Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Nemo Blogging: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)


Jules Verne's immortal tale of undersea adventure, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea has been adapted to film on several occasions, but it is likely the Walt Disney effort of 1954 that remains, for many viewers and film aficionados, the definitive or "classic" screen version of the novel.

Helmed by Richard Fleischer, the veteran director behind Fantastic Voyage (1966), Soylent Green (1973), Amityville 3-D (1983) and Conan The Destroyer (1984), 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea stars James Mason as Captain Nemo, Kirk Douglas as harpooner Ned Land, Paul Lukas as Professor Aronnax and Peter Lorre as Conseil.

Oh, and did I mention Esmerelda, Captain Nemo's pet seal?

I make note of the seal (a character not present in the Jules Verne story) simply because the cinematic version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea takes some rather significant liberties with the cherished source material. That doesn't make it a bad film, but it does make the movie a decidedly...different experienc
e.

First and foremost, Fleischer's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea reflects the Atomic Age of the 1950's and the beginnings of the Cold War epoch. In particular, Nemo's magnificent underwater machine, the Nautilis is powered by atomic energy in the movie rather than the electricity of the book. Now, the movie doesn't specifically single out "atomic energy" by name, but Nemo reveals to Aronnax the sub's propulsion unit and and claims that it harnesses "the dynamic power of the universe," which by my reckoning is a euphemism for atomic power. Especially since Nemo profoundly notes that such power could either "revolutionize the world" or "destroy it."

Additionally, one of the film's final (and most resonant) images is that of the archetypal Cold War nightmare scenario: a mushroom cloud blossoming on the horizon. Nemo single-handedly destroys his high-tech island base, Vulcania (another element not exactly taken from Verne's book...) to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. The result is the mushroom cloud; the tell-tale and ominous indicator of nuclear weapons detonation.

Indeed, much of Verne's novel has been deliberately re-purposed with an eye towards the contemporary (meaning the 1950's context of the film), and specifically the use and mis-use of atomic power. Nemo reveals to Professor Aronnax, for instance, that his wife and child were tortured and then slaughtered when he refused to share the secret of the atom with his captors in the gulag at Rura Penthe ("the white man's grave yard.") Although the death of Nemo's family is clearly inferred in the Verne novel (near the end), the film provides this much-more explicit exposition about the tragedy.

These alterations make the movie's Captain Nemo appear somewhat less misanthropic than his literary counterpart. For instance, in the book, Nemo attempted suicide-by-Nautilus and drove the submarine down into a raging whirlpool, a "maelstrom." He was downcast and sullen over having committed the "murder" of a ship's crew during battle, and desired to end his hopeless, conflicted life. Nemo's last exhortation was a word of surrender: "Enough!"

By contrast, Nemo's demise in the Fleischer film is much more heroic in both magnitude and intention. In order to keep the Pandora's Box of Atomic Energy firmly shut for the time being, Nemo nobly destroys all of his advanced technology on Vulcania and then even scuttles the beloved Nautilus. This final act is not truly suicide anymore, since Nemo has been fatally shot and would have died shortly anyway. Still, Nemo's death in the film brings forth a humanitarian goal: protecting the species from "tampering in God's domain" before it is wise enough to understand that territory.

The film version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea then culminates with a decidedly uplifting voice-over from the late Captain Nemo, one that suggests (as his conveyance, the Nautilus, sinks below choppy waves) that the character harbored some inherent optimism about the future. "There is hope for the future. And when the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass. In God's good time," he declares beatifically, elevated to the level of saint, if not savior.

This distinctly out-of-character statement transforms Verne's dedicated man of science and unrepentant misanthrope into a something quite different: a pollyanna, a humanist! Again, I'm not stating that the film adaptation is of poor quality, only that it is by no means a faithful adaptation of Verne's original literary vision.

In addition to the "comedy" scenes involving Esmerelda -- Nemo's sea pup mascot -- the Fleischer film relies at points on some unnecessarily broad humor. Kirk Douglas's first appearance as Ned --- with a floozie dangling on each arm -- is a perfect example. In this scene, Ned is comically knocked atop the head by a crutch-wielding charlatan, and then he falls splat in a mud-puddle....after going cross-eyed. Bluntly stated, it's not an auspicious beginning to a remarkable and well-loved film.

Again by contrast, in the book, Ned was a forty-year old of considerable experience, intelligence, and seriousness, and not an all-singing, all-dancing, treasure-greedy buffoon...which is precisely how he comes across in the movie. And don't get me started on his obligatory musical number, "A Whale of a Tale." I accept that films made at this time in Hollywood history had to feature song interludes to net a wide demographic and entertain the whole family, but once more the movie puts up a set-piece of such jocularity that it feels out-of-step with the serious Verne story.

I've discussed rather fully how Fleischer's adaptation veers away from the trajectory of Verne's novel, but I haven't discussed yet the plethora of ways in which this classic, much-loved film succeeds on its own merits.

First and foremost, the visual aspects of Fleischer's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea remain ambitious...glorious, even. Everything -- from the superb miniature (model) work, to the fantastic set design, to the harrowing action-sequence involving an attack on the Nautilus by a giant squid -- still works. The film's visual effects remain compelling, ingenious, and yes, even fresh. There are some moments at Vulcania and beneath the sea wherein the special effects don't appear to have aged even a day. Which is a pretty amazing feat since this movie was released just about sixty years ago. It's one thing to write convincingly of a hunting expedition at the bottom of the sea; it's quite another to see those images play out before your very eyes, rendered entirely plausible...and wondrous.



Furthermore, while one can (and should) make extensive note of the myriad ways the movie changes some conceits in Verne's book, one might also remember that some clever updating of a nearly century-old book was likely necessary. An electricity-powered submarine just wouldn't seem like a very interesting vehicle of fantasy to audiences in the 1950s, would it? The deliberate infusion of Atomic Age moral questions into 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea grants the film a didactic quality, and more importantly, a relevant one.

