There was a short-lived production company in the mid to late 1960s which produced some really low budget – and a few cult films. It was United Pictures Corporation (UPC) and all told they made nine movies. Several of them are hard to catch up with and I have not seen them all, but I am well acquainted with several of these cheapies and have always been impressed by them.
Anecdotally, UPC was formed using “Canadian oil money” but little information exists about this company although they used a small group of directors and writers for its nine films.
The movies range from horror to James Bond type spy thrillers… And these nine films are Castle of Evil (1966) which was shot back to back with Destination Inner Space (1966) in a matter of fourteen days, while others are Cyborg 2087 (1966) and Dimension 5 (1966), which are both time travel related, the first is small town sci-fi, while Dimension 5 is a kind of spy movie with a bit of sci-fi.
I have seen these four movies and they are the best of the nine. The rest of the movies are The Money Jungle (1967), Panic in the City (1968), The Destructors (1968), The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1969) and Tiger by the Tail (1970).
Of those, I have only seen The Girl Who Knew Too Much and while I dismissed it on a first viewing, I have enjoyed it after watching it again.
UPC was formed by producer Earle Lyon (1918-2012) with a couple of other producers of little note. Lyon was the main man though and he was the producer of several western shows such as the Dale Robertson (1925-2013) starrer Tales of Wells Fargo (1960-62). It was on this show that he worked with the director Francis D. Lyon (1905-96). Now these two were apparently brothers, or weren’t, depending on which source you believe. They were born fifteen years apart as well as several states apart.
Anyway, Francis directed several UPC films. Also working on Wells Fargo were the directors Franklin Adreon (1902-79) and R.G. Springsteen (1904-89). They also directed UPC films. Not only that but writer Charles A. Wallace (no info) who wrote four UPC films also worked on Wells Fargo.
The Lyons were former Navy and Marines, which makes sense due to the regimented and disciplined ways the films were churned out. They were originally meant for television but many of them had cinema releases. I even have a Cyborg 2087 poster in my bathroom.
It is Francis D. Lyon’s direction which, while hardly arty, triumphs over the budgets of Castle of Evil and Destination Inner Space. Of course, any movie shot that quickly will not be a quality production, but these films have something if not only a good cast of actors whose careers had long since faded away.
Castle of Evil is one of those movies where the characters go to a deserted island, where there is a castle, for the reading of a will during a thunderstorm. It’s just that the guy who died hated everyone in the will and blames them for his horrible scarring in a lab accident… Anyway, he was a bitter and twisted fellow and the castle is inhabited by a robot made in his likeness and a housekeeper who is seeing to “a dying man’s last request”… that being – to kill!
Castle of Evil stars Scott Brady (1924-85 pulmonary fibrosis), Hugh Marlowe (1911-82 heart attack), Virginia Mayo (1920-2005 pneumonia), David Brian (1914-93 heart disease and cancer), as well as Debra Paget’s (1933-) sister Lisa Gaye (1935-2016) and in her film debut as the housekeeper Shelley Morrison (1936-2019 heart failure). Morrison maybe recognisable to modern audiences as the Salvadorian maid in Will & Grace from 1999 to 2006.
The thing about UPC movies is that they are not directed in a very cinematic fashion. Several of them have a flat tv movie type ‘quality’ to them which will limit their appeal to audiences further… But Castle of Evil, written by Charles A. Wallace – he would also write The Money Jungle, The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Tiger by the Tail – is not gory, it’s talky and yet the shenanigans, which include a cubicle that can turn bodies into skeletons, are compellingly awful. They were made in a period when tv was hungry for movie product and, like Larry Buchanan’s Azalea Pictures, they filled a need before tv movies were routinely being made.
Brady and Marlowe seem to smoke constantly, while Mayo, at the beginning of the movie sings a semi-terrible rendition of Frankie and Johnny… So, if you like the idea of old movie stars making fools of themselves while getting bumped off one by one for the smallest of pay checks, then this is the film for you.
“Kovic is dead, and that’s that,” says Brian before Brady tells him to “shut up”. Yakkety yak.
Castle of Evil is simply one of those midnight movies that stays with you over the years.
