The Monster's on the Loose!!! #1: The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956)
Why begin this new feature on the Cinema 4 Pylon, intended to spotlight a particular monster -- famous or otherwise -- with a mere (mostly) stop-motion dinosaur? And especially when I normally I steer clear of calling a dinosaur "monster" in the first place.
Dinosaurs -- including the species somewhat represented in The Beast of Hollow Mountain as a member of the Allosaurus genus -- are catalogued scientifically. They are recognized by the immensely overwhelming majority of legitimate scientists as having once possessed life (in the natural sense) and roamed upon our planet in the past (and millions of years before man came along, not at the same time). Monsters, in the vein that I am using them here, are made up of entirely fictional creatures of some mysterious origin either supernatural or unnaturally scientific (such as laboratory or nuclear experimentation gone awry), or they may be part of the group called "cryptids", described by the Oxford Dictionary as creatures "whose existence or survival is disputed or unsubstantiated, such as the yeti." (It is my choice on my own website to determine the parameters of the term for my own purposes, and I choose to agree with the Oxford definition.) So, I am somewhat rubbing myself the wrong way intentionally by proclaiming movie dinosaurs to be "monsters" when, in fact, they were merely animals, albeit of enormous size (in many, but not all, cases).
But what else is a dinosaur somehow transplanted to modern times that runs amok among the populace but a monster? There is no way around it this time, because this particular allosaurus -- the one brought to life via filmed animation and puppetry in The Beast of Hollow Mountain -- was indeed my first true movie monster. I certainly may have had monstrous influence already in my young life at the time that I first saw this film at the age of five (Sesame Street and its assorted Jim Henson Muppet monsters had most likely not yet premiered -- the exact date of my viewing of this film is unknown -- but I did love Puff the Magic Dragon at that age), but this was the film that probably brought to life the earliest stirrings within me of one of the primary obsessions of my life. In piecing together my youth through the films that I saw, I can find no other horror or science fiction film that I saw at such a young age that stuck in my memory like The Beast from Hollow Mountain.
This 1956 film itself is pretty slight (less than 80 minutes) and really doesn't seem to have much dinosaur action in it when measured against the majority of the time that is spent in the film on the usual old west cowboy drama. That's right... The Beast of Hollow Mountain, which promises so much with just its title, starts out as just another western. About six years before I would see a late night viewing of Ray Harryhausen's The Valley of Gwangi that would blow my mind wide open (more on Gwangi later), I was introduced to the concept of "cowboys vs. dinosaurs" by an unplanned viewing of The Beast of Hollow Mountain on an afternoon matinee show on a local television station. (Unlike most movies over the years to follow, I am unable to pinpoint which station or matinee show. Those details were not important to me yet.)
At five, I was pretty much just happy knowing there was a magical box in our living room that would show me cartoons on Saturday mornings or throw up video of the occasional rocket taking off on the news. But a memory that stays locked in my head from around the same time (1969) was my family's viewing of the footage from the Apollo 11 moon landing on our (now) diminutive television screen. This is mainly because everyone in the world made such a big thing about the moon landing at the time -- it was hard to escape the constant talk -- but I am also certain that I saw it myself because, as a kid of the exact right age to be influenced by such matters, astronauts were my earliest role models (besides Batman, of course).
|Someday, I will own this again...|
But back to that first magic box I mentioned, the one that showed me cartoons and moon landings. Another memory seared into my brain is one of my mother engaged in household chores, including a bunch of ironing, while I killed the afternoon hiding under a chair, with a blanket draped over it so it created a safety fort for me. The fort was necessary, because I needed to hide under one every time things got too scary, and I definitely had need of the improvised fortress while I found myself immersed in the quick bursts of dinosaur rampage scenes in The Beast of Hollow Mountain. It's not hard to see why I would have watched the film, dinosaurs or not. I also liked cowboy shows when I was young, and my parents, not surprisingly, liked to watch a lot of westerns. Television was rife with westerns in those days, and in the eyes of my family, a western was a western was a western. If one was going to spring up on one of the three local channels at that time, it was likely that someone would turn it on at least as background noise.
I am not sure if it was because of this that The Beast of Hollow Mountain was even on our TV that day. It may have just been blind luck that allowed that movie to show up on our screen. I was definitely too young to read the TV guide in the newspaper (the actual TV Guide was not sold in Alaska in those days) or even care about such listings quite yet (that would change relatively soon). So I certainly didn't read about it or have knowledge enough to know the movie would be on that day. It is also unknown whether, knowing that there was a fearsome beast lurking somewhere within the film, my mother would have turned it on for me to watch. I was certainly not a stranger to televised dramas of any stripe, but I have no way to know how "television cowardly" I was in those days (as opposed to being cowardly in real life, which I probably was at the time).