Admirably, the Fleischer film also fully preserves the Arronax/Nemo philosophical debates of the original text. We learn in the film -- just as in the book -- of Nemo's ingenuity and invention when it comes to diet ("the sea supplies all my wants"), harnessing resources (we actually get to see his men farming at the bottom of the sea...), and inventing new technology (the amazing Nautilus itself). We view his commitment to vengeance, and are afforded some dramatic close-ups of an anguished Nemo at the wheel of the Nautilus, on the attack against those who have so egregiously wronged him. The film also preserves Arronax's first-person narrator role in the form of a voice-over, whether recounting the sinking of the Abraham Lincoln (a vessel not named in the film...) or his first experience with the "twilight world" under the sea.


In the book, Nemo had a manifesto of sorts: the captain's dedicated declaration of independence from nationalism, civilization, and "unjust" wars. That manifesto too survives the translation to Fleischer's film. Mason delivers a calculated, seething, and most importantly, pragmatic monologue about the ways that Man's "evil drowns on the ocean floor," and that -- only beneath the waves -- does there exist true independence; true freedom. I found this speech to be one of the film's finest, most transcendent moments.

In fairness, the Captain's darker side isn't totally ignored, either. I appreciate that the movie provides a sense of balance; making more than mere passing notations about the classic anti-hero's darker side. "The power of hate...it can fill the heart as surely as love can," the movie notes of Nemo, and that observation is right on the money. Aronnax likewise ultimately calls Nemo a "murderer" and a "hypocrite," while Ned terms him a "monster." These declarations seem very accurate to the spirit of the book, and I can't really complain that the movie seeks to provide Nemo a more explicit redemption than that found in the text; so that 21st century audiences return to the light of day with a sense of moral uplift.

It's often quite difficult to judge objectively a movie that you grew up with and which you still love so emotionally. Nostalgia inevitably creeps in and colors perception. In terms of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, I can say with some certainty that the film remains a technological marvel; that Mason's Nemo endures as an inscrutable, larger-than-life icon, and that the film overall is fast-paced, exciting, and scary in good measure. I'm quite aware that books can't be movies; and movies can't be books: that the two media have as many differences as they do similarities.


Yet, here's the crucial difference in intent: Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea concerned a misanthrope who had given up on man entirely; an anti-hero who had cast off the auspices of "modern" civilization for an exile under the sea, taking only man's best "art" with him (music, paintings, books). Nemo was finished with the world above the waves and no longer cared what we did with our domain above the waves.

In the movie, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Captain Nemo is a great inventor with a tragic past who simply believes man is not ready for his new science, a man who actually protects and preserves the corrupt human race by destroying his miracle technology before it can do harm.

That's a pretty big difference isn't it? Maybe not 20,000 leagues worth; but certainly enough to drive a submarine through...

Monday, July 06, 2020

Nemo Blogging: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869)


"The sea does not belong to despots. Upon its surface men can still exercise unjust laws, fight, tear one another to pieces, and be carried away with terrestrial horrors. But at thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases, their influence is quenched, and their power disappears."
-The Captain Nemo Manifesto (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)

Frenchman Jules Verne -- revered in some circles as the father of science fiction and futurism -- gave the world the remarkable 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in the year 1869. His long-lived, adventurous and exciting tale of submarines, undersea exploration and a classic anti-hero focuses initially on a strange mystery engulfing the "modern" world of the West.

Specifically the civilized world of 1866 is squeezed in the frightening grip of a “mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon.” Seafaring vessels belonging to various global powers have encountered “an enormous thing,” “a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale.”

Some believe this animal is a Kraken or other ancient sea serpent, one perhaps a miraculous 200 feet in length. But regardless of its origin or exact dimensions, the beast is crowned the terror of the high seas for its anti-social behavior. That behavior consists of wrecking, sinking and scuttling man's best ships.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is told entirely in the first person voice, a format which encourages an affinity for the characters (and a kind of breathless pace, at points). Accordingly, in the book's second chapter ("Pro and Con"), the reader is introduced to our stalwart narrator: Parisian, Pierre Aronnax, an assistant professor at the Museum of Natural History in France. A great student of the ocean and ocean life, Aronnax believes the notorious sea monster (which has been sinking ships of all nationalities…) is actually a colossal narwhal or other heretofore unseen deep sea creature.

With his loyal servant – the phlegmatic Conseil – in tow, Aronnax boards the frigate Abraham Lincoln captained by Commander Farragut. Their mission: to “purge” the sea monster from the oceans, so it can no longer prove a threat to mankind. The Abraham Lincoln soon departs Brooklyn for the “dark waters” of the Atlantic and a strange rendezvous with destiny.

In Chapter Four, the reader is introduced to another of the book’s protagonists, “the prince of Harpooners,” Ned Land. Land is a Canadian with “an uncommon quickness of hand,” renowned for his skill, audacity and cunning. Ned is forty years old, “strongly built and taciturn, occasionally violent and very passionate when contradicted.” Land is also a confirmed skeptic when it comes to the existence of the sea monster, and he and Aronnax develop a bond of respect and friendship as they debate the possible “organisation” of a beastie that can reputedly puncture the hulls of metal ships. Not long after an encounter with the American frigate, Monroe, the Abraham Lincoln is attacked by the very sea monster in question, and Ned, Arronax and Conseil are hurled overboard into a murky sea.

Our heroes soon find themselves aboard not a sea monster, however, but rather a “huge fish of steel” (of sheet iron, to be precise). This is the highly-advanced submersible called the Nautilus. The vessel is commanded by Captain Nemo (the Latin word for "Nobody," incidentally.) Nemo speaks fluent French, English, German, Latin and French, and counts his allegiance to no country, no nation, no ideology.

