Classic 1950s sci-fi collection arrives on DVD

[9 May 2008]

By Doug Nye

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

Universal is well-known known for its classic horror films featuring the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, the Invisible Man and the Mummy in the 1930s and 1940s.

But when science-fiction movies became the rage in the 1950s, the studio (then known as Universal-International) leaped on board and turned out several memorable contributions to the genre.

Nine mostly sterling examples of these Universal movies plus one from Paramount are included in “The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Volumes 1 & 2” (Universal, $59.98) which arrives Tuesday on DVD.

The gem of the set is “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957), starring Grant Williams as a man who is exposed to a mysterious mist during a pleasure outing on a boat with his wife. Not long after the incident, Williams begins to notice that his clothes seem to be a bit too large for him.

Soon he discovers the frightening truth - he is gradually shrinking. Throughout the film, he gets smaller and smaller and smaller. What was once his gentle pet cat becomes a monster that chases Williams across the floor as if he were a fleeing rat. There are other such unforgettable sequences.

The film benefits from an excellent screenplay by top-notch sci-fi writer Richard Matheson, who adapted it from his own novel. Joseph Gershenson turns in a haunting music score, which includes a melancholy trumpet solo from musician Ray Anthony during the opening credits.

Jack Arnold is the film’s director. He also oversaw other outstanding Universal sci-fi efforts such as “It Came From Outer Space” (1953) and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954). “The Incredible Shrinking Man” remains one of the great science-fiction efforts from the 1950s.

Other films in the set include:

“Tarantula” (1955). One of the better monster-on-the-loose movies. Leo G. Carroll plays a scientist experimenting with a growth serum when things go awry and a dog-sized tarantula escapes from his lab into the desert countryside. During the ensuing days, the spider begins to grow and grow until he’s bigger than a house and scaring the daylights out of local residents. John Agar leads an effort to track down the beast. Pay close attention and you’ll spot a young Clint Eastwood as a jet pilot near the climax of the film. Directed by Arnold.

“The Deadly Mantis” (1957). Another fun monster film. A giant praying mantis, trapped in an iceberg for millions of years, is set free by an earthquake and heads to America, wreaking havoc along his journey. One of the best sequences is the Mantis sitting atop the Washington monument. The film stars Craig Stevens, who played TV’s “Peter Gunn,” and William Hopper, who portrayed Paul Drake on TV’s “Perry Mason.”

“Dr. Cyclops” (1940). In this wonderfully entertaining film, Albert Dekker plays a mad scientist working in Peru, where he develops a method of shrinking people to doll-like size. Its special effects are surprisingly good and the Technicolor print is spectacular. This is the oddity in the collection because it is not a product of the 1950s and was produced by Paramount. It’s here because Universal owns most of the pre-1949 Paramount library.

“Monster on the Campus” (1958). The blood of a recently discovered prehistoric fish causes horrible physical changes to the college professor who has been studying it. Arthur Franz and Joanna Moore star. Directed by Arnold.

“The Land Unknown” (1957). Three men and a woman are stranded when their plane crash-lands in a deep crater located in the Antarctica. They quickly discover that the warm area is inhabited by dinosaurs. Starring is Jock Mahoney, TV’s “Range Rider” and also one of the many people to play Tarzan on the big screen.

“The Mole People” (1956). Scientists on an expedition beneath the earth discover a strange race of people who control an even stranger-looking race of slaves. John Agar and Hugh Beaumont (Ward Cleaver to TV viewers) star. Not as goofy as it might sound.

“The Monolith Monsters” (1957). A meteor crashes and leaves dozens of rocks scattered outside a small desert town. These are no ordinary rocks - they began to grow whenever they come in contact with water. The local residents find that out when a rainstorm erupts and the rocks become gigantic and threaten the town. Can anything stop them? Lola Albright (Peter Gunn’s TV girlfriend) and Grant Williams star.

“Cult of the Cobra” (1955). American soldiers stationed in Asia discover a cult in which women supposedly can change into serpents. Faith Domergue, Richard Long (TV’s “The Big Valley”) and Marshall Thompson (TV’s “Daktari”) star. This is the only real dull offering in the collection.

“The Leech Woman” (1960). Coleen Gray stars as an older woman who discovers that a fluid from human bodies can reverse the aging process. Unfortunately, the humans have to be killed before the fluid can be extracted and she can use it.

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