Saturday, June 30, 2012

Another Bachelor Movie Marathon, Part III

During the most recent marathon, I re-watched Bloodlust! (1961), which I've already commented on. I watched three other films, two of which had the benefit of a humorous commentary. One aired on MST3K while the other was a RiffTrax video. RiffTrax is essentially MST3K but without the shadows or the storyline of an unfortunate janitor being shot into space and forced to watch terrible movies. The commenters are Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, who were trapped in the Satellite of Love's theater during the final three seasons of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
Bryce, Carl, and I watched Ed Woods' most (in)famous film, which is sometimes called "The Citizen Kane of Bad Movies", just prior to our bimonthly game of 40K. It was the second time I had watched it and I was looking forward to inflicting it on others.

Concerned that violence-prone humanity is on the brink of discovering a devastating scientific principle that will allow them to destroy the entire Universe, an alien race implements "Plan 9" in an attempt to wipe out the human race. It quickly becomes obvious why Plans 1 through 8 failed since Plan 9 involves reanimating the dead to destroy the living. And by "the dead" I mean three whole corpses consisting of former Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, horror hostess Vampira, and the genuinely dead Bela Lugosi. Lugosi was resurrected by the miracle of stock footage and shots of a chiropractor who continuously holds a cape in front of his face in an unconvincing attempt to hide the fact that he's not Lugosi.

For the most part our hero is pilot Jeff Trent who had previously witnessed an unidentified flying pie-plate... uh, object, and just so happens to live near the cemetery where the three reanimated ghouls spend the bulk of the film. Although the aliens have figured out interstellar space travel, it doesn't seem to occur to them that the corpses will be singularly unsuccessful if they remain exclusively in a cemetery where there are very few of the living to harm. There are just enough of the living around to notice that something's not right, though, so the police are brought in to investigate. Thrill as the local police race to the cemetery in response to strange goings-on! And then return to the cemetery later in the film. And... well, maybe even a third or fourth time. And then stand around and accidentally bump into obvious prop tombstones.

I've seen plenty of films written by Ed Woods (e.g., The Violent Years (1956)). Woods' writing style was horribly wordy, filled with non sequiturs, and hysterically melodramatic. The perfect example of this is when "The Amazing Criswell" (who is obviously reading from cue cards) opens Plan 9 with an overly long and highly dramatic narration that declares that "future events such as these will affect you in the future". And Bryce and I still like to quote the alien Eros' line berating the humans for their foolishness: "You see! You see! Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!" The icing on the cake is that the actor says it the same way you would expect a petulant ten year old to say it.

Plan 9 is only one of two films I've seen that were also directed by Woods (this and Bride of the Monster (1955)). Although his writing could be slightly mitigated by a relatively competent director, you can imagine the horror that resulted when Woods directed his own movies. Even then, I think that those who declare this to be the worst movie ever made haven't seen enough films from this end of the cinematic bell curve. I would say that movies like Monster A Go-Go (1965) or The Creeping Terror (1964) are much worse simply because they're poorly made and boring.

Since Plan 9 from Outer Space falls into the so-bad-it's-good category, it really deserves a split rating:
F (by nearly any standard of filmmaking)/B+ (for sheer entertainment value)

Time of the Apes (1974/1987)
Apparently, Planet of the Apes (1968) drew a phenomenal number of viewers when it first aired on Japanese television. It was so popular, in fact, that a 26 episode television series was produced in the mid-seventies called Saru No Gundan (Army of Monkeys) in which a scientist and two children end up in an ape-dominated future. Unlike Planet of the Apes, the apes of this series appear to have achieved a modern technological level. Nor are the apes surprised by talking humans. And there are UFOs. I really don't know why there are UFOs, but I've seen enough Japanese sci-fi films made between 1954 and 2004 to know that UFOs show up in a lot of them.

