Saturday, October 10, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Chapter 3: Escape from Dragos" (September 22, 1978)

In “Escape from Dragos,” the energy clone of Commander Canarvin (James Doohan), returns to Space Command and surreptitiously lowers the base’s defense shields, thereby creating an opportunity for Dragos to attack the facility.

Back on the Dragon Ship, however, Jason uses Wiki to help Canarvin escape from custody and make his way to a captured Star Fire. 

Canarvin escape custody, but Jason remains a captive of the evil Dragos…

In this fifteen minute segment, the overall plot moves incrementally forward, with the fake Canarvin endangering the Academy, and the real Canarvin on his way to stop him.  Thus we have that old TV trope: the evil commander.  Should he be questioned? Trusted? Obeyed? Removed from authority?

Those are the questions that trusting, loyal subordinates must now ask.

Beyond the Canarvin situation, not much happens in terms of character in this story, except that Nicole (Susan Pratt) reveals here proficiency in kung-fu.  Parsafoot (Charlie Dell), by contrast, has an embarrassing display of his physical skills.  Though meant to be comic relief, Parsafoot’s behavior is actually cringe-inducing.

It’s always a shame when a show that seeks not to talk down to kids ends up pandering to “childish” characterization, and that’s what happens in “Escape from Dragos.”  We don't need comic relief from Parsafoot in this story.  We need good, exciting storytelling instead.

Otherwise, here are some more broad observations about the series, this week.  We see that the corridors of Drago’s vessel are all made of rock, rather than the advanced-looking materials of Space Command.  This fact suggests that the corridors were carved out of asteroid rock but the task of making the corridors attractive and livable was left untended.  Those things likely don't matter to Dragos.  His crew consists of mindless minions, so why bother with the decor, right?

Also, as is the case with Space Academy (1977), the special effects on this series hold up nicely. This mini-episode features a scene in which Canarvin’s Star Fire is freed from the Dragon Ship’s bay. We see the doors open, and the ship drop out and accelerate away.  Very, very impressive work.

Next week: "A Cry for Help."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Academy: "Hide and Seek" (September 21, 1977)

Our third episode of this 1977 Saturday morning series, Space Academy finds Blue Team racing to meet a crisis.

Commander Gampu (Jonathan Harris), Loki (Eric Greene), Paul (Ty Henderson), and Peepo are on board a Seeker in Sector 5 looking out for passing meteors. But Loki is too busy playing with his "liratron" to notice when a big asteroid flashes by his screen.

The meteor approaches the Space Academy planetoid, sending Chris and Tee Gar into a panic, and the Seeker is left with only 2 minutes and 10 seconds to catch up with and destroy the offending space debris.

A lucky shot from a "spinner" (Space Academy's equivalent of a photon torpedo) destroys the space rock locked on collision course, but the explosion spreads meteor dust everywhere.

When the Seeker returns to the Academy, the hanger bay doors refuse to open. Gampu has Peepo open the doors with the right "auto-lock" frequency, and the ship lands safely, but the Seeker crew soon discovers that all the cadets and crew have vanished! Worse, the Seeker crew begins vanishing one at a time, too, starting with Gampu.

Peepo determines that the answer to this riddle involves the meteor dust, and has Loki collect samples from the Seeker's hull. Then, Peepo releases "positive ions" from the dust and everybody re-appears safely. 

I’m not entirely satisfied that “Hide and Seek” makes much sense. In this story, meteor test seems to infiltrate the interior of the Space Academy, but in all likelihood there would be shielding to prevent such an occurrence, right?   How else keep out radiation, or any other harmful substance?

Similarly, the idea -- if I understand it correctly -- is that the crew isn’t gone or missing, just, actually, invisible.  

Why then wouldn’t some smart crew-men (Chris Gentry, or even Commander Gampu, for instance), attempt to contact Laura and Peepo using some sort of non-visual communication earlier, using the command console (which spells out the word METEOR). My point, I guess is that contact should have been attempted sooner.  And if all those people are still there, doing their duties, why aren’t the visible crew people running to them?

And if the crew did actually disappear, where did they go? And what, precisely, is in that magical meteor dust to allow transportation to another dimension?

