Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Beast of Hollow Mountain (Nassour Studios, Péliculas Rodríguez, United Artists, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Over the weekend Charles and I watched a couple of movies from my backlog of off-the-air recordings I made on DVD’s before the wretched conversion of my cable-TV service to “all-digital” made that technically impossible. The films were items from Turner Classic Movies in 2013 and were part of an unannounced tribute to actress Patricia Medina, who was Mrs. Joseph Cotten but as far as I can recall never actually made a film with him. The first was The Beast of Hollow Mountain, a movie I’ve been interested in seeing ever since I read about it in the book The Making of King Kong — that’s the original King Kong from 1933 rather than the later versions (neither of which I’ve seen) nor the innumerable reboots, sequelae and sequelae to the reboots. It was mentioned in the chapter on King Kong’s special-effects head, Willis H. O’Brien, who first conceived of bringing prehistoric creatures to life on screen through the use of stop-motion animation. O’Brien’s technique included first building an “armature,” a metal skeleton for the creature in which neck, arms, legs and tails were fully articulated. Then the armature was covered with a suitable material to look like the real animal — or at least our best guesses, since all we have left of the dinosaurs are their bones, as to what they actually looked like. The big step was having the model perform for the camera by taking a single frame, then moving one or more of its parts slightly, taking another frame, and then doing that over and over until what resulted was a strip of film in which the model appeared to move. 

The greatest practitioners of this art form, which required a great deal of time, money and patience (a stop-motion animation crew could take up an entire eight-our work day to turn out a minute to a minute and a half of usable film), were O’Brien and his friend and disciple Ray Harryhausen, who worked with O’Brien on the 1949 original version of Mighty Joe Young and became the leading stop-motion animator of the 1950’s and 1960’s, creating sequences that are still stunning today even though stop-motion has mostly been displaced by digital animation. O’Brien first showed off his techniques in the 1919 short (about 15 minutes) film The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, and in their book The Making of King Kong authors George Turner and Orville Goldner did a series of appendices describing the previous films of the creative people involved in Kong. In their chapter on The Ghost of Slumber Mountain they noted that in 1956 someone had produced a film called The Beast of Hollow Mountain and that O’Brien had provided its story (adapted into a screenplay by Robert Hill with Jack DeWitt credited with additional dialogue) but unfortunately had not been hired to do the effects work. In fact, as Turner and Goldner noted, the two films had nothing in common except that both ended with sequences of a normal human being chased by a flesh-eating dinosaur. The Beast of Hollow Mountain was a 1956 co-production between Edward and William Nassour’s independent U.S. company and the Mexican film studio Peliculas Rodríguez, which explains why the film is set in Mexico, was shot there (in Cuernavaca in the Mexican state of Morelos), and except for leads Guy Madison and Patricia Medina, has an all-Mexican cast. Not surprisingly, the film was made simultaneously in English and Spanish — a throwback to the early days of sound films, in which separate crews would shoot different versions of the movie in different languages, using the same stars if they were multilingual (Greta Garbo shot her first talkie, Anna Christie, in both English and German versions) but replacing most, if not all, of the cast. What’s most fascinating about The Beast of Hollow Mountain is that for nearly an hour of its 79-minute running time there’s not much of an indication that the titular beast is going to turn out to be a living dinosaur. 

It’s mostly a tale of American rancher Jimmy Ryan (Guy Madison, who then was starring on U.S. TV in a Western series called Wild Bill Hickock) and his Mexican partner Felipe Sanchez (Carlos Rivas, whose presence puts the cast of The Beast of Hollow Mountain one degree of separation from the most recent Academy Awards telecast — the telecast featured Rita Moreno, who played the slave girl from Burma in the 1956 film The King and I; Rivas played her Burmese boyfriend who risked his life coming to Thailand to keep seeing her and the two sang the duet “We Kiss in a Shadow,” though he may have had a voice double) have bought a spread in Mexico. The local patrón, Don Pedro (Julio Villareal), is O.K. with the gringo and his Mexican partner running cattle in his neighborhood, but another local rancher, Enrique Rios (Eduardo Noriega), isn’t. Jimmy risks his own life to save Don Pedro’s drunken servant Pancho (Pascual García Peña, who judging from his performance here probably got calls from Mexican casting directors who were asked for a Thomas Mitchell type) from a runaway horse. In doing this he attracts the attention of Don Pedro’s daughter Sarita (Patricia Medina), who’s engaged to Rios but doesn’t like him — she’s willing to marry him at his father’s behest to unite the two family fortunes, but the moment she sees Jimmy she falls head over heels for the American. Jimmy humiliates Rios in a street brawl and that makes Rios even more determined to drive Jimmy off his land and out of Mexico. While all this is going on cattle are mysteriously disappearing from both Jimmy’s and Rios’s herds — Pancho and his son Panchito (Mario Navarro), a typically obnoxious movie kid of the 1950’s, are convinced that inside Hollow Mountain, separated from the rest of the country by an impassable swamp, lives some sort of beast that’s eating the missing cattle, but of course Jimmy and Rios each accuse the other of rustling. Jimmy is broke: his financial survival is dependent on his getting his latest herd to market, and Rios plants two workers on his staff and tells them to stampede the cattle so Jimmy will lose his herd, his income will fall through and he’ll be forced to leave town. 

