“I feed on fear; live on human hatred. I, a strong mind without flesh or blood—want your world!”
Director: David Kramarsky, Lou Place (uncredited), Roger Corman (uncredited)
Starring: Paul Birch, Lorna Thayer, Dona Cole, Leonard Tarver, Richard Sargent, Chester Conklin, Bruce Whitmore
Screenplay: Tom Filer
Synopsis: An alien force approaches Earth, declaring its need for a new world, one where hatred and violence prevail, and planning to use the animals and the weakest of humans as weapons in its attack… On a date-ranch on the edge of the California desert, Alan Kelley (Paul Birch) ruminates despairingly about the failure of his business, and the effect that their lonely and difficult life is having upon his wife, Carol (Lorna Thayer), and daughter, Sandy (Dona Cole). Reluctantly, Alan returns to the house and resumes an argument with Carol, insisting that Sandy will go away to college. The argument is overheard by its subject, who also hears her mother declare herself bitterly jealous of her daughter’s youth and the opportunities that lie before her, even to the point of hating her. Realising that Sandy has heard her, Carol tries to apologise, confessing that it is her fear of being alone that makes her want to keep the girl at home. Carol also speaks harshly of ‘Him’ (Leonard Tarver), a nameless, mentally handicapped mute who Alan insists upon employing as a handyman. Despite Carol’s fears, Alan continues to insist that ‘Him’ is harmless. Alan goes to work, and Carol has a confrontation with Sandy’s dog, Duke, who is forbidden the house but has learned to open the screen doors. Sandy, still hurt and angry, collects the dog and goes swimming in a reservoir, unaware at first that “Him” is spying on her. When she realises, she scolds him and runs away in some apprehension. Meanwhile, at the house, a strange, high-pitched sound grows closer and louder, until the force of it shatters most of the breakables in the house, including the windows and Carol’s precious glass- and dinner-ware. Carol, assuming that a low-flying jet was to blame, reports the damage to the Sheriff, and is furious when he fails to take her seriously. “Him” enters the house looking for his lunch, and Carol angrily turns him away. Out on the road, Alan is startled when a blackbird flies straight into the windscreen of his car. As he examines the bird’s dead body, a whole flock of blackbirds attacks, forcing him back into the car. He travels on to the farm of Ben Webber (Chester Conklin), who comments on how strange things have been since “that plane” flew over, and how close it came. Sandy searches for Duke, who has run off into the desert. She fails to find him, and is picked up on the road by her father. Duke, however, has followed a high-pitched noise to a crater-like depression in the desert, where a strange, metallic object lies half-buried… At home, Alan and Sandy are dismayed by the damage, but Carol angrily rebuffs their attempts at consolation, even when Sandy explains that she understands that the china was irreplaceable. Deputy Sheriff Larry Brewster (Dick Sargent) – who is also Sandy’s boyfriend – is sent to the ranch to inspect the damage. “Him” sees Sandy and Larry together and grows violently angry. After Larry examines the house, he and Sandy drive into town; Alan follows in his own car. Carol, left alone, suddenly finds herself confronted by Duke – but not the Duke she knows: a snarling, savage animal that pursues her through the house and traps her in a shed…
Comments: When Roger Corman completed his first film as producer, Monster From The Ocean Floor, in 1954, he shopped it around to a number of potential exhibitors, the newly partnered-up James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff amongst them. However, Corman didn’t care for the terms that the pair were offering, and instead sold the rights to his mini-opus to Robert Lippert, who proceeded to rake in a (proportionally) ridiculous profit; a fact that certainly did not go unnoticed by interested parties. Nor indeed did Corman’s way with a dollar; Monster had cost – at least officially – only $12,000 to make.
Only 999,998 short. For ARC, that’s practically truth in advertising.
So it was that when Roger Corman brought his next film, The Fast And The Furious, to Nicholson and Arkoff, they were more in a mood to negotiate. So was Corman: he had turned a profit on Monster From The Ocean Floor, granted, but the money was trickling in too slowly to suit his ambitions. A deal was therefore struck between the three, one that would both put The Fast And The Furious into cinemas and finance Corman’s next cinematic ventures, but under conditions that vastly favoured the executive producers. In short, the newly formed American Releasing Corporation would distribute The Fast And The Furious and Corman’s next two films, which were to be produced via the profits of the first; Corman would be reimbursed after the event.
(That Roger Corman agreed to such deal is illustrative of just how early in the game all this happened.)
The next film into production was Five Guns West; westerns were always popular, and always cost-effective. However, another of the terms of the arrangement was that at least one of Corman’s next two films was to be shot in colour, something that automatically escalated costs. This fact, balanced against Corman’s need to split his finances, brought him to a fateful decision: he would save a director’s salary for Five Guns West by directing the film himself. After all, how hard could it be?
