In 1975, exploitation film master Roger Corman produced one of his very best films. Combining a wicked sense of campy humor, a healthy dose of violence, and an angry satirical edge, Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel, was the best things to bear Corman’s name (as producer) since Corman himself was directing cool horror films based on Edgar Allan Poe stories for AIP. Always keen to make a buck, Corman immediately set about creating another vehicle-based futuristic fling, albeit one with a lot less of a budget — even for a Corman flick — and a much less talented writer and director. Corman would do his best to make people think it was related in some way to Death Race 2000 by calling the new film Deathsport and casting David Carradine in the lead. But the similarities end there, and while Death Race 2000 is a genuinely good, enjoyable, and even smart film, Deathsport is an incompetent piece of junk with almost nothing to offer humanity. Predictably, I do not own Death Race 2000 and have only seen it once. I do, however, own Deathsport in two different formats now and have watched it at least half a dozen times.
At various points in various reviews, we’ve discussed the painful demise of Hammer Studios and the Hammer horror film, so rather than rehash it here yet again, I direct you to Taste the Blood of Dracula (the review, I don’t mean I’m actually directing you to taste Dracula’s blood, should you have any lying about), Dracula AD 1972, and Satanic Rites of Dracula, all of which ramble on and probably repeat the same information about Hammer’s inability to sustain itself into the 1970s and in the face of a brutal collapse of the British film industry. I also point out on several occasions that, despite the fact that Hammer was a rudderless ship adrift in a tumultuous sea, many — in fact, most — of the horror films they made in the 1970s were of exceptional quality. It’s a shame that the worst horror film they ever made, To the Devil…A Daughter was their last, and thus the swan song for a studio that deserved much better.
This movie offers so many potential avenues from which I could approach it that I’m finding it almost as overwhelming as climbing the north face of the Eiger while an unknown assassin tries to kill me because he knows I’m trying to kill him. There’s the career of geologist-filmmaker Arnold Fanck, whose fascination with mountains and mountaineering resulting in a series of films possessed of breathtaking beauty and power. There’s the subject of mountaineering itself, and of the depiction of mountain climbing in film. There’s the subject of silent film, and more specifically, silent spectacle and action films, which were far more lavish and epic in scope than most people ever imagine. And perhaps the 900 pound gorilla in the room is the bizarre and difficult career of German actress turned Nazi propagandist and, until her death in 2003 at the age of 101, the world’s oldest living certified scuba diver, Leni Riefenstahl. Hers is a story of incredible talent, revolutionary film technique, terrifying loyalty to Adolf Hitler, arrest by a naval intelligence officer working with a John Ford film crew, war crimes, and after the dust settled, a career as an underwater nature photographer.
I’ll try to cover them all, but forgive me if I’m a bit scattershot in my style. Well, more scattershot than usual, which is really saying something. After all, it’s rather nice outside right now, and I’m thinking about going climbing instead of finishing this review.
So let’s begin at the beginning, a very good place to start. Oh man, this review is chocked with the potential for awful Alps-related film references. I prmise that, as far as I know, that is going to be the only one I make. Heidi. There. I said it, just to get it out there. Now we’re done.
But the beginning to which I’m referring is the beginning of modern feature filmmaking. When I was a young lad full of energy and vim, I did not have very much interest in silent film. I’d seen plenty of them, all the usual suspects a horror film fan sees early in his viewing career: Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis (including the one with the rockin’ 80s soundtrack). They were interesting, but I preferred movies with talking. Later in life, I grew to appreciate and adore silent films much more, but even now I don’t get excited about discussing any of the classic silent horror films from Germany — not because I don’t love them, but rather because such a tremendous amount of ink has already been spent on them by much smarter people than me, and there’s really not a lot I can add to the discussion of German expressionism, the Weimer Republic, or vergangenheits-bewaltigung that hasn’t been covered by someone who, unlike me, actually knows what the hell they’re talking about.
In high school, we had to watch The Birth of a Nation because it was a valuable lesson in the history of perceptions regarding the Civil War and race relations, and also because cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith was buried in the small Methodist church a couple minutes away — the very same church I attended as a youth and had my first and eventual ruinous run-ins with religious authority. It was a pretty typical looking small-town country church: whitewash wood, a steeple, no air conditioning, heavy wooden pews filled with sweating men and women in their Sunday finery, furiously fanning themselves with those cardboard fans attached to a Popsicle stick and featuring a painting of kindly Jesus waving at you or blessing you or possibly just fanning you because he grew up in the Middle East, and he understands what it means to be hot. Anyway, in the church cemetery were a variety of crumbling old graves, and right in the middle of them was the grave of D.W. Griffith.
Griffith, for those who may be unfamiliar with the early days of feature film making, was one of the fathers of the modern feature film. Along with a group of film makers in Europe, many of them Italian, and inspired by the Italian costumed spectacle Cabiria, Griffith was at the forefront of exploring what could be done with a motion picture camera and the ability to work on location rather than being bound to stages and sets like plays. Unfortunately, Griffith chose to explore these new possibilities in the form of a film called Birth of a Nation. The movie tells the story of the Antebellum South, when all the black slaves were suddenly free and immediately set about raping white women and dancing while getting drunk on cheap booze on the floor of the Senate. So basically, the slaves were all freed and acted like legally elected, white congressmen. The only thing standing between these unruly throngs of free, violent black folks (who, I should mention, were all happy and content as slaves,with gumdrop smiles and the freedom to hambone solo on the banks of rivers filled with chocolate and gold) and proud white America was the noble and chivalrous order of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yeah, so you pretty much get the picture, right? regardless, this was where it all began: the first American feature film. At the time of its release, Birth of a Nation was wildly popular — America wasn’t exactly racial paradise in 1915, and there were veterans of the Civil War still floating around. Civil rights groups protested the film, but that did precious little to diminish it int he eyes of a white America for which black freedom was still a relatively new thing. It seems that Griffith himself was ultimately horrified by the reaction many audiences had to the film, reactions that often involved race rioting and violence. His next film, Intolerance, was an attempt to undo some of what he’d wrought with Birth of a Nation, by showing the evils slavery has caused through time. The film was another lavish spectacle in the spirit of the great Italian spectacles like Cabiria, but it was a failure both politically and financially. Griffith’s career never recovered. Though he was one of the founding artists of United Artists, he wasn’t with the company for long, and the final years of his life were spent in relative seclusion. Despite all he may have contributed to the history of cinema, Griffith’s name was forever linked with that single movie, and it forever shadows — perhaps rightfully so — everything else he did.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this in 1977, darting around the cemetery at Mount Tabor and poking around his grave. The grave is still there, of course, though the quaint church building has been replaced by one of those generic, pre-fab deals Methodists seem oddly fond of. Still, that grave connects to the movie we’re actually here to discuss, as the career of German actress Leni Riefenstahl is very similar. Riefenstahl began her career in front of the camera, but it was behind it that she made her lasting contribution to cinema. Many of the techniques we now take for granted — moving the camera around, crane shots, dolly shots — can be traced back to Riefenstahl. Along with a host of other German filmmakers, she made cinema far more kinetic, far more dynamic, than it had been before. Unfortunately, she chose to showcase much of her incredible talent in Triumph of the Will, a film whose primary aim was to show how glorious Hitler and the Third Reich was. Like Griffith, pretty much anything you did before and after a film like that is going to be overshadowed. And among the things Riefenstahl did before Triumph of the Will was star in a series of sweeping mountaineering epics directed by geologist and outdoor sporting enthusiast Arnold Fanck.
