Saturday, May 19, 2012

Sweet Post-apocalyptic Rides (1970s Edition)

Ark II.

Ark II's "roamer."

Strange New World's Vesta Explorer.

The hover car from Logan's Run: The Series.

Damnation Alley's Landmaster.

Directorate Land Rover from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Rule" (October 30, 1976)

In the second episode of Ark II, entitled “The Rule,” Captain Jonah (Terry Lester) makes log entry 1441, which puts this episode ahead of last week’s “The Flies” in terms of internal continuity.  Making the entry as the Ark II patrols “Area 32, Sector 16” Jonah notes the presence in the area of “primitive cave dwellers.”  

His team’s mission: “to improve the quality of their lives” in “any way” the crew can.

While Adam and Ruth (Jean Marie Hon) are out patrolling in the Ark Roamer, local scavengers attack the Ark II, and Jonah orders Samuel (Jose Flores) to activate lateral and vertical force fields.  As the scavengers hurl rocks at the advanced vehicle, the force fields repel them, sending the stones back in the air.  This effect is achieved by reversing the film, a cheap technique but one that still looks stunning.

When Ruth is injured in a Roamer crash and Adam goes to look for help, a young man named Jeff (David Abbott) rescues her and takes her back to his village.  Unfortunately, Jeff’s father is the ruler of the village and he imposes a draconian “rule” upon all citizens.  Anyone who cannot work to support the village must be “cast out” into the wilderness.  On this day, the ruler plans to exile a blind man and an old woman for their inability to toil in the fields.

After Jeff himself is injured while attempting to build a hang-glider, his father adheres to the mandatory rule, and exiles his son.  Though Ruth complains about a cruel society that doesn’t care for its most vulnerable members, Jeff’s father is unmoved.  He is stuck in tradition, and can’t see outside of it.

Soon, scavengers steal the livestock and food from the village, leaving it without supplies to survive the coming winter.  Ruth, Jeff and the other exiles team with Jonah, Adam and Samuel to set a trap for the scavengers and recover the stolen supplies.   When the cast-out members return to the village with the missing resources, the ruler finally recognizes their worth -- and the error of his ways -- and promise to abolish “the rule” from this day forward.

In the second episode produced, though the eighth aired (on October 30th, 1976), Ark II gazes intently at the price of survival.  In a difficult, post-apocalyptic setting such as this one, everyone must contribute to the communal good, but human (and humane…) societies must also care of the elderly and the disabled.  In this village, that’s explicitly not the case, and the Ark II team arrives to remind the cruel villagers that “each of us – young and old alike – has a skill” to contribute.  Civilization forgets that fact at its own peril, and could take a “giant step backwards” according to Jonah in his log entry.

Although aired nearly thirty years ago, “The Rule” grapples with ideas that are still important in contemporary American society. Do we live by the law of the jungle, or the laws of humanity?  Even in times of austerity and want, can mankind still be civilized and care for those who can’t care for themselves?  Some people see that kind of “care” is actually a hand-out to be disdained, while others view it as a sacred duty.  “The Rule” also suggests that some “laws” must be applied flexibly, or human society could lose its sense of compassion and devolve into cruelty.

In terms of the development of Ark II’s fictitious world, this episode shows us more of the Ark Roamer, and the Ark II’s powerful force fields.  “The Rule” also reveals a unique hand-held device: a defensive weapon of some kind, which can cause brief blindness in an opponent long enough to distract them or make an escape.  I don’t remember if it shows up again in the series, but I’ll be looking for it.

Probably the big question in this week’s episode involves Adam.  In case you forgot, he’s the super-evolved chimpanzee, the one with the capacity to speak.  Oddly, when Ruth is knocked unconscious in the Roamer accident, Adam does not choose to verbally respond as Samuel attempts to contact the vehicle.  Doesn’t he know how to use the radio?  Why does Adam leave Ruth alone and go in search of Ark II, when he could open a channel to the vehicle and report, verbally, what occurred?  That’s something of an inconsistency.  We’re not meant to view the character as an uncommunicative animal but as an intelligent character.  He plays chess, after all, as we saw in “The Flies.”

The coda for “The Rule” also brings up a question that probably should not have been raised at all.  We see Adam wearing a chef’s hat and preparing dinner for the human crew in the Ark II’s kitchen area.  Really…a chimpanzee preparing meals?  I’m not entirely certain about the hygiene aspects of this.  Would you fix food prepared by an ape?  Is Adam smart enough to understand hygiene?  

Does he shower or otherwise bathe?  Does he wash his…paws?

Once more, the very worst aspect of Ark II is the strange inclusion of a talking monkey as a crew member.  It would have been wonderful and worthwhile if the makers of the series had chosen to define Adam’s capacities and characteristics a bit more clearly, early on.

Next Saturday: "The Tank"

Friday, May 18, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Lost in Space (1998)

It was the summer of my discontent. The blockbuster season of 1998 brought lackluster revivals of two childhood favorites, Godzilla and Lost in Space.  I came away from screening both films nurturing a belief that -- literally all at once -- Hollywood had forgotten how to make entertaining movies based on beloved genre properties. 

Yes, Hollywood was capable of crafting spectacular special effect, yet something rung terribly hollow at the heart of both of these lavish remakes.  

