Film #61: It Conquered the World (1956)

film 61 it conquered the world

Rating: 3/5

“You think you’re gonna make a slave of the world… I’ll see you in Hell first!”

Directed by Roger Corman, It Conquered the World is best known for its baddie, an alien from Venus frequently described as a giant cucumber. It’s a surprisingly difficult film to get a hold of, considering its reputation and director – my copy is a second-hand VHS yet still manages to be one of the most expensive films in my collection. I bought it for two reasons: first, to see this infamous monster; and second, because it was later remade as Zontar: The Thing From Venus, by notorious badfilmmaker Larry Buchanan. Zontar is a pretty dreadful movie (which will be reviewed shortly), and I was curious to see how the two films compare. With regards to this film, I was pleasantly surprised.

Made right in the middle of sci-fi’s most prolific decade, It Conquered the World shares much with the other, better known films of the time. It’s now widely acknowledged that the sci-fi movies of the fifties exploited social and political fears – the threat of nuclear war or the spread of communism in particular – and this film is no exception. Lee Van Cleef is Tom Anderson, a scientist in direct communication with a being from Venus (or so he claims). Despite the scepticism of his wife Claire (Beverley Garland) and friend Paul Nelson (Peter Graves), neither of whom can hear anything other than static on Tom’s radio set, the scientist is convinced that the creature he’s communicating with is going to be of great benefit to mankind. Naturally, he’s deluded about its true intentions, and things rapidly take a turn for the worse.

It Conquered the World invites several comparisons. The alien, officially named Beluah by its creator Paul Blaisdell, lands on Earth and quickly stops all technology (except for that of its allies) – cars, house lights, telephones, even the water supply ceases instantly, at 3.03pm. Yet this is not a peaceful display of power, as in The Day the Earth Stood Still, but a way of stopping communications and making a human retaliation more difficult. It also has strange little flying creatures who bite human hosts and transform them into mindless pod people – like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (made in the same year), these people look the same, but they are all controlled by their Venusian leader. The idea of one’s neighbours, family and friends suddenly becoming the enemy, without any visible indication of their new status, is a recurring one in 50s sci-fi, perfectly capturing the social paranoia regarding the apparent threat of communism. This was the final year of the Second Red Scare in America, when McCarthyism had reached its peak – anyone could be the enemy. Here, Lou Rusoff’s screenplay makes the metaphor blatant, with characters at one point even specifically discussing communism – it’s obvious now, but it’s still effective.

Like many of Corman’s movies, there are several interesting aspects hidden below the drive-in, teen-friendly narrative. Tom’s wife is a headstrong and determined woman (in a decade when women are almost always secondary characters) – her actions may prove futile in the end, but she is a strong and self-assured character, who at least attempts to stop the madness going on around her. Tom himself is an interesting leading man – far more interesting than the more steadfast Paul. He is utterly convinced that he is helping humanity, but this deluded arrogance is what enables Beluah to come and (attempt to) take over the planet. Lee Van Cleef, a classic bad guy (dark hair, little moustache), is cold and scientific – ruthless even, and cruel to his wife in particular. Van Cleef plays well against the traditional “good” looks (both in terms of physicality and character) of Graves.

Ultimately, however, it is Beluah itself that is the most memorable character here. The creature is truly a sight to behold – its flying minions are daft and never particularly visible, but Beluah is eventually unveiled in all its glory. Officially it’s a kind of sentient fungus, which is in itself a unique and intriguing concept, but it’s difficult to take the thing seriously. What does impress is the actual size of the creature – it’s a cumbersome, awkward and immobile object, with a pantomime villain’s expression, but when shown alongside the characters, is impressively large. That’s about all that’s impressive, however – it fails entirely as a horrifying villain, but I can think of few other creations that really match it in terms of visual entertainment (perhaps the carpet monsters in The Creeping Terror come close; good ol’ Ro-Man should also get a mention).

Despite the obvious budgetary constraints, Corman does deliver. The film is surprisingly professional considering its meagre shooting schedule of just five days; it’s acted well, with a coherent narrative and some engaging, topical (if not particularly original) concepts running underneath. Viewed today, it’s enjoyably kitsch, predominantly because of Beluah. They don’t make ’em like they used to, that’s for sure.

Film #60: Robot Monster (1953)

film 60 robot monster

Rating: 2/5

“I cannot – yet I must. How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do ‘must’ and ‘cannot’ meet? Yet I must – but I cannot!”

