Saturday, August 04, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Cryogenic Man" (October 23, 1976)

Ark II conjures up a surprisingly sharp and witty installment this Saturday morning with “The Cryogenic Man,” an episode guest starring Gilligan’s Island actor Jim Backus -- Thurston Howell himself -- as “Arnold Pool.”  Pool is a twentieth-century business tycoon awakened into the twenty-fifth century, along with his assistant, Norman Funk (John Fiedler).

In “The Cryogenic Man,” Jonah, Ruth, Samuel and Adam revive these two men from five hundred years in the past, and the episode pauses first for a Planet of the Apes joke.  Upon seeing Adam, the talking chimpanzee, Pool exclaims “Good grief, we’ve been taken over by apes.”

After that nice self-reflexive bit of humor, the tale gets down to the meat of its social commentary.  Pool takes one look around the primitive village that represents his new home and asks: “Where are the high rises?  And the shopping centers?  Where are the stores?”  These are the things that a rich man of the twentieth century misses first, the teleplay notes.

Then, Pool promptly asks the confused leader of the village whether he is a “Democrat or a Republican.”  Ruth’s answer is charming and forthright: “There are no Democrats and Republicans anymore…”

Even though he’s awakened into a new and post-apocalyptic world, the entitled Pool believes he can still buy happiness with his vast fortune.  He offers the villagers cold hard cash (ten dollars an hour) to build him a big new house in the center of town.  Naturally, they’ve never even seen money. 

They’re a sick group,” Pool notes condescendingly.  “They don’t know what money is.” 

Before long, Pool learns that the villagers are starving, and can’t grow food successfully because of contaminated soil.  The problem is that their village stands on the location of Pool’s old industrial factory, where he produced a product known as Pool’s Power Plant, a kind of “miracle grow” for vegetation. 

Unfortunately, as Ruth confirms, the product is actually a toxic chemical; one harmful to human beings.

Rather than accept the facts, Pool derides the Ark II crew as “bureaucrats” not “scientists,” and warns that bureaucrats will always take “food” from people’s mouths.   He then instructs the villagers to trap Ruth and Jonah in the cryogenic chambers.

While Samuel and Adam attempt to rescue Ruth and Jonah from their enforced slumber, Pool starts up his factory, and it begins to spew poison into the atmosphere, thereby creating another serious problem.

Finally, the Ark II crew shuts down the factory (with a well-placed laser blast), and Pool promises to change his ways; to think about ecology, not just making money. 

At episode’s end, Jonah notes in his log that we can either “make the same mistakes over and over again…or learn and grow.”

“The Cryogenic Man” is particularly prescient in understanding a dynamic that we are, alas, all too familiar with today.  A businessman who stands to make vast sums of money wishes to deride “scientific findings” as socialist “bureaucracy” and ignore hard evidence…with the safety of the community endangered as a result of his selfishness. 

I guess Ark II saw the same problem in 1976, and made this episode in response.  But it’s discouraging that we haven’t taken many steps to change the problem in the intervening thirty-six years.  It’s one thing to be in favor of capitalism, another entirely to be in favor of irresponsible, unfettered capitalism.  One person’s right to personal wealth ends, I submit, when that quest harms another person’s right to breathe clean air, or drink clean water.   

But overall, today’s world suggests that Jonah’s belief that we can “learn and grow” has not yet come to pass in the real world.  Instead, we seem to be making the same mistakes over and over.

In terms of Ark II, this episode’s wholly unexpected sense of humor leavens the didacticism a bit. The writing here is clearer and edgier than many installments, making this one of the series’ smartest entries.

Finally, the idea of a money-hungry, irresponsible businessman awaking up in a future sans capitalism is an idea that also appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994), in the first season finale, “The Neutral Zone.”

Next week: “Don Quixote.”

Friday, August 03, 2012

Savage Friday: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

In the last several weeks here for Savage Friday, I have characterized the “Savage Cinema” as a series of films that revolve, specifically, around the problem of violence in our culture.  One of the earliest and most potent films of this genre sub-type is Arthur Penn’s (1922 – 2010) landmark production, Bonnie and Clyde (1967). 

Starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, Bonnie and Clyde is widely considered a cause celebre of the so-called “American New Wave,” or the “New Hollywood” movement that sprung-up in the mid-1960s.  What this categorization means is that films such as Penn’s speak to a more educated and younger audience.  Furthermore, unconventional editing and non-traditional narratives are featured in these films. 

And, of course, (happy) narrative closure is harder to come by in films of the American New Wave.

All such components are plain and abundant in Bonnie and Clyde, from Dede Allen’s (1923-2010) intimacy-provoking yet unconventional editing techniques to the film’s downbeat -- though unforgettable -- denouement.   Still, I always tag Bonnie and Clyde of major importance to the Savage Cinema because of the largely romantic way it speaks about violence; and because the film’s high-level of on-screen violence (and even gore), opened the door to films such as A Clockwork Orange (1971), Straw Dogs (1972), Deliverance (1972) and Last House on the Left (1972).   The film’s importance as “inspiration” for the Savage Cinema continues right up to 2005 and Rob Zombie’s tribute or variation on it, The Devil’s Rejects.

In Bonnie and Clyde, violence is, rather abundantly, a “thrill,” as the upbeat, rollicking soundtrack often reminds audiences.  But it is a special kind of thrill.  Specifically, violence -- gunplay in particular -- is a replacement for sex, and more than that, a brand of empowering tool in an era of extreme poverty and top-down, predatory capitalist practices.

Set during the Great Depression, bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde actually represent counter-culture “Robin Hood” figures because they steal cash from big banks, not from individuals or families.  While banks take homes and land away from struggling farmers and make a fortune in the process, Bonnie and Clyde prove a thorn in their corporate side, a fact which, in turns, brings about the duo’s blood demise.  The very question becomes -- as re-parsed recently in In Time (2011), another Bonnie and Clyde tribute -- this one: is armed robbery actually a pro-social response to the legal robbery conducted wide-scale by unaccountable, irresponsible, foreclosing banks and bankers?

By positioning violence as both sexual thrill and appropriate response to out-of-control, avaricious capitalism, the Penn film initiates the Savage Cinema in fine and, yes, provocative form.  The film’s immortal (not immoral) charm rests largely on the almost-innocent performances of young Beatty and Dunaway, a sense of moral righteousness about the characters’ brand of violence, and the intense, tragic, bloody ending, which is foreshadowed throughout the latter half of the movie.  

Go up against the Establishment suggests the film, and you may have your day as a local hero.  But you can’t beat City Hall -- or rather the banks -- for long.

“All I can say is, they did right by me -- and I'm bringing me a mess of flowers to their funeral.” 

In the 1930s -- at the height of the Great Depression -- a small-time crook, Clyde Barrow (Beatty) meets a local girl in West Dallas, Bonnie Parker (Dunaway).  She’s bored with her life, and highly frustrated by the narrow horizons she countenances.  When Barrow tells Bonnie he robs banks, she is tantalized, however, and joins him on the road for an on-going crime-spree.  Lessening the thrill, however, is the fact that Clyde is sexually impotent.

Bonnie and Clyde soon recruit a young kid who is good at repairing cars, C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), to their gang, and then are joined on the road by Clyde’s dull-witted brother, Buck (Gene Hackman), and Buck’s shrill, obnoxious wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons).  One day, the gang manages to evade the police and also humiliate a Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle) in the process, sending a photograph of the captured law enforcement official to the local newspaper.

As the legend of Bonnie and Clyde grows and the duo becomes national folk heroes, Hamer and the authorities conspire to end their crime spree permanently.  First Buck dies in a shoot-out, and then Blanch is captured.  Finally, Bonnie and Clyde seek sanctuary at C.W.’s home, unaware that his father (Dub Taylor) is making plans to sell them out…

“Your advertising's just dandy... folks would never guess you don't have a thing to sell.” 

Although the film is titled Bonnie and Clyde, I’ve always maintained that Penn actually depicts the story of Bonnie, mainly.  When the film opens, she is a young woman at loose ends in her small, country-house bedroom in West Texas.  We see Bonnie prowling -- like a caged tiger -- through the almost claustrophobic bedroom, a cage of both frustration and boredom. 

One memorable shot in this sequence literally positions Dunaway’s expressive face between two horizontal bars (on a bedpost), so that the implication of a caged or trapped animal is complete.

