Richard E. Cunha's horror film legacy

'I decide what's evil!': Richard E. Cunha's horror film legacy

Although he had no particular affinity for horror or science fiction films, Richard Earl Cunha plunged wholeheartedly into the two genres when he directed a quartet of features aimed at an audience of the late 1950s that welcomed a blend of wild science and outright scares in their cinematic fare. And despite outlandish plots, low budgets and cheesy effects, these Cunha-directed movies remain as entertaining now as they did when first unreeled in the course of a single year in the latter 1950s.

Horror/sci-fi combinations of that period, when made for little money or not issued by more successful producers such as Hammer Films and American International Pictures, tended to earn sneers critically at the time of their initial release, and continue to do so at this writing. Cunha's movies get raspberries more for their subject matter or seemingly spare production value, but some of the doubters do give them credit for ideas and enjoyability. In its critique of Cunha's iconic SHE DEMONS, the Video Hound labeled it "(i)ncomprehensible, to say the least," yet it "(g)ets points for the respectful handling ..."* Find fault all you want, and it will be there as in any of the genre movies of the time, Cunha's flicks are involving and fun, with memorable moments of horror that linger in the mind long after you've first seen them.

Such notable scholars of fantastic films as Tom Weaver and Steve Kronenberg have over the years championed Cunha's productions, and viewing them again provides a more favorable view of what the director and his associates set out to accomplish. For unlike the snarky amusement one takes away from the works of Edward D. Wood Jr., the films Cunha put his name to are professional, imaginative given the limited resources and pretty mainstream despite storylines even more fantastic than any competitor production of the time. In his overview of FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER, Kronenberg notes that Cunha "must be given his due for some of the film's quirky, creepy, bargain-basement delights."**

And as Weaver told an interviewer at the time of Cunha's passing about his film legacy: "They were not popular with the critics, but down on the level of 'monster kids' -- as we sci-fi horror nuts call ourselves -- these movies have always been big favorites. They were fairly crudely made, but Cunha, for a low-budget guy, had a bit of flair for this stuff and they were actually scary in some spots."***

Cunha's background bore similarities to Ed Wood's -- World War II veteran, maker of industrial films and television commercials, experience in Los Angeles-area TV show production. For Cunha, the introduction to movie making came during his wartime service as a reconnaissance photographer for the U.S. Army Air Force. He was promoted to creating training films for the military at Hal Roach Studios prior to resuming civilian pursuits. Thus Cunha, born in Honolulu on March 4, 1922, possessed more of a mainstream standing than Wood when he and partner Arthur A. Jacobs formed a production outfit known as Screencraft Enterprises in 1957 and set out to make their first feature, GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN.

Cunha was not only director but cinematographer on GIANT (Meredith Nicholson shot all of Cunha's remaining features). GIANT proved to be a modest but effectively unnerving tale of a 1500s conquistador with an evil reputation (played by towering ex-prizefighter Buddy Baer) terrorizing a California mountain community. An electrical storm frees the murderous hulk of a man from the suspended animation that has kept him immobile for centuries, plunging a visiting archaeologist (Morris Ankrum), his daughter (Sally Fraser) and another scholar (Edward Kemmer) into a desperate campaign to stop his killing spree.

The outdoor shooting at Big Bear and nearby locations provide GIANT with some tranquil sites that markedly contrast with the horrors perpetrated by the title character, a fearsome-looking creation of Jack Pierce, the former makeup wizard of Universal Pictures who created the unforgettable images of the Frankenstein Monster, the Mummy and the Wolf Man, among others. Our first view of the giant comes when his hand, buried under a layer of earth and undergrowth, slowly moves, followed by a sudden and rather impressive shot of his face as his eyes open. He then shakes off the remaining camouflage to be seen in all his glory for one of the film's most memorable scenes. "Just by itself, that was pretty scary," Weaver recalled of Baer's makeup.@

Despite a slow buildup, GIANT's narrative maintains interest and works itself to a satisfying conclusion as hero Kemmer and the giant battle on a sawmill bridge atop a raging waterfall. The introduction of a long-anticipated (but slow in coming) snowfall into the scene helps heighten the suspense. Cunha told Weaver in a 1980s interview that the change in weather was welcome: "When we finally did get the snowstorm, it worked in great with the film; we were fortunate enough that it lasted for the sequence."@@