Professor, I am not what you call a civilized man,” Nemo soon explains. “I have done with society entirely, for reasons which I alone have the right of appreciating. I do not therefore, obey its laws.”

Although Captain Nemo considers Ned, Aronnax and Conseil prisoners of war, he offers them clemency. He invites the trio to enjoy his hospitality aboard Nautilus…though they may never be permitted to return to land. For Aronnax, this is a fair trade, since he will now have the opportunity to study aquatic life close-up. For Ned – a man of the world – this accommodation is unacceptable, and he becomes obsessed with escape.

One of the most impressive sections of the book arrives next, in particular Verne’s exhaustive, and picturesque description of the Nautilus interior; a description which sheds light, not coincidentally, on the nature of its inscrutable inventor, the opaque Nemo.

For instance, the Nautilus possesses a vast library consisting of 12,000 books. Nemo describes the impressive collection of volumes as “the only ties which bind me to the Earth." The captain's study/drawing room is likewise a testament to man's best nature. And Nemo's appreciation doesn't cease with the written word, either. He has a piano/organ there on which he plays the compositions of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. The same room also doubles as a gallery for the priceless artworks of Raphael, Da Vinci and Corieggo. It is in consideration of these great human achievements that we come to understand something of Nemo's conflicted nature. He both hates and loves his fellow man...
Also, apparently subscribing to the theorem of healthy mind/healthy body, Nemo reveals to his new guests the peculiarities of his unusual diet (which he indulges in a grand, elaborate dining room). Nemo’s nourishment arrives entirely from the sea, and he reports that he is “never ill now.” Eschewing all terrestrial food, his meals consist of “fillet of turtle,” “milk by the cetacea” and “preserves of anemone” among other undersea delicacies.

Nemo does possess one vice, however, from the civilized world of his day: cigars. Not tobacco, mind you, but rather cigars made of sea weed (and rich in nicotine).

In this section of the text (called "The Man of the Seas"), Captain Nemo also declares his “philosophy of life’ so-to-speak. His manifesto begins with the words “The Sea is Everything,” and then continues to illustrate his obsession with the sea: "It covers seven-tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides...It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the 'Living infinite."

The sea is also the very place where Nemo can escape all the "isms" that he despises in modern life (nationalism, imperialism, etc.). The quotation that opens this review, in fact, eloquently reveals his zeal and hunger for real freedom and independence, as well as his steadfast belief that it only exists in a realm where man is absent. Make no mistake, this is where the book delves into deliberate social commentary. Nemo has fled a world that - while priding itself on being civilized -- has only constructed more efficient ways to kill and disenfranchise man.

Considering his misanthropic viewpoint, what we get in Captain Nemo is an early model perhaps, of the modern “dark” hero or rather, in Byronic lingo, the anti-hero. In other words, a man whom we find admirable and sympathetic in spite his total and utter rejection of that which society at large has judged to be "virtue."

And indeed, Nemo is attractive (and heroic) in so many ways. He's a genius, an intellectual, a man of able body and more-than able mind. He has renounced man’s civilization because that civilization is -- at least debatably -- corrupt. Though Nemo is immensely rich (he offhandedly tells Aronnax he could pay off the national debt of France without even missing it…), he is not an aristocrat by any conventional understanding of that word. He shuns the company of poseurs and fools and devotes himself entirely to a high and noble purpose: the exploration of a realm that has captured his imagination. Some might see Nemo's universe as exile, but if it is, it's a self-imposed one.

Nemo boasts a dark side too; no doubt. He’s not just the explorer; not merely the inventor; not only a brilliant scientist. Much of his current life (aboard Nautilus) is devoted to vengeance, to waging war against a civilization that he deems responsible for a great sin. What precisely that sin is, Verne does not reveal in detail. However, Aronnax does make brief note, very near the book’s conclusion, that Nemo has a picture of a lovely woman and two children hanging in his study. This is his family…his dead family, perhaps. They were lost, one supposes, in one of modern man’s endless wars.

Nemo strikes back at the world that killed his loved ones (maybe...) by sinking the ships of those governments. These acts are murder, no doubt, and homicide hangs heavy on Nemo's extraordinary mind. His last words (“Enough!”) speak plainly and simply (without histrionics) to the psychic weight he has borne to avenge his family; and there’s also some indication that he sets the Nautilus into a maelstrom (whirlpool) as a sort of bizarre suicide attempt; though the final fate of Nemo and his extraordinary vessel are not revealed in this text. (See: Mysterious Island!)

Once Aronnax and his friends commence their stay aboard the Nautilus, Verne paints a portrait of a magnificent and thrilling world. After defining the incredible capacities of the Nautilus (which runs on electricity), we are escorted on a miraculous “walk on the bottom of the sea” utilizing early diving/scuba technology. There are great beauties at these “obscure depths” and also great dangers…including giant sea spiders and sharks “strong enough to crush a whole man in their iron jaws.”

Arronax, Conseil and Land encounter dangerous “savages” (Papuans) in one interlude, and Nemo steers the Nautilus to the Lost City of Atlantis in another. The Nautilus braves ice bergs and other dangers on a voyage to the South Pole, and Nemo even plants his personal flag there, in defiance of The State (and all States).

My favorite chapter in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, however, involves an attack by poulps: so-called “giant squids.” A school of these ghastly monsters descend upon the Nautilus in terrifyingly swift fashion, and Nemo is forced to bring his submarine to the surface to combat them. There, on deck (and without much by way of personal protection...), Nemo and his crew (along with Ned) hack at the tentacled, hungry beasts with only harpoons and hatchets. It’s an awesome battle, and one that captured my imagination both as a child and as an adult. In one terrifying moment, Nemo loses a lieutenant to one of the man-eating squids, and it's a horrifying fate.

