Odds are, anyone reading this column may be unfamiliar with Edward L. Cahn, a prolific filmmaker whose career spanned more than 40 years, from 1917 until his death at age 64 in 1963, his last movie completed a year earlier. At the same time, anyone who frequented movie theaters in the 1950s (or watched TV reruns of sci-fi and horror films in the ’60s and ’70s) probably saw and loved Cahn’s genre films in particular.
It’s a testament to the enduring appeal of such genre “B” movies that they’ve been lovingly restored to Blu-ray so fans can finally revisit (or discover for the first time) the works in much the same quality as when the films first graced the silver screen.
Though he worked with whatever material and in whatever genre he was assigned, Cahn’s most popular films were several science-fiction and horror projects he cranked out in a five-year period in the late ’50s, such as Invasion of the Saucer Men, Zombies of Mora Tau, Creature with the Atom Brain and The She-Creature.
While we wait for restoration of these “classics,” we can glut our nostalgia cravings with four titles already out in high-definition, enabling us to see even better the lines in the actors’ faces and the creases in the monsters’ rubber suits.
Undoubtedly the most famous of Cahn’s films, It! The Terror from Beyond Space (’58) may have been a major inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Alien. I say “may have,” because the matter has never been resolved legally or otherwise, though it’s hard to contest some major similarities. Without going into a lengthy plot summary of It! which, like Cahn’s other films, runs just over an hour, a monster stows aboard a spaceship, hides in the ventilation system, and picks off the crew one by one, till the few survivors finally figure out how to kill the thing, in a manner not unlike Alien. The rubber-suited monster (“Crash” Corrigan) looks much better in the shadows (as director Cahn obviously realized), but certainly filled the bill for the late ’50s.
The seasoned supporting cast, led by Marshall Thompson, added credibility to Jerome Bixby’s script. One of the very few sci-fi writers to actually write for the movies, Bixby’s fame rests on his classic short story “It’s a GOOD Life!” which became one of the more memorable episodes of the original “Twilight Zone” series; it was later one of the four tales in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983).
Another Bixby script, Curse of the Faceless Man, was originally the second-billed feature to It! (Ah, the grand old double-feature days!) The plot is quite similar to The Mummy, both the first ’32 Boris Karloff feature and the ’59 Hammer version with Christopher Lee. This time it’s a former gladiator, stone-fried and petrified at Pompeii by Mount Vesuvius, who comes to life in pursuit of his reincarnated former love.
It’s sheer hokum, but the monster suit is impressive enough if you don’t look too closely at the wrinkles. Richard Anderson (later a TV regular in series like “The Six Million Dollar Man”) is the stalwart research scientist who eventually saves the day. As one eminent sci-fi scholar noted, “Curse of the Faceless Man gets little respect from today’s impatient monster fans, but I have to say it was good enough to pass muster when it was made.”
As the title hints, Invisible Invaders (’59) is incredibly cheap in the special effects department, but as much fun to watch as It! Moon-based aliens threaten to destroy Earth if we puny humans don’t submit. In addition to blowing up everything in sight, the invaders inhabit the bodies of the dead and walk around like zombies.
Noble Dr. Penner (Philip Tonge), his beautiful daughter Phyllis (Jean Byron), her former fiancé Dr. Lamont (Robert Hutton), and her new boyfriend Maj. Jay (John Agar) hunker down and save the world by inventing a sound device that makes the sneaky culprits visible, so humans can destroy them. Sci-fi fans will nod sagely among themselves, recalling a similar device saved the world three years before in the classic Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (special effects courtesy of the great Ray Harryhausen).
Next in line in ’96, Tim Burton used Slim Whitman’s yodel to the same effect in Mars Attacks!
The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, released six months after Invaders, has Edward L. Cahn return to horror in a tale of magic and voodoo, with shrunken heads and vengeful archaeologist Dr. Emil Zurich, played by the excellent British actor Henry Daniell, who specializes in villainous roles, much like his countryman George Sanders. The best feature in Jonathan Drake is Zurich’s henchman, a zombie-like dude with a sewn-up mouth. The recipe for shrinking heads is also way cool.
“Cheesy” they might be by today’s or even yesterday’s standards, but the late ’50s films of Edward L. Cahn are still fun to watch, looking better than ever.