Cattle ranchers feud over the mayor’s daughter while their cows mysteriously go missing in this ambitious US/Mexican B-movie. Beautiful colour photography and some adequate stop-motion dinosaurs partly make up for a sluggish script. 5/10
The Beast of Hollow Mountain. 1956, USA/Mexico. Directed by Ismail Rodríguez, Edward Nassour. Written by Robert Hill & Jack DeWitt, from an idea by Willis O’Brien. Starring: Guy Madison, Patricia Medina, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro, Pascual García Peña, Eduardo Noriega. Produced by Edward & William Nassour. IMDb: 4.1/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Not to be confused with The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918, review), the first live-action/stop-motion science fiction film to feature humans and dinosaurs, made by Herbert Dawley and Willis O’Brien. However, The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956) was developed “from an idea” by Willis O’Brien, the animator who created the startling effects of the groundbreaking movies The Lost World (1925, review) and King Kong (1933, review). The story is loosely based on a life-long project of O’Brien’s, which he was never able to realise: a film called “The Valley of the Mists”. However, the film we are reviewing here was directed by Edward Nassour and Ismail Rodríguez, and was a joint US-Mexican production in colour and CinemaScope with dino animation by Nassour, Jack Rabin and Louis DeWitt. It has the distinction of being the first film in the not-too-often-probed subgenre of cowboys and dinosaurs.
The film concerns two US cowboys who have bought land in Mexico in order to raise their livestock, Jimmy (Guy Madison), and his sidekick Felipe (Carlos Rivas). Their cows have started to go missing at the foot of the mysterious Hollow Mountain, which the local Mexicans believe is cursed, or inhabited by some monster. Jimmy, however, is convinced that it is his rival — both in business and romance — Enrique Rios (Eduardo Noriega), that is trying to scare the two Yankees into leaving. The object of the two lovers’ bickering is Sarita (Patricia Medina), daughter of the local mayor (Julio Villareal).
Most of the movie plays out as a rather typical western. Jimmy and Enrique fight over Sarita, first with words, then with fists and lastly with guns. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s and Felipe’s cattle continue to disappear in the quicksands at the foot of Hollow Mountain, by Enrique’s doing, Jimmy is convinced. Enrique threatens Jimmy’s locally hired workers, so they leave. As replacements Jimmy finds Pancho and Panchito (Pascual García Peña and Mario Navarro), the local drunk and his little kid, who also set out to solve the secret of Hollow Mountain. The secret, it turns out, is a dinosaur, an Allosaur by all accounts, which finally turns up to eat both heroes and villains alike. Pancho and Panchito turn out to be the most interesting characters of the film, even if the the character of Rios also grows from carboard villain to a somewhat rounded character. Sarita is on the one hand a refreshingly strong and independent female heroine, but on the other little more than at plot enhancer.
The story behind the film is rather convoluted, and for the full version, I recommend you check out Bill Warren’s excellent book Keep Watching the Skies!. Willis O’Brien was the mastermind behind the stop-motion animation behind The Lost World and King Kong. He had two further successes with The Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). After his success with King Kong, O’Brien largely worked with lesser effect shots on smaller movies, while trying to get his own projects off the ground. One was a movie based on his story Valley of the Mist, about a Mexican boy, his pet bull and an allosaur. According to film historian Bill Warren, another project was a story he called The Beast of Hollow Mountain, sometimes titled “Gwangi”, a US-based story about a rancher, a sheriff and a Native American who hunt down a dinosaur in a lost valley, a project O’Brien had been pushing since the thirties. However, O’Brien‘s stop-motion work was deemed too expensive for studios, who were wary of dinosaur movies.
