The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

Times have certainly changed. The very beginning of the DVD presentation of this film is the BBFC card certifying that this movie, better known in the United States as The Crawling Eye, is not to be shown to an audience with anybody under the age of sixteen in it. Sixteen?! I first saw clips of this on some HBO special about sci-fi or monster movies when I was about our son’s age and could not freaking wait to see it. Later, its unconvincing icky-squicky monsters got it a brief revival moment in It Came From Hollywood – about which, stay tuned! – but when I finally landed a copy, when I was about, yes, sixteen, I realized this movie was all about everything except the icky-squicky monsters.

It really is a shame about the monsters. If they weren’t here, this film would probably have been forgotten. Instead, it’s remembered for all the wrong reasons. That’s why, when I gave our son a brief introduction, I glossed over the American title very quickly and moved right on. It’s a badly flawed film, but when it shines, it’s really creepy and really effective. Before the icky-squicky monsters decide to take matters into their own tentacles, they’re using clouds to decapitate people and frozen corpses to go after psychics with meat axes and knives. There are moments of this movie that are really skin-crawlingly gruesome and work tremendously well, and it’s a shame they couldn’t sustain it all the way through.

So The Trollenberg Terror started life as a six-part serial for British commercial television. So did another film, The Strange World of Planet X, made as a seven-parter for ATV, and The Creature, a one-off play for the BBC written by Nigel Kneale. All three of these productions, which I believe were all destroyed by the TV companies, were made into feature films in 1957-58, starring that fine actor Forrest Tucker, who was living and working in the UK and playing the American lead role so that movies made there would stand a better chance at landing American distribution. These three all got more lurid names in the States: Crawling Eye, Cosmic Monsters, The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas.

Interestingly, the film version of Trollenberg retained one member of the TV version’s cast, Laurence Payne, who plays a journalist who figures there’s a story in all these missing person reports coming out of Switzerland, and knows it must be true when a UN troubleshooter who had investigated a similar case in the Andes a couple of years before turns up. Several other familiar faces from the period are in the film, including Janet Munro, Colin Douglas, and Warren Mitchell, who seems to have employed a different European accent in everything I’ve ever seen him in.

The kid found this satisfyingly creepy, and gave a resounding noise of disgust and disapproval when the icky-squicky monster shows up, which I was glad to see. This is a very old-fashioned film in its pace and mood; Jimmy Sangster’s script has plenty of moments of shock and terror, but like quite a lot of fifties sci-fi horror, there are plenty more moments of people drinking like fish and smoking like chimneys while debating what to do next and demanding more proof before they can act. But he came through it just fine, and later in the evening discussed where the crawling eyes should end up in a “monsterpedia” that he’d like to see somebody write about movie monsters. There are probably many such books, although I fear the crawling eyes probably don’t command too many pages in them. Possibly an occasional footnote.

The Bionic Woman 1.6 – The Deadly Missiles

There’s quite a fun guest star in this episode of The Bionic Woman. Our son recognized Forrest Tucker’s voice, but couldn’t quite place him. I told him he was Kong on The Ghost Busters, and he has watched every episode of that show at least four times. Here, he plays General Jack D. Ripper – er, I mean, J.T. Connors – a very old friend of Jaime’s, a wealthy industrialist who doesn’t like Washington softies and longhairs, and is concerned with fluoridation. His character is so obviously set up to be the villain that he can’t possibly be the villain, sort of like the way they presented Snape in the first Harry Potter film.

The actual villain is the only other suspect, Connors’ second-in-command, who’s played by Ben Piazza. He was really typecast as playing frustrated dweebs in the seventies and eighties, like the hapless father tormented by Joliet Jake in that nice restaurant in The Blues Brothers. So, not a lot of actual mystery in this story, but a heck of a lot of class. It’s a great episode, with real tension, since Jaime injures one of her legs quite badly and is operating at rather less than full power. It builds up really well, and our son was completely thrilled by it.

This is one of the episodes where Steve Austin plays a fairly major role. It’s set up to look like he will have to come save the day after Jaime’s injury, but there’s a very clever reversal of expectations here. It’s also one of the episodes with Christian Juttner as the sassy boy in Jaime’s class. Looks like we either get Juttner or we get Robbie Rist, never both!