The White Hell of Piz Palu represents the middle entry in a thematic trilogy that began with The Holy Mountain and ended with Storm Over Mont Blanc (SOS Iceberg is sort of a cousin), all three starring Riefenstahl, directed by Fanck, and concerning people who get in a lot of trouble up in the Alps. In the case of Piz Palu, the trouble begins straight away with a trio of climbers making an ascent up the titular mountain. Piz Palu was and remains notable for being covered in a lot of ice, and it is this ice, in combination with a warm wind, that causes such trouble for healthy young lovers Dr. Johannes and Maria Krafft (Gustaff Deissl and Mizzi Gotzel respectively) and guide Christian (Otto Spring). A snow slide catches them off guard, and poor Maria plunges into a crevasse, leaving Johannes kneeling helpless at the edge while Christian makes his way down the mountain in search of help, though both men know there’s precious little hope of it amounting to anything other than body recovery.
Skip ahead a bit, to the same mountain, where hearty newlyweds Hans (Ernst Peterson) and Maria (Leni Riefenstahl) have decided, apparently, to celebrate their marriage by hiking up into the Alps and staying in one of the many shelters that dot all the popular hiking and climbing routes. From time to time their friend Flieger (real life World War One flying ace Ernst Udet) buzzes them in his biplane and drops little bottles of champagne attached to wee parachutes. It’s all very healthy and fun and vigorous, so much so that Maria is more than happy to cavort happily in the snow while wearing a skirt and sleeveless blouse. Things turn dour, however, when Johannes shows up at the shelter. Maria does her best to befriend the haunted climber, who returns to Piz Palu every season in a vain search for his wife’s body. Hans, on the other hand, seems alternately fascinated by the gloomy man and irritated that he’s lurking around. I guess that’s what happens when you spend your honeymoon in a public cabin in the Alps. You’re just asking for a damned soul to show up and recount his haunted past to you.
Maria discovers that, while he was waiting for Christian to return with help from the town at the foot of the mountain, Johannes thought he could hear Maria (his Maria — that the two women have the same name is no accident, I’m sure) shouting for help. Both horrified and elated by the thought that his wife might still be alive, injured at the bottom of the crevasse, Johannes begins a reckless solo descent into the cavernous crack. But when he reaches the literal end of his rope, there is no one there and no sign of Maria. Since then, he has combed the mountain for her, but to no avail and with no ability to do it effectively without a support team. Well, obviously, he’s about to get one, and this trio’s ascent isn’t going to go any better than the first time Johannes attempted Piz Palu.
There’s a lot of stuff to admire in this film, but you’re really going to need to like mountaineering, because that’s the film’s obsession. Fanck was a naturalist, after all, and Piz Palu itself is the star of this film. I thought it was fascinating. Being a beginner climber myself, though one with no aspirations to go anywhere where the photo of me includes having an ice-encrusted beard (I’ll stick to boulders and mountains of a shorter stature than The Matterhorn), these movies serve as an incredible, documentary-like look at Alpine climbing in the early years of the 20th century. In fact, this movie could very well be regarded as a documentary about mountain climbing with some make believe drama injected. Fanck, working alongside co-directed G.W. Pabst, films much of the movie on location and with actual mountaineering going on. And given modern clothing and safety systems, watching it done old school — in heavy wool and with almost no equipment other than a rope, and ax, crampons, and that famous German/Swiss physical culture can-do vitality — is interesting. But make no mistake, given the choice between climbing in heavy wool and knee socks or performance fleece and ultra-5000 space age wicking material, I’m sticking with modern gear, regardless of how cool someone looks kitted out in the old style duds.
And the climbing in this film is truly breathtaking, especially when it concentrates on Johannes’ dangerous descent into the crevasse. Watching the way the climber wedges his way into small spaces, makes crazy leaps, dangles over nothing — there have been decades of mountain films made since this one, but few capture the activity with such raw energy. Fanck is a documentarian by nature, and he doesn’t rely on camera tricks and snazzy editing. He simply puts the camera in place — which itself must have been quite a feat of climbing and rappelling — and lets the action speak for itself. Most of the film’s drama stems from this approach, as one gets the feeling that the actors are in as much danger as the characters they are playing. A second descent into an icy network of caverns and crevasses, this one performed by a rescue team searching for the bodies of a university climbing team caught in an avalanche — succeeds in creating a completely alien, eerie universe. Shadowy men with flares move through the ice tunnels, casting reflections and smoke in all directions.
Secondary to the presence of the mountain and the act of climbing, then simply trying to survive, it, is the human drama. One of the things that sets this film apart from many of the silent era is that the acting is subdued and natural, never reverting to any of that extremely exaggerated pantomiming that has become synonymous with performances of the era. I love films of the silent era, but even I have to admit that many of the performances in even the best of films are so stylized and artificial that it becomes hard to relate to the characters. Not so in The White Hell of Piz Palu. Everyone looks and acts like a regular person, and as such, it becomes very easy to identify with them. It would have been easy for Gustaff Deissl to express his melancholy by doing the “crazy panic face” and “furtive glancing back and forth before burying head in hands.”
Instead, we get a deceptively powerful scene where he sits in stoic contemplation, listening to the dripping of a melting icicle that reminds of the melting icicles that surrounded him as he waited desperately at the edge of the cliff for Christian to return with help. But instead of doing the freak out or the over-sold “making an O with my mouth” face, he simply sits there, winces slightly, then quietly gets up, walks outside, and breaks off the icicle. It’s a perfect example of how complicated acting can be. There’s the hammy over the top way to go, and there’s the very accomplished and dramatic but still obviously acting way to go (the “win an Oscar” method). Deissl goes the third, less journeyed route, which is to act in a way that makes the audience forget you are acting. Simply put, I believe this guy.
The film hints at but never develops a romantic triangle. It’s obvious that Maria (the Riefenstahl one) is entranced by this dark, brooding, rugged man who climbs the most dangerous mountains in Europe by himself in a hopeless search for his dead wife. And it’s just as obvious that Hans develops an almost immediate inferiority complex, feeling that measured against Joannes, he himself is less of a man. But once again, the film plays the melodrama with subtlety, and never turns Hans into some cartoonish jealous lover. His insecurity around Johannes first manifests itself in a need to engage in a bout of manly firewood chopping, and later to accompanying Johannes on his quest, thus enabling Johannes to cover territory that can’t be covered solo. Finally, it culminates in Hans insisting on walking point for a while, and it’s then that the trouble really begins, even though it’s not entirely Hans’ fault.
An avalanche injures Hans, and the ensuing rescue attempt results in Johannes breaking a leg, leaving the trio stranded atop the mountain hoping that Christian will notice their entry into the mountain hut log and assemble some sort of rescue. Hans eventually succumbs to high altitude cerebral edema (altitude sickness to you and me), resulting in him becoming delirious and, at times, even suicidal. Needless to say, the romantic triangle that could have developed never trudges into such predictable territory as romantic triangles often do, and it is soon replaced by the simple tale of three people attempting to survive near impossible odds.
Riefenstahl impresses as an actress, and if you are able to forget for a moment that she would go on a few years later to turn Hitler into a godlike Wotan figure descending from the clouds to deliver rousing speeches to masses of Sieg Heiling Germans, she exudes an instant likability. She’s not exactly attractive — not in the way one could instantly accept the likes of Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, or Josephine Baker — but there’s such a natural air of vitality and energy about her that she endears herself. She’s sort of like the tomboy best friend, the cute one you don’t date but love to go hiking with. Of course, this best friend eventually turns out to be a Nazi propagandist, and that sort of sours the milk.