These questions of logic and narrative make “Hide and Seek” a not entirely satisfactory episode. However, once again, the series is saved by its visual presentation; by its special effects.  In this case, we get to see cadets (and Gampu) actually leave the docking bay, right next to a life-size Seeker.  The life-sized seeker is, in fact, a redressed Ark II (1976), but having it there for reference, next to the actors, creates a tremendous sense of verisimilitude.

There are also some good shots of the Academy control center, in normal mode and frozen-over, in this episode. 

Next week, a much-superior episode: “Countdown.”

Friday, October 09, 2015

Found Footage Friday: The Gallows (2015)

[Beware of Spoilers]

If you just gaze at the new found-footage horror movie The Gallows (2015) on a surface level, you’ll encounter several unlikable, superficial teen characters, and a repeat of many found footage tropes, including the night-vision scene, and the visual distortion that typically accompanies the appearance of a supernatural specter. 

If you look beyond that surface, however, you may find that The Gallows is an enjoyable and straight-up presentation of a different set of tropes; those belonging to 1980s slasher or “dead teenager” films.

From start to finish, this horror film from directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing is actually a straight-up tribute to what horror was, in the years circa 1978 – 1983. That was the reign of Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) My Bloody Valentine (1981) and other classics of the sub-genre.

With a wink and a nod, The Gallows resurrects once-popular slasher characters, situation, and settings, and this fact alone differentiates it from many other modern examples of the found footage trend.  

Now, The Gallows received a slew of bad reviews, but was a hit at the box office (grossing over 38 million against a budget of 100,000 dollars), yet I suspect those negative reviews come largely from writers who don’t love horror, or don’t have any real understanding of its many formats.

In short, if you like the slasher film paradigm, and enjoy seeing its (welcome) old tropes revived for the 21st century, it’s a good bet you’ll like and enjoy The Gallows.

In October of 1993, the students of Beatrice High School in Nebraska put on a production of "The Gallows." Unfortunately, during the play, on the night of October 29, something goes terribly wrong and actor Charlie Grimille (Jesse Cross) is actually hanged on stage. His death becomes a media sensation.

Twenty years later, in October of 2013, a young student at Beatrice (Pfeiffer Brown) has spearheaded a revival of "The Gallows" for her drama class. She plays the lead role, and cast as her romantic opposite is football jock, Reese (Reese Mishler). 

Reese’s friends, especially the sarcastic Ryan (Ryan Shoos) mock him endlessly about the drama club, the play, and his inability to remember his lines. On the night before the big show, Ryan suggests to Reese that if the show goes on, he’ll never live it down.  He suggests that they sneak into the school auditorium by night and destroy the play’s setting so that "The Gallows" will be canceled. Reese agrees, and cheerleader Cassidy (Cassidy Spiker) signs on to join the fun.

That night, the trio sneaks into the school through an unlocked door and begins to destroy the sets for the play. When Pfieffer shows up, however, Reese is ashamed of his behavior, and lies to her about it. She discovers the truth about his intentions, but they all have more important problems to address when they find the exit door locked.

In fact, every door leading out of the school is locked, landlines are dead, and cell-phones have no service.  Worse, a strange specter -- an executioner or hangman with a noose -- is hunting the foursome.

In my book, Horror Films of the 1980s (McFarland; 2007), I outline the Slasher Paradigm. That outline commences with a look at “the organizing principle” of slasher movies; the one idea or “world” that creates an umbrella of unity for all the other factors. 

Think Halloween night in John Carpenter's Halloween, or the summer camp in Friday the 13th. In the case of The Gallows, the organizing principle is the stage play, performed at Beatrice High School, The Gallows, which involves a love affair that survives death, a hanging, and a masked executioner.

Virtually every good slasher film commences with another convention: the deadly preamble or the tragedy/crime in the past.  

In Friday the 13th, for instance, someone murders two camp counselors at Camp Crystal Lake in 1958.  In Halloween, little Michael Myers kills his older sister, Judith, on Halloween night in 1963. In both cases, the action then jumps forward to an anniversary of sorts (in 1980, and 1978, respectively).  

The Gallows conforms to this trope too. The film opens with home video footage of the school play in 1993, when something goes terribly wrong, and Charlie dies horribly in that noose, his neck snapped. The remainder of the film takes place in the lead-up to the 20th anniversary of that deadly preamble, or tragedy in the past. We get the idea that the ‘evil’ past has been resurrected in the present, for a whole new generation.

