By Steve Kronenberg
The laserdisc box set pictured at right doesn't really exist---but it should. It depicts the four horror-science fiction films of Writer-Director Richard E Cunha, who in 1957-1958 made a lasting contribution to low-budget genre filmmaking with Giant from the Unknown , She Demons, Missile to the Moon, and the unforgettable Frankenstein's Daughter.
In an age in which Ed Wood's films are both studied and mocked, it's fitting to revisit Cunha's oeuvre. Like Wood, Cunha filmed on shoestring budgets, cranking out drive-in double bills, using cheap sets and even cheaper performers. Cunha also shared Wood's affinity for speed-of-light shooting schedules and slapdash scripts. And, like Wood's work, Cunha's catalog has been scorned and ridiculed. But unlike Wood, Cunha made some pretense toward craft: his movies mixed cheapjack production values with linear plot lines, dramatic musical flourishes, and efforts at offbeat photography and camera angles. Only two of Wood's works are real horror films (Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space), while all four of Cunha's films are genuine genre gems. And instead of Tor Johnson wearing contact lenses, Cunha's films feature real monsters with real monster makeup. In addition, Wood's films are characterized by his essential innocence and obsession with sociopolitical themes such as juvenile delinquency, skepticism over UFOs, and the dangers of unbridled science. Cunha's work, on the other hand, is tinged with an edgy nastiness and political incorrectness. And his villains, most of all, reflect that tension---oily, lurid lunatics reminiscent of Poverty Row's mad doctors or a half-dozen other pulp fiction villains.
I have always felt that Wood's allure had less to do with his films (as interesting as they are) and more to do with his cross-dressing and friendship with Bela Lugosi. By contrast, Cunha apparently was not a colorful personality. But there's a sensibility and style to his films that supersede Wood's work---and make Cunha worthy of study.
Unlike Wood, there has been precious little written about Cunha's life or films. The best Cunha reference to this day is a superb FANGORIA interview conducted by Tom Weaver. I was fortunate to view a videotaped portion of that interview, which took place both at the video store Cunha owned and at his home. Cunha was born in Honolulu and, like Wood, developed an interest in photography and the arts. He attended Los Angeles' Arts Center School with aspirations of being a newsreel cameraman. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cunha joined the Air Force's photographic division and quickly transferred to its motion picture division, making newsreels and documentaries. When World War II ended, he began making industrial films and pioneering television commercials, including some of the first TV ads in Los Angeles. Later, he photographed episodes for Death Valley Days and Branded. In the late fifties, Cunha formed a partnership with Arthur A. Jacobs, with whom Cunha had worked on the famous Lone Ranger TV series. Jacobs and Cunha bought a small film studio, Screencraft, and had the notion to make a monster movie. From that notion came Cunha's first film, Giant from the Unknown---which remains Cunha's favorite among his films.
According to their interview with Tom Weaver, Cunha and Jacobs couldn't afford a standard fifties monster. Instead, they built Giant around the resurrection of a five-hundred-year-old "Giant" Conquistador Warrior who awakens with a vicious attitude and proceeds to terrorize a small northern California town. The "Giant" is played by six foot, six inch ex-prizefighter Buddy Baer, who had also played the "Giant" in Abbott and Costello's silly 1952 adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk. Cunha enlisted an impressive array of "B" genre vets to support Baer: Ed Kemmer (the heroic high school teacher from Bert I. Gordon's 1958 Earth vs. The Spider and TV's Space Patrol), Morris Ankrum, the erstwhile military commander of such fifties classics as Invaders from Mars (1953) and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), and Bob Steele, a Poverty Row cowboy star who also played Curly in 1939's Of Mice and Men. Ankrum's Professor Cleveland is an archaeologist in search of Baer's "Diablo Giant," and he enlists Kemmer to aid him.
Giant, like all Cunha films, will never be mistaken for glossy Hollywood product. But the film works because of Cunha's homage to the classics. In his interview with Weaver, Cunha denied any affinity for the horror genre. But in Giant, the influence of the classics is unmistakable. We are introduced to Baer's Giant in a cracklingly creepy scene in which the creature's trembling hand rises from some underbrush, á la Bela Lugosi ascending from his coffin. Meredith Nicholson's camera then gives us a medium shot of Baer's wide, soulless eyes, as the entire body arises from the ground. In homage to Frankenstein, Kemmer and Ankrum theorize that Baer's Giant was resurrected from a five-hundred-year coma by a bolt of lightning! The film's final scene also matches the conclusion to Frankenstein with the town's villagers stalking the creature with flares (instead of torches), and scenes of Baer standing on a hill, smashing several townsfolk with large boulders. In addition, Cunha also photographed the film, and his camerawork conveys a sense of isolation and loneliness reminiscent of Karl Freund's and Arthur Edeson's work in the 1930s. The film's final scene, a battle between Kemmer and Baer, takes place during an actual snowstorm that silently and eerily conveys a sense of seclusion and solitude reminiscent of Dracula's Borgo Pass or Frankenstein's village of Goldstadt.
But Cunha's most touching tribute to the classics was his employment of Jack Pierce to design Baer's makeup. Cunha gives Pierce star billing in the film's opening titles---respect that the makeup master never got from Universal. Never mind that Pierce's makeup for Baer is really nothing special---what's important is the fact that Pierce worked on the film and that Cunha gave him ample credit, recognizing Pierce's importance to genre history.
Aside from Baer, who simply lumbers around the film in conquistador armor, Cunha draws good performances from his actors. Kemmer, an underrated "B" stalwart, is natural and believable as Wayne Brooks, the film's leading man, especially in his confrontations with Bob Steele's suspicious Sheriff Parker. In addition to his role in Space Patrol and Gordon's Earth vs. The Spider, Kemmer can be seen as the flight engineer in the Twilight Zone classic "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." Ankrum, who was always reliably stoic in his authoritative science fiction roles, is equally credible as the scientist obsessed with discovering Baer's "Diablo Giant." When Ankrum initially believes the giant doesn't really exist, his disappointment is evocatively conveyed with sad eyes and down-turned mouth. Bob Steele is appropriately flinty as the stereotypical small town sheriff, mouthing stale lines such as "One false move and I'll blow your head off" or "I don't like the look o' this." Still, Steele's grizzled countenance perfectly fits the film's rural scenario. Perky Sally Fraser, who plays Ankrum's insufferably cheery daughter, strikes the only false acting note. Fraser, unable to genuinely emote, looks as if she is reading every line from a cue card.