It’s funny how age changes perspective, but when I was a child my favorite character here was the harpooner, Ned Land (played by square-jawed Kirk Douglas in the Disney film). Ned wanted to escape the Nautilus, and was the most traditionally “American” good-guy character or "cowboy" of the bunch. As a more contemplative adult, however, it is the enigmatic and tragic Nemo who endlessly sparks my curiosity and imagination. The great value of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is the mysterious, ambiguous, and compelling nature of this most singular “Nobody.”

In terms of his history, Nemo was originally conceived (in Verne’s mind) as Polish…a European. However, upon reflection and input from his agent, Nemo was made an Indian…one resisting British Imperialism in his own home country. I don’t know that the character's nationality is that critical today, actually, but in general I love the concept and depiction of Nemo: an educated, disillusioned “man of the world” who leaves behind imperfect society and imperfect man for the wonders of the sea. He takes with him only man’s best; leaving everything else above the waves.

Returning to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, I was afraid I would find the work archaic or distancing (because of linguistic and cultural differences), but quite the opposite was true. I found the book immediate, involving and intimate. The things that vexed Nemo about the world are still with us, even today. War and ignorance prime among them. I also felt, again, that I detected the seeds of so many 20th century entertainments in the book's characters and scenarios. When I picture Nemo hacking away at the tentacles of the poulps, I reflexively remember Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) taking out a space "dragon" with an axe in "Dragon's Domain" on Space:1999. When I consider Nemo's obsession with the sea and exploring a new realm, I'm reminded of Hans Reinhardt aboard his conve
 . yance, The Cygnus in The Black Hole. When I fall in love with that amazing technological wonder, the Nautilus, I think of Kirk's love for his beautiful ship of exploration, the U.S.S. Enterprise.

And truthfully, Captain Nemo seems to fit right in with the 21st century world of The Dark Knight. Like Batman, Nemo boasts a unique moral compass, but the course between justice and vengeance is not always an easy trajectory to navigate. Also like Batman, Nemo has countenanced personal tragedy, hides his true identity (taking the name Nemo as cover...) and has a vast fortune at his disposal. Unlike Batman, however, Nemo is a legitimate menace to the world at large. He has advanced technology, the will to use it, and -- most of all -- is powered by righteous anger. 

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea remains a wondrous tale, one that has endured the test of time. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and SeaQuest DSV are certainly "children" of this adventure as they involve highly advanced submarines exploring ocean depths, but again, it is Captain Nemo – and the idea of a righteous avenger – that seems to have come forth most powerfully from Verne's book and also taken hold of our modern culture. I know there is a new 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea movie planned and I must wonder if these are the qualities that will be most heavily accented this time around.

That would certainly be an appropriate course heading, so long as Nemo’s other extraordinary and human qualities aren’t given short shrift for the easy-movie shorthand of angsty-broodiness. I'd hate to see him reduced to being an underwater Punisher, for instance. I mean, certainly Nemo wreaks bloody vengeance against those who have wronged him, but his passion for science, exploration and knowledge make him more than your typical angel of death. Those qualities balance the man, and rudder the fantastic sights and sounds of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in a very human, very sympathetic source

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Saturday Morning Flashback: BraveStarr (1987-1989)



The Filmation animated series BraveStarr (1987 – 1988) ran for sixty-five episodes in the late 1980s. Produced by the late Lou Scheimer, the series is a “space western” set on the distant, multi-cultural planet called New Texas.

As the series theme song explains, New Texas, while on the space frontier, has proven a magnet for outlaws because of the valuable ores that exists in its mountain ranges.

Not entirely unlike Thundarr the Barbarian (1980-1982), BraveStarr also mixes hard science fiction with fantasy tropes. 

In this case the heroic Native American sheriff of New Texas’s Fort Kerium not only harnesses space age technology, but the mystical powers of his shaman ancestors. 

In particular, BraveStarr (Pat Fraley) can summon, in times of crisis, the ears of the wolf, the strength of the bear, the eyes of the hawk, and the speed of the puma.


BraveStarr’s allies in the series include a talking “techno-horse” called Thirty-Thirty (Ed Gilbert), who can walk on either all fours or his hind-legs, Jamie McBride (Susan Blu), the town judge and a fiery redhead, and her father, Angus, the town's newspaper man.



While protecting Fort Kerium from thieves and outlaws like Tex Hex (Charlie Adler), BraveStarr deploys such tools as a “laser lasso,” “sonic shackles” (handcuffs), and gathers information on an early version of Google Glass, a shaded visor that conveys information when BraveStarr  needs to interface with criminal records, maps, or other data-bases.



In terms of stories, BraveStarr re-purposes all the old Western movie tropes for the galactic frontier.  

Typical stories involve miners, hijacked outlaws, slavers, and so forth.  And like many Filmation programs, every episode of BraveStarr concludes with a “message” from the characters, delivered directly to the audience.  

One episode reminds kids not to steal (“Tunnel of Terror”), and another reminds them not to judge people by their size or height (“The Day the Town was Taken.”)

Although listed 29th in the production roster (according to Wikipedia), the first episode of BraveStarr in the complete series DVD set is “Tunnel of Terror.”  


Here, BraveStarr, Jamie and Thirty-Thirty on patrol when they run across old Digger, a miner has found the mother lode of valuable ore in a nearby mine.  

Unfortunately, another miner seeks the same treasure, and causes a cave-in, trapping Digger, Jamie and BraveStarr inside.

While Angus and Thirty-Thirty attempt, from outside, to clear the cave-in, those trapped inside must escape poison gas, evade giant bats recently awakened  from hibernation, and escape the cave through a volcanic crater.  