Perhaps the problem is that the A-list actors, writers, producers and directors engaged in these remakes were essentially working with “B” material, but without the appreciation or zeal for the material that the original “B” movie teams had so clearly and abundantly demonstrated in the past.

There’s a crucial difference, we must finally acknowledge between creating an original work of art and inheriting that same property years later, determined to make it “relevant” and “popular” again. 

The artistry, invention and love that goes into making something for the very first time is not necessarily the same thing as -- years after the property has made its name -- applying a paint job, or a superficial renovation.  But of course, even Lost in Space the TV series was an adaptation of a work of art in a different form, Space Family Robinson.

But the point is that when a movie remake is launched, the property already possesses a history, a context, a vibe, and a perception by the culture-at-large.  The critical task of the remake-r is to interpret those pre-existing characteristics and determine the “why” behind the initial and residual success.

But that “why” isn’t always easy to understand, and it is even more difficult to replicate.

The message -- which I understood in 1998 and try to hold in my thoughts even now -- is that you can’t go home again.

Lost in Space (1965 – 1968) is irrevocably a product of its time, the mid-1960s. As a series it combined fairy tale whimsy and innocence with a schizophrenic approach to science and the future.  On one hand, the Robinson pioneers possessed all of this wonderful, space-age, Matt-Mason-like technology to make their lives easier, and on the other hand the same technology had stranded them in some far corner of the universe.

Lost in Space on TV also featured this great, mid-1960s space age paraphernalia: boxy, oversized and predominantly silver, with lots of blinking, bright lights.  There was a can-do attitude – a holdover from Camelot, perhaps – at work in the series too, despite the premise of being “lost.”  And love or hate the Dr. Smith role and the use to which the character was put during three tumultuous seasons, Jonathan Harris exhibited incredible commitment to that role.

And the 1998 Lost in Space movie? 

Absolutely no expense was spared in terms of special effects, in terms of sets, and in terms of lead actors, but somehow the movie doesn’t connect on the same simple human level that the series did on a weekly basis. 

The filmmakers apparently believe we want to see in this franchise weaving spaceships and lots and lots of fireballs.  They think that’s “the why” of Lost in Space, though the Irwin Allen series could afford no such bells and whistles.

Or perhaps the movie doesn’t work because, in a bow to reality and the drastic changes in American culture, the new Lost in Space family is portrayed as wholly dysfunctional and somewhat unpleasant.  This is an attempt to make the family-oriented property fit in better during a new era; to reflect our 1990s era domestic reality.  But it’s nonetheless a change that isn’t entirely welcome.  It’s very much the same problem that plagued the new Battlestar Galactica re-imagination.

There’s a vast difference between a family facing challenges and crises from the outside – a kind of Little House on the Prairie template, where life throws ample challenges at you – and facing internal, personal character flaws such as alcoholism or narcissism.  In a dramatic crisis situation and sci-fi setting, like the extermination of the human race or being lost in space, viewers want to see – I believe – characters clinging together and fighting the “elements,” as it were, not battling “personal” subplots about alcoholism that were trite when As the World Turns vetted them thirty years ago.   I think people want to see the best of mankind fighting the Cylons or space spiders, not the worst of us.

Or finally, maybe this 1988 movie fails simply because some of the casting doesn’t seem based on who is best for the role, but who boasts the most marquee value.  Matt Le Blanc, in particular, doesn’t exude the intelligence necessary to portray a believable space pilot.  His gum-chewing horn-toad comes off as hopelessly and irrevocably dumb.  His dialogue, consisting of lines like “Yee hah!,”show time!” and “last one to get a bad guy buys the beer,” is banal on a level that the old TV series could not even have conceived

Critics, generally, weren’t impressed with Lost in Space.  Writing in The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote:This "Lost in Space" is much more chaotic and less innocent than its source.”  Roger Ebert (accurately) termed the film “dim-witted,” and The San Francisco Chronicle called it “a warm wallow in the cinema of the dumbed-down.” 

All these critics were chipping away at the edges of one particularly relevant argument: that child-like innocence has been supplanted by a kind of witless breathlessness.  The original Lost in Space wasn’t Shakespeare to be certain, but nor was it patently, overtly, cheerfully dumb.  Some episodes, even today, play as lyrical fairy tales, stories of family values re-asserted in a land of extra-terrestrial magic, and occasional terror. 

You can’t look back honestly at some of those old black-and-white stories, like “My Friend, Mr. Nobody,” “One of Our Dogs is Missing” or “The Magic Mirror” without feeling a sense of wondrous, child-like imagination, if not strict devotion to established science.  It might have more in common with The Wizard of Oz than Star Trek, but Lost in Space, the TV series...had something, especially in those early black and white days.

By contrast, the Lost in Space movie seeks to hammer the audience with a pile-up of catastrophic incidents (many admittedly interesting, at least initially), and at the same time, pay lip service to the family values vibe of the original. 

In a bit of too-clever criticism, the movie’s Dr. Smith asks at one point: “will every little problem be an excuse for family sentiment?”  That is precisely the movie’s modus operandi.  To its ultimate detriment.

“And the monkey flips the switch”

In 2058, Earth is on the edge of oblivion.  The environment is dying and the only hope for survival is to colonize a faraway world, Alpha Prime.  To do so, however, two “hyper gates” must be built, one in Earth orbit, and one in orbit of Alpha Prime.  When both are up and running, colony ships can jump instantly from one point to the other, and the relocation of man can begin.

