Before Ben Grimm Was Ben Grimm…
…Was John Agar The Thing?
Plus: Killer Klowns Konquer Keene,
Snow White Kisses the Screen
BULLETIN! A MYRANT EARLY ALERT:
Fix August 11, 2012 into your summer calendar and/or summer travel, if you can. Every year, I alert folks to the Saturday Fright Special Spooktaculars in Keene, NH—glorious 35mm theatrical showings of vintage horror/sf delights (THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, KING KONG vs GODZILLA, BRIDES OF DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, etc.)—and every year, I get emails or Facebook messages saying the same thing:
“If only I’d known!”
“If I’d known, we could have planned a trip to New England ahead of time!”
“We live in Massachusetts, we could have driven up if we’d known in time!”
Well, now—you know! Keene NH is in driving distance of a number of choice summer fun spots, from the many lakes to the seaside Portsmouth NH area, to the White Mountains. C’mon out this summer, and make sure you make August 11th the day you make a pilgrimage to Keene for the KILLER KLOWNS—and me!
It’s official: I’ll be at Comic Boom in Keene NH with Denis St. John (MONSTERS & GIRLS, AMELIA, etc.) and our komrade kreepy kartoonists (debuting all-new prints, comics, minicomics, & more!) for a special Comic Boom afternoon event/signing on August 11th! Come and join us! We’ll sign, sketch, sell, and sleaze our way into your hearts!
That fiendish fun is followed by the Saturday Fright Special Spooktacular 35mm showing of the Chiodo Brothers‘s krazy KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988) on the big screen at the restored Colonial Theater!!!
More info soon, but for now: Set aside that date in August for your descent on Keene, NH with the Killer Klowns! AUGUST 11, KEENE NH, COMIC BOOM/COLONIAL THEATER, KILLER KLOWNS!!!
Pre-Marvel Marvels, Part 1: HAND OF DEATH
Since I’m no longer blowing bucks on anything Marvel Comics flarps out, including the summer Marvel movies, I’m going to instead revisit in my home theater this summer the movies that inspired, predated, and/or oddly synchronized with the birth of what became Marvel Comics in 1962.
You know, THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT/THE CREEPING UNKNOWN and FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (wellspring for The Fantastic Four), THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (precursor—along with every Jekyll & Hyde and Jekyll & Hyde knockoff—of the Hulk), THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE (inspiration for the Lizard), etc. Concepts, creatures, themes, character names—they’re almost all there! Did you know Jack Arnold‘s MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS featured a scientist named Donald Blake?
First up: John Agar becomes—gasp!—Ben Grimm in the 20th Century Fox pickup HAND OF DEATH (1962), in one of the most remarkable coincidences in movie & comics history. Don’t believe me? See for yourself!
HAND OF DEATH hit theaters about six months after Fantastic Four #1 hit newsstands; it’s highly unlikely either party could have possibly glimpsed an image of the other’s creation, but the resemblance—especially when Agar dons trenchcoat and hat to hide his transformed self—is uncanny!
Right: Hand of Death insert: hmmmm, could Stan Lee have seen this before he named a certain Fantastic Four villain hiding in the fictional European country of Latveria?
Gene Nelson‘s HAND OF DEATH (1962) is, in some ways, a painfully typical late ’50s/early ’60s sf chestnut. Conceptually, it’s a conflation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappuccini’s Daughter” (1844), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and Robert Clarke’s The Hideous Sun Demon (1959). The filmmakers spend damn near 40 minutes of the barely one-hour running time making a monster, and then (as with their put-upon heroine, played by Paula Raymond) they don’t have clue what to do with him.
In other ways, the film is extraordinary: John Agar‘s last monster role, the racist subtext (it’s like a weird-ass alternative universe BLACK LIKE ME), the Sonny Burke score, Joe Besser (i.e., Stinky, and the worst-ever Stooge) cooking to death in his cameo, Butch Patrick (Eddie Munster!) as the kid on the beach, and the inexplicable parallel with Jack Kirby‘s design for Ben Grimm, the Thing of the Fantastic Four—which hit newsstands shortly before 20th Century Fox unceremoniously dumped this super-low-budget Associated Producers flick in theaters. Yes, the film was shot in Malibu, Santa Monica, and various California locales, but remember that the Kirbys were still living on the East Coast at this time; it’s highly unlikely there’s any possible way either creative team could have laid eyes on the ‘monster’ created by the others, working in entirely different industries.
