Friday, August 15, 2008

Night of the Blood Beast (American International, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

We eventually ran the rest of the special Thanksigiving Mystery Science Theatre 3000 from 1995 that included the short Once Upon a Honeymoon (and must have been shown shortly after they ran the movie Mr. B Natural, since they had a character in the sketch scenes dressed up as the androgynous “Spirit of Music” from that film and speaking in that irritatingly chirpy voice used in the film) and the feature Night of the Blood Beast, an American International non-epic from 1958 directed by Bernard Kowalski (I couldn’t help but wondering whether he called his actors using the “STELL-UH!” voice of Marlon Brando from A Streetcar Named Desire, and I was a bit surprised the MST3K crew didn’t do a riff on his name) from a script by Martin Varno based on a story by Gene Corman, Roger Corman’s younger (by a year and a half) brother, who actually got into the movie business before Roger did as an apprentice agent at MCA. (Roger took the other traditional starting-out job as a studio mailroom clerk.)

Roger was named as executive producer on this one while Gene was listed as line producer as well as writer, and Night of the Blood Beast actually had the potential to be reasonably good. America’s first astronaut gets shot up into space in the usual cigar-tube rocket, only to lose control on re-entry and get himself killed when his spacecraft crashes into earth. Only he’s not really dead; he’s being kept alive by an interplanetary invader that has impregnated him with a litter of seahorse-shaped embryos. The plan is for these creatures to be born on earth and form the basis for a new population of extra-terrestrial whatsits that will eventually conquer our planet, though the astronaut — once he revives sufficiently to be able to talk and move — is actually quite thrilled by the idea; much like the scientist in the 1951 The Thing, he’s in open awe of the alien and regards it as superior to us — until at the very end when he realizes what the alien really has in mind and turns against it, helping the other earthlings in the movie to destroy it with Molotov cocktails (since earlier scenes have established that it’s impervious to bullets but can be harmed by fire — obviously someone in the movie, or one of the writers, had seen Zombies of Mora Tau).

The central premise of a manned expedition to outer space bringing back with it some alien life form that poses a threat to earth wasn’t exactly fresh (it had already been done in The Quatermass Experiment and several other movies) but it wasn’t a bad idea, either; what did in Night of the Blood Beast, aside from its ridiculous title (which would have led 1958 audiences to expect something far more horrific than they got), was its incredible cheapness — the MST3K crew couldn’t resist the obvious joke that according to this movie, the entire infrastructure of NASA consisted of one desert base camp, one Jeep and one truck — and Kowalski’s deadly-dull direction.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the more 1950’s sci-fi movies we see in the MST3K context and the harder it gets to stay awake during them, the better Edward D. Wood, Jr. looks: for all his incompetence, his films at least were well-paced and fast-moving — as were Roger Corman’s, which suggests that Gene would have been much better advised to let his brother direct this one than to entrust it to a director who, as Polish-descended directors go, was clearly at the opposite pole on the quality spectrum from Roman Polanski. It also didn’t help that not only did they show the monster — impersonated by actor Ross Sturlin with a particularly nasty-looking carpet sample over his head to make him look properly alien — but they gave him a voice; we were told that once he murdered kindly old Dr. Alex Wyman (Tyler McVey), severed his head and ate it (I’m not making this up, you know!) he acquired Dr. Wyman’s voice — and, presumably, his full command of English. This is a lot sillier than the flaw in this movie pointed out by the “Goofs” commentators: that when the astronaut crashes to earth he has no heartbeat, but subsequently the nurse taking care of him (who bears the character name “Julie Benson,” also the alias Evelyn Keyes’ Ruby Keeler-based character had in The Jolson Story, and is played by Angela Greene) notices he has a blood pressure: the contributors ridiculed the idea that someone who didn’t have a functioning heart could have a blood pressure, but the alien could have restarted the man’s heart in the two or three reels in between those plot points. — 8/14/08