Professor John Robinson (William Hurt) leads a mission to Alpha Prime to construct the second hypergate. Because of the long duration of the mission -- a decade -- his family comes along aboard the Jupiter 2.  Among the crew are his wife Maureen Robinson (Mimi Rogers), physician Judy Robinson (Heather Graham), petulant teenager Penny (Lacey Chabert) and boy genius Will (Jack Johnson).

But Professor Robinson’s problems begin when a new, less-than-cooperative hot shot pilot, Major West (Matt Le Blanc) assumes the role of pilot on Jupiter 2, and a saboteur from the Global Sedition, Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman) programs the ship’s Robot (Dick Tufeld) to destroy the Robinsons once the craft is in flight.

Averting a disaster in space, the Jupiter 2 “jumps” through the sun and becomes hopelessly lost in space and time.  The Robinsons run afoul of strange, alien spiders on a derelict spaceship, and later crash-land on an inhospitable planet where they encounter their future, tragically-altered selves. 
There -- in that peek into a dark future -- John gets the chance to see how his absence as a father has affected a grown-up Will.

“There are monsters everywhere...I know, I am one.”

Lost in Space combines a number of plots from the old TV series, including elements of “The Reluctant Stowaway,” “The Derelict” and any episode in which Dr. Smith makes trouble for the Robinsons by interfacing with alien biology/technology or personnel (“Wish Upon A Star,” “Ghost in Space,” “The Space Trader,” “His Majesty Smith,” “All that Glitters,” “The Dream Monster,” and so on…). 

The film, directed by Stephen Hopkins, also attempts fidelity in terms of production design.  The Jupiter 1 in the film looks much like the TV series’ Jupiter 2, for instance, and before the end of the movie, the newer high-tech robot has been re-built by Will to resemble the popular B9, that famous “bubble-headed booby” and cousin to Robby the Robot.  Even the interiors look like faithful if updated reconstructions of the 1960s sets, only with more curves and a more organic feel.

Of all the cast, Le Blanc fares the worst.  He is utterly unlikable as West, and given the worst dialogue to vet.  William Hurt seems bored and disconnected as Professor Robinson.  Mimi Rogers and Heather Graham are okay, and only Gary Oldman absolutely shines.  In fact, Oldman’s version of the treacherous Dr. Smith character feels like a real tribute to Jonathan Harris, coming off as arrogantly self-important and straddling the line between good and evil.  Oldman mines considerable humor and menace from the screenplay, and is the movie’s most valuable player.  He's great here.

The most contrived portions of Lost in Space involve Maureen’s unceasing complaints about John’s “time.”  She constantly nags him about spending more hours with Will, even though she also has two daughters and he doesn’t spend any time with them, either.  So yes, apparently only young boys, not young girls, require quality time with their father.  Who knew the world would be so sexist, still, in 2058? I  guess we know who wins the war on women...   

More crucially, Maureen’s complaints come off as rather selfish and small given the context of what’s happening around her.  John Robinson is struggling to save the planet Earth and the human race, and sure, it would be nice if he could attend his son’s science fair. But I wager his priorities are just about right.  In fact, I bet if Will were given a choice, he’d decide that his Dad should, you know, save the planet, so that all kids can enjoy science fairs for years to come.

The John-needs-to-spend-more-time-with-Will subplot is a manufactured crisis and a contrivance that isn’t truly believable given the narrative details.  The movie sort of proves it’s a non-issue when the older Will – even with Spider Smith as a surrogate father – does the right thing to save the universe and his family.  I guess John imparted some good qualities to his boy in the time he had.  He may be "busy" (again, saving the world") but he isn't negligent or absent.

Again, the old series didn’t contend with these “emo” touches.  The Robinsons were essentially space pioneers and, well, a planet had to be tamed.  John Robinson (Guy Williams) was always there for his son if Will (Bill Mumy) needed him, but there wasn’t this constant hand-wringing on the TV series  about how much time the two were spending together.  Here, the subplot is a little touchy-feely and unrealistic given the circumstances.

Bottom line: there’s not a lot of time for father-child closeness when your spaceship is plunging into the sun, battling metal spiders, crash-landing, or hovering at the edge of a dangerous space-time bubble.

Sorry, kid.  Suck it up.

Even family must, as we all know too well, bow to reality, and I generally resent movies that suggest everything would be okay if a Dad and son just spent a little more time together.   Meanwhile, the planet is falling apart…. 

Another problem with the film is that, in post-production, apparently, someone decided that the film needed to be funnier.  Therefore, we get an out-of-left-field The Waltons joke (“and good night, John Boy...”) delivered in embarrassed voice-over.  The problem isn't that the joke isn't funny, though it isn't.  The problem is that it doesn’t fit the scene.  We get a nice fade-out on John and Maureen about to have sex, and then the very next instant, we’re onto a sound cue of the same two characters saying “good night” to each other and the kids, like this is the galactic Brady Bunch.  Like so much of the film’s humor, it’s groan-inducing.

As incongruous as that moment remains, the space creature that the Robinsons discover, Blawp is even worse.  He has been crafted to look absolutely ridiculous.  The design of this alien might have fit in on the original series, forty years ago, but it in no way fits the palette of the 1998 film.  Blawp doesn’t look like the product of a universe that includes the movie Robinsons and the truly scary alien metal spiders.  Instead, Blawp looks as though he was shipped in from the funny pages, circa 1959.  Every time the creature appears, his presence takes you right out of the reality of the movie. 

