Saturday, February 25, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Frozen in Space" (September 22, 1979)

In the second episode of Jason of Star Command’s second season, “Frozen in Space,” Jason (Craig Littler) and his new friend, the amnesiac alien, Samantha (Tamara Dobson), head to a small planetoid that appears to be the source of a deadly freezing beam.  

As Samantha and Jason seek out the beam’s source, Star Command nears destruction.  The base’s power systems frozen, it lurches dangerously towards a dwarf star…

On the surface of the inhospitable planetoid, Jason and Samantha meet “Tehor,” a monstrous minion of Dragos who is responsible for controlling the freeze beam.  

Realizing that she may be Star Command’s last chance for survival, Samantha pretends to be an ally to Tehor and Dragos, and betrays Jason.  In reality, her actions are an excuse to get the duo into the base and to the all-important freeze beam control system.

Straight-forward and to-the-point “Frozen in Space” by Margaret Armen is buttressed by some outstanding special effects work, and a dramatic through-line that is actually pretty impressive in terms of children’s television.  

In the case of the former, “Frozen in Space” features some dynamic miniature shots of Star Command under the burning shadow of a giant dwarf star.  There’s also a terrific composition here involving Jason’s Star Fire descending to the planetoid surface.

On the latter front, we get the newest chapter in Samantha’s on-going attempt to discover her own mysterious origin…and nature.  She wonders aloud: “what if my people are evil?”  Samantha wonders too, if she might be evil, on a personal basis.  

Jason’s encouraging reply suggests that she can be whom she chooses to be.  In that answer, one can detect how a good message is being transmitted to the kiddies out there in TV land.  

It’s not too heavy-handed, but Samantha’s plight reminds the viewer that people should be judged by the content of their character, not by stereotypes or other external factors which may not truly consider the measure of a man, or woman.  

Samantha also claims this week to be a person from a race called “the Capillos.”  I don’t remember if that moniker recurs or not in future episodes…

Other than the nice character development about Samantha proving to herself she is not evil in nature, “Frozen in Space” is a pretty rudimentary narrative affair with captures, escapes, and more captures.  My friend Mateo Latosa, editor at Powys Media, calls this brand of story a “run around.”  The characters run lots of places, rescue each other, get captured, and then defeat the villain…but not much meaningful actually happens.   The pure movement and busy-ness of the enterprise distracts you from the thematic emptiness.  The original Dr. Who, in the early years, did a lot of these “runaround” stories, and after a while they certainly grow tiresome. 

Here, Jason of Star Command seems more obsessed with action than interesting sci-fi storytelling: Jason smashes the freeze beam control panel by throwing a chair at it!  Not exactly a high-minded solution, though it certainly gets the job done.

Besides the narrative’s general lack of ingenuity, “Frozen in Space” features quite possibly the slowest, worst-aimed paralysis beam in TV history.  

Samantha and Jason (and WiKi) all attempt to avoid the ray, yet somehow manage to outrun and pivot around the bloody thing.  Dragos needs to upgrade his technology or something.

Probably the biggest disappointment of the week is that Jason and Commander Stone don’t get to interact, and continue their contentious process of coming to understand one another.  Stone is trapped on Star Command with Parsafoot, and Jason is away on the planet, so there aren’t many character fireworks.

But, of course, "Frozen in Space" is aimed at kids, not at adults seeking thematic complexity.  Hopefully things get a little more fun and elaborate next week...

Next episode: "Web of the Star Witch!"

CBS Saturday Morning Promo, 1979

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Films of 1982: Q: The Winged Serpent

One  reason I admire low-budget exploitation films so much is that, in many cases, writers and directors don't feel compelled to trot along happily with the Hollywood party line.

A three-act structure patterned after the Campbell Monomyth may be tiresome de rigueur for the big budget extravaganza, but filmmakers such as Larry Cohen or Tobe Hooper are subversives and non-conformists. They march to the beat of their own (distinctive) drums and, in the process, shatter audience expectations.

Not every film they make is great, but every film they make is theirs, not the product of committee.  I prefer that approach because I'd rather see a unique, oddball effort than a "product" that looks the same as everything else out there.  I've seen movies like Thor or Green Lantern a dozen times.  By contrast, there is only one Q: The Winged Serpent, to modify the tag-line from the 1976 King Kong.  The descriptors "strange" and "offbeat" don't even begin to do this 1982 film justice.

Q: The Winged Serpent, released in September of 1982, is a perfect example of a movie that, on cursory description, sounds like a lot of other monster movies, namely Godzilla or King Kong, but which as been gloriously corkscrewed by writer/director Cohen to play as a totally different, totally unique viewing experience.   

Most importantly, Cohen's point-of-entrance/attack on Q: The Winged Serpent is revolutionary.  The film features a small time crook, Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarity) as protagonist, if not "hero."   And it's not even that he's just a crook that's important. He's actually a coward too. In monster movies we've been conditioned to expect the square-jawed romantic hero, one who is courageous and noble.  Jimmy Quinn is a different...bird.

Additionally, Cohen -- on a low budget, no less -- reveals to audiences a visual aspect of New York City we've never really seen before in film.  It's an eagle's eye, roof-top view of the metropolis and much of the action occurs there.  Notably, such moments atop high-rises, including the vicious opening attack on a window washer, don't appear faked in terms of exteriors or stunts.  The real location shooting -- in Manhattan and atop the buildings -- thus grants the sense a film of gritty authenticity and legitimacy.  Watching Q, I appreciate the contrast between Jimmy Quinn -- a rat on street level --  with Quetzlcoatl, a winged monster in the sky.

Despite such virtues, critics by-and-large dismissed Q: The Winged Serpent.  Janet Maslin wanted to offer "only a very few words" about the film, as if it wasn't worth the energy of a full review.  She also viewed the script's humor as "inadvertent," an opinion I would strongly contest given the comedic sheen of Cohen's work in films including It's Alive (1973) and The Stuff (1985).  Meanwhile, Roger Ebert famously championed Michael Moriarity's tic-filled lead performance as Quinn while dismissing the rest of Q as "dreck." Chicago Reader's Pat Graham called the effort "curiously disengaged and sloppy."

Again, for me the very opposite holds true.