O’Brien thought he found a partner in Edward Nassour and his brother William, two Americans of Syrian descent, who themselves had specialised in stop-motion animation and ran an independent studio. He sold the rights to both films to the brothers, who for many years tried to get a movie financed. O’Brien had assumed that he would be called upon to do the animation for the movie. However, O’Brien’s work was deemed as too expensive and time-consuming, and the Nassours, along with co-director Ismail Rodríguez, turned over the effects work to a team consisting, among others, of low-budget specialists Jack Rabin and Louis DeWitt, Edward Nassour, as well as model maker Henry Lyon. Thus, Willis O’Brien was pushed out of his own project, which he had been trying to get off the ground for nearly 20 years. The script by Robert Hill was based loosley on the “Gwangi” story, but relocated to Mexico with elements of Valley of the Mist.
Press junkets for the The Beast of Hollow Mountain touted Edward Nassour’s new, revolutionary animation technique he called “Regiscope”, a sort of early computer-based technique that would hook up a “Regiscope” machine to the models, have the animator go through the animation process, which would be recorded on tape, and which could then be played back, with the models repeating action. This could then be tweaked and refined to the wishes of the animator. As Edward’s son Ed has later revealed, his father did work on this kind of a system, but never got it to work, and the press junkets were just hot air. In reality, the animation in the movie is done with two traditional techniques, replacement animation and stop-motion anination. Replacement animation is when you have several almost identical models for each movement of the characters, which you replace for each shot. Stop-motion animation instead has a model with an armature inside, which can be manipulated between shots. The upside to replacement animation is that it allows for more detailed work than traditional stop-motion, but it is also more time-comsuming as several almost identical models must be made. For scenes where the allosaur is running, replacement animation was largely used. In a shot where we see the dinosaur attacking a hut with Jimmy and Sarita inside, classic stop-motion was used. Nassour was never able to get “Regiscope” working.
The replacement animation is occationally quite good, resulting in a number of impressive scenes of the dinosaur running around in wide shots — unfortunately these are ruined by the animators including a long, cartoonishly wiggling lizard’s tongue for the allosaur, giving it an unintentionally comical appearence. POV shots of the reptile tearing down the hut with Jimmy and Sarita inside are also rather startling, with the miniature work being of high quality, even if the animation itself is nowehere near the standard of what Willis O’Brien could have produced for the movie. Mexican cinematographer Jorge Stahl, Jr. creates a number of stunning Cinemascope images, in particular from the breathtaking mountainous landscape of Tepotzlán outside of Mexico City. Film buffs will recognise a few locations from The Magnificent Seven (1960) as well as from Clear and Present Danger (1994). The action scenes are generally well staged, from the fist and gun fights to quicksand and the perhaps somewhat abrupt ending. And while the miniature work is impressive and the animation at least passable, the rear projection is unfortunately not up to standard, with fuzzy lines and faded colours.
The acting is so-so. Handsome charmer Guy Madison has enough acting chops and a twinkle in his eye to keep the blandly written character of Jimmy interesting enough for the viewer to want to follow him through the movie. Likewise handsome Carlos Rivas as Felipe doesn’t get enough material for his contribution to matter much, but he doesn’t do anything spectacular with it, either. More at home in historical dramas, British-born Patricia Medina seems somewhat like a fish out of water in the western picture, although she does redeem herself in a few dramatic scenes. Eduardo Noriega does what is required of him. Rotund Pasqual García Peña as the comic releif does his best stereotypical drunk Mexican and young Mario Navarro is wide-eyed and cute enough for us to forgive a few moments of bad child acting. Ultimately, the bond between father and son becomes the emotional and dramatic highlight of this film, much more so than the bland romantic triangle trying to act as the dramatic backbone of the story. And while they are annoying at first, Pancho and Panchito soon win the heart of the viewer, making Pancho’s ultimate sacrifice all the more heart-wrenching.