The final film of the day’s badfilm bonanza is the wonderfully kitsch Robot Monster, first acknowledged by the Medveds in their book, Fifty Worst Films of All Time, way back in 1978. It was also one of the primary reasons for its director, Phil Tucker, being nominated as Worst Director of All Time by the Medveds two years later (Tucker was defeated by Ed Wood). Since then, this movie has remained a firm favourite of badfilm aficionados, and it is widely acknowledged as one of the worst films of the 50s. Continuing the trends of the day, it also features a precocious child in a prominent role, but there’s no renditions of Row Row Row Your Boat here, sadly. That would have been too strange!

After an afternoon of particularly bad movies, Robot Monster actually emerges as a fairly successful film – in contrast to the terrible 90’s sheen of Troll 2 and the washed out incompetence of Manos: The Hands of Fate, this is actually rather accomplished. It’s shot reasonably well, the acting is not particularly stilted, and it benefits from a general kitsch appeal of old 50s sci-fi movies. Yet I make it sound better than it is, because a film about a robot monster called Ro-Man from planet Ro-Man who’s clearly a man in a gorilla suit with a space helmet on his head is never going to be very good. It is harmless, however, and quite endearing, despite being completely illogical and stupid.

Robot Monster has a tiny cast, and was reportedly shot in only four days. George Moffett is young Johnny, an adventurous kid with an active imagination who runs into some archaeologists during a day out in what appears to be a gravelly canyon. Then, for no apparent reason, there’s a sharp cut to some recycled footage depicting some (real) reptiles fighting and some (model) dinosaurs roaming around. When we next see Johnny, he’s living in a derelict building with his mother, older and younger sisters, and his father – the archaeologist shown previously. The world has been decimated by Ro-Man, we learn, who is now living in a cave down the road with a bedroom dresser (sorry, I mean a communication screen) and a bubble machine. The latter gets its own mention in the credits – its official title is the Automatic Billion Bubble Machine by N.A. Fisher Chemical Products, Inc.

It’s difficult to not be significantly dislodged by this sudden shift in narrative, but the story established in the opening sequence is easy to forget, namely because it isn’t referenced or acknowledged until the final scene. The recycled footage, which bookends the film along with its shock twist (followed by another shock twist, just to layer some more incoherence onto the already confused screenplay), is audacious and very obvious – it’s also really forced into the story by the Great Guidance, Ro-Man’s superior who dictates actions from the safety of a space craft somewhere. Both the aliens are played by George Barrows, a character actor renowned for playing gorillas – in fact, Ro-Man’s appearance was directly influenced by the fact that Barrows had his own gorilla costume. He should be commended for his role here; traipsing around the desolate desert landscape in a heavy outfit like this couldn’t have been easy.

While the hu-man cast are all quite generic – nice but forgettable – there is something endearing about Ro-Man. His conversations with the Great Guidance reveal him to be a rather pitiful, browbeaten character, who becomes increasingly conflicted because of his developing feelings towards Johnny’s older sister Alice. Despite his annihilation of all but six of the human race, and even after his brutal killing of one of those remaining, it is difficult to ever think of him as anything more than a pathetic, confused, and tragic figure. It is also Ro-Man who gets the most memorable lines (except, perhaps, the archaeologist’s assistant’s quick-fire retort to Alice: “I’m bossy? You’re so bossy you oughta be milked before you come home at night”) – Ro-Man and the Great Guidance discuss their mass genocide in theatrical, overblown language that is entirely incomprehensible, made all the more ludicrous by the physicality of the characters.

Certainly, there are elements of general badness throughout Robot Monster, but it would appear that the main reason for this film’s notoriety is Ro-Man. The recycled footage and negatively-exposed shots – not to mention the narrative incoherence – undoubtedly help, but it is the sheer preposterousness of this character that gives this little sci-fi/apocalypse picture its charm. It’s a harmless film, completely enjoyable and consistently entertaining and, in many ways, no better or worse than any number of equally low-budget 50s movies; a rather quaint addition to the elastic category of badfilm.

Film #59: Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

film 59 manos the hands of fate

Rating: 1/5

“The woman is all we want! The others must die! They ALL must die! We do not even want the woman!”

The third film of the day (and the second bad one), Manos: The Hands of Fate – literally translated as Hands: The Hands of Fate – is currently the third worst film of all time according to IMDB’s Bottom 100. While it has almost nothing in common with Troll 2‘s plot, it does, oddly, share an almost identical scene quite early on, in which a mother encourages a disgruntled child to start singing while on the drive to their holiday destination. The song picked by both Joshua in Troll 2 and Debbie in Manos? The beloved classic, Row Row Row Your Boat. Apart from this unexpected coincidence, however, what both films share is a cult status borne out of their badness.

