Saturday, August 19, 1978: Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1957) / Dead Man’s Eyes (1944)

Synopsis: Rock Dean (John Bromfield) is dispatched by a consortium of Brazilian tropical fruit tycoons to go into the Amazon and find out what is scaring off their workers and slowing production at their plantations. A number of people have been slashed to death by razor-sharp claws and rumors of a monster called “Curucu” are rampant.

Preparing for his trip, Dean gets a battery of vaccinations from attractive doctor Andrea Romar (Beverly Garland) who is interested in the practices of headhunters. She believes that the process of shrinking heads might contain a cure for cancer, and she asks to join Dean’s expedition upriver. But he refuses to take her. The next morning, he discovers that the crew that was going to take him upriver has been hired away by Romar, and he reluctantly agrees to join her.

Their guide Tupanico (Tom Payne) leads them upriver to meet Father Flaviano (Harvey Chalk), a missionary who is trying to civilize the pagans in the jungle. He has had mixed success with this, and has found the natives of the area to be extremely superstitious and in constant danger of backsliding into their pagan ways.

They see a shimmering form in the river, which Dean believes is a water snake but which the natives believe to be Curucu. Tupanico sticks close to Dean and Romar, even cleaning Dean’s rifle for him, which he is at first reluctant to assent to.

Soon another murder occurs: a body is found slashed with razor-sharp claws, and the hunt for Curucu is on….

Comments: My friends, I had long dreaded writing about Curucu, Beast of the Amazon, even though I hadn’t seen it since I was around eight years old. I guess you could say that seeing it was important to my early film education, in that it was the first movie that I considered to be a brutal, out-and-out cheat.

The cheat is a pretty notorious one for monster kids like myself. It is revealed that the titular monster of this Curt Siodmak monster movie isn’t a monster at all — just a guy in a costume pretending to be a monster. I didn’t remember much about the movie from seeing it as a kid, but I do remember quite vividly the sting of disappointment in sitting through a monster movie, only to discover that there wasn’t actually a monster in it.

I’d call it a Scooby-Doo ending but the big reveal happens with another twenty minutes of running time left. At least Scooby-Doo had the good sense to place the twist ending at, you know, the end.

Having seen it again, this time as an adult, I can understand my own childhood disappointment even more. It isn’t just the cheat: Curucu has a lot of problems.

The first is that it’s a slog to get through. The characters are dull, the dialogue is soggy and despite the fact that it was shot on location in Brazil (a title card at the beginning makes sure we know this), it’s still loaded with stock wildlife footage and clumsy rear-screen projection, making it look far cheaper than it was.

Even for the time, the movie was astonishingly retrograde: ominous “native drums” pound away through the night, as though we’re watching a Tarzan movie (though it takes place in South America); headhunters threaten our heroes at every turn (despite the fact that the practice of headhunting had long since vanished from South America by the 20th century) and shopworn “native customs” abound (“You saved him,” Dean tells Romar solemnly, after she successfully treats a man who had been close to death. “Now his life belongs to you”).

The film is also deeply misogynistic, with the independent Romar repeatedly beseiged by the perils of the jungle before coming to realize that she needs Dean’s brawny arms to fall into.

Oh, we also get Tupanico’s Curucu costume, which is really just bird feathers and animal bones — a costume so ramshackle that Siodmak hides from us as much as possible — one of the few wise decisions he made as director.

John Bromfield is dishwater-dull as Dean, and horror-movie icon Beverly Garland (making her first Horror Incorporated appearance) can do nothing at all with the bad dialogue and paper-thin characterization of Dr. Romar.

Dead Man’s Eyes

Synopsis: Artist David Stuart (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is working on the painting that he believes will be his masterpiece, the one that will establish him as a serious player in the art world. It’s a portrait of an exotic model named Tanya Czoraki (Acquanetta) dressed in what what we must accept, for the purposes of this film, as traditional Roma garb.

Men are constantly putting the moves on the sultry Tanya, but she isn’t buying. It seems that Tanya spends a lot of time in Stuart’s loft, posing for his masterpiece, and she has fallen in love with him.

Stuart himself doesn’t seem aware of this. He only has eyes for his hatchet-faced fiance Heather Hayden (Jean Parker). Heather’s a swell gal, and she wears a lot of interesting hats. As if that weren’t enough, her family loves him, particularly Heather’s father, whom Stuart has taken to calling “Dad Hayden”.

