The Film: 3/5
For their latest double feature Blu-ray bundle through the Scream Factory imprint Shout! Factory has plucked a pair of obscure 1950’s B-monster flicks owned by MGM from the depths of drive-in and Saturday afternoon UHF television station purgatory and given them the high-definition treatment. These two-for-one sets usually have a unifying theme, so I’m assuming the unofficial theme for this one is “The Rights Were Dirt Cheap”.
The first is The Beast of Hollow Mountain, a 1956 release that was distributed theatrically in the U.S. and throughout Europe by United Artists. It was based on a story idea by the stop-motion animation pioneer and special effects legend Willis O’Brien (the original King Kong) that also inspired the beloved Ray Harryhausen-produced 1969 feature The Valley of Gwangi. O’Brien’s original story was to be titled “Valley of the Mists” and had been an expansion of themes he had explored in another of his myriad of unmade projects, Emilio & Guloso, but the version of “Valley” that had made it to the screen as The Beast of Hollow Mountain is a beautifully-filmed yet monotonous bore that barely delivers on the promise of its poster. When the independent production finally went before the cameras in Mexico with Edward Nassour (a producer on the 1950’s Sheena: Queen of the Jungle television series) and Mexican filmmaker Ishmael Rodriguez (a Golden Globe nominee for My Son, the Hero) splitting directing duties O’Brien decided to leave his name off of the script in favor of the pseudonym “El Toro Estrella”. Plus, his position as creator of the film’s stop-motion effects work was handed off to Nassour, who had planned to film the effects sequences using his own “Nassour Regiscope” in-depth animation process that he had claimed was the result of eighteen years of development.
The story is set in Mexico during the late 19th century. There have been reports of cattle and farmers disappearing mysteriously near the area known as Hollow Mountain, a treacherous mountain and swamp. American rancher Jimmy Ryan (Guy Madison) finds that most of his hired help have fled in fear of their lives. He takes on the local drunk Pancho (Pascual Garcia Pena) and his young son Panchito (Mario Navarro) as replacements while romancing the lovely Sarita (Patricia Medina) and engaging in a knock down adversarial relationship with rival rancher Enrique (Eduardo Noriega), who is also Sarita‘s betrothed. Pancho makes a dangerous journey to Hollow Mountain to try and find Ryan’s missing cattle and never returns. A saddened Panchito tells the American of what happened and soon thereafter the curse of Hollow Mountain makes its appearance in the form of a great Tyrannosaurus Rex with an appetite for fresh human and bovine beef. Ryan, Sarita, Panchito, and Enrique must reluctantly unite to destroy the beast before it makes a graveyard of their town.
With a poster promising a headlong smash-up between big sky western adventure and stop-motion dinosaur action, The Beast of Hollow Mountain is unable to deliver on that simple promise. The titular beast does not even show up in full until 59 minutes into the feature - roughly three-quarters of its running time - and the first hint we are given that there is a monster at all dwelling around the mountain comes 15 minutes before, represented by a pair of oversized rubber dino feet. Everything that transpires before is standard issue Hollywood romanticism and a lot of time-wasting subplots that have little to no impact on the real story. A prolonged fight scene between the characters played by Madison and Noriega goes on far longer than it should have and does not improve the film’s glacial pacing at all. When the much-hyped stop-motion animation finally makes an appearances in Beast’s final act the actual T-Rex lacks presence and ferocity and looks too much like a plastic bargain bin kid’s toy to be memorable or threatening. It pales in comparison to the groundbreaking work done by O’Brien and his protégé Harryhausen on vastly superior genre films from King Kong to Jason and the Argonauts. There was a real fluidity to their monstrous creations and a certain poetry of movement. Audiences had no problem believing those animated creatures were real even though they could have very easily admitted the complete opposite.
The acting is nothing to write home about. Western star Madison is fine as the film’s forthright hero. Medina (Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin) is both lovely and brave as the charming Sarita, while Noriega (Zorro: The Gay Blade) hits all of the right notes as Madison’s chief rival and manages to make a real asshole seem sympathetic at times. Pena (The Black Scorpion) transcends typical Mexican stereotypes with his bumbling but noble and loving Pancho and Navarro (The Magnificent Seven) is rarely annoying as the requisite well-meaning (re: stupid) kid of these stories. Besides the solid performances the only other virtue possessed by The Beast of Hollow Mountain is its grandiose cinematography by Jorge Stahl Jr. (Garden of Evil), which attains the look of a genuine epic western directed by John Ford.
