The Unknown Terror, Charles Marquis Warren
The Unknown Terror

Retro Monsters and Sexual Politics Dominate These Three Sci-Fi Movies

Sci-fi movies Unknown Terror, The Colossus of New York and Destination Inner Space inject monsters into personal melodrama for masculine redemption.

Sci-Fi Chillers Collection
Charles Marquis Warren, Eugène Lourié, and Francis Lyon
Kino Lorber
28 May 2024

Slimy fungus, huge cyborgs, and alien monsters terrorize three Cold War paranoia-era sci-fi movies that combine matinee thrills with dashes of intelligence and emotion. Kino Lorber’s Sci-Fi Chillers Collection presents a laser-focused, crystalline digital scan of The Unknown Terror, The Colossus of New York, and Destination Inner Space. Brace yourself.

The Unknown Terror (1957)
Directed by Charles Marquis Warren

The opening shot of The Unknown Terror presents a hole in a rocky cave. Something moves behind it and comes forward to reveal itself as a man scrambling and spelunking into the bowels of the earth – or perhaps the human consciousness. He is driven by the desire to see and know. Gazing through the opening toward the camera, he reacts in terror as if those of us watching him will eat him.

After the opening credits inform us we’re watching The Unknown Terror, we’re next looking at a television, a screen within the screen on which a reporter discusses the missing explorer and a follow-up expedition “south of the American continent”. The TV sits on a shelf flanked by fancy beer steins, and that’s because we’re in a bar where Pete Morgan (Paul Richards) moodily nurses his booze. He slides off his barstool to leave. His right leg doesn’t move naturally – perhaps it’s artificial. We never know for sure, but he winces in pain. He suffers from more than a limp; he’s truly uncomfortable.

Pete shows up at the swanky home of Dan Matthews (John Howard), who’s recruiting backers for the expedition. Pete, a famous explorer now washed up over his impotent limb, has come to beg or demand a place. With reluctance, Dan finally agrees. We learn that Pete sustained his injury while saving Dan on a previous adventure. “Dan owes me this,” Pete blurts before regretting his self-pity. We also notice sexual tension between Pete and Dan’s wife, Gina (Mala Powers), as though her marriage to the rich, successful Dan is a sign of Dan’s having “won” the masculinity sweepstakes.

The Unknown Terror is in Regalscope. That’s another name for Cinemascope, and it smells as sweet. When battered prints were run to death on local TV stations, they didn’t preserve the widescreen composition. That’s why it’s important to see this film properly. Among its pleasures is the well-staged widescreen black and white imagery shot by Joseph Biroc, and the party at Dan’s home is a perfect example. When Pete and Gina first see each other, they’re at extreme opposite ends of the screen, as though a canyon yawns between them.

A tall, glowering figure in the backyard stands in darkness, facing the viewer and bisecting the screen into the bourgeois partiers on the left and the hired “ethnic” entertainment on the right. The tall silent man is Dan’s “Indian” with the unlikely name Raoul Koom (Richard Gilden). The calypso ensemble is headed by Sir Lancelot, who plays himself with a special credit. He was a well-known “King of Calypso” who appeared in several movies, notably Val Lewton‘s horror films.

Dan stages a bit of cultural anthropology to convince the moneymen. He has Sir Lancelot perform what’s supposedly an old folk song; it’s probably by The Unknown Terror‘s composer, Raoul Kraushaar – another Raoul! The lyrics concern descending into the darkness and how you must suffer to be reborn. Then Dan announces that his Indian Raoul will interpret the song and explain its significance. When Raoul is told to go up on stage and do his thing for the audience, he clams up. Raoul may be afraid of hermeneutics, but we’re not.

Perhaps Raoul already knows that losing your tongue is a form of displaced castration. The Unknown Terror is about emasculation, impotence, and sexual rivalry. These are common themes in many horror and sci-fi films by over-educated writers about caves and monsters from the depths. Some of my favorites are Robert Gordon’s It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Arthur Hilton’s Cat Women of the Moon (1953), and Richard E. Cunha’s Missile to the Moon (1958), and I’m prepared to explain their brilliance to those who stay after class. The Unknown Terror is a little too slow and talky to be at their level, but Kenneth Higgins’ script has a grip on its themes.

When Pete, Dan, and Gina arrive at the “Indian” village in the jungles of Mexico or wherever it is “on the Caribbean shore”, they meet a surly American doctor named Ramsey (Gerald Milton), who’s obsessed with local fungi. His local wife Concha (May Wynn) gets whipped if she messes up. Concha says she used to have a crippled leg like Pete, and they instantly have a sexual attraction that’s presented quite frankly. The Ramsey/Concha couple are a displaced version of Dan/Gina, and this announces that Pete is ready to take another man’s wife if given the chance.

