Once again CineSavant becomes intrigued by a minor genre opus normally dismissed in a sentence or two; this Roger Corman production may fall short of his other early efforts because it tried to be too cerebral and then ran afoul of the Hollywood Guilds. David Kramarsky is listed as director but it’s hard to know how many of the credits are accurate — or simply bogus. Monstermaker extraordinaire Paul Blaisdell apparently came to the rescue with 11th-hour special effects to give the ambiguous, invisible alien menace more substance. Scorpion’s release has a new transfer and a commentary by Tim Lucas.
The Beast With a Million Eyes
1955 / B&W / 1:37 full frame open aperture / 75 min. / Region A locked / Street Date November, 2019 /available through Ronin Flix (not Amazon) / 29.99
Starring: Paul Birch, Lorna Thayer, Dona Cole, Dick Sargent, Leonard Tarver, Bruce Whitmore, Chester Conklin.
Cinematography: Everett Baker + Floyd Crosby, uncredited
Film Editor: Jack Kilifer
Art direction: Al Ruddy
Monster creator, special effects: Paul Blaisdell
Production manager: Jonathan Haze
Original Music: John Bickford
Written by Tom Filer
Produced and Directed by David Kramarsky (+ Lou Pace, Roger Corman, uncredited)
Roger Corman’s name doesn’t appear on 1955’s The Beast With a Million Eyes. Although no mention is made of it in his autobiography this is a Corman production through and through; commentator Tim Lucas points out that Corman and his company were named in the earliest announcements. It shapes up as a problem picture between Corman’s ingenious, creative start-up shows Monster from the Ocean Floor & The Fast and the Furious, and the Corman productions that helped launch American-International Pictures — Five Guns West, Apache Woman, The Day the World Ended. Other sources identify this show as part of Corman’s first multi-picture deal with A.I.P., that ran into trouble when he tried to hide it from the Guilds’ business reps.
Considering that it’s basically a disaster, Million Eyes won a fairly good reputation back in the late 1960s when genre criticism was getting underway. Its concept is more intellectual than the average rubber monster movie… at least on paper. In his Science Fiction in the Cinema, critic John Baxter had to work from distant memory before home video made researching film as easy a pulling a book from a shelf. Amid his more astute observations Baxter reported that Invaders from Mars was in 3-D and that the monster in 20 Million Miles to Earth was a Tyrannosaurus Rex. He called The Beast with a Million Eyes a ‘masterpiece of the Z-movie’ and applauded its clever idea of an alien intelligence possessing living things. He wrote, “Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds does not improve on the bleak framework of Kramarsky’s film.” Wow – we want to see that movie.
Million Eyes’ mysterious animal attacks include birds but they are not likely to inspire more glowing comparisons to Hitchcock’s masterpiece. The impressive main titles by the great animation artist Paul Julian show twisted trees festooned with eyes, images that might have established the symbolic nature of the ‘million eyes’ had the original poster artwork not already made ticket-buyers eager to see a weird dragon monster studded with multiple eyeballs. The show then settles into a dismal domestic situation too amateurishly written and directed to gain dramatic traction. Father Allan Kelley (Paul Birch) runs a remote, unprofitable date farm. His narration describes it as ‘a lonely place in the off- season,’ but we can’t picture it as a swingin’ fun destination in the on- season either. Allan’s wife Carol (Lorna Thayer) and teenaged daughter Sandra (Dona Cole) are unhappy. Sandra is anxious about leaving for school while the frustrated Carol understandably feels trapped. Sandra overhears her mother’s jealous disapproval. The dialogue is klunky and the performances overdone. Carol looks like she belongs in Beverly Hills while Sandra is yet another teenager played by a woman in her mid- twenties.
Allan takes his family’s discord too lightly and is slow to become alarmed when the weird phenomena begin. A mystery loud whining screech breaks all the glass in the Kelley house. The characters oddly describe the noise as a hum. Sandra’s boyfriend Larry, a deputy (Dick Sargent) has no answers for the frightened Kelleys. Soon the animals begin to misbehave: birds threaten Allan and a milk cow assaults the neighbor Ben Webber (veteran silent comedian Chester Conklin). Carol is terrorized by the family dog Duke (London) and Sandra feels threatened by Allan’s mute, mentally-challenged farmhand (Leonard Tarver). Allan hasn’t explained to Carol or Sandra why he takes care of this grim, unfortunate fellow. Everybody just refers to him as, ‘Him.’
