Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Monolith Monsters (1957)

This movie is one of the strongest memories I have from watching Not Quite Classic Theatre, that late night TV show of my youth. As I mentioned previously, the show aired on Saturday nights and would present old black and white monster movies from the 1940s and ’50s. When I first started watching, there would always be three of them. The first would start at 10:00 PM, the next around midnight, and the last one at about 2:00 AM. My attention would shift over the course of the night. The first movie would suck me in and keep me glued to my seat. Sometimes during the second movie, I would stand up and pace around the room – still paying attention to the story, but also thinking about how I might write my own version of the story. I would watch some scenes closely, while others would play in the background as I developed my own ideas. By the time the third movie came on, I was often immersed in my own creation and would sit making notes on a pad of paper while the movie carried on quietly in the corner.

I can’t say I have very clear memories of those third movies, but I would occasionally look at the TV and think “This looks pretty good. Next time I’ll have to pay attention to it.” Sadly, there was no next time for most of those films, and now I can’t even remember what most of them were. Actually, even the ones I paid close attention to are mostly lost in time now. I know I saw a whole slew of giant bug movies, but exactly which ones I’m not sure. In some cases, I know I’ve seen a certain movie, but I just can’t be sure that it was Not Quite Classic Theatre where I saw it.

The Monolith Monsters (1957), on the other hand, I know I saw on Not Quite Classic Theatre. The images of the giant monoliths growing taller, and then toppling over to smash into a million pieces, have stuck in my mind for decades. I’m not sure why, exactly. Maybe because those strange rocks from outer space were different from every other monster and giant bug I had seen before (or since). They were threatening the world by merely existing, not by any kind of design or intention – and they looked really cool and convincing. My understanding is that the effects were achieved with miniatures, and they still look good today.

I also know that The Monolith Monsters was not the first feature of the night. It was either the second or the third. The fact that it has remained in my consciousness all of these years leads me to suspect that it was the second feature. I would have still been paying enough attention to it, to able to appreciate it. On the other hand, maybe those monoliths were so unique and eye-catching, that they jumped off the screen at me even during the third and final feature of the night.

Watching The Monolith Monsters again for the first time since Not Quite Classic Theatre went off the air and became an obscure reference that no one but me seems to understand, I was struck by how little of the story I seemed to remember. Basically, it was all new to me except for the monoliths themselves, growing tall and toppling over; smashing into little pieces and multiplying. I did not recognize any of the characters, or the scenes that moved the plot forward. In my memory, the movie focussed solely on the monoliths, with only the occasional interruption by screaming humans in peril. In reality, the scenes of the monoliths were interspersed occasionally throughout the human drama that is front and centre of this sci-fi spectacle. And as an adult aficionado of B-moves, I say bravo!

As cool as the scenes of the monoliths are (and they are very cool), the movie would become tedious pretty fast if that’s all that was going on. The human drama is what makes it all work. And for the record, there is a horrifying side-effect caused by the monoliths – which I had no memory of –  which causes much of the human drama and suspense.

The movie was directed by John Sherwood, who was a prolific assistant director. He only directed three feature films during his career, including The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). The Monolith Monsters was his last film as a director. He might have made more, but he died only two years later at the age of 57. 

Grant Williams stars in The Monolith Monsters as Dave Miller, the head of the local geology department. He most famously played the title role in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Oddly enough, he died at age 53. It might be tempting to think that this movie was cursed, but co-star Lola Albright, who plays a schoolteacher and Dave’s love interest, lived to the ripe old age of 92. She is perhaps most remembered as a cast member of the Peter Gunn TV series (1958–1961). But she appeared on many shows, including two of my childhood favourites, The Incredible Hulk (1977–1982) and Quincy M.E. (1976–1983)

