Sunday, September 06, 2009


I occasionally gripe about having to clean out my Drafts folder. This was one of the older denizens of said folder, a bad movie post dated December 30, 2006. It's not really finished, and it's been long enough that I'd have to re-watch these movies to properly finish it. But I reread it and thought it would be a shame to let it languish in Drafts folder limbo forever, so here it is.

A recurring theme in both pop culture and high culture is that within each man there's a beast clawing to get out, and it's a humongous societal problem if that ever happens. The tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the classic example, but 50's 'B' movies introduced some novel twists on the theme.

It's surprising how conservative, even pessimistic much of 50's SF was. Sometimes the mad scientist unleashed a creature or at least forces beyond his control, and the lesson was that there were some things Man was not meant to know.

conservative, conformist themes: animalistic man vs. forces of social control, bringing him back into the fold to hearth & home, or doing him in. and granted, the 'rebellion' of the times (Kerouac, Pollock, etc.) was animalistic, bad for women.

Bride of the Gorilla

Your basic man-goes-wild tale, set in the deep Amazon jungle. The Wikipedia article on the film sums up the plot thusly:

Deep in the South American jungles, plantation manager Barney Chavez (Raymond Burr) kills his elderly employer in order to get to his beautiful wife Dina Van Gleder (Barbara Payton). However, an old native witch witnesses the crime and puts a curse on Barney, who soon after finds himself turning nightly into a rampaging gorilla. When a wise but superstitious police commissioner Taro (Lon Chaney Jr.) is brought in to investigate the plantation owners death and a rash of strange animal killings, he begins to suspect that all is not as it seems. Dina is also becoming suspcious with Barney, who is seeming to grow more in love with the jungle than with her. She follows him one night into the jungle, only to be attacked by the feral Barney. The police chief follows her screams in the jungle and shoots Monkey-Barney, the jungles justice having been dealt.

set in the amazon jungle. Ranch foreman Barney Chavez spurns native lover in favor of the boss's wife. Has a hand in the boss's death (poisonous snake), and gets a curse, slowly turning into guy in gorilla suit, ignoring, spurning his new bride. Finally runs off into the jungle, attacks her, killed like an animal. Don't see transformation, it's possible he just thinks he's the beast. Or just low budget. Not actually a gorilla in the script, but some sort of Amazon forest demon that just happens to look like guy in gorilla suit. In a sense the title (studio-imposed?) is more honest about the creature than the film, how postmodern is that?

In the end, the woman is unresponsive and we don't know if she's alive or dead, for her efforts at sticking by her man through thick and thin.

Raymond Burr is not an obvious choice to be a Chavez, but he's burly, vigorous, ambitious, social-climbing, ruthless. If you only remember him from Perry Mason, you might enjoy seeing him in his younger and somewhat thinner days. He had a great voice, deep, calm and yet vaguely menacing.

Lon Chaney is even less obvious choice as the native cop working on the crimes. Talk about wooden. He was best used in costume, with as few lines as possible.

I doubt the name Chavez is any accident either: Theme #2, this is "Streetcar Named Desire" in the jungle, with a gorilla. Barney is Stanley Kowalski, the lusty ethnic type supplanting old-line northern european landed gentry. People think this is deep when it's really just an obsolete prejudice of the times that we can't really relate to.

The Manster

Another man-goes-wild tale, this time set in the exotic Orient. Again, a plot synopsis from Wikipedia:

American foreign news correspondent Larry Stanford has been working out of Japan for the last few years to the detriment of his marriage. His last assignment before returning to his wife in the United States is an interview with the renowned but reclusive scientist Dr. Robert Suzuki, who lives atop a volcanic mountain.

During the brief interview, Dr. Suzuki amiably discusses his work on evolution caused by sporadic cosmic rays in the atmosphere, and professes that he has discovered a method for producing evolutionary change chemically.

Suzuki serves Larry a drugged libation, causing him to fall into a deep sleep. Announcing to Tara, his voluptuous assistant, that Larry is the perfect candidate for his latest evolutionary experiments, he injects an unknown substance into Larry's shoulder.

