Saturday, May 11, 2013

Cult-TV Gallery: Lisa Eilbacher

In Shazam: "The Doom Buggy"

As Callie Shaw in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries.

In The Man from Atlantis: "The Naked Montague."

In Logan's Run: "The Innocents"

In The Twilight Zone (1985): "Nightsong"

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam: "The Doom Buggy" (November 2, 1994)

This episode of the Filmation live-action Saturday morning series Shazam (1974 – 1977) is titled “The Doom Buggy,” and frankly, that’s a bit of a melodramatic title for such a pedestrian adventure.

In “The Doom Buggy,” a boy named Don decides to drop out of school, over the protests of his friend, Cathy (Lisa Eilbacher).  Don thinks he doesn’t need an education, and already has the skills to be a great mechanic.  He’s made up his mind and can’t be swayed.

Then, while driving in his dune buggy in the desert, Don has an accident and damages Mentor’s RV.  The parts that Don needs to repair the RV are an hour away, but the young man proposes a short-cut and takes Billy Batson (Michael Gray) through a span of rough desert terrain called “Perdition Flats.”

The Elders have already told Billy that “Each of us, in his own way, is a teacher,” and so when Don’s dune buggy experiences difficulties in the harsh desert, Billy showcases his knowledge.  

When the buggy becomes lost, for instance, Billy shows Don how to create a makeshift compass in the sand, using a stick and sunlight.   The Elders had already prepared him for this eventuality too, informing him that a “dark shadow will show you the light.”

And then when a fire erupts in a nearby mineshaft, Billy -- as Captain Marvel -- uses an underground spring to put out the conflagration.

At the end of this harrowing adventure, Don decides not to drop out from school…and to continue his education instead.  The episode ends with Mentor, Don, Cathy and Billy still lost in the desert, at least until they notice that Captain Marvel has written an arrow in the sky, next to the word “Exit.”

Speaking of exits, this week’s Shazam entry represents my last blog post on this particular Saturday morning series.  I’ve watched and reviewed ten episodes of Shazam so far... and I’ll be honest about it: Outside of the nostalgia value, the series just isn’t particularly interesting.  The stories are repetitive, preachy, and distinctly lacking in much by way of super-heroics.  I’m finding it hard to write 300 words about each episode, and that’s a sure sign that it’s time to move on.  I don't want to keep writing about the series, and start resorting to snark about it.

Or perhaps I should write, more charitably, that Shazam just isn’t as interesting as Ark II, Land of the Lost, or even Jason of Star Command. If you’ve seen one or two Shazam episodes, you’ve essentially seen them all.

So next Saturday, I start blogging Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973 – 1974), also from Filmation.  I suspect there’s a lot more to write about there…

Friday, May 10, 2013

Reminder: Star Trek Week Starts Monday!

Don't forget, my week-long celebration leading to the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness begins bright and early Monday morning!  I'll be covering the original series and the Trek franchise for six days on the blog.

Let's go boldly together...

Cult-Movie Review: Highlander (1986)

A visually-dazzling cinematic example of Joseph Campbell's mono myth, "the Heroic Journey," Russell Mulcahy's 1986 fantasy Highlander spawned three movie sequels, a popular TV series, and a generation of devoted fans.

Yet today, what remains most memorable about this fast-moving, epic adventure is that it derives tremendous energy from its historical context; from both the prevailing "apocalypse mentality" of the 1980s and the connected fin-de-siecle movement, which a careful viewer can also detect in other genre pieces of the age.

In short, Mulcahy's film proposes the idea of a secret society living amongst us, so-called "princes of the universe" (according to the amazing soundtrack lyrics by Queen) who -- for good or evil -- will proves the"rulers" of us all.

Highlander stars Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod, an apparently normal Scottish man living in 1536 when he learns, simply, that he cannot be killed so long as his head remains lodged atop his neck. He is immortal.

Some years later, after Connor has been banished from his clan for being "in league with the devil," the bewildered immortal finds love with an innocent maiden named Heather (Beatie Edney). His peaceful sanctuary is soon shattered by the arrival of a mentor named Ramirez (Sean Connery), who explains to him the ways of the world. The so-called "Highlander" (MacLeod) is one of a small band of immortals fated to clash in an upcoming competition called "The Gathering." Because there "can be only one," the last surviving immortal will be given a great gift after decapitating his final competitor. When "the Gathering" will actually occur is anyone's best guess; and the exact nature of the "gift" is also undetermined.

Across the centuries, Connor adopts new identities so as not to arouse the suspicion of society at-large, occasionally battling other immortals and, upon their decapitation, absorbing their energy. Among the immortals is a Russian devil called "The Kurgan" (Clancy Brown), a giant brute also known as "The Black Knight" and rumored to be the strongest of all immortals. If The Kurgan should claim the prize at the conclusion of the Gathering, mankind will suffer for all eternity under his dominion.

In 1985 New York City, Connor (under the alias Russell Nash) is apprehended by the police at Madison Square Garden, after a decapitated body is discovered there. A lovely police investigator -- and expert in ancient metallurgy -- Brenda J. Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), begins to suspect that there is more to Connor than meets the eye. And finally, the Gathering looms...

An Irresistible Pull to a Faraway Land, Or Tonight You Sleep in Hell: New York as The Battleground of the Apocalypse

In the metropolis of apocalypse.

"The Gathering" of Highlander occurs in The Big Apple of 1985, smack dab in the Death Metal movement in rock music, and the punk aesthetic and resurgence in popular fashion.

In terms of the latter, think combat boots, studded belts, mohawk hair-cuts, and body art (or self-mutilation?) in the shape of tattoos and piercings.

