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Sunday, October 18, 2009

THE CYCLOPS -- movie review by porfle

One of my earliest movie-watching memories is sitting in my mom's lap in the livingroom while my older brother watched THE CYCLOPS (1957) on TV. When the monster, a giant man in a loin cloth with an ultra-hideously scarred face and one big, bulging eyeball, thrust his ugly mug into the mouth of the cave where the main characters were hiding and started roaring at them, it scared the ever-livin' crap outta me. At one point during this grueling ordeal of sheer terror, my mom tried to calm me down by saying, "Ohh, he's not scary...he looks like a funny clown." Well, he didn't look like a funny clown.

In 1993, I caught THE CYCLOPS again on TNT's Monstervision and watched it for nostalgia's sake, just to see what had been so traumatically frightening to me as a young tricycle motor. Back then, even the cheapest B-movie had a documentary realism to it, but now I could see THE CYCLOPS for what it was--a cheap, not-very-competently made schockfest with really bad special effects.

Fortunately, I taped the movie that night and watched it again today after all these years, and, strangely enough, I found it pretty enjoyable this time around. The always adorable Gloria Talbott of I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE fame plays Susan Winter, a woman who is determined to find her missing husband, Bruce, and hires a pilot named Lee Brand (Tom Drake, in a bit of a career comedown from his MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS days) to fly her into the isolated canyon in Mexico where Bruce disappeared three years earlier. Accompanying them on the expedition are Russ Bradford (James Craig), an old friend with romantic designs on Susan, and big-ape Marty Melville, who comes along only because he's heard the canyon is full of uranium and wants to get rich quick. Marty's a blustery, hair-triggered loose cannon, so it's fitting that the aging, alcoholic, unpredictable Lon Chaney, Jr. is cast in the role.

The film is written and directed by Bert I. Gordon ("B.I.G."), who loved to make cheap horror flicks about giant men (THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST), women (VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, a personal fave), and creatures (EARTH VS. THE SPIDER, KING DINOSAUR, THE FOOD OF THE GODS). He also seemed to have an affinity for really crappy special effects, because his movies are full of them. In this one, the Cyclops and other over-sized beasts that Susan and the boys run into are often transparent, and they rarely seem to blend convincingly into their surroundings.

There's a battle between an iguana and a gila monster in which you can see them being thrown at each other from off camera, then slowly turned over and over by their tails like rolling pins to make it look like they're locked in mortal combat. In one of the worst FX shots ever, a large, superimposed hand seems to close around Gloria Talbott, and then the entire picture, background and all, is simply whisked upward out of the frame to make it look like she's being picked up. You have to marvel at Gordon's wrong-way audacity here even as you shake your head in disbelief.

Meanwhile, the googly-eyed Chaney is so scary as "Marty" that he almost overshadows the Cyclops. During the flight into the canyon, he goes nuts when the plane hits an updraft and, in a blind panic, slugs the pilot out cold! Hilarity ensues as Russ struggles to restrain Marty, who doesn't know how to fly a plane, from taking over the controls while Susan frantically tries to wake up Lee.

Later, the totally selfish and mercenary Marty is so anxious to get back to civilization and file a claim on the valley that he is constantly harassing Lee to fly him back and leave Susan and Russ behind to fend for themselves against the giant critters. I think that if Gordon had just replaced the Cyclops with a screaming, 25-foot-tall Lon Chaney, Jr. stomping around in a loin cloth looking for a bottle of hooch, the movie would've been a hundred times scarier. As "skelton knaggs", a fellow member of the Classic Horror Film Board once put it: "When Lon Chaney throws on the ham, I can just smell dem eggs frying."

But as it is, the Cyclops is the main attraction here, and after all these years I still think he's a pretty cool monster. The makeup job by Jack H. Young, who worked on Margaret Hamilton in THE WIZARD OF OZ and would go on to other triumphs with such films as THE BROOD, APOCALYPSE NOW, and TV's SALEM'S LOT, is a real doozy. Actor Duncan Parkin had his head shaved and was given a gash of a mouth with half the flesh ripped away to reveal his teeth, a protruding bloodshot left eye, and a horrid flap of skin stretched over his other eye. The look is similar to the monster in Gordon's WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST, and it would be hard to decide which is more disturbing--but I think the Cyclops has the edge for pure hideousness.

Renowned voice artist Paul Frees gives the monster a constant series of blood-curdling grunts, bellows, and growls, which was a big part of what scared me so much as a kid. Another unsettling element is the overwhelmingly aggressive musical score by the Luca Brasi of film music, Albert Glasser. As I mentioned in my review of THE NEANDERTHAL MAN, Glasser was the king of blatant, overbearing musical bombast that assaulted the listener like a caveman wielding a big gnarly club. Glasser only knew one gear--over the top--and he floored it. Just listening to his music alone could probably cause some people to suffer a panic attack.

The simple story takes a tragic turn as Susan and Russ make a startling discovery about the Cyclops. (You can probably guess what it is without expending too many brain cells.) When the group finally escapes from the cave and makes it back to the plane, the giant monster shambles toward them as Lee tries unsuccessfully to start the engine. As a last resort, Russ decides to draw his attention away from the others by offering himself as a target for the monster's wrath. What happens next will come as no surprise to those in any way familiar with Homer's "Odyssey."

 Seeing the enraged Cyclops bearing down on our heroes brought back some residual childhood fears that still make it hard for me to be impartial about this movie--somehow, the big, ugly oaf still scares me while others might see him only as something to laugh at. But like I said, I still think he's a pretty cool monster. THE CYCLOPS is a movie that isn't nearly good enough to take seriously, but isn't bad in a totally "funny ha-ha" way like PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE or Gordon's schlock epic VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS. It's just a fairly, or maybe barely, decent grade-Z monster flick that is either a fun watch or a grueling bore, depending on your point of view. For me, it's a fun watch. But I still don't think that damn monster looks anything like a "funny clown."

(Thanks to Kerry Gammill for the "Cyclown" pic.)


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