Saturday, November 30, 2013

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Screaming Wings" (October 10, 1975)


The 1975 animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes actually features a story arc of sorts, and this week’s episode, “Screaming Wings” provides the impetus for the next series of episodes.

Specifically, in “Screaming Wings,” General Urko makes his riskiest power-play yet.  He attempts to take power in Ape City away from Dr. Zaius by demonstrating his control over an ancient, World War II warplane.

Fortunately, the humanoids -- Bill, Jeff, and Judy – are able to steal the warplane and prevent Urko’s coup. 

The antique plane itself -- as well as the fall-out from Urko’s coup -- continue to play an important role in the series’ next several episodes.





It is impressive that a Saturday morning cartoon of the mid-1970s should attempt a story arc (which consists of this episode, “Trail to the Unknown” and “Attack from the Clouds”) of the complexity unveiled here.  

Too often in the past, Urko has brazenly crossed the line of disrespect with Dr. Zaius, and it is rewarding that the writers of the series should push past the status quo, and begin to examine what occurs when Zaius responds to the gorilla's outrageous betrayals.

The biggest problem with “Screaming Wings,” however, is the warplane itself. 

On one hand, it doesn’t seem probable that Urko would utilize a weapon that demonstrates to all ape-kind the superiority of the human race.  He would at least put on a show, it seems, that this is an APE weapon, newly developed.

On the other hand, it also seems entirely unlikely that  the ape civilization as dramatized in this animated series would not possess warplanes of its own at this juncture in its history.

Everything we have seen of the ape culture up to this episode points to a culture that is roughly equivalent to America in the 1940s – 1950s.  

The Apes have television broadcasts, hand-held walkie-talkies, machine guns, electricity, and even a burgeoning film culture (“The Apefather,” remember?)  

America developed flight in the early years of the twentieth century, and had warplanes like the one seen in “Screaming Wings” by the early 1940s.  So the apes -- at this point -- should certainly have at least begun to experiment with planes and flight.

Funnily, one future episode, “Attack from the Clouds” also shows that the apes have radar devices.  Why would they have radar if they don’t have planes to fly?!

In spite of such problems, “Screaming Winds” is worthwhile because Zaius -- finally -- is moved off his butt to combat the power-hungry Urko. He initiates an investigation of Urko’s competence to lead the Ape military, and such action is long overdue.

Next week: “Trail to the Unknown.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "Kevin vs. The Volcano" (October 26, 1991)


In “Kevin vs. the Volcano,” the Porters watch in horror as a volcano in the distance erupts and begins to send green (!) lava in the direction of their tree house.  

Mr. Porter (Timothy Bottoms) and Christa (Shannon Day) attempt to divert the lava flow by moving a huge boulder into its path through a narrow valley, but the lava seems unstoppable.

When Kevin (Robert Gavin) falls into a hole while battling Scarface, however, he finds what could be the answer.  

In an ancient subterranean cave, he finds forgotten Sleestak technology: a glowing crystal structure that can reverse the lava flow, and undo the eruption entirely!



Last week, I wrote a bit about how the 1990s version of Land of the Lost was taking the old story concepts of the original series, and updating them for the new series.  Last week’s episode “Day for Knight,” was a “guest-star in the land of the lost” story.  

This week, we get a re-boot of another original series staple: the "regulating of the environment" story.

In the original series, the Marshalls had to prove themselves careful and good shepherds of Altrusia, and they did so in stories such as “One of Our Pylons is Missing,” “The Longest Day,” “Black Out” and “The Orb.”  

In basically all those tales, some force (either the Sleestaks or a malfunctioning pylon) managed to get the environment out-of-whack, causing a cascade of danger in the land.  The instability threatened everyone. Thus the Marshalls had to repair the damage and regulate the environment to so.  They had their pylons, crystals, and matrix tables to help them do so.

“Kevin vs. the Volcano” sees Kevin finding a similar mechanism: an ancient crystal device in a cave.  

The mechanism is Sleestak technology, and Mr. Porter speculates that it is an energy generator, perhaps one in a network of such devices.  How precisely, this crystal device regulates the volcano is not made entirely clear, but that’s okay.  If the Sleestak were sufficiently advanced once, perhaps they placed these devices as volcano guards to keep them from erupting.  

On some vague level, it makes at least a modicum of sense.


What differs now is that the Porters solve the problem almost entirely by accident, and don’t show much interest in pursuing their discovery of ancient Sleestak technology though, conceivably, it could provide a way for them to return home.  