In 1933, after making her last film as an actress (SOS Iceberg, again with Fanck), Riefenstahl launched her career as a director. The Blue Light treads familiar territory, as it is set in the Alps and once again prominently features mountaineering. But where as Fanck strove for as much realism as possible, Riefenstahl’s film goes whole hog in on mysticism. It was while watching her in movies like these that Hitler became infatuated with Riefenstahl and began the process of bringing her into the Nazi party. Riefenstahl directed a series of pro-German, if not pro-Nazi, documentaries, all of which are considered landmark technical achievements. These included a documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics and 1933’s Victory of Faith, a propaganda piece that became something of an embarrassment when one of the chief subjects, Ernst Rohm, was executed during the Night of the Long Knives. Rohm was an open homosexual, as were several other prominent members of the paramilitary stormtrooper organization Sturmabteilung, of which Rohm was in command. Rohm was eventually caught up in the purge and charged by Himmler and Goring with plotting to overthrow Hitler. Hitler, however, still considered Rohm a friend, and did as much as he could to put off the man’s death. When Rohm refused to commit “honorable suicide” however, he was executed, with his homosexuality being the on-record reason.
Once the war was rolling, Riefenstahl’s career became even harder to sort out. She was active in filming a number of victory parades, such as Hitler’s triumphant parade through conquered Poland, and was on hand during the killing of a number of civilians in retaliation for resistance efforts. Pictures of Leni at the execution were used to both condemn and exonerate her. She was indeed present, but she is also noticeably upset. What’s the story? In her own words, she attempted to prevent the executions but was forced back a gunpoint by German soldiers. War being what it is, who knows? She continued her propaganda work, though, filming the aforementioned victory parade in 1939. She also began work on a feature film adaptation of Tiefland, a production that included in its crew a number of forced labor conscripts from German concentration camps.
Fate seems to have been committed to keeping the actress-director’s life as weird as possible. When the war in Europe ended, novelist-screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who was with the Navy at the time working on Allied propaganda films being directed by John Ford (some of which can be downloaded from archive.org and are really worth a look), wa tasked with arresting Riefenstahl. The Allies wanted her in Nuremberg for the War Crimes trials, so that she could identify various people in her films. Riefenstahl herself did not stand trial, but many were skeptical of her claims that she was just an innocent bystander who had no idea what concentration camps were or “what the Nazis were really up to” — especially when that statement was coupled with a statement that she made propaganda films because Goebbels threatened to send her to a concentration camp if she didn’t. History, of course, is a nasty knot to untangle, especially in times of conflict.
That was pretty much it for her career. She attempted to return to film making but found few people willing to finance her projects. Tiefland was finally released in 1954. Eventually, she turned to still photography and worked for a while in The Sudan. At the age of 72 — though she lied and said she was 52 in order to do it — she became a certified diver and began a career as an underwater photographer. Her contributions to the history of cinema are as great as they are terrible, and she remains a very divisive person to discuss. However, divorced of its political context and the frightening results it helped yield, her pioneering contributions to film making cannot be denied. In her films we find the birth of much of the modern language of cinema. Even as her subject matter repulses most, her technique is breathtaking. It’s hard, even knowing what we know, to watch something like Triumph of the Will or Olympia and not get swept up by how beautiful it is. It’s not unlike watching the work of D.W. Griffith, who was, in my opinion, nowhere near the league of Riefenstahl. But he still made sweeping films, and one can’t help but get caught up momentarily in the spectacle before the reality of what you’re watching sets in again.
Director Arnold Fanck apparently ran afoul of German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels early on. After making such films as Storm Over Mont Blanc — a film featuring a French hero — Fanck found it increasingly difficult to work, until he finally capitulated and began working on projects for both the German and Japanese government. When the war ended, Fanck’s career was dead, and he faded into obscurity, his final days being spent working as a lumberjack. It wasn’t until more recently that Fanck’s adventure films were rediscovered and he collected groups of admirers who appreciated his much more natural approach to film making.
At the behest of Leni Riefenstahl, White Hell of Piz Palu was co-directed by G.W. Pabst. Pabst split his time between German and American projects, as well as between cinema and opera. It was in one of Pabst’s films, in fact, that Deissl had his first role. In the end, though, they are all of them the human subplot dominated by the Alps-sized shadow cast by the leading lady.
But even she is outsized by the mountain itself. Mountain adventure films have come and gone since then, and most of the movement has been toward the goofy and embarrassing. Arnold Fanck is really where this type of adventure begins, though, and even if his became a largely forgotten name, his adventure films still stand as some of the best ever made, and his combination of documentary and drama informs many modern films. His camera studies the mountain intently, dwells on the natural wonders such behemoths generate: the dance of cloud shadows over snow fields and rags, the glistening tunnels and pits of ice fields, the bizarre swirls of powder kicked up by winds cascading over the peaks. One gets a feel for every nook and cranny, every nub, jug, and crimpy little handhold. And that helps us understand the pain of the characters as they toil up the spine of this beast. Unencumbered by the modern thirst for special effects, madcap editing, and overblown theatrics, Fanck simply lets the mountain be a mountain, and the end result is both hypnotic and scary. It’s going to brutalize you, probably even kill you. But you can’t stop yourself from going anyway.
As exciting as White Hell of Piz Palu is in many places, it’s also unevenly paced. After the opening disaster, the film settles down for nearly forty minutes of drama that alternates between being effective and simply dragging on for too long and becoming tedious. Even though the acting is natural and there is much in the film that is subtle, it also has its moments of clunkiness, specifically in the overly long way it goes about telling us just how happy and delightful Hans and Maria are. And while it is punctuated by Johannes’ panicked descent into the crevasse — quite possibly my favorite part of the film — his time in the mountain hut consists of far too much pensive staring while symbolic snow melts. But then, Fanck goes and does something like the shot of Johannes outside, smoking a cigarette while sitting on an old wooden fence with the whole of the Alps spreading out behind him, and it pulls you right back in. Silent films trade in images, by necessity, and Fanck manages on many occasions to capture scenes of iconic beauty.
Still, despite these missteps, White Hell of Piz Palu emerges as a truly fascinating and exciting film from the dawn of action-adventure cinema. Once we’re on the mountain itself, the film is tense and well-executed, not to mention jaw-dropping in some of the stunts that aren’t even stunts as much as they are just examples of how dangerous mountaineering was (and is). If I had to compare it to any modern movie, it would be the docu-drama Touching the Void, or the slightly older documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest. Both films, like White Hell of Piz Palu, capture both the menace and the beauty of such natural wonders and our enduring fascination with trying to climb them. When our trio suffers onscreen, it’s easy to feel their suffering. When they stand on the threshold of rescue only to have hope vanish, we feel it. And when Fanck shows us ice-encrusted Piz Palu towering over the landscape, we feel the oppressive weight of its menace as well as the stunning allure of its beauty.
Here’s a quick way to make yourself appreciate The People That Time Forgot much more than you might otherwise appreciate it. Go watch The Mighty Gorga. In fact, watching The Mighty Gorga will pretty much improve the standing of any film, no matter how reviled, by comparison. Well, except perhaps White Pongo. But short of White Pongo and maybe White Gorilla, pretty much any movie looks good when compared to The Mighty Gorga. But don’t get the wrong idea. There are plenty of movies that look better when compared to The Mighty Gorga, but a lot of those movies aren’t going to be nearly as enjoyably torturous as this unique tale of a down on his luck showman looking to salvage his business by capturing and showcasing a legendary giant gorilla. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.
The Mighty Gorga comes from a time in cinema history that will probably never come again. The most tempting comparison is to the world of shot on video DIY horror films, but that comparison doesn’t bear close scrutiny. On the surface there are similarities. The Mighty Gorga is a product of an era in low budget filmmaking that ran from the sixties until sometime in the 1970s and traces its roots back to the fast-buck junk films of the 30s and 40s — like the aforementioned White Pongo and White Gorilla — and the low-rent sci-fi films of the 1950s. The big difference is that those films, even when awful, were often made by professionals and sometimes under the aegis of an actual production studio. The 1960s saw the rise of a sort of alternate Hollywood, based largely out of Florida but certainly not limited to the Sunshine State. Unlike today’s crop of DIY video movies, which are primarily the product of a guy and his friends operating out of their living room, this was an actual industry, and their films played across various distribution circuits back when things like regional distribution areas existed.