More on that later. Back to the movie itself…
Subdued but renegade chemist John Agar labors in a remote desert lab with his ass’t Carlos (John A. Alonzo, future cinematographer of BLOODY MAMA, VANISHING POINT, HAROLD & MAUDE, SOUNDER, CHINATOWN, etc.!!!), seeking to combining nerve gas with a potent hypnotic to forge an alternative to nuclear mass-destruction for the US military, immediately winning our undying sympathies (not). Well, this was the height of the Cold War—but still; in fact, all the characters kind of give ol’ Johnny boy a little more distance after he announces his devotion to weapons research.
Despite the doting concern of all around him, stupid-ass maladroit Agar spills toxic shit all over his stupid-ass self, mopping it up with rags before slipping into a hilarious delirium (indicated by double-exposure montages of bubbling test tubes, beakers, and—sheep!); it’s like getting a snapshot of declining actor Agar‘s drinking life. Waking up from this chemical bender with a sun tan, Agar cooks Carlos with the mere touch of his hand, kicking off his steady transformation into a black, puffy, split-charcoal-textured monstrosity whose slightest touch brings instantaneous death (his victims look like him, black & cooked, only worse; see above, left).
As noted, producer Eugene Ling (BEHIND LOCKED DOORS)’s script hasn’t a clue what to do with Agar once he’s transformed; once it gets “there,” having created its monster, the movie hasn’t a conscious idea left in its cooked little cranium
Stephen Dunne is the hapless fellow chemist who pines for Agar‘s gal but always jokingly puts himself down and steps aside; he, natch, ends up with the girl.
Object-of-all-male-affections (outside of synthesized nerve gas, that is) Paula Raymond‘s thankless role is archetypal “female lead” turf for the impoverished ’60s genre fare, but she gives it her all as the woman who pines for preoccupied chemist Agar, only to be perpetually kept at a distance even when Agar‘s in the same room with her. Between Raymond‘s ingenue lead in the classic BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and her vampire Countess role in the wretched Al Adamson/Rex Carlton atrocity BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE (1969), Raymond was one of TV’s hardest working character actresses. She, of course, ends up shunted off to Tom‘s beachhouse, which is just where monstrous Agar shuffles to after a brief non-encounter with li’l Butch Patrick.
Bob Mark apparently created the alarming monster makeup, which is unfortunately tough to see (due not so much to Floyd Crosby‘s b&w cinematography as the smudgy surviving print quality) until he’s really visible in Tom‘s beachhouse—it’s pretty astonishing, conceptually and in execution, and it sure looks like Ben Grimm/The Thing. There’s nothing remotely like it in Bob Mark‘s extensive makeup credits, which included a ton of Republic serials & westerns, THE ADVENTURES OF DR. FU MANCHU TV series, Roger Corman‘s A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959), etc.; after HAND OF DEATH, Mark did makeup for another 20th Century Fox horror, the sleeper HOUSE OF THE DAMNED (1963), before tackling THE HUMAN DUPLICATORS (1965; that’s two films in which he made up Richard Kiel!) and Irwin Allen‘s LOST IN SPACE TV series.
The fact is, transformed Agar looks like a grotesque exaggeration of the grossest African-American caricature imaginable, and the unavoidable 1961-62 subtext is painful to contemplate. Once he’s fully turned “black,” he is a monstrous contagion (literally, as his touch turns his victims black, too) reduced to trying to hide from sight in crowded urban America, stranded and stumbling like a drunken recluse, seeking refuge & relief (like Ben Grimm, he seeks a serum to change him back to his white human form), his white former fiance shrieking and shrinking from his touch.