In terms of the former, middle-class American parents worried about their troubled 1980s teens listening to Death Metal music and gleaning Satanic messages out of it (consider the suicide of two teens in 1985 after purportedly hearing subliminal Satanic messages in a Judas Priest album played backwards...)

What was the source of the tremendous nihilism and cynicism in the American culture that gave rise to this particular branch of pop-culture? Well, even people in authority apparently felt that the end of the world was nigh. America in the early span of the 1980s was enmeshed in a deep economic recession, locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and our elected government saw Armageddon around every corner.

On the campaign trail in 1980, candidate Ronald Reagan had noted (to televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker) that ours "might be the generation" that sees the Biblical Judgment Day. His belief was reinforced in a People Magazine interview in December 1983 when the Gipper noted that the eighties were "the first time in history" that so many Biblical prophecies were coming true. Even President Reagan's appointed Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, didn't believe the world was going to last. On February 5, 1981, he said that America's natural resources didn't necessarily need to be safeguarded by government because he did not know "how many more future generations" could be counted on before "the Lord Returns."

Again, these were elected government officials making claims about the pending end of the world. So throw in TV movies such as The Day After (1984), Reagan's joke about bombing Russia in "five minutes" and it is no wonder that America's pop culture (especially genre films) became virtually-obsessed with the End of Life as We Know it. It wasn't the Millennium yet, but the year 1999 wasn't that far away either, and many people wondered if humanity was going to make it to the next century. As a culture, we obsessed on death, on the end of civilization, on self-destruction.

Highlander deals with the idea of an apocalypse rendered personal. Two warriors clash, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. The Kurgan, remember, hails from Reagan's "Evil Empire," Russia, and battles the West, as represented by Connor. The Highlander may not be American by birth, but he's close enough, and he certainly shares our values (even rescuing an endangered Jewish child from evil Nazis, during one scene set in World War II.)

Moreover, the Kurgan has embraced the "death" culture he sees around him in New York City of 1985, reveling in contemporary music, black leather, and other forms of the day. A wound on his neck is highlighted by a ring of metallic clothes-pins, an affectation to make ugliness not merely noticeable, but perhaps even beautiful, at least in the 1980s configuration of that concept.

Outside the 1980s configuration, and in direct opposition to the Kurgan, Connor is a man not of the 1980s. As a man of a different age, a man of wisdom who has lived a dozen life-times, he is associated not with popular fads or trends of the times, but, in fact, with art itself; with a kind of timeless quality. In one seamless scene transition, we see Connor's face dissolve into the face of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, a symbol that this protagonist represents what is best -- and lasting -- in human nature.

As "The Gathering" nears, the human race has reached a point of decay and self-destruction. It was primitive and superstitious when Connor's clan banished him from home in 1536, but the New York of 1985 as depicted in the film is positively "one step beyond," to quote a police detective (John Polito). It's a culture that has, literally, embraced death. Graffiti dots almost every wall and surface you'll see in the film (from the parking garage in Madison Square Garden to the avenue where the Kurgan ambushes Connor and Brenda), and punks and armed survivalists seem to roam the streets by night.

Look closely at the film, and you'll see that Mulcahy adopts a low-angle perspective for many important sequences too. Oftentimes, a low-angle viewpoint makes a figure in frame seem menacing or over sized (and indeed, we often see the Kurgan in this fashion). However, low-angles can achieve something else too. They render visible the ceilings above characters, essentially "boxing" characters into their worlds. This is also a technique David Fincher utilized heavily in Alien 3 (1992), showing us the limit of the sky, so-to-speak, and intentionally generating claustrophobia.

In Highlander, we get low-angle views of decaying police station interiors, over-stuffed hospitals, parking garages, and more. The idea is that the characters in the drama are literally "boxed in" by urban blight; by a rotting infrastructure that is no longer being updated, tended to, or fortified. And, indeed, that was a hallmark of Reagan's 1980s era too: his "shining city on a hill" was actually falling apart, especially after a 40% cut in the Department of Housing and Urban Development during his second term.

In the rain-swept back-alleys, fluorescent subterranean parking decks, and sleazy motels of Highlander, the battle for mankind's future is being waged, almost unnoticed by the affluent "ruling class." The Gathering and a new dawn can't come a moment to soon.

It's important to note that Highlander isn't the only film of this vintage to suggest that the displaced, the disenfranchised will fight against forces of darkness in these anonymous places, unnoticed by society at large. Consider Kyle Reese of The Terminator (1984), hiding out in motels, wandering dark alleys, battling an over-sized nemesis to protect mankind's very future. Like Connor MacLeod, Kyle Reese is a 1980s-styled knight, his suit of armor, a trench-coat. Other films, such as John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness (1987) also put the future on the line in out-of-the-way, unseen places, with the homeless -- the street people -- involved in the war in some important capacity. The same director's They Live (1988) covers some of the same territory as well.

Why did this idea have so much currency in mid-1980s science fiction and fantasy cinema? I've written about it here before, but perhaps it was because the ranks of the homeless grew so dramatically in the 1980s. There were 35 million more homeless in 1983 than when Reagan took office in 1981, for example. And the gap between the rich and the poor widened to its greatest level since the Great Depression under Reagan's "new federalism." And by 1984, 13 million American children lived below the poverty line.

More simply, perhaps the battle for the future often fell to outsiders in 1980s genre films because Americans had lost faith in once-respected institutions, and felt that those who were materially-wealthy (yuppies) were not going to be the ones to champion any change in the status quo. That job would fall on the disenfranchised, those with a stake in change, with skin in the game. Those above ground (in Madison Square Garden, for instance, to get back to Highlander) were too busy being distracted by bread and circuses, by the fake combat of entertainment such as professional wrestling.