Where Rick Marshall mapped the Pylons, learned their functions, and felt a responsibility to shepherd the environment, the approach by the Porters is much more scatter-shot.  Thus, one of the key thematic aspects of the original series -- responsibility to nature -- is relatively absent here.


Still, “Kevin vs. the Volcano” is an exciting episode of Land of the Lost for a few reasons. It not only introduces the ancient Sleestak technology, it features some very strong special effects moments involving Scarface, the resident T-Rex.  My favorite such moment shows the imposing dinosaur in front of Vasquez Rocks – the very place where Captain Kirk battled the Gorn on the original Star Trek.


Next week: “Mind Games.”

Friday, November 29, 2013

Black Friday: Spend Your Holidays with a Muir Book!

Well, it's Black Friday again and that means that -- once more -- it is time for the hard sell.

So anyway...while you are thinking about spending money for the holidays today, how about spending time with one of my recent books?  They are the perfect gifts for horror and science fiction movie fans!

And when you buy one of my books -- as I've written before -- you are actively helping to support this blog, and its on-going life.

I derive my income (at least at present) from my books in print, so anything you can do to help support the cause is very much appreciated.

Here are two titles for your consideration:

Horror Films FAQ
"Muir, proverbial flashlight in hand, leads readers through the kaleidoscopic darkness of horror’s roughly century-long existence with clear-sighted and analytic commentary in “Horror Films FAQ.”...This new book is neither a behind-the-scenes tell-all nor an exhaustive encyclopedia; rather, the book delineates the nature, symbols and themes of various horror sub-genres, characters, and formulas -- some vanish as the sun sets on a generation, others are as perennial as Freddy Krueger...newcomers and aficionados alike will find something intriguing in Muir’s studied and insightful volume." - Michael Walsh, The New York Daily News.

"I was immediately sold on this book by Chris Carter's introduction....What follows that introduction is 370 or pages of discussion of 28 different sub-genres of the horror film...This is a great book for browsing, and it will remind you of a lot of movies you've seen, a lot you haven't and quite a few you might want to take a look at.  Belongs on every horror movie fan's bookshelf." - Bill Crider's Pop Culture Blog,

"You don’t need to be a film scholar or even a horror film buff to enjoy the essays in Horror  Films FAQ. Written in a thoughtful but accessible manner, they cite the political, psychological, and social messages behind the films. Horror Films FAQ is the thinking person’s guide to horror films. It is illustrated with black and white photos and film stills, and includes a foreword by X-Files producer Chris Carter." - Jade Blackmore, Cinema Sentries.

"Muir is obviously a huge horror fan and it shows. You can always tell when somebody's heart is in something, and this book is written with a lot of heart and plenty of research.  HORROR FILMS FAQ is listed by the published as "All that's left to know about slashers, vampires, zombies, aliens and more," and it couldn't have been said better...John Kenneth Muir knocked it out of the park. Rating: 10/10." Geno McGahee, Scared Stiff Reviews.

"With its brief chapters and easy style, Horror Films FAQ is an accessible book designed to get readers thinking about film.  Whether it piques your interest in a specific sub genre, inspires you to watch something new, or causes you to look at an old favorite in a different way, Muir's book succeeds in legitimizing horror as a topic of conversation." - Movie Pie.

"Muir gives the reader plenty enough to think about.  The movies that he covers that we heaven't seen, we now want to seek them out.  And even the movies that he covers that we've seen, for some reason, we start to want to go back and revisit the film again. Well done, Mr. Muir." - Kitley's Krypt

and...

Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s
(Available on Kindle today for just 99 cents!)

"One of the best writers analyzing contemporary genre film and television is John Kenneth Muir. His new volumes adds to an impressive body of work with Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s...highly recommended." - John W. Morehead, Theofantastique. 


Thanksgiving Blogging: Godzilla (1954)


When I decided to feature Godzilla (1954) as part of my Thanksgiving monster-thon, I had an important decision to make. 

Should I review the Americanized Godzilla: King of Monsters -- which is the film I would have seen on WOR-9 TV in the seventies, and eighties -- or the original, unaltered Japanese version, which wasn’t released on DVD until 2004?

With apologies to nostalgia, I decided to choose the better film: the searing, gut-wrenching Japanese original.  Even today, it packs a visceral punch.

And after a diet of several King Kong movies, which concern, overall, an adventurous escape from modern life, it was a bit of a shock to countenance the grave, lugubrious, even mournful Godzilla.  