Most of these films were cranked out to fill screens at drive-ins throughout the South, and the men who made them were as much carnival hucksters and showmen as they were filmmakers. In fact, in some cases, they were literally carnival hucksters. This era in film produced a number of names that most fans of obscure film don’t consider to be obscure: H.G. Lewis, Harry Novaks, Doris Wishman, and perhaps the king of them all, David Friedman. By hook and by crook, these people forged a movie industry totally outside the boundaries of Hollywood, and many would maintain, also totally outside the boundaries of any actual talent. But the fact remains that this was a real industry, producing films for theatrical runs and often employing a core circle of actors who were never very good but always seemed available.
The Mighty Gorga is one of the few films of that particular type that wasn’t shot in Florida, even though for most of the running time I assumed they were doing location work in the Everglades. But it comes to us courtesy of one of one of the “great” names of the era, David L. Hewitt. Hewitt, like many of the men and women working in this arena, was a jack of all trades, master of none: writer, producer, director, effects supervisor. His early work includes now infamous cult “classics” such as The Wizard of Mars, Monsters Crash the Pajama Party, and Journey to the Center of Time — one of my all-time favorite movie titles because, frankly, what the hell does it mean? What is the center of time? Noon? Amazingly, his later work purely in the realm of special effects includes some movies even casual movie fans ended up seeing, and some work that was actually good: Willow, Leprechaun (hey, compared to The Mighty Gorga, it’s a mainstream film), Shocker, and even Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Of course, there was also Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which was made like ten years after the first film and yet had special effects that were ten times worse. His work on these films is amazing because his work on all his other films is just so awful. The Mighty Gorga is probably the magnum opus of his self-written, self-directed, self-produced special effects extravaganzas, and watching it, all you will wonder is how the hell the guy ever scored a gig on a film being done by ILM or Disney.
And so we open with shots of a horrifying sacrifice, as a listlessly writhing maiden is chained to an altar while post-production sighs of either terror, protest, or boredom are looped in. In prompt fashion, she is plucked up and eaten by the film’s title monster, Gorga, a gigantic ape that is realized by taking a guy, putting him the cheapest novelty store gorilla costume possible (complete with googly eyes), then filming him from a low angle as he peers out from behind some bushes. It’s going to be tough to top such a thrilling opening, but Hewitt does his best by cutting to a circus performance that is slightly less listless than the sacrifice. But times are bad at the circus, as some big time corporate circus is going around and buying up all the top acts so they can shut down the independents. This leaves manly-named circus owner Mark Remington (Anthony Eisley) on the verge of bankruptcy, as is explained to us in an extremely long-winded monologue by a clown who is in the process of wiping off his grease paint as he talks to a concession vendor, yet never actually removes any grease paint from his face. The clown, though a relatively unimportant addition to the cast, is played by Bruce Kimball, who does double duty as said clown and as the leader of the mysterious tribe that sacrifices women to mighty Gorga and curses the intrusion of the white man, even though the tribe itself is played entirely by white people or, at the very darkest, a couple Latinos.
Mark has a last ditch plan to save the circus from going out of business, at least for a little while. And it turns out that his plan seems to involve spending a whole lot more money than it would cost to just pay off the debts. On the third-hand story of a guy who was talking to a guy who works for a Africa-based big game trapper named either Tonga Jack or Congo Jack, Mark plans to fly to Africa, hook up with Jack, and help him capture a legendary giant ape, so that Mark can then purchase him to put in the circus as the new headlining act. Mark doesn’t seem to understand just how many jugglers and carnival strippers he could hire for that amount of money. So off we go to Africa, which looks a lot like a clean, space age airport that you might find in California, complete with air conditioning and pay phones.
I’ve clocked some hours in third world airports, and I can’t imagine how I’ve always managed to miss the ones that are this nice, instead always ending up in some dingy, hot hellhole with malfunctioning equipment, a guy asleep on the tarmac, and two-week flight delays. I assumed that any airport you fly into in order to meet a guy named Congo Jack would be of similar quality, but I guess that’s just my First World snobbery. I also assumed that most Congolese airports would probably be full of black people, or at least contain a few black people. But I was wrong there, as well. It’s almost as if this movie isn’t filming in Africa at all, but that can’t be right, because after some stock footage of planes taking off and landing, Mark walks out the door of the airport and says, “Well, here I am in Africa!”
Once in “Africa,” Mark attempts to meet up with Congo Jack, or maybe it’s Tonga Jack, but not before he tours a local zoo, which is surprisingly nice. I would guess that, for Africans, going to a zoo full of monkeys and antelope would be sort of like me going to a zoo full of house cats and sewer rats. But they needed to pad out the running time, and this way we get a nice look at all the animals that inhabit Africa. Eventually, Mark heads off to meet Tonga or Congo Jack, but first there’s an hilarious bit where he meets one of the three black men in all of Africa and attempts to speak to him in some pidgin form of whatever language they speak in whatever country this is supposed to be. I assume it’s The Congo, but only because one of the characters is named Congo Jack. But since “Congo” was often used in crummy movies to mean “pretty much all of Africa, except the parts which are the Sahara,” we could really be anywhere. And if the guy’s name is actually Tonga Jack, then we’re way off the map, because even though my geography doesn’t enable me to label every country on an unmarked globe, I’m pretty sure Tonga is not in Africa. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s about as far away from Africa as is physically possible. Anyway, after a couple stuttering sentences in the local tongue, Mark is interrupted by the black guy who says, “I don’t understand what you are saying. Do you speak any English?” in a perfect Sydney Poitier accent. That’s pretty much the film’s one stab at intentional humor, and predictably enough, it’s not as funny as any of the unintentional humor.
It turns out that the local, George (Lee Parrish), works for Tonga Jack (at this point, I revised my early waffling; they’re definitely saying Tonga Jack), but that Tonga Jack is missing, possibly having returned to Tonga. Instead, the business is being run by Jack’s daughter, Tonga April (Megan Timothy). April explains that her father disappeared while searching for the legendary Gorga. Also, there is an unscrupulous competitor who keeps trying to force her to sell the business, even going so far as to set her prize water buffalo on fire then show up seconds later going, “I heard your prized water buffalo was set on fire.” Empathizing with Rachel, Mark whips out a thousand bucks in cash and a cashier’s check for another five thousand, and pays off the woman’s debt. Once again, perhaps someone should remind Mark that he’s spent probably over ten grand at this point on a scheme to save his circus from bankruptcy. One gets the feeling that Mark could pretty much drive anything into bankruptcy no matter how many giant gorillas and trapeze artists he had working for him.
Mark, April, and George decide to head off into the jungle to capture Gorga and, with any luck, find and rescue Tonga Jack. How exactly three people plan to transport a twenty foot tall gorilla with googly eyes through the jungle, and then later across the ocean to America, is probably not worth wondering about. April’s rival, Morgan, has decided that the put-upon trio is seeking some lost treasure, so he decides to shadow them on their quest. Unfortunately, we too must shadow them on their quest, and at this point, the film settles down into a really long series of shots featuring April and Mark (George, being the most competent, stays behind to guard the camp) in their Woolworth safari outfits walking through whatever park they filmed this movie in. And this goes on for a long while.
Worst of all, it’s not even intercut with any gratuitous stock footage of interesting animals. Every now and then, they’ll stop and say, “My God! Those are giant prehistoric mushrooms!” but they never show us any giant prehistoric mushrooms, even though chicken wire and paper mache must have been within the budget of this film, assuming as I do that the budget was roughly equal to the budget we had for building a homecoming parade float my senior year in high school — and I managed to make a paper mache football player kicking a paper mache eagle on that budget! About the only effort The Mighty Gorga makes to convince us we are in a prehistoric lost world is scattering some tissue paper flowers around the bushes.
