Saturday, September 16, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "The Beast Men's Prey"

This episode of Flash Gordon, which follows last week's defeat of Ming the Merciless, isn't up to the same high quality standard of previous installments. In fact, it's a bit of a mess. I think that's because the first five episodes comprised footage from the made-for-TV film; whereas this is all new stuff now...and I guess that means resources were stretched thin as time flew by...

"The Beast Men's Prey" (by Sam Peeples) finds Flash, Zarkov and Dale seeking to escape Ming's palace just as Vultan, Barin and Thun - under pressure from Ming's Metal Men Warriors - make a hasty retreat. Zarkov thinks they've been abandoned. Flash's response.: "Don't think negatively, Doc."

Meanwhile, Flash and his friends are dealing with the fact that they may never get back to Earth, after demolishing Ming's planetary drive controls. Mongo - like Moonbase Alpha - is now roaming beyond Earth's solar system. Also, in this very same scene, Flash lets an important tidbit of information drop. It's almost a throwaway. Apparently, humans are stronger on Mongo than on Earth (kinda like Superman on Earth, I guess). That would have been nice to know earlier...

Anyway, Flash, Dale and Zarkov steal a magnetic automobile and careen through Mingo City in it until the vehicle goes off a bridge. The triumvirate makes it to a distant shore, to a primitive land like "Earth during prehistoric times." There, they encounter a tribe of Blue Meanies - ergh - I mean Blue Beast Men. These primitives worship a giant statue of Ming as their God. "I am your God, Ming," the Statue (replete with glowing eyes) tells his minions, "Obey Me!"

Flash and the others escape the cathedral of the Beast Men by climbing a staircase in the folds of the giant Ming statue's robes (yucky...). They head over a lava pit, and Flash muses "It can't be any worse over there..." Now that's leadership! Later, Flash, Dale and Zarkov discover that their rocket has been rebuilt by Ming, steal it from sexy Princess Aura, take to the skies aboard the vessel, engage in a beautifully animated space battle, and then chart a course for "The Sea of Mystery."

If this scattershot summary tells you anything, it's that "The Beast Men's Prey" feels like a catch-all episode. It's one unconnected event after another; a runaround. And that's sort of a disappointment, since the other stories have been so closely serialized and connected. Hopefully, next week will be better...

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Best and Worst Movie Opening Cards...

Don't you just love movies that open with a black screen and a portentous title card that states "inspired by a true story" or some such thing? It's a common technique in horror films, especially; a way to drum up audience interest.

Over the years, many films have featured really great opening cards. I can think of two right off the bat.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre begins with this legend (both lettered on-screen and read by John Larroquette):

"The film which you are about to see is an account of a tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It's all the more tragic in that they were young. But had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them, an idyllic summer afternoon became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre."

Another truly great (and elegantly terse...) opening card came from The Blair Witch Project in 1999:

"In October 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found."

Of course, in cinema history, everything (even title cards) boasts a precedent or antecedent. Compare that Blair Witch opening card with this one, from Peter Weir's 1975 masterpiece, Picnic at Hanging Rock:

"On Saturday the 14th of February 1900, a party of school girls from Appleyard College picknicked at Hanging Rock near Mt. Macedon in the state of Victoria. During the afternoon several members of the party disappeared without a trace..."

Of course, not all title cards are created equal. Here's one from the canon of one of my personal B-Grade heroes, the late, great William Girdler. In particular, it comes from Day of the Animals (1977):

"In June 1974, Drs. F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina of the University of California startled the scientific world with their finding that fluorocarbon gases used in aerosol spray cans are seriously damaging the Earth's protective ozone layer. Thus potentially dangerous amounts of ultra-violet rays are reaching the surface of our planet, adversely affecting all living things. This motion picture dramatizes what COULD happen in the near future if we continue to do nothing to stop the damage to nature's protective shield for life on this planet."

And below is the opening card from Embryo (1976):

"The film you are about to see is not all science fiction. It is based upon a medical technology which currently exists for fetal growth outside the womb. It could be a possibility tomorrow...or today."

And lastly for today, here's one from Sssssss (1973) [don't say it; hiss it...]. This one practically shrieks "lawsuit" and "litigation":

"All the reptiles shown in this film are real. The King Cobras were imported from Bangkok, the Python from Singapore. We wish to thank the cast and crew for their courageous efforts while being exposed to extremely hazardous conditions."

So, read any good (or bad...) opening cards lately?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 47: Ideal's Universal Task Force

In 1980, The Ideal Toy Corporation (in Newark, N.J. 07105) and Interfun Toys combined to create a series of fun paper-based toys in the mold of Letraset Action Transfers. In particular, the companies released six "adventure sets" that were kind of like colorforms; kind of like iron-transfer shirts. But all in all, these toys could provide kids with hours of fun. I remember 'em well, and - yes - still own several.

These "super rub down action transfer" sets each came in a "sci-fantasy pack" which contained the following materials: over sixty multi-color action transfers, over fifty glow-in the-dark "action" transfers, two starships to cut out, decorate and fly, one iron-on for your T-shirt and best of all, a 12" x 23" full color battle scene for "you to complete."

These sets came under the title "Universal Task Force" and featured a diverse group of space heroes doing battle across the universe against villains of all varieties. "Only you can decide the fate of your heroes!" the toy packs blared, and indeed, that was true. There were six sets featuring the Universal Task force in all:

In "Commander Clone: Sabotage!" you could take the Task Force Leader, Commander Clone (and his army of clones) into a space battle against "sinister invaders" called "The Gree" who were attacking giant Solar Conservors over the Eden-like planet of Kabaal!

In Demona: "Mutant Marauders and Fallout Freaks," you were with the mutated (but hot!) femme fatale Demona. "The nerve-endings in her brain warped, twisted, reformed in new connections...till she felt the dark areas of her mind open up! She was still a human, still a woman, but now she had the power of the Dark Forces to command!," the description blared. And her mission was to lead a convoy of "Normals" across a vast desert - a nuclear wasteland (populated by mutants) - to safety.

In "Friends of Fire: City of Conflict," the robot law enforcement team, "the Friends of Fire" (which resembled classic BSG Cylons...) dealt with a riot on Kolos, a "giant city-asteroid" on the planet Kolos following a contested election between the People's Party and the Elitist Party. This "cyborg clean-up crew" had "only one order" programmed into them: "Stop the conflict!" This was the first Universal Task Force set I ever saw, and I was fascinated by it.

Then there were the adventures of other Universal Task Force members: Kaarl The Korrector ("Rampant Reptoids") and The Lasers (Insectae Invasion), though I was never lucky enough to have those, dammit. All in all, I had just four of the six.

The last adventure of the Universal Task Force was tiltled "Robot Revolt" and it featured the whole bloomin' team (Commander Clone, Demona, Friends of Fire, etc.) battling robots gone mad on the mining planet Syn-Syn.

I don't know anybody else who remembers this Ideal Toy franchise from 1980, and even though the writing on the backs of the sci-fi packs admonished kids to "watch out for the further adventures of the the Universal Task Force," they never came.

But heck, when I was ten years-old, I had a lot of fun putting the task force through its paces.