He was to find out soon enough. From the moment cast and crew arrived on the set, it rained. There was mud everywhere. Shooting outside was impossible. Corman spent his first day as director throwing up, sick to his stomach with nerves and worry. But somehow everyone – including the rookie director – muddled through. Five Guns West was finished on time—but it went over-budget, taking about two-thirds of Corman’s available cash. Somehow, on less than $30,000, he had to make another movie or forfeit his distribution deal.
The next film would be in black and white, that went without saying. And it would have to be shot non-union, as far as they could get away with it; take your production a sufficient distance from Hollywood, and you could still get away with it; although that meant that Corman, now a member of the DGA, couldn’t direct it himself, at least not officially. Corman tapped his own assistant director, Lou Place, for the job of directing, although screen credit would ultimately go to David Kramansky, the producer’s PA on his previous two films, who acted as Place’s assistant on this one (you following this?). Charles Hannawalt, formerly (and subsequently) Corman’s key grip, found himself an associate producer; and Everett Baker, a novice, was handed the cinematography.
The artistic high point of the film.
But what to film?
It was at this point that Roger Corman became aware of a screenplay for a science fiction film called The Unseen. It was about an alien attempting an invasion of Earth by controlling the animals and weak-minded human beings. That was all to the good, but not really relevant. What mattered was…the alien was invisible. Beautifully, gloriously, cost-effectively invisible.
And so Roger Corman’s next film went into production, with shooting taking place on the outskirts of Palm Springs. And because if there was one thing that Roger Corman and his executive producers agreed upon, it was that the less steak you have, the more sizzle you need, The Unseen became—The Beast With A Million Eyes.
The location shooting was almost complete when the union got wind of the production, and threatened to shut it down immediately unless (i) everyone joined; and (ii) everyone got paid accordingly. Corman’s response was to dismiss most of his crew and finish the film himself, working with his cinematographer from Monster From The Ocean Floor, the celebrated Floyd Crosby. Working on a tiny sound-stage, the two men ripped through the remaining interior scenes as swiftly as humanly possible, and The Beast With A Million Eyes was in the can.
But not all of the hurdles had yet been cleared. When Nicholson and Arkoff showed their film to potential exhibitors, the response was an appalled silence. It was Joseph E. Levene who stood up and spoke for his fellow distributors—and, indeed, for all of us:
“Where’s the monster?”
Just don’t expect to see him this clearly in the film.
Roger Corman had gone ahead with the screenplay’s notion of an invisible alien force; the only evidence of an invasion was a metal object that looked rather an avant-garde coffee percolator (and may well have been). Levene – who, the following year, would bring to America a certain Japanese monster movie, and make a bundle with it – had come to the screening based upon what is, perhaps, the greatest advertising lie ever told by Nicholson and Arkoff (contemplate that for a moment, people), a poster promising an eight-eyed, fanged, tentacled, bat-like creature, menacing a girl wearing only her undies and a flimsy négligée.
Levene was not the least bit impressed by James Nicholson’s subsequent arguments about the metaphorical intentions of the film’s title (arguments that, amusingly enough, exactly prefigure those used by Roger Corman himself, five years later, when he wanted to make House Of Usher). He wanted a monster, goddammit! – and he was prepared to pay for one. He offered Nicholson $100,000 dollars to destroy the film and start over; $200,000 if he’d make it in colour. Incredibly, Nicholson refused.
What happened next depends very much upon who you listen to, and what you want to believe. Legend has it that Nicholson added “alien” touches to the film by scratching it with scissors and filling in the gaps with ink. The distributors remained unmoved. Rebuffed, Nicholson went to Corman and told him shortly to clean up the mess he’d made—and pay for it out of his own pocket. A desperate Corman telephoned Nicholson’s old high school buddy, Forrest Ackerman, explained his dilemma, and told him what he could afford to spend on the obligatory monster. Ackerman laughed at him, then finally relented and recommended a young acquaintance of his, Paul Blaisdell, who was then working in the art department of a science fiction magazine, but had ambitions of moving into special effects work. Blaisdell took the job for the princely sum of $200 – plus costs.
The induction of Paul Blaisdell into the ARC / AIP fold was, in its own way, an event as important as the first deal struck between the embryo company and Roger Corman. In a decade that would give B-movie fans almost more monster movies than they could handle, at a time when a distributor could react to the product he was offered with a plaintive, “Where’s the monster?”, the arrival of Paul Blaisdell was a landmark moment. Hampered all his career by ludicrous budgets, Blaisdell responded by creating some of the most memorable monsters of all time. Not that they were ever the least bit convincing; but what they had was personality. You only have to look at one of Blaisdell’s efforts next to any of its equally low-budget competitors – let’s say, just for the sake of argument, the monster from The Phantom From 10,000 Leagues – to see the difference. There is no mistaking a Paul Blaisdell creation; nor is there any forgetting one.
