Pharaoh’s Curse (1957) An interesting spin on the mummy genre. It’s a slow burn of a picture, with a pinch of desert adventure and a dollop of soap opera, both of which work reasonably well. Then we get a monster who’s more vampire than mummy, leaving behind the dried husks of his victims. The budget is limited, but the cast and crew make up the difference in atmosphere. There’s an eeriness here that’s tough to beat. The makeup and effects are top notch, while the sound design takes some solid risks, experimenting with playing effects backwards, to chilling effect.
Looper (2012) Hmm. I think a second viewing may change my mind, but for now, I find Looper merely good, not great. Everything about the film is solid, especially the dips it takes into philosophical quandary and the fun it has toying with the logistics of time travel. (Oh, and Gordon-Levitt and Willis are phenomenal.) And yet… Rian Johnson’s screenplay feels a little off, adding details where they’re not needed (the entire telekinesis plot thread is ultimately unnecessary, as is an out-of-the-blue love scene) and avoiding them where they’d be welcome (I admire Johnson for not wanting to explain too much, but I’d have certainly welcomed more discussion of looper culture and how Emily Blunt knows of it; more Jeff Daniels couldn’t hurt, either). I’m eager for a revisit, though, to see if the surprises hold up and if the lesser moments work better on a revisit.
The Angry Red Planet (1959) This would be another middling 50s sci-fi effort if not for two points: first, the flashback structure is heavily played up in a rather effective manner, with our heroine struggling to remember just what went wrong on the first mission to Mars. There’s a back and forth in the timeline that helps heighten the mystery, which then counteracts the otherwise clunky proceedings. (The cast is a stock company of types, including “skeevy leading man,” “stern scientist,” and “obnoxious comic relief from Brooklyn,” so any tinkering with the plot helps.) Second, the scenes on Mars are filtered in a heavy red neon glow, creating an otherworldly tone (and, more importantly, helping to hide the seams of the creaky effects). That’s enough to keep the film from imploding from schlock, but just barely.
Gog (1954) The high tension opening sequence of Gog, in which two scientists are killed in a lab by unseen forces, thoroughly rattled me and dug under my skin but good. The rest of the movie, though, not so much. It’s a strange, occasionally gripping, often thick-skulled Cold War thriller set in a remote scientific base, where a supercomputer and two highly weaponized robots named Gog and Magog (well played, movie) are occasionally going haywire, killing off the nation’s top minds and anyone else standing around. Where today the film would be about over-reliance on technology, the 1950s crowd goes instead for a weird, ill-fitting paranoia; (spoiler alert!) the kill-bots are being controlled from an enemy spy craft, and once it’s shot down, our heroes, oblivious to the obvious lesson at hand, figure an immediate second go is the best plan if they’re going to beat their foes. Lest the focus of the film be forgotten, we get random tirades throughout in which squarejawed officials gripe to scientists about how national security trumps all. The 50s!
The Manster (1959) While I prefer to give leeway to movies that offer up something different and unusual – call it the “well there’s something you don’t see every day” factor – a guy’s gotta draw the line somewhere, and that somewhere is The Manster. The tale of a Japanese mad scientist hoping to turn an American journalist into a new species is twelve kinds of crazy, but, unfortunately, it’s also twelve kinds of lousy, with clunky dialogue and wooden acting and oh, the schlock. Whatever cleverness might’ve been scraped up with the nutty premise (which eventually leads our victim to grow a second head, that of a mutant ape thing) gets watered down by the filmmakers’ penchant for melodrama and the cast’s inability to handle it.
Werewolf of London (1935) There are fans who prefer Werewolf of London over The Wolf Man, but I just don’t see it. The makeup is impressive (and quite different than your usual werewolf look), and the mythology has some nice touches, but the bulk of the film lacks the emotional punch of the Talbot tragedy. The bit about werewolves always attacking the ones they love most is presented awkwardly; the pathos doesn’t feel organic, unlike The Wolf Man, which just drips sorrow. Meanwhile, the mad scientist angle comes off as a retread of The Invisible Man, right down to the comic relief landlady, but without the insanity that made Rains’ villain a keeper. Henry Hull’s title character is a drip, too lacking in either flair or poignancy. There’s not enough to make this one anything but a serviceable yet unmemorable also-ran in the Universal Monsters canon.