[5 February 2014]
Retro-kitsch DVD producer Shout! Factory is back with the latest in its line of double-feature re-releases, this time with a pairing that will warm the hearts of many ‘50s schlock lovers. Black-and-white 1953 opus The Neanderthal Man is paired with long-out-of-print 1956 extravaganza The Beast of Hollow Mountain, a long-neglected precursor to the better 1969 cowboys-and-dinosaurs vehicle The Valley of Gwangi. Shout! Factory has released both films in a blu-ray/DVD twin package, which is frankly of higher quality than expected for such low-budget efforts.
Neither of these films is especially “good” by objective standards, but B-movie aficionados adhere to our own standards regarding enjoyability. Both movies are supremely watchable, though frankly the pairing is a little strange, as they are markedly different in so many aspects of production, as well as plot and theme. In fact, all they really have in common is that they’re both early attempts at stories that would be retold later on, to better effect – with The Beast of Hollow Mountain showing up later as Gwangi, and The Neanderthal Man retold as 1958’s Monster on the Campus. That said, though, there’s plenty to chuckle over, here.
Of the two films on offer, The Beast of Hollow Mountain will probably catch the viewer’s attention first. It’s in color, for one thing, and the print is sharp and saturated, with only a few black lines occasionally marring the Mexican sky. Given its age and relative obscurity, the condition of this print is near-miraculous. During the scenes of a festive Mexican wedding, the costumes and colors really pop, while the vistas of open countryside effectively convey the immensity of the landscape.
The story, which concerns an American rancher living in Mexico whose cattle are in danger of being rustled by a rival, is less than compelling, but at least it’s pretty to look at. The lovely Patricia Medina gets to show off numerous brightly colored outfits as she gallops around on her horse, the local belle at the center of a love triangle formed by American Guy Madison (who would star in TV’s Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok from 1951-58) and local tough guy Eduardo Noriega.
Wait a minute… This is a monster movie, right?
Well, yes and no. For a good three-fourths of its 80-minute running time, Beast of Hollow Mountain is very much a Western, and not a terribly lively one at that. There’s the local hombre in charge, the mustache-twirling heavy, the buxom love interest, the square-jawed hero, the drunken comic relief, and the steady sidekick. There are cattle and horses and fiestas and even a sprawling, market-day fistfight that takes center stage in the middle of act two. But the monster? The “beast” that’s out there in Hollow Mountain? He doesn’t show up till the last 20 minutes or so.
At that point, the viewer is so starved for dinosaur-on-cowboy action that it’s easy enough to overlook the sloppy animation (it really is pretty bad) because, what the hell, at least there’s a lot of it. Cowboys flee, dinosaur gives chase, cowboys hide, dinosaur seeks, cowboys shoot, dinosaur bleeds. Oh, and also flicks his obscenely-wagging tongue quite a lot – it looks like a banner out of Game of Thrones, only more dirty. The finalé is pretty great too, and one of the decade’s more inventive ways of winding things up, dinosaur-wise.
So the ending salvages the proceedings, but only just. There’s really no way around the fact that, despite what the picture on the poster wants us to believe, this movie is a Western with a dinosaur in it, rather than a dinosaur movie with some cowboys in it.
The Neanderthal Man (1953)
Surprisingly perhaps, things take a turn for the better, in terms of entertainment value, in The Neanderthal Man, largely because of the scenery-chewing of Robert Shayne as Professor Cliff Groves, a guy who evidently thinks the best way to prove his theories about evolution is to de-evolve himself into a prehistoric state. Before you can say, “But that doesn’t make any sense, professor!” he’s stuck his needle into the household cat, transforming it into a saber-tooth tiger that runs free in California’s Sierra Mountains.
This upsets the locals a good deal, but not as much as the bodies that start showing up pretty soon afterward. Experts are called in, game wardens are insulted, love interests are (thankfully briefly) invoked. Then it’s time for more experiments.
And look – there’s nary a cowboy in sight, although some of the locals do speak with a pronounced drawl and wear those funny hats.
The Neanderthal Man is a long, long way from anything scary, but it succeeds as entertainment far more than The Beast of Hollow Mountain because it commits itself to its inanity from the word go. The performances here are uniformly overdone; the sound effects are wacky; the music is melodramatic; the ape-man makeup is ludicrous. When Professor Groves undergoes his Jekyll-and-Hyde transformations into the titular creature, no explanation is offered – or needed – for his murderous rampages: he’s a monster, and monsters love to kill, so that’s what he does.
No points here for guessing how it all turns out, but who cares? The journey is the destination, as somebody once said, possibly a Buddhist and almost certainly not someone who was talking about this movie.
Shout! Factory is to be commended for retrieving these relics from the dustbin of history, and for presenting them here in excellent condition. Neither film is visually flawless, with Neanderthal Man in particular prone to some minor wear and abrasions in the picture from time to time. Overall, though, these are outstanding prints, and considering that they were originally drive-in fare, they probably look and sound as good, if not better, than they did upon original release.
There are no bonus features, but did you think there would be? For fans of ‘50s sci-fi silliness, this set promises a snug, fun way to pass a wintry afternoon.