Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Terrifying Tuesdays: The Unknown Terror (1957)

From Wrong Side of the Art

I watched quite a few 1950s B-movie horror/science-fiction flicks when I was young -- they were very popular back in the day.  However, "The Unknown Terror" (1957) is one that I somehow missed.  I saw it for the first time this past weekend on YouTube (see below -- thanks, oracliberator71!).  It is typical of these sorts of movies, which were mass-produced on a restricted budget and limited time schedule.  It is not a great movie, but it is also not bad, and I am a bit surprised that I never saw it before.

The movie begins with an explorer in a spooky cave, and not unexpectedly something sinister happens.  We then cut away to a bar scene, where the patrons are watching a news report about the missing explorer, who disappeared "somewhere south of America".  We learn that the man, Jim Wheatley, was the brother of a wealthy man's wife, and her husband will stop at nothing to locate his missing relative.  Cut to a new scene, this time of a Caribbean calypso band (I kid you not!).  We are now at the home of the wealthy man and his wife, Dan and Gina Matthews (John Howard and Mala Powers).  Dan has invited two scientists over to hear the calypso band sing an unusual song he heard "on the shores of the Caribbean" which could provide a clue to the missing man's whereabouts.  There is also an Indian named Raoul at the gathering, brought in as an interpreter of the song.  But before the song begins, one of the patrons from the bar scene shows up at the door, asking Mrs. Matthews to let him speak to her husband.  It turns out that this man, Pete Morgan (Paul Richards), was a well-known explorer until he suffered an injury to his leg which disabled him.  Said injury occurred thanks to Dan Matthews, so when Pete learns that Dan will be conducting another search for Jim Wheatley, he wants to go along to prove he can still do the work he was so good at before his accident.

Dan initially puts him off but lets Pete join the group as they listen to the strange calypso song.  After the band finishes, Dan asks Raoul to tell them the meaning, but the latter is suddenly reluctant to do so, saying that it would be best for all concerned if he does not.  However, one of the scientists concludes that the song alludes to a cave called "Cueva Muerte", or "Cave of Death", supposedly near the village of Raoul's tribe, where human sacrifice took place.  Dan immediately decides that Jim must be in this cave and could still be alive, so he asks Raoul to take them to his village.  Tempted by money, Raoul agrees.  Dan also decides that Jim's skills are needed as well, in spite of his bad leg, and agrees to let him come along.

Suddenly we find ourselves south of the border in Raoul's village.  Events begin to take place quickly now.  The villagers are unfriendly, Raoul disappears, and the visitors are sent on their way to the home of an American scientist who lives outside of town.  They meet Dr. Ramsey (Gerald Milton) canning fruit in his kitchen (yes, you read that correctly -- how appropriate for National Canning Day!), who sends his native assistant Lino to look for the missing Raoul.  Dr. Ramsey insists that there is no "Cave of Death" in the area except as the native Indians' concept of purgatory.  The doctor has been here a long time doing research on fungi, studying their antibiotic properties.  He became like a god to the natives after he cured an epidemic of smallpox.  The man is a rather unpleasant fellow who mistreats his Indian wife, Concha (May Wynn), which soon brings him into conflict with Pete.

A storm suddenly begins brewing, and so do terrifying events.  Mr. and Mrs. Matthews learn part of the grisly fate of Raoul, and Pete convinces Concha to take Dan and himself to a spot where underground "voices of the souls in purgatory" are heard.  Gina stays behind, which is a mistake.  Preparing to retire for the night, she catches sight of a gruesome being at the window, and is soon being pursued through the jungle by the creature.  Just in a nick of time, a couple of natives appear and kill the thing, although Gina is sure they are out to kill her.  Meanwhile, Dan and Pete hear the underground voices, then Gina's cries for help, and find her safe but terrified nearby, but not before a frustrated Pete succumbs to his leg injury.

I won't go into any more detail about the movie other than to say that there is indeed a "Cueva Muerte", the exploration of which leads to unfortunate consequences for some.  The story line is actually quite decent and the action is exciting, but the mysterious secret of the cave can be somewhat of a letdown to those who are used to sophisticated special effects.  Those of us who grew up with movies made before realistic computer-generated images are accustomed to less-than-perfect monsters, however, and some of us have learned to overlook their occasionally amusing appearance.

At the risk of spoiling the movie, the horror turns out to be a virulent fungus developed by the unpleasant scientist, which causes a few victims to become a sort of human/fungus hybrid with a violent nature.  Unfortunately, the nasty fungus bears a distinct resemblance to bubble bath, and some viewers may find it difficult to be terrified by soap bubbles.  Let me just add that, although the bubbly appearance of the fungus seems amateurish, it actually does rather resemble a slime mold.  In fact, if you read this little article by Scicurious, you may just change your mind about the terrifying aspects of the fascinating little organism, and develop a whole new respect for this movie!  (Well, maybe not the latter.)

Interesting Fact: The calypso band in the movie is led by Sir Lancelot, a popular calypso singer and actor who appeared in a number of movies, including a couple of Val Lewton horror films.

Gore Guide (0=none to 5=extreme): 0

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