Additional narrative disconnects accumulate. Nobody seems to have thought through the woefully unsatisfactory animal scenes. Bird ‘attacks’ amount to the same two or three shots of a bunch of blurry objects thrown at the camera. The well-trained dog London is fine when prowling about and gives forth with an excellent canine snarl for close-ups, but even he doesn’t seem threatening. A German shepherd scratching politely at a door while wagging his tail doesn’t cut well with shots of Lorna Thayer freaking out and scrambling to defend herself. This must be the movie where Roger Corman discovered that animal actors are poison for his production philosophy: they can’t guarantee a useable first take.
The cow attack is the silliest, and not because Chester Conklin precedes it with a few bits of un-funny comic antics by the waterspout. This is a particularly benign-looking cow. The filmmakers fail to get Bossie to do anything, as if they hadn’t realized that milk cows don’t take direction. All the editor can do is intercut short clips of the animal moving forward, with Chester’s panic. The action is hilarious — we’re reminded of an old Peter Sellers comeback line: “Oh I see, you’re going to NOTHING me to death!”
The problem is the direction — there isn’t any. Roger Corman always produced shots with movement, that communicated a story point. Even his micro-budgeted Monster from the Ocean Floor flows well, and never seems padded or slack. Million Eyes falters in every way. Allan talks about his date farm but we never see how it is tended. We have to surmise for ourselves that the main task is keeping those big trees irrigated with water. The action moves from the farmhouse to the edge of the property and from there into the scrub desert, but the angles and coverage never establish a spacial relationship between these places. The setting is less ‘atmospheric’ than an amorphous Nowhere.
Only a couple of camera angles express much of anything. The one competent animal threat moment isn’t an attack, but a simple reveal when Carol shows Allan why she and Sandra didn’t flee to safety — their car is covered with smashed birds. And the final approach to the alien spaceship actually finds the filmmakers finding an expressive position for the camera. As the partly-possessed ‘Him’ stumbles down a sandy incline strange lights flash on his face, making us curious to know what un-worldly Thing has the man in his power.
The lack of dramatic urgency becomes a serious drag. Allan under-reacts to the crazy phenomena as well as Carol’s anger and panic, and instead defaults to a dreamy philosophical mode. He speculates about the presence of an alien intelligence ‘out there’ and theorizes that emotional unity is a strength the alien can’t overcome, the family’s one defense. Paul Birch is not a bad spokesman for these spacey sentiments but the camera angles and context just don’t cooperate.
Six months later actor Birch will do fine spouting expository ‘author’s messages’ in Corman’s The Day the World Ended. We’re not complaining out of principle — we like spacey homilies in our ethereal-cereal sci-fi. Several Twilight Zone mini-morality plays are just as simple as this. But nothing in Million Eyes expresses these sentiments in a coherent way — all we have are Father’s disconnected speeches. The alien intelligence eventually finds a voice and begins ‘dialoguing’ with his mental captives. His hollow Voice of Doom is suspiciously credited to a polished but additional-credits-challenged ‘Bruce Whitmore,’ suggesting that a name talent did some moonlighting.
We can see how critics like John Baxter might be attracted to The Beast with a Million Eyes — when described in print it does display some intellectual ambition. Ethereal mystery was a scarce commodity in the year of Creature with the Atom Brain and The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues. But the show doesn’t illustrate, animate or dramatize these lofty ambitions. The actors are poorly directed, even young Dick Sargent, who would later become a familiar face on TV.
The production story of Million Eyes is muddied by conflicting information. The several bios and books about Roger Corman differ as to what happened during filming. Was Roger Corman the original director? Was it his first serious clash with the Guilds and Unions? As with some other ’50s low-budget producers, Corman did his best to evade the rules. The teamsters had tolerated his tiny production Monster from the Ocean Floor, but I’d say that Corman’s association with American Releasing Corporation, soon to be renamed American-International Pictures, made filming non-union in Los Angeles next to impossible for him. One story says that Corman was busted by the Union agents and had to renegotiate. The film’s final credits are so fabricated as to put several individuals’ actual roles in doubt.
Quoting an older Filmfax article that interviewed credited director David Kramarsky, disc commentator Tim Lucas clears up who was in the director’s chair: everybody. Kramarsky filmed all the location stuff out in the desert. For the interiors Corman took over at an L.A. soundstage. Cameraman Floyd Crosby is said to have shot these scenes. Kramarsky said that Crosby may have directed some material. The IMDB continues to name Lou Place as an uncredited director as well. We readily agree that all of the direction on location seems too haphazard to be the work of Roger Corman.