Pancho ventures into the swamp country to find out what’s happening to the cattle, only he doesn’t get far because a giant shadow of something or other approaches him and he screams. Eventually his sombrero (looking surprisingly clean for someone who lived as rough a life as Pancho did and, at least in the scenes we see, almost never took it off) is found in the swamp. Cut off from credit by Rios’ influence, Jimmy starts the big cattle drive that’s supposed to redeem his fortunes, only the stampede happens earlier than Rios and his undercover men intended it to, and soon enough we find out why: the Beast of Hollow Mountain, a generic upright-walking killer dinosaur along the lines of Allosaurus (the Jurassic Era precursor to Tyrannosaurus rex; the difference is that Allosaurus could still walk on all fours when it wanted to whereas the T. Rex’s front limbs had degenerated to the point where they were virtually useless), is chasing away the cattle from both herds because apparently raw cattle are its favorite existing food source. The first hour of The Beast of Hollow Mountain is a pretty generic Western, not bad but not particularly interesting either, and it’s not at all clear when this film is supposedly taking place — it could be virtually any time from the 1870’s to the 1956 present when it was made. Once the dino-action starts it becomes a virtually non-stop chase scene in which the humans try to drive the dinosaur into the quicksand-filled swamp because out in the middle of Nowhere, Mexico, without access to high-tech weapons or the planes from which King Kong’s makers, Merian Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, brought down the big ape (literally — they were both accomplished pilots and they took over the stunt-flying task when one of them joked to the other, “We really ought to kill the S.O.B. ourselves”), that’s the only way they can knock the thing off. Many of the cast and crew members went on to work on The Black Scorpion, a 1957 production and another U.S.-Mexican co-venture — though that one did involve O’Brien bringing the giant black scorpion to life with stop-motion animation. 

Though O’Brien didn’t get to work on The Beast of Hollow Mountain despite providing the “idea” for the film (that’s how he’s credited, simply with an “idea” rather than a full-fledged story credit), the animation is quite convincing. The credits ballyhooed the film as being in the new “Nassour Regiscope” process of “Animation in Depth,” but like “Dynamation” (the title Ray Harryhausen’s employers slapped on some of his later films to make them sound like they were being shot in a revolutionary new process) this is simply stop-motion animation presented for the first time in CinemaScope and color. According to an imdb.com “Trivia” poster, three techniques were used in the final film: the traditional stop-motion animation with articulated models described above, so-called “replacement animation” (in which a scene is brought to life by constructing several different models, each one virtually identical except for the part that’s supposed to move, and one model is replaced by the next in sequence as the scene is shot frame-by-frame) and, for the close-ups of the monster walking, a human stunt person wearing full-sized dino-boots to get the shots directors Edward Nassour and Ismail Rodríguez wanted of the monster’s feet traipsing through the muddy swampland separating Hollow Mountain from the rest of Mexico. Eventually it ends the way you expect it to, with the Beast of Hollow Mountain drowned in quicksand, Jimmy and Sarita together, the ranch saved and Rios publicly humiliated. Apparently there’s a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version of this film, which might be fun to see, but au naturel The Beast of Hollow Mountain isn’t a bad movie but isn’t an especially good one either; it’s nice to see all that Mexican scenery in color (thank you, cinematographer Jorge Stahl, Jr.) and the human activities going on in front of it aren’t bad, while the dinosaur is animated as well as one could expect from a film that O’Brien or Harryhausen didn’t do the effects work on; it’s just a monster climax, sort of Zorro Meets Godzilla, grafted onto a not especially interesting tale of Mexican land-grabbing.