But a close viewing of Highlander reveals that it is indeed a film about a cycle coming to an end. The outcome of the Gathering stops mankind's long slide into self-destruction, and starts a new day. It is no accident that the final scene of the film finds Connor in a pastoral, natural setting...far from the city where the last battle was fought. Or that Connor's gift is that he can gaze into the minds of "leaders" and see "what they are thinking." That the Gathering has given him the capacity to forge a new world peace between warring countries. Since Connor has won the "prize," he will save humanity from itself; from the destruction the world feared was coming within this "last generation."

Why Does The Sun Come Up? The Heroic Journey in Highlander

A hero will rise?

Writing about the human experience, Joseph Campbell identified several aspects of the hero's journey, a mono-myth found in virtually all cultures.

Not unlike Star Wars, Highlander fits that template perfectly. For instance, Campbell wrote about the "call to adventure" and the "refusal of the call," and we see that dynamic played out dramatically in this Mulcahy film. Connor refuses to believe that he is special (an immortal), and must be booted out of his life, out of his routine, for his journey to begin. More so, when Ramirez trains him, Connor still refuses to join the battle. He is in love with Heather, and would rather build a life with her than fight the Kurgan and join the immortals. Connor does not join the battle in earnest until after Heather passes away. Only then is the call heeded.

Campbell also identified "supernatural aid" as the device by which a fledgling hero learns of his role in a great, important struggle, and trains for the fight or quest. In simple terms, Sean Connery's Ramirez is Connor's Obi-Wan Kenobi equivalent, the wise elder who reveals to him the "rules" of being a hero. For example, Connor learns from Ramirez there is no fighting permitted on Holy Ground. He also learns of the "Quickening," a feeling of being at one with nature and other life-forms (and a key to the nature of the prize at the end of the quest). And, as in all such heroic stories, the mentor must sacrifice his life so that the hero steps forward; so that the hero grows up and becomes, well, the hero.

Campbell's "road of trials" is also depicted in Highlander's narrative. Connor fights Nazis, rescues children, decapitates enemies, and keeps his real nature hidden from mankind at large as he prepares to fight for Campbell's "ultimate boon" -- the very purpose of the hero's quest. The Gathering is the source of that ultimate boon, gifting Connor with the power to heal the world, to bring it back from the precipice of destruction.

Finally, Connor emerges from the Gathering as "the Master of Two Worlds" (he has conquered his personal demons, and is now fully human, able to have children; plus he will use his gift to forge peace as a world leader). 

And also, free of the "Gathering," Connor experiences (at least until the unnecessary sequel...) Campbell's "Freedom to Live," to be his own man. His life need no longer be consumed with violence and death. With Brenda, we are led to believe, he will live a life of "love," a life of growing old; a life with children.

By mirroring the Campbell-style heroic journey, Highlander presents the audience a classic champion; one who is not concerned with petty, material things, but who takes the long-view of history. Connor has known the loss of a loved one, and the loss of entire Ages of Mankind, and is thus not concerned with the distractions of the moment. By making him a classic hero in the mold of Campbell, Highlander makes the immortal indeed feel "timeless," and bigger than the sometimes small thinking of the 1980s.

More Than One Short Moment: The Visuals of Highlander

Love, and the shadow of destruction.

Beyond its context, beyond its heroic structure, Highlander succeeds on the basis of its gorgeous, artistic visuals. Late in the film, for instance, there's a wonderfully-staged shot during which The Kurgan -- the Specter of Destruction -- stands behind Connor and Brenda, unnoticed, as they converse.

The Kurgan here is literally a shadow of death, a silhouette, stalking them (and all mankind). This is a perfect choice of visualization for the Beast: he's our own shadow of self-destruction, peering over our shoulders, threatening, if he should be victorious, to plunge us into his brand of perpetual darkness.

I've written about the depiction of New York as a kind of hell on Earth in Highlander, but it's more than just the ubiquitous graffiti. It's the fact that steam seems to belch and hiss from the Earth at every opportunity; that signs of industry (like the neon SILVERCUP sign) dwarf the characters and suggest a de-personalized world; and that fluorescent lights cast a deathly, ghoulish pallor on the players in the drama. Everyone walking these mean streets seems a ghost.

I appreciate too Mulcahy's conceit that every moment in the "now" sparks a memory from within Connor of his long past. A flashing red police siren gives way to a crimson sunset on the eve of his long-ago funeral in Scotland, for example. 

Or look at the early transition in the film during which we move from the Hades-like underworld of the present day Madison Square Garden parking garage -- up through the soil of the Earth itself -- into the sunshine, natural vista of Scotland in 1536. It's a return to nature, but also a return to Connor's age of innocence and naivete about the way the world works.

Even when the visuals aren't so artistically-rendered, they're still pretty damned memorable. Consider the breakaway castle walls during the explosive duel between The Kurgan and Ramirez, or the epic-nature of the scenes in which Connor and Ramirez cross steel blades atop mountaintops. And the final battle is both gorgeous and wonderfully minimalist. The Kurgan and Connor battle in an empty warehouse of vast proportions, the light from the cityscape outside behind them, pouring through an entire wall of windows. Mulcahy's camera has so much room to navigate here that he can pull back, race forward, and pan back and forth as if he's still ensconced on some natural vista. It's gorgeous camera-work, exciting choreography, and, in many ways, the film's moment of highest impact.

