Saturday, April 20, 2013

Team Bartilucci Double-Feature: The Power and the Formicidae

Team Bartilucci brings you a new double-feature! Telekinesis and giant insects - what's not to like?  Enjoy!
Vinnie: The Power (1968)
George Pal is certainly a name you associate with science fiction, but not with paranoia thrillers.  But he served as producer of this smart and tight little thriller from the late sixties about a man with amazing power, and the horrors he inflicts on a group of rocket scientists.

Based on a novel by Frank M. Robinson, it stars George Hamilton as Jim Tanner, a scientist at a think tank experimenting on the limits of human endurance, in preparation for the rigors of space travel.  At a meeting, Professor Hallson (Arthur O'Connell) is in a near-frenzy, insisting that the lab's recent aptitude tests revealed that one of the team has, well, you should forgive the lift, but powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.  The tests, alas, were anonymous, so there's no way to know WHO the amazing genetic freak is, just that they exist.  When it's suggested they all try to use their mental faculties to spin a piece of paper skewered on a pencil, they are all surprised to see the paper begin to budge, then spin, and eventually burst into flame.

Theories fly thick and fast as to who among them could wield such ability.  But when Jim and and his colleague and lover Professor Margery Lansing (Suzanne Pleshette from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, and the 1970s version of TV's The Bob Newhart Show) find Hallson dead in the centrifuge (after a chilling scene in his office), it becomes clear that someone is out to quash any evidence of this miracle-person's existence. Tanner is quickly targeted by the mysterious someone - the police suspect he's behind Hallson's murder, and mysteriously, his credentials suddenly turn up as fraudulent.  Walking the streets, he begins to hallucinate, similarly to the way we saw Hallson being tortured in his office.  He assumes that this mysterious figure is after him next, and decides the best way to fight back is to learn more about him. All he has is a name Hallson scrawled on a scrap of paper..."Adam Hart".

Arthur O'Connell throws the world's most horrific Gookie.
(Click to see un-happified image)
Traveling to Hallson's hometown, he learns that Hart was a childhood friend of his, and everyone in the town remembers him...differently.  A woman in the cafe remembers his icy blue eyes, but Hallson's parents recall him to have black eyes, to match his hair.  One fellow in the town, finding out that Jim is asking after Hart, tries to kill him...just as Adam had told him to do, ten years before.

Returning to California, Jim finds out the rest of the science team have been quite nervous indeed.  And oddly, almost every one of them seem to think he's the mysterious man with the Power.  Professor Scott (Earl Holliman (EARL HOLLIMAN!)) offers to become his toady if he'll just let him be near him, and Professor Melincker (Nehemiah Persoff) comes at him with a knife when Jim comes to visit him.  They're half right - he's not the film's bad guy, but in a confrontation with the film's villain (whose name shall be left unmentioned in an attempt to leave some modicum of suspense about the film), it's revealed that Tanner is as genetically advanced as Mr. Hart.

"You'll have to excuse my friend, he's just dead."
Miss Beverly Hills cannot help Nehemiah Persoff;
he's fallen to THE POWER!
Once the big secret is spilled at the film's climax, many things throughout the film make much more sense.  As Hamilton makes his way through the film, women seem to throw themselves at him.  Even Yvonne deCarlo (of TV's The Munsters and film noir fame), playing Hallson's widow, hangs all over him when he visits her.  It's said that Adam had the same effect on women, so even before he knows about his power, women seem to sense his superiority.  It's somewhat similar to Remo Williams in the Destroyer novels - his Sinanju training makes him almost irresistible to women, and at the same time renders him almost apathetic about them.  It also explains how he's able to survive Hart's numerous attempts to kill him, and the various hallucinations he sees near the start of the film, where the phrase "Don't Run" appears in the background.  His unconscious mind is trying to reach out to him and let him know he's got the stones to beat Hart.

