders when Kharis stocked Mapleton the first time. Here he makes the careless mistake of waking him up with the brew of nine tana leaves. You’d think he’d know better! The film’s climax ends with the typical chase as the hero stumbles after the mummy, who slowly shuffles through the woods with Amina in his arms. You’d think that Tom would be able to catch him but that Kharis must have one hell of a lead. Overall, The Mummy’s Ghost is a shameless rehash that contains a few interesting plot advancements and a chilling final sequence but really nothing more. You’ll be convinced that you are re-watching The Mummy’s TombGrade: C+


The Mummy’s Curse (1944)

Twenty-five years after Kharis disappeared into a watery grave, an irrigation project in Cajun Country has unearthed the body of the mummy Kharis (Played by Lon Chaney, Jr.). The body falls into the hands of Dr. Ilzor Zandaab (Played by Peter Coe), a secret High Priest who awakens the mummy with his partner, Ragheb (Played by Martin Kosleck). Kharis begins wandering the swamps looking for the remains of his lover, Ananka (Played by Virginia Christine), who has also risen from the muddy grave and is under the supervision of the protective Dr. James Halsey (Played by Dennis Moore).

Released the same year as The Mummy’s Ghost, The Mummy’s Curse is the last installment of Universal’s slowly decaying Mummy franchise. Avoiding the rehash trap that The Mummy’s Ghost fell
into, The Mummy’s Curse is slightly rejuvenated through a fresh setting and a creepy sequence in which Ananka’s body rises out of the muddy swamp. The setting, which also happens to be the film’s biggest plot hole, has inexplicably moved from a swamp in Mapleton, Massachusetts to superstitious Cajun Country. Once again, Chaney is hidden behind the rotten bandages and the blistery burns but this time, they feel cheaply done and Chaney himself seems to have checked out of the role of Kharis. Christine is gorgeous as the undead swamp queen who knows quite a bit about ancient Egypt. Sadly, no one else is memorable or makes a ripple in this muddy puddle.

The highlight moment of The Mummy’s Curse is the scene in which Ananka slithers out of her muddy resting place and begins wandering the swamp like a ghostly specter. It is easily the only creepy moment in The Mummy’s Curse and the only scene that suggests that director Leslie Goodwins was attempting to make anything artistically worthwhile. At just an hour long, this could be the driest of the Mummy movies, the one that seems to be moving just as slow as Kharis. It lacks an arching evil plot and the only spooks outside of Ananka’s emergence come when the workers draining the swamps trade jittery stories about ghosts. Overall, The Mummy’s Curse could have ended much worse but there are small aspects to admire. Sadly, this supernatural adventure gets stuck in the swampy mud and just barely gets loose. Grade: C-


The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost, and The Mummy’s Curse are all available on DVD.