Highlander endures for all the reasons enumerated here. Watching it today, it does not seem to have aged, at least in terms of technique and efficiency in story-telling. There are some missteps in the film, particularly in a police investigation subplot that goes nowhere and brings little of importance to the narrative. But the overall impact of the film is still considerable.

As for the sequels? Well, there should have been only one Highlander.

Movie Trailer: Highlander (1986)

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Pop Art: Major Matt Mason (Mattel) Edition

Collectible of the Week: The Black Hole action figures (Mego; 1979)

Last week, I wrote about my love for The Black Hole (1979) as a fourth grader, and I still vividly remember collecting Mego’s line of three-inch action figures from the line.  In fact, I still own several of the figures here in my home office…nearly thirty-five years later!

Included in the first release of Mego’s The Black Hole action figures are: Maximillian, Commander Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell), V.I.N.C.ent, Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster), Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), Dr. Kate McRae (Yvette Mimieux), Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins) and journalist Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine).

And really, who could resist owning an action figure of Ernest Borgnine?

Like the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century action figures produced by Mego the same year, these Black Hole figures are held together at their joints by small silver, metal pins.  It was very easy, as I recall, to snap-off the character arms or legs because these pins would grow loose or fall out. 

Similarly, even routine play with these Mego figures could result in character thumbs and hands being permanently amputated.  On top of this considerable drawback, none of the human figures in the Black Hole line carry weapons of any sort (a bow to Disney’s “no gun” policy, apparently).

Uniquely, The Black Hole action figures may today be more well known for rarities and unproduced toys than the quality of the actual releases.  The second wave of action figures -- which I never saw in stores -- included some of the movie’s most popular characters, including Old B.O.B., the Black Sentry – Captain S.T.A.R., and the (terrifying to kids…) Cygnus Humanoid.

If the first line of offerings had proven more successful, Mego had plans to produce a Cygnus command center play set, and also a beautifully-done U.S.S. Palomino toy.  You can see images of both prototypes at one of my all-time favorite net haunts, the Mego Museum.

Like the Mego Star Trek: The Motion Picture line of 1979, the Black Hole action figures tanked in stores, though not with me, personally.  I remember often running into a local Bradley’s store, past the main room, past the gardening center, straight to the toy aisles, where figures from both series sold for just a 1.00 apiece.  I bought up every single one available, on multiple trips, and always dreamed of finding a Klingon, an Arcturian, Old B.O.B. or Captain S.T.A.R.

To this day, that dream hasn’t come true, but there’s always E-Bay, right? 

Model Kits of the Week: VINCent and Maximillian from The Black Hole (1979; MPC)

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Remembering Ray Harryhausen: Mighty Joe Young (1949)

In several significant ways, Mighty Joe Young (1949) might be described as the “most evolved” of the Merian C. Cooper/Ernest Schoedsack giant ape films of the 1930s and 1940s.

In part this is so because the third (and last) film in the cycle understands that audience sympathies rest with the exploited main character, a kindly gorilla named Joe, and not with the humans who exploit him for financial gain.

And in part this is so because this film depicts the female lead character, Jill Young (Terry Moore) as more than a screaming ninny.  The feisty Jill can see beyond Joe’s intimidating physicality -- in part because she raised him -- and recognize that he is an intelligent creature worthy of dignity and respect.  Jill is no mere damsel in distress, but rather a very human woman trying to do the right thing, and honor the important relationships in her life, both with Joe, and with promoter Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong again), the man who brought her “fame and fortune” in Hollywood.

These elements, along with an exciting chase and nail-biting finale, make Mighty Joe Young a solid addition to the King Kong canon, even if the film doesn’t actually concern Kong or his progeny.

Mighty Joe Young begins with little Jill Young (Moore) living on her father’s farm in Africa.  She trades a baby gorilla for several trinkets, including a flashlight, and decides to raise the ape she names “Joe.”  Her father objects to this course of action, worrying that the gorilla will one day grow into a fierce animal and menace. 

But Jill prevails, and a friendship is born.

Twelve years later, Max O’Hara (Armstrong) plots to make his next Hollywood night club, “The Golden Safari,” a runaway success.  He strikes on the idea of going on a dangerous safari in Africa with cowboy, Gregg (Ben Johnson) in tow.  Once there, they collect man-eating lions and other animals, and then unexpectedly encounter a fully-grown gorilla, Joe.  Max urges Jill to sign a contract making the ape and his master the newest (permanent) attractions at the Golden Safari.

Back in Hollywood, Joe grows increasingly depressed by the nightly festivities in the club, and his near-continual entrapment in a too-small cage.  Jill sees the gorilla suffering, and attempts to get out of her contract with Max.  He sweet-talks her back into compliance, and the Mighty Joe Young show continues for a whopping seventeen weeks.

Then, one night, a trio of obnoxious drunks release Joe from his cage, feed him champagne, and watch as the gorilla trashes the club from top to bottom.  Deemed a public safety menace by a judge, Joe is ordered executed.  Realizing what he has done to Jill and Joe, Max O’Hara teams up with Gregg and Jill to free the ape from captivity, and return him to his home in Africa.

On the way to freedom, however, Gregg, Jill, and Joe spy a disaster in the making.  An orphanage is burning down fast, and three children are trapped upstairs with no hope of escape. 

One last time, it’s Joe to the rescue…

Although there are no prehistoric monsters on hand in Mighty Joe Young, the film nonetheless perfects (or evolves) the King Kong formula.  Max O’Hara -- the familiar showman character -- undergoes his transformation from exploiter to defender in one movie, not two (as was the case with Carl Denham), and the movie also makes the point that there is something worse than imprisonment…the loss of dignity. 