I find Q: The Winged Serpent absolutely engaging because of its droll, edgy, unconventional nature, and because Michael Moriarty absolutely rivets the attention, though often in deliriously oddball fashion.  The conventional and disengaged approach, in my opinion, would have been to feature stalwart, heavily-armed heroes of the military and U.S. government battling Quetzlcoatl throughout, with scientists theorizing about how to destroy the dangerous creature.  Instead, Cohen takes the extraordinary route of weaving the story of Quetzcoatl -- an Aztec God "prayed" back into existence -- into the life story of a neurotic, twitchy crook who, perhaps, feels more at home in prison than among free men.   Again, this is a character who might have a supporting role in a "regular" monster movie, perhaps even played as comic relief.  But here, Quinn is Q's raison d'etre.

Can a movie about a giant, man-eating serpent actually be a terrific and illuminating human character piece?  Larry Cohen seems to think so, and in Q: The Winged Serpent he explodes long-standing monster movie cliches to make the point.

"What else is God but an invisible force that we fear?"

In New York City, something strange is happening.  A serial murderer seems to be flaying (willing?) victims in accordance with ancient Aztec rites of human sacrifice.

Detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) investigate these horrendous crimes at the same time that an urban legend multiplies in the city: the legend of a giant bird/serpent that strikes from the sky, and claims human prey as food.  People have gone missing, and blood has literally rained down upon the streets on occasion.

Meanwhile, small time crook Jimmy Quinn (Moriarity) has been seeking legitimate work at his girlfriend's (Candy Clark) insistence.  Unfortunately, he gets involved in a diamond heist (at a jewelry store called Neil Diamonds...) and runs afoul of both the law and his law-breaking cohorts.  After Quinn loses 77,000 dollars of diamonds in an accident, he hides on the top floor of The Chrysler Building and learns that the city's monster is no legend.

There, he discovers the nest for Quetzcoatl, the Aztec God of blood and human sacrifice.   Pursued by his former partners in crime, Quinn leads the crooks to The Chrysler Building...where they are promptly eaten.

The Quetzlcoatl attacks over Manhattan grow more numerous and brazen, and after Jimmy is arrested, he realizes he possesses a unique bargaining chip.  He offers to share the location of the monster's nest with the police if they give him a "Nixon-like" pardon and immunity, a million dollars, and exclusive book, movie and photograph rights to the monster's story...

"You are a betrayer and now you must humble yourself..."

At the center of Q: The Winged Serpent is Jimmy Quinn, the strangest monster movie protagonist you've ever seen.  He's a loser and a coward.  He "scats" at the piano, and creates his own bizarre musical numbers/voice-over narrations, such as the composition "Evil Dream."

Basically, Moriarity twitches and gesticulates his way through the film in a manner that captivates the attention, and feels strangely authentic and real.  Quinn is neurotic and afraid: a rat trapped in the "mean streets"/cage of The Big Apple.   But he's not just your average crook, either. He's a hustler with delusions of grandeur and a creeping suspicion he'd be happier in prison, a place where he would be taken care of by the state, and perhaps do no harm to others. He'x an ex-junkie, an alcoholic, a loser...and yet you root for him to succeed.

In Q: The Winged Serpent, the audience gets to see all sides of Quinn, and some are appealing and some not.  For instance, as I wrote above, Quinn is trying to go "legit," and so the movie showcases his efforts to make it as a musician.  Efforts which are, I would estimate, pretty dire.   You haven't really lived until you've watched Michael Moriarity scat at a small bar piano.

And then, further de-romanticizing our already-unconventional protagonist, Quinn and his girlfriend argue over the fact that, on many occasions, he has gotten drunk and hit her.  This is a key part of Quinn's character.  When in a position of power, he's not just a small time loser, he's dangerous...and mean.  We see it in his treatment of his girlfriend, but also in the way Quinn holds the City hostage, and, of course, in his brutal, deliberate act of feeding two criminals to Quetzlcoatl.  He brushes off the latter act as self-defense.

Quinn clearly is against-type in monster movies, as I've enumerated above.  But what makes him truly fascinating is his dawning sense of self-realization that he is, to put it mildly,  a creep.  Cohen gives Moriarity a great monologue -- a clear analog to an important moment for Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront (1954) -- where he reflects that he's been a bum all his life, and that if things were different, he would change that fact.  "All my life I've been nobody," he reflects, "now I can be somebody."

Moriarity's Quinn is the glue that holds together Q: The Winged Serpent, and more than that, the very point of the movie.  Here's a guy who discovers a man-eating monster, and decides to use that knowledge to better his position in life.

Importantly, Quinn's rather heartless approach to life is pointedly contrasted with the efforts of the ritualistic serial killer, who also uses the lives of others to remake the world in an image he prefers.

Amidst all of this selfish behavior -- a perfect reflection of the young, upwardly mobile values of the early 1980s -- Quetzlcoatl and its just-hatched offspring seem like true innocents.  The real "monster" in this monster movie isn't the man-eating beast with razor sharp talons, but the kind of man who would use tragedy and pain to make a personal fortune.  There may even be a debate here about human nature.  The Q operates by its nature (to kill in order to survive), but what about Quinn?  Is he just acting according to human nature, or is he representative of the worst of human nature?

The special effects of Q: The Winged Serpent are clearly of their age, featuring very-good stop-motion animation from Dave Allen.  The monster really look pretty good in several impressive shots.  One of my favorite compositions in the film involves a nifty jump scare in which Carradine turns his back on an open window, and the giant serpent lunges in behind him (above).  The film's final battle, with police battling Quetzcoatl from perches atop The Chrysler Building, is also strong, and evokes clear memories of King Kong (1933) and the Empire State Building finale.   But the monster scenes are largely not the point.  This is a movie about what might really happen if a crook discovered a monster, not a movie about a monster's reign of terror. 

Another perpetual joy in Q: The Winged Serpent is the witty screenplay. Cohen's staccato, rat-a-tat, authentic "city" dialogue has been termed tongue-in-cheek in some circles, but in fact it plays as funny because it is so deadpan and earnest, so true.  If a monster were attacking New York City, wouldn't you expect to hear people asking questions like: "Did you find that construction worker's head yet?"  It may seem silly, but it is situationally-appropriate. In short, Q: The Winged Serpent accepts and internalizes its bizarre premise, and that forges amusing dialogue (especially for David Carradine's character) from that real situation.

