The movies that made me what I am today

By Steve Sandberg

I run Cinema 320 at Clark University. This job sort of makes me one of the cultural gatekeepers of Worcester. And I guard my gate very scrupulously. Over the last 27 years, Cinema 320 has brought a galaxy of award-winning films to the city. We’ve presented a pageant of great statements on the human condition – the life work of cinematic giants like Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa. It’s been quite a record. From it, you might naturally assume that when yet another night at Cinema 320 is done, I go home and unwind with some other work of immortal cinematic art. Well, not necessarily. Actually, I like to sleep with a 50-foot woman.

But I’m not particular. If she’s got another date, I’ll make do with an amazing colossal man. Just how colossal is he? Don’t ask.

I swing all sorts of ways. You might even find me decadently commingling with many species decidedly more exotic than the human… giant tarantulas, ants the size of fire engines, killer shrews, flying brains, even a Thing or a Beast or an It! or two. These are the monster movies of my adolescence, the vivid horrors that kept me awake as a kid, shivering with delicious unease, deep into the darkness of the hottest Friday and Saturday summer nights; and now, in my middle age, they’re the old friends that lead me off into a peaceful sleep.

The irony is that Cinema 320’s clock was set ticking decades ago not by the high culture of the Cannes Film Festival, but the lowbrow junk of Fantasmic Features and Chiller Theatre; and none of the great movies the theater has brought to Worcester would have appeared here without their influence. It was while playing around in this trash heap as a boy that I decided movies were where I wanted to live.

Who could resist these pictures? Take for example a Japanese obscurity called THE MANSTER (1962). An outrageously sneaky-looking scientist lives up in the foothills of Mt Fuji (which is a miniature in forced perspective at the back of the film set, with steam pouring out of it; it looks exactly like part of the decor in a sushi restaurant). He injects an American reporter – just because he can, I guess – with a serum that causes him to sprout an eye from his collar bone. The eye gradually grows into a malevolent, ape-like second head, which forces the reporter into a killing spree. Ultimately the ape-head splits a whole separate impish body out of the reporter. Then it plunges into the volcanic bowels of the mountain, thus leaving the reporter purged and exonerated, and the audience strangely refreshed.

The story has a nightmare logic. I have often thought there would be great resonance in remaking it as a symbolic political statement of America. The atavistic ape-head would become a metaphor for modern conservatism, growing from our body politic and driving us to diabolical national crimes. Maybe we could even sculpt it in the likeness of Rush Limbaugh with a permanently open mouth.

And speaking of nightmare logic, here’s another movie the 12-year-old me fondly remembers: ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (1957). This was directed by the prolific Roger Corman, according to Wikipedia responsible for over 350 films as producer and/or director. A little group of scientists lands on a deserted Pacific island, searching for some trace of a previous expedition. The island has been irradiated by nuclear fallout, and it turns out that the first visitors were devoured by giant mutated crabs. This same basic dramatic situation has never gone obsolete, and you can still see it at work today, in dozens of made-for-cable movies on the Sci-Fi Channel. But Corman’s picture has a special kicker: his crabs absorb the intelligence of their victims, and each meal makes them stronger candidates for Mensa. So who cares if there’s a shot or two where you can see the legs of the guy inside the giant crab operating it?

The Sci-Fi Channel’s pictures are the merely work of mediocre bores, whereas if any crab had devoured Roger Corman’s brain, it could have graduated from Stanford with an engineering degree, just as Corman did. His film is atmospheric and imaginative. It also has a very clever concept of editing. With their super-intelligent brainwaves the crabs are able to blow up and sink the island acre by acre. At the climax, the last three human survivors are trapped on a barren little pile of rocks surrounded by the sea. It’s as if a movie was set in Worcester, and minute by minute the city vanished, until all that was left of it was Ramshorn Island beneath the Lake Quinsigamond bridge. The amazing script was penned by Charles B. Griffith, who wrote many of Corman’s best movies, and died only recently. Griffith had a website, and now I regret very much that I never sent him a fan letter.

In my opinion an entire city block of the Hollywood Walk of Fame should go to the stalwart stars of these movies – unsung actors like Marshall Thompson, Arthur Franz and Jeff Morrow, who grounded their frequently preposterous material in solid believability and never played down to their audiences. They risked public humiliation by becoming the front men for pictures whose special effects could be wobbly, to put it politely. Morrow especially had to deal until his dying day with his appearance in a truly absurd venture called THE GIANT CLAW (1957). In that one he shared the screen with a gigantic cackling antimatter buzzard that seemed to have flown to Earth straight from the Howdy Doody Show. You kept expecting it to hunker down on Central Park and try to hatch the entire planet.

If any single actor deserves to be the face of this whole genre, it would probably be Marshall Thompson. An amiable and eternally boyish screen presence, convincing within his limited range as a no-nonsense but always sensible and sincere military man, he provided characters whom audiences automatically liked. He also starred in the only film I ever had to run out of a theater from (or get my father to bring me home from) because it sent me into sheer, mind-blinding terror – THE FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (1959). Thompson is a naval officer whose hot-headed brother, a rocket plane pilot, is always violating his orders. (In this picture, so typical of the Eisenhower Fifties, the space bureaucracy is trustworthy, and individualism is rash. Who could have dreamed that in our three real space tragedies it would be a rash bureaucracy that killed trustworthy individuals?) Eventually the brother flies too high, encounters a swirling storm of space particles, and returns to Earth as a crispy-crusted astronaut fritter with a secret ingredient in his batter – meteoric dust! Smashing blood banks and slashing throats to survive, he also breaks the local speed limit in a stolen car. When he’s pulled over by a couple of hapless state cops, the spectacle of this shambling one-eyed monstrosity bursting out of the driver’s door was more than enough to convince me that it was time to trigger my own personal ejection seat!

Several years later Channel 7, WNAC-TV back then, scheduled a prime time showing of this, one Friday evening in autumn. Now being older and braver, I got all fired up and determined to watch the whole thing from start to finish like a real man. But fate pre-empted TV Guide’s listings with a scenario that was infinitely more shocking. The Friday was November 22, 1963, and by nightfall nobody cared about fictional horrors anymore.

Someday, hopefully far off, Cinema 320 will come to its inevitable end, and I’ll have to pick the last film to run for my loyal audience. I think it may come down to a battle between CINEMA PARADISO and ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS. Don’t bet against the latter.

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