One of the first UPC films I ever saw was Destination Inner Space directed again by Francis D. Lyon but this time written by Arthur C. Pierce (1923-87). Pierce also wrote Cyborg 2087, which may have inspired The Terminator, as well as other UPC films The Destructors, which is not to be confused with the 1974 movie starring Anthony Quinn (1915-2001 pneumonia and throat cancer) and Michael Caine (1933-), and Dimension 5.
Destination Inner Space used to be shown on Saturday afternoons when I was a kid which showed it was more a juvenile sci-fi rather than a horror. It has its moments of horror though, mild that they may be.
This one stars Scott Brady again – it must have been a busy fortnight for him – as well as Sheree North (1932-2005 during cancer surgery) who was on the comeback trail after her last film Mardi Gras (1958). She was Kramer’s mother in Seinfeld. Also, in the cast, was Bette Davis’s (1908-89 cancer and stroke) former husband Gary Merrill (1915-90 lung cancer) as well as 1930s Bulldog Drummond actor John Howard (1913-95 heart failure) and in a bit role, former Mike Hammer Biff Elliot (1923-2012 natural causes) who was also in The Girl Who Knew Too Much. It’s another low grade but interesting cast.
Destination Inner Space, like Castle of Evil, as well as other UPC movies, has the luxury of a Paul Dunlap (1919-2010 natural causes) musical score which also steals stock music from various libraries.
The film is about a deep-sea underwater laboratory which is menaced by alien sea creatures that come from a space craft which has settled on the ocean floor nearby. The monster costumes are cheap but effective, while the drama between Brady and a former navy associate who blames Brady for the deaths of several seamen may seem a bit cliched.
But there is a sense of cheap epic-ness to the proceedings as the men wrestle the monster when it enters the lab and as they also dive and enter the spaceship itself.
No one’s going to win an Oscar and I don’t think anyone who appeared in a UPC film ever got close to a nomination but at least the actors are a match for the cheap curtains in some scenes!
As Brady descends to the sea lab at the beginning of the film in a diving bell, he stands erect, but if you believe the effects, he should be hanging on for dear life as the miniature of the bell rocks and rolls on its way down.
It is the monsters that make the film though. In fact, there’s a bit of the movie Alien (1979) about it as the sea lab is isolated just like the Nostromo in that movie. That isolation and a monster present can be traced back to the Antarctic base in The Thing from Another World (1951). The monster costume in Destination Inner Space is as iconic as The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) although the look on its face is far more terrifying that the creature.
It’s a forerunner to the films The Abyss (1989) and Underwater (2020) with the underwater lab in peril.
I think Brady is at his peak as he says: “Shove that under your microscope and study it for a while” in a moment of possible sexual harassment of North. Brady is playing commander Wayne with a slight gut big enough to cause him some trouble getting into his diving gear. But it’s all done with a straight face and Merrill must be commended for his gravitas. Shot quickly and cheaply… Destination Inner Space is a triumph of bad movie-dom and maybe my favourite UPC movie.
Writer Pierce would follow this up with a couple more sci-fi efforts. The first is Cyborg 2087 and it stars Michael Rennie (1909-71 heart attack) from the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). The budget for this film was a reported $100,000 which is probably standard for the UPC movies although there is little information regarding this.
The other stars of the film are Karen Steele (1931-88 cancer), alcoholic Wendell Corey (1914-68 cirrhosis) who can be heard slurring his words every now and then, as well as Eduard Franz (1902-83 long illness). He is not to be confused with Arthur Franz (1920-2006 heart disease) who appeared in sci-fi movies such as Invaders from Mars (1953) as well as the early slasher Sisters of Death (filmed in 1972). Eduard Franz had a role in The Thing from Another World and the not bad horror The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959).
This time the director is Franklin Adreon and he shows his discipline as a former Marine. I guess he was over the Marines as after directing this film and Dimension 5 he retired.
Cyborg 2089 concerns a cyborg played by Rennie named Garth A-7, who is sent back from AD 2087, where free thought is illegal, to what was then present day California, where he is to prevent a scientist, played by Franz from unveiling, and continue to experiment with, a device which will lead to mind control in the future.
Garth is in turn pursued by Tracers who are also cyborgs who are trying to stop him from totally erasing the Orwellian future.
Once again, I saw this film as a kid, perhaps even before I saw The Time Machine (1960), which didn’t use the paradox of going into the past and changing the future. At the end of Cyborg 2087, Garth triumphs and convinces Franz to abandon his experiments and as a result Garth gets into his time machine but no longer exists and no one he visits in the past remembers him. I found that totally ingenious as a kid and that is probably why I liked the film so much to this day despite Adreon’s tv movie style direction.