It's an equation that, for me, really works well.  This is one of those movies that may not seem great in a traditional or conventional sense, but which you just can't take your eyes or ears off of.

More than one critic has also pointed out how the 1998 Godzilla seems to play more closely on aspects of Q: The Winged Serpent than the Gojira mythos.  It's an interesting observation, and not entirely without merit.

For instance, both films end on the exact same cliffhanging note: evidence that an unhatched monster -- an egg -- remains even after the final, urban battle with the Mommy Lizard.

But where Godzilla was a colossal, focus-group tested, market-driven blockbuster, Q: The Winged Serpent is a much more intimate and human-scaled film.  Again, this  approach is just incredibly unconventional in terms of the monster movie sub-genre.  When you consider the greats of the form, you begin to detect how the classics play with form and expectations.  Such innovation may be done with special effects (King Kong [1933]), a blazing political context (Godzilla: King of Monsters), or a man-on-the-street point-of-view (Cloverfield [2008]).  I'd argue Q: The Winged Serpent belongs on that select monster movie list precisely because it is so odd and so personal ,and because it uses the story of a giant serpent almost as background noise for the character study of a memorable creep.

Because Q: The Winged Serpent so expertly grounds its wildest fantasy concepts with a study of Moriarity's sleazy little loser, this film from 1982 truly mimics the soaring behavior of its titular flying serpent.

Q: The Winged Serpent flies so close to the sun, it momentarily blinds you.  

Movie Trailer: : Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Rollerball (1975)

"Corporate society takes care of everything. And all it asks of anyone, all it's ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions."

- Corporate Executive, Bartholomew (John Houseman) explains how it is in Norman Jewison's Rollerball (1975) 

Released the same year as the low-budget Death Race 2000 (1975),  director Norman Jewison's Rollerball is a dystopian film with many similar elements.  Both films are set in the future.  Both films involve "athletes" in incredibly dangerous contests, and both efforts suggest the notion of such violent contests as "bread and circuses" for the unhappy masses of America. 

When the chips are down, give us our gladiatorial games, and we'll forget that we don't have our liberty...

Of course, Death Race 2000 is more over-the-top, funny,and nasty in execution, and so Rollerball feels a bit reserved and staid by comparison.  And yet Rollerball is grave, impressive, and serious in its depiction of a corporate dystopia.   The film thrives on speed, acceleration and movement, and James Caan is a sturdy anchor in this tale of a world in which corporations use blood lust to control the people.

Not all critics agreed.  Writing in The Film Encyclopedia, Science Fiction (page 327), a reviewer complained the film was "overly complicated" and mixed "political intrigue and romance for no purpose." 

Others felt the film was just a cover for violence itself.  Writing in Sci-Fi Now (Octopus Books, 1977), author Alan Frank noted that the film merely created a "special environment in which the film's use of excessive use of violence can be made justified." 

By pointed contrast, recent assessments of Rollerball have been more positive.  Film Threat noted that Rollerball was "prescient about violence, corporations, and TV," and that's certainly a fair assessment.  The film is a valuable one because it questions what passes for entertainment, but more than that, what passes for "freedom" in an increasingly technological, media-saturated age.

"Ladies and gentlemen, will you stand please for the playing of our Corporate Hymn?"

 Rollerball's action takes place after the world's nations have gone "bankrupt," and after the destructive "Corporate Wars" have come and gone 

Now, corporations "take care of everyone," and the violent, team sport of Rollerball has been created by big business to remind people of "the futility of individual effort."  The goal of the corporations is to be essential to every individual's life, and for "the few" to make important decisions on "a global basis."

Unfortunately, there are serious downsides to corporate rule as depicted in Rollerball.  For one thing, all citizens are treated as powerless employees of the "Executive Class."  This means that your beloved wife can be transferred to another man's possession with the ease an on-the-job departmental transfer.  Indeed, this is the indignity that the world's greatest Rollerball player, Jonathan E. (James Caan) has suffered...and never forgiven.   He still loves his wife, but an executive in Italy had more power and stature...and took her.  And she was paid handsomely to leave Jonathan, rewarded with a villa in Rome, and extreme wealth. 

Early in Rollerball, the company -- represented by John Houseman's stern executive, Bartholomew -- also delivers another despotic edict: Jonathan must retire from the game for "the common good."   This demand doesn't sit well with Jonathan E., and he encourages his ever-increasing fame on the court, even in the face of attempts by the company to kill him.  

Before long, Jonathan finds the corporation changing the game's rules on him.  First, the Executive class eliminates penalties for rough play.  Then it eliminate replacements/substitutions, so that no injured players can leave the game in progress.  Then, finally, the corporate men push a game with no established time limit.  The final Rollerball game ends only when the last man is standing...

As you might expect, the Rollerball tournaments serve, in many ways, as the highlights of this classic sci-fi film.  Staged with meticulous attention-to-detail and with an eye towards speed and acceleration, these games grow increasingly violent throughout the film.  The set-piece against the Tokyo team, in particular, descends into a blood bath.  One player even catches fire before the game is done.

If possible, the film's climactic contest -- New York vs. Jonathan E.'s Houston team -- is even more vicious.  Scarlet blood is seen spilled all over the game arena, and in one horrible moment, the first aid responders are actually run down by a speeding motorcycle.  Then our protagonist, Jonathan, kills a player right in front of Houseman's character, and before a live TV audience.  

All the while, a packed house cheers and applauds wildly over the violent action... 

"Jonathan, there's one thing you ought to know, and nobody's said it, but I'm sure of it. They're afraid of you, Jonathan. All the way to the top, they are."

On one level, of course, Rollerball satirizes the hyper-kinetic, overtly-commercialized world of modern  organized sports, where the strongest, hunkiest lunkhead (Tim Tebow?) receives the most admiration based on the size of his... muscle mass.  

