Saturday, October 13, 2018

Silver Screen Stories: Die, Monster, Die! (aka Monster of Terror)

As the October march continues, let's take a look back at a somewhat forgotten cult classic, and the somewhat forgotten actor who was its star.

This year, in a similar fashion that I once did for my article on the John Carpenter hit They Live, treating it as both a look at that film and a tribute to its star, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, I decided I'd look back at an even lesser known film, and treat it as something of a tribute to its own star, Nick Adams. Born on July 10th, 1931, as Nicholas Aloysius Adamshock (which by the way, is a bad ass name), Nick Adams was born into relative poverty. Becoming something of a hungry hustler in his youth, because of that background, Adams eventually found his way into the world of stage acting by the age of 17. After not getting anywhere in the New York scene, legend has it that he hitch-hiked all the way across the United States, to go to Los Angeles seeking better fortunes.

Rough and tumble.

After still languishing for a few years in Hollywood, Adams started getting acting roles in movies and on the burgeoning platform of television. His first breakout role was as Chick in Rebel Without a Cause, starring the young James Dean. He wound up becoming friends with Dean, though Dean would die young the same year the movie released, 1955. He later became friends with rock star Elvis Presley, a friendship that would last till Nick's own untimely death in 1968. His first major leading role, was in the popular TV show The Rebel, which ran two seasons from 1959-1961. In 1963 he landed the kind of leading role he had long sought after in movies, playing John Dillinger in the film Young Dillinger. But overall, sadly, while often on the cusp of being a star, Adams never did find the sustained success in Hollywood that he wanted. He ultimately died at the young age of 36 in 1968, after over-dosing on prescription pills. But while his personal life wasn't always very stable, I think he should be remembered better for what he was on the screen: a pretty damn good actor, who could have easily been the kind of star he wished to be, on the level of his contemporaries like Steve McQueen, but just had some runs of bad luck. Either way, he found his way into my memories and heart, though some of the "B movies" that he did late in his life. 

An early childhood scare of mine.

The first movie I remember seeing Nick Adams in, though I doubt I remembered him being in the movie at such a young age, was actually one of the very last roles he did before his death. It was the very low budget sci-fi romp, Mission Mars, which released in 1968. Now while it certainly isn't a great movie, I have a certain amount of love and nostalgia for it, because it was one of the first movies I can remember seeing on TV at a very young age, and it left an impression because the alien/monsters in the movie scared me. The film co-starred Darren McGavin (most famously known as the dad from A Christmas Story), and featured a story about the first manned mission to Mars, with America competing with the Soviet Union to get there first. Once there, they encounter a deadly alien menace, that gradually kills them off, and won't let them leave the planet unless they can defeat it. Again, not great fare, and certainly not aided by its clearly tiny budget (the spacesuits feature what look like motorcycle helmets), but it has always stood out in my memory.

Dr. James Bowen

Astronaut Glenn

Late in his career, Adams went overseas to feature in a couple of Toho films in Japan. Toho was looking to cast American stars in some of their films, hoping to appeal more to American audiences. One phenomenon that was born out of this, was the odd practice of having the Americans speak their lines in English, while the Japanese cast spoke Japanese. So in both the Japanese versions and English dubs of these films, someone was always speaking their native language. The first film Adams starred in, was one that I wouldn't actually get to see until my adult years, and that was 1965's Frankenstein Conquers the World (also known as Frankenstein vs. Baragon). In it, he plays a doctor, opposite Toho stars Tadao Takashima and Kumi Mizuno, who are working with victims of radiation sickness, from the fallout of the Hiroshima bombing in World War II. They discover a strange teenage boy, who turns out to be the result of the last surviving piece of Frankenstein's monster, regrown due to the radiation of the bomb (it had been transferred there by Axis powers for study in WWII). The boy grows at an astounding rate when he gets protein, and eventually becomes a giant, who the people fear and blame for a rash of attacks in Japan. It later becomes clear that there is another monster, Baragon, who is responsible, and the boy "Frankenstein" must help end its threat.

Of course, the movie I know him best for, also happens to be my favorite Godzilla movie of all time, Invasion of the Astro Monster. In it, he features once again with Kumi Mizuno, but this time co-stars with the great Akira Takarada, as international astronauts sent on a mission to explore the recently discovered "Planet X", a smaller planet which exists beyond Jupiter. Once there, they discover the world inhabited by strange alien people, and eventually become embroiled in a plot that sees Planet X come under the control of the Earth monsters, Godzilla and Rodan. This is the movie and the role that I naturally most associate Nick Adams with, as this film was one of the first VHS tapes I ever owned, and one of the first Godzilla movies I ever remember seeing. My affection for Nick Adams stems from this film, just as much as my love of Akira Takarada does from both this and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster.

A cheeseball title for a pretty great film.