Then Clyde shows up in the front yard, and the coiled Bonnie, finally, is afforded a release from her boredom and her “small” life.  Clyde’s promise to Bonnie is an overtly sexual one, at least at first.  We watch as Bonnie and Clyde stroll down an avenue together, drinking colas from glass bottles…and the film’s phallic imagery arrives in full force. 

First, we are cued in to Bonnie’s “willingness” to have sex with Clyde by her sensuous drinking from the bottle, in close-up. As you can detect from the stills below, the scene rather deliberately mirrors the act of fellatio.

And then, Clyde goes further, upping the ante. He pulls out his pistol, and holds it down around his crotch.  Bonnie asks, quite simply, to touch it.  Again, in close-up insert shot, a phallic symbol – the gun -- connects violence and sex.  We watch Bonnie’s hand caress the barrel of the gun with excitement and anticipation.

And next…a sexual challenge. Bonnie notes to Clyde that he “wouldn’t have the gumption to use it,” meaning the pistol, apparently.  Thus, he proves her wrong, and their adventures in violence commence.  For Bonnie this provocative talk is all meant to be sexual foreplay, but then the bad news comes crashing down after the robbery.  Clyde may be good with an actual pistol, but he can’t make it in the bedroom.  He’s not a “lover boy,” he insists, a fact which leaves Bonnie -- again -- intensely frustrated.

But keeping company with Clyde is not a complete waste of time.

Rather, Clyde teaches the young woman how to use a gun, and thus Bonnie takes responsibility for her own pleasure.  She is liberated.  She soon becomes an accomplished shot, and participates in the robberies and shoot-outs herself.  Bonnie can achieve the thrills she desires -- such as they are -- without the help of another person, specifically a man.  In this sense, the film is really a feminist one.  It’s about a woman who thinks she needs a man to escape her dull, kept life, but then learns that she can make good on the escape, herself.  In Bonnie’s story, pent-up sexual frustration is released through the application of violence, by robbing banks. 

Unfortunately, the “high” that this violence provides does not last.

Soon, Bonnie is bored again, missing her mother, and feeling trapped by the family politics of the Barrow boys.  She and Clyde must re-connect and find something deeper together.  In the end, interestingly, the acts of violence perpetrated by Bonnie and Clyde are wiped clean when they do, at long last, consummate their sexual relationship.  It’s as if the act of sex makes them innocent again, and afterwards we don’t see them commit even one further crime or fire even a single weapon.  Before they die, we see them eating ice cream cones and flirting instead.  The closeness they have found in each other has healed them, and left their need as “adrenaline junkies” for the next high thoroughly sated.  Violence in the end, is not necessary for them anymore.  They've got something better in each other. 

The film does a terrific job of letting its soundtrack connect some of these points about sex and violence.  When Clyde robs his first store, the upbeat, honkytonk music begins and there’s a sense of an unfettered, good time.  That music comes to a crashing stop, however, when Clyde can’t perform, sexually, in the car afterwards. 

Then, the upbeat, honkytonk music recurs during the bank robbery scenes…for at least a while.  Finally, the movie turns somber after Buck’s death, and the upbeat, rollicking music isn’t re-introduced, finally, until after Bonnie and Clyde have sex together. It’s the last time in the film we hear it.

Trapped in her own frustration.

The promise of adventure...and escape.

She's willing.

He's equipped...

...but can't deliver.

So she learns to take control of the "thrill" for herself.

Accomplished gunfighter.

Bonnie and Clyde asks the rather incendiary question: is it okay to rob someone at gunpoint  who has robbed you, essentially, with the full backing and support of the law?  Bonnie and Clyde don’t steal or destroy property belonging to individuals, the film asserts (somewhat contrary to the historical facts).  On the contrary, they steal from banks.  “We rob banks,” is a rallying cry -- and a winning one -- with the regular people of America, who we see in the film living in poverty-stricken camps, out of their cars, and being forced to leave their foreclosed homes. 

For taking on the banks, Bonnie and Clyde become folk heroes. “You ought to be protecting the rights of poor folks,” Clyde declares at one point, to the Establishment.  At another moment in the film, he shares the story of the poor gathering around him and Bonnie, and protecting them “with shotguns.”