It’s not just that the creature is composed of bad CGI.  It’s that the visualization of the creature is all wrong for the earthy production canvas; fanciful and whimsical in a movie of skin-tight body suits and dark browns and greys. 

Despite my reservations about the movie, Lost in Space begins relatively well. Even though the opening space battle between the Global Sedition and United Global Space Force is entirely unnecessary, the first hour of the film establishes well the threat to Earth. The first act boasts a decent pace, and there’s a respectable level of excitement and anticipation. The battle on the alien derelict against the metal spiders is also thrilling. From the point, however, in which John goes into the time bubble, the movie gets lost itself.

Lost and incoherent.

As the movie ends, Future Will throws Present John through a time vortex, but it isn’t entirely clear if West already has the power cells the Jupiter 2 needs for lift-off, if John has them, or if Future Will still has them.  Why is the Jupiter 2 attempting escape velocity without the power source it needs?  Why isn't anyone commenting on, essentially, a suicide run?

Then, the movie ends without resolving Dr. Smith’s crisis. He’s slowly turning into a giant spider monster, but there are no attempts to treat the condition, or even quarantine the guy.  The movie ends without even a hint of resolution on this front.  But this is after John, Will, the Robot and Smith himself have seen his future manifestation.  I very much doubt Smith would stay silent, knowing he is carrying an infection that will transform him into a giant arachnid.

Also, Lost in Space never squares the circle in terms of the future.  The robot of the future comes back in time to the Jupiter 2…but in the “real” timeline, Will never finishes building that robot.  So if he does, there will be two robots? 

If he doesn’t finish work on the robot, then where did the robot come from, having never actually been constructed by Will?  I’m not saying that this is an unworkable dilemma, only that the movie might have made note of the time paradox.  A joke about it would have been fine.

As a general premise, Lost in Space boasts great potential, even today.  The idea of a family alone on an alien world, trying to make a go of things, offers nearly infinite story ideas.  You don’t have to make the movie schmaltzy, or wall-to-wall action to make the scenario work effectively.  You just need a few characters you like, some tough conditions, and a sense that – as a family – the pioneers will stick together and see the mission through, no matter the challenges.  But this Lost in Space wants to hit you on the head with incongruous platitudes about family (a lot like the Dark Shadows remake I reviewed on Tuesday…) and then wow you with special effects explosions.

Although I felt a legitimate  thrill hearing Dick Tufeld voice the Robot again in this film, I remember well 1998 and my discontent regarding this film.   It remains a lost opportunity, and an emotionally hollow adventure.  

Danger, Will Robinson! 

Movie Trailer: Lost in Space (1998)

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Sarcasm is the recourse of the weak mind."

- Lost in Space (1998) 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Fungus Among Us: Cult TV’s Most Memorable Eukaryotes.

Mushrooms, yeasts, and molds…oh my. 

Eukaryotic life forms – fungi – are non-vascular organisms that reproduce by means of spores.  Unlike bacteria, fungi always possess a nucleus and are made of thin threads known as “hyphae,” or all together, in networks, “mycelium.”

Typically fungi are not motile (meaning capable of motion), but in cult-television history that’s not always the case.   Additionally, many fungi are saprophytic, meaning that they release digestive enzymes and then absorb the digested food.  Many fungi in the real world are also mutualists (lichens, for example), but some (especially in genre television) are decidedly parasitic in nature.

Over the decades, monstrous (and sometimes helpful…) fungi have appeared in many popular science fiction programs.  Thus today, I offer a list of some of the most memorable TV fungi, both friendly and hostile.

7.         Blake’s 7: “The Web” (January 30, 1978). In this early episode of Blake’s 7 by creator Terry Nation, the Liberator is ensnared in space in an organic, fungal web.  The web is a tool of an immortal creature called Saymon (Richard Beale), a corporate life form.  On the planet below the web, Saymon has genetically engineered creatures called Decimas that Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) attempts to free from enslavement.  Meanwhile, Saymon – one of the legendary Auron “Lost” -- desires the Liberator’s power cells.  Unless he gets them, the Liberator will be permanently ensnared in the gossamer filaments of the space fungus.

6.         Lost in Space: “Welcome Stranger” (October 20, 1965.) In this sixth episode of Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space written by Peter Packer, an astronaut from Earth named Jimmy Hapgood (Warren Oates) lands near the Robinson encampment, unaware that the tiny fungal life-forms on his capsule are evolving in the friendly atmosphere and rapidly becoming giant, tentacled monsters..  When he offers to take Penny and Will back with him on his shape, he has no idea that the area is overrun these frightening monsters.

5.         Space: 1999: “The Last Sunset” and “Journey to Where.”  In “The Last Sunset” by Christopher Penfold, aliens from the planet Ariel gift Moonbase Alpha with a breathable lunar atmosphere.  Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) leads a team to judge the possibility of reclaiming the surface of the moon, but her Eagle crashes in a wind storm.  