The best acting role I've ever seen Adams perform, however, would also come from a movie I didn't see, or even known about, until my adult years. Released in the U.S. the same year as his two Toho features, 1965, the alternatively titled Monster of Terror, was filmed in the United Kingdom. The film is very obviously done in a deliberately similar style to the 60s Hammer Films horror pictures of the time, as well as the Roger Corman Poe Series from the same era. The story is an adaptation of sorts, of the HP Lovecraft tale "The Colour Out of Space", and the director, Daniel Haller, would actually go on to do another Lovecraft adaptation in 1970's The Dunwich Horror.

The legend himself.

The film co-stars the great Boris Karloff, in one of his own final roles. Karloff himself would ironically also pass away in early 1969, about a year after Adams. By this point in his career, he was mostly stuck using a wheelchair, as a back injury he suffered in his most famous role, 1931's Frankenstein, haunted him for the rest of his life and only got worse over time. Even so, Karloff is in his usual top form here, as the haunting Nahum Witley, aged heir of the once-prestigious Witley Estate. Nick Adams plays the charming American, Stephen Reinhart, who has been summoned to England by Nahum's wife, Letitia. She herself is bed-ridden with a mysterious illness, and with strange and spooky ongoings on the Estate grounds, she wants Reinhart to take her daughter, Susan, back with him to America. He had met Susan when she went to Boston for college, and the two had fallen in love.

Cursed land.

The problems for poor ol' Stephen, however, begin when he first reaches the small fictional British town of Arkham. He quickly learns that the townspeople hold no love for the Witleys, and all of them refuse to help him get to their estate. After having to walk the entire way, as seen above, he discovers that the land surrounding a great crater near their property, is completely scorched and dead, with nothing at all growing back, almost as if the land itself is cursed. And of course when he finally arrives at Witley Manor itself, he is met with the decidedly spooky and unfriendly presence of Susan's father, Nahum, who cautions him to leave.

Susan, however, is elated to see him, and wants him to stay, as does her mother Letitia, who sent for him. Letitia reveals to Stephen that she is afflicted with some mysterious disease, which is essentially destroying her body, and that the same illness struck her maid, who has since disappeared. She wants her daughter to get out while she can, as though she won't reveal everything, she hints that the house and land are indeed cursed somehow. Nahum for his part, still wants the young man to leave, but consents to allow him to stay the night.

An original illustration for the Lovecraft story.

The Food of the Gods.

The story itself differs a bit from the original tale by Lovecraft. In that story, it was very vague by design, just what the "colour" that fell from space really was. In that story, the events took place in New England, in America, as most of Lovecraft's stories did, whereas in this film, they moved Arkham to Great Britain (in part likely to explain all the British actors). In the film, it is eventually revealed that a meteorite fell from the sky onto Witley land, at first causing incredible fauna to flourish all around the impact site. But later, that same vegetation quickly rotted and died, leaving nothing but dead, scorched earth for a mile or more around. It even affected the other local townsfolk some, and their livestock, etc., causing them to fear and even hate both the land and the Witley's, whom they believe are the cause of it all.

In Lovecraft's tale, a local farmer finds something that fell out of the night sky, and once he discovers it has a strange energy to it, he uses it to help him grow incredible, unnatural crops. But in this case, the crops, the livestock, the land, and even the water, eventually distort and decay. It is discovered, too late, that what fell from space was some kind of terrifying, undefined alien life force, that basically drains everything around it of life. As you can see above, Nahum Witley in this adaptation,  has also been experimenting with the strange properties of the thing from space, and has high hopes of having discovered a means of producing more food for the world, but that is somewhat where the similarities end.

Spooky stuff.

Tragic stuff.

The one major difference in the story, other than location, is that in Die, Monster, Die!, it is revealed that the meteorite Nahum found, carries with it a strange radioactivity, which causes things to grow and mutate unnaturally. And it is exposure to this, which has sickened and changed the maid, and his wife Leticia, and even their poor loyal butler Merwyn. Leticia eventually goes mad, as things take a turn for the darker and for the worse.

As a movie, I think that, cheesy title aside, it's actually very well done. Visually it definitely has that gothic horror vibe that early-to-mid 60s Hammer films and Corman Poe films had going. The "Old Dark House" motif is ever-present, with a great mansion falling into decay and disrepair, mysterious goings-on, a dark and tragic undercurrent, etc. And the acting, by Adams himself, as well as Karloff, and the ladies Freda Jackson (Leticia) and Suzan Farmer, both Hammer actresses, are all around quite good. The writing and dialogue are smart, the pacing and tone are suitably somber and creepy, as is the soundtrack. The production company, Alta Vista Film, was small time compared to their UK competitors Hammer and Amicus, but I think they managed quite nicely with this movie.

Gothic style horror at its finest.

If you've never seen this film, which I'd wager most have never even heard of it, it is definitely worth a watch, especially during this wonderful Halloween season. Adams shines as the hero, and Karloff is quite effective, even bound to a wheelchair, as the sinister but tragic antagonist. I would put it right up there with the top Hammer Horror films and Poe Series films of the 60s, which I tend to associate together as they're all great gothic style horror. If you want a spooky good time, then dig up Die, Monster, Die! (or Monster of Terror if you're outside the US), and give it a whirl!

RIP Nick Adams, 1931-1968.

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