GIANT also benefits from sincere performances by the leads (Kemmer and Fraser were later cast in AIP's EARTH VS. THE SPIDER, 1958), Baer's seemingly unstoppable menace as the giant and a nice job by former cowboy star Bob Steele as a tough-minded sheriff who spends most of the film at odds with Kemmer's voice of reason. Steele may have been cast because Cunha had worked on a TV show the actor headlined a few years earlier, CAPTAIN BOB STEELE AND THE BORDER PATROL, but the director made effective use of Steele's edgy presence in GIANT.

Jacobs was successful in selling the film to Astor Pictures for distribution, which wanted to follow the AIP model of issuing double features. Astor wanted another movie to pair with GIANT. With that directive, Cunha and scenarist H.E. Barrie chained themselves to the typewriter to write a script for what became SHE DEMONS, a wild yet fascinating story of shipwreck victims (Irish McCalla, Tod Griffin and Victor Sen Yung), a mysterious island that happens to be populated with the titular disfigured unfortunates, and a Nazi scientist (Rudolph Anders) who's made them that way.

GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN was slightly different than the average run of monster flicks at the time, especially in its choice of monster. SHE DEMONS tapped more into then-popular culture for inspiration, which no doubt aided its popularity over the years, along with the presence of the statuesque but athletic McCalla, who had won a following as star of the SHEENA, QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE video series of 1955-1956. "A perfect example of the type of story published in men's adventure pulps of the day," the Video Hound observed of the film.@@@

SHE DEMONS has won its share of scorn, but it moves rapidly, propelling McCalla and her male cohorts from one situation to the next, especially after their capture by the World War II leftovers serving Dr. Karl Osler (Anders). Osler has not only discovered a limitless power supply -- heat from the volcanic island's lava flow -- but also looks to restore facial beauty to his wife, burned in a laboratory experiment. His theory of transferring the characteristics of the island lovelies he and his goons have kidnapped to his spouse have resulted in the deformed women imprisoned in his compound. Before Osler can experiment on McCalla, a volcanic eruption buries the scientist and his evil under lava and ash, as McCalla and friends escape to safety.

While done in a hurry -- Cunha confessed each one of his productions took a week to shoot -- SHE DEMONS offers much within its limited means, its studio-bound jungle creating a claustrophobic atmosphere in addition to a gothic look for Osler's lab and living quarters. Indeed, Anders' performance as the mad scientist is one of SHE DEMONS' delights, substituting hamminess for a relaxed glee over his misdeeds. "It is true I conducted some experiments that might be called illegal," he offhandedly remarks in a masterpiece of understatement. In fact, Osler's lengthy explanation of how he got to the island and his schemes keep a mostly static sequence fluid thanks to Anders' handling of his dialogue. Griffin is the image of manly resistance to Osler, Sen Yung is perfect as his wisecracking sidekick, and burly Gene Roth offers a few hissable moments as Osler's chief oppressor. Roth does get a laugh in when, absorbing McCalla's sarcastic remark that she "whooshed in on a dry martini," he responds: "I have heard of this dry martini. You Americans still use them?"

McCalla, who's impressive in her own right as the movie's hardy heroine, had nevertheless "written off" SHE DEMONS in the years following its release on Jan. 1, 1958. But she found to her dismay that it continued to haunt her as she encountered so many of the film's loyalists at sci-fi and fantasy gatherings over the decades since its first showings. "I'm just amazed that after all these years it has become a cult film," said McCalla, who forsook acting for a career as a painter in the early '60s.# 

Sources list SHE DEMONS as a New Year's attraction, while GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN's release date is given as March 1958, although it is likely both played as a double feature as Astor intended. It may be that the distributor, founded in 1930 and known for spotlighting low-budget product, found SHE DEMONS a bit more exploitable given the subject matter and McCalla's presence, and gave it a brief run as a single offering during a holiday period. In any event, both films gave Cunha a berth in the market for lower-cost but acceptable horror flicks.