In the end, she’s weeping & imploring the police who encircle him in the climax not to shoot. Take that metaphor to the Civil Rights bank!
Sonny Burke‘s bongo-and-theremin-laced score is a corker, but it’s indicative of how listless the movie itself becomes that even Burke (wh0 was no slouch: he scored Disney‘s LADY AND THE TRAMP, along with over 20 other feature films) didn’t know what the fuck to do by the final ten minutes: when li’l Butch Patrick appears, meandering on the beach, Burke slides into a fleeting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” riff before slipping into “Chopsticks” (I kid you not!), then into hash… I mean, jeez. Even the musical score gives up.
Above, below: The first appearances of Ben Grimm, The Thing; Jack Kirby plot/pencils, Stan Lee plot/dialogue, Dick Ayers inks, from Fantastic Four #1 (1962); ©1962, 2012 Marvel Entertainment, Inc.; posted for archival and educational purposes only.
Veteran dancer/actor Gene Nelson never was much of a director: this was his first theatrical feature after some yeoman TV work on THE RIFLEMAN, and after this he helmed one Elvis (KISSIN’ COUSINS), the Hank Williams biopic YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART (both 1964), and one more Elvis (HARUM SCARUM, 1965) before returning to TV, doing only one more theatrical (THE COOL ONES, 1967) to no great loss.
HAND OF DEATH was essentially a “lost” film for decades; reportedly, the only surviving print was in Agar‘s home collection, “lifted” from the Fox vault by a friend. Thankfully, Fox Movie Channel resurrected and broadcast that lone print on the films’ 40th anniversary in 2002, which is when I taped it. The version Fox Movie Channel broadcast was slightly letterboxed; the slight trim on one credit line in the openers indicated it certainly wasn’t anywhere near the full 2:35 CinemaScope stretch, but, hell, I’m thankful for even a feeble attempt at LBX.
Look, HAND OF DEATH is not a good or even a mediocre movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an amazing artifact—and the Fantastic Four parallel will keep it visible for decades to come, if only to curious comics fans.
As for the uncanny resemblence between Agar‘s ‘thing’ and Ben Grimm, the Thing: this one is really curious. While Jack Kirby occasionally riffed on movie monsters (including, one must note, the later Fantastic Four #97, “The Monster from the Lost Lagoon,” at right), he usually did so blatantly and without closely emulating the design specifics of the movie monster cited. Besides, Kirby was cranking original monsters out of his HB lead pencil like nobody’s business for decades. I find it unlikely he’d have copied the Bob Mark makeup design so closely, had he been aware of it—even if (via an even less likely scenario) he’d been instructed to do so.
What’s more likely is that Bob Mark copped from Kirby: Fantastic Four #1 was cover dated November 1961, meaning it was on newsstands in August of that year; most references cite HAND OF DEATH as opening theatrically in March of 1962, sans any pre-release articles with photos I know of in print, or announcements of the film’s shooting to judge whether Fantastic Four had hit newsstands before HAND OF DEATH (under any title) was in the can. If it was shot in the summer or fall of 1961, it’s possible. And that hat-and-trenchcoat look is even more suspicious—I could see a low-budget makeup man eyeing those Kirby panels and thinking, “hmmmm, I’d only have to make a head and two pair of hands—that coat and hat really cover and bulk him up nicely.” Besides, who would be paying attention to lowly Marvel Comics in 1961? They were about as beneath contempt as Charlton Comics at the time (and almost comparably colored and printed). They could be ripped off with impunity, if that’s what happened.
At some point, I’m going to dig through my vintage Famous Monsters of Filmland, Cracked, Mad Monsters, and Horror Monsters collections to see if there’s any chance Agar‘s creature had a monster magazine “peek” photo in 1961, or—more ambitious yet—comb 1961 issues of movie trades Boxoffice, Motion Picture Herald, Variety, etc. to see if there’s an announcement of Agar’s opus going into production. More research is needed, though I’m leaning in the HAND OF DEATH copied Jack Kirby aisle for the time being—if, that is, anyone copied anybody.