Variety gave The Beast of Hollow Mountain a positive review, citing “outstanding production qualities”, “strong […] special effects photography”, “potent […] principle color camera work”. Critic Whit. also gave praise to the choice of Mexico as the shooting location and Raúl LaVista’s score. According to Variety, “Madison delivers in his expected style”, while Medina “makes a pretty heroine”. But the paper singled out young Mario Navarro as the standout performer of the film. Harrison’s Reports wrote: “The first half of the picture should give a patron his money’s worth because of the colorful atmosphere, the costumes, the music and the beautiful scenic backgrounds — all photographed in CinemaScope and DeLuxe color. As to the second half, it is fantastic and at times silly, but it is the kind of silliness that movie goers will undoubtedly enjoy, for it will give them a chance to laugh at the proceedings.”
Film historian Bill Warren in his book Keep Watching the Skies! complains over the slow pace of the bulk of the movie, the conventional love triangle and the by-the-numbers cattle rivalry plot: “It’s too bad most of Beast if Hollow Mountain is so uninteresting and conventional, because the climax is really exciting and lively”.
IMDb users give the film a 4.1/10 rating, and AllMovie has a 1.5/5 rating. TV Guide writes: “sometimes disparate ingredients, no matter how much you like them, just don’t mix. You might enjoy sour cream and you might just love licorice, but the two of them together are a ‘yeeccchhh.’ The Beast of Hollow Mountain is not a ‘yecchhh,’ but it isn’t an ‘Oh Boy!’ either. […] With a better script and more money spent on production, this might have been a much-remembered movie.”
Edward Nassour did not go on to bigger and better things. He did produce the special effects for Gigantis: The Fire Monster in 1959, and in 1975 finally made a short film based on the old O’Brien story he had bought 50 years earlier, Emilio and his Magical Bull. Even though Nassour is the first-billed director, one suspects that most of the live-action directing, especially that which involved Mexican actors, was probably directed by co-director Ismael Rodríguez, one of the hottest directors of Mexico in the 50’s, thanks to his collaboration with singer and actor Pedro Infante, who died tragically in 1957 in a plane crash. The same year, Infante posthumously received the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film festival for his role in Rodríguez’ film Tizoc. Tizoc remains Rodríguez’ internationally best known film, alongside Ánimas Trujano (1961), starring Kurosawa favourite Toshirô Mifune.
Writers Jack DeWitt and Robert Hill were both seasoned, if indistinguished, screenwriters, with experience in westerns, thrillers and adventure movies. DeWitt later went on to write A Man Called Horse (1970), which served as an inspiration for Dances with Wolves (1990). DeWitt also functioned as uncredited art director on The Beast of Hollow Mountain. Cinematographer Jorge Stahl, Jr. was one of the most distinguished directors of photography of the Mexican Golden age of cinema. In 1993 he received a Golden Ariel for his lifetime contribution to Mexican cinema. The same prize was awarded to composer Raúl Lavista in 1996, an extremely prolific composer during the Golden Age, who scored over 300 films. The photographic effects team was headed by low-budget specialist Jack Rabin, whose work we have studied frequently on this blog. He created effects for such low-budget SF classics as Rocketship X-M (1950, review), The Man from Planet X (1951, review), Flight to Mars (1951, review), Invaders from Mars (1953, review), Robot Monster (1953, review), Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, review) and World Without End (1956, review) — and many more. Sometimes he collaborated, such as here, with Louis DeWitt, brother of afore-mentioned Jack.
Lead actor Guy Madison was born Robert Moseley. He worked as a telephone line man, and was literally picked out of the audience when he attended a radio theatre broadcast in Hollywood while on shore leave from the coast guard in 1944. Producer David O. Selznick wanted a handsome sailor for a small but important role in the film Since You Went Away, and his role was filmed over a weekend. The producers made up the pseudonym Guy Madison. Madison’s lonely, handsome sailor struck a nerve with female audiences, and Madison found himself in demand in Hollywood when returning from duty in 1946. Without any acting experience, he took lessons and worked in theatre while at the same time embarking on a successful career as a popular leading man in B-westerns. He secured his immortality among western fans when he was cast in the title role of the long-running TV series Adventures of Wild Bill Hickock (1951-1958), a role which he simultaneously did for radio.
