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Obituaries

Richard E. Cunha, 83; Directed Cult-Status '50s Horror Movies

October 03, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Richard E. Cunha, a cinematographer and the director of a quartet of low-budget movies in the late 1950s that have achieved cult status among horror and sci-fi film aficionados, including "Giant From the Unknown" and "She Demons," has died. He was 83.

Cunha died of heart failure Sept. 18 at his home in Oceanside, Calif., his family said.

Cunha, who was born in Honolulu, served as an Army Air Forces cameraman during World War II. He had a decade of industrial films, commercials and television work behind him when he moved into low-budget feature filmmaking in 1957.

Cunha directed only a handful of films, with his four best-known ones released in 1958-59: "Giant From the Unknown," "She Demons," "Missile to the Moon" and "Frankenstein's Daughter."

Aimed at the drive-in and neighborhood movie-house market, they were made on shoestring budgets of $65,000 or less with six-day shooting schedules.

Steve Kronenberg, a writer for Monsters From the Vault magazine, once wrote that Cunha "made a lasting contribution to low-budget genre filmmaking." Kronenberg deemed all four films "genuine genre gems" that are "tinged with an edgy nastiness and political incorrectness."

Critically, however, Cunha's films were a bust.

"Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide" dismisses "Missile to the Moon," starring Richard Travis and Cathy Downs, as: "Preposterous, low-budget sci-fi about lunar expedition finding sinister female presiding over race of moon-women. Lots of laughs, for all the wrong reasons."

"Too boring to be funny," Maltin's book says of "She Demons," in which three men and a sexy woman "are stranded on an island inhabited by Nazi criminals, a mad scientist, and the title creatures." It starred Irish McCalla and Tod Griffin.

"They were not popular with the critics, but down on the level of 'monster kids' -- as we sci-fi/horror nuts call ourselves -- these movies have always been big favorites," fantasy and science fiction movie expert Tom Weaver told The Times last week.

"They were fairly crudely made, but Cunha, for a low-budget guy, had a bit of a flair for this stuff and some of them were actually scary in some spots."

"Giant From the Unknown," starring Ed Kemmer and Sally Fraser, is a suspended-animation tale about a 400-year-old Spanish conquistador terrorizing modern Californians. The giant monster was played by 6-foot-6-inch former prizefighter Buddy Baer, with makeup by the legendary Jack P. Pierce ("Frankenstein," "The Mummy" and "The Wolf Man"). And, "just by itself, that was pretty scary," Weaver said.

Cunha had no illusions about his films, especially about what they'd do for the careers of the actors who appeared in them.

"I don't recall what happened to any of these people," he told Weaver in a 1984 Q&A article in Fangoria magazine. "It always seems whenever I make a picture, that's the person's last picture. It must be something I do."

His shoestring film budgets always posed a problem.

Funds were so meager on "Missile to the Moon," he said, "that it was just impossible to create the proper atmosphere for a spaceship -- although I think, on the money we did have, the interior of the spaceship worked well. It included many pieces of grip equipment, as I recall, and we used a big dimmer bank for some of the controls on the missile."

With "X number of dollars" available, he said, "you don't run over on these low-budget films -- you shoot the opening scenes and the end scenes, and then fill in the picture in between."

Born in 1922, Cunha attended Art Center School in Los Angeles and briefly ran a photo studio in Hollywood.

But the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces. As part of the photographic division, he shot reconnaissance missions over Africa, India, China, South America and the Aleutian Islands. Later, as a member of the Army Air Force's First Motion Picture Unit, he shot military training films at "Fort Roach," as the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City were dubbed during the war.

After the war, Cunha formed his own company, which produced industrial films and TV commercials. His commercials for Admiral Radio and Television were among the first televised over Los Angeles' first commercial TV station, KTLA.

As a cameraman, he shot the early TV shows "The Adventures of Marshal O'Dell" and "Captain Bob Steele and the Border Patrol." He later served as a director of photography on "Death Valley Days" and "Branded" TV series before working as a director and cinematographer for Screen Gems' commercial division.

Cunha is survived by his wife of 62 years, Kathryn "Peaches" Cunha; sons Rick, Michael and Anthony; a daughter, Kathryn; a sister, Mae Cunha Ross; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His son Steven died in 1972.

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