But most of Blaisdell’s real triumphs were still in the future. What he came up with for The Beast With A Million Eyes was a bi-ocular hand-puppet that went by the nickname “Little Hercules”. Although Blaisdell’s plans for his creation were grandiose, either through on-set disaster (according to Blaisdell) or the incapacity of the puppet (according to everyone else), Little Hercules’ ultimate participation in the re-shot footage was fleeting. No matter. The Beast With A Million Eyes finally had a monster and, as far as everyone was concerned, that was all that mattered…
And yet, they never land here. I don’t know why not. We’ve got deserts. Bad cooks. Animals that’ll do you as soon as look at you…
The Beast With A Million Eyes is a film I have a lot of trouble dealing with fairly. On one hand, the film is cheap and tacky to a point that makes it hard to enjoy, and wearisome in its execution. There would come a time, just a few years distant, when Roger Corman would learn the trick of turning cheapness into an absolute virtue, and how to fill the dead spots in his films with odd little bits of business that distracted the viewer from the fact that these scenes were filler just as much as footage of people wandering back and forth across a desert. But in these very early days, when cutting costs and finishing the job were the only priorities, The Beast With A Million Eyes stands naked and embarrassed in its cheapness; the impulse is to look politely away.
Yet it cannot be denied that Tom Filer’s screenplay has…ambitions. Like so many science fiction films, and particularly science fiction films of the fifties, The Beast With A Million Eyes is a rumination on what it means to be human (specifically, a white American human). The nice thing about this film is that it centres on a very ordinary family. Furthermore, the young lovers are here given short shrift; it is the middle-aged married couple upon whom the story focuses, two people who must defeat their adversary with no other weapon available to them but their own human natures; and to make this possible, and credible, the story first ventures into some surprisingly dark territory.
The down-side of all this, however, is that in the absence of any scientific gizmos or military hardware, all that’s left is conversation. If you think TV shows like Star Trek pioneered the whole “out-debating the enemy” trope, think again. The Beast With A Million Eyes serves up a painfully bald example of this kind of story resolution, a gambit that my esteemed colleague, El Santo, likes to call “talking the monster to death”. But before this, I contend, it offers the viewer enough material of philosophical, if not quite dramatic, interest, that the film deserves to be treated with at least a modicum of respect.
If the concluding sequence of The Beast With A Million Eyes is hard to take, so too is its opening. (Hey, it’s a bell-curve! – the perfect Jabootuian movie!) It begins with our chatty little alien telling us all about himself, a “strong mind without flesh or blood” – which makes this another of the era’s anti-intellectual eee-vil brain films – and why he has come to Earth: “I feed on fear, live on human hatred!” (Um, hardly human hatred, at least not up until now.) The alien goes on to explain that he will control various denizens of our planet – “First the unthinking!” – the birds and animals – and then “The weaker of men!”; that he will see through their eyes, hear through their ears; and because of this ability (which the alien describes as, “The power to see your most secret acts!”, a phrase that seems to promise some racy material that of course never materialises), we will know him as—THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES!!
While the film-makers’ desire to spell out the metaphorical aspects of their title is all well and good, this spiel goes much too far, not just telling us exactly what’s going to happen, but using footage from later in the film to show us. So much for suspense. The alien is voiced by a gentleman of the name of Bruce Whitmore, whose only screen credit this is. He sounds very much like a regional commercial voiceover guy, and may well have been so. In fact, he puts me rather in mind of the narrator from The Power-Puff Girls. “Threatening”, he is not.
NOT THE COFFEE!? You alien bastard!
Nor are the sweetly low-cost visual effects that accompany his bombastic speechifying: a tin-foil rocket, a rotating globe, lightning strikes (is this Jim Nicholson’s work??), an ominously looming eyeball, and some superimposed water ripples, the latter of which will recur throughout the film, presumably to imply the all-encompassing nature of the alien’s power.
However, these various artistic misfires are followed by one of the film’s real strengths, its opening credits, which are accompanied by the kind of abstract artwork that would become over the following years an AIP trademark. These stark, powerful images, featuring eyes lurking within the landscape, convey a real sense of foreboding, and undo some of the damage of that ill-judged and rather goofy opening sequence.
And then we’re back in the world of voiceovers, this time courtesy of Alan Kelley, who gazes about his property, sitting on the edge of a California desert, and muses that, “A date-ranch in the off-season is the loneliest place in the world.” Alan goes on to share his problems with us: the ranch is failing, he is losing money, and his wife, Carol, is not only miserable herself, but intent upon making everyone else so, too.
Now—this is the point at which I part company with other reviewers of this film, most of whom seem content to tag Carol a bee-yotch and leave it at that. To my mind, the character of Carol is the screenplay’s major achievement, particularly for a film written at a time when uncomplaining, limitlessly supportive little wives were legion in movies and on TV.
It’s hardly surprising that Carol is miserable, not when you take a good look at her life; and that she takes it out on the people around her is the most natural thing in the world. After all, the ranch may be failing, but at least Alan gets to go out and do some work; to visit with the neighbours; to drive into town. Sandy, too, gets to go swimming. She has a potential boyfriend in town, and she’s on the verge of going away to college. In sharp contrast, Carol never seems to go anywhere, or do anything, or see anyone. On the contrary, any time she so much as steps across her own threshold, she invariably finds herself in physical danger!