When the Establishment won’t do anything to protect the good people, when the Banks make the rules and control the police, Bonnie and Clyde says, a little rebellion against the untouchable elite is not only necessary, but morally justified.   There’s a sense in Bonnie and Clyde (and indeed in today’s world), that the middle class and poor are totally screwed because the rich own the government and the law, and therefore can make and enforce laws that work exclusively for their benefit.  It's a circular trap from which there is no escape because the poor and middle-class control no levers of power.  In a case like this -- with your family home and your livelihood on the line -- it’s understandable that someone might rally to Robin Hood-like bank robbers who steal from the rich, and shoot up “foreclosure” signs as a matter of course. 

It is intriguing to note, however, that Bonnie and Clyde -- ostensibly the most mainstream of the Savage Cinema movies I’ve reviewed here so far --– adopts the most positive view of violence.  For most of the film, violence is characterized as sexual liberation, as fun, and as eminently  pro-social.  In the final analysis, violence against (against banks, not people...unless corporations are people) helps to right a societal wrong. 

Bank Foreclosure: The real evil in Bonnie and Clyde.

Of course, in the end, Bonnie and Clyde retreats from such a pro-violence stance, and the (depressing) realization strikes that there’s no way out of this life of crime for Bonnie and Clyde, except by their deaths.  At about the half-way point of the film, images and references to the inevitability of their (violent) demises begin to dominate the text.  Gene Wilder’s comic-relief character, Eugene, reveals that he is an undertaker during one amusing scene, and that revelation ends all banter and humor suddenly.  He is forcibly ejected from Bonnie and Clyde’s car; an acknowledgment that they will be seeing him, or someone like him, all too soon.

And then, there’s the haunting, gauzy sequence -- played out like a half-forgotten dream -- in which Bonnie visits her mother for a family reunion.  Yet everyone at the “reunion” is dressed entirely in black…for a funeral, not a happy gathering.  And then, adding punctuation to the affecting scene, a child playing cops and robbers falls down a sandy hill – in slow-motion -- pretending to be dead.  Bonnie, garbed in black, kneels beside him tenderly.  As audience members, we know what this imagery means, and we dread it.  Bonnie and Clyde are going to die.

"What did I say?" (Hint, he's an undertaker...).
A child plays dead. Bonnie wears black.
Once this scene of the Parker family “funeral” occurs, and the little boy plummets downward, playing dead, it’s all downhill, literally.  Bonnie and Clyde re-connect with one another and re-establish their innocence, but are mercilessly betrayed by a Judas.  They are gunned down in brutal, slow-motion.  This murder scene is incredibly brutal for the endless volley of bullets launched into their bodies, but more so because Bonnie and Clyde are unable to touch one another.  He stands outside the car, a few feet away.  She is behind the driver’s wheel.   They are separated. The cutting here is absolutely extraordinary, and heart-breaking.  We watch in longing close-up as their eyes meet for an extended moment.  And in that moment, we detect their love, their pain, and their knowledge that the game is all over.  Never to be together again... 

This moment of love, commitment, acknowledgment, innocence and farewell -- before the violence of the actual massacre -- makes for one of the greatest and most heart-breaking moments in the modern American cinema.  Bonnie and Clyde’s genius, even after forty-five years, is that its love story is so powerful that, in the end, we are willing to put aside our moral qualms about violence and the protagonists’ illegal actions and just mourn for them as human beings we care about.   This is quite the trick, oft-imitated in other great films (such as Natural Born Killers [1994] and The Devil’s Rejects), yet never entirely equaled, let alone surpassed.

He's over.

She knows too..



Before they meet their bloody fate, Clyde thanks Bonnie for writing a poem about them, for telling his whole story, and for making him someone that “people will remember.”

Impressively, Bonnie and Clyde accomplishes the same feat. The film has replaced in the culture’s imagination the real 1930s bank robbers with Penn’s star-crossed, eminently human, eminently lovable counterparts.  Today, if you discuss “Bonnie and Clyde,” you’re not merely describing an American New Wave movie of the 1960s, but a specific relationship dynamic, a quality of life that mixes the violent and the sexy with the heroic and the innocent, the tragic with the romantic.   Accordingly, this is one of my all-time favorite film.s  The Savage Cinema has never been more…beautiful.

Movie Trailer: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Ask JKM A Question #18: The Seven Samurai and remakes?