Fast forward to the late 1980s when producer Sandy Frank, who dubbed foreign films such as the Gamera franchise in order to air them on US television, spliced together the 26 episodes of Saru No Gundan into a single film called Time of the Apes. Unfortunately, it turns out that you can't take 26 episodes of a TV show, edit them into a 97 minute movie, and hope for it to make any sense.

When an earthquake strikes and the roof of a cryogenics laboratory begins to collapse, scientist Catherine (I'm not sure she's even given a last name) and two visiting children (Caroline and Johnny) duck into three freezing chambers for protection. When they wake up, they find themselves in a future where apes evolved from men!... well, no, I guess I don't know why apes are running things. And unlike Charlton Heston, we won't even get a Statue of Liberty scene to suggest what happened while our protagonists were frozen.

In no time the three are being hunted by Police Chief Gebar and only avoid capture and execution thanks to the inexplicably well-dressed and well-armed human named Gôdo. Apparently Gôdo is the human that the simian police force are really after, although they seem pretty willing to kill just about any humans.

The humans are eventually captured but, instead of being executed, they're handed over to Cabinet Minister Bippu, who seems a lot less eager to be killing them off than Gebar. Gôdo and Johnny escape and eventually return to break the girls out, although Catherine claims that Bippu is actually trying to protect the humans and is reluctant to leave. Since the previous action only followed the boys' escape and evasion of Gebar's forces, we see absolutely no evidence of Catherine's claims. However, by the end of the film Bippu seems downright civil and helpful, although his transformation from wary jail keeper to friend of humanity seems extremely sudden (presumably it happened during the hours of story that Frank cut out).

Oh, and then there's the UFO. And it uses some sort of video device to show the events that led to Gebar's vendetta against Gôdo and proves to the ape that their dispute is based on a misunderstanding. And thus the movie's primary conflict is defused by a deus ex machina. And the UFO kind of sort of returns the trio to their own time. But we don't know why or even where the spaceship is really from. And the laboratory isn't destroyed after all. But it wasn't a dream, they were somehow frozen to a temperature below absolute zero(?!?) and that allowed them to time travel... or something. I'm not sure how much damage Sandy Frank did to the original explanation for the time traveling, but I've seen plenty of Godzilla films with utterly nonsensical "science", so it may have been inherent to the original series.

I don't know how good Saru No Gundan was, although I believe it was popular in Japan. However, Time of the Apes is pretty awful. The costumes and plot are mediocre, but it's the pacing and plot holes that really hurt the film. I've seen several movies made from two hour pilots or the first few episodes of a failed TV show, but I've never seen anyone try to make one out of more than two dozen episodes. The mysterious UFO, the mutiny against Bippu that lasts all of two minutes, Gôdo's background, the fate of all other humans; all of these are so poorly explained or inadequately covered thanks to Frank's chainsaw that the movie can't help but to suffer from it.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Another Bachelor Movie Marathon, Part II

The past movie marathon was a bit heavy on the '50s movies, although I also saw at least one movie from the '30s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. The '40s and the '60s simply weren't a good time for the genres of movies I'm interested in. Here are a couple non-'50s films.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Probably the best film I saw during this marathon, this early '30s horror movie is based on H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau. Although the filmmakers' took a few liberties with the plot, the film is surprisingly faithful to the novel compared to other adaptations from the same period such as Dracula (1931) or Frankenstein (1931). It's also surprising how much more violent and disturbing '30s films could be compared to movies from the '40s and '50s. In fact, the film was banned in Britain until 1958.

After his ship goes down, Edward Parker is rescued by a vessel carrying a load of wild animals bound for the private island of Dr. Moreau. In return for defending Moreau's misshapen servant from the ship's short-tempered captain, Parker gets dumped onto Moreau's yacht, which has arrived to pick up the animals. Upon arriving at the island, Parker quickly notices that it's inhabited by odd, even bestial "natives". Although Moreau promises to take him back to civilization, the doctor's yacht becomes "mysteriously" damaged. While other arrangements are supposedly being made, Moreau encourages Lota, the lone woman on the island, to interact with Parker.