The film is tense, and keeps the pressure up.  From the opening shot, where the time of the film is given as "tomorrow," the film stays grounded in at least plausibility, if not true reality.  The score by Miklos Rosza is a classic, featuring what may be the only use of a hammered dulcimer in a thriller soundtrack.  The makeup by William Tuttle is impressive for the time, including quite a grisly look for O'Connell after an 8G ride in the centrifuge.

Get out of the tank, George; your tan will fade and your suit will wrinkle.
The Power was released by Warner Archives as part of their impressive print on demand DVD line.  It's well worth a look.

Dorian:  THEM! (1954) Uncle Milton Doesn’t Sell an Ant Farm That Big!

In the deliciously sneaky tradition of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), THEM! begins as a suspenseful police procedural, starting with a little girl of maybe 5 or 6 years old, wandering alone on a lonely New Mexico road.  She’s in a wide-eyed state of shock, not saying a word.  As a mom myself, I was already hooked, as anxious as if the poor dazed kid were my own child, especially when it becomes clear that this child is the sole survivor of some kind of truly bloody, horrific attack — but what kind?

THEM! pulls the rug out from under you as it morphs into an eye-popping, edge-of-your-seat Big Bug monster movie, one of the best ever made!  You see a body or two…you hear yelling and screaming (the Wilhelm Scream, to be specific… You don’t see the monster just yet, but when you do

I’d first heard of THEM! director Gordon Douglas back when I was a little tyke growing up in the Bronx. Back then, The 4:30 Movie was aired Monday through Friday, often shown in two parts, serial-style.  If I recall correctly, that was how I first saw both The Power and THEM!, as well as the Bond-style spy adventure In Like Flint (1967), as well as my dad’s favorite Frank Sinatra movies, Tony Rome (1967); The Detective and Lady in Cement (both in 1968).  Ironically, Douglas actually got his start as a child actor in Hal Roach’s comedies, and grew up to be a gag writer for Our Gang before he became a movie director!  Anyway, back in the Bronx, Mom and Dad always steered little me back to the G-rated films and TV shows in the next room, leaving me to wait to learn about Sinatra’s tough-guy roles in my early teens instead. 

Director of Photography Sid Hickox (The Big Sleep; White Heat; Dark Passage; and a great many TV series) gives THEM! a feeling of both film noir and docudrama, with suspense to spare!  Douglas and Company take just enough time to whet your appetite for the inevitable Big Reveal, with weird piercing noises here…and mangled bodies there….
You can lose your mind
when coppers are two of a kind!

You couldn’t beat this superb cast of great character actors with ant swatters!  Many of the stars eventually became award winners and nominees over time:

·      * As Sgt. Ben Peterson, who first finds the child known only as “The Ellinson Girl” (Sandy Drescher, also in Space Children):  James Whitmore from The Asphalt Jungle; Oklahoma!; Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!, for which he earned an Best Actor Oscar nomination. Also, that’s William Schallert of The Patty Duke Show playing the ambulance driver.
  •  As FBI Agent Robert Graham:  James Arness, who went from playing The Thing from Another World, to the classic war film Battleground, to Marshal Matt Dillon in TV’s long-running Western Gunsmoke.
  • As Dr. Harold Medford: Edmund Gwenn,  Oscar-winner for Miracle on 34th Street; and super supporting actor in Alfred Hitchcock’s  Foreign Correspondent and The Trouble with Harry.
  • As Dr. Patricia “Pat” Medford:  Joan Weldon, actress/singer in So This is Love; Deep in My Heart; Home Before Dark.
  • As Brigadier General Robert O'Brien, Onslow Stevens of Night Has a Thousand Eyes; House of Dracula; Angel on My Shoulder.
  • As Major Kibbee:  Sean McClory from The Quiet Man; Storm Warning; Niagara (albeit uncredited for some reason); as well as many TV appearances.
But who—or what—on earth killed the rest of the Ellinson family?  The only clues are the doomed family’s wrecked trailer. (If only they’d gone to Disneyland like everyone else!)  The trailer looks like a tornado destroyed it (someone better put out an APB on The Wicked Witch of the West!), and there are torn, bloody sacks of both granulated sugar, and sugar cubes.  Is the killer a madman with a raging sweet tooth?  Ironically, Ellinson was an FBI agent, but he wasn’t on a case.  He was simply vacationing with his family, including two other kids.  Poor Ellinson and his family couldn’t have imagined the terrible fate that awaited them, whatever the hell it was!