A reader named Rick asks:

Have you ever considered doing a review of the “seven” series?  By that I mean a comparative review of The Seven Samurai, Magnificent Seven (original) and Battle Beyond the Stars.  Some have added other films to that category but begin to stretch it, I think, with films like Tears of the Sun by Antoine Fuqua or The Dogs of War, which was a novel by Forsyth.  Certainly, these films have inspired many others, particularly with the mercenaries-save-the-peasants-theme, and others.”

Hi Rick, that’s a great idea for a continuing series of blog posts.  Thanks for the question.

I did review Battle Beyond the Stars here not too long ago, in April of 2011.  And I’m a big fan of both The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, so it would certainly be a lot of fun revisiting those films. A “Seven” movie matrix post, comparing the organizing principles, characters, themes and locals of those three films could also prove illuminating.

On a related note, I had been thinking recently of a post on the space westerns of Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979), because one episode, “The Lost Warrior” remakes Shane (1953), while another “The Magnificent Warriors,” uses The Magnificent Seven (1960) as its source of inspiration.  I was also looking for a good reason to watch and review Outland (1981) -- a remake of High Noon (1952) -- again.

Perhaps I need to take a “wider” look at outer space westerns and their origins, but in the Battle Beyond the Stars piece review both The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven.

I’ll definitely look into this notion, and start watching some of those great, classic westerns in preparation.

Cult Movie Review: Absentia (2011)

One wonderful quality of the horror genre is that the form offers creative filmmakers the opportunity to create a successful and scary work of art even without benefit of a significant budget. Scares can be eked out in all kinds of ways -- visually and narratively -- and only a thoroughly uncreative or lazy sort needs to rely wholly on special effects, make-up, or big name performers.

Absentia (2011) is one recent horror film that accomplishes a great deal with very little. The film was made for 70,000 dollars, an extremely low budget, but it nonetheless boasts significant psychological impact.   Days after a screening, I’m still dwelling on the film, and its well-developed atmosphere of dread.

Directed by Mike Flanagan, Absentia is the tale of a woman named Tricia (Courtney Bell) who -- after seven years -- is ready to officially declare dead her long-missing husband, Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown). 

One day, long ago, Daniel left the house, and vanished completely.

Now, Tricia’s sister, a troubled woman named Callie (Katie Parker), comes to visit and help Tricia – who is several months pregnant by a police detective, Mallory (Dave Levine) -- through the difficulties associated with “closure.” 

It isn’t easy, because Tricia has been afforded no clues whatsoever about her husband’s final disposition.  A montage reveals to us several of her whimsical fantasies.  Perhaps Daniel was a Federal agent whose cover was blown.  Perhaps he was injured randomly and developed a form of amnesia that has kept him away…but happy. 

Or perhaps he was killed outright, and his body has just never surfaced.

Tricia doesn’t know the answer, but she struggles to deal with the huge question-mark dominating her life and preventing her from fully engaging in her future.  Even impending motherhood hasn’t been enough to take her eyes off the baffling, inexplicable past. 

Did Daniel disappear because of something she did?  Did he leave because of their marital difficulties?

In the background of this personal and family crisis stands a significant local landmark of sorts: a non-descript, narrow tunnel

It is embedded in a small hill just a few doors down, and runs beneath a big California freeway near Los Angeles.  Callie jogs through the tunnel on a daily basis, and there’s something subtly unnerving about the location. 

One day, Callie meets an emaciated man named Walter in the tunnel.  He begs her for food, and she mistakes him for a drug addict.  Feeling guilty, she brings food to the tunnel, but sees no sign of Walter.  She sets down the food and leaves it there. 

This is an act with repercussions.

Finally, just as Tricia has signed her husband’s death certificate put the tragic past behind her, Daniel unexpectedly emerges from the tunnel, bloody and confused.  He is bewildered that other people can “see” him, and doesn’t remember exactly how long he has been gone. 