The story itself was not new even though it appears later to be an uncredited influence on James Cameron’s (1954-) The Terminator (1984) which had similar goings on.
However, it was several years earlier, in episodes of The Outer Limits entitled Demon with the Glass Hand and Soldier where a cyborg and time travel is used as devices in the plot. The writer of these episodes Harlan Ellison (1934-2018 complications of a stroke) was so irascible and litigious in his later years that he sued the production company Hemdale and distributor Orion over The Terminator for ripping off his stories. An undisclosed sum was paid to Ellison as well as a credit given to him on the movie.
Yet, he didn’t seem too concerned about Cyborg 2087… Perhaps there was no money and its release was so low key that it didn’t matter!
But time travel wasn’t new beyond H.G Wells’ book The Time Machine (1895). Ray Bradbury had played with paradoxes in his short story A Sound of Thunder which he wrote in 1952 and was made into an underrated movie in 2005.
Rennie is a good actor and he goes through the paces of his career on the downturn which would descend to the cult pits of the English dubbed Spanish Paul Naschy (1934-2009 pancreatic cancer) werewolf and monster flick Assignment Terror (1970). How I love that one! In Cyborg 2087, he jogs around with the litheness of a big cat in slow motion as the film also poses the question of whether a bionic man can feel love as he bonds with actress Steele. Rennie lends the film a certain classiness.
The demographics of the UPC films are odd ones. Made for television, some of them seem to be squarely aimed for teenagers and kids, while others are definitely adult fare of the variety kids wouldn’t be interested in. I guess they are what the producers thought were family movies although they don’t really fit in to that box. Perhaps they were meant to be shown at different times of day or night. They seem to have had popularity at least at the drive-ins and I wonder how they rated on television upon their first release.
Cyborg 2087 has not aged well and that probably goes for all the UPC movies… Today’s kids and teens certainly wouldn’t be impressed by it except as a historical exercise. Just take a look at the opening matte painting of the futuristic city in the movie – blink and you’ll miss it – its cheapness in setting the scene has to be seen to be believed in terms of poverty row.
But, again, Dunlap’s music moves things along and writer Pierce’s script rises above Adreon’s flat direction.
Pierce would write Dimension 5 which would also be directed by Adreon. If you can see a good transfer of the movie, it is probably one of the best UPC films to look at. It also has a time travel element as it follows spy Justin Power played by doomed actor Jeffrey Hunter (1926-69 after brain surgery). Hunter’s son said alcoholism may have contributed to his fall at home down a set of stairs which caused his death.
Spy Justin Power is supplied with a belt which can transport the wearer back in time or into the future to avoid various complications which happen in the intelligence business. The plot deals with the bad guys planning to piece together an atomic bomb which they are bringing in bit by bit to destroy Los Angeles.
Others in the cast include French-Vietnamese actress France Nuyen (1939-) who plays a Chinese-American spy named Kitty Tzu, as well as Canadian old-timer Donald Woods (1906-98) whose career dated back to the 1930s, and Harold Sakata (1920-82 liver cancer) as one of the bad guys. Sakata had played the villain Oddjob in the Bond film Goldfinger (1964) which helps add to Dimension 5’s spy credentials. This was the direction the UPC films were beginning to take from now on.
The girls all have their eyes on Hunter as Power as the cheapness of the movie is reflected in the opening which is meant to be Italy. There are stock opening shots from Italy which leads to a car chase that ends in Griffith Park’s Bronson Canyon and Cavern in Los Angeles.
All the UPC movies appear to have been shot in Hollywood and its environs including a place called Producers Studios on Melrose Avenue. It was there that several Corman horrors were shot as well as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and another favourite of mine the horror Savage Intruder (1969).
A popular studio for over a century that fell on hard times, it has since been restored and functions under the name of Raleigh Studios which was its name in the first place. It is close to Paramount Studios but was there before that studio opened as it produced many silent pictures.
China is the enemy in Dimension 5, which is timely, as that seemingly lonely country among nations again flexes it military might in certain regions against the West, much to the anxiety of the common person.
The time travel element in the movie is something modern day conspiracy theorists would have you believe is already possible along with the technology of invisibility used in The Invisible Man (2020). ‘They’ have certainly kept a lid on them both if they do exist!