The character in The Gallows are all archetypes from the slasher paradigm as well.  They are from our old 1980s friend, the teenage “victim pool.” Our obnoxious camera-man, Ryan, is the practical joker of old, an asshole who enjoys mocking and teasing others, until he meets his grim demise. The Gallows devotes much time and energy to Ryan’s sarcastic, mean-spirited musings about the drama club, and his nasty behavior towards a stage manager. Ryan engages in more than one practical joke (involving the stage manager’s wardrobe and locker, and another one involving a football).

Secondly, we encounter the cheerleader, Cassidy in this case.  She’s the shallow, mean-spirited screamer who, like the practical joker, is certain to die. Like the practical joker, the audience doesn’t invest much in the cheerleader character because we know that this “popular” (but not terribly bright…) character is doomed.

Then, we get our villain, the spectral executioner or hangman.  In slasher movies, the killer is always someone dressed differently from the victim pool, a fact which marks him as an “other,” someone outside mainstream society. 

Often, the killers also associated with masks (Jason and his hockey mask; the Shape and the Shatner mask) and particular weapons (Freddy’s glove, Jason’s machete, etc.).  The killer in The Gallows wears both a hood/mask, and is identifiable by the weapon he usually carries when he becomes visible: a rope and noose.  The mportance of the mask? It cloaks identity.

The Gallows provides a brief red herring too, in the person of a janitor who may be working late at the school, and offers a mysterious Cassandra-type character, a woman at the Beatrice High dress rehearsal who also claims to have been present during the 1993 tragedy. She may know what's going on, and who, in particular, is doomed.

And what about the final girl?

The Gallows presents Pfeiffer, the drama queen as the final girl -- a smarter, more insightful brand of youngster -- but plays some Happy Birthday to Me (1980)-styled tricks regarding her history and background.

Other elements from the Slasher Paradigm are also imported intact to this found footage film. For example, almost every slasher film of the 1980s included a scene I call the “Tour of the Dead,” wherein living characters, during the final chase, encounter the “staged” corpses of their dead friends.  This happens in The Gallows, up in the stage rafters, before the denouement.  

And finally, of course, there is the “sting in the tail/tale,” the final shock that ends a slasher movie on a scary note.  The Gallows provides one of those too, this one involving investigating policemen and a creepy and legitimately surprising revelation about the executioner’s…family.

I admire The Gallows dedicated attempt to revive the Slasher Paradigm, and adapt it to the structure and formula of found footage. One good scene here involves a character recording his own death, and the other characters “replaying” it on his device. This satisfies one of my core concerns of found footage films: nobody ever seems to review all the captured footage…footage which would reveal the presence of something sinister and supernatural.  That’s not the case, here.

I also got a kick out of the opening scene, wherein parents record the ill-fated 1993 play, blissfully unaware that all their commentary (not always flattering...) is being taped for posterity.

What’s the downside of adopting the Slasher Paradigm?  

Well, characters in these films are literally off-the-shelf. They are broad types, like “practical joker,” “cheerleader,” “jock,” “nerd” and so on. There isn't much more depth than that. Most films of the slasher variety don’t take characterization much past that generic point, and neither, really, does The Gallows. So while the movie nicely apes slasher format, one can’t claim that it features deep or interesting characters.  In fact, Ryan is despicable, and you may be thirsting for his demise. This is not an unfamiliar feeling for fans of the Friday the 13th mythos.

On the other hand, the final series of revelations tie everything together nicely (and shockingly), and one comes to further understand how the “crime” or “tragedy in the past” has destroyed people in the present. The transgression that destroyed Charlie lives on, and has taken over the next generation in the film. 

Wes Craven, the late, great horror director often discussed the Freudian aspects of horror films and he could have been talking about this film.  He discussed the way that things which are repressed or buried turn up in the present as pathological symptoms. The Gallows follows that pattern. Family dysfunction, it seems, passes from one generation to the next.

The real question about The Gallows, I suppose, is this: is it a shallow horror movie with characters you don’t care about, or a revival of slasher tropes that intentionally exploits the fact that the characters (particularly Ryan) are unlikable?

I would give The Gallows the benefit of the doubt, in part because that's just how I roll. The film utilizes so many elements of the Slasher Paradigm that their appearance can’t be mere coincidence. What The Gallows lacks in dimensional characterization and leavening humor, it makes up for, I would argue, in dedicated and dramatic homage.

