Written by: Robert Hill, Jack DeWitt, and Willis O'Brien
Directed by: Edward Nassour & Ishmael Rodriguez
Starring: Guy Madison, Patricia Medina, and Eduardo Noriega
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“That swamp is a very mysterious and sinister place..."
Recent years have introduced us to countless mash-ups, but, as is often the case, a cursory look back will reveal that this isn’t an especially novel trend—Hollywood has been cutting pasting stuff together for decades in its endless quest for four-quadrant appeal. Case in point: 1956’s The Beast of Hollow Mountain, a relatively early entry in the “Weird West” cinematic canon, as it blends the Western with the decade’s burgeoning fascination with giant monsters. And who better to bring such beasts to the Wild West than Willis O’Brien, right?
If only that were exactly true: the famed monster creator did provide the screenplay for The Beast of Hollow Mountain but didn’t provide the actual effects for whatever reason. The title also proves to be a bit deceptive, as the beast is hardly the focus and instead defers to the drama surrounding a sleepy Mexico town, where American cowboy Jimmy Ryan (Guy Madison) owns a small ranch. When some of his cattle go missing, he assumes it’s the work of Enrique Rios (Eduardo Noriega), a rival landowner who has been attempting to push him out for months. Undeterred, Ryan sticks around and assembles a ragtag crew to continue and drive cattle—if they can survive in the shadow of a mountain that the locals swear is haunted by an ancient beast.
I love that sort of thing—growing up, I was fascinated by stories hailing from distant corners of the globe that whispered about monsters shrouded in their midst. The Beast of the Hollow Mountain seems like it would hit that sweet spot, and I would likely love it just as much as those old stories if it had been more monstrous in its approach; sure, we hear an awful lot about the mysterious creature that lies hidden in the mountain on the edge of town, and the surrounding area is peppered with spooky, animalistic noises when Jimmy and his men search for their lost cattle. After that point, though, the titular beast recedes into the background and yields to the cowboy drama.
It’s not a bad consolation prize—as a Western, it’s one of those tidy little numbers that romanticizes the dwindling frontier with a Cinemascope canvas and agreeably one-dimensional characters. There are white hats and black hats: Jimmy Ryan is immediately positioned as the former when he takes on a drunken widower and his kid to be a part of his crew, while rival Enrique proves to be a short-fused jerk who’s eager to duke it out right in the middle of the street. Without fail, a girl (Patricia Medina) is caught between the two, betrothed to Enrique but harboring doe eyes for Jimmy. It’s a good-natured tableau of characters whose drama is quaint and eventually unfussy—once the monster appears, it predictably becomes a feel-good story that sees the two rivals team up against a common foe.
When it fully appears, it’s about an hour into the 80 minute runtime (though some ominous hints—a shadow here and a growl there—are sprinkled throughout), so the genre blending isn’t entirely graceful. Rather, it feels as though an Allosaurus stomps in from an entirely different sort of movie and intrudes upon the small scale drama. Luckily, the film is rather melodramatic and pulpy anyway, so the intrusion isn’t marked by a noticeable tonal clash when these ranchers suddenly begin to have a shootout with a dinosaur (yes, it’s about as silly as it sounds—and bless the film for it. The Allosaurus itself is fine, if not a bit unremarkable by era standards; as always, it’s amazing to see a full-fledged creature brought to life via stop-motion animation regardless of who’s pulling the strings.
Perhaps the Allosaurus could be a bit more distinctive, as he’s understandably overshadowed by his more inventive contemporaries; in that respect, it serves a reflection of the film as a whole, as it’s serviceable as both Western and creature feature but doesn’t excel in either mode. Its high fantasy trappings are refreshingly far removed from the shadow of nuclear angst that otherwise dominated the 50s, so The Beast of Hollow Mountain does provide some change of pace, even if Ray Haryhausen would return and do this much better a decade later with The Valley of Gwanji, a film that fully delivers on the promise offered by the premise here.
Having lived in the shadow of Gwanji all these years, The Beast of Hollow Mountain has become a bit forgotten. That should change with the arrival of Scream Factory’s latest Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, which joins it with The Neanderthal Man (another movie that withholds its monster for much of its run-time). While the disc features no supplements, both films feature nice transfers and DTS-HD mono tracks—not a bad treatment for a couple of movies that never even made it to DVD until this point. Kudos to Scream Factory for its continued commitment towards building an eclectic library and bestowing such a treatment on films that are essentially dry runs for The Valley of Gwanji and Monster on the Campus. Rent it!
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