This is an unremittingly dark film, dominated by unsettling images of widespread destruction and human suffering.  Those images of disaster – and of a city on fire – are all the more uncomfortable because of Japanese and American history in the 20th century.

I realize that many folks associate Godzilla movies (especially of the 1970s) with kiddie-matinees, rubber monsters, abundantly-obvious model-work and the like. Yet the original Godzilla endures as nothing less than an atomic age nightmare, and it is anything but juvenile. 

There are two galvanizing incidents roiling beneath the surface of this monster movie.  The first is the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima by America in August of 1945.  Today, these are still the only instances of nuclear warfare in human history. 


Godzilla mastermind and director Ishiro Honda utilizes these historical incidents as the seeds of his fantastic but meaningful story.   


As the film opens, nuclear testing near Japan has awakened a prehistoric goliath, or “deep sea organism,” a dinosaur-like creature with the power to emit radioactive fire breath.  Upon Godzilla’s awakening, several small fishing boats are destroyed at sea, their crews murdered in blinding, white-hot flashes.

A paleontologist, Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura), conducts research and determines Godzilla’s origin in the Jurassic Age.  He follows the monster’s (over-sized) trail to Odo Island, where the locals recount old legends of the monster Godzilla: a creature that lived in the ocean and fed on humanity to survive.  In ages past, the islanders conducted a kind of “exorcism” ritual (with native girls as sacrifices…) to appease Godzilla.

While Godzilla moves irrevocably closer to mainland Japan, the government establishes a “Counter Godzilla Headquarters” whose first gambit is to destroy the beast at sea with depth charges.  When that move fails to stop the beast’s progress, a second defense gambit is devised. It involves the construction of an electric fence along the coast to ensnare Godzilla.

That defense attempt fails as well, and Godzilla reduces most of Tokyo to rubble in a night of unending fire and smoke.  Dr. Yamane’s daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kochi), however, knows of a secret that could reverse Japan’s fortunes. 

Her former betrothed, Dr. Serizawa (Ahihiko Hirata) has developed a weapon even more deadly than atomic bombs, a so-called “oxygen destroyer.”  He has sworn her to secrecy about the device however, because he fears it will be taken out of his hands, and used on an international, even global scale.

With Godzilla’s reign of destruction unstopped, however, Serizawa must re-consider using the doomsday weapon.  He knows if he uses it, however, he must also die with Godzilla, so the oxygen destroyer will never be used again by mankind…



Godzilla commences with the strange mystery at sea regarding the sinking of several Japanese fishing ships (reflecting the Lucky Dragon incident), and then moves into a tale of epic destruction and survival.  One facet of the film that remains so effective, even today, is the almost whirlwind, documentary approach to the narrative.  Early on, Dr. Yamane delivers a briefing about Godzilla’s possible origins and nature, and it’s like we’re sitting in on a university lecture. 

Also, there’s a heated discussion -- or fight -- in the halls of Japanese government about whether or not to reveal Godzilla’s nature to the public.  These and other similar moments feel like the audience is eavesdropping on real conferences and legislatures.   It’s quite unique how the film “moves” from one plot to another with these meetings, briefings and other formal moments.  The characters, though very interesting (particularly in the love triangle of Ogata/Emiko/Serizawa) don’t dictate the flow of the story in any meaningful way until the final act.  That’s important, because this fact plays into the epic feel of the drama.  These men and women -- and all of Japan indeed -- are swept into a story beyond their control.

Beyond the documentary approach, Godzilla utilizes its atomic bogeyman as a metaphor or signifier for nuclear destruction, and accordingly many of the images feel like authentic documentary footage from the Hiroshima or Nagasaki aftermath.  For instance, at one point there is a long, deliberate pan across a ruined, twisted, formerly-urban landscape.  The scene is one of total desolation, a testament to the searing power of nuclear weapons (or Godzilla’s fire breath, as the case may be). 

A city once stood there, but now only twisted metal remains.

Shortly after that revelatory shot, other footage reveals doctors and nurses moving dozens of patients on stretchers into a make-shift hospital or recovery center.  The scene is one of human suffering on an almost impossible-to-believe scale.  The impression given is of a perpetual war-zone, a blazing hell on earth.

Godzilla pretty plainly uses the aftermath of Nagasaki and Hiroshima as its formative imagery, recalling a real-life nuclear terror not even a full decade in the past at the time of its production.   





 At one point, the detonations are even alluded to, albeit subtly, with a mother and daughter facing jeopardy from Godzilla.  The mother tells her daughter (bleakly…) that they are going to join the girl’s father in Heaven.  The inference is that he died at Nagasaki or Hiroshima.