Things get even worse when Mark and April begin the tortuous mountain climb. This effect is achieved by having them pretend to struggle mightily up what is obviously a very mild incline, only the camera is tilted so as to make it appear much steeper. This goes on forever, with the mind-bending tedium only broken from time to time by the movie cutting to scenes of the high priest jabbering away to Gorga, who shows up in the village from time to time with no real purpose other than to allow the film to use the same shots of “natives” running away a couple times. Actor Bruce Kimball enunciates his lines in a way I can’t quite describe. I guess…imagine that you are a first year student in a community theater drama class, and your mentor is a horrible actor who insists that you enunciate with passion and clarity every single syllable. Or, if you haven’t the background to know what that ends up sounding like, recall Futurama‘s Dr. Zoidberg’s acting in The Magnificent Three when he says, “GOOD MOR-ning MEE-stir VICE PRES-ee-dent!” It truly is a tour de force.
After what feels like an eternity, April and Mark reach the top of the plateau, and all our hard work watching them make fakey grimace faces while climbing over very small rocks pays off when the two are attacked by a tyrannosaurus rex! Now there are good special effects, and there are bad special effects, and there are awful special effects. But this one…this one transcends all that has come before it and may very well be the nirvana of awful special effects. Mark and April cower helplessly on a projection screen while the screen is menaced by what looks like one of those plastic toy dinosaurs mounted on the end of a stick. You know the ones — they sell them at museums all the time. It’s a crude dinosaur upper body attached to a stick, usually with a trigger so your kid can make the mouth open and close. No exaggeration, this special effect is no more advanced than those toys.
That its incredible size is realized by making it menace a projected screen image of Mark and April shot from a long distance only sweetens the deal. As hard a slog as this film has been up until this point — and believe me, even I almost bailed out — this one scene more than makes up for all the horrible scenes of Mark walking around a zoo and Mort the Clown rubbing at his clown make-up. But wait, there’s more! Because Gorga shows up to fight the T-Rex! Yes, it really is as beautiful as you’d think. Where as the rest of the film nearly reduced me to tears of bitter defeat and surrender, this scene brought tears of joy to my eyes and made me believe that yes, despite all that is wrong in the world, there is still much that is good and worth fighting for.
From here on out, the movie trucks along at a pretty brisk pace. Well, brisk compared to everything that came before this point. Mark and April are captured by the tribe. They find Tonga Jack. There is talk of sacrifice. It all goes wrong and Gorga smashes things. There’s a desperate race through some tunnels where they discover there really was a treasure, and that it’s made up mostly of Mardi Gras beads and guarded by one of those skeletons you put in your fish tank. Then a volcano erupts for no good reason other than volcanoes always erupt at the end of lost world adventure films, and there’s footage of a cool stop motion dragon from one of the old Italian Hercules films. How they got through this whole sequence without using that footage of the two lizards with fins taped to their backs fighting with each other that appeared in dozens of other cheap films is a great mystery of cinema. Then after all that, the movie remembers to deal with evil Morgan and that there is a competent black character who needs to be killed off. And I guess Mark uses the plastic treasure to pay off his debt or something, because Gorga just sort of wanders back off into the jungle.
What we have here, folks, is a bona fide classic. This is the sort of film that separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls. Anyone can laugh their way through Plan 9 from Outer Space, and most who would read this site can get through far worse. But The Mighty Gorga is a true challenge. Pretty much everyone agrees that it’s the worst King Kong rip off ever made, even worse than the 1976 King Kong where the monkey die and everybody a-cry, or that one where Linda Hamilton brings King Kong back to life so he can save the future from the terminators. Pretty sure it was something like that. But forget it. The Mighty Gorga is so much worse than any of those that it’s hardly worth mounting a comparison. This is bad filmmaking at its most potent. Bad movie moonshine, if you will. It tests the viewer on every level, really makes you earn that scene where the witch doctor beseeches Gorga and Gorga fights a plastic dinosaur toy. But the reward, should one endure, is not unlike the plastic treasure the cast discovers at the end of the film. In fact, one could argue that The Mighty Gorga itself is an allegory for the trials of watching The Mighty Gorga, making it one of the very first “meta” films that are so common today. Or it could be a movie about a guy in a ratty monkey suit.
Let’s talk a bit now about the acting. To put it bluntly, no one is very good, although Bruce Kimball is at least memorable. Seriously though, I’ve seen better acting from tough actin’ Tanactin. Anchoring the film is heroic Mark, as played by Anthony “One Episode” Eisley. Much of his career is comprised of one-time appearances in various television shows. In 1959, however, he appeared in Roger Corman’s classic B-movie from 1959, The Wasp Woman. After that, he started spacing out his one-off appearances as minor characters in TV shows with appearances as minor characters in movies, mostly of relatively low profile, though he did manage to show up in some recognizable titles, including the Elvis film Frankie and Johnny as well as The Navy Versus the Night Monster, where he got to act alongside Mamie Van Doren’s bombshell figure. So really, not a bad career.
He also started appearing in David L. Hewitt films, including Journey to the Center of Time and the lost world epic The Mighty Gorga. He continued this pattern up until the early 1990s, when he finally retired. Now it’s easy to make fun of Eisley, especially based on his performance in The Mighty Gorga. But forget that. Eisley is the kind of actor I’d really love to do an incredibly long interview with. Between appearing in one episode of practically every TV show ever made and appearing in films from Corman, Hewitt, and Ted V. Mickels, the man has got to be full of stories about the pitfalls of being a working actor. It would be far more interesting than the usual A-list interview where they just gush about whatever awful film they have coming out that month. The directors who make movies like this can sometimes be overly sensitive and pompous about their work (I have no idea if that applies to Hewitt, mind you), but the actors almost always have a good sense of humor about it. And when they pass on, all those stories go with them, never recorded.
Eisner’s female co-star might not be as interesting, as she appeared in hardly any other films besides The Mighty Gorga. Megan Timothy seems to have no idea what to do, as one minute her character is suspicious of Mark, and the next minute she is wearing a bosomy summer dress and making nice with him, and then the next scene, with no reason at all detailed, she’s back to being mean. Huh. Dames. Either way, she gives a pretty horrible performance. Luckily, Bruce Kimball is there to enunciate “Oh Mighty Gorga!” as if he’s reciting a foreign language phonetically. Kent Taylor, who plays her father, delivers the closest thing this film has to a good performance, but he’s only in the film at the very end, so what’s the point? He’s another one who would be great to talk with, though. I wish there were fewer biographies of big stars and more biographies of guys who did things like appear in The Mighty Gorga or go make films with Al Adamson in the Philippines.
In fact, The Mighty Gorga, as boring and as incompetent as it is, is the type of film that really interests me — if not as a viewing experience, then certainly as a subject for discussion. I’m fascinated by the ways in which these films got made. Listening to a guy like David Friedman talk about the old Florida film industry is something I can do all day, and even though it was made in California, I can’t imagine that a film like The Mighty Gorga has any shortage of similar anecdotes surrounding it. It does make reviewing these kinds of films hard, though, because my enthusiasm for what happened behind the scenes generally colors my enjoyment of what is actually shown on-screen, infusing the film with more value than one gets simply by enduring scenes of two people stepping over rocks for ten minutes. I mean, Hewitt went on to do visual effects work for some huge movies — some more successful than others. Was the Gorga versus a T-Rex scene in his portfolio? What was Bruce Kimball thinking? When they wrote all the “white man is evil” dialog, did they know all their African natives were going to be played by white people in Aztec wigs? Where the hell did they find that atrocious gorilla costume?
