‘Giant From the Unknown’ Towers over Richard E. Cunha’s ‘Six-day Wonders’
In the world of Monsters and Matinees, discovering a filmmaker or film that is new to us is good – even if the movie isn’t so great. B-movie fans know they don’t have to be great to be entertaining.
Take Richard E. Cunha, a name unfamiliar to me until I learned he was the director of a quartet of horror films made with partner Arthur A. Jacobs: Giant from the Unknown, The She Demons, Missile to the Moon and Frankenstein’s Daughter.
They were infamous for being “bad B-movies” with Ed Wood sometimes used as a reference. Then I learned the interesting backstory of the films that shows how Cunha was an accomplished director in his own way. The four films were all were made in the same year (1958), each for less than $65,000 and each in only six days (hence the moniker of the “six-day wonder”).
His best work, Giant from the Unknown, made for only $54,000, is now available in a new home video release from The Film Detective and is worth watching. It was “resurrected” from the original camera negative for a new 4K transfer and the Blu-ray copy I watched (on my non-4K equipment) looks great. Plus the film was much better than expected: It moved at decent clip so I was never bored and it has fun B-movie elements including declarations like “No human being could do that!” and the idea of reanimation. The giant of the title was better than photos made him look, a credit to Hollywood great Jack Pierce, the artist behind early Universal films like Frankenstein. (Pierce was so important to the film that his name is in the opening credits.)
Born in Hawaii, Cunha was a photographer who enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after the attack on Pearl Harbor and served as a cameraman in the newsreel unit, later making military training films. Afterward, Cunha and Jacobs made industrial films and TV commercials from their small studio called Screencraft Enterprises during the 1950s. A friend, actor Ralph Brooke, often talked to them about expanding into feature films.
When they finally agreed to try it out, it was a time when creature films were big but they knew they didn’t have the money to create great special effects. Instead, their creative instincts led them to gain inspiration for their monster from a 7’7” man they saw around Hollywood.
“The wannabe moviemakers finally decided that their ‘monster’ could be something as inexpensive as an exceptionally tall man,” historian Tom Weaver wrote in his notes for the Film Detective release. They found him in the form of 6’6” prize-fighter Buddy Baer (uncle of actor Max Baer Jr. of The Beverly Hillbillies). They didn’t know what they wanted their creature to look like and didn’t have money budgeted for prep, so they left it in the hands of Pierce who designed the makeup on Baer that first day of shooting. The result is a creature that has been scoffed at for looking like a big guy in makeup, but he’s also not someone you would want to run into at night. (He also bears creepy characteristics reminiscent of The Golem of the silent film era.)
Brooke and Frank Hart Taussig wrote the screenplay about the legend of a rogue Spanish conquistador who 500 years earlier led a small band of men to find a treasure. The original title The Diablo Giant was thought to be too confusing (a diablo is a devil) and was changed to Giant from the Unknown.
The film has much of what we enjoy about B-movies: unexplained deaths, a curse or legend, a creature and some type of scientific mumbo-jumbo explanation (here it is reanimation). A professor (Morris Ankrum) and his daughter (Sally Fraser) arrive in a small California town just as it’s being terrorized with animals and people being violently killed. They are there to research the history of the sadistic Diablo Giant and to see if there are ancient artifacts to unearth. Local geologist Wayne (Ed Kemmer), a former student of the professor, takes them to the ominously named Devil’s Crag area of the nearby mountains where there’s an ancient Indian burial ground – and a sleeping giant.
From there, it’s a cat-and-mouse game between the giant and humans that at one point involves the giant throwing rocks that look woefully small. Finally he realizes that he’s a menacing creature, darn it, and throws a person instead (played by co-screenwriter and production manager Ralph Brooke).
I was surprised by how much better this film was than I expected and I’m not alone.
Elements of Cunha’s directing are praised by horror film enthusiasts and writers even as they call out his later movies. In a commentary on The Film Detective home video release, author and horror historian Tom Weaver says that if Cunha had only made Giant from the Unknown and called it quits “this movie, and he, would have good reputations. Unfortunately for Cunha, some of the elements in his later horror pictures are laughable.”