This notion of making athletes "heroes" is made clear in a Rollerball scene set inside a locker room, as Bartholomew speaks to the players' egos.  "They dream they're great rollerballers," he tells them, speaking of Executives.   "They dream they're Jonathan; they have muscles, they bash in faces."
On the other hand, and on a much deeper thematic level, Rollerball muses directly on the topic of freedom in a technological, mass-media Adams) makes a points relative to life in the 1970s and today.  Ella asks Jonathan why he simply doesn't do what the Executives want him to do especially since he would be paid handsomely for his compliance. 

Jonathan notes that it is a choice "between having nice things...or freedom."  Ella responds -- terrifyingly -- "But comfort is freedom."  

By contrast, Jonathan suggests the truth: "That's never been it. I mean, them privileges just buy us off."

In other words: Don't sweat things like individual freedom or liberty.  There are items to purchase, things to own.  Don't you want an Italian villa?

Incidentally, this very-Rollerball sentiment was mirrored rather dramatically in President Jimmy Carter's famous and much-derided "Crisis of Confidence" speech five years later, in 1979.  He said:

"In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose."

Rollerball depicts a society in which the people have indeed accepted control by a ruling return for being "provided for," in return for "privilege." 

But, in accordance with the President Carter quote, these same people have no sense of meaning or purpose. 

Part of the reason the people live with such an unjust arrangement is because of a deliberate black-out of educational materials and information.  Rollerball tournaments play endlessly on the television, and local libraries are impersonal computer centers that feature only "summaries" of important literary works and ideas. 

Instead, the corporations own history itself: "What do you want books for?," Jonathan's team-mate, Moon Pie asks innocently.  "Look Johnny, if you wanna learn somethin', just get a Corporate Teacher to come and teach it to ya'. Use yer Privilege Card..."

It's clearly an Internet-less world, and in one scene in the film, Jonathan E. goes to Geneva to visit a computerized archive where all the answers about "corporate rule" are purported to exist.  Not surprisingly, the computer librarian, named Zero, proves absolutely unhelpful. in providing such data.  In fact, the machine has lost the totality of the "13th Century" in terms of knowledge.  Thus, there is no place to turn to in this world to learn about history, science, or nature.  Everything is the game Everything is blood lust. 

Because as long as you think about the game, and which team is winning or losing, you aren't thinking about who is gaming the system and for what agenda.

Based on William Harrison's short story, "The Roller Ball Murder" (1973; Esquire), Rollerball runs for over two hours, and it features essentially two modes. The first mode reveals the kind of listless, purposeless, meaningless existence of "comfortable" citizens like Jonathan E.  The second mode involves the game matches themselves, set on a circular track.  The game play is urgent, pointed and murderous, a deliberate contrast to the film's lackadaisacal first mode.  I imagine that some audiences today would probably find these aspects of the film boring, but as the first mode concerns the existential angst of a futuristic gladiator, the insight into his daily life and routine is entirely appropriate. 

Uniquely, Rollerball also makes widespread use of classical music, including Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and Adagio in G minor from Tomaso Albinoni.  These musical selections comment on the action  (and understand the action) in a way that the film's knowledge-challenged dramatis personae cannot.  The music -- so distinctly of the human past -- connects Jonathan E's futuristic struggle for freedom to such struggles in man's long history, and arises specifically from the Baroque tradition, dealing intentionally with the "affect of man."  The musical selection that opens the film, Toccata and Fugue, renders the accompanying imagery (of game preparations in the vast Rollerball stadium) almost religious in stature and transmits the idea that we are witnessing an important ritual being played out.

Rollerball's production design is, accordingly, relatively impersonal and dehumanizing in nature.  Citizens visit vast "luxury centers," mall-like locations -- places to shop -- in keeping with such kindred fare as Logan's Run (1976).  The Executive Suites as seen in the film are palatial and extravagant.  The opulent life-style of the executive class is revealed in one dinner party scene, and the sequence ends with the drunken, entitled elite mindlessly blowing up trees with futuristic guns.

The Rollerball arena is itself an important metaphor in the film.  The track is a loop, a track that never ends, with no end and no beginning.   Teams battle one another for supremacy, going around and around on this track endlessly (kind of like a NASCAR race, I suppose).  But one individual -- a Spartacus of the future age -- breaks out of this circular trajectory and takes the fight right to the stands. 

One spectacularly effective  composition in the Jewison film finds Jonathan E. braced against a transparent wall on the Rollerball rink. Behind him is Bartholomew, the executive, scowling.  And reflected on the transparent glass are out-of-control flames 

Here we have all three critical elements: the gladiator, the villain who is "untouchable" and the fire of revolt -- of individual achievement -- threatening to burn out of control.

The enduring genius of Rollerball, I would submit, is that it artfully exposes how powerful people become addicted to controlling the lives of others  The corporate stooges of the Executive Class wage full-bore, murderous war against a citizen because they want one player -- one damned player -- to retire from "their" game.  They apparently don't consider tolerating Jonathan E's presence for a few more years, followed, presumably, by a peaceful retirement.  Instead they seek to dominate and defeat Jonathan E. -- a champion and competitor -- and in doing so, incite his sense of competition. 

For Jonathan, "Four or five little things make one big thing," and the retirement demand, on top of the loss of his wife to an executive, constitutes a tipping point.  By pushing the stubborn and tough Jonathan E. to his line in the sand, the Corporate Culture only assures that Jonathan E. proves the very point they don't want established:

The will of the individual matters.

Movie Trailer: Rollerball (1975)

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"It's name is Quetzalcoatl.   Just call it Q, that's all you'll have time to say before it tears you apart!"

- Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), to be reviewed tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Memory Bank: Daredevils Magazine

As you probably realize from the nature of this blog, I have an obsession with ephemera, for that printed and/or written material that doesn't always last from generation to generation.  In my new Memory Bank posts, I'll be looking at some genre ephemera of the 1970s and 1980s.

To start us off today, I want to introduce (or re-introduce...) you to Daredevils Magazine,a publication that covered "Adventure Films and Television."  Daredevils was a magazine of NMP (New Media Publishing) that ran for approximately two years, I think. 

The cover price per issue was $2.95, and the editors were Hal Schuster and Cynthia Broadwater.  Contributing editors were James Van Hise and John Peel, two names you may recognize from the day.