Dimension 5, like the previous three UPC movies I’ve mentioned, get better with each viewing for me and that spells cult or else I have a low threshold for rubbish which others may think should be flushed.
As for the rest of the UPC movies, as I mentioned, I’ve only seen The Girl Who Knew Too Much which was directed by Francis D. Lyon. It stars the then recently retrenched Batman actor Adam West (1928-2017 leukemia) and half Chinese actress Nancy Kwan (1939-). This film is a kind of noir which has a crime boss murdered in a nightclub owned by West. He is then blackmailed into solving the killing. It retains the interest but isn’t really a cult film.
Meanwhile director Lyon had previously directed for UPC something called The Money Jungle, some kind of thriller which is possibly a lost film, starring John Erikson (1926-2020) and Lola Albright (1924-2017) and The Destructors, which is another Red China as the enemy adventure about “laser rubies” that can power a laser beam starring Richard Egan (1921-87 prostate cancer) in what is pure sub-James Bond-ery.
While the missing in action The Money Jungle was written by Charles A. Wallace who did Castle of Evil, it was sci-fi screenwriter Pierce who penned the last of his UPC films with the slightly imaginative plot of The Destructors.
Wallace would also write the last released of the UPC films named Tiger by the Tail which features Christopher George out of work after The Rat Patrol folded. Considered the worst of the UPC films, it was directed by Robert G. Springsteen, who would put together several westerns in the 1960s featuring washed-up actors from days gone by. Tiger by the Tail sat unreleased for two years before its 1970 dumping on the market and despite featuring Tippi Hedren (1930-), who was known for her interest in wildlife, the film isn’t set in the jungle but around a racecourse where a murder has taken place.
The Money Jungle and the marginally better – according to reviews – The Destructors are, along with Tiger by the Tail, seen as forgettable and forgotten UPC fare.
The final film of the nine to discuss is the odd one out in terms of writing and direction which is Panic in the City. It was written and directed by Eddie Davis (1903-death unknown). No one knows what became of Davis although he possibly lived in Australia in his later years.
Davis was an assistant director who was busy in the early 1940s on features before moving into direction on shows such as Mackenzie’s Raiders (1958-59) and Bat Masterson (1958-61), so there is that tv western connection with UPC producer Earle Lyon even if it is not direct.
Panic in the City appears to be Davis’s first feature directing gig and then he went to Australia to direct three films which include It Takes All Kinds (1969) which he also produced and wrote as well as the not bad D.O.A. (1949) remake Color Me Dead (1969) which was filmed partially in Surfer’s Paradise in Queensland.
He finally did That Lady from Peking which was also filmed in 1969 but not released until 1975 and stars Nancy Kwan and singer Bobby Rydell (1942-). That one’s not a total disgrace either – but they are hardly Casablanca!
Davis finished his career directing dozens of episodes of an Aussie tv series Silent Number which is dated 1974 and there is no more information. Did he die forgotten in Australia? It’s a mystery.
His film Panic in the City is another noir thriller film about plans to detonate nuclear weapons in an American city, something more than reminiscent of Dimension 5, and also of relevance as a plot element today. It stars Howard Duff (1913-90 heart attack) and High Chaparral’s Linda Cristal (1931-2020). If you see the movie, you will also see Dennis Hopper (1936-2010 prostate cancer) in a cameo before he hit the heights with Easy Rider (1969).
Instead of it being the Chinese with the nuke a la Dimension 5, this time it’s the Russians. Critics don’t muse about this one as a cult film either but it rates better than my favourite UPC four on the IMDb.
And there you have it! The United Pictures Corporation movies, dated little package that they are… cheap and yet not so nasty in some of the cases. Someone with a bit of oil money had the cash to spend or launder and a bunch of guys who made tv westerns had their way in the spending of that money.
The homage to the old tv western is probably the old ghost town in Cyborg 2087 and the appearance there of Chubby Johnson (1903-74) who also appeared in the common denominator Wells Fargo tv series.
“That’s the trouble with the younger generation,” says Chubby, almost ironically, when it concerns the plot of Cyborg 2087. “They’ve got no respect for the good old days!”
He could be talking about the forgotten dreams, or just plain mercenary moneymaking motives, of United Pictures Corporation.