The Monolith Monsters (1957) is a very special kind of #NotQuiteClassicCinema to me. It has all of the elements that I enjoy, but it was also part of the original Not Quite Classic Theatre lineup that inspired me to recreate the experience for myself all these years later (and brand it #NotQuiteClassicCinema). The nostalgia levels are off the charts with this one. And yet it has the perfect mix of stuff I’ve never forgotten, and stuff that seems completely new to me. A pure pleasure through and through. And althought I may be a little biased, I would recommend The Monolith Monsters for any movie marathon, or #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve known about The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). I remember seeing pictures in books and magazines, like Famous Monsters, when I was a kid. I also remember seeing clips from the movie on TV programmes about the history of horror, or monster movies, or something like that. There were certain movies that seemed to get featured a lot, and this was one of them. I’m not sure when exactly I saw the entire movie for the first time, but I would have been young. It seems quite possible that I would have seen it for a second time on that legendary show of my youth, Not Quite Classic Theatre. I certainly saw other films by the same director, Jack Arnold, like Monster on the Campus (1958) and probably Tarantula (1955), And it seems like most of the movies I remember from the show were made and/or released by Universal Pictures. This suggests to me that the TV station bought a package of films to show on Not Quite Classic Theatre, and it would make sense for The Incredible Shrinking Man to have been among them, as it was made by Universal in the same era as all of the others.

Regardless, I definitely saw The Incredible Shrinking Man several times over the years. The last time I recall seeing it, prior to last Friday, was in an actual movie theatre. Back in the 1990s, it was shown as a midnight movie (I think) at my local Cinematheque. I recall going with a friend or two from University, and that it was great to see it on a big (ish) screen.

Watching The Incredible Shrinking Man now, for the first time in years, it struck me that it is a thinking person’s Science Fiction film. Yes, it features suspenseful scenes of a man being menaced by “giant” creatures, such as a cat and a spider, and in that way it is similar to other 1950s monster movies like Tarantula and The Deadly Mantis (1957). However, The Incredible Shrinking Man is really a very different kind of movie. It’s much more serious minded and philosophical than many of the others – and for what it’s worth, it gets a higher rating on the IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes.  Much of the credit for this can go to the intelligent script by Richard Matheson, which was based on his own novel. I would also say that The Incredible Shrinking Man is a tad darker than most of the other films. It deals with the psychological horror of its character’s predicament, and does not offer any false happy endings. 

Apparently, the studio wanted a happier ending, but both Jack Arnold and Richard Matheson disagreed. They did a test screening, and although many of the audience members were unhappy with the somewhat downbeat (and perhaps ambiguous) ending of the film, The Incredible Shrinking Man was released with its original ending intact. This may be one reason why its reputation has only improved over the years. 

As a child, I loved the action sequences and the visual delights of a tiny man fighting to survive in a giant world. As an adult, I appreciate the darker, and more psychological aspects of the film. It’s closer to a certified classic than many examples of #NotQuiteClassicCinema, and by all accounts, it’s a great movie. But in all honesty, it’s probably less fun than movies like Tarantula and The Deadly Mantis. So if you’re looking for a good time, filled with laughs and light-hearted chills, you might want to give one of those other monsters a call…

But when you’re in the mood to confront the existential angst lurking in the dark corners of your soul, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) may just be the perfect companion for a pensive and rewarding #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Mole People (1956)

This is another movie that I probably saw on Not Quite Classic Theatre back in the 1980s. For those who don’t know, Not Quite Classic Theatre was a late night movie show that introduced me to many old monster movies (and other B-movie delights). I wrote about it a while back, to explain my use of the #NotQuiteClassicCinema hashtag.

I’m sure that I saw The Mole People (1956) many years ago, but I can’t say for certain that it was on Not Quite Classic Theatre. Whether it was or not is really beside the point. It is exactly the kind of movie that I was thinking of when I first conceived of the hashtag.

The Mole People is a type of story that I’ve always liked; the discovering of a lost civilization story. More specifically, it’s about a lost civilization deep inside the Earth. I remember seeing films like Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), and old film serials like The Phantom Empire (1935), which was about singing cowboy Gene Autry discovering an ancient civilization buried beneath his own Radio Ranch. As a kid, I was fascinated by stories like this. And I was always on the lookout for caves that I could explore, hoping that they might lead to some exciting discovery, like a lost world – or, at the very least, some buried treasure. Unfortunately, living on the prairies there were really no caves to be found. 

 

Since posting about the movie last week, a few people have commented that they particularly like The Mole People. I like it a lot, too. Which is why I’m so puzzled to see that it gets a much lower rating on the imdb than some it’s 1950s B-movie peers (4.9 which is, technically, a failing grade). Tarantula (1955) gets 6.5, It Came from Outer Space (1953) gets 6.5, The Monolith Monsters (1957) gets 6.4, etc. In 1993, a writer at the Los Angeles Times called The Mole People “arguably one of the worst sci-fi films out of the Universal shop.” James O’Neill, in one of my favourite movie review books, Terror On Tape, says The Mole People is a “stodgy Universal programmer” and “one of the company’s weakest ’50s flicks.” He also notes that “The downbeat ending is especially unfortunate.” 