Movie Trailer: The Gallows (2015)

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Films of 1993: Last Action Hero

Last Action Hero -- directed by John McTiernan and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger -- was supposed to be the “big ticket” movie of the summer of 1993, but fate had other plans.

That title eventually went to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) instead, and today Last Action Hero is widely remembered as a misfire; a bomb. The film grossed little more than fifty million dollars at the American box office, and earned many negative reviews. I saw the film in the theater in 1993 (long-time Arnie fan, here…) and felt it was disappointing, if not downright awful.

But the purpose of this blog is (at least sometimes…) to re-examine those works of art that have been dismissed, overlooked, or forgotten.

So I wondered: is Last Action Hero worth a second look in 2015?  Has it aged well?

Or, conversely, have I changed as a viewer since 1993, and come to better see what the film was attempting to achieve?

First, let’s focus on the negative aspects of the film and get that out of the way.

More than twenty years later, one can detect the reasons why Last Action Hero so often fails.  At two-hours and eleven minutes in duration, it is simply too long for a film featuring, essentially, a lark as a premise: a real life boy ending up the sidekick of a movie world action hero. 

There’s just too much baggage -- to much detritus -- weighing down those light bones. 

This movie should be -- like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) -- no more than 105 minutes in running time. 


Any longer than that, and one is bound to start asking questions about the inconsistencies in the premise, and the universe the film creates.

Any longer than that, and the jokes start to repeat, and the performances begin to flat-line from the repetition.  Watching the film becomes a tiresome process by the third act because Last Action Hero doesn’t always seem to know where it is headed.

Secondly, the pace and tone of these two hours and eleven minutes might best be described as leaden. There are plenty of action sequences, certainly, but the plot moves at a snail’s place, and never settles on a consistent tone.

To wit: sometimes the film is a weird and wacky catch-all or satire; an Airplane (1980) type film. But then there are also those moments when viewers are supposed to feel invested in the details of the story, and in following the plot logically from point A to point B. The two approaches collide and the result is an unsatisfying mishmash.  If we are constantly being told that events don’t matter, or that this is all “just a movie,” it becomes ever-more difficult to invest in the plot details.

These facts established, Last Action Hero possesses many good ideas, and even a compelling thematic through-line that I hope to enumerate. That through-line ties into the jokes about Shakespeare’s Hamlet and a movie version of the play starring Schwarzenegger (perhaps the best scene in the film…).  It also ties into the characters of Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) and Jack Slater.  All three heroes contend with the same “to be or not to be” existential dilemma.

In short, Last Action Hero is actually about Danny learning what it means to really live life, and to be the hero of his own lie.  First, he learns that lesson in a world with the training wheels on (the movie world) and then he learns it in the real world, where Jack Slater -- his role model and surrogate father -- must learn it beside him. 

And what does Danny learn in the real world?  That unlike the movie world, real world virtues include not expert gunplay, but compassion, loyalty, and love.

It is rewarding and admirable that Last Action Hero tells this story, but after twenty years, it is obvious that the film doesn’t tell it with anything approaching consistency or coherence. 

So what audiences end up with is a sweet, likable film that, despite those qualities, is also often dull and tiresome. 

It makes me sad too.  I want to like this movie more than I do.

“Here, in this world, the bad guys can win.”

Young Danny Madigan (O’Brien) avoids his real life problems (including an apartment in a bad neighborhood and the death of his father) by cutting school and hanging out at the movies with a kindly old projectionist, Nick (Robert Prosky).

His favorite movies are those involving a larger-than-life action hero named Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger) and his exploits as an L.A. cop.

With Slater IV due in theaters, Nick invites Danny to an advance screening of the sequel late one night. He also gives Danny a golden ticket given to him years earlier by Harry Houdini. 

As Danny discovers, that ticket possesses magic powers, and can open a bridge between the movie universe and the real universe.  Danny is swept across this bridge, and meets his hero, Jack Slater, in a movie-version of Los Angeles.

In the movie world, Jack is tangling with an evil hitman named Benedict (Charles Dance) and his mob boss, Tony Vivaldi (Anthony Quinn). Danny helps Slater defeat the bad guys, and also reckon with the fact that he is actually living inside a movie.