If Marshal Diilon, Harry Truman, and Kris Kringle
can't destroy those giant ants, nobody can!

The FBI gets involved when Agent Robert Graham (Arness) from their Alamogordo office comes to help.  The autopsy of another murdered local, Old Man Johnson, shows that Johnson was put through the wringer, big-time: broken neck and back, crushed chest, fractured skull, and here’s the kicker: “He had enough formic acid in him to kill 20 men!”  Yikes!  But it gives Dr. Medford an idea to help snap the kid out of it.  He waves a vial of formic acid under her nose, and quickly gets horrifying, heart-wrenching results as the poor child shrieks and sobs, “THEM! THEM!”

My cheeky wisecracks notwithstanding, THEM! put a pang in my heart because of the human factor.  I was so moved by Ben’s gentle kindness to the poor little Ellinson girl.  The characters are genuine people you can sympathize and empathize with.  For me in particular as a mom, I couldn’t help getting weepy when families were killed or left as widows and/or orphans. We have the superb character actors to thank for breathing life into THEM! and making an already great horror movie film something truly special. The script by screenwriters Russell S. Hughes and Ted Sherdeman, based on a story by the great George Worthing Yates, blends wry humor with genuine poignancy, not to mention suspense and jumbo-size creepy critters!  The whole cast won me over, with everyone getting memorable moments of fear, drama, and playful wit that had me caring about these characters.  Indeed, both the father and daughter Medfords let down their hair (Professor Medford’s thinning hair notwithstanding), and are soon calling each other Pat and Bob—but don’t worry, nobody’s forgotten about those murderous giant ants!  (How could they?  Where could you possibly hide them?).

We see lovely Dr. Patricia Medford
is getting a leg up on the mystery!
By the way, Edith Head designed the costumes, and Joan Weldon in particular arrives in a smart, tasteful Moss Mabry outfit when they arrive; it goes great with her desert safety goggles!  I especially got a kick out of Dr. Medford Sr. trying to get the hang of the helicopter radio.  Also, as a Perry Mason fan, I enjoyed seeing character actor Olin Howland (billed here as “Howlin,” also known to me from the 1930s Perry Mason movies on TCM) as the alcoholic in the mental hospital who wants our heroes to "Make me a Sergeant, charge the booze! Bronislau Kaper's music (Auntie Mame) orchestrations by Robert Franklyn and Ray Heindorf (Wonder Man) is both sweeping and suspenseful, working perfectly for THEM’s rollercoaster of emotions, especially for those who’ve been in real-life horrors, like many people we know who experienced the tragedy of New York City on September 11th, 2001.  It sure makes you thankful that THEM! is only a movie!
Those crazy kids & their hippie LSD sugar cube parties! 
Hey, wait, it's 1954 and LSD hasn't been invented yet!

Vinnie stirs the anthill:  The "Wilhelm" scream first appeared in the 1951 film Distant Drums, and was used as a simple stock effect for decades.  It's named after a character from a later film, The Charge at Feather River.  It's appeared in over 200 films, but it wasn't until sound engineer Ben Burtt found them and started using them as a running gag in the Star Wars films, and then the Indiana Jones films, etc., that it became a pop culture thing.

I say "it" but it's actually "they" - there are several screams that are part of the Wilhelm 'library", and THEM! uses them liberally.  The one universally known as "the" Wilhelm scream is seen in clip three below.

The scream(s) are generally credited to pop singer Sheb Wooley, he of "Purple People Eater" fame.  But regardless of who made them, they're as important a part of recyclable entertainment history as those three rocks on Star Trek.