Yes, that scratch.
When the film opens, Alan and Carol are in the midst of an argument over Sandy’s future, Alan adamant that the girl will go to college, Carol that she won’t. In the course of the argument, Carol confesses to being bitterly jealous of her daughter, even to the point of hating her; of Sandy’s youth, and the opportunities that are still before her, particularly when contrasted to her own limited existence. There’s some gutsy writing in this. In fact, The Beast With A Million Eyes is very much Carol’s story, starting with her in these dark places in order to show her journey out of them. It’s a shame that the conventions of the time prevent her from being a more active participant in the film’s events, particularly its climax.
Another unpleasantly realistic touch here is that Sandy overhears her parents’ argument, her mother’s harsh words. When Carol realises, she is aghast and apologetic, but neither her husband nor her daughter are in a mood to sympathise. Sandy goes off in a justified huff; Alan brusquely waves away Carol’s attempt to patch things up before going to work; and Carol is left alone—as usual.
In the midst of all this, we learn that there is one thing that Alan and Carol do agree on, and that is that the desert surrounding them is at least partially responsible for their woes. It’s not just the loneliness, and isolation; there’s something more, something actively malignant working to bring out the worst in them… Later, a contrite Carol will confess the real reason that she doesn’t want Sandy to go away: she is afraid that if she is left alone with just that desert for company, she will literally lose her mind.
Of course, Alan and Carol are more right than they know about the malignancy of the desert. Inevitably, it is Carol who first feels the effects of the alien’s presence. A high-pitched whine is heard at the house, growing louder and closer until it shatters every window, every bit of glass and china in the house—and, in a moment that always makes me shriek with sympathetic horror, a pot of coffee, which spills all over the kitchen floor. The noise is attributed by the various characters to a jet-plane with a show-off pilot, but thanks to Mr Mouthy Alien, the audience is in no doubt of the truth. Carol reports the destruction at the house to the sheriff in town, who obligingly adds to her misery by declining to take the incident seriously.
Carol is contemplating the shattered remains of her house-wares, her last reminder of a time pre-war – and perhaps pre-Sandy – when everything was right between her and Alan, when the ranch’s fourth occupant walks in. This is ‘Him’, the brain-damaged mute who Alan insists on employing as a handyman, and who has a knack for wandering into the house looking for food at the worst possible moments–like now. Carol vents her anger and misery on the bewildered ‘Him’, who scuttles away, then sits down to have a good cry.
“He’s as harmless as Duke!” Well, Alan, you said it.
‘Him’ is one of those weaker humans that the alien was seeking, and he will turn violent in due course; but he’s also there to further illustrate the Carol / Alan discord. We are certainly supposed to view Carol’s nastiness to ‘Him’ and her reluctance to have him around as further evidence of the depths she has reached, but it is doubtful that even the most stringent anti-Carol-ites will be able to avoid sympathising with her here, once we get a good look at how ‘Him’ spends his spare time: either browsing girly magazines (there’s a shot of him locking his shack door and hunkering down on his bunk with one that is particularly icky), or spying on Sandy…when he’s not trying to fondle her.
Both Carol and Sandy complain about ‘Him’ to Alan, but to no avail. I’m sure that Alan’s repeated insistence that ‘Him’ is completely harmless is supposed to make him look like a nice guy, but these days all we see is an incredibly irresponsible husband and father. The whole subplot of ‘Him’ is certainly one of the film’s weakest aspects, being used primarily to set up a dramatic last-minute twist that really makes no sense at all.
Meanwhile, out on the road, The Beast With A Million Eyes’ animal attacks begin…and the film stumbles and falls. The story puts a great emphasis upon the anti-human violence committed by the animals in thrall to the alien, a plot turn that was quite beyond the ability of the film-makers to realise in any convincing manner. As the film goes on, more and more of these will happen off-screen, with the characters telling us about them. Alan here has a run-in with a flock of blackbirds, and there is single shot of the flock that will be used again and again as the film progresses. To make things worse, that shot was taken using a lens with a broad scratch on it: it’s kind of hard to pretend that it isn’t the same footage, when that same scratch reappears along with it. On this occasion, Alan locks himself in his car and makes his escape, as the birds dive-bomb his windows and windscreen.
(While they are never dramatically convincing, the bird attacks in this film are nevertheless a fascinating precursor to Alfred Hitchcock’s final word on the subject, which would not appear for another nine years—particularly when the birds lay siege to the house, causing Sandy to have hysterics.)
Alan drops in on a farming neighbour, Ben, whose beloved cow, Sarah, supplies the Kelleys with milk. Ben scoffs at the notion of blackbirds attacking, but adds that he wouldn’t much be surprised at anything, not with all the “mighty funny” things that have been happening “since that plane went over”.