While attempting to get word to Alpha, a member of her exploratory team, controller Paul Morrow (Prentis Hancock) discovers mushrooms growing in the new atmosphere.  He samples one, and soon turns psychotic, imagining the moon's surface as a future Garden of Eden, made into a paradise by the mushrooms, by so-called “manna from heaven.”  Eventually, Helena and her team are rescued, and it is learned that the mushrooms actually possessed dangerous hallucinogenic elements…
In the second season episode “Journey to Where,” Helena falls ill from “viral pneumonia” after a time travel trip to Earth in the year 1339.  Captured by people of that era, Helena, Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) and pilot Alan Carter (Nick Tate) are imprisoned in a cave, where Helen sees fungus growing on the cave walls.  She notes that “fungoids” are the basis for the only drugs known to cure viral pneumonia.  She asks Koenig to pick some off the wall to treat her, and creates herself a remedy.

Incidentally, this particular scene between Koenig and Helena is repeated, almost note for note in the first season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Arsenal of Freedom.”  Only there it took place in another cave, and between another commanding officer and CMO: Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher.

4.         SGU: “Cloverdale.” (October 26, 2010). In this second season episode of Stargate Universe, the crew of Destiny is menaced on a lush alien planet by a dangerous fungus creature.  Matthew Scott (Brian J. Smith) is infected by it, and the fungus begins to grow, out-of-control, on his arm.  As the fungus rapidly spreads towards Scott's trunk, Dr. Rush (Robert Carlyle) suggests amputation (with bone saw, no less...), but reverses course when he learns the fungus is already in Scott’s blood stream.  While unconscious and infected by the alien fungus, Matthew imagines an elaborate fantasy in which he returns to the picturesque home-town called “Cloverdale” and awaits his wedding day with Chloe (Elyse Levesque).  Meanwhile, walking plant creatures that resemble triffids could hold the key to reversing Matthew’s rapidly-spreading infection.

3.         The X-Files: “Field Trip” (May 19, 1999).  In this sixth-season episode of The X-Files by John Shiban and Vince Gilligan, F.B.I. agents Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny) visit my neck of the woods, North Carolina, to investigate the death of two hikers in the woods.  They soon run afoul of a hungry, giant, subterranean mushroom that begins to slowly absorb and digest them.  During this lengthy process, Mulder and Scully both hallucinate that they have returned home to their lives.  In Scully’s case, she imagines Mulder’s death and wake.  In his case, Mulder tracks a story of alien abduction.  The duo awake just in time, and with Skinner’s (Mitch Pileggi) help escape from the cave of the giant ravenous mushrooms…

2.         Primeval: Season 3. Episode 5 (April 25, 2009).  In this episode of the BBC time incursion series, an anomaly opens up in a millionaire's apartment.  It leads to Earth's distant future, where an assistant soon inhales the spores of a giant fungus.  He returns to the presents and spreads the spores to his heartless boss, Richard Bentley (William Scott-Mason), who begins to transform into a terrifying fungus-man.  

Meanwhile, at the ARC (Anomaly Research Center) one of Christine Johnson’s (Belinda Stewart-Wilson) men is also exposed to the fast-growing fungus, and evolves into one of the mushroom monsters as well. Trapped in a lab with the rapidly-growing fungi, Connor Temple (Andrew-Lee Potts) realizes that extreme cold holds the key to halting the spread of the avaricious fungus from the future.
Connor's discovery comes not a moment too soon, as team leader Jenny Lewis (Lucy Brown) is imperiled by the Fungus Man, and exposed to the toxic material…

1.         One Step Beyond: “The Sacred Mushroom” (January 24, 1961).  This is perhaps the strangest episode of the paranormal anthology One Step Beyond, and, in fact, one of the strangest of all episodes in cult TV history.  Whereas most episodes are fictionalized accounts of paranormal events, this episode is a documentary and travelogue.  

Series director and narrator John Newland hosts a trip to a remote village in Mexico to determine along with experts Dr. Puharich, Dr. Barbara Brown, spiritual guru David Grey and Stanford professor Jeffrey Smith, if a special mushroom with hallucinogenic properties (called “X”) is capable of enhancing extra sensory perception in humans.  In one scene, we watch as the members of the team sample peyote before our eyes.

Then, upon returning to America, Newland himself also consumes the special mushroom in Dr. Puharich’s Palo Alto laboratory and is tested for an increase in psychic power and ESP.   Although the late John Newland reported to me that he experienced flashbacks for months after sampling the mushroom, he never did feel any kind of psychic awareness.  

Still, this episode has become legend because it is likely the only time in prime time history that a series host – and Golden Age Hollywood star – tripped before our eyes on American network television.  

Thus John Newland went where Boris Karloff, Rod Serling, Alfred Hitchock and Truman Bradley never did (at least publicly)…straight into America’s burgeoning drug culture.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Collectible of the Week Update: Interplanetary Star Fortress (Sears; 1979)

Back on November 30, 2011, I wrote here about one of my favorite StarWars knock-off toys, the fantastic “Interplanetary Star Fortress” manufactured and sold exclusively by Sears, and made to fit Kenner Star Wars figures, as well as Mego’s The Black Hole and Buck Rogers figures of the 1970s.   The playset is a quasi-cylindrical carrying-case that folds out to become an expansive asteroid surface and landing pad.

My own version of this disco-decade toy was missing several critical features, including a shuttle pod and plastic gun turret that could stand atop the cylinder.  My version was also missing the carrying strap and the box.