Along the way, BraveStarr summons the power of his ancestors to save the day…


A fairly straight-forward action-adventure episode, “Tunnel of Terror” concerns greed, and forgiveness.  

Specifically, the old “coot” Digger and the other miner, Todd compete for riches, but in truth Todd is desperate to pay for medicine for his sick son.  At the end of the day, BraveStarr forges an agreement between these nemeses, and nobody goes to jail.  

Much more intriguing than this Old West parable of avarice and forgiveness is the nice visual presentation.  The episode opens, for example, with a sprawling view of the cosmos.  We pan over to New Texas’s three stars, and approach them, one at a time.  Then, we move through a solar flare, and after we pass through its light, we see the planet New Texas emerge.  It’s some grand and amazing imagery, and a perfect note on which to commence the series. 

Similarly, the three suns -- red, blue, and orange -- seem to represent the diversity of New Texas’s population.  Humans and aliens of all stripes share the land, and battle for resources and wealth.  





My biggest complaint about BraveStarr at this  very early juncture is merely that some aspects of the series remain unexplained.  


In particular, I would like to know how BraveStarr comes by his mystical powers, and how he manages to summon “the fire” of his ancestor’s “spirit.”   

It isn’t terribly difficult to imagine a space frontier, cyborg-horses, or giant bats on a distant world, but the “magic” behind BraveStarr’s abilities should receive the same attention and detail.

Below, you can see the introductory montage to BraveStarr.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Girdler Binge: The Manitou (1978)


William Girdler’s final film, The Manitou (1978), is just about the craziest knock-off of The Exorcist (1973) yet fashioned, and as a result, the director’s most entertaining cinematic effort.  

Every frame seems infused with the director’s gonzo desire to push the limits and dazzle the audience, and accordingly The Manitou zig-zags merrily between inventive special effects sequences and over-the-top moments of bloody horror. What the movie sacrifices in coherence, it thus gains in terms of jaw-dropping spectacle.

Underneath it all, the film's story and its consequences are utterly ridiculous, but that fact doesn’t stop Girdler from going for broke with his dedicated, throw-everything-out-and-see-what-sticks approach to the material. Because of the director’s non-conventional, open and inventive approach to the material, Girdler stages some moments -- such as a creepy séance and a levitating old lady -- with real ingenuity. 

The Manitou is in no way a great movie, which seems to be my refrain this week on the blog (see: The Legend of Boggy Creek), and yet it ably demonstrates how Girdler was growing with each opportunity behind the camera, and gaining a sense of confidence in his work.  

Writing of The Manitou, film scholar John Brosnan observed in Starburst #8 (1979) that it is “basically very silly.” 

He added “it’s too slow in places; it lacks an internal logic, the dialogue is often embarrassing…but in the long run none of this matters because the movie succeeds in being entertaining.”  

He also notes that the last thirty minutes of the film are a high point, a “mind-blowing barrage of special effects, each one more outrageous than the last.” On all these points, he is absolutely correct.

I thus maintain that Girdler’s early death (in a helicopter accident…) was not only a terrible personal tragedy, but a loss for the genre. I just can’t help but believe that had the Kentucky filmmaker lived, he would have made some very memorable genre movies in the 1980s; films that we'd all be talking about and reviewing on blogs to this day.

As it stands, The Manitou -- so visually-daring and yet also bizarre story-wise -- is Girdler’s last hurrah. The film is weird and wild -- incredibly variable in quality -- and a lot of fun. And that description perhaps, is the best epitaph for Girdler’s career in movie horror. 



“It kind of…moves, sometimes.”

A woman named Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) is admitted to a San Francisco hospital because of a strange, expanding growth on her back.  

At first, the growth is believed to be a tumor, but Dr. Hughes (Jon Cedar) and Dr. McEvoy (Paul Mantee) determine that it is not actually a growth, but a fetus.

Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis) a fortune teller and friend of Karen’s is disturbed that the constantly-growing fetus-thing can’t be removed by any conventional means. Dr. Hughes attempts surgery, but cuts his own hand during the operation. Later, a hospital laser grows crazy and starts blasting the operating theater during a second removal attempt.

After consulting with a medium and a historian Dr. Snow (Burgess Meredith), Erskine recruits Native American medicine man John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara) to fight the thing growing inside of Karen.  

As it turns out, this weird “baby” is the reincarnated form of an ancient, evil medicine man called Misquamacus. Misquamacus is angry because x-rays have mutated him, and he emerges from Karen’s back deformed, hideous, and seeking power.

Planning to take over the world, Misquamacus summons several manitou -- evil spirits, including the Lizard God, The North Wind, and Satan himself.

But, as Harry realizes, every object in the world possesses a manitou, and he hopes to harvest the hospital’s equipment to strike back against Misquamacus before he grows invincible.



“Love is one of the strongest medicines there is.”

The Manitou
 features several notable trademarks of the 1970s cinema, including the possession/exorcism scene (familiar not just from The Exorcist, but also Girdler’s Abby), the “birth” or hospital delivery scene gone wrong (It’s Alive), and finally, the zippy laser beams of George Lucas’s Star Wars.  

On that last front, the movie's final battle witnesses a (topless) Strasberg perched atop her hospital bed, shooting colored lasers from her finger-tips at a hovering Misquamacus. The battle takes place not against the backdrop of the San Francisco hospital, but the entire cosmos itself.  All the universe is the (weird) background for this story...




That’s just the final touch, however, in Girdler’s crazy kaleidoscope. 

My favorite scene in the film is the one in which a little, blue-haired old lady arrives to have her fortune read at Harry’s apartment, and is suddenly possessed by Misquamacus. 

Without warning, this senior citizen busts a move, commencing a Native American rain dance (which alone is a sight to behold...), and then levitates through Harry’s apartment, out into the upstairs hallway.  