Truths—medical and personal—will be revealed in the cave historically used for human sacrifice of the Aztec variety. While not entirely dormant, this former function has largely been displaced and reconfigured by the interloping foreigner Ramsey for his own mad science purposes, and he’s perfectly capable of appropriating the “sacrifices” for his ends.

So, appropriation and obliteration of indigenous cultures is another theme in The Unknown Terror. For the record, IMDB reveals that several US Native Americans, George American Eagle, Foster Hood, and Jim Whitecloud, were cast as villagers. Their function in The Unknown Terror is to glower impassively. (I’d like to know more about Gilden, who played many Indians.) Another theme is religious rebirth and the afterlife, with the “Cave of the Dead” described as “their Purgatory”. Ramsey points to the fire under his stew pot, and the camera obligingly dollies in. Christian teachings commonly overlay pagan traditions to form a spiritual hybrid.

The Unknown Terror’s commentary track by genre historian Stephen R. Bissette is notable for two themes. First, he’s alive to the blatant sexual symbolism of the fungal slime that pours over everything at the climax, no pun intended. When Dan and Gina (hardly a spoiler) plunge into a chthonic pool and emerge after much swimming into a stark, picturesque cave mouth on the beach, it’s as on-the-nose a depiction of symbolic birth imagery as you’ll find in the genre. Remember Sir Lancelot’s song about suffering to be born again?

Bissette reports that horror fans have traditionally mocked The Unknown Terror‘s climactic soapy effects, which must be especially true if seen on dark, cropped, ragged television prints. However, Kino Lorber’s widescreen high-def restoration looks eerie and surreal as bits of foam fall like a toxic rain. I wouldn’t want that stuff on me.

Historically, Bissette locates The Unknown Terror within a long line of fungal horror going back to authors such as William Hope Hodgson and H.P. Lovecraft and flourishing in many films today. One crucial link is Ishiro Honda‘s Matango (1963), based on a Hodgson story. A former Swamp Thing comic book writer, Bissette is particularly attuned to such history.

The Unknown Terror is one of two horror films directed at the same time by Charles Marquis Warren, a specialist in B westerns and TV shows, most famously Gunsmoke. His other horror film was Back from the Dead, which PopMatters reviewed here. The two films, made for Warren’s own company, were released on a double bill from 20th Century Fox, and now you can re-create it in sharp Regalscope if you have both discs. See which you prefer.

The Colossus of New York (1958) Directed by Eugène Lourié

Eugène Lourié was a brilliant Russian-French art director who helmed several sci-fi movies about giant monsters. The Colossus of New York was made in the middle of that batch, and although it doesn’t have a giant monster on the same scale, it sounds like it does.

The Colossus of New York opens with a spiffy, eye-catching illustration of the United Nations building on New York’s East River. The credits rise from the harbor and cast watery reflections as Nathan Van Cleave’s solo piano score looms and booms; as historian Tom Weaver explains in his commentary track, Van Cleave wrote the score for three pianos. The quiet brilliance of the opening forecasts the understated story to come, with personal pain enacted as a public spectacle.

Just as Unknown Terror shows its hero watching a TV broadcast, The Colossus of New York shows stock footage of assembly lines, which is revealed as a film within the film. The footage is projected on a screen in the home of brilliant scientist Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin). He watches with his adoring young son Billy (Charles Herbert) and Jeremy’s neglected but also brilliant brother Henry (John Baragrey). Henry is responsible for the people-free assembly lines, and Jeremy jokes that he’ll put everybody out of work. Ha ha.

Jeremy’s wife Anne (Mala Powers of The Unknown Terror) bursts in to announce that her husband has just won a Nobel Prize – well, it’s not called that, but it’s in Stockholm. Two minutes later, they’ve just returned from Stockholm and walked out of the airport when Jeremy rushes to catch his son’s model plane, which the boy tosses into the air – and gets run over by a truck!

Otto Kruger, whose modulated delivery makes expository dialogue engaging, plays Jeremy’s proud papa William Spensser. Driven to rescue his golden boy from death, he hastily and privately removes Jeremy’s brain and keeps it in an aquarium (yes, it’s one of those sci-fi movies) until he recruits Henry to build an oversized, Frankenstein-ish android body. The distorted sound and visuals in the new Jeremy’s awakening scene are unnerving.

From the start, then, The Colossus of New York deals with the trauma of death and the tragedy of rebirth as a cybernetic superman. William assumes the mad scientist role, driven to save his son for understandable reasons and dismissing all religious ideas of the soul as poppycock. All the characters are understandable, and all founded in their emotional responses to intellectual and scientific developments. Ultimately, the big character arc belongs to the Jeremy cyborg, whose attitude sours over the course of a year in his mega-body.