It isn't long before Parker discovers that the natives aren't human at all; all of them were originally animals that were surgically transformed by Moreau in his "House of Pain". The lot are kept civil through threats and constant repetition of "The Law". While trying to find a way off the island and away from Moreau's inhuman experiments, Parker starts to have romantic feelings for Lota. What our hero doesn't know is that Lota is referred to as "The Panther Woman" in the film's opening credits and that the doctor has high hopes that his latest experiment will prove to be indistinguishable from a natural-born human in all respects.

Island of Lost Souls is one of the better movies of the decade. It's well-paced, its cinematography is dynamic and striking for a film from the '30s, and it features an excellent cast. Dr. Moreau is the perfect mad scientist in that he's not insane, but is entirely rational and logical in the execution of an insane work. His delivery of lines such as "Do you know what it means to feel like God" is spot on. That particular line was also one of multiple reasons why Britain's censors repeatedly refused to certify the film. Other reasons included (non-graphic) scenes of animal experimentation as well as the doctor's express belief that the true test of the success of his experiments will be whether or not one of his creations can successfully mate with a human being. Like I said, '30s films were often a lot more disturbing than films made 20 years later.

In a hilarious case of false advertising, the movie poster depicts Lota in a seductive pose and with, um... strategically placed hair, and claims that she "lured men on-- only to destroy them body and soul!" In reality, Lota is an extremely sympathetic character who actually rescues the hero at the cost of her own life. Additionally, Bela Lugosi's name is listed with those of the main actors. Much to my surprise, Lugosi doesn't play Dr. Moreau (Moreau is played by Charles Laughton, who probably does a better job than Lugosi would have) but is instead the "Sayer of the Law". He has only a few minutes of screen time and is so covered in makeup and fake hair that he's identifiable only by his voice and eyes. And yes, the camera does the mandatory closeup on Lugosi's eyes, although he doesn't hypnotize anyone with them.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
I started reading the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes a few weeks ago and decided to add the movie to the most recent marathon. Although the novel's author, Ray Bradbury, wrote the film's screenplay, the movie isn't quite as good as the book. Ironically, Bradbury died while I was in the middle of the novel and only a few days after I had seen the film.

When Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show arrives on the outskirts of a small town in the middle of the night, the townsfolk find themselves strangely attracted to the carnival. However, young Jim Nightshade, his best friend William Halloway, and Will's relatively elderly father, Charles Halloway, quickly realize that something isn't right. Not only are Mr. Dark and his entourage distinctly menacing, but within the first day of the carnival's arrival, various locals who seem to live in the past go missing and new additions to the carnival's freak show mysteriously appear. One of the oddest occurrences is witnessed by Jim and Will, who watch as carnival member Mr. Cooger takes a late night ride on a backwards-running carousel and becomes younger with each rotation. When the two boys come across Mr. Dark's interrogation of the local storm-sensing lightning rod salesman, Dark and company realize that Jim and Will are a threat to their diabolical operation. It's up to Will's father to save his son and his friend from the carnival which, as revealed by an old journal, rises up every few decades to prey on the town.

Something Wicked This Way Comes isn't a bad movie, but it could have been a lot better. It falls short in odd ways that seem to be artifacts of its transfer from the printed page to the screen. Its plot is relatively close to that of the book (although a number of understandable changes are made to simplify the special effects and to keep the movie's length to about an hour and a half), but a few alterations and missing elements ensure that it isn't quite as good as the novel it's based on.