That market remained the target as Cunha found a new partner and production company following Jacobs' departure for a new job. Screencraft Enterprises became Layton Film Productions, with Marc Frederic, who was the associate producer on SHE DEMONS, now elevated to the producer's slot. Astor was again interested in a twin bill, but for the same amount of money, and went as far as reducing the cost by giving Cunha and Frederic permission to remake one of Astor's earlier productions. And Frederic helped keep the budget in line by using his own home as a location for one of the films. FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER and MISSILE TO THE MOON were both issued on Dec. 15, 1958, the former the stronger of the pair while the latter proved watchable, like all of Cunha's features. 

FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER draws its jarringly ferocious nature from the trend toward Grand Guignol that began with Hammer's CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and carried over to AIP's I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN later in the year. FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER bears echoes of I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, but with less of that film's sideshow-like shocks, preferring to create memorable moments of horror on its own. This is established in a pre-credits sequence in which a "teenage" tart (Sally Todd), ditching her boyfriend of the moment at night on a residential street corner, confronts a monstrous-looking woman in a nightgown (Sandra Knight) and flees for her life.

From then on, FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER progresses in breathless fashion as haughty Oliver Frank (Donald Murphy), an assistant to a research chemist (Felix Locher), reveals himself as a descendant of the Frankenstein line, determined to prove his father and grandfather were correct in their failed attempts to create life. He's even assembled a body with the requisite spare parts of "accident" victims, needing only a head and a brain to top it off. Part of his experiment involves secretly using a drug on his employer's niece Trudy (Knight), which turns her into the creature glimpsed at the film's start, with makeup carrying more than a bit of inspiration from SHE DEMONS. The drug has little effect on the girl otherwise, so Oliver pushes ahead with plans to animate his do-it-yourself project. This he accomplishes by running over Trudy's trampy friend (Todd), whose head goes onto the body despite being defaced in the slaying.

Once brought to life, the creature (Harry Wilson) escapes, goes on a rampage and attracts the attention of the police and Trudy's boyfriend (John Ashley). Finding the monster's hiding place, the couple succeed in destroying it and the unstable Oliver before making plans to tie the knot. H.E. Barrie's script may sound like a bad dream, but it works thanks to Cunha's drenching a quiet suburban setting where much of the story plays out with an ominous atmosphere, effective lighting and closeups, and a gloriously hammy performance from Murphy that's just right for the proceedings; at one point he tells his grizzled helper (Wolfe Barzell), "From here on in, I decide what's evil!"

Murphy had labored on the stage, television and in such films as KILLER LEOPARD (1954), SHACK OUT ON 101 (1955) and STRANGE INTRUDER (1956) before landing his role in FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER. His distinguished looks mask Oliver's truly mad intentions until his well-deserved finish when hero Ashley, throwing a bottle of acid at the monster, misses his aim and beans Oliver, who covers his face in agony. He turns toward the camera, removes his hands from his hideously burned visage for all to see and collapses in death. Kronenberg is absolutely correct in praising Murphy's makeup job as the acid dissolves his features; the brief shot lingers in the memory longer than any of the other horrors that highlight the action.

Chicago-born Murphy, whose other notable screen role was in George Axelrod's ahead-of-its-time dark comedy LORD LOVE A DUCK (1966), left acting behind shortly afterward to become a noted interior designer and antique expert in Santa Fe, N.M., where he was raised from the age of 10. Following his death at 90 on May 19, 2008, the local newspaper attributed his popularity in the community to his "courtly manner, trenchant humor and charming wit."## 

And while the makeup for the monster in FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER disappointed Cunha, it remains a disquieting thing to behold, becoming something more than a simple Halloween mask created on a pennywise budget, and adding to the film's interesting clash of traditional gothic elements against a Homes and Gardens background. As previously mentioned, producer Frederic used his own residence to shoot exteriors involving the house where the action occurs.