Well, via the wonders of E-Bay, I finally got my hands on a mint-in-box Sears Star Fortress that features all the elements I had been missing.  I only had a few of the base installations previously, but this version came with the “solar reactor building,” “headquarters,” “personnel quarters,” “1 particle accelerator tank” and “1 hydrogen storage tank.” 

Joel and I actually got to fold the light cardboard "buildings" into shape, and connect them together with tabs, which was fun.

This knock-off is a much more interesting toy with the missing shuttle pod and turret intact, as well as the previously missing base structures.  The shuttle pad actually has a door that opens, and snaps shut, and is fully decorated inside with high-tech (for the 1970s) imagery and detail.

Yesterday, Joel and I used the newly up-fitted Interplanetary Star Fortress to stage a battle between Ben Tennyson and Ghost Freak (plus minions BenWolf and BenMummy).  Not exactly the scenario I would have imagined at that age, but still a hell of a lot of fun. 

Memory Bank: Vectrex (1982)

The first video game console wars are long behind us, now.  But thirty years ago -- way back in 1982 -- Milton Bradley produced a unique alternative to the Atari 2600 and Intellivision.  That alternative was called the Vectrex, a game console with a built-in "arcade-style" monitor which meant, in short, that you didn't have to connect it to your television antenna with a box.

The built-in monitor wasn't Vectrex's only distinction.  The "revolutionary" design featured "line graphics" for "laser sharp visual effects" rather than the standard pixels we associate with other game systems.  In other words, the games looked a great deal like the arcade version of Battlezone: Green lines against a deep black background.

Selling for about wo-hundred dollars at the time, the Vectrex came complete with a "panel controller" (rather than the traditional joystick) and  a consumer could also purchase peripherals including a light pen and a 3-D imager.  The latter looked a lot like an early 1990s-style virtual reality helmet.

A great number of games were released for Vectrex, including the popular MineStorm, which pitted the player (in a spaceship) against floating mines, magnetic mines, fireball mines and the like.  Other games included Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Berzerk, Cosmic Chasm, Pole Position, Starhawk, and CubeQuest.  I never had the Star Trek game, but it certainly looks awesome.  Your mission was to travel through the "nine sectors" of space and "seek out and destroy the Klingon mothership."

Vectrex barely survived the Great Video Game Crash of 1983, but the system was discontinued in 1984.  I remember owning one of these toys and, during my amateur movie-making high-school days, featuring the Vectrex as a background "space monitor" in one of my productions, called The Solaris Enigma.

The Vectrex?  It "stands alone."  Or it did...for awhile, anyway.

Collectible of the Week: Wizard of Oz Emerald City Playset (Mego; 1975)

In the year 1975, Mego acquired the license from MGM to create playsets and action figures from the classic fantasy movie The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Accordingly, Mego released an impressive and varied line of Oz figures including Dorothy (w/Toto), the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, Glinda, The Wicked Witch, and the Wizard.

Even a few munchkins, including the Mayor, were included in the roll-out.

In terms of playsets, Mego manufactured a witch's castle (which I've never seen, anywhere...), the mostly-movie-accurate Munchkinland and the piece de resistance, the Emerald City Playset.

This huge, 42-inch playset could open up to reveal various chambers in th city, and came complete with a throne chair, a Wizard's curtain, a removable/fold-able yellow brick road, and an 8-inch poseable Wizard figure.  

There was even a peep-hole in the door, where a sentinel could ask "who goes there?"  

On the interior, you could see the booth where the Wizard worked his magic, and one window in the main chamber overlooked the poppy field.

When I was a kid, The Wizard of Oz was a perennial, in terms of television reruns, and also had an unmatched reputation for scaring the little ones.  I'm still terrified thinking of those talking trees, or the flying monkeys.

I do own this playset and a few of the  Wizard of Oz figures, though neither is in great condition.  Dorothy can't quite stand-up anymore (no Judy Garfield jokes, please...), and the Scarecrow seems to have lost his hat, if not his brain.  Also, my Emerald City is missing all its equipment, my pretties.

This toy reminds me a lot of the Mego Star Trek U.S.S. Entertprise Action Playset from the same era.  It's made of hard laminated cardboard and vinyl, and isn't especially accurate in terms of detail.  But it's fun to play with, and I suppose that the appeal today is mostly one of nostalgia.  If you like this kind of Mego set, you're sure to love the Emerald City Playset.

Below is a commercial from Mego, announcing the Wizard of Oz toy collection.  It's a blast from the past.

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: Darth Sardor

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Horror Lexicon #14: Through the Looking Glass

Mirror, mirror on the wall...

Horror movies frequently serve as a mirror to our world, a reflection of our deepest fears as individuals and as a culture. Given this notion, it’s no surprise that the mirror remains one of the most important and oft-used symbols featured in the genre.  The looking glass, simply stated, reveals a picture of us.

In many instances throughout the horror genre, the mirror represents a peek into another world, a dimension in view, but often beyond touch.  In films such as The Boogeyman (1980), the mirror contains a terrible evil, a repository for a terrible childhood memory, for instance.  In this case, we see ourselves in the mirror and remember the pain we’ve suffered, the pain visible to us, but not to others.

In John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), the mirror is utilized to represent the “other world,” one where evil dwells, our “opposite.”  This film is exceptionally clever, creating a dynamic of God/anti-God, matter/anti-matter, and deploying the mirror as the visual cue to that similar but opposing realm.