Maybe this is where the problem lies (for some people). I don’t like spoilers, so I’m not going to discuss any details, but the ending of the The Mole People could be described as a little “downbeat”. I must admit that I might have preferred a happier ending in some ways, but the final minute of the film did not erase my enjoyment of the previous 75 minutes (or so). And in thinking about it afterwards, I could understand why the filmmakers might have felt that it had to end that way. 

Whatever the reason(s) that some people don’t this film, I’m encouraged to see a quite a few users on the imdb saying things like “I don’t care what anybody says, this film is a hoot!” and “What is wrong with everybody, this is a good movie!”. Not to mention hearing from friends and acquaintances how much they like it. If The Mole People is the “worst” that Universal Pictures had to offer in the 1950s, then this is good news – because it means I have a lot of truly great movies left to see.

The Mole People (1956) is a wonderfully entertaining 1950s Sci-Fi Fantasy B-movie. It’s also a perfect choice for a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn and I welcome it to the ever-growing library of #Certified #NotQuiteClassicCinema!

Friday night at the home drive-in: Tarantula (1955)

I’m almost certain that I first saw this movie on Not Quite Classic Theatre back in the 1980s. For those who don’t know, Not Quite Classic Theatre was the late night movie show that really solidified my love of old monster movies (and other B-horror films). I wrote about it a while back, to explain my use of the #NotQuiteClassicCinema hashtag.

I don’t specifically remember Tarantula (1955) being on that show, but it is so exactly the kind of movie that I saw week after week, that I feel it must have been. I do remember a couple of other specific titles which were aired (Monster on the Campus (1958) & The Monolith Monsters (1957)). They were produced and released by the same company as Tarantula (Universal Pictures). I suspect that Universal sold a package of films to Not Quite Classic Theatre, and it makes perfect sense that Tarantula would have been part of it.

In any case, I first saw Tarantula on late night TV many, many years ago. Watching it at the home drive-in last Friday was a wonderful blast from the past. It took me right back to my younger days, when giant spiders and other bugs were totally new to me. It’s movies like this that made me want to make movies (or at least be a writer). Unfortunately, I fell into a deep, dark hole of theatre and playwriting which took me about as far away from giant monsters as a writer can get.

I remember a good friend of mine, who I perceived as a very successful playwright, once giving me this piece of advice: “Write want you want.” I took it to mean that he had fallen into his own deep, dark hole where he was constantly being asked to write things that he was uniquely qualified to write, but did not excite him. He must have felt trapped; unable to turn down the paycheques. I did not have that problem back than. No one was paying me to write stuff, and it seemed like a pretty good problem to have….

…but now I find myself looking back on 20 years spent writing things that I did not care about.

Okay, that’s not quite true. I found a way to care about everything I worked on, and I wanted them all to be the best work I could do. However, they were always somebody else’s idea; somebody else’s dream project. In most cases I was paid for my work (often not enough, mind you), and that is a good feeling (and helps to pay the bills). Unfortunately, many of the projects I worked on never saw the light of day. But even if they had, they would have been somebody else’s babies, not mine. In retrospect, I have to wonder if my time would have been better spent writing B-movies like Tarantula. No one would have been paying me, but I certainly would have had more fun with them.  And when they were done, they would have been all mine, to do with as I pleased.

“Write what you want.” I should have paid more heed to those words. At least I can revisit movies like Tarantula and be transported back to a time in my life before I had made those mistakes. Is it possible to go back for real, and become the person you were always supposed to be? I’m not sure. But I am sure that Tarantula (1955) is a masterpiece of #NotQuiteClassicCinema and I will be using it to travel through time again in the not too distant future…

Friday Night at the Home Drive-in: Track of the Moon Beast (1976)

This is part two of a Home Drive-In On The Road mini-series.