Beast’s companion feature, 1953’s The Neanderthal Man, was also an independently-financed production distributed domestically by UA. Aubrey Wisberg (Hercules in New York) and Jack Pollexfen (The Man from Planet X) both wrote and produced the film with imported German filmmaking trailblazer Ewald Andre “E.A.” DuPont (Piccadilly) directing. In the California High Sierras strange things are happening at the home of Professor Clifford Groves (Robert Shayne), a beleaguered scientist desperate to prove his wild theory that primitive men were far more intellectually advanced than their modern descendants. One evening his fiancee Ruth Marshall (Doris Merrick) arrives with the help of local zoological expert Dr. Ross Harkness (Richard Crane). Harkness had been assisting the authorities with tracking down a ravenous animal roaming the wilderness that closely resembles a saber-toothed tiger. Unbeknownst to them Groves has been conducting bizarre experiments in order to test his rejected claims regarding the Neanderthals and in the process of experimenting on himself the mad doctor mutates into a hairy beast man with murder on his mind. Harkness, Ruth, and an armed posse are charged with stopping the wild man’s violent rampage before it claims more lives despite being unaware of the monster’s true identity.
Like Hollow Mountain, The Neanderthal Man makes many promises it is mostly incapable of keeping. This is little more than a Poverty Row rip-off of The Island of Dr. Moreau, but lacking in the classic H.G. Wells novel’s mounting sense of dread and its fascinating moral complexities. What it does have is some really cheap-looking monster transformations achieved using the method of lap dissolves that proved to be more effective on the original Wolf Man. An early attack by a vicious tiger is rendered ridiculous immediately due to the single frame insertion of a close-up of an inanimate stand-in that the producers likely would have still included even if they had been able to foresee advances in home video technology that made frame-by-frame analyses possible.
Neanderthal Man wears its B-level ambitions on its sleeve. It has everything one would require to make a halfway decent double bill second half: handsome hero, raving mad scientist, comely heroine, cheesy monsters, sparse locations, guns, and a semi-tragic ending. It just spends too much time spinning its wheels with long dialogue scenes that prove to be ultimately pointless in advancing the storyline. Shayne (best known for playing top Metropolis cop Inspector Henderson on the classic 1950’s TV series The Adventures of Superman) delivers a performance comfortably straddling the line between dignified restraint and frothing camp hysteria. Everyone else performs to the expectations of the film’s genre and low budget. The real stand-out of the production is the menacing black & white cinematography by the great Stanley Cortez. Though you would find more than enough forgettable features in his background Cortez is rightly lionized for the work he did on cinematic masterpieces such as Orson Welles’ permanently damaged The Magnificent Ambersons, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, and Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor.
The HD restorations of both films leave a lot to be desired. The Beast of Hollow Mountain is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and it does not appear that much work was done in fixing up the scratchy source print used for the 1080p upgrade. The Neanderthal Man is presented in 1.33:1 full frame. Both films look fine for their age and obscure status, but their picture quality on this Blu-ray is often painful to look at. Beast’s opening credits feature much print damage including visible lines running down the screen. The print looks its worst during the scenes with the dinosaur; the quality of the stop-motion animation footage has faded considerably over time and it looks even sadder when composited with the live-action photography. The colors are very muted but nice to behold and the video looks good for the most part. The Neanderthal Man’s picture quality is somewhat improved but still features its share of film grain and moderate print damage. Both films are granted English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 audio tracks that perform their meager tasks admirably despite the presence of occasional distortion and deterioration in the sound mix. A subtitle option is not available for either film.
No extra features have been included outside of a bonus DVD copy with standard-definition presentations of both films with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtracks.
Together, The Beast of Hollow Mountain and The Neanderthal Man make for a passable method of wiling away a miserable weekend afternoon. Viewed separately and they both prove to be a trial of patience and suspension of disbelief for each of your senses save for the vision. You might even say that they are more deserving of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 roasting, not a high-definition preservation. At least the films look and sound better than decent and provide a fair amount of schlocktastic fun on this double feature Blu-ray.