Finally, the spirit hurls her down the stairs, taking much of the staircase banister with her body, absolutely pulping the construction. The scene escalates from off-kilter to bizarre to I-can’t-quite-believe-what-I’m-seeing insane in just a few minutes.  And the levitation effects still hold up.




Another moment that is splendidly orchestrated finds Harry attempting a séance with his friends, including a medium. 

During the séance, Misquamacus appears, but not in any conventional sense.  Rather than using wispy opticals or visual effects to represent the spirit, Girdler tries something truly original instead.  The black-top of the table at the center of the séance is replaced, invisibly, with a pool of black oil, and very slowly (and creepily…) Misquamacus’s head rises from the table (a real head, covered in the oil) to face his supplicants. The demon sort of “shapes” himself out of the table, and it isn’t an effect that I've seen used before in this particular setting.




But there’s still more. One whole ward of the San Francisco hospital is transformed into an Arctic wasteland, covered in ice and snow. 



And then there’s the incredible moment when the computer manitou -- battling Misquamacus -- explodes and Dr. Hughes suddenly explodes with it on screen. He just goes up in flames.


Even the birthing scene is a great gross out moment. Misquamacus casts of Karen like an old sweater and splatters onto the hospital floor before slithering away, off-screen.

In my review of The Manitou in Horror Films of the 1970s, I termed Girdler’s last effort a “fun house of film gimmicks,” and today that description seems appropriate. It looks to me like the filmmaker and his team had a ball thinking of the wackiest, most unconventional ways to attack the horror sequences. Not all the effects work, but the creativity is admirable.

I haven’t read the novel by Graham Masterson upon which the film was based, but I must presume that it made sense, and connected its narrative together well. The same cannot be said of the cinematic version. 

For example: why was Karen picked as the “mother” for this resurrection?  Why do some Manitou oppose Misquamacus, while other support his cause? More importantly, what is his cause, really?  If he is powerful enough to summon Satan as a minion, he must be fearsome and strong, and yet he is undone by…the power of love?

In the end, however, such questions matter not.  This “Manitou,” as one character notes, “has momentum…”

The sad thing is that with The Manitou proving such a hit, Girdler had momentum in his career too. I would have loved to see what the filmmaker did with that that currency, and I wonder still, sometimes, of the strange destinations he had planned for future audiences.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Girdler Binge: Three on a Meathook (1973)


The quaintly titled Three on a Meathook (1973) from director William B. Girdler is a full-on homage to -- or perhaps rip-off of -- Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark film, Psycho (1960).  

Like that film (and like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [1974] as well), the film is loosely based on the exploits of real-life, mid-western serial killer Ed Gein. Girdler’s version of the macabre tale, however, is shot in Louisville, Kentucky, and on a budget of just twenty-thousand dollars. Still, Girdler actually apes the Master’s moves in some key sequences here, though to little avail.

The fledgling artistry evident in the best moments of the admittedly uneven Asylum of Satan (1972), is, alas, not present here to any significant degree. Perhaps this is so because Three on a Meathook arises from a more naturalistic school of horror filmmaking, and Girdler doesn’t seize opportunities to make his film particularly stylish. 

In fact, the film is relatively short on close-ups, which saddles Three on a Meathook with a distant or remote quality. This approach makes it difficult to invest in the characters, and without investment, fear cannot blossom.

Worse, the film grinds to a halt during the protagonist’s stop at a Louisville dive, where a local band performs not one but two songs in their entirety. In a film just eighty-minutes in length, that’s a lot of time to lose on a musical interlude.

Never reaching a real fever pitch of tension or suspense, Three on a Meathook proves interesting mostly in a few nicely orchestrated death scenes, particularly one shocking moment involving a decapitation.  

Other than that, however, the film showcases a sort of developmentally-arrested Girdler, a director still finding his way with actors and visualizations. Call it a sophomore slump.


“Let this boy keep his evil to himself.”

In Kentucky, four young women get together at a lake resort for the weekend. When their car breaks down, the friendly local, Billy (James Pickett) offers to help them, letting them stay on his farm for the night. Billy’s strict father, Pa Townsend (Charles Kissinger), doesn’t approve of the arrangement. He worries about Billy’s behavior when he is near women. The boy has never been the same since his mother died years earlier.

By night, an unknown assailant brutally murders all four young women, some in their sleep. Pa blames Billy for the blood-bath and promises to clean up his mess. A guilty-feeling Billy goes to see The Graduate, and then visits a bar to drink away his blues. There Billy meets and falls in love with a free-spirited bartender, Sherry (Sherry Steiner).  He wants to invite her back to the farm, over Pa’s objections.

Sherry and a friend, Becky (Madelyn Buzzard) stay at the Townsend Farm, but Becky is butchered, and a frightened Sherry finds the corpses of the dead girls in the barn…on a row of meat-hooks.  

Soon, she is accosted by Billy’s father, who is behind the killings…but for a strange and sinister purpose.


“I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen.”

William B. Girdler has sometimes been termed the movie “rip-off” king because his movies almost universally ape a famous formula or particular film. His Abby (1976) is the “black” The Exorcist (1973). His Grizzly (1976) is essentially Jaws (1975) on land, and so forth. Similarly, one can make the case that Three on a Meathook follows this example.  It is -- no bones about it -- the director’s version of Psycho.

To start with, both films commence with a camera pan across a modern metropolis. In the case of Psycho, it’s Phoenix, AZ, and here it’s Louisville, KY.  

Then, immediately following this exterior pan we move into a hotel room, where a sexual liaison is already occurring.  Girdler is able to show more flesh here, however, than Hitchcock was permitted in 1960.  Girdler’s lovers are seen locked under the sheets together, topless. The man is mounting the woman. When the woman emerges from the coupling, she performs the rest of the scene without a bra.