And if she was worried about it, she needn't have. I believe that the movie permanently dug its way into my head for a reason. I recall being completely transfixed by The Beast of Hollow Mountain, ducking my head underneath the curtains created by my blanket fort to peer through the crack to watch the hero (Guy Madison) do battle with "the beast" that was tormenting a small Mexican border town. I had seen other movies by that age and loved everything that I saw, but in the pre-video era, the number of films that I got to see were far less than kids of today. There was no copy of Frozen to watch 47 times in a week and there were no DVRs to record programs instantly. You either caught whatever was shown on TV when it was aired, or you went to see new movies or re-releases in the movie theatres... or you read books. (And in the phrasing of Dana Carvey as his Grumpy Old Man character, "And we liked it... we liked it fine!")
Also unknown to me is if I watched the film from its start as a child or if I sat down in the middle of it. Since there is little in the way of actual dinosaur action until much later in the film, the promise held at the beginning of the film may have hooked me from the get-go. After some darkly dramatic music over the credits -- far more threatening than the usual western intro -- a narrator tells of a local peak named Hollow Mountain, so called for the legend that it is hollow. We are also told that the mountain's supposedly hollow interior has never been explored because of the thick jungle swamp that surrounds it.
A trio of caballeros ride into view, at the head of which rides Jimmy Ryan (played by Madison), the co-owner of a ranch who has seen a disproportionate amount of his cattle go missing in recent weeks. He thinks rustlers are the primary cause, but his sombrero-wearing ranch hands talk of the mysterious mountain and the ominous swamp surrounding it. To be sure, a cattle skull is seen on its banks, but Ryan thinks that it can't explain all of the cattle. While they search, the camera shows a set of large footprints embedded in the thick mud, but these are unremarked upon by the caballeros.
The film ambles on from this point in decidedly non-monster movie fashion for a good while. We meet Ryan's rival, Felipe Sanchez, who owns another ranch and wants to buy out Ryan to run him out of the territory. We meet Pancho, a well-meaning but generally drunken sort, and his really stubborn son, Panchito. (No, really... his stubborn streak fairly sets up the monster action in the second half of the film.) We also meet the love interest, pretty Sarita (Patricia Medina), engaged to marry Sanchez, but slowly falling in love more and more with Ryan with each meeting. We get a lengthy street fight between Ryan and Sanchez, much talk of cattle buying, more searching for missing cattle, plotting by Sanchez to rid himself of Ryan's presence, and a scene where Ryan has to rescue Pancho after the latter's horse is scared by firecrackers. Western business as usual, and not much difference from a thousand other B-grade oaters of the period.
|Just accept your death, Pancho! Why live when your child is so annoying?|
At around the 43-minute mark in the film, well past the halfway point, Pancho finds himself mucking around the swamp looking for his path, when there is a huge roar. He looks up and screams in terror at something huge off camera. He pulls his gun and fires several rounds, but to no avail. He screams again and a dark shape advances upon him until we no longer see Pancho at all, just his sombrero laying in the muck.
When Pancho doesn't return as he promised to his son, Panchito totally loses his shit. While a lesser person such as myself would just "take Panchito to the swamp" and then come back without him, Ryan is made of sterner stuff and is able to ignore the kid's incessant whining. Ryan rushes out to the swamp and finds Pancho's sombrero, and pretty much knows the score. (Well, except for the "getting eaten by a dinosaur" part...)
Well, the film goes back to the western stuff: Ryan's cattle are set to be sold and shipped away, Sanchez wants to buy Ryan out but not after the cattle are sold, Sarita and Sanchez's big wedding day arrives, and Sanchez sends his men out to stampede Ryan's cattle before they can make it to the train station. Fireworks are shot off in celebration of the wedding and the whole town is partying. It seems like a big disaster is brewing, but it is not the one that the town expects. That's right... there is more stubborn screeching on the part of little Panchito, who is obsessed with finding his papa in the swamp and wants to set out on his own to do so. This makes Sarita take to her own horse to find him. If ever there was a time for the monster to make his big entrance, this is the opportunity...
...and does he ever! Back at the swamps, where a pair of Ryan's caballeros are playing dice instead of watching over the numerous head of cattle surrounding them, we see the first non-shadowy glimpse of the creature. While this film mainly employs stop-motion animation for its creature effects, other puppetry methods are used, including the first shot of the monster's feat. The effect is not removed at all from the Godzilla style of "suit-mation" and looks rather comical when matched against the stop-motion action to come. There is much tooting of dramatic fanfare as the beast's feet march across the ground and then come to a stop in front of the caballeros, who have to this point not noticed the monster's advance. That is, until the beast lets loose with a snarl and a roar. The caballeros look up and are stunned with terror.
|I just knew he was on the Paleo Diet...|
The stampeding cattle start running in the direction of the town. Other caballeros hear the noise and do what they can to stop the stampede. The townsfolk dance in the streets, unaware of the impending doom. Panchito is caught in between, and veers off the road to head towards the swamp. The cattle sweep through the town sending the citizens scurrying for safety. Ryan is told that Sarita has gone after the annoying Panchito, and then Sanchez is told that Ryan has headed after Sarita who has headed after Panchito.
