Friday, February 3, 2012

The Beast With A Million Eyes (1955)

Allan Kelley (Paul Birch), his wife Carol (Lorna Thayer) and their college-aged-yet-acting-like-twelve-for-most-of-the-time daughter Sandra (Dona Cole) are living in the desert, running a date ranch (interesting question for a non-American: why isn't it a date farm?) without much success. Helping them out is a mute, mentally ill, and more than slightly creepy man the family only calls "Him" (Leonard Tarver), for they can't be bothered to find out his actual name.

The Kelleys are as troubled a family as you'll encounter in 50s SF horror. Allan feels emasculated over the lack of success of his business and tends to put his work before his family, Carol has been turned quite nasty thanks to being confined to the family ranch with no human contact at all (unlike Allan, she doesn't even get to see the neighbours), and Sandy clearly has her reasons to want to leave for College as soon as she can.

Fortunately, the titular creature (spoiler: that thing with the million eyes is a metaphor, as the alien explains before the plot starts) has landed in the desert close to the family's farm, destroying Carol's much-loved glass and porcelain wares in the process via a nasty high-pitched noise, and there's nothing better to get a family back together than an alien invasion.

At first, the alien turns the local wildlife aggressive, leading to an unconvincing bird attack, the most polite attack by family dog ever put to film, and one of the neighbours being nearly killed by his cow (ending his "comical" antics, so well done, cow). Eventually, the alien does turn its mental powers on the "weaker minded" humans around, putting the mind whammy on "Him" and trying its luck with Sandra, but Allan and Carol find a very hippie-esque way to deal with the problem.

The Beast With A Million Eyes is a very early Roger Corman production, with a belaboured and painful production history featuring unconvinced ("Where is the monster?" - "Why, it's invisible!" - "No way!" - "Oh, alright, have a hand puppet!") distributors and pissed off unions (turns out unions don't like it when you try to get around paying union rates - who knew!?). It's probable that the film's official director David Kramarsky didn't do any directing at all, and that Corman did the rush-job himself, making this the great man's second stint on the director's chair.

This early in his career, Corman wasn't quite as good at working around the problems of a miniscule budget as he would soon become, and so The Beast is plagued by a number of expected problems, like too many scenes of desperately unexciting filler scenes of people walking through the desert, acting that is all over the place (though sometimes - especially from Thayer and Birch - pretty good for a change), an inappropriate but free soundtrack of classical music, entirely unconvincing to ridiculous (cow attacks are never ever frightening) animal attacks, and a climax that is only exciting if you really like to watch people talk to a kettle-like contraption in the desert. Let's not even talk about the monster, except to mention that this is the first bit of work Paul Blaisdell did for Corman.

On the positive side, the film's script has more than just one good idea. The first twenty minutes, which are predominantly spent on the family's troubles, are excellent, showing a group of people whose love has faded thanks to the horrors of day to day life, and even allowing Thayer's Carol more complexity than just making her a bitch. In this context, I can't even fault the film for the woozy idea of people loving each other again being the solution to their alien problems. It might work out too pat, but putting the emphasis on the love instead of the duty in familial relations seems like a very un-50s and un-conservative thing to do. It's also pretty neat that one of the plot points setting up the film's happy end for the family is that Allan finally bothers to find out "Him"'s real name, giving him back the full humanity the family had denied the man until then (not that it helps the poor guy survive, but it's not as if modern movies would treat the mentally ill much better; after all, there's nobody shouting at producers and writers for the slightest transgression real or imagined or supposed towards them for them).

The film's ropy execution may generally overwhelm the script's intelligence and humanity, however, I do prefer a film that tries something and fails to one that doesn't try anything and still fails, so I can't help but like The Beast With A Million Eyes more than its actual quality deserves.


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