As stated in last week’s post, when travelling, I can’t bring my library of DVDs, Blu-rays and VHS tapes with me. Sometimes I bring a handful of carefully selected titles, especially if I know I’m going to be staying in a place with a DVD player. If it’s a longer trip, with more unknown stops; if I’m crossing a border, where overzealous customs agents may decide to seize things; or if I just need to travel light, I don’t want to bring a bunch of nice, expensive, individual DVDs and Blu-rays. Instead, I’ll grab 2 or 3 discs from a cheap, public domain DVD set, each one usually containing about four movies. The quality of the prints is often bad, and the titles are not necessarily top drawer, and often I’ve seen several of them in the past, but if something bad were to happen, and I lost these discs, it would not be a big deal. They are also light and skinny and can easily be slipped into a full backpack, suitcase, or laptop bag.

Track of the Moon Beast (1976) was on one the public domain discs I carried with me on my recent trip. I had seen it years before, but couldn’t remember it well at all. It turns out that it’s an old fashioned science fiction B-movie, kind of like the ones I used to see on Not Quite Classic Theatre back in the ’80s. It’s ten or twenty years more recent, and several degrees shoddier than those older movies, but the story/concept is not that far off. It goes something like this: a man gets a fragment of a meteor lodged in his brain, and begins to transform into a hideous moon-beast that terrorizes the local area. Scientists and other experts theorize, and make reference to local legends from the indigenous community (yes, it seems that this exact same thing has happened in the past).

The movie gets a 2.3 on the imdb, and is generally lambasted by critics (and anyone else who discusses it). I found it to be charmingly fun in a way that only a great bad movie can be. It’s perfect late night viewing at the Away From Home Drive-in, and 100% Certified #NotQuiteClassicCinema.

Friday night at the home drive-in: I Eat Your Skin (1964) or was it (1971)?

Who doesn’t know the story of this movie? Shot in 1964, but not released until 1971, it was originally titled Zombie, or maybe Invasion of the Zombies, but when producer Jerry Gross needed a second feature to send out with I Drink Your Blood he retitled it to I Eat Your Skin.

I Eat Your Skin got panned in every horror review book I ever read. Terror On Tape, by James O’Neill, gave it one and half stars and noted that the acting was “as gruesome as it gets.” Creature Features, by John Stanley, also gave it one and half stars and said “Credit (or discredit) Del Tenney for writing-producing-directing this mess.” Thanks to reviews like these, I avoided watching I Eat Your Skin for many years. But there was always a nagging voice somewhere in the back of mind telling me that this movie needed to be seen. And since it came as a bonus feature on my super-deluxe blu-ray of I Drink Your Blood, I no longer had any excuse to ignore it.

The movie isn’t half as bad as it’s reputation suggests. It’s exactly the kind of movie I used to see on Not Quite Classic Theatre when I was a teenager; it’s black and white, it’s about monsters, and it’s oddly inspiring (to me). Perhaps it’s the imperfect expression of entertaining ideas that draws me in. It’s like reading a rough draft of a script and seeing the potential for greatness in it – or at least the potential for improvement.

The best parts of I Eat Your Skin, for me, are the scenes shot at the legendary Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. I first leaned about the Fontainebleau when I was writing episodes of a true crime documentary series. One of the cases I became immersed in was the murder of Ben Novack Jr. – who some referred to as “the prince of the Fontainebleau.” His parents built and ran the hotel throughout its historic heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, when Hollywood stars like Frank Sinatra were regular customers – and movies like Goldfinger (1964) were partially shot there. I’ve watched Goldfinger several times over the years, but not since learning about the Fontainebleau. So, I was pleasantly surprised to recognize the hotel in the opening shots of I Eat Your Skin, which was coincidentally shot there in the same year as Goldfinger.

I think what I like about location scenes, particularly in low budget movies, is that they seem to offer us glimpses of history preserved on film. No matter how unimportant a movie like I Eat Your Skin may be, it can still show us what a place like the Fontainebleau was like, at that time. The bigger budget the movie, the more the filmmakers can manipulate what we see. But a movie like I Eat Your Skin probably just pointed the camera at what was there. It’s possible that some of the people in the background were simply hotel guests who agreed to be filmed. That would have been a nice vacation souvenir, wouldn’t it?

I Eat Your Skin is not the best movie of it’s kind, but it’s far from being the worst. Its style and atmosphere take me back to the glory days of Not Quite Classic Theatre – and I will definitely be watching it again. It’s a perfect addition to the #NotQuiteClassicCinema library.

