Pocket Surrealism

The 1950 feature “Rocket Ship” is a condensed version of the 1936 Universal serial “Space Soldiers,” the first of the Flash Gordon adventures. Visually the film is a delirious jumble in which nothing seems too bizarre to be included. On the planet Mongo, where most of the action takes place, soldiers sport Roman armor and ray-guns, there are lion-men and hawk-men, spaceships and sword-fights. A blond All-American hero romances a blonde heroine while being romanced in turn by a raven-haired exotic princess. In serial form all of this may have been somehow parse-able, but compressed in a sixty-five minute feature there is enough romantic delirium to fuel a Douglas Sirk double-feature. When the strong-willed Princess Aura finally foregoes the peerless Flash to pair up with the fat balding Prince Baran it leaves you rubbing your eyes in disbelief. The equally fat king of the hawk-men may have been a better match, at least he had a great operatic chuckle.

But what the hell, in the meantime you have horned apes, lion-men who look like they need a haircut and a shave, hawk-men in tatty wings that leave them looking like angels in a Christmas pageant, spaceships that look like crazily spinning tops, floating cities and invisibility rays–what more do you need? “Rocket Ship” is armored in its own innocence. It doesn’t claim to be anything more than a pleasant time-passer, so how can you pick apart its inconsistencies and its visual howlers without seeming churlish? You’re just supposed to sit back, watch it and be entertained.

A slightly different kettle of fish is Sam Newfield’s 1943 B-movie “Dead Men Walk.” I seriouly wonder if the screenwriter Fred Myton knew of or had read the August Derleth short story “The Return of Andrew Bentley”? The basic set-up is the same–a powerful sorcerer is killed, but returns as a vengeful revenant. Here we have B-movie stalwart George Zucco essaying a duel role as Dr. Lloyd Clayton, beloved by all, and his twin brother Elwyn, a student of the black arts. When Elwyn threatens the life and soul of Lloyd’s ward, the doctor apparently pushes Elwyn off of a cliff–alternately, there may have been a struggle, with Elwyn attempting to kill Lloyd. Elwyn returns as a vampire–this at a time when vampire films weren’t all that common–still intent on claiming Lloyd’s ward as his slave. Dwight Fyre, once a servant to no less a vampire than Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula appears here as Elwyn’s devoted servant. While I don’t for a moment claim that “Dead Men Walk” is a great film, it is an entertaining one and, at a little over an hour, doesn’t linger long enough to wear out its welcome. Plus we get to see the usually villainous Zucco as an upright doctor and, for the only time in his long career, as a vampire.

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