Later Benedict gets ahold of the magic ticket stub, and moves into the real world. There, the villain realizes that bad guys can win, and with the help of the villain of Slater III, The Ripper (Tom Noonan), decides to set off on a reign of terror at the world premiere of Slater IV, where star Arnold Schwarzenegger is schedule to appear…

Now Danny and Jack must stop Benedict and the Ripper, and Jack must come face-to-face with his celebrity alter-ego.

“You can’t die until the grosses go down.”

There’s an amusing moment of allusion in Last Action Hero involving Charles Dance’s character, Benedict.  This assassin has stolen the magical golden ticket, and discovered that it opens the doorway to another dimension; to the real world. 

As Benedict’s hand lightly brushes the portal to that universe, a TV on in the background plays the opening narration and theme to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). This detail is an intriguing point of connection between productions.  Like those visiting The Twilight Zone, Benedict can now travel to another dimension.

Yet, by the same token, The Twilight Zone signifies something else significant: economy of storytelling.

Each episode of the series (except for those airing in the fourth season) are just a half-hour in length. They vet their wild tales, offer a few surprises, and then finish with astonishing rapidity and grace…often before too many questions can be asked. 

Last Action Hero alludes to The Twilight Zone in this scene, but takes a faulty creative approach by comparison.  The film is too long, too big, and too byzantine, and it lingers on details of a whimsical story that, simply don’t stand up to scrutiny.

For instance, if Jack (and all movie heroes) are bullet-proof in the movie world, essentially, then from what source should the movie’s tension arise?  If bad guys literally can’t win in the movie world (as Benedict verbally indicates) then why and how are we supposed to feel anxiety when Jack or Danny is imperiled by them?

This criticism is not meant to indicate that the movie doesn’t have fun with this idea of the movie universe, at least at points.  “You know, tar actually sticks to some people,” Danny tells Slater after he falls into tar pits, unscathed.  His status as indestructible is appropriately funny, but it also eliminates some aspects of immediacy from the story.

Somewhere in Last Action Hero, a really good movie is buried, and it attempts to surface several times. 

For instance, the movie uses Hamlet as a kind of base-line for action heroes and action hero behavior.  A high school teacher describes Denmark’s prince as the first such action hero, actually.  Yet Hamlet is paralyzed and defined by his inability to act, to do something; to defeat his enemies.

Humorously, the McTiernan film proposes an alternative to this hesitating, melancholy prince: a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Chomping a cigar and blowing enemies away with automatic weapons, this Hamlet has no problems acting with terminal force, or intensity.  There is nothing diffident about him at all. 

The “Trailer” for the Schwarzenegger Hamlet is uproariously funny, and strikes the exact right note of absurdity.  But more to the point, it is used, thematically, to let us know that Danny is -- like Hamlet -- unable to act forcefully, which is the very reason he looks up to substitute father-figure Jack Slater.

When a burglar breaks into Danny’s apartment, he gives Danny every opportunity to take his weapon, a knife, and fight him.  But Danny -- like Hamlet -- does nothing. He can’t will himself to act. And while watching Hamlet on TV in school, Danny becomes invested in the action (or lack of action). He urges Olivier’s Hamlet to “stop talking” and “do something.” Clearly, this is something personal for Danny. Although he aspires to be a Jack Slater, we learn that he sees himself as a Hamlet.  He is paralyzed over his father’s death (a death he shares in common with the prince from Denmark), and does not yet know how to act, or how to survive in this dangerous “real” world.

Danny then travels into the movie world, where Slater -- an action hero -- acts without thinking, without hesitation, and without deadly consequence. Slater can’t lose, and apparently can’t feel fear, so he always wins the day.  But the universe itself is stacked in his favor. Danny takes baby steps towards growth and survival in this universe, attempting a game of chicken against a speeding car, and learning to operate a dangerous crane.  In other words, he begins “acting” the role of hero. He emulates Jack, but does so in a safe environment; one where the good guys always win and he is no physical danger.

Then, in the movie’s final act, Danny and Slater pursue Benedict to the real world, a place with absolutely real danger, and where the bad guys can win. In this world, Slater is the child, playing by a set of rules he doesn’t understand, and therefore Danny learns the necessity of pro-active behaviors or action.  He must save his friend, who is badly wounded after a confrontation with Benedict. When Slater is shot, Danny realizes that the qualities he always had inside -- compassion, loyalty, and love -- are the very things that impel him to act decisively; to be a hero. He overcomes his Hamlet dilemma and becomes the hero of his own life.

