Directed by Charles Marquis Warren
Produced by Robert Stabler
Written by Kenneth Higgins
Music by Raoul Kraushaar
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Film Editor: Michael Luciano
Cast: John Howard (Dan Matthews), Mala Powers (Gina Matthews), Paul Richards (Peter Morgan), May Wynn (Concha Ramsey), Gerald Milton (Dr. Ramsey), Charles H. Gray (Jim Wheatley) Gerald Gilden (Raoul Koom)
By the mid-50s, CinemaScope had done what it was supposed to do — help bring back the audiences lost to television. With TV still black and white and mono, 20th Century-Fox decreed that all their CinemaScope pictures would be in color. B producer Robert Lippert approached Fox with the idea of having his Regal Films, Inc. produce a series of second features for the studio — two black and white CinemaScope pictures a month. Lippert wanted to combine the economy of B&W with the draw of CinemaScope. To get around Fox’s no-color, no-‘Scope policy, and to work around Fox’s fear that these low-budget films would damage the prestige of their CinemaScope process, a new name was cooked up: RegalScope.
RegalScope is black and white CinemaScope, nothing more. Lippert made around 50 RegalScope features between 1956 and 1959 — all of them cheap, many of them Westerns or horror movies.
I absolutely love the RegalScope pictures. But it’s almost impossible to watch them today, since most of what we see, when we can find them at all, are terrible pan-and-scan (or just the middle of the wide image, no panning or scanning) transfers often taken from battered 16mm TV prints. No movie should be seen that way.
The other day, I received a fairly watchable copy of The Unknown Terror (1957), taken from an adapted ‘Scope print. “Adapted ‘Scope” is what we later called letterboxed. These prints don’t give you the entire 2.35 image, but they’re certainly an improvement over the 1.33 versions.
The Unknown Terror follows the typical RegalScope business model. It runs 77 minutes, with minimal sets, a small cast (with character actors getting rare lead roles), long takes and more dialogue than action. When these movies work, it’s usually because someone cleverly wrote around these constraints to tell a solid story — the Western The Quiet Gun (1956) is a terrific example.
In The Unknown Terror, three American explorers (John Howard, Mala Powers and Paul Richards) travel to the Caribbean in search of a friend who went down there to find the Cave Of The Dead — and never came back. This leads them to an American scientist (Gerald Milton) doing fungus research, a gaggle of fungus-infested mutants and lots of fake rocks (AKA the Cave Of The Dead). Eventually, the fast-growing fungus goes completely nuts and covers up pretty much everything — which means the last few minutes feature lots of shots of something like soap suds running down the fake rocks, all set to loud gurgling noises. I loved it.
Mala Powers and Paul Richards discover the secret of the fungus and the Cave Of The Dead — and set out to put an end to the whole icky, gooey, deadly mess. They’re terrific at carrying this nonsense through to its conclusion, playing it all completely straight, something 50s character actors became quite adept at. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but who said that was a requirement for a movie like this?
Cinematographer Joseph Biroc handled the B&W ‘Scope, filling the wide frame and doing a good job of concealing how set-bound it is — and how tiny those sets are. I’m sure the last reel was a real drag to shoot, with gallons upon gallons of the “fungus” being poured on everything and everyone — and probably smelling terrible in the heat of Biroc’s lights.
Charles Marquis Warren directed, not long after leaving Gunsmoke. He made another RegalScope horror picture, Back From The Dead starring Peggie Castle that went out with The Unknown Terror as a double bill. Warren did a few RegalScope Westerns, too. Copper Sky (1957) is quite good.
Olive Films released a handful of RegalScope films on DVD and Blu-Ray a few years ago — and they look terrific. The Unknown Terror was not one of them, which is a shame. I’m sure there are plenty of classic horror fans who’d find this one a lot of fun.