Here, Joe undergoes a horrible humiliation when a nightclub routine requires Jill to dress up as an organ grinder, and Joe as her monkey.  Then, the unruly crowd is encouraged to throw giant coins at Joe while he catches them in his cap.   One drunk gets out of hand and tosses a glass champagne bottle at the ape.  This is a miserable moment for Joe, one which reduces the noble beast to the level of carnival freak.

Joe goes wild soon after this humiliation and destroys Max’s night club, but he finds redemption by saving the imperiled children at the burning orphanage.  Again, this kind of redemption was something denied Kong in the original film (though awarded to his son, in The Son of Kong).

Though it is impossible to argue that Mighty Joe Young is more spectacular or exciting than King Kong was, one can certainly detect how a very similar story (with similar characters) is more completely and emotionally told here.   Some may consider that comment a heretical remark in terms of cinema history, but at least three of the four leads in Mighty Joe Young -- Max, Jill, and Joe himself -- are treated with greater humanity than their counterparts were in King Kong. 

While there’s nothing as awe-inspiring as a battle with a T-Rex in this film, Mighty Joe Young nonetheless satisfies on a purely human level.  No one in King Kong really listened to their conscience, at least until it was far too late.  Here, the characters all make difficult personal decisions to repair the breach, and honor their friendship with Joe.

I had not seen Mighty Joe Young in several years before this recent viewing, and was delighted to find the film so engaging, and so action-packed. My wife watched this one with me, and was on the edge of her seat during the finale at the orphanage.  She told me that if Joe died, I should just turn the movie off right then, because she couldn’t handle it.

That in-the-moment exclamation/protest reveals how successfully Mighty Joe Young works on an emotional level. It’s not the Beauty and the Beast epic or prehistoric safari that King Kong is, but it’s a damned exciting and engaging adventure film with some amazing special effects (from Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen).

Remembering Ray Harryhausen: Mysterious Island (1961)

Jules Verne's Mysterious Island opens with images of a turbulent, unsettled ocean (over opening credits and a brilliant, bombastic Bernard Herrmann score...). Immediately after this interlude, the film lands the audience in Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War, during the siege of 1865 to be precise.

In short order, we witness brutal warfare -- brother-against-brother -- in close-up with sputtering, smoking cannons, and then, once more, nature unsettled in the form of driving, never ending rain...during the "greatest storm in American history," according to a voice over.

Before long, a group of Union Army prisoners of war, led by the dashing captain, Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) escape from this violent "modern" setting in an observation balloon. His group includes cynical war reporter Gideon Spillt (Gary Merrill) as in"spilt" or "spilled" blood; a Confederate soldier held captive, Pencroft (Percy Herbert), and an emancipated African-American Union Soldier, Neb (Dan Jackson). One of the young soldiers, Herbert (Michael Callan) harbors fears that he is a coward.

These diverse prisoners of men soon become "prisoners of the wind" when they find themselves unable to control the wandering balloon. They end up high over the ocean first, and then -- in a harrowing and terrific special effects sequence that hasn't aged badly at all -- face a fast-moving descent (er, drop...) that smashes them in the water just short of land. Captain Cyrus falls into the swirling sea a mile short of landfall but is rescued by a mysterious, unknown presence.

If you've seen this film before (shot in "superdynamation" with special effects by the legendary Ray Harryhausen), you'll recall that the team makes landfall on a strange rocky island that recalls the creepiest aspects of Kong's Skull Island (down to a chasm traversible only by a fallen tree...). The island consists of such oddities as live volcanoes, subterranean sea grottoes, and most frighteningly, roaming gigantic wildlife. The stop-motion "monsters" featured in the film include a colossal crab, an over-sized chicken (!) and most disturbingly (and convincingly rendered...), a veirtable swarm of giant bees. The marooned 19th century men face these over-sized beasts with equanimity and calm while they attempt to construct a boat and escape. Also, to their unceasing delight, the men discover two modern women trapped on the island, the regal Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood), and the mini-skirt wearing hottie, Elena (Beth Rogan).

These castaways together seek haven in "The Granite House," a high mountain cave that becomes their sanctuary. Far distant from civilization (New Zealand, the closest outpost, is some 1873 miles away...), this small but incredibly diverse "family" begins to form a utopian society of sorts, reflecting the changing and evolving nature of the United States, Civil Rights, and world at that time the film was was forged.

For instance, we see here a black man and a Southern white working together in peace, as well as working women contributing valuably to the survival of the group. It's importantto recall much of what was happening in the world at the time: young, optimistic Kennedy had just been elected President; his predecessor, Eisenhower, had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1960, and so on. The great accomplishment of this isolated group, however, are contrasted in Mysterious Island with the nature of society itself. Bloodthirsty pirates arrive on the island to commit murder, and America is locked in a deadly Civil War. Again, in 1960, the first 3,500 American soldiers were already serving in Vietnam, Eisenhower's final address in '61 warned of the looming dangers of the "Military Industrial Complex, and the U-2 Spy Incident of 1960 heated up the Cold War. In 1961, as in the 1860s of the film, every step towards peace that man made seemed threatened by a backward step into warfare, destruction and self-annihilation.

I bring up these specific historical currents and events not because Mysterious Island alludes to them in any direct fashion, but because of the manner in which the film presents the islanders' secret benefactor, our friend Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom). Near the final act of the film, we learn that Nemo has been protecting Harding and his entourage from death, and furthermore, that he has been toiling away on the island, "conducting horticultural experiments" on animals. In other words, the gigantic animals are his creations, because Nemo has opted to "destroy the concept of warfare itself." By creating giant animals, he is creating for man an inexhaustible food supply. He is attacking the root causes of war and injustice. Hunger, prime among them.