Missile to the Moon, Weaver says, jumped the shark entirely and is outright “lousy.” She Demons has terrible makeup and is “schlock through and through.” He notes that a man clearly played the role of Frankenstein’s Daughter.
“Call me crazy, but for my money there’s not much wrong with Giant from the Unknown,” Weaver continues. “The story is basic, maybe a little too basic. ….. It’s got its share of rough edges. But be fair and keep in mind that writers, producer and director were all making a feature film for the first time on a very low budget and in a very few days and tell me they didn’t do the best possible job.”
I agree. Most everyone from Cunha on down had dual roles and did them to the best of their ability. Cunha also was cinematographer here and an editor on another film. Brooke was production manager on all four films. Most of the actors also were crew members and the few professional actors are familiar faces in B-movies including Morris Ankrum as the professor and Bob Steele as the sheriff.
And what he lacked in budget, Cunha made up for in his knack for imagery. We’re introduced to the giant by his hand eerily rising from the leaves in what we’re told Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog called “one of the most effective monster sequences of the 1950s.” Cunha added interest to a scene of the professor and Wayne walking through the forest with a metal detector by overlaying a handwritten map.
“He rarely did more than two takes – he knew what he wanted when he was shooting,” actor Gary Crutcher said in a bonus interview on the disc.
More than 60 years later, Cunha’s Giant From the Unknown may not be among the greatest of classic creature movies, but it’s entertaining and deserves to be called a “six-day wonder.”
In addition to Giant From the Unknown, here’s the infamous Cunha quartet of 1958.
The She Demons. Four shipwrecked people stumble upon a group of fanged-women who are the product of a Nazi scientist’s experiments. Starring Irish McCalla, Tod Griffin and Victor Sen Yung.
Missile to Mars. In this wild story, a scientist forces two stowaways who are escaped convicts to pilot a spaceship to the moon where dangers await. Starring Richard Travis, Cathy Downs and K.T. Stevens.
Frankenstein’s Daughter. A teenager terrorized by dreams of becoming a monster, sees her nightmares come true at the hands of Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson. Starring Sandra Knight, John Ashley and Donald Murphy.
The Film Detective’s new release of Giant From the Unknown is available on DVD and Blu-ray. There are two commentaries: one with Tom Weaver and other horror film aficionados, the other with actor Gary Crutcher who played young Charlie Brown in the film.
Crutcher also gets the spotlight in a 14-minute featurette where he shares anecdotes from the set. The Man with the Badge: Bob Steele in the 1950s looks at the character actor who played the sheriff. The Blu-ray comes with a small, but informative collector’s booklet with notes from Tom Weaver. The Film Detective also put out two limited-edition boxed set with more goodies. For more information, visit thefilmdetective.com/giant.
Where you’ve seen them
Morris Ankrum.With appearances in nearly 300 films and television shows, Ankrum is certainly a familiar face. He had a thoughtful, intelligent look about him that often led to him being cast as scientists and military leaders in sci-fi and horror B films like Rocketship X-M (1950), Invaders from Mars (1953), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Kronos (1957), Beginning of the End (1957) and The Giant Claw (1957). On television, he was a judge on the first season of Perry Mason and continued work in Westerns including The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Maverick, Rawhide and The Rifleman.
Bob Steele. Many know Steele for his comedic turn as Trooper Duffy on the TV series F Troop, but his long career is steeped in Westerns. As a youth, he starred with his twin brother, Bill, in The Adventures of Bill and Bob, a series of silent two-reelers directed by their dad, Robert North Bradbury. He continued to make what were considered B-westerns for studios like Monogram and Republic, but also starred in Of Mice and Men (as Curly), The Big Sleep and several John Wayne films like McLintock!, Rio Bravo and Rio Lobo. His lengthy TV resume includes The Texan, Maverick and Gunsmoke.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.