Every issue of Daredevils featured "news bits" about upcoming TV and movie ventures, as well as reader mail, called "Daring Comments."  The focus of Daredevils was just what you would think from the colorful name: adventure and fantasy in all its forms, from James Bond to Tarzan to the film canon of Clint Eastwood.  Daredevils had a nice niche, I always thought, being not purely sci-fi oriented (like the more well-known Starlog) or horror oriented (like Fangoria or Gorezone). 

In a relatively short publishing life, Daredevils reviewed the James Bond films, gazed at new 1980s film iniatives such as Streets of Fire, Greystoke, The Road Warrior, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Conan, The Never Ending Story, Red Dawn, Little Drummer Girl, and Starman.  The magazine also looked back at Rawhide and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and featured excellent retrospectives on Humphrey Bogart, Johnny Weismuller, and Richard Burton.  

Occasionally, the magazine featured interviews with the likes of writer John Gardner or producer Sydney Newman, and convention reports ("Spycon.")  About the only thing that seemed pro-forma about Daredevils was an on-going Star Trek episode guide, which had been featured in many other magazines, ad infinitum. Another writer for Daredevils was Terry S. Bowers, who is revered in Space: 1999 fan circles, and in issue #9 (July 1984), she submitted a great piece on the Mission: Impossible TV series. 

I first encountered Daredevils when I was sixteen, around summer of 1986, I believe.  I had my first summer jobs (working first the early shift at McDonalds and then at a Swedish company called Avesta Stainless as a temp).  Anyway, I kept obsessively saving all my money from week-to-week.  My parents encouraged me to spend a little dough, so I spent time at a fantastic used bookstore in Montclair, New Jersey (next to a gaming shop called The Compleat Strategist).  The store carried just about the whole collection of Daredevils issues, and marked them down to $1.50 a piece. 

In a matter of weeks that summer, I purchased and devoured them all.  I've always loved reading about film and television, and Daredevils really stoked my interest in action films.  At that time, I knew very little about Humphrey Bogart or the older Tarzan films, so the magazine did a nice job of balancing coverage of the new and tantalizing (like Indiana Jones), with more classic material.

I've kept my collection of Daredevils for something like a quarter-century now.  I still use them for research occasionally, and still enjoy leafing through the pages and remembering my teenage years and the "adventure" cinema of the 1980s.

Below is a sampling of Daredevils covers.

Collectible of the Week: Universal City Studio's Mini Monster Play Case (Remco; 1980)

In 1980, Remco released a whole line of toys based on the classic Universal Monsters.  The line included figures of Bela Lugosi's Dracula, Karloff's Frankenstein Monster, the Wolfman, the Phantom of the Opera, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Karloff Mummy. 

Best of all, these small action figures were given a perfect home with this unique "Mini Monster Play case," a fold-up play-set that is a "monster mansion and portable storage case for all the mini movie monsters!"

This laminated play set with "glow in the dark features" came complete with a "flip-top mummy's tomb," a "carrying handle," a "creature cage," a "disappearing lab table with instrument panel," and a "spooky laboratory set with doorway." 

Unfortunately my old, battered Remco Play Case is missing Frankenstein's lab table, and I don't have any of the figures anymore, save for a very battered Count Dracula. 

Boy, do I wish I had kept track of those mini-monsters better back in 1980... 

By today's standards, this probably isn't the world's greatest or more accurate toy.  The scale of the "painted" laboratory on the rear wall is way off when compared to the actual action figures.  But still, I have such a love for these Universal Monsters that I find the Mini-Monster Play Case from Remco a jewel in my home office collection. 

I should add, these Mini-Monsters from Remco remain so popular that customized new monsters are today being created and sold on E-Bay.  These "new" monsters include Jack the Ripper, The Invisible Man, Dr. Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.
One of these days, when I have the cash to blow, I'm definitely going to buy a Remco Mummy and get him home in his tomb...

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote # 8: Predator vs. BTVS Moloch

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


"Why do you think there are time zones? Why do you think taxes and prices go up the same day in the ghetto? The cost of living keeps rising to make sure people keep dying. How else could there be men with a million years while most live day-to-day? But the truth is... there's more than enough. No one has to die before their time."

- Henry Hamilton (Matthew Bomer) reveals the truth In Time (2011).

Writer/director Andrew Niccol gave the modern science fiction cinema one of its finest and most heartfelt dystopian films in 1997's Gattaca.  By envisioning a world wherein genetics determined destiny and wealth, Niccol offered a unique social critique, one primarily concerning racism and class society.  

Niccol's latest sci-fi vision, In Time (2011) shares some of Gattaca's ambitious qualities, but it stresses action and high-concept sci-fi rather than moving character development.  Where Gattaca was endlessly inspiring, In Time (2011) is fast-moving. Where Gattaca was a deep character piece, exquisitely performed by Ethan Hawke and Jude Law, In Time plays more like a sci-fi variation on Bonnie & Clyde (1967). 

Specifically, the famous line "we rob banks" from that Arthur Penn classic appears to be the impetus for In Time's second half, in which two rebels "steal time" from the rich and give it to the poor.

In Time's saving grace, however, is the central premise, a sci-fi "high concept," which is so blazingly of the moment, and so incredibly relevant to the national discourse, that it imbues the film with zeal, energy and purpose. 

Specifically, In Time is set in a hypothetical future wherein people only live to be twenty-five, and then must constantly "buy" more time to stay alive.  If they don't get the needed time, they "time out" (die).  If they do, they could, with a little luck, live to old age.  Or at least until tomorrow...

In short, the film literalizes the adage "time is money," as the quest to procure more time (centuries, years, months, days, hour, minutes, seconds...) becomes the driving economic force in this future America.  The film focuses on one rebel, Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), as he begins to recognize, after a personal tragedy involving his mother, how flawed the system is, and how terrible life has become.

Unfortunately, the economic system of In Time is actually a stacked deck, Will soon learns.  

The corporate-controlled future envisioned by In Time thrives explicitly on "Darwinian capitalism," which sounds a lot like Mitt Romney's business ethos of "creative destruction."  

In the world of In Time, the rich, who own most of the  economy's  wealth  live by the motto:

"For a few to be immortal, many must die."   

To become richer and live longer, the wealthy must constantly squeeze the poor in a vise.  No middle class survives, or is depicted in the film.  It's long gone, I assume.