The first problem is that the movie haphazardly uses some of the more memorable and striking scenes from the book (e.g., the backwards-running carousel, the Dust Witch's use of magic against Jim and Will) in ways that make little sense in the context of the film. In the book the carousel has an important function; it's not only used to allow Mr. Cooger to impersonate a teacher's young nephew, but it's also used to tempt those townsfolk who want to become younger (e.g., the teacher herself) or older (Jim Nightshade). Since the carnival's not in the business of giving you what you actually want, the teacher is reduced to a helpless little girl. In the movie, the teacher does become young again, but it happens while she's looking in a mirror, not while riding the carousel. And except for a brief mention of Jim wanting to become older, the film's carousel doesn't come into play again until the climatic final sequence (which is admittedly pretty cool). Another sequence from the book involves the Dust Witch using her magic to attempt to find where Jim and Will live. Apparently it was believed that the movie should involve a similar scene, but all the Witch's magic does in the movie is give the boys intense nightmares, which does nothing to help the carnival locate or stop the troublemakers. Since the movie's version of these scenes have been bereft of the meaning and purpose they had in the novel, it's not obvious why they're even included and might even be confusing for viewers who aren't familiar with the source material.

The second problem is the fact that the child actors can't portray the depth and complexity of their literary counterparts. For example, the novel's Jim Nightshade is depicted as a child who has seen too much of the world and is becoming more withdrawn with each passing year. He desperately wants to leave childhood and the smothering attentions of his single mother behind and is drawn by the mystery of the carnival and the potential of the carousel to allow him to immediately achieve physical maturity. Thus, Jim's behavior, motivations, and inner-conflict in the novel are perfectly understandable. The film's Jim Nightshade also wants to use the carousel to age himself, but his motivations are unclear. The film character shows none of the world-weariness or unhealthy attraction to mystery, nor does his behavior suggest that Mr. Dark's promise of "Nightshade's and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show" would tempt him.

While I've criticized the film version of Something Wicked This Way Comes, it's possibly because the movie's errors become much more obvious after reading the novel. On the plus side, the movie's adult actors do a very good job. Since the young actors can't fully carry the story as the novel's characters do, Will's father, Charles Halloway, is given a much bigger role. Fortunately, Jason Robard is excellent in the role as a man who feels much too old to be the father of a 13 year old boy and who now has to save him from the physical embodiment of evil. Additionally, Jonathan Pryce is well cast as Mr. Dark. Rather than attempt the bombast of the novel's character, Pryce aims for quiet menace. Nowadays Pryce is better known for playing Governor Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. It's funny how the same quiet voice and small smile he uses as the foppish governor can be twisted into something so threatening.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Another Bachelor Movie Marathon, Part I

Again my wife and kids spent some time with my family in California while I stayed in Idaho and held down the fort. Although I didn't watch nearly as many movies as last time, I still saw a respectable number. Some were good, some were average, and some were dreadful.

The Phantom (1996)
Years ago I was given an LP that had belonged to my mother and her brothers. On one side was a Batman radio adventure in which the villains give Batman a phobia of bats while under hypnosis. It's ironic that, years later, the most popular cinematic incarnation of Batman would be afraid of bats and would choose his symbol based on that fear. On the other side of the record was a Phantom adventure. The Phantom was introduced in 1936 as a purple tights-wearing hero who lives in the jungles of the fictional African nation of Bangalla. There he uses his strength, brains, and the myth of his being an immortal "Ghost Who Walks" to fight evil.

When hired goons invade the jungles of Bengalla and sack an ancient burial place in search of one of the fabled Skulls of Touganda, the Phantom appears to rescue the young boy the villains kidnapped as their unwitting guide. The goons get away with the skull and take it to New York, where we find that wealthy and corrupt utilities owner Xander Drax is attempting to collect all three skulls. Legend has it that whoever can bring the three skulls together can command unimaginable power. In the meantime, Dianna Palmer, the niece of the newspaper editor who is trying to bring Drax down, is kidnapped by Drax's henchmen (and henchwomen in the form of a group of all-female air pirates). The Phantom rescues Palmer, who doesn't recognize him as being her ex-boyfriend. The movie is initially silent on how the Phantom knows Palmer in the first place, since it's implied that he was born and raised in Bengalla. We're eventually clued in that the title of "Phantom" is passed from father to son. The current Phantom had been studying in America (where he met Palmer) at the time his father was killed by Drax's right hand man and he had to take on "the family business". Anyway, Drax ends up with all three skulls and the Singh Brotherhood, which is mentioned throughout the movie, finally makes an appearance that is much too brief to merit all the attention it gets.