All of this material fits together in Last Action Hero, and Slater even comments at one point that “the world is what you make of it, Danny.”  This is simply another way of expressing the idea that we can re-shape the world in a way to our liking if only we act, and act intelligently.  That’s the film’s dedicated leitmotif, and Last Action Hero is sweet because it is about a boy who thinks he needs a father figure but then -- through his interactions with that “idol” -- realizes that he can be the person he wants to be, and needs to be, all under his own steam.

Without being disrespectful, I would assert merely that Last Action Hero could tell this story -- and make this point -- more efficiently, and with greater discipline. The celebrity cameos are fun, the knocks-against movies are funny, and the explorations of tropes (like the wrong-headed, screaming police superior) are on target, but in some sense they are all but noise that ultimately takes away from the through-line I mentioned above.

I’m a huge admirer of McTiernan’s work in film, and his serious, grounded, approach to action but he doesn’t boast a very good “light” or “whimsical” touch on this project. This feels like a film tailor made for Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis, and I feel that McTiernan expends too much time and energy on the bells and whistles -- the fights, the chases, and the pyrotechnics -- when what he really needs to focus on, front and center, is the shifting relationship between Danny and Slater, and the way the Hamlet story illuminates Danny’s story.

Tar doesn’t stick to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he was back in 1994 in the triumphant True Lies, but one can see why he was drawn to this script and this project. Somewhere, deep down, Last Action Hero is all about the way young children build-up “heroes” of the silver screen, but fail to take into account the fact that they thrive in a world unlike our own; one of different rules.

Schwarzenegger is terrific as Slater, a man who starts to realize that all his success may not be due to his own skills, but the nature of reality itself. There’s a great scene here in which Slater questions his life, and he reasons that it has gotten so weird lately.  Danny sympathizes and tells him it’s a matter of the rules.  “These are the sequels. They gotta get hard…”

The fickle Gods of film, right?

They give, and they take away. Even Slater’s boy was taken away from him so that he could have a “tragic past” to overcome.

Watching Last Action Hero again twenty-one years later, I knew what to expect, and so didn’t feel the same disappointment that I did in 1993. 

But, oppositely, I feel that this film has so much of value to say, but is lazy and disjointed in the expression of its valid and intriguing messages.  Last Action Hero demanded a light touch -- a director who would fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee -- but instead the film is played with the seriousness of a project like Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988) or Hunt for Red October (1988).

The result?  “No sequel” for action hero Slater.

And honestly, that makes me a bit sad. The character is great, and deserved a better vehicle for his movie debut. At the very least, Last Action Hero’s heart is in the right spot.

It’s just too bad the rest of the movie is all over the place.

Movie Trailer: The Last Action Hero (1993)

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Guest Post: The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

By Duanne Walton

"I shall never permit anything bearing my signature to be banalized and vulgarized into the flat infantile twaddle which passes for 'horror tales' amongst radio and cinema audiences!"

~ H.P. Lovecraft, in a 1933 letter to poet Richard Morse.

Had Lovecraft been persuaded to permit a movie adaptation of his signature tale, "The Call of Cthulhu," it would've resembled Andrew Leman's 2005 version, distributed by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

Since the 1960s, studios have attempted bringing Lovecraft's "unfilmable" stories to the screen with mixed results. Most versions are more "inspired by," updating to the present day and tacking on extraneous elements like love interests.

The Call of Cthulhu took a unique approach: made in the style of a black & white silent movie, just as it would've looked when the story was first published in 1928. The result is not only a most faithful adaptation, but a homage to the fantasy films of the early 20th century: a successful pastiche of Georges Melies (A Trip to the Moon), Fritz Lang (Metropolis), Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and Willis O'Brien (The Lost World). It can be seen as a forgotten relic of the past, rediscovered and revealed to the modern world. Or an artifact from an alternate world that found its way to ours. 

Notions worthy of Lovecraft himself.

As a man (Matt Foyer) adds the final pieces to a jigsaw puzzle of Van Gough's "The Starry Night," he tells his listener (John Bolen) of the box he found while settling the affairs of his Great-Uncle, Professor Angell (Ralph Lucas). It contained files pertaining to a "Cthulhu Cult" and accounts of incidents that coincided with an earthquake on March 1st, 1925. Three accounts particularly stand out, each involving sculptures depicting a winged, tentacled monstrosity.