Poltergeist III (1988) treads similar territory, revealing that the world of the supernatural lives as malevolent reflections in all our mirrors.  The idea is interesting, if not consistent with previous Poltergeist lore.

Mirrors in horror movies are also used to say something about how we face fear.  

In films such as Candyman (1992) and Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), characters face the mirror, and quote a name (like “Candyman” or “Bloody Mary”) three times in a row to summon a force of darkness.  In these situations, people are facing themselves and their own fears, and looking for some sign that our “belief” can re-shape reality itself.  We look in the mirror at our own expressions, our terror growing...

There’s an old saying that evil cannot gaze upon itself, and so a mirror has proven a weapon against evil in horror films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master (1987).  

On a more frequent basis, mirrors are utilized in vampire films such as Fright Night (1985), because vampires don’t cast a reflection.  The mirror shows only empty space where Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) or other “monsters” should be.  In other words, a mirror reflects life, but not the undead.

The mirror has proven a potent symbolic and visual device in non-supernatural horror films too.  In Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), for instance, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine) hides a terrible secret about himself, a fracturing of his very psyche.  Virtually each time his alternate identity, Bobbi, is mentioned even in passing, De Palma cuts to a view of Elliott looking in the mirror, an important visual cue of the psychiatrist’s schizophrenic nature. 

Single White Female (1992) treads a similar path.  The film involves a psychotic woman, Hedra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who has never escaped her need for her twin…a girl who died years earlier.  Now, Hedra attempts to complete herself by making Allie (Bridget Fonda) a kind of twin-surrogate.  The film’s director, Barbet Schroeder features numerous shots of Hedra and Allie together in a mirror, a visual attempt to re-capture the film’s opening composition of Hedra and her twin sister.

On a very basic level, the mirror is also a useful device for generating jolts or jump scares.  A character runs into a room, slams the door...and something evil is reflected on the mirror hanging there.  We've seen this kind of surprise jolt in films such as Phantasm (1979) and even, to a degree, in Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), wherein we witness The Shape illuminated by a mirror.  

One of my all-time favorite mirror shots appears in this film as well. The Shape lifts his knife, mirror behind him on both sides, and we see an endless lines of stalking Boogeymen in the frame.  This was a perfect visual representation of the film, which featured on more than one occasion "false" or "multiple" Michaels to confuse the authorities (and audiences).

The mirror is featured in (but not limited to…) such horror as: Phantasm (1979), The Boogeyman (1980), Dressed to Kill (1980), The Sender (1982), The Entity (1983), One Dark Night (1983), The Initiation (1984), Fright Night (1985), Cassandra (1986), Evil Dead 2 (1987), Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987), A Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors (1987), John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), Halloween IV (1988), Night of the Demons (1988), A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master (1988), Poltergeist III (1988), The Church (1989), Single White Female (1992), Candyman (1992), Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), Dark Shadows (2012).

Cult Movie Review: Dark Shadows (2012)

The feature film remake of Dark Shadows has arrived in theaters and Tim Burton fans are faced with his least-satisfying genre comedy since Mars Attacks (1996).

While I don’t feel that Dark Shadows is a Planet of the Apes (2001)-sized creative debacle, it’s probably a close call.  This is one wildly uneven, incredibly incoherent movie.  Those who will feel most abused by Burton’s Dark Shadows re-imagination are likely the long-term fans of the afternoon soap opera, which ran on TV from 1966 – 1971.  

And that’s because this is a jokey and campy update of the serious Gothic material presented there.  The themes, tropes and situations of the much-cherished series have been spun to support an entirely Burton-esque fish-out-of-water comedy, but one lacking the heart and emotionality of Big Fish (2002) or Edward Scissorhands (1992).  Barnabas -- the great Byronic vampire who came before Anne Rice’s Lestat, Forever Knight’s Nick Knight, Joss Whedon’s Angel and Stephanie Meyers’ Edward Cullen – is now a confused misfit tilting at lava lamps and other fads of the 1970s.

And I’m afraid that’s the good news...

Dark Shadows recounts the tragic life of noble Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp).  Born in Liverpool, he traveled to America with his family in the late 18th century and watched as his father created a fishing and cannery empire.  Unfortunately, as he became a man, Collins caught the eye of a lustful family servant, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green).  Barnabas rejected her romantic 
advances, and she cursed him for it. 

First, Angelique killed the love of his life, Josette (Bella Heathcote), and then she used black magic to turn Barnabas into a vampire.  Angelique then turned the ungrateful people of Collinsport against him, and Barnabas was buried in the woods…for eternity.

But in the year 1972, Barnabas is freed from captivity, and sets out to restore his family business and reputation, and find love in the person of young Victoria Winters (Heathcote).  The bad news is that Angelique is still nearby, and still carrying a torch for Barnabas…literally.

Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows works best – for a short while, anyway -- as a comedy of manners in which a 200-year old vampire struggles to understand life and etiquette in the year 1972.  He mistakes McDonalds for Mephistopheles, rock star Alice Cooper for the world’s “ugliest woman,” and judges sexy women by the size and shape of their “birthing” hips.  He doesn’t know about cars, roads, television, female doctors, psychiatry, or even Erich Segal’s Love Story (1970). 

While John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) plays at a local theater, Barnabas hopes to be delivered from his eternal curse of vampirism.  But what he really suffers from is permanent befuddlement at a world that has passed him by.

