***/**** Image B Sound B Extras B-
starring James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness
screenplay by Ted Sherdeman
directed by Gordon Douglas
THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)
***/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras A-
starring Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey
screenplay by Lou Morheim and Fred Freiberger, suggested by the story "The Fog Horn" by Ray Bradbury
directed by Eugène Lourié
WORLD WITHOUT END (1956)
**½/**** Image A Sound B-
starring Hugh Marlowe, Nancy Gates, Rod Taylor
written and directed by Edwards Bernds
SATELLITE IN THE SKY (1956)
*/**** Image C Sound B
starring Kieron Moore, Lois Maxwell, Donald Wolfit
screenplay by John Mather, J.T. McIntosh and Edith Dell
directed by Paul Dickson
by Jefferson Robbins We're all mutants now. Those of us who weren't literally irradiated by the Atomic Age still carry its glowing cultural DNA. As we've built better ways to destroy ourselves, we've also spurred the creators of our science-fiction to imagine life in newer Waste Lands. Their work assumes that no matter how we survive each new apocalypse, our circumstances will be quite changed. The upshot of our atom-splitting folly would be not sloughed skin or violent cancer, but marvels and wonders, which would then seek our destruction on their own terms.
Turner Classic Movies' "Greatest Classic Films Collection" stirs up dusty roentgens with a quartet of Cold War SF flicks from Warners, all greatly concerned with nuclear consequence. The nine-foot ants that ravage New Mexico in Gordon Douglas's Them! (1954) were born of the very first White Sands A-bomb detonation, and even after their elimination, we're told that subsequent bomb tests have probably given us more to worry about. This granddaddy of giant-bug flicks assembles the usual B-movie coterie of men of action in desert cop James Whitmore and hulking G-man James Arness (the Thing himself)--and men of science in USDA entomologist Edmund Gwenn and daughter Joan Weldon, who's first introduced as a pair of legs snagged in an airplane hatch.
Watching Them! today, it becomes clearer just how much antique sci-fi James Cameron has rummaged for character types and scenic ideas. In the same coveralls that Ellen Ripley wore to descend into the xenomorph's lair, Weldon commands the flamethrower incineration of an ant queen's burrow, where embryos twitch inside translucent eggs. The ants take refuge in tunnels off the concrete Los Angeles River channel where the T-1000 drove a semi in pursuit of John Connor. And in the compelling opener, accented by Bronislau Kaper's dropped-piano score, a Carrie Henn-like little girl (Sandy Descher) staggers away from the ants' initial destruction--dead-eyed, mute, and clutching a broken doll. The radiation is in our cells, you see, and we don't even know it.
Part of Cameron's genius was to actuate his stricken child into a full character, a nucleus around which the adults could coalesce. Them! isn't about the family--it's about how '50s America was expected to behave in a crisis. Between ant attacks, authoritative men pace and smoke in official rooms, getting a handle on the situation. Their strategy is to protect the public by keeping everyone in the dark, judging the risk of panic as dangerous as the ant plague itself. A key witness (Fess Parker) is silenced when Arness arranges for his open-ended incarceration, while the civilians who cross paths with their government guardians are rubes, clowns, and babes-in-arms. And when martial law comes down, L.A. accepts it without a mutter. Just as a shockwave could putatively be deflected by a classroom desk in 1954, so too could mutant insects be staved off by keeping your head down and surrendering your civil liberties.
Douglas--later to helm the James Coburn spy-farce sequel In Like Flint and Frank Sinatra's gumshoe trilogy of Tony Rome, The Detective, and Lady in Cement--shows a particular gift for layering the moving elements of his shots. Lost girl Descher wanders the scrub as a search plane parallels her in the background; helicopters survey a massive anthill while the inhabitants below cast human bones onto a refuse pile. The giant puppets are as intimidating as 1950s screen magic could make them, short of a Ray Harryhausen picture. Moreover, in watching them burned alive, there's a skittering horror that John Carpenter would later harvest for The Thing. But Douglas is smart enough to keep the beasts offscreen, killing in the dark, until they make their iconic entrance to menace Weldon in a sandstorm. Them! challenges by taking such a firm stance in favour of our government's rightness, yet it casts each of its nuclear tests* as a spark for greater catastrophe. You can get away with that when you're "just" a science-fiction movie.