The Ghost Busters 1.15 – The Abominable Snowman

The main guest star in the last Ghost Busters episode was a guy named Ronnie Graham, and what an interesting career he had. He was an occasional actor, probably best known as Rev. Bemis on Chico and the Man, but was also a writer, with credits as far afield as M*A*S*H on one extreme and The Paul Lynde Halloween Special and The Brady Bunch Variety Hour on the other. Here, he plays the Ghost Busters’ final nemesis, Dr. Centigrade, who wants to implant a warm heart into the abominable snowman’s body.

Well, I’m kind of sad that we finished up the show, on the one hand because Daniel really, really enjoyed it, but also because the special features on the DVD reminded me that this was arguably the only truly fun live-action Saturday morning show that Filmation produced. They did several other live-action programs in the 1970s, several of which we intend to look at down the line, and one of the features on the disk is a “coming attractions” of all the other shows that BCI / Entertainment Rights / Ink & Paint released from the Filmation library. The cartoons were all awful, and the dramas were dour and earnest. But The Ghost Busters, despite its zero budget and forced repetition of gags around the same three sets and one location, was charming, silly, ridiculous, and often unpredictable. It was a fun show, and I’m glad that they made it.

One last note about Filmation, a gag this time involves Tracy’s clock radio being set to play “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies. Since Filmation had made the Archie TV cartoon, I figure that they were cut a deal on the licensing!

The Ghost Busters 1.13 – The Vikings Have Landed

I found myself liking the show trope of the ghosts talking before they actually materialize and show themselves with this episode, because Erik the Red is played by the unmistakable Jim Backus, who was Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island and the immortal voice of Mister Magoo. So when he started yelling, I said “I know who thaaaat is…” Backus did quite a lot of kid-friendly work in the 1970s in addition to prime-time roles. His time on Gilligan made him high-demand from just about every producer in town. You never asked “What’s Jim Backus doing in a cheap show like this,” because he was in every show, regardless of budget or audience.

Daniel adored this episode, which has series-best hallway gags (all five principals end up colliding in the middle) and filing cabinet gags. The trick to the filing cabinet this time is that it has to be shoved from behind to open, and it’s bolted to an exterior wall. Fortunately, Tracy’s grandfather was known for climbing the Empire State Building. This leads to a completely unexpected gag when Tracy makes a second trip outside the building to walk around. I wondered what he was up to, and had a very good laugh when the gag pays off.

Joining Backus in this trip back from the afterlife is an actress named Lisa Todd as Brunhilda. Of course that’s her name; there aren’t any other Viking names for women on television. She doesn’t seem to have had a very long career, but she was a “Hee Haw Honey” for most of four seasons in the seventies.

The Ghost Busters 1.12 – Only Ghosts Have Wings

Even Daniel couldn’t embrace this episode. Even with the low expectations of this show, with so little changing from week to week, it’s a pretty dry one. I enjoyed Larry Storch’s impression of James Mason, into which he keeps lapsing, and Daniel seemed to most enjoy this week’s variation on the filing cabinet gag. This time, the trick to opening the door is unscrewing the cap on a half-gallon jug of milk!

The special guests this week are Robert Easton, who, in a really curious career curve, had been the voice of Phones in Gerry Anderson’s Stingray a decade earlier, but he just steps back and lets Howard Morris, playing the Red Baron, steal the show. Morris was one of Filmation’s regular voice actors – he and Larry Storch played the three main roles in The Groovie Goolies – and something tells me this is not the last time that Daniel and I will watch him employ a silly German accent…

The Ghost Busters 1.11 – Jekyll & Hyde – Together, for the First Time!

Daniel got the biggest laugh in weeks when Dr. Jekyll, invisible, steals Spencer’s hat. The crew were barely trying. The string is visible from space, in every shot. It didn’t matter. If you’re four, the sight of that hat dancing around the set is a work of pure comedy genius.