Unfortunately, Nemo doesn't survive the climactic escape from the island, leaving the diverse utopian group to carry his message of peace back to civilization, to "end strife among men."

Nemo's message of peace and brotherhood in Mysterious Island is a clear a sign of the dawning of the 1960s Age of Camelot, just as 1954's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea reflected the atomic age anxieties of the early Cold War. Yet as admirable and valuable as this message remains, it would be foolish to state that this variation on Nemo's story is a literal or faithful interpretation of Jules Verne's novel, Mysterious Island. For instance, in the book Nemo reveals his true origins (as Prince Dakkar, an Indian national...) to the castaways. Nothing of that sort happens in the film version. The Nemo of the book and the film do share much in common, however. They both remain hungry for liberty and independence, but the Nemo of the Endfield film wishes more: to "save" civilization; a sweeping desire the literary Nemo did not share. He destroyed warships, yes, but that literary Nemo had little affinity for his fellow contemporary man.

These changes from book to screen won't affect your enjoyment of the film, but since part of this blog series is about the presentation of Captain Nemo across various films, they are certainly worth noting. More importantly, perhaps, Lom does a fine job bringing an older, white-haired Nemo to life, even if we don't learn the details of his heritage. Lom exudes dignity and charm in his portrayal, and seems a hair more approachable than Mason's Nemo. He's a little softer and less brittle.

Another point worth mentioning: Mysterious Island has designed Nemo's magnificent submarine, The Nautilus (interior and exterior) to very closely resemble the craft as seen in the famous Disney picture. The attempt here is clearly to make this not only an adaptation of Verne's work, but rather an unofficial sequel to a popular movie. But just take a gander at the great hall of the Nautilus (with velvet sofas and massive pipe organ...), because it's a dead-ringer for the set design in Fleischer's film. The miniature of the Nautilus exterior here also features the trademark front "spine" made famous by the James Mason/Kirk Douglas classic. This is good cross movie continuity if you are inclined to gaze at it as such.

These days, especially with movies, it's always popular to deride older productions as being campy or corny, or my least favorite descriptor in existence: "cheesy." Mysterious Island suffers from virtually none of these faults and I was amazed to see how well the film's set pieces and action sequences hold up to present-day scrutiny. The Harryhausen-created scene in which Herbert and Elena become trapped in a honeycomb (with a giant bee...) is beautifully realized, as is the first discovery of the Nautilus in the cove. Although it makes heavy use of rear projection, the opening scene in Richmond -- with the daring balloon escape -- is tightly-edited and impressive through and through.
The film version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea took pains to establish that the anti-hero Captain Nemo was an anguished, multi-faceted man, both a "devil" and a "a genius." Mysterious Island reflects that debate in just one brief dialogue sequence, but it's clear where the movie's loyalties rest: Nemo is meant to be seen here as a hero, as a savior, as man of peace attempting to help all mankind. That takes some of the fun (and humanity...) out of Nemo, but Mysterious Island remains a richly-imagined, fun, action-packed fantasy.

Mysterious Island is the kind of film that made Saturday afternoons special way back in the 1970s. Refreshingly, it hasn't lost an iota of its visual or fantasy luster, even if Nemo himself has perhaps been sanitized a bit too much.

Remembering Ray Harryhausen: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)

Released in 1974, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is my Sinbad movie.  I saw it theatrically as a five-year old, and was absolutely mesmerized by the sword-fights, the Ray Harryhausen monster action (filmed in stop-motion called "Dynarama") and the fantasy setting, on the lost island of Lemuria.

Even though I  boast a strong childhood connection to this film, however, I still maintain that it is actually superior, quality-wise, to both its predecessor, 1958's 7th Voyage of Sinbad and its successor, 1977's Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger

This is so largely because the screenplay is far more consistent regarding its villain, Koura (Tom Baker) and his powers, and even is largely consistent in terms of the monsters Sinbad encounters: they are manifestations of the sorcerer's power, not just random beasts walking around.

In the film, Koura establishes that to "summon the demons of darkness there is a consumes part of me," and that line is a key to much of the film's action and narrative.  Koura seeks an ancient Lemurian amulet (shattered into three pieces) because by using his dark forces, he has aged himself...his life-force ebbs.  The tablet will lead him to a fountain of youth where he can rejuvenate himself. 

In terms of the monsters, save for a centaur and a griffin, Sinbad battles monsters that Koura puts up to block the sailor's path; to stop him from finding the fountain first.  These monsters include a tiny, flying harpie (shades of Jason of the Argonauts), a ship's mast/statue come to life, and a multi-armed statue of Kali.  The lengthy, incredibly-rendered sword-fight with Kali is the undisputed highlight of the film, a terrific set-piece that still captures the imagination. 

But the point is that Koura's magic is used to a specific end, and consistently so, throughout the film.  If you look back at Sakurah in 7th Voyage of Sinbad (played brilliantly by the great Torin Thatcher), he merely wanted a genie lamp and would stop at nothing to get it, and then happened to keep a dragon as a pet in his subterranean headquarters on the island of the Cyclops.

These ideas didn't stick together as well as those you find here, and we did not understand the nature of Sakurah's evil; his motivation for it.  His power also seemed to have no downside or cost.  Worse, Sinbad seemed to interact with Sakurah as if he trusted him for much of the film, when it it was obvious to everyone with eyes that he was evil...or at least scheming  There was some screenplay...muddle there.