The Harryhausen showcase The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms opens with a set-piece to make any environmentalist weep: an A-bomb test above the Arctic Circle. As the blast burrows into the ice, unleashing a hibernating "Rhedosaurus," contemporary viewers sit wondering about ozone holes, flash-thawed glaciers, irradiated baby seals, and the like. Needless to say, Eugène Lourié's film has no comment on Man's responsibility for the ship-sinking, lighthouse-humping, stop-motion monstrosity--which happens to spread a Mesozoic pathogen as a metaphor for fallout. It's another excuse for Science and Armed Might to team up, as soon as creature eyewitness and radiation expert Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) can rouse military leaders like Col. Jack Evans (Kenneth Tobey, another Thing From Another World alumnus) out of their skepticism. Again in these scenes, important and learned men stride broad floors in contemplation, but once the threat arrives on American shores, the public response is far from the tidiness of Them! and more in line with the disaster movies we love. Stevedores drop their crates, motorists flee their cars, a maddened mob tramples a blind man in its flight, and a street cop gets munched in what remains a delightfully grisly sight today. Beast has its roots in a Ray Bradbury short story, and the scenes of the creature eating a lighthouse and a rollercoaster (and its assassination via rollercoaster car) carry the strongest tinge of the author.
Harryhausen's beast moves like a real animal--recoiling, lunging, turning in a circle when wounded. It doesn't have the expressiveness of a King Kong, but unlike Kong animator Willis O'Brien, Harryhausen never made much use of facial dynamics for his models-in-motion. (Besides, it's a big fuckin' lizard.) In the end, the creature simply dies, with no Kong-like poetry and no lesson learned--although you would, too, if young Lee Van Cleef shot you with a radioactive isotope. Given that nuclear science is the cause and cure of this affliction, the hundreds dead and millions of dollars in property damage are nullified in the karmic balance, I guess.
H.G. Wells created the most vivid future worlds in literature, so who better for writer-director Edward Bernds to rip off for World Without End? A crew of he-man 1950s astronauts swerves into a time-traveling orbital accident and returns to a post-Armageddon Earth, six centuries after their own era (and twelve years before Planet of the Apes). The Morlockian mutants roaming the countryside they can handle--it's the Eloi types in their subterranean utopia who prove most intractable. The red-meat Americans (plus Rod Taylor, who would of course go on to play Wells in the official adaptation of The Time Machine) have difficulty convincing the weak-kneed underdwellers to lose the tights and skullcaps and forge weapons to take back the surface. After all, weapons are what got them in this mess. World Without End is the film in this set most concerned with family, with the adventurers leaving wives and kids back in the remote past and viewed by the future's women--including Nancy Gates, about 70 percent legs--as potential breeding stock. (Pinup artist Alberto Vargas had a hand in the set design--and, I'm convinced, the actresses' costuming.) The picture's heroes offer a middle path for two cultures that are either all brutality or all pacifism. As morals to a story go, it's not revolutionary to imply that Yankee know-how and gumption (and sperm!) will be crucial to rebuilding in the aftermath of the Big One, but it was apparently the kind of thing audiences in 1956 needed to hear.
A British SF take on nuclear fear, Satellite in the Sky is, coincidentally or not, the weakest of the lot. Amid lots of airplane porn and an endlessly recycled score, a strapping test pilot (Kieron Moore) arranges to fly a new rocket into space, where he'll detonate a warhead so dangerous it can't be tested on Earth. This leads to questions of "why build such a thing," raised by a peacenik reporter (Lois Maxwell) who stows away and winds up bringing the crew tea and sandwiches. There's no sane answer, but the allegories mount as the crew tries to jettison the bomb and discovers that it's gravitationally stuck to their ship. (The spectre of nuclear annihilation follows them around, get it?) It's a boring slog to reach this tensionless point; 40 minutes of an 84-minute movie are spent on domestic troubles and conference-room planning before the rocket lifts off with "Thunderbirds"-level F/X. I'm not sure why anybody bothered to preserve Satellite in the Sky for video except as a relic of what Maxwell did when she wasn't being Miss Moneypenny: she was being Miss Moneypenny in space.
