Saturday, June 22, 2024



THE UNKNOWN TERROR (1957) was previously unknown to me. The movie is included in Kino's SCI-FI CHILLERS COLLECTION, a two-disc set containing three films. 

Rich explorer Dan Matthews (John Howard) intends to go searching for the mysterious "Cave of Death", a place where his wife's brother never returned from. Dan and his wife, Gina (Mala Powers) are joined in the quest by Pete Morgan (Paul Richards), a cave expert who has a bum leg due to a climbing accident involving him and Dan. The trio arrive at the native village near the cave, and discover an American doctor named Ramsey (Gerald Milton) who is experimenting with strange fungi. Needless to say, the fungi have gone out of control, affecting the natives and the dangerous cave. 

THE UNKNOWN TERROR is a lackadaisical effort--it takes over half the movie to actually get to the cave, and there's more talk than action. The two leads, John Howard and Paul Richards, are a glum-looking duo lacking in spirit--this movie sorely needed a Richard Denning, Kenneth Tobey, or even a John Agar. (During filming John Howard had to have been wondering how he got from THE PHILADELPHIA STORY to this.) Mala Powers doesn't get much to do as the obligatory pretty female, but she does get a scene where she's chased by one of the fungi-infected natives while she's wearing a nightgown. 

As for the weird Dr. Ramsey, he's one of the most mediocre mad scientists in low budget sci-fi/horror history. (The big, beefy, and bald Gerald Milton looks more like a truck driver than a scheming mad doctor.) Why Ramsey is hiding out in a remote jungle location and experimenting with fungi is never made entirely clear. The doc explains to the protagonists that due to his medical knowledge he's become something of a god to the locals, and he's even married to a beautiful native maiden (May Wynn). This comely lass appears to develop an interest in Pete, but like every plot element in this tale, this idea isn't developed enough. 

Something else that isn't developed enough is where, exactly, the "Cave of Death" is. Some reviews of the film suggest that it's in South America, others in Mexico. There's a sense that the cave and the village are on an island--maybe the West Indies?? At the beginning of the film, Dan Matthews holds a party at his home where calypso singer Sir Lancelot performs a folk tune about how a person must suffer before being born again. Matthews believes that this song somehow establishes the validity of the "Cave of Death", although, once again, it's never explained why this is. (Sir Lancelot, of course, will be familiar to classic horror fans for his appearances in the RKO Val Lewton series of films. He even gets special billing on the poster above, although I doubt people went to see this film specifically for him.) 

When the out-of-control fungus is finally revealed, the viewer is shocked to discover that it resembles--giant soap suds! (While watching the climax of THE UNKNOWN TERROR, I couldn't help thinking about that episode of THE BRADY BUNCH where Bobby caused the washing machine to go crazy.) The soapy suds have caused a few of the natives to turn into grotesque monsters (unfortunately we don't get much of a look at their special makeup). At the very last minute, Dr. Ramsey reveals that if the fungus isn't stopped, it will take over the world! (Couldn't the authorities have used a bunch of thick towels to dry the suds up??) 

This ending doesn't exactly get the viewer's heart racing, and along with the generic fake jungle sets, "natives" who are obviously white Americans, and stodgy acting and dialogue, THE UNKNOWN TERROR winds up near the bottom of the 1950s low-budget sci-fi/horror cycle. 

The film was directed by Charles Marquis Warren, who is much better known for his work in Westerns. The movie was shot in Regalscope, a 2.35:1 widescreen process that a story like this doesn't deserve. The widescreen isn't used in a particularly engaging way, and, if anything, it makes the movie's production design look cheaper. 

The soap suds of THE UNKNOWN TERROR won't terrify anyone--unless you're Pig Pen from the "Peanuts" comic strip. 

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