 

Not Quite Classic Cinema

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me tweet “Friday night at the home drive-in… #NotQuiteClassicCinema” I say may have seen because, let’s face it, if you follow a lot of people, you probably only see about 1% of them in your feed. I know I followed people years ago that I haven’t seen since. It’s a problem that I’ve been trying to rectify – but that’s a subject for another blog post…

If you’ve seen my Friday night tweets, you may have asked, “What is Not Quite Classic Cinema?” The answer to that question is the subject of today’s blog post.

“I sometimes worry that when I use the hashtag #NotQuiteClassicCinema someone will get the (wrong) impression that I am insulting the movie….”

When I was young, I discovered a TV show that aired late on Saturday nights. It was called Not Quite Classic Theatre. Perhaps ‘show’ isn’t the right word for it. It was a time slot during which the TV station would air old B-movies. At first (at least when I first saw it), they were showing black and white monster movies from the 1940s and ’50s, and there would always be three of them. The first would start at 10:00 PM, the next around midnight, and the last one at about 2:00 AM. I would watch the first one closely, glued to my seat. During the second one, I might get up and pace around the room, still watching but feeling energized, thinking about how I might tell the stories differently. The third one would play in the background while I wrote down notes and ideas for my own movies; movies I hoped I would get a chance to make one day.

I wish I could remember the titles of the movies I saw on Not Quite Classic Theatre, but it’s been so long that most of them are forgotten. One movie that I remember distinctly (although I didn’t know the title until I rediscovered it many years later), is Monster on the Campus (1958).

I saw this movie late one Saturday night on Not Quite Classic Theatre.

Monster On The Campus (1958): I saw this movie late one Saturday night on Not Quite Classic Theatre – and I loved it.

Another one that sticks out in my memory is The Monolith Monsters (1957).

The Monolith Monsters (1957): I paced around the room excitedly while this one lit up the TV screen.

The Monolith Monsters (1957): I paced around the room excitedly while this one lit up the TV screen.

I looked forward to these late-night delights all week long. Watching those old monster movies inspired and excited me in a way that no other movies had. I loved them, and I loved that they gave me ideas and made me want to write.

Like all good things, it didn’t last. First, they cut back from three movies to two. Then they dropped the second feature. But still, one cool monster movie a week was better than none, right?  I’ll never forget the night I tuned in and discovered that they weren’t showing an old black and white monster movie at all. Instead, it was a 1970s cop movie (to this day I can’t remember which one). I was very disappointed.

In retrospect, I probably would have liked the ’70s cop movie if I had given it a chance. ’70s movies are among my very favourites now. But this was the 80s, and I guess the ’70s didn’t seem all that exotic and interesting at the time.

I lost interest in Not Quite Classic Theatre after that, and it wasn’t too long before the whole show disappeared. Now I can hardly find any proof that it ever existed. So far, the only concrete evidence I know of is an old TV promo that someone kindly uploaded to YouTube. Check it out here (thanks retronewfoundland).

Not Quite Classic Theatre circa 1987.

Screenshot from Not Quite Classic Theatre circa 1987.

This promo was clearly from the later period of the show (after I stopped watching). But I’ll be damned if doesn’t make me want to to tune in to see Casino starring Mike Connors – from 1980?!

Several years ago, I decided to recreate the magic of Not Quite Classic Theatre with my own library of films. Every Friday night I would watch an old black and white horror or sci-fi movie. But after a while, much like the TV show, I started to expand my programming to include drive-in movies from the 1960s and ’70.  And then ultimately I chose to include movies that I first discovered by renting VHS and Beta tapes back in the 1980s (an activity that someone once said had taken the place of going to the drive-in).

When I joined Twitter, I decided to tweet about my Friday night movies. I typed “Friday night at the home drive-in” – and to pay homage to the TV show that got me started, I added the hashtag #NotQuiteClassicCinema. I chose “Cinema” as opposed to “Theatre” because I had spent a lot of years working in theatre (as a playwright, producer and director) so I wanted to be clear that I was talking about film, not my theatre exploits (many of which were not quite classics, either).

I sometimes worry that when I use the hashtag #NotQuiteClassicCinema someone will get the (wrong) impression that I am insulting the movie. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of my Friday night choices are movies that I love – some of them are personal favourites of mine. This is why I sometimes use the phrase “A #NotQuiteClassicCinema fave!” – but I don’t always have space to include those extra words, and this is what made me decide to write this blog post thingy…

So, if I’ve ever called a movie you love #NotQuiteClassicCinema, please take no offence, and rest assured that I am likely as big a fan as you are.