Manos: The Hands of Fate exists because of a bet made by Harold P Warren, an insurance salesman. He wagered with Stirling Silliphant (who went on to win an Oscar for his work on In the Heat of the Night) that he could make a horror film on a minimal budget. Two and a half months and $19 000 later, the result is an unbridled mess. The inexperience is visible from start to finish: the story is incomprehensible and strangely irrelevant; the acting terrible and the dubbing obvious; the editing and pacing an incoherent and disconcerting jumble. Like most of the really bad (cult) movies, it is of course a lot of fun – at just 74 minutes, it just manages to not outstay its welcome.

Warren, like many other badfilm creators, is the film’s writer, director, producer, and leading man. Using the alias Hal Warren (a far less assuming pseudonym than Ray Dennis Steckler’s Cash Flagg or Arthur White’s Vic Savage), he plays Michael who, with wife Margaret (Diane Mahee) and young daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman) takes a wrong turn down a dusty desert road and becomes mixed up with the adherents of Manos, namely The Master, his bickering wives, and his servant Torgo.

Problematically, however, Michael is a thoroughly dislikeable man. Reaching the isolated farmhouse, he encounters Torgo, whose giant, crooked knees, twitching demeanor, and plaintive pleas that the “Master” would not want to entertain visitors should surely ring alarm bells for this supposedly caring husband. Yet, instead, Michael forces his family upon Torgo, ordering the awkward man to carry all their bags indoors so they can stay for the night – as Margaret tells him she’s frightened, he even pushes little Debbie into the house first. Now that’s truly gentlemanly behaviour!

We don’t get to see the Master until almost half way through the film; so much time is taken up with the family settling – or failing to settle – into the house. The building itself appears to consist of two rooms – the living room, complete with ominous portrait, and a tiny bedroom. Margaret eventually spends the majority of her time in here, first being molested by Torgo, then lying in her negligee wailing about the absence of her husband. Like most women in badfilms, she is utterly useless, serving only to constantly reiterate her fear and wait for the man to save the day. In contrast, the other women of the film, the Master’s wives, are a strange group – their screen-time is devoted to arguments, complaining, moaning, and physical fighting. This is a truly dysfunctional sect, and it’s a wonder how anything is ever achieved in Manos’ name.

Narratively, almost nothing actually happens. Everyone is unhappy – Michael’s family don’t want to be stuck in the desert, the Master and his wives don’t want guests at their home, Torgo wants Margaret to be his wife, and the couple of necking teenagers in a car down the road want to be able to smooch each other in private without the cops constantly turning up. The film jumps back to these latter characters on several occasions, for no apparent reason; allegedly the girl was supposed to have a different role but had broken her leg so couldn’t fulfil her original duties.

Choosing to film in colour was an audacious move by Warren, considering his tiny budget – and it shows. The film is washed out and frequently completely out of focus; exterior shots are poorly lit yet manage to capture every insect that flies by the camera. The restrictions of production dictate several stylistic and narrative decisions: on two occasions characters are supposed to go and search for something, yet in both scenes they only make it one or two steps away from the primary source of light, because the camera couldn’t pick up anything beyond that. The house is entirely isolated from its surroundings also, seeming to sit in a black void. Meanwhile the camera used for shooting could only record 32 seconds of film at a time, resulting in some intriguing editing decisions. There are frequent cutaways to character close ups, shots that appear for no reason yet affect the film’s pacing and spacial awareness in such a way that scenes are jumpy and uncomfortable. It doesn’t help that the characters spend an inordinate amount of time in awkward silence, looking sheepish and petulant.

Is there anything redeemable about Manos: The Hands of Fate? John Reynold’s performance as Torgo is curiously effective – one can even develop some sort of sympathy for this disfigured, doomed creature. Aesthetically, there are some interesting results – not good, by any stretch of the imagination, but interesting. Yet it, like Troll 2, deserves its status; it’s an incomprehensible muddle of a movie that has somehow managed to capture the attention of a dedicated niche audience. Its cult/bad status is enough even to warrant discussion in an Oscar-winning movie (Juno). Unlike the films of the 50s, which generally end on a happy resolution, Manos reveals a change in low-budget horror, with a surprising, and quite controversial final shot. Yet this transgressive conclusion cannot conceal the fact that it is a bad movie. It’s no wonder that most of the cast never worked in films again. Despite all this, one thing should be acknowledged: Warren said he could do it, and he did. I guess it was never specified whether it had to be good or not.

