B&W, 1958, 77 mins. 34 sec.
Directed by Richard E. Cunha
Starring Ed Kemmer, Sally Fraser, Bob Steele, Morris Ankrum, Buddy Baer, Billy Dix
The Film Detective (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
When it came to budget-conscious monster movies designed to fill up double and triple bills in the '50s, filmmakers came up with plenty of oddball creatures that looked and sounded great on the poster but turned out to be something quite different on screen. Case in point: Giant from the Unknown, which looks like some kind of cosmic caveman excursion but instead turns out to be about a zombified, axe-swinging, somewhat large Conquistador wreaking havoc in the American wilderness. In this case the film earned quite a bit of cachet with monster kids thanks to the contributions of makeup artist Jack Pierce, who had concocted some of Universal's most memorable creations in the likes of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, here stealing the show with a simple but sometimes eerie appearance for the titular fiend.
A small California mountain town is plagued by a string of strange, annual slayings that focus on livestock with the occasional human casualty. Rumors abound that the crimes are related to a "legend of the curse" brought down on the community, or in the words of eccentric (and unconvincing) Native American resident Indian Joe (Dix), "All white men die! Hahahahaha!" An adjoining wild area called Devil's Crag seems to be ground zero, and the testy Sheriff Parker (Steele) lays the blame on newcomer geologist Wayne Brooks (Kemmer) for the flimsiest of reasons. An archaeologist in the area, Dr. Cleveland (Ankrum), is conducting research on a Spanish expedition centuries ago led by the fearsome and towering Vargas, which of course turns out to be connected to the mystery. Both doctors, plus Cleveland's daughter and now Brooks' girlfriend, Janet (Fraser), head into the wild to piece together a mystery involving electrical storms, an uncovered battle axe, and an ancient, hulking terror.
A simple and charming monster on the loose yarn, Giant from the Unknown has the feel of a campfire tale built around impromptu lore with effective use of the wilderness setting to give it a rough and primal feel. Obviously quite a bit feels cheap and stagebound, but as far as '50s creature fare goes, it's an amiable time killer with some occasionally gorgeous monochrome photography including some effective shots of flares shrouding the landscape in tendrils of smoke. Though he doesn't really come into his own until the second half of the film, onetime boxing champ Buddy Baer (who had earlier appeared in Abbott and Costello's Africa Screams and Jack and the Beanstalk) makes a strong impression as the "giant" in and out of his big helmet, tossing rocks at the cast and swinging that big axe all over the sets. Though treated as a dispensable programmer at the time, the film has earned a soft spot in the hearts of many fans and remains the arguable highlight of the career of director and occasional cinematographer Richard E. Cunha, who made his directorial debut with the pair of this and She Demons shot back to back in 1957 (and the two would be released together as a double feature). He would later go on to direct Frankenstein's Daughter and the adorably ridiculous Missile to the Moon, all for the short-lived Astor Pictures and seen later in the same year as this one's release, 1958.
Widely bootlegged on home video, Giant from the Unknown made its DVD debut in 2000 from Image Entertainment as part of a licensing deal with Wade Williams, owner of a large number of '50s horror and sci-fi indies. That open matte release was one of the best-looking titles from the Williams library thanks to the negative surviving in superb shape, and the disc came with the theatrical trailer. In early 2021, The Film Detective selected this as the inaugural Blu-ray release in its new deal with Williams, complete with the red carpet treatment including a sparkling 4K scan from the original camera negative and wealth of new bonus features. The transfer looks virtually immaculate and reveals a wealth of new detail in every shot, particularly darker scenes where you can make out little touches in the production design and the textures of the trees. As with the vast majority of '50s monster movies, this was shot open aperture and presented at 1.33:1 on television and early home video with a massive amount of peripheral horizontal information. That was the case here as well, with massive dead headroom visible that's replaced here with the accurate theatrical 1.85:1 framing that keeps everything nicely centered. There's also a substantial amount of extra image info on the left, interestingly enough; die hards may want to keep their DVDs just for comparison, but this is certainly the version you'll want to watch. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is also in excellent condition (with a lossy Dolby Digital one as well if you're so inclined), and optional yellow English and Spanish subtitles are provided. ("¿Sobrenatural? Eso es un tontería!")
A new audio commentary with actor Gary Crutcher is filled with anecdotes about shooting in Big Bear, the double duties pulled by many of the cast members, his warm recollections of Baer, and more. You also get a new audio commentary by Tom Weaver, who sticks to his patented format of mixing in guest star interview recreations, real interview excerpts from Cunha, and guest comments from The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra's Larry Blamire. As usual it's chock full of info including notes on a related abandoned feature film, the pros and cons of seeing the widescreen version, the relationship between the Kentucky Derby and deducing when this was actually shot, the genre credentials of many participants (including Earth vs. the Spider), a weird aspect of Steele's makeup job, and the role his Cunha interview played in his own career. On the downside he returns to fixate on a topic that marred one of his previous tracks, namely a participant's hemorrhoids, and it could've easily been left out here, too. Crutcher goes in front of the camera for Ballyhoo Motion Pictures' "You're a B-Movie Star, Charlie Brown!" (14m17s) to chat about his entire showbiz career starting in childhood and going through the reason for his nickname in the title and some memorable moments on the set, including the very real nature of that snow on screen. Then in "The Man with a Badge: Bob Steele in the 1950s" (9m51s), C. Courtney Joyner provides an overview of the star's career including his move into westerns, his major roles in Of Mice and Men and The Big Sleep, and the response he would end up getting from audiences. The full frame theatrical trailer is also included, and the limited 1,500-unit edition also comes with a booklet featuring liner notes by Weaver featuring more trivia about the $55,000-budgeted production.
The Film Detective (Blu-ray)
Image Entertainment (DVD)
Reviewed on December 12, 2020.