Take that, Alfred Hitchcock!
(Ben is played by Chester Conklin, a veteran of silent film who had acted opposite Charlie Chaplin, and was one of the Keystone Cops. Conklin is allowed a little schtick later on that carries him perilously close to Odious Comic Relief-dom, but thankfully, it’s brief.)
Back home, Alan and Sandy survey the wreckage of the house in dismay, and Sandy attempts a rapprochement with her mother, who is morosely picking up broken glass, only to be rebuffed again. Some time later, official help of a sort arrives in the shape of Deputy Larry Brewster (played by a very young Dick Sargent in his second screen role), but he takes Alan’s broad hint about the damage being inside and Sandy being outside, and walks off without bothering to speak to Carol.
I can’t imagine why Carol gets pissy, can you?
Sandy and Larry do a bit of aw-shucks-sideways-looking and hand-holding, before Sandy shyly invites Larry to her birthday dinner (saying “tonight” rather than “tomorrow”, which may not have been an error by Dona Cole: several bits in this film were clearly shifted around in editing). Larry does get around to glancing rather perfunctorily at the smashed glass in the house, but he’s more intent on getting Sandy to come into town with him, letting her drive his police car (and play with the siren). Then Alan climbs into his car and drives off, and Carol is left at home alone—as usual.
Now, to this point The Beast With A Million Eyes has told its tale with reasonable efficiency, but we’ve reached the stage where things really start to fall apart. First, there is a moment when young lovers Larry and Sandy are suddenly confronted by ‘Him’, holding his axe in an ominous manner, which leads to a thoroughly painful exposition scene wherein Sandy explains what Larry, no stranger to the ranch, must already know, all about ‘Him’. (“He can’t talk and we don’t know his name, so we just call him ‘Him’.”) Then the padding kicks in, namely, endless sequences of various characters, human and otherwise, wandering across the desert either looking for, or being controlled by, a metal object partially buried in a crater.
HE’S A KILLER, I TELL YOU!! A KILLER!!!!
It is Sandy’s dog, Duke, who first lays eyes upon it, sitting there with its whirly-cap going around and around, and looking rather forlorn, like it’s been abandoned by some heartless barista.
The upshot of this is that Duke returns home entirely altered in nature, changing from a placid, friendly dog into a snarling, savage killer…although much of this we are required to take on faith. Duke is a lovely dog, but he’s one of the worst canine actors I’ve ever seen. He does once or twice manage a wrinkled-snout, teeth-bared bark; but most of the time he just ambles about with his tongue hanging out in a big wet doggy grin, his tail wagging furiously the while. His “brutal” attack upon Carol is therefore somewhat less than entirely convincing, with poor Lorna Thayer forced to feign terror and panic as this perfectly docile canine comes trotting up to her. Carol first tries to keep Duke out of the house by firing a rifle at him; but this cunning animal having learned to open the screen doors, he attacks from the rear and she is forced to abandon the house. Screaming, Carol runs outside, only to be cornered in a woodshed. She seizes an axe…
It’s dark when Alan and Sandy finally get home. Curiously, when Sandy finds her mother sitting in the dark, dishevelled and distraught, a bruise on her face, her reaction is, “Something’s happened to Duke!” She’s right, of course, and she shrieks upon seeing the bloody mess out in the shed. Her impulse is to blame ‘Him’, but Carol bravely ’fesses up, which doesn’t do a whole lot for the state of mother-daughter relations.
Sandy, grieving outside, suddenly “comes to”, to find herself out in the desert, drawing near to the crater. She finds ‘Him’ intent upon the same mission (leading to a nice moment: “What are you doing here?” Sandy demands, then blinks. “What am I doing here?”), but manages to turn him back by taking his hand.
At the same time, the day’s shocks have snapped Carol out of her funk and into a blessing-counting kind of mood. She tells Alan as much, and that she feels stronger when the two of them are together. When Sandy gets home, she and Carol hug and make up, while Alan muses on Sandy’s account of “sleepwalking” in the desert, the strange humming noise she heard, and taking ‘Him’’s hand, putting this together with Carol’s remarks about the two of them being stronger together.
IT’S A KILLER, I TELL YOU!! A— Oh, never mind…
And so things begin to look up for the Kelleys. At the same time, they’re not looking good for neighbour Ben, who learns the hard way that his beloved Sarah has had enough of his lovable old duffer schtick, and his tales about charging hills with Teddy Roosevelt.
Hmm. It seems that, even as my colleagues at Teleport City are fated to review every movie featuring a villain in a skeleton costume, I end up with all the films featuring cow attacks. This one is considerably more convincing than the one in Gli Amori Di Ercole, however, chiefly because the cow is: it’s bigger, heavier, and has some serious horns.
(On the other hand—that scratch on the lens is back.)