Fun at the Flix (Still in Theaters)
The second Snow White revamp of the year, Rupert Sanders/Evan Daugherty/John Lee Hancock/Hossein Amini‘s matriarchal revisionist fairy tale epic SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012), is a treat; very different from Tarsem Singh‘s playful confection MIRROR, MIRROR (also 2012) in every way.
Amping up the Grimm in the Brothers Grimm‘s “Schneewittchen und die Sieben Zwerge,” along with Snow‘s (Kristen Stewart) pro-activecentral role—donning armor to become a Teutonic Joan of Arc at one point—this turned out to be one of the best English-language fairy tale movies ever made (I’ve a real soft spot for the Russian films of the genre), and a real feast for the eyes.
The film had already beguiled me from the get-go, but it completely won my heart with a terrific, if fleeting, troll sequence (no spoilers from me, sorry). There was plenty before then to conjure with, including the best-ever “dark forest” sequence I’ve seen in a movie since the original Walt Disney SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES and Neil Jordan‘s THE COMPANY OF WOLVES. The absolutely inspired conceit of the forest’s nightmarishness—again, no spoiler from me!—brought back vivid, real-life “bad acid trip” memories, and did so in a way utterly appropriate to the tale & sequence.
The entire production is sumptuously mounted, adopting (in every sense of the word) imagery & strokes from Rackham, Dore, Bauer, Dulac, Sterrett, Nielsen, Segur, Goble, Lee, Froud, Vess, Miyazaki (you’ll see what I mean), etc. into a seamless, intoxicating whole. The creative team reveres & references classical fantasist artists throughout while creating a consistent tone, tenor, and textural tapestry, orchestrating unusually strong characterizations to propel this particular telling (and embellishment) of the venerable tale.
The first 3/4+ truly is exceptional, accomplishing everything Ridley Scott aspired to with LEGEND and more; I only wish it could have maintained that to the finale, but I can’t quibble with the narrative decisions made here (interesting to see two variations on a feminist revamp of Snow White in one calendar year, and the curious conclusions each arrive at without fully satisfying). Mind you, it didn’t lose me in the final act—and unlike others, I found Stewart’s performance worked just fine for me (though she is sort of a female Keanu Reeves type, if you know what I mean, but then again, Reeves usually works for me, too)—but few recent American/British fantasy films of late even approach the ravishing power of all that comes before the fateful kiss (again, no spoilers: much comes afterwards, too).
The cast is as potent as the imagery: Stewart is a lovely, believable Snow White, Charlize Theron is the black heart of the movie, and the nominal heroes (Chris Hemsworth, Sam Claflin) are solid and likeable, but the wicked Queen‘s brother Finn (Sam Spruell) is almost her equal, lending real talons to the evil Queen Ravenna‘s reach and surprising teeth to often urgent ferocity of the movie.
I shouldn’t be surprised, post-LORD OF THE RINGS/THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, what CGI can accomplish, but the dwarves (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Johnny Harris, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Brian Gleeson) really mark a new level of CGI performance; took only a bit of getting used to, and works like a charm. This has to really piss off little people performers, though—they’re losing yet another narrowing niche they once had in movie casting.
The only way it could have been better is if I’d been sitting alongside Charlie Vess in the theater. Charlie‘s Friday FB post/review: “Just got back from seeing Snow White and the Huntsman. I don’t know what the film critics were watching but I saw a terrific film. Solid acting: Theron was powerful, evil AND sympathetic. Stewart evolved well from young girl to a leader. The dwarves were brilliantly brought to life by some top-flight character actors. And the production and costume design was brilliant. The dark forest was more than I expected. Just loved it and I’ll be seeing it again.”
Agreed, Charlie! And it’s a rare contemporary fantasy film that can please both Vess and Bissette, folks.
In short, it is marvelous; though I have a few caveats (few), the virtues outweigh any and all reservations—and yes, this is well worth seeing in a theater, for sure. I’ll be going again, too, though hopefully the movie will be in sharper focus next screening (time to try another theater).
All images ©respective years and their respective proprietors; posted for archival and educational purposes only.