Monday, April 1, 2019

“Hit It With a Sledgehammer and It Won’t Perform” - The Cremators (1972)

Writer/director Harry Essex wrote two acknowledged classics of the underwater monster genre, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Octaman (1971). One year after Octaman, he would co-write and direct another classic, the less well-known The Cremators (1972), a film that deserves mention along with the other Harry Essex classics.

Not all your universe's critics agree, unfortunately...for them. Reviewer BA_Harrison writes, "Essex's direction is lifeless, Howard makes for a bland protagonist, and the film's visual effects are far from special." Reviewer azathothpwiggins writes, "Absurd and terminally dull, this movie is only for those few, brave souls able to withstand a severe brain hammering!" And reviewer leofwine_draca writes, "The special effects are awkward and unsatisfying, and not even cheesy enough to be amusing, while the constant focus on little rocks is laughable. Needless to say that the performances from the no-name cast members are wooden in the extreme."

Read on for a more balanced view of the tense and horrific The Cremators...

The film begins with shots of the cosmos and a mysterious voiceover: “There were only two who saw the meteor fall into the lake long ago. One was an Indian brave hunting for food. He saw the fire streak arc down over the water, and was afraid. Because it was an omen of ill favor when the stars left the heavens and drowned themselves in the water.”

We see, rather shockingly, the Indian running along a dirt road, chased by a massive yellow fireball.

Eventually, the fireball catches him and turns him into ash.

The narrator continues: “The other witness was a fish, who snapped greedily at the meteors that fell.” The fish is a hammerhead shark. “The fish swam away and presently he died. That was 300 years ago.”

The film cuts to the modern world of 1972, where a young man runs along the beach, tossing a stick into the air and frolicking. From somewhere, he grabs a black cat and tosses it into the air, much to the chagrin of the cat.

The narrator continues bloviating about nature. Confoundingly, he says, “The word ecology became a warning note as it left dead, lifeless things in its wake.”

We are introduced to a man named Iane (pronounced “Ian”) Thorne, who observes the shoreline of a lake in an effort to somehow protect the environment. He finds a blue and yellow rock in a tide pool that he calls a “rock crystal.”

Later, Iane drives into town to mail a package—which appears to contain a tin can holding two of the “rock crystals”—from California to Ann Arbour, Michigan. When the postman drives the mail to another town, the rocks start glowing inside the package, somehow calling the giant fireball, which rolls over the car and the postman, cremating both. The dust blows away in the wind. Fortunately, however, the postman’s dog Millie escapes.

Somehow, the mail was just singed. The sheriff and the town doctor give Iane’s package back to him, and he goes back to sitting by the edge of the lake investigating the ecology.

Later, Iane meets Jeannie, someone he knew in school. “You sure have grown up,” Iane says.

“It must get lonely out here,” she replies, referring to the fact that he lives alone inside a lighthouse.

“With all my insects to keep me company,” he replies, “it’s busier than Main Street in Muskegon.” (Muskegon, Michigan, an important part of Buster Keaton’s early life, must be a busier place in your universe than in mine.) He gives Jeannie one of the dangerous rocks, while still planning to mail the other one to a scientist in Ann Arbour.

The opening of the film then intersects with the main story, as the hippie who tossed the cat in the air on the beach brings the injured cat to the lighthouse so Iane can help it. Tragically, however, the cat doesn’t survive, though Iane (an entomologist) continues to dig odd lumps of rock out of its body.

Later, Iane finds Millie the dog outside his lighthouse, apparently injured. Knowing only one way to interact with animals, Iane cuts Millie open with a scalpel and removes more strange rocks from the poor dog.

“They burned through her stomach,” Iane says over the short-wave radio to warn Jeannie to stay away from the glowing rock he just gave her.

Iane and Jeannie spend the night on a boat. “You see me like I’m some kind of bug, right?” Jeannie says.

“Ladybug,” Iane responds creepily. “Ladybug, fly away home.”

Instead of taking his inadvertent advice and leaving like a sane person would, Jeannie asks, “How come you’re so into bugs?”

“It’s what I want,” Iane responds even more creepily.

They talk about lost loves, prompted by nothing. She says, “I’m sometimes getting up at night to stare into darkness. And you curse at the pillowcase that’s wet. And you beat it out.” (I must confess I’m not sure to what that last sentence is referring.)

After such romantic talk, Iane and Jeannie make love.

Then Iane drives her somewhere, possibly to her uncle’s place, in his pickup truck. They see a light. “It looked like it was out there sitting on the windshield,” she says.

“Heat lightning, maybe,” he says. He gets out of the truck. Neither mentions the blazing fire burning a few feet in front of the pickup.