Back at the Kelleys’, Carol makes the mistake of stepping outside the house, and is immediately set upon by her own chickens; an attack that Alan deflects with help from a blow-torch. (Yes, yes, I know: sometimes the jokes write themselves.) Alan at first dismisses Carol’s suggestion of a pattern in the animal attacks – telling her, “You’re imaging things”; is there a genre film of this era where the female lead isn’t told, “You’re imagining things”? And where she is in fact imagining things?? – but when she says something about an “animal revolution”, he reflects that, “Revolutions have to have leaders.” Carol persists in her new cheerful outlook, however, prompting Sandy to do the same. Alan commits his first sensible act, assigning ‘Him’ some work well away from the house.
Throughout this section of the film, there are bird noises dubbed in over all the action, twitters and clucks and chirps. This gallant if misguided effort to suggest a massing threat climaxes in an hilarious moment when ‘Him’ glances up to find himself being watched…by a dove!! EEK!! It flies off into the desert, and ‘Him’ downs axe and follows obediently, a passage oddly but effectively accompanied by some pastoral music, which segues into the percolator’s humming noise.
To be fair, that actually is a killer…
Soon afterwards, Alan discovers Ben’s – trampled? gored? the film is reticent on this point – dead body. Paul Birch, often a quietly effective actor, has some nice moments here, but the script lets him down: “We thought it was all over. It’s only just beginning.” You thought it was all over!? And what exactly made you think that, Alan? Your wife being attacked by her chickens?
Meanwhile, the wimminfolk are having a girls’ morning-in. It’s Sandy’s birthday, and Carol does the girl’s hair before the two do a little baking. In a touch equally funny and exasperating, the film has so far used Carol’s various failed attempts at baking a cake as a metaphor for her failure as a wife and mother. (As a lousy cook myself, this puts me even more on Carol’s side.) She lost the first when, while fighting with Alan, she slammed her hand down on the oven; she burned the second while arguing on the phone with the sheriff. However, because she has reconciled with Sandy in a properly motherly way, her third attempt succeeds.
While all this domesticity is going on, Sarah the cow strolls into the yard, causing the two girls to laugh merrily over Ben’s presumed discomfiture, and prompting Sandy to describe the cow as “that old lady” and to comment on her advanced years and gentle nature, which I do believe is an attempt at what Henry Fielding once referred to as “the ironing”.
Sandy decides that, “We’ll really have fresh milk today!”, and heads outside. Needless to say, this proves to be a mistake. She fetches a rope from the shed (the same shed where Duke was sliced and diced—eeew!!) in order to catch the cow, but finds that Sarah has other ideas. Sarah moves purposefully towards Sandy, who gasps in fear and edges across the shed wall—rather than, say, going back into the shed. Carol calls to her to get inside, and Sandy stumbles into ‘Him’’s unoccupied shack. Then Carol also fails to get the hell back inside, instead seizing a rake and moving towards Sarah. The cow is rightly unimpressed, and shifts its focus. Carol staggers, screams, and executes an embarrassingly unconvincing trip-and-fall. A shot rings out, and Alan appears, having – despite what the editing here implies – shot Sarah, not Carol.
Man, they kill a lot of animals in this film! If any of this were explicit, or if the film-makers had had the budget (or, to give them their due, the inclination) to do any of this convincingly, this film would be highly distressing, even offensive.
“I don’t suppose anyone wants some cake?”
Alan tries to report their new incident, and Ben’s death (he rings Larry; evidently he’s learnt the futility of ringing the sheriff), but the blackbirds dive-bomb a transformer, managing to take out the phone-line and the electricity. Alan then decides its time to get out of Dodge, but when he finds that ‘Him’ is not where he left him, he stays behind while sending Carol and Sandy into town. ‘Him’, meanwhile, is out in the desert (where it’s dark…hmm) with the Alien Urn, which flashes lights into his face, and cranks up its humming noises until he clutches his head in pain.
Searching for ‘Him’, Alan is again attacked by the blackbirds; a shot of a crow is cut in to suggest that this bird is “commanding” the others. After they fly off, Alan returns to the house, where to his dismay he finds—Carol and Sandy. (Oh, come on! – you didn’t actually think that Carol was going to leave the house, did you!?) In a weirdly played scene, as Alan grows frantic over his family’s presence, Carol does a spaced-out-calm routine, lighting lamps and chatting about Sandy’s birthday, until she belatedly gets around to the reasonable explanation for their return: they were forced back, the blackbirds bombing the car (with their bodies, you sickos!) until they turned around. “And there was another bird – a crow!”
The blackbirds then show up again – there can’t be that many left, surely!? – and after the family retreats into the house, some more clumsy editing drops us right into the middle of Sandy’s Tippi Hedren impression, with the girl shrieking and clutching her head as the birds lay siege to the house.
In town, Larry has traced Alan’s abortive phone-call, and sets out for the Kelleys’ (“Tell the sheriff where I’ve gone” – oh, like he cares).