Cunha told Weaver that the decision to make MISSILE TO THE MOON was Astor's, allowing Cunha and Frederic to remake the company's 3-D extravaganza CAT WOMEN ON THE MOON (1953), directed by Arthur Hilton and co-produced by Jack Rabin and Al Zimbalist. In all fairness to the former film that starred Sonny Tufts, Marie Windsor and Victor Jory, MISSILE TO THE MOON is a marked improvement over the original, and the economies in plot and characterization make it more enjoyable on its own terms. CAT WOMEN ON THE MOON suffered from an ambitious story that its strained budget couldn't support, and while MISSILE TO THE MOON has its defects, it remains more involving by focusing on the peril faced by a crew of explorers who discover an ancient and all-female civilization residing on the Moon.

The screenplay by Barrie and Vincent Fotre deviates from CAT WOMEN ON THE MOON by making the mission a product of private enterprise and introduces a pair of escaped convicts, one good (Gary Clarke) and the other bad (Tommy Cook), as reluctant members of the crew. Once they get to the Moon, the explorers discover the race of women facing extinction from dwindling oxygen and food supplies, but before they can figure out a means of helping them, they are endangered by a power-mad successor to the throne not surprisingly named Alpha (Nina Bara). While the obviously prop giant spider the Earth people encounter is disappointing as far as effects are concerned, the ambulatory rock creatures that threaten them in the exterior scenes are fearsome as they, like the GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN, emerge from a natural hiding place.

Performances again contribute much to MISSILE TO THE MOON; despite the stereotypical role, Cook is amusing as the greedy con forever on the make, while such veterans as Richard Travis, Cathy Downs, K.T. Stevens and Michael Whalen work at making their characters believable and sympathetic. Like CAT WOMEN ON THE MOON, though, Cunha's film was also afflicted with a number of beauty contest winners who played the shapely minions of the alien race.

Before parting company, Cunha and Frederic made a change-of-pace film, the not-bad murder mystery GIRL IN ROOM 13 (1960), shot in Brazil with Brian Donlevy in the lead. Before retiring, Cunha was director of photography on two TV shows, the NBC western BRANDED (1965-1966) starring Chuck Connors and the syndicated DEATH VALLEY DAYS, and was then a director and cinematographer for the commercial division of Screen Gems. He died Sept. 18, 2005, in Oceanside, Calif.

The four films Cunha directed were soon released to television before Astor closed its doors in 1963; the resultant exposure created a legion of fans among those attuned to the scares created by the sci-fi/monster film boom of the '50s. Some of these productions remain as bad as they must have been to movie audiences at the time of their release (is there anyone who can say anything good about 1957's THE GIANT CLAW?), but others in this genre carry with them that something extra that made them stand apart, such as Roger Corman's ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (1957) and Ray Kellogg's Texas-filmed THE GIANT GILA MONSTER (1959). 

The elements of good moviemaking along with some interesting ideas distinguish the four features made by Richard Cunha and have given them a luster that has so far failed to tarnish. Whether you want to be scared, as with GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN and FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER, or merely amused (SHE DEMONS), Cunha's movies deliver the goods professionally and entertainingly, and remain the better examples of skilled craftsmen doing their best on less.

* "She Demons," in Carol Schwartz, ed., THE VIDEO HOUND'S COMPLETE GUIDE TO CULT FLICKS AND TRASH PICS, Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1996, p. 240.
** "Frankenstein's Daughter," in Gary J. and Susan Svehla, eds., SON OF GUILTY PLEASURES OF THE HORROR FILM, Baltimore, Md.: Midnight Marquee Press, 1998, p. 62.
*** Quoted in Dennis McLellan, "Richard E. Cunha, 83; Director of Cult Status '50s Horror Movies," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 3, 2005, no page cited; retrieved Sept. 6, 2016.
@ Ibid.
@@ Tom Weaver, INTERVIEWS WITH B SCIENCE FICTION AND HORROR MOVIE DIRECTORS, Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2006, p. 111.
# Herb Fagen, "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and Beyond: An Interview with Irish McCalla," Filmfax, No. 66, April-May 1998, p. 78.
## "Donald Random Murphy: Obituary," Santa Fe New Mexican, no date or page cited; retrieved Sept. 9, 2016


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