I can’t lie about this fact: some of this fish-out-of-water material is quite funny. The film’s jokes work more often than not, especially in Depp’s capable, deadpan hands.  One exceptionally funny bit involves Barnabas’s introduction to the Collins family at the breakfast table, wherein he comments on how, specifically, he knows the family silver utensils have been replaced.  Another funny – if decidedly low-brow – moment involves Barnabas’s description of “balls” (meaning a celebratory gathering, not testicles), and the ensuing double-entendres and innuendo on the topic.

Burton also does a tremendous amount of heavy lifting – probably a little too much -- with the abundant 1970s era soundtrack, which is utilized as biting contrast to Collins’s serious but antiquarian proclamations of purpose and nobility. 

Accordingly, before the movie is over, we are treated to Superfly, My First, My Last, My Everything by Barry White, and the Carpenters’ Top of the World. These songs work splendidly in context of the film’s fish-out-of-water humor, and so for a while Dark Shadows is actually pretty damn entertaining.  The first half-hour or forty-five minutes rollicks along with good humor, grace, and Burton’s trademark visual ingenuity.

Yet my sense of conflict and ambivalence about the film emerges from the inescapable fact that the sturdy premise is played entirely for laughs. In no sense is the subject matter respected or vetted in a faithful manner.  This Barnabas is not a tortured, tragic, Byronic figure, and his relations with the Collins family are mined for humor but not pathos or even intrigue.  The film’s sense of reality is thus paper thin and easily crumpled.

The upshot of this lampoon-style approach is that by Dark Shadow’s third act we’ve lost all sense of concern about this universe, and so don’t really care at all what becomes of the characters.  Spectacular special effects inform the film’s fiery finale -- with Angelique starting to crack and crumble like a porcelain doll -- but you can’t move yourself to care about who wins or who loses the conflict.

Long story short: Burton can’t ask us to laugh at Barnabas’s reality for most of the film, and then suddenly attempt to turn Dark Shadows into a serious and consequential battle between good and evil.  For one thing, the movie never quite squares the fact that Barnabas is indeed the protagonist, but that he wantonly murders innocent people too.  Thus the movie never decides what Barnabas should be as a character, except a non-stop joke-producing machine.  It reminds me of the 1998 Godzilla.   There, no effort was made to determine whether we should love the monster, consider him just an animal, or consider him an evil terror.   Similarly, in Dark Shadows we are never sure to how to categorize Barnabas.  He’s funny and likable, but he’s also weird and murderous.  We might want him to find love and happiness, but he should also be held accountable for his blood shed.

What can Dark Shadows fans hold onto here? 

Since this is a Burton film, many of the visuals dazzle.   That’s a claim you can’t really make of the original TV soap opera, which was constrained by low budgets and cardboard interior sets.  The prologue of Burton’s film is breath-taking in terms of landscape, camera movement and special effects.  I’ll go out on a limb and even state that the world of Dark Shadowsfrom the town of Collinsport to the Collinswood Estate – has never appeared in such epic or impressive terms.  The sweeping, majestic prologue, which is Gothic Extreme (literally, with a double cliff diving stunt…), is very impressive. 

By the same token, Burton’s Dark Shadows’ benefits from the fact that it knows the full “story” of Barnabas from beginning to end. The soap opera was often painfully slow, and moved along in fits and starts.  As I recall, Barnabas did not even appear until sometime early into the run.  And Angelique appeared even later than that.  This Dark Shadows gets to dramatize the whole epic, century-spanning story, and without daily soap opera distractions.  And yet – again – it does so entirely with tongue-in-cheek, and with little coherence or point.

Watching Dark Shadows I felt firmly that it was more a Burton fantasy than a legitimate adaptation of Dan Curtis’s beloved series.  Here, we get an allusion to Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi (from Ed Wood) in Barnabas’s hypnosis-by-hand.  We also get the outsider attempting to build a family for himself while facing the scorn of the community (Edward Scissorhands).  We get the tragic back story of a child, like we saw in Sleepy Hollow (1999).  And like Beetlejuice, the supernatural world is portrayed here as half-crazed and half-frightening. 

But the script is hopelessly incoherent, with long periods of narrative inertia and dullness. Victoria Winters – the love of Barnabas’s life – disappears from the action for long stretches of the film with no explanation.  And the opening and closing narrations are trite, meaningless book-end bromides about “blood” being thicker than water.  Yet the ending quote shows no development and no knowledge learned since the opening quote.  Everything between these book ends is just episodic hemming and hawing.

Sure, Burton can forge lyrical, unforgettable imagery.  Here, that imagery includes the ghost of Josette clinging to a luminescent chandelier, or a death-defying plunge from the Sleepy Hollow-esque Widow’s Hill.  And I love the idea of the brittle Angelique cracking like a porcelain doll, hollowed out inside because of her centuries of consuming hatred.  In almost rapturous moments such as these, Burton summons meaningful visuals from the depths of his twisted imagination.  But there’s no compelling hook on which to hang them, and so they are interesting momentarily but without larger resonance in the body of the film.

If you’re a fan of Dark Shadows, I recommend you stay away from this remake and continue to enjoy the series for what it was.  And if you’re a devoted fan of Tim Burton, you may get a kick out of the film’s first half, if not much more

Just try to imagine Burton and Depp – to quote Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer) -- “on a better day.