The Beast with a Million Eyes/The Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes (1955) *½
Before American International Pictures, there was the American Releasing Corporation. This early incarnation of the Arkoff-and-Nicholson B-movie juggernaut, which after some five years and a name-change would rise up to tower colossus-like over the cheap-jack netherworld of Hollywood exploitation, began with an unambitious three-picture deal between those two indomitable hucksters and a then-obscure producer by the name of Roger Corman. Corman had made a tiny splash by turning a proportionally gigantic profit on The Monster from the Ocean Floor, which he had put together on an impossibly low budget of $12,000. Corman had also just put the finishing touches on a slightly less modest, $50,000 car-racing movie called The Fast and the Furious, but hadn’t yet managed to sell the completed film. Arkoff and Nicholson picked up The Fast and the Furious, and agreed to back Roger on two more movies, both to be action-oriented, and at least one to be shot in color. The first of these grew into Five Guns West, which on $60,000 might almost be described as having cost money. There thus wasn’t a whole lot left of Corman’s earnings on his previous films with which to finance the last of his initial batch of movies for the new company. (His deal with ARC specified that Corman would be reimbursed after coming up with the initial financing himself.) And so it is scarcely a shock to see that The Beast with a Million Eyes is one of the tackiest, trashiest monster movies ever to be made in Hollywood by somebody other than Ed Wood Jr. But unfortunately, it somehow fails to be tacky or trashy enough to be fun.
We begin with our old friend, the Deadly Voiceover. This time around, he’s pretending to be the voice of a diabolical alien from a faraway planet, who has come to Earth because He Wants Our World. His spaceship is already on its way, he tells us, and when it gets here, he will enter the minds of all Earth’s animal life, turning “the birds of the air” and “the beasts of the woodlands” against us. Then he will exert his pull on the more feebleminded of our fellow humans. These creatures will be his eyes and ears, and we shall come to know him as................ The Beast with a Million Eyes!!!! There is a subtext beneath all this hyperbole, which can be read by those who are in the know. It says: “I am some guy who was hanging around the studio the day this turkey entered post-production. Hearken unto my words as I tell you everything important that’s going to happen for the next 78 minutes, so that any possibility of suspense is destroyed before the movie even starts. Look upon the film clips that play beneath me, for in them you are seeing every second of remotely exciting footage this flick has to offer. Cower before me, for this movie is going to suck like nothing else you’ve ever seen!” And although The Beast with a Million Eyes never gets quite as bad as this ominous intro would imply— it’s helped out considerably by a far more exciting stock-music score than it deserves, and it’s always fascinating to watch the ways in which its creators scrambled to imply action that they lacked the funds to show explicitly— it comes pretty damn close at times.
After some really snazzy opening credits that prefigure those that would become Corman’s calling-card at AIP during the 60’s, the voice-over duties shift to California date rancher Alan Kelley (Paul Birch, from Not of this Earth and The Day the World Ended), who at least has the decency to appear on the screen as he narrates. Life, apparently, is hard out on the ranch. Kelley has lost money three years in a row, his marriage is falling apart, and his daughter, Sandy (Dona Cole), fights constantly with her mother, Carol (Lorna Taylor, who would leave these waters behind only to plunge back into them at the end of her career with Revenge of the Cheerleaders). Kelley thinks it’s the desert that does it; looking out into that endless, inhospitable wilderness every day makes it easy to feel like the entire world is against you.
But unbeknownst to Alan Kelley and his bitter, bickering womenfolk, something far more concrete than the entire world is about to turn against them. One afternoon, while Alan is out tending the palm trees, while Sandy is taking a swim in the irrigation pond (and being perved on by the Kelleys’ mute, retarded handyman [Leonard Tarver]), and while Carol is sullenly baking some uncooperative cylindrical foodstuff, something flies over the ranch at high speed and low altitude, making a strange whining noise. The combination of the airborne shockwave and the high-frequency vibrations smashes just about every piece of glass or ceramic in the Kelley household, including the irreplaceable china that was Carol’s only keepsake of her old life “back home” (wherever that is). And to add insult to injury, the sheriff doesn’t seem to believe her when she calls to report the maverick flyover, and she spends so much time arguing with him on the phone that she burns whatever she’d been cooking to a crisp. (This movie seems to be inordinately fixated upon Carol’s mostly futile attempts at baking.) Carol is thus in an even worse mood than usual when the rest of her family comes home, and the arrival of sheriff’s deputy Larry Brewster (Dick Sargent, best known as the second actor to play Darrin on “Bewitched”)— who incidentally has the hots for Sandy— on the scene to investigate the damage to the house doesn’t make her feel that much better.
Now in most movies like this, we’d be starting to wonder just what the arrival of that fast-flying whining thing is going to mean for the Kelley family, but because that dumb-ass alien narrator already told us he was going to orchestrate a revolt among the world’s non-human animals, we already know and don’t much care. And because of all that teaser footage before the credits, all we’ll get out of it when it finally (emphasis on “finally”) starts happening is an escalating sense of deja vu. With depressing, mechanical regularity, we start seeing it all again— first the swarms of homicidal blackbirds (note that this was most of a decade before The Birds), then the family dog turning on his masters, then the normally placid dairy cow going all Day of the Animals on her jolly, comic-relief owner. (Finally! A movie whose makers had sufficient audience empathy to kill off the comic relief!) And of course, the zombification of the handyman, who starts brandishing his wood-chopping axe in a most alarming manner, and who suddenly takes a morbid interest in getting Sandy out to a crater in the desert where a certain device that resembles a stainless steel teakettle wearing a beanie waits partially buried in the arid sand.
Eventually, the voiceover alien deigns to communicate with Alan and Carol, telling them that it comes from a dying world (what— again?!), the dominant lifeforms on which have no bodies of their own, and must therefore live parasitically within the brains of other, more substantial creatures. But a brain so commandeered wears out fast, and now the aliens have just about used up all the brain-toting organisms on their planet. Earth was selected as a likely site for relocation because madness and hate are what opens up the minds of intelligent beings to occupation by the aliens, and the would-be colonists correctly surmised that Homo sapiens offered all the madness and hate they could ever need. (See, that’s why the movie spent so much time showing us the Kelleys’ domestic strife.) But there’s one thing the aliens didn’t figure on. Just as hate opens the mind to invasion, so love closes it off, and because the aliens themselves know nothing of love, they are completely unprepared to deal with this eventuality. And not only that, the very presence of the alien, and its attacks on the Kelleys have had the effect of rekindling their long-lost love for each other. Ooff! Did you feel the filmmakers kicking you just there? That’s right— this is going to be another one of those “talking the monster to death” endings that we all love so much. The one redeeming feature of this ending is that at least it happens at the alien’s landing site, giving us a look at the monster at last. A hatch on the side of the teakettle slides open, and behold!— The Beast with Considerably Fewer than a Million Eyes! How far short of the titular mark does it fall? Would you believe it has but the usual mammalian pair? I know, I know. The title’s supposed to be a metaphor. And obviously I don’t expect a literal million eyes— certainly not on a Corman budget! But if you go around making a movie called The Beast with a Million Eyes, I expect to see at least a dozen on the thing when you finally show us the beast in question. Otherwise, I’m calling the Better Beastness Bureau on your ass.