Outside the house, ‘Him’ is squatting on a cactus, an act I act only take as evidence of the alien’s awesome powers. TREMBLE IN FEAR, PUNY EARTHLINGS!! Obeying his new master, ‘Him’ first lets the air out of the Kelleys’ car tyres, then plants himself in the middle of the road, stopping Larry’s car. Larry gives ‘Him’ a lift, and ‘Him’ responds by clocking Larry in the head and then pulling his unconscious body into the road before running off into the desert. Some time later, Larry wakes and also staggers off. Whether he is searching for ‘Him’, or whether in his dazed state he is vulnerable to the alien, is entirely unclear.
It certainly feels like forty years.
Stiff upper lips all around, the Kelleys go ahead with Sandy’s birthday party, such as it is, with Sandy wearing the present her mother arranged for her the day before. No, not her dead pet; a new dress, which is what Alan went into town to collect. But Larry’s no-show is too much for Sandy’s fortitude; and when Carol offers her some cake – you know, that cake that Carol devoted a day and a half of her life to making? – Sandy bursts into tears and runs off.
Later, however, the Kelleys decide that they will search for Larry, all three going together on Carol’s insistence, so that they will “be strong”.
And this is pretty much how the rest of the film plays out, with Larry looking for ‘Him’, the Kelleys looking for Larry, Alan looking for ‘Him’, Sandy looking for Larry, Larry and Alan looking for Sandy, and Carol looking for Sandy and Alan, all of it consisting of a great deal of tiresome wandering around in the dark. However, at least some of this is compensated for by some touches of high comedy—all of them unintentional, of course.
Larry does catch up with ‘Him’ at the crater – there’s a wonderful bit here when the film-makers forgot to dub in some dialogue – and the two men fight, which sets up the film’s supreme moment when the victorious Larry subsequently makes it back to the house:
Larry: “That loony of yours has gone mad!”
In the midst of these assorted wanderings, Sandy runs into ‘Him’, who grabs her and drags her off towards the crater—although in proud, low-budget film-making tradition, he first drags her back the way she was coming, that is, towards the house. Various shots here indicate that ‘Him’ is fighting the alien compulsion, but is not strong enough to overcome it.
Carl’s response to Alan remembering his name may have been just a tad sarcastic…
Meanwhile, Sandy’s absence has been discovered. Alan and Larry set out in pursuit, and by examining the footprints in the sand – in the dark, on a stretch of land that our characters have now spent an hour walking back and forth over – Alan concludes that ‘Him’ is carrying Sandy, as, “There’s only one set of tracks!” Larry then gets all Christmas-y: “Do you hear what I hear?” He seems to be referring to the humming noise, but the next moment we hear those damn blackbirds again. “I was afraid of that!” says Alan grimly. “Let’s hide behind those rocks!”—“those rocks” being a slight indentation in an otherwise dead flat piece of ground. Before the birds can attack, however – or we get to see that scratched lens again – Alan manages to spot something moving in the distance; a good trick, as ‘Him’ and Sandy are already inside the crater.
And then it’s time for pathos, as Alan cries out to ‘Him’ – “Carl! Carl!”
Sure enough, ‘Him’ wheels around, fighting the alien’s power over him. He manages to deliver Sandy to Alan, but the effort is too much for him and he collapses and dies.
The explanation, eventually delivered by Alan with voice a-tremble, is that ‘Him’, aka Carl, was under his command in the war. A snap judgement by Alan left Carl missing a chunk of his brain, and so Alan felt compelled to employ him and care for him. Which is all well and good, but hardly explains the whole unnecessary and demeaning “poor old ‘Him’’ business. Even if Alan “never talks about the war”, or didn’t want to cop to his culpability, surely, “This is Carl, he was in my unit” would have sufficed?
Oh, I know, I know. Dramatic climax. Humanity re-exerting itself. Weakest humans > strongest aliens. I know, I know…
TREMBLE BEFORE OUR SUPERIOR ALIEN TECHNOLOGY, PUNY EARTHLINGS!!
About now, Carol starts searching for everybody else. Yes, that’s right: she leaves the house! Successfully! She runs into the other three halfway back, and we learn that the blackbirds invaded the house. Alan sends Larry off, essentially to draw the alien’s fire, and starts voicing his conclusions about the alien: that it preys on minds; that its power is limited; that they are strong enough to fight it, and overcome it…
At this point, the alien itself chips in, “talking” inside the humans’ minds: Very well, Earthman!
And so it begins: Talkfest ’55.
The alien, a very chatty little guy, generously reveals his whole plan: that he and those like him have no material form; that they feed on brains, on the emotions stored there; that “hatred and madness” are the keys to their power. However, as the other life-forms on his planet are dying out, used up, new “hosts” are required. He and those like him are searching for new planets to invade. He was sent to Earth and – ooh, ouch – chose the Kelleys as his test subjects because of all the hate he felt, turning the birds, and animals, and ‘Him’ against them. Only something went wrong…
Okay, again, credit where it’s due: there’s some really good stuff here, clunkily as it is delivered—and believe me, it’s clunky. (“‘Love’? Bah! A weakness, not a strength!”) If only Tom Filer been content to leave it at this point! – with the alien overcome by the Kelleys’ love for one another, and need of one another; by that perverse way Homo sapiens has of growing stronger, not weaker, when confronted by a crisis. But oh no, that wasn’t heavy-handed enough; not for 1955.