The Phantom isn't a bad movie, but it doesn't live up to its potential. Billy Zane's Phantom seems too personable and good-humored to ever maintain a reputation as "The Ghost Who Walks" and could have benefited from the haunted past and the aura of mystery that Michael Keaton brought to Batman in 1989. And Drax is a bit too comical to be a truly menacing villain. The best thing about the movie is that it's set in the 1930s and preserves the comic's pulp adventure feel, which mitigates the inherent silliness.

The Blob (1958)
I was recently made fun of for not having seen The Blob while claiming to be a fan of sci-fi in general and of '50s sci-fi in particular. I couldn't allow that to stand of course, so I quickly added the movie to my Netflix queue.

When a meteor lands near the home of an old recluse, the man becomes the unfortunate first victim of the creature that emerges from it. "Teenagers" Steve Andrews and his girlfriend Jane Martin take the hysterical man to the local doctor after he runs into the road with a pink mass covering his hand. Steve and Jane leave the man in the doctor's care, only to return and find the creature in the act of consuming the doctor. Over the next few hours, the creature slinks around town, stealthily consuming the townsfolk while Steve and Jane find it nearly impossible to convince the authorities of the danger. With the help of the local youth, they finally manage to rouse the town and find themselves trying to convince hundreds of tired and angry citizens of the threat posed by a steadily growing pink slimeball. Fortunately (or unfortunately) the teens don't have to wait too long before the creature publicly reveals itself in fantastic fashion.

The Blob is a decent little movie. Despite the ridiculous opening theme and absurd premise, the movie is played pretty straight. It's still hard to accept Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut as teenagers, though (they were 28 and 24 years old, respectively). The Blob itself doesn't get quite enough screen time, although when it does it's surprisingly scary for a large pink ball of goo. The idea that it envelops its victims and dissolves them alive is pretty horrific for a movie from this era.

Kronos (1957)
Although it's not considered to be a classic movie, Kronos is known for its unique monster. Imagine two enormous black blocks connected by a metallic cylinder. The bottom block stands on four pillar-like legs and the upper block is topped by a dome and two antennae. When it walks, Kronos stamps its pillars up and down while the center of the block emits a cartoon beam. This looks as goofy as it sounds.

As a flying saucer approaches Earth, Dr. Gaskill and Dr. Culver look on, assuming that the object is some sort of meteor. A ball of energy leaves the UFO and eventually inhabits Dr. Eliot, the director of the institution tracking the object. Once the UFO lands on Earth and transforms into the abstract art menace, the possessed director provides it with targets from which it can absorb energy while also trying to hide the purpose of the machine from his underlings. When an electrical shock allows Dr. Eliot to briefly free himself from the alien mind control, the doctor reveals that Kronos is an accumulator that has been sent by a hostile and energy-hungry world to absorb all of the Earth's power for its own use. As the machine absorbs energy it becomes ever larger and more threatening until, finally, the military decides to drop an H-bomb on it. All those power plants weren't even a light snack compared to a thermonuclear main course.

While the monster is unusual, the movie surrounding it is barely average. I've never been a fan of Jeff Morrow, who's better as a villain or a secondary character than he is in a lead role. His Dr. Gaskill is decidedly unmemorable and uncharismatic. In fact, although cast as an unwitting villain, John Emery's Dr. Eliot seems to be the real star of the film. And the scientists' plan to defeat the monster is so full of nonsensical techno-jargon that I actually had to watch the explanation twice to make sure I hadn't missed something. Nope, I saw and heard the whole thing; not one whit of it made any sense. The climactic destruction of the machine lacks any real impact or excitement, in part because it's executed by a single pilot that we never actually meet while the supposed heroes listen to his radio transmissions. Kronos would have been better off emulating the monster-killing scenes from movies like Gojira/Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1954/1956) or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953).


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