"The Horror in the Clay:" An artist's (Chad Fifer) work is fueled by nightmares of an ancient city where he is stalked by a massive, shadowy creature. 

"Narrative of Inspector Legrasee:" A New Orleans detective (David Mersault) raids a swamp cult responsible for local disappearances. The cultists worship Cthulhu, part of a race of beings that existed long before man. They claim that when the stars align, Cthulhu and the Old Ones will awaken from their aeons-old slumber and reclaim the Earth. 

"The Madness from the Sea:" A sailor (Patrick O'Day), his captain (Noah Wagner), and his shipmates discover an abandoned vessel at sea. Following the coordinates from the last log entry, they arrive at an island where they explore R'yleh, the cyclopean city of the artist's nightmares - and come face to face with mighty Cthulhu itself.

In the end, The Man begs that the files be burned, as his location and the identity of his listener are revealed.

Modern audiences will find plenty to dislike about this movie: no color, no dialogue, no gore, no T and A, no CGI acid trip, and no big name stars.

But those are the things that make it work. 

Once upon a time, filmmakers didn't have computers to create worlds and creatures with. They had to improvise and make them from scratch. They had to get creative in order to create. And in doing so, they paved the way for others to build on and refine their ideas and methods, and bring moviemaking to where it is today. 

The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has definitely had experience in evoking the past. It began in 1984 by Sean Branney (writer and co-producer with Leman of this movie) as a live action role-playing group running games based on Lovecraft's works. They made their own sets and props to enhance their adventures with the mood and feel of the 1920s. Today they've successfully branched out with their props made available to the public, along with artifact replicas, music CDs, and audio dramas done in the style of an old time radio program, "Dark Adventure Radio Theater."

Their motto says it all: Ludo Fore Putavimus, Latin for "We thought it would be fun." 

They were definitely up to the challenge of making a period version of "Cthulhu." But not a 100% accurate version, as it was filmed and edited with modern equipment. They dubbed the process of mixing vintage and modern techniques "Mythoscope," and it mostly works. Scenes with the swamp cult and the sailors exploring the ruins were clearly done with green screen, and they stick out among the stop motion animation and model sets shot in forced perspective. And digital filming gives the production a less "aged" look. But not enough to spoil the overall effect. It has a surreal, dream-like quality appropriate to the subject matter. Cthulhu's dreams in his house at R'lyeh have permeated the movie itself.

Keeping the story clear of fluff like romantic plot lines, sex scenes, and graphic violence helps it stay the course. The bookends involving "The Starry Night" jigsaw puzzle are fitting considering the actual painting and Van Gough's background, and the movie's revelation of The Man's fate. As the final pieces are added, the files peel back layers of the mystery until the cosmic horror at the center is revealed. When The Man smashes the puzzle in the end, the message is clear: some mysteries are best left unsolved. 

No big name stars appear in this to distract viewers. All actors perform in the melodramatic style appropriate to the silent movie period and do it well. The only real star of the movie is mighty Cthulhu itself, here portrayed by an articulated tabletop model. Shot at low angles, backlit, and kept in the shadows, it gives the right performance of menacing awe.

The best horror movies are products of their times, and The Call of Cthulhu is just that - released 77 years after its time. It's an anomaly, a thing that ought not be. But the stars aligned and brought forth this masterful tribute to the early years of movie fantasies, and to H.P. Lovecraft's work - whether he would've appreciated it or not

Action Figures of the Week: The Last Action Hero (1993; Mattel)

Video Game of the Week: The Last Action Hero (Nintendo)

The Last Action Hero Pinball Machine (Data East)

Trading Card Close-up: The Last Action Hero (1993; Topps)

Board Game of the Week: the Last Action Hero 3-D Game (Mattel)

Movie Trailer: The Last Action Hero

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Thief from Outer Space" (November 9, 1966)

In “The Thief from Outer Space,” the “terror of the cosmos” -- An Arab Chieftain (Malachi Throne) and his slave (Ted Cassidy) -- land on the Robinsons’ planet to rob it blind. 