Then, four women go on a trip (as Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane undertook a trip…), and end up at the abode of terror, in this case not a motel, but a farm.  

In both instances, the boy-ish host, either Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) or Billy offer to feed the hungry guests, and in both cases a murder soon occurs in the bathroom.  

Here, the shower is not the location of the brutal murder however. A bath-tub does the trick instead. Intriguingly, four victims die during this sequence, and the best moment occurs not in the bathroom, aping Psycho, but in a hall-way where a lightning-fast and well-executed decapitation offs the last victim, and captures the attention.

After everyone in the initial victim pool is dead, a new female lead is introduced (Sherry, in this case, rather than Vera Miles’ Lila Crane). As she goes cross close to Billy, we are left to wonder as to the identity of the killer.  Is it his father?  Or is it his mother, whom we are told died when he was ten years old?

After the murders are resolved, we get, almost note-for-note, Psycho’s talky “restoring order” ending, in which a psychiatrist explains at length the details of the case.  Just as Simon Oakland discussed Norman Bates’ schizophrenia in Psycho, the psychiatrist character here goes on at great length about Pa Townsend’s psychosis.

And finally, in time for the last shot, we get the composition of an imprisoned madman, not Norman, but rather Pa Townsend. This is where they will spend the rest of their days…incarcerated.

From A to B to C, Three on a Meathook leads right back to Psycho. The movie’s “clever” twist, however, is an inversion of Norman’s story. Whereas Norman’s mother was really dead (and stuffed in the fruit cellar) but Norman was pretending she was alive by becoming her, Billy’s mother is believed to be dead, but actually alive.  

You see, she suffers from “cannibalistic tendencies” and Billy’s father, Pa, has been murdering passersby (and blaming Billy…) so as to procure meat for his beloved wife.  


The idea here is not bad: to ape Psycho relentlessly and for as long as possible and then, at the final surprise juncture, reverse a key plot point. But again, Girdler doesn’t do much with his narrative or his twist-in-the-tale that is commendable or even memorable.

The thrill of watching a film like Three on a Meathook, even today, comes from the fact that the film was made outside of Hollywood proper. Accordingly, you are never quite sure how far it will go, or what you will see. Hollywood decorum doesn’t matter in the Girdler-verse, and so you could see something that simply wouldn’t be allowed in an establishment film. 

For me, that moment of spiky, nasty invention comes with the aforementioned decapitation. I’ve included the still of that moment, which does it no favors since a photograph reveals how the trick was accomplished.


But on film it all happens so fast and is so nasty in conception, that the moment is momentarily shocking.  The film could have used more moments like this one, and less like the unnecessary musical interlude.  The decapitation gag, rough as it is, deserves a mention because Girdler always sought to give audiences their money’s worth, and took apparent glee in creating weird and experimental effects.  The apex of that trend comes in The Manitou (1978) which boasts some very inventive, very ingenious and very weird visuals, but you can trace a line backwards from there to Three on a Meathook. Everyone starts somewhere.

Outside the decapitation gag and a nicely-shot “discovery” moment of revelation with three corpses on the aforementioned meat-hooks, however, the film feels flat and remote, as if we’re watching the whole thing from a distance. 

This approach actually diminishes the sense of horror, rather than augmenting it.  If Girdler could have aped any characteristic of Hitchcock’s, it should have been the master’s devotion to formalism, and the desire to make the audience feel -- through film grammar -- real terror.  Similarly, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre plays like some surreal, bizarre version of Alice in Wonderland, in a world where order is unsettled, and never restored. By comparison to either masterpiece, Three on a Meathook is very, very flat.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Girdler Binge: Asylum of Satan (1972)


Shot in Louisville, Kentucky, reportedly on a budget of just $50,000 dollars, Asylum of Satan (1972) is director William Girdler’s first feature film. He made it when he was just twenty-four years old.

As is the case with all of the director’s films, Asylum of Satan possesses notable gaps in logic, and the director makes some astoundingly poor choices about the monsters he chooses to visualize on camera. The film’s depiction of the Prince of Darkness is horribly inexpressive and phony-looking, and yet it receives considerable screen-time.More than that, the cheap Devil mask/head succeeds in scuttling the film’s crimson-hued climax.


Beyond these readily-apparent missteps and limitations of budget, however, it feels sometimes during the film like Girdler is actually onto something interesting, at least from a visual perspective. His best conceit is that of an asylum that seems to span two different or competing realities, and notably this leitmotif requires no visual effects or make-up at all, only set re-decoration. Accordingly, the double-nature of the film’s setting, Pleasant Hill Hospital, may be Asylum of Satan’s most memorable achievement.

From one perspective, some viewers may also enjoy Asylum of Satan as a kind of 78-minute dirty joke, given the film’s final revelation or punch-line. Yet it is exceedingly difficult to know if this is a case of a plot point that is unintentionally or intentionally humorous. 

Regardless, the film’s final revelation remains unforgettable.


In Asylum of Satan, concert pianist Lucina Martin (Carla Borelli) is unexpectedly transferred to Pleasant Hill Hospital -- a sanitarium -- by her regular physician, Doctor Nolan. She vehemently protests, but is told by an employee at the asylum named Martine (Charles Kissinger) that she will be glad to be treated by Doctor Specter (also Charles Kissinger), a “great man” whose specialty is pain.

Lucina meets Dr. Specter and promptly demands her release from custody, but he insists that she has had a nervous breakdown, and that she must recover in the isolation of the asylum. Specter also performs a physical examination of the lovely Ms. Martin and notes that her skin remains “unblemished…by sin.”

While Lucina’s boyfriend, Chris  Duncan (Nick Jolley) goes in search of her, and attempts to get the police, led by Lt. Walsh (Louis Bandy) to raid the asylum, Lucina’s fellow residents are killed one at a time, by insects, by fire, and by poison snakes in the swimming pool.  