Every day in In Time's world, the rich manipulate the cost of living in the cordoned off "zones," ensuring that average people must work harder and faster to earn the same amount of time.  Every day, the price of food, gas, and other necessities rises so that the poor can't pause to  think about the inherent unfairness of the system or even travel to a better place, if there is one.  Instead, they must worry about the time clocks on their arms as simple survival becomes the most critical task each day.

Preserving this system are Time Keepers, law enforcement officials who report to the rich, and who make certain that even if a poor person hits the jackpot in terms of extra time, he or she doesn't get to keep that wealth.  Rather, riches in this world are safely and perpetually ensconced in the hands of the few and powerful.  One corporate executive who runs a time bank, Weis (Vincent Kartheiser), has a million years of life stashed in his vault for a rainy day.  He doesn't use it.  He doesn't touch it.  He just keeps it.  It trickles not down, but nowhere.

Meanwhile, average folk die young every day, unable to make more time for themselves.

It's pretty clear how In Time plays into the Zeitgeist of right now.  Americans are becoming aware that our own economic system -- which once encouraged hard work -- has gone wrong.  A cabal of "vulture capitalists" (a term coined by conservative Rick Perry) control the resources while the masses suffer foreclosure, economic hardship, and lose the social safety net that was erected over a century of hard work to protect them from just such robber-baronism.   There's no doubt that the Occupy Wall Street movement is part of this film's sub-text, and increasingly becoming the sub-text of many high-profile entertainments, finally replacing the tired if ubiquitous "post-9/11" Hollywood paradigm. 

It's also rather amazing how much In Time parallels the narrative and context of Bonnie & Clyde.  That landmark film also involved robbers who were bucking an unfair economic system.  There, banks after the Great Depression were foreclosing on family farms left and right, and leaving Americans with absolutely nothing.  Bonnie & Clyde didn't rob from the people, though.  Instead, they took from  the banks on the theory that you can't steal what's already, in effect, been stolen.  In Time adopts that very formulation, terrorizing an establishment that has used its power to unfairly take from others.

But In Time goes further than Bonnie &  Clyde ever did in one sense.  It actively suggests widespread revolt.  Very soon in In Time, a revolutionary thought dawns on the wrongfully exploited folks.  The truth is, one character admits, that there is more than enough time (wealth) to go around for everybody.  Nobody needs to die before their time.

Therefore, it's time (wealth) re-distribution time.  And that's the (communist? socialist? just?) task the film's outlaws, Will  and Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried) undertake...with guns a-blazing.  They aren't making time for themselves...they're giving it away (and again, like Bonnie and Clyde), becoming folk heroes in the process.

In real life, the 1% should probably be concerned about this eventuality at least a little because many people, in both political parties, are waking up to the inherent unfairness of the game too, and In Time certainly brings these submerged thoughts to the surface. 

How Super-Pacs buy our candidates. 

How corporate crimes go unpunished.

How wealth doesn't trickle down, but gets sucked upward (like cocaine in the nostrils...) in terms of outrageous executive bonuses and salaries, sometimes hundreds of times higher than those of employees who actually, you know, do the work of a business and produce the goods. 

Aside from Bonnie & Clyde, I was also reminded very much of Fritz Lang's landmark sci-fi epic Metropolis (1927) while screening In Time. 

That silent film also showcased a revolution among the have-nots against the haves.  There, however, the film advocated a peaceable "mediator" between the hands of society (the workers) and the so-called brains of society (the bosses).  That mediator, importantly, was the human heart. 

And heart is what is absolutely is missing from the creative destructors of today's out-of-whack Darwinian capitalism.  They don't want us to have access to health care. They don't want us to keep pensions.  They don't want us to organize, so we can effectively defend ourselves against corporate greed.  They don't want any regulations to prevent them from making obscene amounts of money, at the expense of the environment and our health.  Why, they don't even want us to have contraception so we can manage the size and shape of our own households (and therefore our economic future).  In short, they want us to be nothing but life-long debt slaves, so we can continue to make them money that they will then keep locked in their vaults, out of circulation, except for their needs.  This is the dynamic In Time contends with: a world where there is no compassion -- no heart -- and where obscene wealth is the highest aspiration in life.

Given America today, In Time plays brilliantly and brashly into the populist spirit of 2012, and the film's central metaphor -- time is money -- works so well because it exposes something trenchant about our human existence.  In the film, when you don't get currency (again, time), you die right on the spot.  This fact is clouded in real life, because we don't literally have a constant balance on our arm ticking down to zero. 

Instead, we get niggled with a hundred different debits a day, and don't see the forest for the trees. 

If we can't afford health care, we will die. 

If we can't get a job and provide for our family, we will die. 

If we can't buy food, we will die. 

In Time cuts out the middle man, as it were, and bluntly proposes the notion that by absorbing resources from all of us, the super rich are actually killing us, a little bit at a time.  Certainly, they're killing the middle class.   If this is class warfare, so be it.  We aren't the ones who started it. 

However, as much as I find the central metaphor of In Time meaningful and brilliantly executed, I must confess, I don't think the film works as well as Gattaca did. 

Both films depict an unfair system, and ways to get it around it, but Gattaca really made us feel for Hawke's character and his plight.  Justin Timberlake is fine in In Time.  He's not a bad actor, judging by his work here and in The Social Network.  But he is not yet able to convey the depth of his grief, sadness, anger and fear very well. At least not so well as Hawke did.  There's something more superficial about Timberlake's character here -- something more conventional -- and so In Time works more fully as a great concept than as an affecting human drama.  

Bonnie & Clyde featured action and yet it was also a character piece.  The characters here just don't compare in terms of complexity and humanity.  At times, they feel like props instead of real personalities.

Also, by focusing so strongly on action, In Time tries to ramp up suspense with cliffhanger-type scenarios wherein people are running out of the last second, and need more time NOW, or will die instantaneously.  These moments are played right to the edge of sanity, and ultimately feel kind of absurd and cheap.   When you've devised such a great and timely science fiction metaphor, it seems a waste of time, if you will, to focus on car chases, shoot-outs and on-foot pursuits.