Films #57 and 58: Troll 2 (1990) and Best Worst Movie (2009)

film 57 58 troll 2 best worst movie

Ratings: 1/5, 4.5/5

“But they’re trolls daddy! Monstrous beings!” – Troll 2
“I was in a movie called Troll 2. It’s the worst film of all time.” – George Hardy, Best Worst Movie

Yesterday was a fairly epic day of movie watching – Movie Lottery was temporarily abandoned so that I could catch up on some PhD-specific viewing, and so I spent the day watching some of the most notorious bad movies. Troll 2, a relatively recent addition to the badfilm canon, seemed like a pretty good place to start; having languished on my shelves for a few years now, it’s embarrassing to admit that this was the first time I watched it.

I knew what to expect, of course – Troll 2 has a rather colourful reputation. If I had never heard of it, I’m pretty sure the DVD box would have helped prepare me. I bought this on Amazon, from a reputable seller, but still this is obviously a pirate copy; the cheaply printed cover features some grainy stills from the film itself, and no credit information whatsoever. It does, however, talk about the “Trolls, which are a particularly dangerous breed live [sic] in the woods” who disguise themselves as “peasents [sic].” Naturally, my curiosity was instantly piqued.

For those of you unfamiliar with the film’s infamy, this was a straight-to-video horror film, written by Italian Rossella Drudi and directed by her husband Claudio Fragasso. Filmed in Utah, it stars a bunch of unknowns, and tells the story of Joshua Waits (Michael Stephenson) and his family who go holidaying in a quaint little town called Nilbog. Joshua regularly converses with his (dead) grandfather, who warns him of goblins. Joshua’s teen sister’s on-off boyfriend and his “boys” follow the family to Nilbog, where all the villagers act rather strangely and keep trying to feed the newcomers unappetising green and white mush. Because, as the DVD box says, “the trolls are vegetarians… And the food would turn the Waits into Vegetables!!”

Recounting the plot in a film like this is generally rather irrelevant; no one is going to watch this expecting a nuanced narrative. We watch because the legend of the film precedes our experience of it – it is notoriously bad, so we expect it to be so. And Troll 2 does not disappoint: it is really terrible. The dialogue is particularly dire (although somewhat justified now that I know it was written by a non-English speaker) – just consider lines like this: “Grampa Seth has been gone for more than six months now. You were at the funeral, and I know it was very difficult for you. It was also very difficult for your father, and for Holly, and for me his daughter.” Yes, it efficiently establishes the family connections, but, really? “And for me his daughter”? Oh dear.

The acting is equally bad, though to be expected considering the general amateur status of those involved. Delivery ranges from hysterical to flat; the mother constantly has the look of a confused deer caught in headlights; the “boys” are dreadful; Joshua’s sister is a late 80s cliché, first introduced in a high-cut leotard lifting weights (just to prove her femininity?!), caught in a love-hate relationship with her dimwitted beau. The only character who offers any hint of authenticity is the town’s shopkeeper, a sinister man with a suspiciously limited selection and a severe distaste for eggs and bacon. There’s also, bizarrely, a substantial amount of homoerotic subtext – I’m sure somewhere, someone has done a queer reading of Troll 2, and it would be fascinating to read. Suffice to say now, just consider the relationship between the boyfriend and his boys, not to mention one of the aforementioned boys’ sexual encounter with the Goblin queen and her particularly phallic corn-on-the-cob. Meanwhile, the makeup is cheap, the story makes no sense, at one point a character inexplicably engages with genial conversation with the goblins, there are theological and pagan subplots involving fire-and-brimstone preachers and Stonehenge, people are routinely turned into pot plants, and the goblins (because there are no trolls here) are (apparently) defeated by a gently lobbed hamburger. It is a truly dreadful film.

So why has it gained such a dedicated and devoted audience? There are several factors. Troll 2 has become the “badfilm” of a generation, a film first shown on HBO and cherished by small audiences who claimed some kind of ownership of the product. It gained popularity through word of mouth, rather than being a designated “cult classic” – it emerged out of nowhere, was not publicised, was barely even noticed by most. Yet unlike the older bad classics like Plan 9 From Outer Space, visually it is familiar – it’s in colour, it’s fairly modern; Troll 2 lacks the kitsch appeal of the older movies that can be used to justify their badness. Here, the (almost) contemporary setting is just recent enough for audiences to recognise, appreciate, and decry. We know the calibre of films of the time, and this falls way below even the poorest offering.