Even I wouldn’t claim that The Mighty Gorga is an enjoyable viewing experience, but I found it fascinating never the less, for the same reasons I’m fascinated with films like Death Curse of Tartu or Santa Claus Meets the Ice Cream Bunny or whatever weird stuff Doris Wishman was cranking out at the time. These truly are the heirs of Ed Wood, Jr., filmmakers who forge ahead no matter how ludicrous their solutions to working around their lack of budget and/or talent may be. The results are not always pretty, but they are usually fascinating if you are a scholar of truly obscure cinema. My only regret is that there is no commentary track for The Mighty Gorga. I would love to hear from someone involved in the production regarding what sort of an experience it was and how the film ever managed to see the light of day. So no, The Mighty Gorga isn’t a good movie. Except for Bruce Kimball’s performance and the monkey versus dinosaur scene, it’s not even entertainingly bad. But it’s the sort of movie you should have a look at never the less, because it’s awful in such an interesting way. Heck, The Mighty Gorga at its worst is still better than most shot on video microbudget horror films at their best. None of them have a guy in a googly eyed gorilla suit fighting a plastic novelty dinosaur.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: United States | Starring: Anthony Eisley, Megan Timothy, Scott Brady, Kent Taylor, Gary Kent, Greydon Clark, Lee Parrish, Bruce Kimball | Writer: David Hewitt | Director: David Hewitt | Cinematographer: Gary Graver | Music: Charles Walden | Producer: John Hewitt
When The Land That Time Forgot ended, it left hero Doug McClure and heroine Susan Penhaligon stranded in the tropic prehistoric lost world of Caprona in Antarctica, fated to wander the strange world of dinosaurs and cavemen while wearing big-ass furs and mukluks. Would rescue ever come? Would their hopeless message in a bottle thrown into the tumultuous seas at the end of the earth ever be found. If so, would it be believed? Well, we know from the first film that the account of the strange adventure to Caprona was found (though how the account, written by one man, could include detailed descriptions of things that happened while he was not around, is a question best left not asked in a movie about a u-boat crew fighting dinosaurs). Two years later, the answer to whether or not anyone would believe it was also answered. Unfortunately, the answer came in the form of The People That Time Forgot, a phenomenally boring follow-up that reduces Doug McClure’s role to little more than a cameo, kills off Susan Penhaligon in between the two movies, and seems to think that what people really wanted from a sequel to The Land That Time Forgot was fewer dinosaur fights and caveman rumbles, and more scenes of people walking across gravel-strewn landscapes.
If the world was just and kind, then the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” would indicate the existence of probably one of the greatest films ever made. But the world is often cold and heartless and it often enjoys toying with us mere mortals as did the petty and jealous Greek gods of old. Therefore, the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” does not indicate the existence of one of the greatest movies of all time, but instead, indicates the existence of a shocking dull film in which Vincent Price sits in a cave while a couple stiffs run around in tunnels, and then some stuff blows up at the end. This, sadly, is the fantasy world conjured up by the lackluster War Gods of the Deep — a modestly entertaining film in spots, but a tremendous letdown given the talent in front of and behind the camera.
For many years, England’s Amicus Productions was the scrappy studio living in the shadow of and following the lead of the higher profile Hammer Studio. In fact, so closely did Amicus follow Hammer’s horror lead that much of their output continue to be mistakenly labeled as Hammer Horror. Amicus often used the same actors — including Peter Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee — and directors — including Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker — and went for a similar feel. There are, however, several differences. For starters, most of Amicus’ horror films were set in the present day, or at least more recently than Hammer Victorian-era gothic tales. Also, having been founded by Americans, Amicus often looked overseas for established genre talent rather than sticking primarily to English stars. Thus, you get a film like Madhouse or Scream and Scream Again, both of which starred American horror icon Vincent Price. And finally, although Amicus is known these days primarily for their horror output — and especially their horror anthology films like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The House that Dripped Blood, Vault of Horrors, and Tales from the Crypt — they also produced a number of science-fiction and sci-fi tinged horror films. Hammer did this as well, at least for a little while and most successfully with their Quatermass films, but once Dracula, the mummy, and Frankenstein became established hits, Hammer pretty much jettisoned sci-fi in favor of straight Gothic horror. Amicus, on the other hand, constantly dabbled in the speculative genre.
After taking several years off, the 1950s saw the return of the pirate movie, thanks largely to the efforts of Walt Disney. In 1950, Disney produced a colorful, fast-paced, and smartly written adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale, Treasure Island. Two non-Disney sequels — the directly related yet immensely boring Long John Silver and the dubiously connected Return to Treasure Island — followed in 1954, and a TV series came out in 1955. Plus, it seemed like every other episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” featured either pirates or kids in coonskin caps solving a mystery in a spot called Pirate’s Cove. Along similar lines, Disney released a classic version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in 1958, the first of the Sinbad films featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen showed up. While these last two weren’t pirate movies per se, they still had the air of old fashioned high seas adventure and swashbuckling about them.
So there have been a couple of reviews now, possibly more, where I’ve claimed that the crummy movie in question would have been much improved had the two leading stars been replaced by actor Doug McClure and actress Caroline Munro. I figured, then, it’s high time I reviewed a crummy movie that did cast McClure and Munro in the lead roles, and when one’s talking crummy films featuring either of those stars, it’s hard to find one that’s much crummier than At the Earth’s Core, a low-budget attempt by England’s Amicus Studio to bring to life Edgar Rice Burrough’s Pellucidar series of novels. Pretty much every pulp fiction writer, from Burroughs to Verne, wrote a hollow earth, beneath-the-surface of the planet adventure. Burroughs, in fact, wrote several, and these attempts to do Journey to the Center of the Earth one better comprise the Pellucidar books.
There are a lot of times when I don’t remember a movie (sometimes mere hours after watching it), but I remember a particular scene or vague theme from the movie. This has come up several times before. For instance, before I rewatched it, all I could remember about Treasure of the Four Crowns was the scene where fireballs on ridiculously visible wires were flying around. With Sword and the Sorcerer, even though I watched that movie about seven billion times when I was ten years old, all I could remember was “guy falls into room of naked women” and “guy makes witch’s chest explode, then catches her heart.” Although there were many times when I remembered both the scene and the title of the movie in which it appeared, there are many other times when I have no recollection at all of the film’s title. It is in these instances that the Internet has proven to finally be worth all the trouble. Thousands and thousands of years of social and technological evolution finally lead to the moment when I can look up “screaming banshee on moors” and find out in which movie it appears.
That movie was, of course, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. I thought it was Cry of the Banshee, but when I rewatched that film, I found that it contained no screaming banshee on the moors, or any banshee of any type for that matter. Luckily, the internet was there for me. And it was there for me again, very recently, when I was trying to remember the title of a movie about which all I could recall was, “frog man in center of hedge maze.” Actually, I remembered one other scene, which was of a woman looking out a dusty window and seeing some creepy guy in a cape dashing across the moonlit lawn, but it turns out that was a bizarre combination of a bit from The Maze combined with a bit from, I’ve been told, Munsters Go Home.
This time, the movie was The Maze, and when I finally tracked it down (because even if something isn’t in print, the internet also helps you find old copies), I discovered two ways in which my memory was faulty. First, of course, was the fact that I couldn’t remember the title of the movie I’d seen. Second, it turns out I’d never seen the movie. Yet still the concept “frog man in center of hedge maze” haunted me. It turns out that, when I was a little kid, my mother used to tell me the plot of this movie as a spooky bedtime story. Granted, stories about murderous frog men lurking in the center of a hedge maze may seem like a strange bedtime story, but I was a strange kid, and anyway, children’s bedtime stories used to be all full of cannibalism and witches and trolls who steal the fingernails of naughty little boys and girls who don’t eat their stinky boiled kale. In comparison to the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, regaling me with the adventures of a man-frog in a hedge maze is small potatoes. But it did result in me spending most of my life thinking I’d seen the movie — which, as I explained, I discovered to be untrue once I actually did watch it. It also fueled, or so my theory goes, by continuing obsession with hedge mazes, especially hedge mazes that are occupied by weird magical creatures and monsters. Preferably sexy, naked nymphs and such, because if I have to be murdered by a charming but malicious magical being, I’d much rather it be a sexy flying girl with pointy ears and no clothes than a lurching man-frog in a threadbare suit or a shirtless guy with goat legs and a fondness for Zamfir records.