If you’re older than four, the main draw of Ghost Busters, of course, is the chemistry between Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch, who are just so incredibly entertaining and silly together. But the secondary draw must be the guest stars, and the incredibly clever and unexpected casting choices. Joe E. Ross, who plays Hyde as a caveman, is a fairly inspired choice, since he had actually played a caveman in Sherwood Schwartz’s poorly-regarded sitcom flop It’s About Time eight years previously… although it’s not all that likely that any of The Ghost Busters‘ young audience would be expected to know that. I wondered how many times in the episode Ross would make his “Oooh! Oooh!” noise. Three.

But the really stunning surprise is Severn Darden playing Dr. Jekyll. He really did have an incredibly varied and full career, with all sorts of roles in comedies and dramas, but he is probably best remembered as one of the original Second City players; in fact he appears to have been only one of three to bridge the gap between the mid-1950s Compass Players, which featured Stiller and Meara, and Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and the first Second City group in 1959. He and Ross seem to have a lot of fun clashing their personalities – Jekyll erudite and snobby, Hyde thoughtless and stupid – and while the material is certainly no challenge to either actor, it looks as though they had fun.

The Ghost Busters 1.10 – The Vampire’s Apprentice

Daniel just loved this episode. Tie a rubber bat to a string and dance it around a graveyard and you’ve instantly won the hearts and minds of little boys. All the usual gags – the self-destructing tape, the file cabinet – had him giggling and rolling around on the sofa. The Ghost Busters may do the same thing every episode, but four year-olds have no complaint with it.

A vampire episode was perhaps inevitable, but they had a lot of fun with it. Count and Countess Dracula are henpecked and grouchy, long out of love with each other. Dracula is feeble and completely pathetic, needing “lighty-light” stories; his wife wonders whether any of her old boyfriends from the old country might still be available.

Dena Dietrich is best remembered for spending the 1970s playing Mother Nature in a long series of commercials for Chiffon margarine (here’s one), but Billy Holms only had about a dozen very small credits to his name. They’re really amusing together. It’s a shame that the Draculas didn’t make a comeback in a later episode!

The Ghost Busters 1.9 – They Went Thataway

Forrest Tucker has the most amazing line of dialogue in this episode. See, this week, Billy the Kid and Belle Starr come back from the grave, because they’re haungry for some vittles and want a steak. They’re looking for some good cowpokes to join their crew of cattle rustlers, and, to prove his mettle, Kong explains what a good rustler he is. This requires Tucker, pro that he was, to spit out this unbelievable paragraph of gobbledygook about tumbleweeds, sand, and rattlesnakes. It’s the most remarkable run-on sentence I’ve ever heard. When he finally finishes, Billy the Kid replies “That’s easy for you to say!”

Billy the Kid is played by Marty Ingels, who passed away earlier this month. Ingels was one of those peculiar actors who had been around for so long and mentioned so often that his list of credits seems far, far shorter than expected. He did lots of voice-over work for Hanna-Barbera, but is probably best-remembered for a 1962 sitcom called I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster. That was one of those sitcoms that you’re surprised to learn only ran for one season, because you always find people talking about it. (See also He & She and Bridget Loves Bernie.)

Anyway, while Ingels didn’t work constantly, he did have a career that spanned most of six decades. Belle Starr is played by Forrest Tucker’s daughter Brooke, and she left the business after about five years.

Daniel had a ball with this episode. There’s a really funny bit where Tracy and Spencer are blissfully unaware that their television program is spraying water at them and belching smoke everywhere, and he’ll probably be talking abut Old Boot Soup for the next week, even though he insists that he doesn’t want to try a bowl of it.

The Ghost Busters 1.7 – A Worthless Gauze

So a reader asked which Ghost Buster is Daniel’s favorite, and the answer, of course, is Tracy. This time, Tracy is practicing to be a stage magician, which is awfully convenient, in that kids’ TV way, because the ghost of the Egyptian Queen Faroh is looking for an immortal magician called Simious, who looks like an ape. He’s supposed to have the secret of immortality.