As performed in a big blocky costume by Ed Wolff, the Jeremy-colossus is an eerie figure of pathos and existential pain, like Frankenstein’s monster. The giant steals the show with his bi-polar personality, which ranges from loving his son (in dialogues that feel a bit creepy to modern ears) to becoming psychotically misanthropic. By the end, the former scientist rages “Why should we work to preserve slum people of the world? Isn’t it simpler and wiser to get rid of them instead? Unfortunately, there are so-called humanitarian scientists, and I’m one of them, who try to keep human trash alive . . . We must eliminate the idealists.”

Jeremy’s demented new attitude, along with his increasingly magical powers of ESP, hypnosis and, topping it off, shooting death rays from his glowing eyes, leads to havoc at the United Nations against bystanders in a checkerboard lobby. These psychic elements foreshadow the screenwriter’s own interest in such topics.

While Willis Goldbeck is credited with the story of The Colossus of New York, the script is the work of the fascinating Thelma Schnee (née Moss), a Broadway actress turned writer. She later got a Ph.D. in psychology and taught at UCLA, where she ran their parapsychology lab. As Constance Newland, she published a bestselling memoir of her treatment under LSD, My Self and I (1962). As Thelma Moss, she specialized in Kirlian photography and wrote two parapsychology books in the 1970s.

As Weaver’s commentary recalls from his interview with producer William Alland, The Colossus of New York was partly inspired by films about the Hebrew legends of golems. Its scenario feels like the link between Felix Feist’s Donovan’s Brain (1953) and one of my favorite 1950s sci-fi movies, Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.’s 4D Man (1959), in which the brilliant scientist-brother goes rogue while his overshadowed brother looks on.

The Colossus of New York retains a tragic grandeur as philosophical melodrama. As Weaver notes, reviewers didn’t think much of it at the time. Nor did its makers. The only people who liked it were its “monster kid” audience, and they got the final satisfaction.

Destination Inner Space (1966) Directed by Francis Lyon

The opening credits of Destination Inner Space are presented across overhead shots of a speedboat racing across the ocean until we arrive at a nice helicopter shot of a barge called Two Brothers. That might be an in-joke, for the film is truly made by two brothers, producer Earle Lyon and director Francis D. Lyon, plus their frequent writer Arthur C. Pierce.

The first half of this 80-minute color epic establishes, amid much exposition and underwater sightseeing, that Naval Commander Wayne (Scott Brady) has been called to Sealab, a fancy research facility on the ocean floor, because of odd radar signals that might come from a submarine. Dr. LaSatier (Gary Merrill) runs Sealab and has staffed it to maximize eye candy. The personnel are either hunks like Hugh (Mike Road), Mike (Glenn Sipes), Tex (William Thirlby), and Dr. James (John Howard of The Unknown Terror), or women in sweaters like Dr. Peron (Sheree North) and Sandra (Wende Wagner), who do little besides wait for the men to make dumb decisions. Well, okay, there’s a slightly comic-relief Chinese cook (James Hong) with a parrot on his shoulder.

As in many sci-fi movies with masculine military tension, Destination Inner Space has a backstory regarding some incident in the past between Wayne and Hugh, about which Hugh must face up and “be a man”. All this is filler until the monster shows up at the halfway point, and the last half has hardly a dull moment as the plot lapses into a vigorous rehash of the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby classic The Thing from Another World (1951). The amphibious monster in Destination Inner Space is even called “the Thing” in the credits.

Played by Ron Burke, the Thing or the amphibian is a smart alien who hatched full-grown from a mortadella-like capsule and now wants to kill everyone. Designed for color, the latex bipedal amphibian sports blue scales, gorgeous golden-scarlet ruffles like a Regency dandy, a permanently open piranha-like mouth, and round red balls for eyes. Every ten-year-old who sat through the dull adult chatter must have felt fully rewarded at its arrival.

All who participated in commentaries for Destination Inner Space agreed that it pretty much plays like an episode of Irwin Allen’s TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which was airing while Destination Inner Space played theatres. The commentary by film buffs David Del Valle and Stan Shaffer discusses everybody’s credits and the obvious but charming model work, and Del Valle remarks that the ocean floor is “lit up like K-Mart”. Of course, that shows off the film’s production value; there was an underwater vogue in its contemporaries like Thunderball (1965) and television series like Flipper and Sea Hunt.

There’s further free-associational commentary in sidebars from Bissette and Tim Lucas, who discuss their associations with Destination Inner Space and The Colossus of New York and place them within trends and careers. Possibly only The Colossus of New York would support its separate release – and it was released by Olive Films over a decade ago. However, Kino Lorber’s triple-feature combo makes a tempting treat for Saturday afternoon nostalgics and those who like their retro sci-fi polished to the fine sheen it deserves.