David Kramarsky has been saddled with the creative rap for Million Eyes all this time. This is his only directing credit — he served as production manager and producer on Corman’s earliest productions. Lou Place served as Corman’s production manager on eight future films, directed Daddy-O (1958) and went on to a busy career assistant-directing. Corman might have passed on credit for Million Eyes to avoid jeopardizing his status as a Guild director.
Kramarsky said that this movie was short-changed because Colman’s Apache Woman went over budget. We need Kramarsky’s input because the film’s official credits hide more than they reveal. Roger Corman identifies one Chuck Hanawalt as his preferred key grip, but on Million Eyes Hanawalt is listed as an associate producer. And is Million Eyes really the final editing credit for Jack Killifer, who cut a number of WB and Raoul Walsh classics?
Not helping are many quotes from A.I.P. founder and partner Samuel Z. Arkoff, who frequently used The Beast with a Million Eyes to illustrate (and take credit for) the improvisational ‘genius’ by which his studio created popular double bills out of next to othing. Arkoff told much the same story when he spoke to us MGM employees in 1997 or 1998 — I have a shaky hi-8 tape of his talk somewhere. The story is the same — Arkoff said the movie originally fell short of the expectations set by the gaudy poster James H. Nicholson had commissioned. The exhibitors at his sales screening were not pleased — presumably some or all had invested in Sam’s film slate. Arkoff boasted how ‘he had them shoot film of a teakettle with holes poked in it and superimposed some stuff and saved the day.’ Or something like that.
Does an original screenplay exist? Writer Tom Filer later took a story credit on William Alland / Jack Arnold’s The Space Children, another sci-fi about a non-mobile alien intelligence hiding out near a human habitation. It also uses telepathy to contact and influence a small group of humans. An equal emphasis is given to a number of characters’ flawed family lives.
I have a feeling that Tom Filer envisioned Million Eyes as a moody tone poem about paranoia and thought control, suffered by an isolated desert family with internal issues. The setting is the mysterious desert with characters reacting to mostly unseen phenomena. Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space had worked up a similar vibe, encouraged by Ray Bradbury’s poetic dialogue about ‘things unseen but felt out in the lonely desert’ and ‘alien intelligences that can use telephone lines to extend their surveillance.’ Million Eyes was filmed under the title The Unseen.
Arnold’s movie may have been an influence, but Million Eyes doesn’t imitate its subjective camera effects, in which we share the point-of-view of the alien creatures that sneak up on unsuspecting humans. Instead of seeing through It Came’s bubble-vision Million Eyes’ subjective camera could have used a multiple-image trick lens, suggesting the title’s multiple eyes. A thousand pardons — this is supposed to be a review, not a re-write.
From the beginning Roger Corman harbored an interest in arty film effects: why would The Unseen need physical monsters if the monster is just a disembodied alien intelligence? The DESERT could be the monster, just as Roger made the HOUSE the monster in his later House of Usher. That idea would of course call for some inspiring, spooky desert images. The silly many-eyed monster on the poster artwork is not a literal representation, that’s for sure.
Technically speaking almost all of the effects in Million Eyes could have been added after the main shoot. The shiny spaceship is briefly glimpsed in the same frame with recognizable actors. It’s more like a coffeemaker than a teakettle thankyouverymuch, and looks to be about the size of a mailbox. In one shot, some puppets (or cutouts) stand near the ship. Definitely added were the curious insert shots showing Blaisdell’s monster puppet in a spaceship hatchway. It’s never seen clean, only obscured by superimpositions — smoke, electric sparks, and an unimpressive eyeball. Million Eyes’ spacey visuals will satisfy only the most tolerant of viewers.
Scorpion Releasing’s Blu-ray of The Beast With a Million Eyes is being distributed as a Ronin Flix exclusive. The new HD transfer is flat, a decision that makes sense when we see how low the copyright line is in the 1:37 film frame. But I’m convinced that the show was originally screened as widescreen anyway. When cropped to 1:66 or 1:78 the copyright line disappears but the rest of the movie gains some compositional sense. A lot of empty headroom goes away and the interiors in the Kelley house stop looking like cramped boxes with one wall missing.
We can’t say that the movie is very attractive. We’re relieved to learn that the famed Floyd Crosby filmed only the stage interiors for the Kelley house. But this is by far the best copy I’ve seen; the old MGM DVD wasn’t much better than murky PD boots.