But Daniel mumbles about an “underworld” and a strange, monstrous creature there, one that resembles “an insect.” The police don’t believe his strange story, but something certainly seems to have followed Callie home from the tunnel.  Daniel is worried for her, because, he says, the monster may have “fixated” on her…

Although it is only eighty-seven minutes long, Absentia about five or so minutes in – sinks into this near-hypnotic drone and it remains, unswerving, at that pitch for the duration of its running time.  I’m not certain how to more accurately describe this particular vibe. It’s not that the film is boring; quite the opposite.  It’s that the film seems so authentic, so true -- due in part to the performances of the two leads, Parker and Bell -- that you find yourself completely involved in their lives, and the dark mystery they must countenance.   The movie puts you into the rhythm of their day-to-day activities and holds you there.

Because of this mesmerizing, low-key, immersive quality, the film is able to generate, on at least three occasions, extremely effective jump scares.  They are ones that, with all my experience watching movies, I didn’t see coming.  Like Gregg Holtgrewe’s Dawning (2009), another low-budget horror film I admired, Absentia develops an overwhelming sense of encroaching, amorphous dread.

In other words, you don’t know exactly what it is you’re scared of.  All you know is that you are, indeed quite scared.  After Absentia ended, for instance, my wife declared that she didn’t much care for it.  But then, a few hours later, she admitted that she still felt unusually anxious and unsettled, but wasn’t sure why. She finally attributed these emotions to the film itself; to the aura of creepiness it meticulously creates and – somewhat miraculously -- sustains.  She then revised her opinion of the film upwards.

In my case, I appreciate the unexpectedly accomplished performances by the actresses playing the sisters, as well as the dialogue between them because it plays as absolutely real and natural.  There are moments here when these characters discuss their lives, their feelings, and their history together, and you might swear you were listening in on a real family…your own family. Absentia feels unexpectedly and disturbingly real in the dimensions of the human relationships.

Because this is a low budget film, you must know going in that you aren’t going to see much of the “monster,” and make your peace with that decision.  Absentia is scary not because it features a great monster, but because it obsesses on a very real quality of human life:  We don’t always know why things happen. 

We don’t always have ready-made answers for tragedies that we experience. 

Absentia involves, in a very compelling sense, human lives shattered by mysteries without apparent resolution.  The film also concerns the fantasies we erect around our lives in order to protect ourselves from those inexplicable moments.  I admire very much, how Absentia takes these occasional narrative dead-ends into fantastic, well-edited montages; montages that suggest – in mere moments – entire lives lived in an alternate fashion.

I mentioned above Tricia’s whimsy about what became of Daniel.  At film’s end, we see how another person who has also lost a loved one attempts to create an alternate world where that person is okay…just in a different, perhaps better place.  But for this person, the fantasy doesn’t hold; it doesn’t stick.  He doesn’t have faith, as it were.

On another level all together, Absentia seems to concern a literal Hell here on Earth, one where human beings are the tortured playthings of Lovecraftian-like “others.”  Although Callie unearths ample evidence of these creatures’ existence, the rest of the world just goes on and on, willfully denying the truth.  Because Callie has a history of drug use, it is easy to deny her story too, I suppose.

At film’s end, Callie makes a horrible discovery in the tunnel when she asks the “creature” to trade her for the life of someone else she loves very much.  What it delivers to her in that dark, dank, night-time tunnel is, for lack of a better word, scarring.  It’s a gruesome, horrible revelation, and one that, in essence, kills any sense of hope about human life and the possibility of a happy ending.  At this point, it’s clear that everyone the audience has invested so deeply in is going to go into that tunnel, only to disappear, only to “break” those left behind. 

But I suppose that’s the point.  The tunnel is very clearly metaphor for our lives in this mortal coil.  We are all going to have our day there, eventually, and our loved ones are going to dream – fervently and desperately -- that we are in a better place. 

Abundantly dark, deeply disturbing, and wholly nihilistic, Absentia is an accomplished low-budget horror film, and one that may haunt your dreams (and waking thoughts…) for a good long while.  There's no light at the end of this tunnel, but plenty of terror... 

Movie Trailer: Absentia (2011)

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Late Night Blogging: Star Wars Parodies

Memory Bank: King Kong Mania (1976)

For me -- at the tender age of seven -- one huge thrill of the 1976 Christmas season was the debut of Dino De Laurentiis’s 24-million dollar epic King Kong, a remake of the classic 1933 giant ape movie.  The film premiered in twelve-hundred theaters in America on December 17th, just a week before the holiday, and the cinematic initiative was supported by a then-impressive fifteen million dollar promotional and marketing campaign.