Long story short, the alien wants to take Sandy away and experiment on her, to figure out this “love” business and why it’s so powerful. Alan and Carol defy it. There’s a struggle, during which the alien tortures Sandy as it had ‘Him’ – I mean, Carl – and also reveals that its percolator spaceship is pre-programmed to take off at dawn. Carol comments on the alien’s furious reaction to their “love” explanation, and the Thudding Fist Of Ideology comes crashing down upon us, as Alan retorts that in evolving into these monsters – these super-brains – the aliens lost their souls…
ARE WE ALL ON THE SAME PAGE HERE!!!!!!??????
Ladies and gentlemen—“Little Hercules”.
And it isn’t just ideologically that this part of the film annoys me—well, okay, yes it is, but I’m talking about another kind of ideology. The ending of The Beast With A Million Eyes would have been much stronger if it had been Carol who figured out the alien’s weakness. It is she, and not Alan, who has made the emotional journey, after all; it should have been her who, from her own experiences, realises that she has a weapon within herself. Even the alien recognises Carol’s growth, commenting that while she was at first the weakest of all, now she is the strongest.
It seems the only person who didn’t have that moment of revelation was Tom Filer. I doubt it so much as occurred to him that he might have a woman defeat the invader. Instead, he reduces Carol to Alan’s sounding-board, bleating, “Oh, Alan, what is it? Oh, Alan, what do you mean?” My only consolation here is that Carol is needed to overcome the alien; it takes Alan and her combined to keep Sandy safe. And at least she got to leave the house.
Alan and Carol carry Sandy to the crater, preparing for the final battle. The water ripples reappear and, as the spaceship slides open, so too does the ominous eyeball—behind which, for a few fleeting moments (actually, one shot, repeated about six times), we catch a glimpse of the cause of all the fuss, Paul Blaisdell’s “Little Hercules”.
Dawn breaks. The humans stand there, defying the alien threat. And the alien keels over, dead. So much for that. The spaceship, on auto-pilot, takes off.
At the edge of the crater, Larry has turned up. As he supports the still-dazed Sandy, Alan and Carol do some fancy dancing around the whole “no physical form / monster in the ship” thing, Alan suggesting that the monster was a life-form from the invader’s planet, necessary for the formless being to pilot the spaceship. Now, the life-form is dead; but what of its controller?
Then Sandy gasps, pointing at a rat—and then gasps again, pointing up at an eagle. And the eagle – appearing suddenly where no eagle has ever been seen before – swoops in and carries off the alien’s new host.
ARE WE ALL GETTING THE SUBTLE SYMBOLISM HERE!!!!!!??????
Homo sapiens americana, triumphant as always.
Evidently, Tom Filer, or someone, was afraid we might not: The Beast With A Million Eyes concludes with Carol and Alan kindly Spelling It All Out For Us In Big Block Letters:
Carol: “Alan – what killed the creature on the ship?”
Alan: “Where did the eagle come from? Why do men – have souls?”
Carol: “If I could answer that, I’d be more than human. I’d be…”
Wow, it’s lucky, isn’t it, that all these invading aliens always lost their souls and forgot about love before they got here, so that they were so easily defeated? Because of course, no-one on Earth ever used fear and hatred as a way of gaining power. Or if they did, they certainly didn’t do it in America. Or if they did, they certainly didn’t do it in the 1950s. Right?
The Beast With A Million Eyes snuck out into cinemas in June of 1955, garnering the critical response it pretty much deserved. Roger Corman, having met the terms of his contract with ARC – just – signed another one and returned to the desert, exercising his penchant for strong female characters by making a handful of gender-bending westerns and, with The Gunslinger, managing to create a film so cheap-looking, The Beast With A Million Eyes seems like a Joseph von Sternberg production in comparison. Jim Nicholson went back to designing outrageously misleading ad campaigns, and Sam Arkoff to juggling the company finances.
In short, it seems doubtful that anyone involved with The Beast With A Million Eyes actually learned very much from the debacle of its production—except, perhaps, that when you promise a monster, you’d damn well better deliver a monster.
Want a second opinion of The Beast With A Million Eyes? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.
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Footnote: There are a couple of other interesting names hidden in the credits for The Beast With A Million Eyes. One of them is the film’s production manager, one “Jack Haze” – rather better known as Jonathan. Meanwhile, the film’s art direction is credited to Albert Ruddy who, as “Albert S. Ruddy”, would go one to co-create both Hogan’s Heroes and Walker, Texas Ranger and, most importantly around these parts, to co-write and produce everyone’s favourite flying motorcycle epic, Megaforce. Truly, giants walked the earth in those days.