In The Golden Voyage, Koura's quest is plain, and he even becomes a somewhat sympathetic character because we know and understand what he is after, and what is at stake for him if he fails.  He's a great villain, and Tom Baker is terrific in the role.  After watching Dr. Who for all these years, I had forgotten how masterfully he could turn his charismatic screen presence sinister.

Unlike its predecessor, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad also reveals some of the flavor of Sinbad's ancient world -- like the fact that he is a Muslim -- by allowing him to utter comments about and proverbs from Allah.  This may sound like a small or inconsequential thing, but 7th Voyage of Sinbad essentially made Sinbad an American cowboy in classical Baghdad, one heading-up what became a 1950s American nuclear family.  He had no colors, no shades, no sense of being from somewhere other than America.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad isn't about Islam in any meaningful way, but it acknowledges at least, the truth that Sinbad originates from a different cultural tradition than many of those in the audience.  Today, with all the rampant Islamophobia, I doubt even the harmless mentions of Allah and religion in Golden Voyage of Sinbad would be permitted in a mainstream film, which is a sad development.    The history of the world, and the history of mythology, shouldn't be a football for contemporary ideological differences...but they are.  Sinbad comes to us from a defined time, place and tradition in the world, and to ignore his place of origin is like ignoring the fact that Clark Kent was raised in Smallville, or that James Bond is English.

I also appreciate The Golden Voyage of Sinbad more than the other Sinbad films for two further, specific reasons.  First, it actually differentiates between the crew men on Sinbad's vessel, offering us some comic relief in the form of one man.   This is important. In the other two Sinbad films, the crew men have no personalities, no differentiation, and no memorable identities.

And secondly The Golden Voyage allows Sinbad -- this time John Phillip Law -- to be a little less wholesome and pure.  Here, he brings Caroline Munro's slave girl, Margiana, along to Lemuria, and it's not because she plays a good game of chess, if you know what I mean.  There's some (harmless) sexual innuendo, obviously, and as an adult, that's far more interesting to watch than the innocent, "pure" love of Sinbad and his betrothed (nowhere in sight here, by the way....) in 7th Voyage.  

What I'm getting at in this review, without offending anyone, I hope, is that The Golden Voyage of Sinbad -- perhaps owing to its post-James Bond milieu -- is a bit less simplistic in narrative, in style, and in detail than its esteemed and rightly-appreciated predecessor.  

The message here is that evil -- though powerful in allure -- carries a "weight" or "cost," and that's a terrific message to impart to children learning the differences between right and wrong.   The sub-plot involving a prince in a mask, Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), also conveys a nice little lesson.  Though ugly on the outside (because of burns inflicted by Koura), Vizier is beautiful on the inside...and that beauty eventually comes to the surface. 

And by the way, I noted with interest that the moment here wherein Vizier removes his golden mask and stuns the hostile natives of Lemuria was repeated hook, line and sinker in the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century episode "Journey to Oasis," with Mark Lenard. 

Good ideas in the genre never die...they just get recycled.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is my five year old son's favorite Sinbad movie too, and it was easily his favorite Harryhausen fantasy until last night when he encountered -- and fell head over heels in love with -- Jason and the Argonauts. 

This morning, he and I have already re-enacted -- with toy swords -- Jason's climactic fight with a skeleton army (spawned from hydra teeth...).   I have the bruises to show for it.

Remembering Ray Harryhausen - In His Own Words

"All we basically say in any fantasy film is that good triumphs over evil and there's hope for the future.  And I think that's basically what we need because there have been too many people saying there's no hope for the future and you should look down in the garbage can rather than up in the sky."

- Ray Harryhausen discusses his fantasy films in an interview for Starlog # 10, December 1977, by Richard Meyers, page 56.

Remembering Ray Harryhausen: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts (1963) looks more beautiful than ever on the high-definition Blu Ray format, and remains a high point in the artist's great career.

I wasn't yet born when Jason and the Argonauts was released theatrically, but it was a staple of my youth nonetheless.  Whenever the film aired on national or local TV, I always tried to catch it (remember, this was the age before VHS, before Cable TV, even...).  It's nice to see that the fantasy has held up so well, even after nearly fifty years.  It's like revisiting an old friend and finding him still in fighting shape.

Watching Jason and the Argonauts  again in 2012, I liked it better than any of the Sinbad films, except for Golden Voyage (1974), which remains my favorite Harryhausen fantasy because it accounts for Sinbad's ethnicity and features a darker story about the "cost" of black magic.

Jason and the Argonauts is, perhaps, nearly as simplistic as 7th Voyage was in terms of characterization, but the film still holds together well.  This may be so because it has Greek mythology to fall back on as a rich resource for creature origins and compelling story points.

Jason was the Greek who, in Argonautica, embarked upon a dangerous quest for the Golden Fleece.  The men who accompanied him on the journey, including Hercules, Hylas and Orpheus, were called "The Argonauts."   On the journey, Jason fell for the high priestess, Medea, but their lives went rather badly down hill after he brought her you may recall.

In broad terms, the quest for the Golden Fleece forms the basis of the Harryhausen film, directed by Don Chaffey.   Here, Jason of Thessaly (Todd Armstrong) seeks the fleece to help "heal" his war-torn country and assume his rightful place on the throne.  To dp so, he must defeat the tyrannical usurper, Pelias (Douglas Wilmer).  With the help of Hera (Honor Blackman), Jason makes sail with a team of heroes for the end of the world, where the Fleece is reportedly housed (and protected by a multi-headed beast called the Hydra).