Upon waking, Larry is oblivious to the true situation and accepts Suzuki's invitation to spend the next week vacationing with him around Japan. Over the next few days, Suzuki uses Tara as a beguiling distraction while conditioning Larry with mineral baths and copious amounts of alcohol, exacerbating the pain in Larry's shoulder.

Meanwhile, Larry's estranged wife has traveled to Japan to bring him back home with her. But when confronted, Larry refuses to leave his new life of women and carousing. After a few drinks that night Larry examines his painful shoulder to discover that a large eyeball has grown at the spot of Dr. Suzuki's injection.

Becoming aloof and solitary, Larry wanders Tokyo late at night. He murders a woman on the street, a Buddhist monk, and a psychiatrist, while slowly changing form, culminating in his growing a second head. Seeking a cure, Larry climbs the volcano to Dr. Suzuki's laboratory where Suzuki has just informed Tara that Larry has become "an entirely new species" and beyond remedy.

Entering the lab, Larry kills Suzuki and sets the building on fire as Tara flees. Larry splits into two completely separate bodies, bringing himself back to normal. The monstrous second body grabs Tara and falls into the volcano as Larry's wife and the police arrive. Larry, now cured, is taken away by the police, although it remains unclear how much moral or legal responsibility he has for his violent actions. The movie ends as Larry's wife and his friend discuss the good that remains in Larry.

Mother of all midlife crises. Generic whitebread guy is finishing up one last story for his paper's Tokyo branch, before heading home to wifey and 50's suburban domestic tranquility, when he's led astray by the exotic temptations of the orient, in the form of a funloving Japanese mad scientist and his alluring Eurasian assistant. Little does he know that the MS is using him as a test subject... Although at first it doesn't seem like a test. The physical metamorphosis into a monster is only the last step. It starts with booze, and geishas, and more booze, and coed baths, and extramarital nookie across the color line, and dancing to Japanese music, and on and on. He stops showing up for work, becomes surly and withdrawn, stops talking to wifey on the phone, and refuses to go home like he's supposed to. Wifey shows up to check on him, but he's well on his way to becoming a homicidal beast by then. His shoulder's been bothering him since the first injection, and suddenly an eye appears at the injection point, the classic shot everyone remembers this movie for. Soon an entire head bursts out. Not a good head / bad head thing, both heads are bad. Establishing which is which would require closeups, and there's never been a convincing two-headed monster. At least it requires an actor with broad shoulders, so there's somewhere to rest the second head. The beast goes on a nighttime rampage around the city, ending up at the MS's lab. The MS, I should mention, keeps his unsuccessful experiments in the lab, creatures that used to be his wife and his brother. Feeling guilty, the MS injects him with another serum to "complete" the transformation, and gets done in for his trouble. He was getting ready to do seppuku anyway (gee, no stereotypes there), but loses his chance.

So eventually the Manster splits in half. The beast half grabs the Eurasian assistant and they plunge into the inevitable volcano, while the man half goes back to normal. Having sown and discarded his wild oats, he reunites with wifey, and they presumably head back to the monocultural safety of New York City (!).

It's a very convenient 50's movie, in that it condemns the Manster's behavior, while also making excuses for it, the old "that wasn't the real me, I don't know what came over me" schtick. Once the external influence has been removed, he can go back to being a pillar of the community.

We should take a moment to note the absence of dual-identity stories involving women, at least that I can think of offhand. While a guy is supposed to have two sides and be "complex" and all, pop culture has usually insisted that a woman is either Good or Bad, period. Generally not in the absolute black-and-white 50's sense anymore, but you can still see the old rigid roles in how the media treats young Hollywood starlets and celebrities. If the entertainment media is to be believed, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and a raft of others are all stone dumb, of dubious virtue, and without any redeeming qualities whatsoever.

In any case, there's never been a two-headed woman movie that I know of, or a Jekyll-and-Hyde story, unless you count the Wasp Woman, it's an unusual film for the era , and even then it was just existing traits being accentuated.

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