The two DVDs in this 2010 TCM bundle were previously released as a pair of double-feature discs. Them! and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms emerged as a DVD-10 "flipper" back in 2006--way too late for the double-sided format to still have a foothold in the marketplace, but I guess it's cheap to reissue titles in this way. Exhibiting minimal speckling and scratching, Them! appears to be mastered from a very fine print, though edge enhancement makes for some abhorrent halos and the deep blacks in an early night scene have a soaped-glass texture. (This is a separate issue from the humid atmospheric sheen prevalent in the ant tunnels, which seems intentional and probably helped the filmmakers hide the strings on their giant puppets.) Like the other titles in this package, Them! features DD 1.0 audio; something about monster-movie mono soundtracks just makes me happy, and Them! not only boasts the mad-aviary sound of the piping ants, but also four (count 'em!) Wilhelm screams. Beast, by contrast, misses its best shot at a Wilhelm when an Arctic surveyor plunges into a crevasse early on. Harryhausen's stop-motion footage, meanwhile, is far more scratched and flecked than other elements, a likely-irreparable by-product of the compositing process. The effect at times is like watching one movie invade another--but when the creature flips its tail and demolishes a burning scaffold in a shower of wood planks and flame, it's a beautiful incursion.
For what it's worth, both sides of the disc contain a nice array of extras. Them!'s menu is designed like a screaming '50s tabloid cover, offering two text-only features: a cast-and-crew list sans biographies; and a factoid list on other insect-/arachnid-related horror movies, up to 2002's Eight Legged Freaks. "Behind the Scenes!" (3 mins.) is a reel of excised effects as puppeteers put the ants into action, and "Captured on Film!" refers to the original, breathless 3-minute trailer. A photo gallery provides 26 stills, including posters (apparently, in France, Them! was called Atomic Demons), all unfortunately Photoshopped to suggest old tabloid images. I would've liked to see a featurette encompassing the movie's sound design, from the creation of the ants' screeching sound--so crucial is it to the film's atmosphere--to Kaper's music, the quintessential '50s monster-flick score. Beast boasts two superior mini-docs with Harryhausen, starting with the six-minute "The Making of 'Beast'" (misidentified in the menu with the cooler title "The Rhedosaurus and the Rollercoaster: Making the Beast"). Interviewed here, Harryhausen denies the rhedosaurus name came from an anagram of his own but clearly takes pride in his creation, later used as a different dinosaur in another movie. "Every film I did, every inch of it, is my animation," the master avers. "Except in Clash of the Titans--I had to have help." "An Unfathomable Friendship" (17 mins.) has Harryhausen and Bradbury chatting before an adoring audience on the Warner Bros. lot in 2003, not long after Harryhausen got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The two grandmasters recall meeting at age 18 and bonding over movies, Willis O'Brien's work on The Lost World in particular--two proto-geeks who had little in common with society at large. "We stuck together hoping that someday he would animate dinosaurs and I would write the screenplays," Bradbury says, "and that's how it finally worked out." Rounding things out, the supplement "Coming Attractions: Other Willis H. O'Brien/Ray Harryhausen Creature Favorites" collects the trailers for The Black Scorpion, Clash of the Titans, and The Valley of Gwangi (cowboys vs. dinosaurs, FUCK YEAH).
World Without End and Satellite in the Sky (I keep hearing a Lou Reed song whenever I type that) share a single-sided/dual-layer platter originally issued in 2008, although the packaging mislabels it as a flipper. While both films were shot in CinemaScope and are presented in anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1, the former achieves lush colour where Satellite can only be called tepid. They each upconvert nicely to a high-definition monitor, however, with minimal artifacts, and the sound, again, feels like home to me. There is no bonus material for either title--indeed, there aren't even any scene-selection menus. Pick your flick, jump in, and page forward with the remote if you must.
*In real-life, atomic testing went on aboveground until 1963 and underground until 1992. return