Whoever filmed out in Indio and Palm Springs (Everett Baker?) augmented the day-for-night shots by darkening the top of the frame with a filter. Dialogue scenes among the date trees don’t use fill light or reflectors, so facial expressions frequently fall into shadow. Quite a few location shots show flaws that look like smudges in various parts of the frame. As we doubt that the scenes are opticals, my best guess is that the cameraman was using glass filters (neutral density?) in his camera’s matte box, and didn’t realize that the dirty smudges would be in focus. The visuals overall are so erratic and disorganized, anything seems possible. MGM’s Midnite Movies DVD from 2007 displays the exact same flaws.
Some of the effects shots cut in well and others don’t. The two or three angles of the spaceship taking off look so mismatched that we’d think they were cribbed from a ragged print of another movie — except that they fairly closely match the ‘coffeemaker / teakettle’ item seen earlier. Just as with the film’s credits and the conflicting production stories there isn’t enough on-screen evidence to reach conclusions about these effect shots. Readers with access to Randy Palmer’s book on Paul Blaisdell or articles by Bob Burns might be closer to the full story.
The disc includes a low-quality copy of the trailer. A random stack of other ’50s sci-fi trailers is also present. A discussion online notes that this disc presentation doesn’t include the 46-second prologue montage seen in most prints, in which the alien voice hectors the audience, spilling the beans about his invasion’s Modus Operandi:
“I need this world. From millions of light-years away I approach your planet. Soon my spaceship lands on Earth. I need your world. I feed on fear, live on human hatred. I, a strong mind without flesh or blood, want your world. First, the unthinking, the birds of the air, the animals of the forest, then the weaker of men shall all do my bidding. They shall be my ears, my eyes, until your world is mine. Because I see your most secret acts you will know me as The Beast with a Million Eyes!”
The images in the montage are previews for everything that will be seen later, a common editorial trick to goose up monster movies that begin slow and dull. A taste of monster menace right up front might prevent some embarrassing walkouts. As the old Midnite Movies DVD retains this prologue collectors will want to hang onto it. The old DVD also carries subtitles in Spanish and French: “Yo necesito este mundo!”
The big draw will be Tim Lucas’s informative audio commentary. Tim offers a great deal of creative thinking on the script’s undigested themes. The movie is scored with semi-familiar classical music, which in the dramatic vacuum of the storyline never feels natural or appropriate. Just as we suspected, it’s there because it’s free — Tim tells us that the Soviet Union had not yet signed on to international copyright treaties so Corman & co. gave a bogus music credit to ‘John Bickford’ and blithely tapped existing Russian recordings of Wagner, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shastokovich, and probably others as well. Lucas stretches to elaborate on the themes of Million Eyes, correctly stating that it’s less about an enemy invasion and more concerned with strained human relationships. Actually, there’s more here about baking accidents than enemy invasions. I don’t see Allan Kelley’s economic problems being developed in any way. But the theme of ‘Him’ being a brain-injured veteran at least deepens the characterizations — that Allan Kelley has stayed faithful to his Army buddy is the kind of human connection that he needs to make with his wife and daughter.
If this movie were given an alternate ‘scope’ release option it would really be a strange item — cropping the show to 1:2 would be like looking through a mail slot. But I can say that a ‘Superscope’ conversion is not impossible because A.I.P. did do that to at least one flat feature. I once saw a screening of Roger Corman’s Machine Gun Kelly in converted Superscope. The projectionist even showed me the squeezed image on the print, which chopped heads in half and masked away guns on the bottom. But the ‘Terrorscope’ logo on the Million Eyes’ poster is surely just baloney from Arkoff and Nicholson’s imaginations, a forerunner of the meaningless, misleading ‘Colorscope’ banner that A.I.P. later touted for so many flat-widescreen releases.
Curiously, critic John Baxter made the argument that Million Eyes is superior to The Birds because Hitchcock’s bird attacks remain a complete mystery. That critical viewpoint is a head-scratcher but the parallels between the two very different movies can’t be ignored. Both films use animal attacks to stress the need for meaningful human connections. Both show people, including a lawman to be incapable of acknowledging clear evidence of real threats. Both movies show birds attacking so madly that they kill themselves. And in both movies a farmer drives to a neighboring ranch, only to find the neighbor murdered by killer animals.
With major assistance from Gary Teetzel, who asks, who gets ‘John Bickford’s’ music royalty checks?
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Beast With a Million Eyes
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Tim Lucas, the trailer and assorted bonus 1950’s sci-fi and horror trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: November 24, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson