Thriller Video – Elvira Hosts 1957’s The Cyclops (1985)

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I’ve mentioned before just how revelatory eBay was to me in the late-1990s. I first signed up in 1999, and already being a burgeoning video collector, it was positively jaw-dropping to see the multitudes of obscure, out-of-print, sometimes just plain weird tapes for sale that, otherwise, had long, long disappeared from store shelves. The options were virtually limitless, and it was made all the better when the other, non-VHS crap you could buy was taken into consideration. If you had the money (and being around 13/14 years old at the time, I rarely did), things that were absolutely unobtainable prior could now be yours relatively easily. As long as you were willing to pony up the bucks, anyway.

‘Course, the eBay of the past was also a bit of a no man’s land, what with buyers that may or may not actually pay (PayPal wasn’t around yet; snail-mail money orders were the common method of payment), sellers that may or may not send the item, and retaliatory negative feedback that could be thrown around if one party so much as thought the other was scrunching their nose at them. A lot of policies have been implemented since then, and though eBay seems to favor buyers over sellers more often than not, for what it’s worth I think things are better now than they were in the late-1990s. You still hear cases of people getting cheated from time to time, but at least there are more protective measures in place.

Anyway, while those days of constantly searching eBay in hopes of finding collectible VHS tapes are more or less over for me, there are still some videos that give me that old feeling. That thrill of finding something really special, something that I just wasn’t going to come across otherwise (unless I got really lucky at Goodwill, anyway).

And that brings us to today’s post: from looooong gone Thriller Video, it’s Cassandra “Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark” Peterson, hosting the 1957 Bert I. Gordon classic, The Cyclops! Cool winnins!

(Also, hilarious-but-true fun fact: look closely at the header picture above; you can see my Supe’guy shirt reflected on the front of the tape. This is a consequence of the clamshell the VHS now finds itself housed in apparently being the most reflective surface known to man. After several attempts to downplay said reflections during the picture-taking, I finally said “screw it” and let the best result speak for itself.)

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This wasn’t the only movie Elvira hosted for Thriller. Oh no, there was a long line of ’em. Of the series, The Cyclops was the only one that I really, really wanted, though. Don’t get me wrong, if I came across any of the titles at a yard sale, thrift store or what have you, I would gladly snatch them up with a fervor that would almost certainly give onlookers cause for serious concern. But, The Cyclops is the only entry in the series I ever planned on going out of my way for.

Indeed, I kept relatively regular tabs on eBay for a copy that, price-wise, wouldn’t cause me to throw my hands up in utter despair. In good shape, some of these can still go for some decent dough. So, when this particular copy popped up with a buy it now of $14.99 and free shipping, I figured it was finally time to cross the title off my list. I can live with being $15 poorer, but could I live without Elvira babbling about a big giant one-eyed thing? Luckily, I’ll never have to find that out…now.

As you can see, my copy has been cut and placed into a clamshell for rental purposes. Uncut Thriller Video boxes are pretty big beasts, which wasn’t an uncommon route to take for many companies in the earlier days of home video; the more lurid the cover art and the bigger the box, the more eye-catching the release would be on the shelves. Thriller exemplified that ideal quite well. Plus, they had the benefit of Elvira gracing their boxes. (You can see uncut examples of their tapes, including Elvira’s The Cyclops, here.)

The fact this particular copy was cut for a clamshell and subsequently thrown on the shelf of Wonder Book & Video (is this the same company?) for rental purposes, which comes with the prerequisite sunfading to the cover, probably accounts for the low-ish auction price, though I don’t necessarily see any of that as a drawback. It’s not uncommon to find these releases cut for clamshell cases, plus It saves me the hassle of clearing space for a big huge box (yeah, I’ve really got that much stuff), and more importantly, the tape plays into not only my love of horror hosts and the earlier days of home video, but also the rental store boom of the time. That’s totally worth $15 to me. Plus, more material for my silly blog is always nice.

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A few important factors are evidenced on the back of the box: 1) Lon Chaney Jr. is in the movie, which is a sight just as welcome as seeing Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi listed in the credits of anything. Doesn’t matter how good a movie is or isn’t, a flick with him in it is at least worth a cursory glance. No kidding, it’s always fun seeing Chaney in a movie (and that’s coming from a guy that has not only seen but also owns Al Adamson’s Dracula Vs. Frankenstein!).

2) I wouldn’t be surprised if Cassandra Peterson herself wrote the synopsis, because that, coupled with the required picture of Elvira, gives a pretty good impression of the character’s sense of humor and just what viewers were headed for. Indeed, for anyone unaware of Elvira prior (yeah, all four of them) that were standing around mulling over renting this or The Jewel Of The Nile yet again at the video store, they had to get a reasonably good idea of what they were potentially getting themselves in to.

3) The tape is short. Really short. The Cyclops is only 66 minutes as it is, and adding the FBI warning screen, the company logos, three Elvira segments, three trailers for other Thriller Video releases, and closing credits, the running time still doesn’t top 75 minutes total. It’s a quick one, alright. I’m okay with that.

4) Can you believe there was a time period when a used former-rental could garner $40? Now every time I pick up a tape at Goodwill for a buck, I’m going to feel bad for those that may have shelled out the mighty dollars online for a similar copy, before DVD came along and ruined everything. Aw, no I won’t (though rest assured, I was one of those people, more than once).

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The tape itself. Not a whole lot I can say about it, except I like the red (some would say BLOOD RED, HAW HAW HAW) color scheme of the label, and it has that cute lil’ “Be Kind, Please Rewind” sticker slapped on it.

And again: can you believe someone once paid $40 for this tape used? It’s been awhile since that was acceptable!

Then again, I’m the guy that paid $15 for a movie on a wildly obsolete format, so I don’t have a whole lot of room to talk, either. (Even less so when you consider the sheer amount of money I’ve wasted spent on used blank tapes!)

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I think most everyone knows Elvira, “Mistress Of The Dark.” On a national scale, she is almost certainly the most well-known horror host there is. Indeed, Elvira’s visibility went faaaar beyond the horror movies source, eventually branching out into beer commercials and even her very own movie. By a certain point, it was easy to forget that she actually had her own show and hosted movies, because Elvira was everywhere. People couldn’t get enough of the whole Gothic valley girl shtick. Hey, it was, and is, funny!

Elvira hosted horror & sci-fi movies, via her program Movie Macabre, for a number of years, and such was the popularity of the concept that there were a lot of home video releases with her doing the exact same thing (something that continues to this day with DVD). While Thriller’s series of tapes are far from being the only ones out there, they were the first ones to bring Elvira to home video. That in and of itself makes the Thriller series interesting, and even more so when you consider there were actual licensed movies in the line-up, as opposed to the public domain offerings of so many of the later videos.

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There were a few reasons that I wanted Thriller’s The Cyclops over the other titles in the series. First and foremost, I just really, really like the movie in general, and this is apparently one of the few (only?) legitimate VHS releases, though it is out on DVD now.

Also, the vast majority of the movies featured in the Thriller Elvira series were either in actuality Hammer House Of Horror entries, or made-for-TV flicks (1973’s Dracula starring Jack Palance, for example). There were a few theatrical films presented, but the only one really up my alley (and, I believe, the only one from the 1950s) was, say it with me, The Cyclops. The fact that I’m actually, genuinely fond of the movie just makes it all the better.

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And, it’s a Bert I. Gordon film! Even more up my alley! So much of the mental “giant __________”  image that people picture when thinking of American sci-fi films from the 50s can be traced back to Gordon’s films. His initials are “B.I.G.” and boy do his movies live up to them! Giant bugs, dinosaurs, people, Gordon specialized in ’em all. Sure, the effects were on the, erm, cheap side, but as far as I’m concerned, that only adds to the fun. Want a good 1950s sci-fi movie for your Halloween party this year? Bert isn’t a bad choice.

I’m pretty fond of most of Gordon’s films, but truth be told, The Cyclops just may be my favorite of the bunch (and yes, I felt that way before I owned this tape). You don’t hear about it as often as you do The Amazing Colossal Man, Earth Vs. The Spider or The Magic Sword, but I feel it ranks among his best work.

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Being such a short movie, things naturally move at a pretty decent pace, which is perfectly fine with me. I love 50s sci-fi, but a slow-moving, talky picture can try even my patience.

(Beware: some spoilers ahead!)

In The Cyclops, things kick off with an expedition led by one Susan Winter (played by Gloria Talbott) heading into a Mexican valley, where Winter’s fiance Bruce disappeared in a plane crash three years prior. Susan doesn’t believe he’s dead, and so she, a scientist acquaintance, a pilot, and a habitual complainer miner (played by your hero and mine, Lon Chaney Jr.) all head off in search of Bruce. That’s them up above, if you don’t believe me.

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As with 85% of all movies made in the 1950s (statistic fact, look it up), there’s radiation involved. In this case, once in the valley, Chaney’s character “Marty” quickly discovers the land is saturated with uranium. That’s him doing so above if you don’t believe me. From that point forward, he will not stop whining about getting back to civilization to stake a claim in the land. Look, I’m a Chaney fan, but even I have to admit his character gets real irritating, real fast in this one.

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As with 98% of the 85% of all 1950s movies with radiation involved, said substance has turned regular sized creatures into, as you would say, “big’uns.” A few prior “did I see that?” instances are confirmed when a big ol’ hawk is seen swooping down on a mouse (these are real animals, and it’s a little surprising that they included such an “in yo face” shot of the hawk tearing, literally, into the rodent).

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More big fellas. A giant spider is encountered, and just as quickly forgotten when a supersized lizard makes its way into the picture. And then another lizard shows up, which naturally provides for a wrasslin’ match between the two.

Gordon achieved special effects such as these through the magic of rear-projection. While as still pictures things don’t look so bad, in practice they were, shall we say, often less than convincing. Anyone that has seen the giant grasshoppers in his Beginning Of The End knows how this all plays out.

But, while the effects aren’t exactly critically-acclaimed, they do add a terrific 1950s charm to the proceedings. And besides, I’ll take Bert I. Gordon’s rear-projected creatures over whatever brain dead crap Michael Bay throws at the screen any day.

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Big lizards and whatnot are all fine and dandy, but everyone is here for the big guy himself, and man does he know how to make an entrance! One of the more talked-about moments in The Cyclops comes when the titular character is first introduced on-screen. In the scene, the main characters are in a cave, when something pushes a huge boulder in front of the entrance. Then, without warning, up from behind the rock pops the Cyclops!

It’s a moment that online recollections often describe as pretty shocking back in the day, and while I’m guessing people today are far too jaded to ever actually be scared by it now, as far as I’m concerned it’s still most certainly a surprising and downright cool introduction to the one-eyed menace.

And what a look the Cyclops has! He’s (according to the scientist) about 25 feet tall, with one side of his face deformed, and one eye (DUH!) peaking out of the other. He’s actually reminiscent of the title character in Gordon’s later War Of The Colossal Beast, (or rather, is War Of The Colossal Beast reminiscent of The Cyclops?) which is fitting, since Duncan Parkin played both.

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More low-budget-but-fun special effects: Marty meets his maker via the hand of the Cyclops. ‘Course, since a giant hand is being superimposed over Chaney’s character, there isn’t any realistic contact made between the two; the hand just kind of flutters around while Chaney screams and falls over dead. It doesn’t look at all like he’s being or been squished, but anything that shuts the Marty character up is fine by me. The Cyclops is just a victim of circumstance, but Marty was willfully a jerk. So who’s the real villain here, hmmm?

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Oh this is great. At one point, the Cyclops grabs Susan, and to achieve the impression that she’s being pulled out of the cave, rather than the hand grabbing her and pulling her out (which would’ve been impossible or at least incredibly difficult in this scenario), instead the entire image moves to simulate the giant retrieving her. It doesn’t get much cheaper than that, and thus I love it so very, very much.

Again, Michael Bay can keep his mindless CGI, I have infinitely more respect for a special effect that doesn’t look realistic in the slightest but has some actual heart behind it. You can tell Bert I. Gordon had a genuine love for his work, and that’s of tantamount importance. To me, that overrules how realistic or unrealistic a special effect is.

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Of course the Cyclops has to fight something besides Lon Chaney Jr. at some point in the film, and that promise is fulfilled in a giant boa constrictor. It’s a real snake, so naturally it’s just a regular-sized example of the species (which, granted, is still pretty humongous). Apparently it was a well-trained snake, because while it wraps itself around the giant, it doesn’t appear aggressive in the least. Rather, it looks like the Cyclops is forcibly holding onto the thing while thrashing about (which, of course, is exactly what Parkin was doing; if you’re going to use a real boa to stage a fight, I guess there’s not a whole lot else you could do, not without getting the thing really mad at you, anyway).

By the way, it’s revealed that missing fiance Bruce is actually the Cyclops, having been mutated by the radiation in the three years since crashing. Just thought I should mention that somewhere.

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Perhaps the most well-known moment in The Cyclops comes during the climax: as the creature attacks, a makeshift spear is grabbed, some brush tied around it, lit on fire, and then thrown directly into his eye! Yikes! Okay, sure, we know it’s a fake eye, obviously, and the quick edit between the spear being thrown and actually making contact with the eye is beyond cheesy, but boy, it still manages to look painful, and even a little disturbing. This was an eyebrow-raising moment for me the first time I saw it, and trust me, that’s not a feeling I was expecting to have when I first sat down to watch the movie!

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Even more disturbing is the Cyclops himself pulling the spear out of his eye, and then helplessly crying as blood streaks down his face. It’s to the everlasting credit of Gordon and/or Parkin (and/or Paul Frees, who provided the wordless noises/grunts/etc. the giant constantly makes) that you actually do feel bad for the Cyclops here.

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And so, the remaining three members of the expedition make there way to the plane and take off, leaving the radioactive valley as the Cyclops lies on the ground, blinded and presumably dead.

A happy ending? Well, yes and no. Sure, the heroes (Marty not included) make it out alive, but when you really think about it, The Cyclops wasn’t really evil. Rather, he was just a mostly-mindless, mutated beast, and it was thanks to a factor (the radioactive valley) that was beyond his control. And, he does at points show some ability to vaguely recall Susan and what he was before the radiation did what it did to him. It’s actually kind of a sad outcome for him when you think about it, even if there wasn’t much anyone could do for the former-Bruce by that point.

You know, I’m probably putting too much thought into what was supposed to be a nice, simple 1950s drive-in movie, one probably intended to be little more than background noise to the noisily necking teenagers of the time.

Believe it or not, to me The Cyclops does recall, or at least seem to mimic, the more-famous Universal sci-fi films of the same period. Of course, it’s much lower-budgeted, and quite a bit shorter, but there’s something about the cinematography and plotting and even the music used that brings to mind the Universal films of the time. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. Either way, it’s a movie I genuinely enjoy. And it’s made all the better when it’s horror hosted.

Speaking of which…

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Having never seen an Elvira Thriller presentation prior, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Was it simply going to be an episode of Movie Macabre thrown on tape, or would it be specifically shot footage? The opening image of the Thriller Video logo as part of the actual set answered that question, as did Elvira herself mentioning this was another Thriller presentation. Elvira stuff exclusive to this line; I dig it!

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Much of Elvira’s act revolved around double-entendres and the like, usually in regards to her, erm, ‘appearance.’ There was an edge to her humor in general though, and the introduction to the movie is ample (doh!) proof of that. Her description of the Cyclops is a riot: “Everything about this dude is giant-sized! He’s got a big head, big arms, big legs, and the biggest…feet I have ever seen!” Funny stuff!

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Again, because I had never seen one of these tapes before, I wasn’t sure if Elvira would just provide simple bookends to the movie, or if an actual episode of the series would be imitated. I was pleasantly surprised to see that while the movie itself is (I guess) uncut, there is a short break at, roughly, the halfway point for Elvira to come back and remind everyone that she’s hosting this movie. In the bit, she has a few toys and is mockingly reenacting the movie before noticing she’s back on the air, nervously remarking “Oh..hi! I was just, um, playing with myself!” while tossing the toys away.

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Her outro declares that while the movie wasn’t the greatest, it was “Sure better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick! Oh, sorry, Bruce…” Ha! She also wonders if Mr. T was the dialogue coach for the Cyclops (he grunts a lot during the movie), and posits that Lon Chaney’s character could provide the basis for a sequel (I sure hope not!).

More interestingly, while I was half-expecting some trailers for other Thriller titles at the end of the movie, as was the M.O. of many video companies at the time, I was surprised to see them actually incorporated into Elvira’s outro segment. Full, ostensibly Thriller-produced trailers for Dracula, The Picture Of Dorian Gray, and Charlie Boy (all three part of Elvira’s series for the label) appear during this closing segment, before Elvira concludes matters with a declaration of “Unpleasantos dreamos!” Get it? Her ending phrase was always “Unpleasant dreams!” and the movie has the Mexican theme, and, and…aw never mind.

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See, 1985. Did you think I was lying? I wasn’t. I love the obviously computer-generated titles of the closing credits; they’re such a fantastic reminder of the medium and the time this was produced in.

As the copyright indicates, Thriller was part of the International Video Entertainment company. There were videos put out simply under the I.V.E. banner, but methinks Elvira works so much better with a label called “Thriller.”

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Elvira still has a home video presence via DVDs, but as far as I know, none of movies found in this Thriller series have been re-released outside of these 1985 tapes. Certainly the Elvira segments themselves haven’t appeared since, having been tailored specifically to Thriller Video (at least they were for The Cyclops).

That being the case, Elvira’s Thriller Video presentation of 1957’s The Cyclops proves why there is still some worth to VHS (and Beta): many movies/shows/etc. on video have since been re-released on DVD (thus naturally killing the value of the older tape releases), BUT there’s still many, many titles that have not been given the digital treatment. And, it’s for the reason that the old video format shouldn’t be totally abandoned in this day and age.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt when a videotape-exclusive title is ridiculously entertaining in every way. Elvira hosting The Cyclops via the long-gone Thriller Video certainly fits that description. I may not add new old pre-recorded VHS tapes to my collection as much as I used to, but when I do, it’s because they’re most definitely cool, and rest assured, this one certainly is just that!

(Happy surprisins: despite being 30 years old and a former-rental tape that was run through who-knows-how-many VCRs over the years, the quality of my copy was still really pretty good. See, these old VHS tapes are more resilient than they’re often given credit for!)

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