The film also doesn't really effectively get at another interesting point.  And that is that everyone in the film stops aging at twenty-five.  In short, this means your grand mom is hot.  This means your son looks like your brother.  It's a complete, absolute unwriting of all the social cues that arise from the aging process.  You could go to bed with a hot 95 year old, or a 105 year old, and not know it.   In Time doesn't really explore the issue of what this all means: the breaking down of traditional human social organization

If the world of Niccol's vision has a time problem, it also has another.  What is lost when people don't visibly reach middle age, or old age?  I would have liked it if In Time dealt with this idea more convincingly, or even satirically (perhaps equating the youth-centric culture to the wealthy's consuming obsession with plastic surgery.) 

The film's ending also feels wrong to me on a gut level, because the corrupt system is overturned with relative ease, with only the hard push of two armed (if admittedly well-placed) rebels.  I'm happy the corrupt system is overturned, but I don't believe it could be so easily destroyed.  Change isn't about a person, it's about a long, difficult process, right? 

Dystopian films made in the 1960s and 1970s didn't feel compelled to universally provide happy endings (THX-1138, Z.P.G., etc.), yet today, it seems the happy crappy Hollywood ending is pro forma.  Gattaca ended on an upbeat note, but at least the system was not overturned.  Recent dystopic movies such as Gamer, Surrogate and now In Time reveal "heroes" beating authoritarian regimes with just a few rebellious moves.   Frankly, I don't believe it would be so easy. 

In Time is brimming with great, timely ideas and loads of intelligence, but I feel that overall the film should have been bleaker and perhaps even angrier.  The Bonnie & Clyde model was there to follow, and it should have been pursued more aggressively, perhaps, in the final act. Weis should have put the fix in for his wayward daughter, Sylvia, and for Will, and gunned down the heroes in a blaze of glory.  That feels "truer" to me.

In Time certainly doesn't waste your "time," but I'm not certain it actually makes the most of its time, either.

Movie Trailer: In Time (2011)

Theme Song of the Week: Freddy's Nightmares (1988 - 1990)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Cult-TV Theme Watch: The Human Sacrifice

We all like to believe that we are civilized, law-abiding people, but in historical terms, it wasn't that long ago that mankind engaged in some pretty bloody religious practices, particularly human sacrifice. 

Human sacrifice might best be described as ritual killings, designed explicitly to appease the Gods, spirits, or the dead.  Human sacrifice might be practiced in the form of burning, hanging, or the removing of the heart.

The bloody act of human sacrifice -- treated as murder by secular law in contemporary times -- has appeared commonly throughout cult television history in a variety of programs and episodes, usually as the "threat" or "danger" of the week.

In Dr. Who's "The Aztecs" (1964), one of the best serials of the William Hartnell era, the TARDIS lands in 15th century Mexico and school-teacher Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) is mistaken for the Aztec goddess Yetaxa.  Barbara encourages this mistake so as to put to an end the barbaric Aztec practice of human sacrifice. 

The Doctor (Hartnell) objects to Barbara's interference on the grounds that the time-line should not be altered, but the serial actually gets at another, far more interesting idea.  The Aztecs are from another time, another tradition, and another culture, and so one must ask if it is right to judge their religious practices by modern, Western, Christian standards.  Of course, we consider human sacrifice barbaric today.  But in five hundred years, how will our descendants view capital punishment? Or war?

If a future visitor came back in time and tried to stop war or capital punishment in 2012, what would that action do to our culture in the here and now?  Would it short-cut our evolution? 

Kolchak: The Night Stalker's "Legacy of Terror" (1975) provided another take on Aztec human sacrifice.  Here, a murderer stole the still-beating hearts of unsuspecting victims in an attempt to revive the Aztec God, Queztlcoatl, in the flesh.  Eric Estrada played one of the victims.

Sometimes, the human sacrifice trope is utilized as a kind of warning that what appears to be too good to be true is, in fact, too good to be true.  In Lost in Space's (1965) "His Majesty Smith," Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) is treated like a king before he is to be sacrificed by an alien race.  His royal treatment -- a last supper, as it were -- is only the prelude to untimely death. 

Smallville's (2001 - 2011) tenth season episode "Harvest" followed much along the same thematic lines.  Lois (Erica Durance) and Clark (Tom Welling) encounter a quaint, Amish-like small town in the woods of Kansas, one where families eat home-cooked meals together at the dining room table, boast time away from the business of modern life..but then by darkest night sacrifice strangers on pyres to make certain that their crops continue to grow plentifully.  The point here seemed to be that the "traditions" of the past may seem appealing on first blush, but sometimes there are real drawbacks.  By comparison, our more evolved modern life -- even with the never-ending call of tweets, e-mails and around-the-clock work -- is better.  You might want to romanticize the "quaint" past, but it wasn't all sunshine and roses.

In some extraordinary cases, the human sacrifice cliche has also been utilized to showcase the foolishness and danger of religious practices.  In The Fantastic Journey's "An Act of Love" (1977) the people of a unique province in the Bermuda Triangle sacrifices married men (on their honeymoons, no less...) to the volcano God Betticus, in hopes he will not erupt and destroy their village. 

At the end of the episode, a 20th century pacifist and intellectual, Jonathan Willaway (Roddy McDowall), points out, quite astutely,  that you can't make deals with volcanoes, and that the intelligent people should leave dangerous superstition and religion behind.  "An Act of Love" proved a bold  indictment of irrational religious belief, particularly the idea that God wants you to kill another human for some cause actually of your own distinctly human agenda.

In especially satirical settings, such as The X-Files fourth season entry "Sanguinarium," human sacrifice is seen as a run-of-the-mill, even expected aspect of out-of-control contemporary capitalism.  You want success in business?  You want to be rich?  You want a nice house?  Well, you better appease the Gods with a good old fashioned human sacrifice.   Human sacrifice is thus a shortcut to upward mobility.

The problem is that Gods apparently require lots of appeasing...and that means lots of spilled blood.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Human Sacrifice

Identified by Dave Colohan: Dr. Who: "The Aztecs."

Identified by Le0pard13: Lost In Space: "His Majesty Smith."

Identified by Will: Kolchak: The Night Stalker: "Legacy of Terror."


Identified by Randal Graves: The X-Files: "Sanguinarium."