En route to the Golden Fleece, the Argo encounters a giant bronze statue, Talos.  A confrontation with the living statue costs Jason two of his most valuable crew members, Hylas and Hercules.  Later, Jason defends  the fallen King Phineas (Patrick Troughton) from vicious Harpies in direct defiance of Zeus's will and in exchange for exact details about the location of the Fleece.  The rescued Phineas reveals that the Golden Fleece resides in distant Colchis, and Jason sets sail.

After reaching Colchis, Jason falls in love with the gorgeous priestess Medea (Nancy Kovack).  She helps him steal the Golden Fleece and defeat the Hydra. 

But Colchis's king, Aeetes, is not ready to give up his treasure.  Using the Hydra's mystical teeth, he "grows" an army of sinister skeletons to confront and challenge Jason....

If you boast any familiarity with Greek myth, you'll notice some changes in the old lore here.  For one thing, Talos was encountered on the way home from Colchis in myth, not on the beginning stages of the voyage. 

For another thing, the film glosses over the inconvenient plot point that Hercules and Hylas were likely lovers.  In the film, Hercules goes off in search of Hylas, and never returns to the Argo, but the two men are just *ahem* devoted "friends."  And in myth, Hylas was not crushed to death by Talos either, but had an entirely different fate...which is why Hercules went in search of him in the first place.  Here, you wonder where Hercules could possibly go to search for Hylas since the island is so small, and since Hylas's corpse is stuck underneath the fallen Talos...

And, of course, this 1963 film ends incredibly abruptly after Jason and Medea return to the Argo.  Therefore, we don't get to see Jason reclaim the throne, or the bloody, murderous falling out between Jason and his new love.  As an adult, I would have loved to see some of those mythic elements incorporated.

Still, one can pretty easily detect that the significant changes made in Jason's story were an effort to keep the material appropriate for children.  Also, the encounters featured here make the most of Harryhausen's stop-motion capabilities.  The movie features a battle with Talos, a last-minute rescue from Poseidon, a struggle with flying harpies, and, of course, the famous skeleton sword fight.

I'm still in awe of that particular sword fight.  It is choreographed and executed with deftness and even brilliance.  The skeletons seem very much alive in terms of movement and demeanor, but the human actors really out-do themselves too in "selling" this particular special effects set-piece.  You can usually tell if an actor misses a mark, is looking in the wrong place, or is holding back with his sword thrusts and parries.  None of that occurs here.  The battle seems virtually flawless.  Perhaps not surprisingly, this battle is my son Joel's favorite Harryhausen set-piece, and probably mine too.  A real show-stopper.

I believe where Jason and the Argonauts probably gets the nod over The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is in its deliberate subtext about man and the Gods.  Here, we see a terrific depiction of Mount Olympus, one that looks a lot like Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans in 1981. 

But beyond that, the film gives us the unique example in 'blasphemer' Jason, a human who attempts to make his way without the interference of the Gods, and yet uses Hera's help some five times to achieve his victory. 

It's kind of hypocritical for Jason to lambast the Gods, and then accept their help, but still, an important idea is transmitted.  Man must chart his own course in the world, without the luxury or curse of interfering Gods.

I feel that this is actually a message you can detect throughout all the Harryhausen fantasy films, and a prime reason they survive and are remembered with such fondness.  All of his fantasies, whether they involve Sinbad, Perseus or Jason, concern brave men fighting out-sized odds with resourcefulness, humility and decency.  The Harryhausen hero vanquishes monsters and magicians not for famor n glory, but because he must help others.  There's an optimistic undercurrent to these films; the idea that man is absolutely indomitable, even in the face of Harpies, Cyclops, the Minoton, living statues, dragons, and skeletons.

That's a message I hope Joel has intuited and internalized during the course of our Harryhausen film odyssey.

Ray Harryhausen (1920 - 2013)

I’m very sad to report the death today of a movie magic pioneer, the great Ray Harryhausen (1920 – 2013). 

Mr. Harryhausen was a visual effects maestro and a trail-blazer of stop-motion animation (or Dynamation, specifically) throughout the 1950s and 1960s.  An accomplished producer and writer as well as a visual effects genius, Mr. Harryhausen provided several generations of moviegoers with unforgettable entertainment and fantastic visions.

Mr. Harryhausen also inspired a class of young filmmakers to follow in his footsteps. That graduating class includes names like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Landis, Sam Raimi, James Cameron, and Tim Burton.  Over the years, all these talents have paid tribute (sometimes even on-screen…) to the films of their childhoods that so deeply inspired them…the films of Ray Harryhausen.

Mr. Harryhausen’s film work includes such legendary titles as Mighty Joe Young (1949), Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1956).  

In the color age, his effects appeared in beloved films such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Mysterious Island (1961), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and Valley of the Gwangi (1969).

Personally speaking, I first saw a Ray Harryhausen movie when I was just five years oldI watched -- and fell in love with -- The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), starring Tom Baker.  My appreciation for Mr. Harryhausen’s work continued with later efforts including Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), and the original Clash of the Titans (1981).

Fantasy Cinema has lost one of its guiding lights and key inspirations today, but as I frequently write in these tribute posts: the work of great artists lives on.  That’s the gift of the movies.  

Last year, for instance, I introduced my five year-old son Joel to Mr. Harryhausen’s films -- particularly the three Sinbad movies and Jason the Argonauts -- and their imaginative, magical creations like the Minoton and the skeleton army thoroughly captured his imagination.  Today, Joel still talks about the scene in Jason wherein the villain plants Hydra teeth in the ground, and fully-formed, monstrous skeleton warriors leap, fully-formed, to fight the heroes.

I’ll be re-posting some old reviews of Mr. Harryhausen’s films today to celebrate his rich legacy of artistry, imagination, and wonder.