In the 60’s Madison had a career rebound in the movies, as one of the many American stars of the spaghetti movies. While never really associated by fans as an SF hero, he did star in a number of genre films. In 1952 Madison played the “lead” in Boris Petroff’s cut and paste Arctic SF war drama Red Snow (review), and in 1967 again played the hero in the Italsploitation “brain swap” movie Devilman Story. The next year he played co-lead in the superhero film Superargo and the Faceless Giants (1968). Finally, in 1978, he had another starring role in the generically titled Where Willie?, about an 8-year old boy who invents a pocket computer and takes control of his home town.
Spanish-English actress Patricia Medina started acting in the UK in her teens in the 30’s, and left for Hollywood in the late 40’s. Her exotic looks forgave the fact that she was a relatively unknown actress past 30 when her career started to bloom in the early 50’s, although at 37 she does seem somewhat miscast as the virginal ingenue of The Beast of Hollow Mountain. Medina was a prolific star of B-grade melodramas in first half of the fifties, and appeared in the lead in the occasional A-movie, such as Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin (1955). Her movie career waned somewhat in the late 50’s, but she instead found herself in demand for guest parts in TV shows like Zorro, Perry Mason and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. She also appeared regularly on stage on and off Broadway, several times with her husband Joseph Cotten. She retired from acting, after appearing in over 90 films or TV shows, in 1978, and enjoyed a long retirement before passing away in 2012.
Carlos Rivas was born to a German father and Mexican mother in El Paso, and spoke English as his first language, which is probably why he made a rather effortless transition to Hollywood in 1956 after having appeared in a number of Mexican and Argentine films. He made a splash in 1956 with a co-starring role as Chinese lover Lun Tha in The King and I, opposite Rita Moreno and leading couple Yul Brunner and Deborah Kerr. Over the years he appeared in supporting roles in a handful of well-remembered movies, such as True Grit (1969) and Topaz (1969). However, after his first splash with The King and I, he was mostly confined to B-movies and TV guest spots. Rivas had a long career, still appearing actively into the 90s and even in a few roles in the 2000’s before his death in 2003. He returned to SF in 1957, co-starring with Richard Denning in The Black Scorpion. He also had a co-lead in 1963’s legendarily bad film The Madmen of Mandoras, re-edited in 1968 as They Saved Hitler’s Brain. He also appeared in the SF-ish Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975). Young Panchito, Mario Navarro, also returned in The Black Scorpion. He may be best remembered for a small role in The Magnificent Seven.
Rotund Pascual García Peña was a beloved character actor of both comedic and serious roles in Mexican cinema. He also had a role in The Black Scorpion, and turned up in El regreso del monstruo (1959) and Wrestling Women versus the Murderous Robot (1969). He also co-wrote a dozen scripts for directors like Chano Urueta and Rene Cardona. Eduardo Noriega was an in-demand character actor of Mexican cinema, and also appeared in a good number of Hollywood films, often in mid-sized supporting roles.
The Beast of Hollow Mountain. 1956, USA/Mexico. Directed by Ismail Rodríguez, Edward Nassour. Written by Robert Hill & Jack DeWitt, from an idea by Willis O’Brien. Starring: Guy Madison, Patricia Medina, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro, Pascual García Peña, Eduardo Noriega, Julio Villareal, Lupe Carilles. Music: Raúl Lavista. Cinematography: Jorge Stahl, Jr. Editing: Holbrook Todd, Maury Wright. Art direction: Jack DeWitt. Sound director: James Fields. Photographic effects: Louis DeWitt, Jack Rabin. Model maker: Henry Lyon. Stop-motion animation: Edward Nassour. Produced by Edward & William Nassour for Peliculas Rodríguez, Nassour Studios & United Artists.