Identified by Randal Graves: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "When She Was Bad."

Identified by Randal Graves: Millennium: "A Single Blade of Grass."

Identified by Randal Graves: Angel: "Guise will be Guise."


Identified by Randal Graves: Supernatural: "The Scarecrow."

Identified by Chris G: Smallville: "Harvest."

Television and Cinema Verities: In the Words of the Creators #7

"Horror is always the same.  It just changes with the culture and changes with the technology.  The stories are always the same.  There are just two basic stories in horror, two simple ones - evil is outside and evil is in here [pointing to his heart].  That is basically it."

- Director John Carpenter discusses the nature of the horror genre in an interview from 2010 at Icon vs. Icon.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

CULT TV BLOGGING: The Fantastic Journey: "Funhouse" (March 31, 1977)

Given my long-standing love of the horror genre, The Fantastic Journey's "Funhouse" stands as one of my favorite installments of the short-lived 1970s sci-fi series.  Using fun house and other carnival atmospherics to good, macabre effect, this installment is unlike any other in the FJ canon, and nicely eschews the by-now-common "civilization of the week" formula.  In proving different, "Funhouse" is actually a breath of fresh air, a good old-fashioned "spooky" hour.

In "Funhouse," Varian, Scott, Fred, Willaway, Sil-El and Lianna -- now boasting a new fluffy hair-do -- cross into a new "time zone." 

Instead of finding another divided culture in the Bermuda Triangle, the group discovers a very ominous, abandoned carnival fairground. 

Although Willaway has trepidations about the mysterious carnival, noting that it "doesn't belong there," Scott and others insist they check it out, and the group takes an impromptu tour.  Before long, the amusement park rides come to mysterious life, and the interlopers are greeted by a bearded man who claims to be the descendant of Marcus Apollonius, a famous magician of antiquity.  "I am an entertainer.  I belong to the ages," he notes.  He also reveals that his expansive carnival was "salvaged from a shipwreck."

Along with two cohorts -- the Barker (Richard Lawson) and Roxanne (Mary Frann) -- Apollonius (Mel Ferrer) hints to the visitors that if they defeat the surprises of his carnival fun house, he will share with them the secret of Evoland.  Again, Willaway is wary of the endeavor, but he goes along anyway.

Inside the creepy fun house, the travelers are quickly separated in a Hall of Mirrors, and the real plan becomes plain.  Apollonious is actually, Marcus himself -- the ancient magician -- and we wishes to possess the physical body of Willaway so as to challenge the Gods themselves, after departing the Bermuda Triangle from Evoland.  

Meanwhile, Roxanne desires Lianna's body for her own use because she's tired of being treated as ugly.  Both Apollonious and the woman have been cursed by the Gods with hideous countenances, ones carefully cloaked under masks of normality.

After Willaway's body is possessed, Varian and Scott attempt to restore their friend's life, while Fred crawls through a fun house vent shaft to rescue the imperiled Lianna. 

As Varian attempts to drive the villainous Apollonious from Willaway's body, Apollonius conjures images of Varian's lost love, Gwenith (from "An Act of Love.")  With herculean effort, Varian rescues Willaway, and the travelers leave the fun house and carnival behind.

Later, as they depart the time zone, the group wonders if Marcus Apollonius has been cursed by the Gods to play the same role again and again, always luring visitors to their doom...and always failing to achieve his goal of escape.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of "Funhouse" is that the story's antagonist, Marcus Apollonius, is a real historical figure.  He was a wandering philosopher in the first century, one who was believed to have taken his miracles and magic to distant kingdoms including India, Spain and Mesopotamia. 

Apollonius was also believed to have performed human sacrifices (!) and some sources suggest that, like Chris, he was assumed into Heaven.  

The Fantastic Journey's depiction of Apollonius is close to the historical article in only very general terms, but not specifics.  Though Apollonius was known to have challenged at least one Emperor, Nero, here he was an arrogant magician who challenged the Gods of Mount Olympus, apparently real beings.  And he didn't beam up to Heaven, he was "cursed to wander in the limbo of this land [the Bermuda Triangle] for all time." 

The Gods also cursed Apollonius and his woman friend, Roxanne, with ugliness.  In particular, they have unsightly hair growth on their faces.  Yet, they have perfect "flesh" masks under which to hide, so it's difficult to see why stealing more handsome/pretty bodies is such a burning necessity.   If you don't actually look ugly, outwardly, nobody would treat you as ugly.  Then again, all is vanity, right?

In some ways, "Funhouse" copies the central idea from "Atlantium:"  a life form who wants to steal the body of one of our heroic travelers in the Bermuda Triangle.   However, in this case the trappings are so different from what came before in "Atlantium" that the repetition of the concept isn't that noticeable.

"Funhouse" also derives a lot of mileage out of the funhouse setting, featuring weird slides, dangling skeletons, "shrunken" rooms, a hall of mirrors, a rotating tunnel, pervasive mist and other creepy effects.   The camera work is impressive too.  The shots of the group entering and walking on the empty fair grounds do a good job of suggesting a faintly sinister isolation.  Right from the first few compositions, you feel unnerved by the place. 

 It all adds up to a dynamic episode in terms of visuals.  It also features a nasty villain -- one who reminded me of Space: 1999's Magus -- and a nice final chill: the thought that Apollonius will attempt his body thievery on the next wanderers who happen by...

The finest moment in "Funhouse," however, involves Varian (Jared Martin) it often does on the series.  Here, his efforts to heal Willaway are stymied when Apollonius creates a vision of his beloved Gwenith, lost to Betticus in "An Act of Love." 

This style of  episode-to-episode continuity was very rare in 1970s science fiction television indeed, and it's great that the writer, Michael Michael included Gwenith in the action, and that Christine Hart returned to play her a second time.  You can see how the series writers were really attempting to develop the characters, and build a consistent history for them.

Although it didn't air near Halloween, I always consider "Funhouse" to be The Fantastic Journey's Halloween episode.  It features spiritual possession, ghoulish make-ups, a fun house, and even lightning and thunder flashes at one point.  

The story is not particularly deep once you dissect it -- there's no social commentary this time out -- but "Funhouse" is a diverting roller-coaster, and a nice interregnum between those repetitive"civilizations of the week."