Nearby, a man walks along the highway in the middle of the night singing a folk song. He strikes a match on one of the magic glowing rocks, and suddenly a fireball rolls toward him, incinerating him.

Iane discovers the unfortunate incident with the aid of his Fisher Price flashlight.

He picks up the mysterious rock, using a handkerchief for safety, and puts it in his pocket.

The next day, Iane performs a scientific experiment. He drives the new rock out to the ashes of the man who was killed last night and hits the rock with a large spoon. It disappears and he stumbles backward, apparently unharmed except for a slight invisible burn on his wrist. Then the rock appears again and starts glowing.

After the sheriff and the medical examiner investigate the ashes in the wilderness and conclude the man was struck by lightning, the scientist from Ann Arbour, Willy, visits Iane and Jeannie at the lighthouse. “Observe my findings,” says the senior scientist. He adds, “It gives off long infrared, mostly stacked up around 200,000 angstroms. But its energy is way out of proportion to what you’d expect of the equation. Also, it’s an individualist. Sometimes, a slight nudge will set it off like a rocket. And then again, you can hit it with a sledgehammer, and it won’t perform at all...even sulks.”

Later, Willy says like a true scientist, “Iane, I’m a physicist, and you’re a biologist, but we both deal in scientific things. No two are the same.” He adds, “Well, let’s hit the sack. I’m beat.”

At night, the two scientists in their hip pajamas discover that two of the stones burned their way through the drawer in which they were kept and somehow strolled out of the lighthouse.

The next day, they tell the sheriff about their discovery. He is initially skeptical, but considers the possibility. “Why would it kill?” he asks.

Iane responds, “How do we even know it’s the same intelligence as ours? It may be as indifferent to us as we are, say, to insects.” He adds, somewhat confusingly, “And there are things growing on at least one planet in outer space.” He does not mention which planet, but the filmmakers cut to a nebula in space.

Then the sheriff summarizes the theme of the film: “Fact is, we’re indifferent to each other right here on earth.”

Without any justification, after the rocks are caught and put into a jar, Iane says, “The reactions of this creature would seem to be those of a mother for her children.”

In a suspenseful sequence, Jeannie pilots a boat at night as the fireball emerges from underwater. It chases her boat and she screams.

She contacts Iane via radio, and he reasons that the fireball is chasing one of the glowing rocks, which was stored in a box in the boat. Iane tells Jeannie to throw the rock overboard, which she does at the last moment, though she is hospitalized in a hospital that resembles a studio apartment.

With the help of the hippie who gave Ian his dead cat, Iane discovers that whoever touches the rocks has glowing residue on their hands, which allows the fireball to find them.

Willy then implements a plan to get rid of the alien rocks and their mother the fireball. He pilots the boat into the lake in the middle of the night with the rocks and a shotgun. When the fireball appears, he shoots it, but shockingly there is no effect. The fireball incinerates Willy.

Despite Willy’s gruesome death, Iane decides to finish what Willy started. He uses a jar of rocks and his Fisher Price flashlight to attract the mama fireball. The process requires at least ten minutes of walking around the lake until he puts them in a circle in the dirt—and one of them starts to crawl away!

Iane wires a bomb near the rocks, and finally the fireball appears, unaware that both Jeannie and a posse of townspeople are wandering around the lake.

In the end, Iane trips and falls on his face, but he detonates the bomb just in time to destroy the fireball and its rock babies.

The sheriff intones another nugget of deep philosophy: “Too bad we couldn’t learn more from it than the destroying of things.”

After everyone leaves, however, the rocks continue glowing and beeping.

The End

Like Gorgo (1961) and the Start Trek episode The Devil in the Dark, The Cremators is a heartwarming story about a monster protecting (or possibly eating) its helpless offspring. Harry Essex worked from a 1950 story by Julian C. May called "The Dune Roller," which has been called a science fiction classic, about a legendary sphere living in caves under Lake Michigan. The story was also adapted for a TV anthology called Tales of Tomorrow in 1952. In the hands of Harry Essex, it becomes a true classic, what with the added details of the hippie tossing the cat in the air and Iane's cutting open the dog, not to mention the spelling of Iane's name and his use of a giant Fisher Price flashlight. The special effect of the alien sphere rolling around the hills is quite effective, but the image of the creature chasing Jeannie's boat, rolling along the top of the lake, is magical. Mr. Essex is to be commended for using in-camera effects for these shots, which are truly suspenseful. I will leave you with the haunting final words of the film, as they summarize its message more effectively than I ever could: "Too bad we couldn't learn more from it than the destroying of things." Words to live by...