Crucial, of course, is its badness. Troll 2 does not just fail on one level; it fails on all of them. It is delirious and deluded, and utterly demented – the story is preposterous, the acting appalling, the props and effects sub-par. Yet it manages to be consistently entertaining – we stare open-mouthed in disbelief yet are never bored. It is, then, one of these cult films described as “so bad it’s good,” an exceedingly problematic term. It’s not good, that’s precisely its appeal. Instead, I would suggest “so bad it’s pleasurable” as a more appropriate term: we recognise and appreciate the complete and utter failure of the film, and are entertained as a result. Is it the worst film of all time? At one point, IMDB voters designated it as such; today it barely scrapes in at 100th place in the Bottom 100. Personally, it sits alongside Children of the Living Dead, which, in my mind was at least as bad and just as pleasurable.

In contrast, Best Worst Movie is fascinating – subtly insightful, poignant, engaging and very interesting. This is Michael Stephenson’s documentary charting the subsequent cult status of Troll 2, and it’s rather ironic that the bratty child star of that movie has so successfully created such a professional, eloquent film himself. Unusually, it is not Stephenson who is the main attraction this time around, but George Hardy, the father. Hardy is a likeable man with a constant smile on his face and a general vitality. He’s also a dentist.

Best Worst Movie attempts to reunite all the main stars of Troll 2, while following the film’s newfound popularity from small viewing parties to packed out cinema events. Initially, at least, Hardy and Stephenson are amazed at the film’s cult status, and they embrace the attention. Hardy joyfully repeats his most famous line, “You can’t piss on hospitality! I won’t allow it!” over and over, and rather than be embarrassed about his role, he delights in telling anyone who’ll listen that he was in the “worst film of all time.” For those who embrace the badness, it’s a particularly entertaining and unexpected stardom.

Not all the cast, however, have such well-adjusted lives. Margo Prey (the mother) has become a virtual recluse, locked away in her unwelcoming home caring for her elderly mum – her brief appearance in the documentary suggests a troubled and fragile person, and this is particularly enlightening considering my previous comments regarding her performance. Similarly, the shopkeeper, who I also discussed as being the only successfully sinister character, discusses his mental health issues at the time of filming, saying his performance was creepy because he was, at the time, a very troubled man.

Reputations and cult status really benefits from this kind of insight, and the interviews with these cast members reinforces one of the frequently discussed reasons for badfilm appreciation – that through the failure it is possible to witness something very authentic and genuine. Unlike “good” movies that disguise or conceal their manufactured nature, badfilms cannot hide, and everything becomes real, in a sense. Working in tandem with this concept is the idea that the film can be perceived as genuine in its intentions – as one of the fans remarks, there is no sense of irony present in Troll 2. Again, Best Worst Movie offers some particularly intriguing implications regarding the tension present in this “worst film of all time” status. This tension is most evident in discussions with the film’s director and writer – a married team who appear to truly believe what they have made is not only good, but profound in some way. Whereas the majority of the cast have embraced their cult status, Fragasso – much like The Room‘s Tommy Wiseau – evidently does not appreciate the constant laughter emanating from the audience of his mini-masterpiece. He frequently describes the actors as “dogs”, and is confrontational and argumentative in Q&A sessions. Yet what does the audience expect? If he embraces his film as bad, surely some of the cult appeal is lost. Better he remains blissfully ignorant and steadfast in his belief that Troll 2 is good.

The tension continues as Troll 2‘s cast – Stephenson and Hardy primarily – begin to lose their bearings. Whereas the sold-out screenings emerged rather organically, they start to force Troll 2 on the public, and their misguided, yet likeable, enthusiasm for the film’s popularity becomes all too clear when they find themselves among other areas of “cult” fandom – horror conventions and memorabilia shows sharply bring them back to Earth. Because cult is a tricky thing, and there are many layers of what makes something cult, and who is involved with that claim.

Apologies for the length of this post – generally I would try to keep it short. This double bill has provided many areas of interest, however. Troll 2 (and Best Worst Movie) offers badfilm theorists a wealth of information, due in large part to the fact that there is little information available about many of the older bad cult classics; most of the people involved were dead before the cult affiliation developed. Watching Troll 2 is a great experience, and it genuinely feels far more authentic than, say, the more consumer-driven output of the SyFy channel. It’s a terrible film – perhaps not the worst ever, but fully deserving of the title “badfilm”. In contrast, Best Worst Movie is eloquent and well judged, offering some valuable insights into the various tensions and stresses that result in unintentionally creating a crap masterpiece.