Whenever he takes a break from his painting, Stuart likes to soothe his eyes with gauze pads soaked in a boric acid solution, which he inexplicably keeps in a bottle on a high shelf right next to a nearly identical bottle containing highly corrosive acid. Because Tanya has moved the bottles around on the shelf while looking for something else, Stuart doesn’t realize that on this occasion he’s just soaked his gauze pads not with boric acid but with, well, acid.* As a result, his corneas are burned and he is now blind. The doctor tells him that a cornea transplant might succeed in restoring his sight, but then again it might not; in any event, donors are scarce and they are unlikely to ever find one.

His career in ruins, unable to complete his masterpiece, Stuart is morose and self-pitying, but he still refuses to blame poor Tanya, who feels terrible about it. Believing that Heather continues to stay with him out of pity for a blind man, Stuart nobly breaks off the engagement. When Heather presses him for a reason, he lies to her, insisting that he’s in love with Tanya.

Dad Hayden refuses to give up on Stuart, and tells him that he has willed his own corneas to Stuart upon his death.

But when Heather arrives home a few nights later she finds Dad Hayden lying dead on the floor. Standing over the body is Dave Stuart, with blood on his hands….

Comments: The Inner Sanctum mysteries tend to pile on the plot contrivances, and Dead Man’s Eyes is no exception. Arranging the circumstances of Dave Stuart’s blindness in such a way as to make us wonder about Tanya’s complicity has forced screenwriter Dwight V. Babcock to reach, with trembling hands, for the very highest bottle on the storytelling shelves. But no matter how you slice it, any guy who keeps his eyewash and his corrosive acid in matching bottles right next to each other is just asking for trouble.

The script is full of clumsily rendered coincidences and red herrings, all designed to keep the viewer off balance. In spite of this, it isn’t difficult to figure out who the real murderer is and, more importantly, who the real murderers aren’t.

Lon Chaney, Jr. deserves credit for the thankless task of carrying another Inner Sanctum trifle. But the truth is that in most of these films Chaney is simply too old for the character he’s playing. Part of this is Chaney’s appearance — he simply looked a good deal older than his 38 years — but it’s also clear that David Stuart, as written, is supposed to be much younger than 38 (the camera can be cruel in this regard, though never crueler than in Earthquake (1974) in which we’re asked to believe that 50-year-old Charlton Heston is an up-and-coming architect married to the boss’s daughter, played by 51-year-old Ava Gardner).

Aside from the usual faces from the Universal acting bullpen, we must also pause to consider the presence of fashion model Acquanetta, playing the role of Tanya. I will go easy on her performance in Dead Man’s Eyes, because to pillory the poor woman, even 70+ years later, seems like kicking a puppy. After all, it isn’t Acquanetta’s fault that some deranged producer got it into his head that she could be a star; nor is it her fault that, frankly, she has no talent.

Yep, she’s bad all right — not low-budget-Universal-contract-player bad, but really bad. High school theater bad. Ed Wood Productions bad. She recites her lines as if reading from a book of traffic ordinances. The woman is a knockout, but she doesn’t radiate any presence at all, certainly not the hungry sensuality that everyone in the movie ascribes to her (every mention of Tanya’s fiery, exotic demeanor is undermined when the camera returns to her utterly blank expression). To paraphrase the immortal Libby Gelman-Waxner, Acquanetta could not convincingly scream for water if her hair was on fire.

It’s often said (by Brunas and Weaver, among others) that Acquanetta’s career came to a screeching halt when it was revealed that she was not Venezuelan, as she had long claimed, but was in fact a light-skinned black woman from New York who was able to pass for Latina. There’s no reason to doubt that this revelation would have done significant damage to her career, the racial mores of the time being what they were — though I suspect a studio publicity shop could have effectively beaten such rumors back. All the same, it seems unlikely that the “Venezuelan Volcano” would have had much career longevity anyway, given that she had about as much screen presence as a bag of cement.

But she carries on gamely, as everyone in the movie does; and in its way Dead Man’s Eyes is likable enough: not ambitious or flashy, but it kills 65 minutes, and if you’ve had a few drinks you might even enjoy it.

But then, you could say that about a lot of things.


*Acetic acid, to be precise. A 5% solution of acetic acid is better known as vinegar, and mixed with a little olive oil it makes a delicious salad dressing. But in its undiluted form it’s highly corrosive, quite capable of burning your eyes out of your head if you treat it carelessly — as Dave Stuart clearly does.

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