|Pop its top!! Pop its top!|
|He should really get some hydrogen peroxide on that wound...|
Ryan and Sanchez make it to a cavern opening that Freud could have written volumes about, and hide inside hoping that the dinosaur will pass them by. They are not so lucky, and after sizing up the entrance for a moment, the monster tries to use his right arm to grab one of them. His first attempt is in vain, but he readjusts and tries again. This time, Ryan uses his knife to stab the creature in the hand, and the beast recoils briefly in pain. The third time, the allosaurus gets his hand around the neck of the villainous Sanchez, who collects his just deserts by being strangled and then thrown roughly against the wall of the mountain. A posse from the town arrives just as it seems that Ryan will be caught next, and then they distract the allosaurus just enough to allow Ryan to escape.
Ryan tells the group that bullets do no harm to the beast, which is an outright lie, because we have already seen one nearly take out his eye. There have been other moments where he acts annoyed by the bullets, so they can clearly harm him. You just have to concentrate enough firepower on it at once to have real effectiveness. However, Ryan has a plan, and it is one so crazy it just might work. He decides to lead the dinosaur to the deadly swamp and trap the creature in the muck.
Ryan grabs a rope and runs into the waters of the swamp and wades across to a large tree a short distance from the short. Forming a lasso, he throws the rope upward to a high branch on the tree. Believe it or not, he actually manages to get it around the branch on the first throw (he really does it too), and then he creates a loop in the other end so that he can swing on it. With his foot in the loop, he starts to do the Tarzan routine, swinging back and forth, slowing taunting the allosaurus forward to the edge of the swamp. The dinosaur snaps menacingly at Ryan, but the cowboy manages to stay just out of the grasp of the beast. In a surprising moment, the dinosaur lashes at Ryan with his claws on one swing and tears off a piece of Ryan's shirt. At last, the dino steps ahead just a little too much and slides off the bank into the swamp. His ponderous weight does not allow him to escape, and the beast of Hollow Mountain slowly sinks in the quicksand until he disappears from view. The hero embraces Sarita, and all is well in the town again. The End.
While it does take just under an hour for the dinosaur action to really begin, the last twenty minutes seem to be non-stop action, broken up only by quick town scenes. The beast seems to be a constant menace for the remainder of the picture, and this may be exactly why it lodged itself in my memory from age five onward.
One key note about this film. The plot is based on a story written by the great Willis O'Brien, the genius animator who not only brought King Kong to life, but really jump-started stop-motion dinosaur action in cinema with several short silent films that eventually culminated in the creation of the original version of The Lost World in 1925. In 1949, O'Brien teamed up with his apprentice, Ray Harryhausen, to make Mighty Joe Young. Ray became the king of stop-motion once The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms caught fire a couple of years later, but while "Obie" (as he was known to friends) continued to work sporadically throughout the '50s during the resurgence of giant monster movies (The Giant Behemoth, The Black Scorpion), he never got the financing he needed to do another project on the level of King Kong.
The same story by O'Brien was reworked by Harryhausen in the late '60s into one of my personal obsessions, the aforementioned The Valley of Gwangi, directed by James O'Connolly. In this film, the dinosaurs vs. cowboys theme is taken to greater heights of imagination, and naturally, given Harryhausen's involvement, the animation is far more inspired and intricate.
This is not to say that I don't enjoy the animation in The Beast of Hollow Mountain. Produced by William and Edward Nassour, the latter of whom served as co-director with Ismael Rodriguez and also oversaw the visual effects work, Beast is filmed in the Nassours' patented "Regiscope" animation process. Sure, the seams show a little more than in a bigger budget film, but there is some excellent imagery in TBoHM. My favorite detail is getting to see the dinosaur run after the cowboys following the cabin attack scene, and then seeing him run once again after he picks himself up after his spill down the mountainside. Yes, the titular dinosaur is a tail-dragger -- just like many other carnivores dinosaurs of the film variety -- and thus seemingly slow through much of the picture, but then the moments where he picks up his speed really adds an extra, and quite surprising -- thrill to the action.
And for the five-year-old who watched this way back when, it was believable enough to never leave my mind. I didn't see the film until many years later, and had in fact, never really known the title when I was five. (It didn't matter then.) But those swamp sequences and the fight between the cowboy and the allosaurus (including his eventual sinking into the muck) triggered enough memories for me to be able to locate the film eventually. I had a VHS copy off of cable (I think Cinemax) for many, many years, but it never got a proper release until recently, when it was put out on Blu-ray as a double feature with a far lesser film, The Neanderthal Man. Myself, I have not purchased a copy as of yet (being out of work does that to you), but it is definitely on my wish list.
It seems only right that "my first monster" should live on in my movie collection next to all of my other influences.