Monday, September 8, 2008

The Creeping Terror (Metropolitan International, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran one of Charles’ Mystery Science Theatre 3000 downloads of one of the legendarily bad movies of all time: The Creeping Terror, a 1964 sci-fi/horror non-classic by director Art J. Nelson (and for some reason the MST3K crew didn’t make the obvious joke about their host being his namesake!), who also produced, edited (in a manner of speaking) and (under the name “Vic Savage”) starred as Martin Gordon, who returns from his two-day honeymoon with his bride Brett (a girl named Brett?) (Shannon O’Neil) to his native Angel County, California, where his uncle is sheriff. A spaceship lands in Angel County (represented by a stock shot of a rocket launch run backwards so the rocket appears to be coming towards earth and landing on it instead of leaving it) and it contains two occupants, one of which is tied up with metal harnesses because it appears to be a redundant backup system for the other. The other, which goes out and starts eating people, is essentially a giant quilt made up of carpet samples with a cobra-shaped head from which dangle about 10 bedsprings with ping-pong balls glued on them: the ping-pong balls have black dots painted on them and are obviously supposed to represent the whatsit’s eyes.

Martin becomes the town’s acting sheriff when his uncle is consumed by the creature, as is the forest ranger who was the first to spot the spaceship, and in an overkill of secrecy that even Dick Cheney would probably blanch at, the U.S. army brass in Washington, D.C. tell Col. James Caldwell (John Caresio) to clamp down and refuse to release any mention of the existence of a human-eating monster in the neighborhood — which, of course, only accelerates the body count. They also put a civilian scientist, Dr. Bradford (played by William Thourlby, who later wrote a men’s dress-for-success book bound in a cover made of the black pin-striped material he recommended in the text), in charge of the operation, and Bradford is one of those dorks (like Robert Cornthwaite’s character in the original The Thing) who’d rather keep the monster alive and try to communicate with it than kill it and actually save the lives of some of the down-cast players.

For some reason only screenwriter Robert Silliphant (any relation to Sterling?) could explain, the monster particularly targets people in various states of sexual arousal; though it makes exceptions (a chubby amateur fisherman whose grandson, unlike just about everyone else in the movie, had the good sense to run away — the MST3K crew joked, “Running hadn’t been invented yet” — and a housewife hanging laundry are among the victims), mostly it targets couples necking in the park and in lovers’ lanes (ironic for a film that was obviously destined for drive-ins, where the audience would be so busy necking for real they wouldn’t notice how bad the film was!) as well as participants in a school dance and members of the budding counter-culture having a hootenanny in the park and listening to one over-the-hill singer-songwriter play a singularly boring song. When the monster crashes their party, the singer attacks it with his guitar, with predictably dismal results — and Charles and I both registered a cultural reference the MST3K crew missed and started singing Tom Lehrer’s song, “We are the folk-song army/Guitars are the weapons we bring … ”

The Creeping Terror is one of those legendarily bad movies that could have achieved mediocrity were it not for a series of bizarre production mishaps rivaling anything auteurs like Phil Tucker and Ed Wood had to go through during the makings of Robot Monster and Plan Nine from Outer Space, respectively. First, according to one post on, they actually spent some money to create a reasonably credible-looking monster, only to have it stolen from them five days before shooting began, forcing them to assemble the weird mess of carpet samples (with the feet of the people under it moving it around clearly visible in some scenes) you actually see in the film, which is so pathetic that on at least two occasions the actors forced to impersonate its victims have to crawl into it to suggest that it’s consuming them.

Then director Nelson, in order to save money, decided to shoot the film silent and record the soundtrack on a separate tape recorder — which is not entirely a bad idea; most mainstream movies were actually made that way between the development of tape recording for films in the 1950’s and its replacement with digital sound in the 1990’s. But most mainstream movies that did that had access to a synch-pulse generator that recorded a pulse on both film and tape so they could be kept in perfect synchronization during post-production. Without having had such a machine, Nelson found when he’d finished shooting and tried to piece the film together that the task of matching picture and sound was virtually hopeless, so in the film as it stands you occasionally see pictures of people delivering dialogue the way they would in a normal movie, but for the most part it’s a silent film with music (by Frederick Kopp) and a narrator (Larry Burrell, uncredited) talking over what were supposed to be dialogue scenes to tell us what’s supposed to be going on. A sample: “Despite Brett’s inquiries about what Martin had seen in the spacecraft, he avoided specific details for fear of disturbing her more than she was. If the truth were known, Martin was more than a little disturbed himself.”

The film is so appealingly dorky that, during one monster-free scene in which Martin and Brett are together at home and Martin’s old bachelor buddy, deputy Barney (Norman Boone) — who for sheer competence makes the other famous fictional sheriff’s deputy named Barney, Don Knotts’ role on The Andy Griffith Show, look like Dirty Harry by comparison -— is with them and definitely making three a crowd, the narration makes it seem like the MST3K crew got their reels mixed up and started showing one of those 1950’s high-school “educational” films about marriage, sex and relationships that they frequently ridiculed: “Barney and Martin had been bachelor buddies for years. But now that Martin was settling down to marriage, they were slowly drifting apart. Barney, naturally, was still dating all the girls in town, and he couldn’t understand why Brett and Martin didn’t pal around with him more than they did. He couldn’t comprehend that married life brought with it not only new problems and duties, but the necessary togetherness of husband and wife as well. Despite Brett’s most tactful considerations, such as inviting him over to dinner quite often, Barney was growing resentful of her, or at least she felt that he was. Since time began this change in relationships probably happened to all buddies in similar circumstances. Life has its way of making boys grow up, and with marriage, Martin’s time had come. His life was now Brett, a life that he thoroughly enjoyed.”

MST3K had a lot of fun with this film, mostly making fun of the monster’s ridiculous appearance, the immense amount of cool electronic gear inside the alien’s spaceship (it looks like the filmmakers got a $10,000 gift certificate at Radio Shack and spent it all at once) and the dorky pseudo-rock instrumentals played in the school-dance sequence. Indeed, the funniest part of the show was only tangentially connected to the film: Mike Nelson has supposedly built himself a state-of-the-art stereo system out of gear similar to that in the movie, and for his demonstration CD he plays … that dumb instrumental the people were dancing to just before the monster ate them! (Mike is also shown applying a green marker to the inside ring of his CD, an urban legend from the early 1990’s: supposedly if you painted the inside of a CD green, it would sound better.) They also made fun of the sheer body count and wondered why the monster, eating person after person (supposedly the monsters are electronic gizmos and are doing chemical analyses of their “dinners,” then beaming them back to their home planet so the life forms therein can figure out humans’ weaknesses and conquer us), didn’t seem to be gaining any weight. The Creeping Terror was produced by a company with the grandiose name “Metropolitan International Pictures,” just reinforcing the general field theory of bad cinema that particularly awful movies emanate from studios with the word “International” in their names.