It was money well-spent. 

King Kong was absolutely everywhere in the final days of the Bicentennial year.  Described (humorously) as “the most exciting original motion picture event of the year,” the John Guillermin film which introduced the world to actress Jessica Lange, was also the first “movie merchandising” blitz, in fact, of my lifetime, at least that I consciously remember.

The Six-Million Dollar Man (1974 – 1979), Space:1999 (1975 – 1977), Star Trek (1966 – 1969) and Planet of the Apes (1968) were all popular franchises at the time, but King Kong’s premiere represented the first occasion I saw a Hollywood movie heralded in all media and merchandise simultaneously across a wide spectrum.

The arrival of the new King Kong was feted in Time Magazine, in a cover story called “Here Comes King Kong,” to start.  The article by went behind-the-scenes of the film’s production to interview De Laurentiis and Lange, among others, and complimented the new Kong, essentially, as being “good trash.”  The same piece offered had the priceless (and absolutely accurate) description of the 1933 Kong fans as a “testy, loyal” cult.

Meanwhile, Mego participated in the Kong Mania with a toy blitz that included the manufacture and release of Plush King Kong stuffed animals, a King Kong Bop Bag (or punching bag), and a model kit of “Kong’s Last Stand” at the top of the Twin Towers. 

One of the coolest Mego Kong toys -- but which I never owned -- was “King Kong against the World”, a target game in which mini-jets could fire darts at a figure of King Kong and knock him from his perch on one of the towers.  “He teeters, he totters, he roars, he falls…” advertised the box.

Meanwhile, Topps released an impressive set of King Kong trading cards and stickers.  There were 55 cards and 11 stickers in the entire set, and the cards could be gathered together and assembled as a puzzle.  King Seeley, meanwhile released a Kong themed lunchbox with thermos.  Colorforms also got into the act by releasing a Kong playset.

Two bits of 1976 merchandise that I owned at the time of Kong Mania were the Ideal Board Game, in which players had to prevent Kong from reaching the top of the World Trade Center, and a Viewmaster set of the movie.  I still have vivid memories of watching those color Viewmaster slides on my (dark) basement family room wall. 

Down the line -- further and further -- the King Kong merchandise grew progressively weirder.  There were four King Kong drinking glasses sold through the Burger Chef restaurant.  Two glasses featured imagery of Kong on Skull Island, and two featured him in NYC.  Meanwhile Mego also offered a King Kong drinking straw in which the more fluid someone drank, the higher Kong would climb the Big Apple skyscraper.

If that wasn’t odd enough, a unique promotion was offered in which consumers would get a King Kong keychain free when “you purchase a pair of Sedgield jeans.”  It wasn’t just any keychain either, but one “containing” Kong’s “real hair from Paramount Pictures’ epic film release.”

Just what you always wanted, right?  Well, at least each keychain came with a certificate of authenticity…

Finally, Jim Beam released a King Kong decanter.  It was molded in the shape of Kong’s torso and head.  You could snap off Kong’s skull and pour yourself a drink, I suppose, if you wanted.  Jim Beam even suggested the ingredients for a King Kong Cocktail: orange juice and grenadine.

King Kong Mania was in the air in other ways too.  A poster for the American release of Godzilla vs. Megalon showcased the two beasts grappling...on top of the World Trade Center buildings, though no scenes in the film occurred in New York.  And then there were other knock-off films such as A.P.E. (1976), Queen Kong (1976)  and Mighty Peking Man (1977). Within two years, King Kong aired on television, and NBC, but fans of the big ape had another treat in store.  The network aired an extended cut of the film, one with scenes never before integrated into the theatrical cut.  It is this legendary version, actually, that many aficionados prefer to this day.

Although a sequel, King Kong Lives (1986) arrived on the tenth anniversary of Kong Mania, almost no merchandise was released to celebrate the film.  Instead, Kong Mania had to wait to re-emerge until 2005 and Peter Jackson’s three-hour re-do of the property.