Instead, Will (Bill Mumy) ends up on the thief’s orbiting asteroid, the slave of a slave. He is immediately put to work tending to the space Arab’s furnace.

But after Penny (Angela Cartwright) is captured, the Thief recruits Will to find the treasure he seeks.  
For generations, he has searched for a beautiful, missing princess. He believes a golden arrow points to her location, the Robinsons’ planet.

Meanwhile, the slave mistakes Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) for an all-power vizier who once owned him, until the thief stole him away. Smith uses this case of mistaken identity to escape from death by pendulum, and confront the Thief.

An episode like “The Thief from Outer Space” pretty well does away with any pretense that Lost in Space (1965-1968) is a science fiction series about space age pioneers. 

Here, the characters refer to themselves as castaways (like the characters on Gilligan’s Island), and the story and situations are pure cornball fantasy, without scientific grounding of any sort.

Without explanation or reason, humanoids in this episode can survive on rogue asteroids (where the atmosphere, surely, would turn to ice, given significant distance from the nearest star), while other characters are trapped inside bottles, like the djinn of legend. There’s no discussion of miniaturization or suspended animation or any other sci-fi concept that could explain this development.  It’s just taken as true, and real. Thus…fantasy.

“The Thief from Outer Space” descends into high-camp in several scenes, as Will and Penny are forced to peddle a stationary bike to power the Thief’s “furnace,” which heats the air on his asteroid.  That furnace, a bunch of unconnected left-over props from other episodes, can warm the air, but certainly it can’t maintain an atmosphere.

I can accept the “sedan” spaceship that is featured here, since it is described as an “interdimensional space transporter,” but it’s the only item or vehicle that’s given any kind of scientific explanation -- or cover -- in an episode of magic bottles, magic rings, and let’s face it, antiquated ethnic stereotypes.

I’m not a person, or critic, who believes that it is appropriate to judge older films or movies by today’s standards of propriety.  Morals and our understanding of cultural differences grow over time.  

So you can’t blame an episode like “The Thief from Outer Space” -- made circa 1966 -- for accurately reflecting the widespread beliefs of its age, the 1960s. 

But suffice it to say that this episode tosses out cultural stereotypes about Arabs (“Farewell, infidels!) at the very same time it fat-shames the princess in a bottle. After two hundred years she’s gotten fat from eating marzipan.

Forget the ethnic stereotypes though, the fat princess is a lame, one-note joke, and at the end of the episode, she is trapped in the bottle again, because the Thief dispensed with her after deeming her fat. 


The Thief fares a little better, after one gets over his blatantly stereotyped presentation. He emerges from his two-dimensional manner of speak and wardrobe to reveal, in the end, some true humanity. “I’m running out of tricks,” he tells Will gravely, revealing a lonely, desperate man. This is the beset scene in the show because it explores the character as a human being, not as a flamboyant adventure-fantasy stereotype.

As usual -- at least in the second season -- Lost in Space can’t be bothered to maintain much continuity, episode to episode.  For example, Will tells the thief that the Robinsons are alone on the planet, but what Tiabo (Wally Cox), the lonely soldier from “The Forbidden World?”  Isn’t he still on the planet, making reports back to his planet, and watching the Robinsons? Or are we supposed to forget him, the way the series forget the alien soldiers of the episode “The Lost Civilization?”

The regular characters aren’t well-presented in this story, either.  John (Guy Williams), Maureen (June Lockhart), and Penny at first refuse to believe Will’s story of a cosmic thief. 


In the last several weeks alone these doubting Thomases have encountered space prospectors (“Blast off into Space,”) space carnies (“Circus in Space,”), space boxers and wrestlers (“The Deadly Games of Gamma Six,”) and even space department store managers (“The Android Machine.”)  And before that, they encountered a cowboy astronaut (“Welcome Stranger,”) space hillbillies (“The Space Croppers,”) a space zookeeper ("The Keeper,") and a space pirate (“The Sky Pirate.”) 

But “The Thief from Outer Space” nonetheless wants us to believe they absolutely draw the line at space Arabs?

All in all, “The Thief from Outer Space” manages to be not just bad, but frequently insulting too. Still, it's always great to see Ted Cassidy. And "The Thief from Outer Space" aired just a few weeks after his appearance as Ruk on Star Trek's "What are Little Girls Made Of."

Next week: “Curse of Cousin Smith.”