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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