While I was disappointed in the subjectivity of my memory — what other grand adventures are merely lies I told myself so many times that even I started to believe them — I was happy to have this movie on hand to watch for the first time, even if the big reveal of the ghoulish dark family secret was already known to me. In fact, knowing the shock ending ahead of time is probably or th better. If you went into this film with some degree of anticipation, after all, the big reveal would be something of a letdown, to say the least. Conversely, if you go into a movie knowing little about it other than “frog man in center of hedge maze,” it’s much easier to be pleasantly surprised by the bulk of the film and pleasantly amused by the shoddiness of the nightmarish man in a monster suit waiting for you at the center of the labyrinth.
The Maze is a film tailor-made to appeal to me. It has a gloomy castle, gratuitous fog, a hedge maze, a cute woman in a bullet bra, creepy butlers, secret passages, and a “jolly good, old chap” kind of guy who smokes a pipe and enjoys motoring through the countryside whilst wearing his Harris tweed. And, of course, it’s got the man-frog. It’s black and white, and since it’s the sort of movie that is unlikely to ever be lovingly restored — that exhaustive process being restricted to classic works of art like Caligula and Zombie Lake — it remains available primarily in grainy, murky bootleg copies. Now, I’ve never been a quality freak, especially for old films. For newer ones, yeah sure. I want them looking the way they’re supposed to, at the correct aspect ration, in the correct language, with all the scenes intact. But for a lot of old films, I kind of like seeing them all grainy and beat up, with the dust specks and the random missing frames and that greatest of old film friends, the stray piece of hair. Not that I would turn down a proper copy of The Maze, or of any old film, but having a pristine and remastered version doesn’t mean that I’ll be willing to get rid of my crappy old copy. What I would like to see is a copy of The Maze that restores the film to its full 3D glory, even though from what I can judge, the 3D would be pretty lackluster, unless you are really excited by gratuitous “bat flies at the camera” 3D effects.
Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson) is about to married to his lovely fiancee, Kitty (Veronica Hurst), and to celebrate they are frolicking in some sun-kissed paradise with, for some reason, Kitty’s dry-witted aunt Edith (Katherine Emery). Fun in the sun is interrupted when Gerald gets an urgent telegram from his uncle. It turns out that Gerald has a family castle in the highlands of Scotland, and all sorts of weird things happen in it. As a boy, Gerald remembers being locked in his room at night whenever he and his family visited the castle, and that there was a massive hedge maze into which no one was ever allowed. He departs to tend to whatever emergency his uncle has been contacted about, but Kitty and Edith become increasingly worried when they receive no word from him. When a letter does arrive, it only distresses them more. Gerald calls off the wedding, breaks his engagement to Kitty, and forbids them from ever visiting or contacting him again. Kitty is understandably perplexed, and rather than merely accept Gerald bizarre, out of the blue proclamation, she and Edith pack up and head for Scotland to see what’s up at the ominously named Craven Castle.
Gerald is, needless to say, distressed by their sudden arrival, just as they are distressed by the fact that his hair has turned white and he seems to have aged considerably. He is adamant that they must leave immediately, but Kitty keeps devising excuses to stick around until she has figured out what the heck is going on and why Gerald has suddenly become so hostile and elusive. Clues begin to prevent themselves later that very night, when they hear Gerald and his two servants dragging something out of the off-limits guard tower and into the maze. Kitty discovers a secret passage in her room that leads to a long-forgotten room with a window (most of the windows in the castle have long since been bricked up) and observes the men hauling something into the maze. On the second night, Edith fakes out Gerald and leaves her room before it is locked for the night. While exploring the castle, she stumbles across…some hideous thing…that scurries from her view an disappears into the shadows before she can get a proper look at it. This tears it for Gerald, who insists that they get lost. Kitty counters by arranging to have a group of their friends show up, hoping that familiar faces and friendship will snap Gerald out of his funk and force him to come clean about the mysterious shenanigans. Her scheme almost works. Gerald even smiles at some point. But then it all goes horribly wrong. Everything comes to a head that night, and the horrible truth is revealed.
The Maze depends heavily on atmosphere. For the bulk of the movie, very little actually happens. Small tidbits are thrown the viewer’s way to keep them interested — a fleeting glimpse of a glistening creature, a weird webbed footprint, the frequent foreboding stares of the butlers — but if this sort of movie isn’t your thing, it’s going to bore you pretty quickly. Lucky for me, this sort of movie is my thing, and I found the whole thing engrossing. Richard Carlson, who already had a long list of credits, including at least one other Scotland-based horror tale (an episode of Lights Out entitled “The Devil in Glencairn”), does a wonderful job of transforming Gerald from happy-go-lucky regular guy to world-weary crank, and he does so in a manner that makes you both sympathetic (you know he bears some horrible family secret) and irritated (why won’t he just trust someone?). But then, I guess I’ve never had a giant frog for a great great great great uncle, so who am I to judge? I do, however, have an uncle who refuses to put his teeth in, and I don’t think it’s an entirely dissimilar circumstance.
Veronica Hurst, aside from being gorgeous, also does fairly well with a character who stays within the realistic bounds of femininity at the time (oh for the days women investigated unspeakable horrors whilst dressed in a shimmering cocktail dress and heels) but also emerges as strong-willed and determined in her unwillingness to simply let Gerald be a spooky jerk. That said, she may be one of the worst amateur sleuths in the history of amateur sleuthing. Although she constantly foils Gerald’s plans to send her and Edith away, nothing ever really comes of the time she buys herself. Edith, for that matter, is set up as sort of the stolid voice of reason, but her sneaking about never bears much fruit, either. It gets to be frustrating at points, and even though both women are fairly well portrayed for the time, one can’t help but with there was a bit more of the modern in them, thus allowing Kitty to grab Gerald by his tweed lapels and knock some sense into him. I mean, he has a dark spooky family secret, but it’s not that dark or spooky. Kitty sort of stand sup to him by defying his orders to skedaddle, but it would have been nice to see her actually confront the guy and not let him glower and frown his way out of it.
The supporting cast,lead by Katherine Emery as Edith and Michael Pate as William the butler, is also excellent. With the exception of Veronica Hurst, who was only in her very early twenties at the time, The Maze is yet another in a long line of classic examples of how a film can be lent an added air of gravity and importance by filling the cast with actual adults rather than teenagers. These are all experienced players, and they handle the film with dedication, so much so that when the final reveal of the creature proves to be somewhat comical both by today’s standards as well as, I would assume, the standards of the time, it hardly matters. They sell it regardless, and after the initial guffaw at the sight of this man-frog, The Maze makes it really easy to get over creature design short-comings. It helps that the creature is only on screen for a brief moment, but what helps more is that the entire cast sells the tragedy of the situation.
There is also some attempt to justify scientifically the appearance of the creature, who it turns out, is a horribly deformed member of the MacTeam family. Kitty discovers Gerald reading a book about human deformation, and Gerald explains that the human fetus goes through many stages of evolution before obtaining its final form, including one that is amphibian in nature. As with most horror film science, the end result is somewhat dubious but wholly believable within the confines of the film’s reality. Once again, this is the product of a cast that is committed to selling the plot of the film, even at its most outlandish moments.