I’ve described some of Tracy’s oddball stunts, which Spencer and Kong see with their own eyes but never seem to acknowledge, as “magic.” This gets paid off this time, as Tracy is practicing the “cut a rope in two and pull it back out as one” trick. He drops the two halves in his hat, and then levitates out a trumpet, to which several colored handkerchiefs are tied, and finally the two halves, tied together. Kong sneers that he can’t do magic despite what he’s just witnessed, because the halves are tied.

Even though he laughed through the entire episode, Daniel insisted that the best part of the episode by far was the final gag, in which Tracy’s stage magic goes awry and he makes himself and Spencer disappear completely, somewhat ruining their intended surprise entrance to Kong’s birthday party. For whatever reason, the sight of the office door opening and closing by itself was his favorite among more than a dozen gags, although the message from Zero self, and the subsequent self-destruction, got a mention as well. He loves it “when Tracy makes an explosion!”

Faroh is played by Barbara Rhoades, who spent decades doing dozens of these taped-in-a-day roles, appearing in very small parts in pretty much everything, including four separate characters in four separate episodes of McMillan and Wife. She seems to have retired after a run of twenty episodes of the soap opera One Life to Live in 2011.

Queen Faroh’s mummy – she has to have a mummy – has the most peculiar superpower. Apparently, anybody he touches turns into a mummy as well. I scratched my head, trying to remember whether I’d ever heard of such a thing in fiction, until Tracy hands the mummy a flower and it instantly dies. Kong calls that – that! – mummification. I think “turns into a mummy” was an awkward compromise offered when CBS’s Broadcast Standard department told them they couldn’t use words like “kills.”

The Ghost Busters 1.6 – The Dummy’s Revenge

I really enjoy watching Daniel watch this show. It’s practically the same thing every week (or, well, about every 4-5 days as we watch) but the oddball humor delights him even in repetition. They’ve only got about 22 minutes to spend each time, and they use about two of them for the filing cabinet gag and he chuckles and laughs all the way through it every time.

For me, the completely unexpected surreal gags trump the familiar one. This time, we see that they have a painting in their office that doubles as a record player, and there’s this completely hilarious throwaway bit where Ali Baba shows up, silently, to punctuate a punch line and exit, stage right. That’s brilliant, and it’s so stupid.

The guest star this week is a guy named Tim Herbert, who we previously overlooked in episodes 11 and 12 of Batman, where he played one of the Riddler’s gang. Born in 1914, Herbert was a second-generation Vaudevillian, and started working in small Hollywood roles in 1958. So it was a bit of cute casting to bring him in as “The Phantom of Vaudeville.” On the other hand, the Phantom is a ventriloquist, and voice-throwing is emphatically not among Herbert’s talents.

In this show’s universe, “phantoms” are not the same as “ghosts,” and so this fellow is immune to the Ghost Dematerializer. He has to actually be unmasked, leading our heroes to put on an old-fashioned soft-shoe to convince the Phantom that they’re actually an old act called Slapsy, Maxey, and Nijinsky. The hats and canes are, of course, from Tracy’s magic bag. Daniel got a few chuckles, and we told him this sort of music was quite popular ninety years ago. I’m not sure that he can conceptualize something as big as ninety years yet.

The Ghost Busters 1.5 – The Flying Dutchman

Another big win for the family this evening. Daniel roared with laughter all through the slapstick and silliness. Of principal interest this week is Tracy’s newfound interest in cooking, including cartons, wrappers, dinosaur eggs, whatever can be dumped in a big bowl, and a recurring gag about a whale.

The ghosts this week are Cap’n Beane and Scroggs from the Flying Dutchman, and they’ve brought an offscreen whale called Moby along. Moby repeatedly blasts the cap’n with a blast of water, via the special effects magic of a seltzer bottle right beside the cameraman.

I didn’t recognize either of the guests. Scroggs was played by Philip Bruns, who was a familiar one-shot guest star in lots of 1970s TV before landing his best-known role, George Shumway in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Stanley Adams is very well-known to cult TV fans: he was Cyrano in the famous Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles” and Tybo the Talking Carrot in that Lost in Space where Jonathan Harris gets turned into asparagus. Looking at their credits at IMDB, I see that we’ll be seeing both actors again in a few months…