Since I was seven at the time of the 1976 King Kong, it remains the version of the legend I feel most nostalgic about.  I often watched the original 1933 version on Thanksgiving Day, when WWOR Channel 9 ran a Kong Marathon (including Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young), but there’s just something special for me about the 1976 version.  I saw it in the theater – tickets were 3.00 dollars apiece as my father reminded me the other day – and remember well all the toys and merchandise.  I also still recall my first visit to the World Trade Center – also in 1976 -- and riding the elevator all the way up to the observation deck.  I very much expected to see some sign of King Kong there…

Below are some videos which capture the (crazy) magic of 1976's King Kong Mania.

Collectible of the Week: Navarone Playset (Mego; 1981)

As a child, I generally didn’t collect military toys, preferring instead sci-fi, horror, and fantasy merchandise.  But I made a happy exception for this incredible toy, the awesome “Navarone Playset.”

Apparently, his toy was “loosely” (meaning unofficially…) related to Alistair Maclean’s 1957 novel The Guns of Navarone, which concerned a team of Allied soldiers launching an assault on a German fortress on the (fictional) Greek island of Navarone.   

The novel was adapted to film as “the Greatest High Adventure Ever Filmed!” in 1961, by director J. Lee Thompson.  It was a huge hit, and spawned both a written and filmed sequel, Force 10 from Navarone.  The 1978 movie starred Harrison Ford and was directed by Guy Hamilton.

In real life, there was no Battle of Navarone, but that inconvenient fact did not prevent Marx Toy Company, in 1976, from producing this multi-level mountain fortress, replete with two armies.  As you can see from the graphic, it originally sold for under $15.00 dollars.

The version of the toy I own today, however, is not from Marx at all, but rather from Mego.  Thus I can only assume that Marx sold the Navarone Playset mold at some point between 1976 and 1980.  When I was a kid, I’m pretty certain I owned the original Marx version, and not the Mego re-do.  This molded-in-black Navarone (from Mego) is for my son, Joel.

Anyway, the Mego version you see here in photographs urges one to “Recreate the World War II Battle of Navarone with this unique and exciting action playset.”

Navarone comes with:

Two foot-high mountain
2 complete armies (92 soldiers)
4 military vehicles
2 long-range cannons
Complete play area in front and back
5 play levels
Working elevator
Working hoist
Authentic WWII flag labels.”

Honestly, as a kid I didn’t want to relive the past with this awesome mountain playset.  Instead, I utilized Navarone as a base for the Galactic Empire with my Kenner Star Wars figures.  In fact, I remember having a number of great adventures with Navarone but almost universally in a sci-fi setting.  I remember one particular adventure in which the crew of the Enterprise (Mego; 1979) had to go behind enemy line -- the Romulan Neutral Zone -- and destroy the base.

Game Board of the Week: The Black Hole Space Alert Game (Whitman; 1979)

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #17: One Movie on a Desert Isle?

A reader, Sarah, writes:

“I want to know your answer to the ‘desert island scenario.’  To refresh your memory, you’re stranded alone on a desert island and you can only pick one movie to take with you to watch. What is it?”

Hi Sarah, that’s actually one that I’ve thought about from time-to-time. I’m not sure why, however.  It seems like an eminently illogical scenario that I would be alone on a desert island, and yet have the capability and time to watch a movie.


In terms of my “one movie,” to watch on a desert island, I’ve decided, regretfully, that it can’t be a horror film. 

I know that probably sounds silly, but I enjoy horror so much, in part, because it’s so different from my real life.  I lead a happy, sheltered, comfortable existence.  But if I’m stranded alone, away from my wife and son on a desert island -- with little hope of rescue -- I definitely won’t be picking Halloween (1978), The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Alien (1979), The Thing (1981), The Blair Witch Project (1999), or any other personal favorites of the form.

Although a comedy sounds appealing on first blush (preferably something from Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer), the problem there is that most comedies -- the good ones anyway -- clock in at ninety minutes or shorter.  If I’m only going to get one film to watch for the rest of my natural life, I want to squeeze every minute out of the experience.

Considering these factors, I think I’m going to select my all-time favorite film, and the movie I consider the best science fiction movie ever made: Planet of the Apes (1968).  The film has moments of humor, moments of incredible humanity, and some great action.  The script is brilliant, and the look of the film amazing.  Plus, uh, Linda Harrison is in the movie.  Planet of the Apes also runs a good long time (112 minutes).

Plus – and this is important – it may help me understand the local wildlife…

Don’t forget, e-mail me your questions at