Complimenting and, usually, overpowering the cast is the cinematography, production design, and director. William Cameron Menzies isn’t exactly a well-known name among modern horror fans, but he directed a number of early horror efforts, including 1931’s The Spider and 1932’s Chandu the Magician, both films that drew heavily upon the world of magic and illusionists, as well as 1936’s Things to Come (based on the predictions of H.G. Wells) and 1940’s The Thief of Baghdad. However, what’s probably more important to the success of The Maze is his long career and vast experience as a production designer and art director. In this role, Menzies is perhaps better known. His experience in this field reaches as far back as 1918 and includes a whole slew of famous films such as the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdhad, Pride of the Yankees, and in 1939, a little something called Gone with the Wind. A couple Oscars and a few other assorted awards later, he found himself directing The Maze, as well as serving as the film’s art and production designer. These multiple roles make it possible to say that the movie is, every step of the way, the director’s vision. It also means that the guy responsible for the burning of Atlanta sequence is also the guy responsible for the man-frog in this film. Menzies was no stranger to horror of science fiction, having previously directed the sci-fi cult classic Invaders from Mars. Although the direction itself in The Maze is best characterized as “blandly competent,” the unassuming nature of the direction allows the mood to take center stage.
And that’s a wise decision, since it’s the film’s strongest character and was obviously the aspect in which Menzies was more interested. We barely get a glimpse of Craven Castle (obviously because of budgetary concerns — this is a low budget film, after all), but when we do, it is all twisted brambles and gnarled trees. When Kitty and Edith first arrive, the moors are awash in fog. Everything inside the castle is shadows and gloom. Even when sets aren’t draped in moroseness and cobwebs, it feels like they are. When the atmosphere takes front stage, the film is very effective. When it relies on the script, it is decidedly less so. And even within Menzies’ otherwise acceptable if pedestrian directing style, there are a number of curious decisions. Most noticeable is the bizarre set-up during narration sequences featuring Katherine Emery, which are framed so that she is visible from the chin up at the very bottom of the screen, with the rest of the frame filled with nondescript ceiling and room. If I had to guess, I would say this was not an artistic decision, but was rather the product of a camera being improperly positioned and there not being enough time, money, or interest in reshooting these sequences. Still, these are minor gaffes in comparison to the film’s biggest misstep, which is promising a horrible monster terrifying beyond all belief and then delivering…well, you know by now.
Augie Lohman was the special effects supervisor, so one has to assume that blame for the appearance of The Maze‘s signature monster should be pinned on him — though Menzies ultimately made the decision to go with the creation. Judging by his long list of credits, which includes special effects for everything from John Huston’s Moby Dick to Barbarella, one has to assume that Lohman was good at what he did. But The Maze represents his first real foray into the realm of the fantastic, having previously worked on adventure and crime films. I don’t know if it was his relative inexperience (hard to believe since three years later he was working magic in Moby Dick), or a function of time and money that resulted in the final product. To some degree, he was hamstrung by the story. The Maze was based on a novel by Maurice Sandoz, so the nature of the beast as already set. I would imagine that even the most adept effects man in the early 1950s would have a hard time when saddled with the assignment “make me a man-frog!” Modern effects technology could probably dream up something more effective, but then, modern scripting would probably ditch the idea of a frog entirely and go with something more legitimately terrifying, like a boll weevil or a marmoset. So maybe Lohman was just faced with an impossible task and did the best he could.
Which, in all honesty, was pretty bad. If you didn’t know ahead of time that the monster was going to be a colossal let-down, then that first reveal, when Kitty stumbled upon the creature while wandering desperately through the maze, would pretty much undo all the hard work the atmosphere of dread put into the rest of the film. To make matters worse, rather than walking upright like a man, the frog creature is down on all fours — which might have worked it the suit was designed to better mimic a four-legged creature. Instead, it’s designed in the same way that the Anguilas costume from the Godzilla movies was designed, meaning that the hind legs are bent because the guy in the suit is just crawling around. And as if that wasn’t enough, it seems like even the makers of The Maze couldn’t justify trying to pass off a frog’s “ribbit” as a terrifying noise and so instead rely on…elephant noises? Huh. How about that? The end effect is singularly laughable.
On the scale of scary animals, frogs have to be at the bottom of the list. I mean, maybe even lower than giant killer bunnies. Sure, some people think frogs are “icky,” and like me, many of you know from first-hand knowledge that if you catch one, they are going to defend themselves by peeing on your hand, but other than that, the number of people genuinely terrified by frogs must be very small and limited to a few women who had bad experiences as girls with naughty little country boys dropping frogs down the back of their dress (not that I ever did that to anyone), and members of various Amazonian tribes who have to deal with those frogs that are the size of a fingernail but will cause you to die an agonizing and certain death by poison if you touch them. Oh, and maybe Spider-Man, who I think once tackled a dastardly frog guy. Even the Australians, who have come as close to anyone to doing actual real world combat against giant frogs, consider them a nuisance more than a nightmare of hell that will cause a woman to hold her left hand up in front of her face while biting the knuckles on her right. I mean, sure. If I was out at night, wandering through the hedge maze of a spooky Scottish castle, and I stumbled upon a gigantic frog, I’m sure I’d be taken aback, perhaps even a little startled. But once the initial shock wears off, and provided he doesn’t shoot a gigantic sticky tongue out at me, I think I’d recover fairly quickly and go into “I say, that’s a tremendously large frog you have there, old chap” mode — which is a mode I go into with disturbing frequency.
It should be noted, however, that the above statement is only suitable for instances in which you encounter an actual giant frog in a hedge maze or a haunted cove. Saying “I say, that’s a tremendously large frog you have there, old chap” whilst in a gym locker room or standing at the urinals lends the phrase an entirely different and perhaps controversial air.
In the end, though, the monster is played more for tragedy than terror, so if you know in advance that the build-up is let down by what’s being built up to, you can relax and enjoy the rest of the movie, have you chuckle at the sight of the monster when it finally shows up, then move on with very little harm done. There have certainly been sillier looking monsters (Giant Claw, I’m looking in your direction), but few that are surrounded by as much somber atmosphere and seriousness.
I have a tremendous affinity for this film, even though I think when my mom told it to me as a bedtime story, she changed things up a bit. Because I’m pretty sure in my version of the movie, the man-frog lived in the center of the maze (in actuality, he lives in the locked guard tower and is carried tot he maze at night so he can swim in the pond in its center) and the dragging and scraping sounds were made by the servants dragging some poor chump out to the maze to be eaten alive (the reality in the movie being that the monster never actually kills anyone, though one maid dies of fright upon seeing it). But still, after setting the record straight in my own mind, I still think The Maze is an enjoyable, if somewhat silly, film that boasts some tremendous mood and a hearty chuckle. The script does tend to run in place for too long — Kitty diligently investigates the situation but never makes any real progress — but I have a pretty high tolerance for films comprised mostly of well-dressed people sitting in comfortable chairs, sipping scotch and pondering things. I didn’t find The Maze to be boring even when it was biding its time, and I think the build-up is quite nice even if the pay-off is more side-splitting than horrifying. Screenwriter Daniel Ullman, who worked mostly in television but also wrote the screenplay for Mysterious Island (where his script is once again upstaged by production design and special effects), redeems himself int he film’s final moments, which actually succeed in making you feel sorry for our doomed man-frog beastie, but the bulk of The Maze, be warned, is people sitting in chairs discussing things that should be resolved much quicker than they are.
So I reckon if you are looking for a great monster and cracking good dialog, you’re probably better off elsewhere. But I found a lot to like in The Maze, even if my mom’s version of the movie was better, and I would gladly wander through it again…even knowing what’s waiting in the center for me.
Release Year: 1953 | Country: United States | Starring: Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery, Michael Pate, John Dodsworth, Hillary Brooke, Stanley Fraser, Lillian Bond, Owen McGiveney, Robin Hughes | Writer: Daniel Ullman | Director: William Cameron Menzies | Cinematographer: Harry Neumann and William Menzies | Music: Marlin Skiles