As she soon learns, Lucina is to be Dr. Specter’s final sacrifice to Satan, one that will grant him eternal life for the delivery of virgin…


A legitimately great shot pops up early in Asylum of Satan. An unconscious Lucinda is carried on a stretcher up the stairs to her room by several paramedics. At the same time, a dark shadow, his features indistinct, silently watches her go. The positioning of the characters in the frame, with the dark figure intruding but un-moving,creepily suggests menace, and furthermore that, on occasion, Girdler is able to catalyze his instincts to make a shot that really carries psychic weight, at least purely in terms of imagery.

At another juncture, some kind of hideously deformed creature emerges from Room 319 in the hospital, lunging out of the dark at the camera. The moment is odd and frightening, and it goes unexplained. The creature’s make-up doesn’t hold-up to the scrutiny the camera’s gaze provides, so terror dissipates. But for the first few seconds, the fear generated by this set-up is palpable.

Alas, so many other moments fail to come off as Girdler no doubt hope and intended, and largely because, at this early junction in his career the director still seems to be calibrating what things should be seen on camera and for how long.  

For instance, the crippled female resident who is killed by bugs gets the worst treatment perhaps. Fake, jiggly insects -- creepy crawlies? -- land on her face, and there is no illusion of life, just the suggestion of jello or gelatin. Similarly, the final scenes of the film that depict a Satanic Mass that goes on for far too long.



And when the Devil himself shows up, it is in in a guise that inspires no fear, no dread. Yet Old Scratch remains in our sight, moment after agonizing moment.

As I noted in my introduction, there’s no reason, really, to show all this stuff, because Girdler does far better with the movie’s central location: an asylum that is sometimes an immaculate, state-of-the-art-facility, and sometimes a dilapidated, ruined place of EVIL. The environs shift back and forth unpredictably and without reason, and are thus, if not disturbing, at least discomfiting. The idea of the asylum being two places also fits in nicely with Lucina’s nervous breakdown. She could be imagining the horrors she encounters.

And though it is undeniably odd that Charles Kissinger should play both Lucina’s female hostess Martine and her male doctor, Specter, the double performance by the actor also contributes to this plot line about two universes operating on parallel tracks. This idea has been repeated in horror films and television since Asylum of Satan, but notably, and to great effect in (the brilliant) Silent Hill (2006).

What works effectively about many of the asylum scenes is Girdler’s choice to explain very little regarding the imagery. Instead, Lucina ends up in a dining hall with the other asylum residents, surrounded by hooded figures with hidden faces. These hooded figures all sit frozen in wheelchairs for some reasons, and are completely silent. On their plates: eggs still in the shells, untouched.  It’s such a weird and visually disturbing set of images that tension and intrigue are generated. 



Are the eggs there to represent souls? Why aren’t the people moving? Who are they?  Are they even, truly, present? Why is one of the hooded figures burned?

Meanwhile, the nurses in the institution all deliberately lack any emotional affect, and seem like drones or zombies. And creepy Dr. Specter has a peep hole in his medicine cabinet through which he watches Lucina disrobe. All these touches together work nicely to suggest a realm of darkness and diabolism.

It’s all creepy and slightly surreal, and even Kissinger’s stilted, declamatory manner of speech seems to play towards rather than against Asylum of Satan’s prevailing mood of strangeness. I often write about how many effective horror movies (like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) take on the qualities of a dream, or a waking nightmare. Asylum of Satan is obviously nowhere near the same class of filmmaking,but occasionally it attains that kind of abject, disturbing weirdness that critics like me tend to covet in the genre.

From a certain perspective, Asylum of Satan is really and truly a dirty joke. The devil’s henchman, Specter, goes out of his way to procure a virgin for the Devil, only for the Devil to detect, almost immediately, that she has already been deflowered.  On one hand, this seems like wicked, droll commentary about the youth-revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the difficulty of finding someone virginal.


On the other hand, as I noted in my book, Horror Films of the 1970s, there’s no clear “tell” that Girdler is pulling a gag or intends for the discovery to be played as tongue-in-cheek. Lucina’s *ahem* condition is played, for lack of a better word, straight.  

Also, it isn’t entirely clear to me, on this re-watch, why Specter missed that Lucina is, uh, sexually experienced since he performed a full medical exam on her.  We know she wasn’t deflowered at the asylum, but rather beforehand, because we get a flashback of Lucina and Chris making love after a walk in the snow on a wintry day.

I have a tremendous fondness for Girdler and his films, but it isn’t always easy to forge an affirmative case for his artistry. However certain shots and set-ups in Asylum of Satan work pretty well, and more than that, make the case that the director has a good eye….or was working to develop one. I limit that observation mostly to Lucina’s arrival in the sanitarium, and that weird scene in the cafeteria from Hell.  

Unless you’re really into horror films and horror film history, Asylum of Satan may not be your thing. The acting is weak, the dialogue is pretty atrocious, and the end is opaque in the sense that it isn’t clear how it is to be interpreted.  

But, again, every now and then the movie engineers a moment of creepy frisson, and thus keeps audiences tuned in.  In some ways, William B. Girdler’s first film, Asylum of Satan remains as schizophrenic as its two realities. 

On one hand, Girdler wants to show you everything, and “everything” -- like the bugs or Satan, himself -- doesn’t look so hot. 

On the other hand, he pulls back in terms of the explanation for the monster in room 319 and regarding the cafeteria of egg-eating cultists. In those moments, the film seems to achieve genuine idiosyncratic nuttiness.

Nemo Blogging: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Jules Verne's immortal tale of undersea adventure,  20,000 Leagues Under The Sea  has been adapted to film on several occasions, but...