The Honda film also reflects the dawning nuclear age in another trenchant way, namely in the character of Dr. Serizawa.  Pretty plainly, he is a surrogate for J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who worked at the Manhattan Project and is known, historically as “The Father of the Atomic Bomb.”  According to interviews, Oppenheimer once remarked, after witnessing a test atomic bomb detonation that he had “become death” and a “destroyer of worlds.”  In a sense, Godzilla is Oppenheimer’s child, then.

Dr Serizawa in Godzilla is acutely aware that he might suffer the same fate as Oppenheimer, and may be remembered the same way…and he doesn’t want that.  His Oxygen-Destroyer is more destructive, more monstrous even than the H-Bomb, and Serizawa knows that it very rapidly would become the object of a new international arms race.  He makes a moral, individual decision, however, and decides that knowledge of the weapon should die with him (after he has burned his notes).  A second, post-nuclear arms race is thus averted through his individual sense of right and wrong, and his willingness to sacrifice himself.  

If Godzilla is a warning about the dangers of Pandora’s Box opened in the Atomic Age, then Serizawa himself is an indicator that the box can only be shut via the auspices of individual conscience.  Even though Serizawa has created something of monstrous destructive potential, he nonetheless possesses the moral barometer to see his work destroyed, not unloosed on the world.

Unfortunately, as the film’s ending reminds viewers, not all men are as noble or moral as Serizawa was.  As long as nuclear tests persist, Dr. Yamane warns, other “Godzillas” could rise up to threaten human civilization.


If this final warning sounds preachy to you, it may be because you haven’t just finished viewing the film.  Godzilla’s scorching imagery -- a world of black-and-white but mostly black -- earns the filmmaker the right to ponder big philosophical issues at the denouement.  Above all else, the movie serves as a cautionary tale for an age where the future of nuclear war was unwritten.

Many Godzilla movies have come and gone since this one premiered.  I remember seeing the less-than-satisfactory (though fun) Godzilla 1985 at the Center Theater in Bloomfield, New Jersey, for instance.   

However, this first film -- light on rubber monster suits and heavy on fire, blinding-light and suffering -- remains an indelible viewing experience.  Some have called Honda’s Godzilla a “grotesque” work of art.  

But I wonder if that descriptor isn’t a commentary on mankind more than it is Godzilla.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Blogging: Mighty Joe Young (1944)



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 fine special effects (from Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen).

Thanksgiving Blogging: Son of Kong (1933)



The conventional wisdom regarding this sequel is that The Son of Kong (1933) is a not-very-good, not- very-memorable follow-up to the enormously successful and enormously beloved original King Kong (1933). 

It’s easy to see why critics, scholars, and some fans feel this way about the film.  The sequel is but a brief seventy minutes long, two of the original stars -- Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray -- are missing-in-action, and the film was produced on an extraordinarily low-budget.  

Furthermore, King Kong is a spectacular, a non-stop rollercoaster ride of action and spectacle, and The Son of Kong…is not.

And yet despite these deficits The Son of Kong is an intriguing little movie, primarily because it focuses almost obsessively on Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), the man who brought Kong back to modernity because he wanted to give that jaded world a sense of “wonder.”

Denham has been repaid for that act, however, as The Son of Kong opens, with law-suits, public condemnation, and grand jury indictment.  His original desire to “escape” modernity, has, in fact, brought the bureaucracy of modernity crashing down upon him.

We also learn early in The Son of Kong that Denham feels guilty regarding Kong’s death, and wishes -- for his own sake and Kong’s -- that he had never visited Skull Island in the first place. 

This is all very interesting, very human material, and there is likely more focus on characterization and character development in The Son of Kong than in all of King Kong.  Robert Armstrong is terrific and charismatic again as Carl Denham, but he shows many more shades of the man here than he was able to reveal in the original Kong.

With its lead character dwelling in self-hatred and guilt, and facing a future of legal entanglements, The Son of Kong depicts a more dissolute, sleazier world than did its predecessor.  In short order, Denham and Captain Englehart (Frank Reichert) slink out of New York Harbor on the Venture not in search of great adventure this time, but in search of a job -- any job -- in the East Indies.


In far-flung Dakang, they settle in at a tiny port and meet another fallen Western entertainer, Peterson, and his lovely daughter, La Belle Helene (Helen Mack).  Both are going nowhere, and have no future save for the next (sparsely populated) show.

Denham and Englehart also meet the troublesome Captain Nils Helstrom (John Marston), the very man who first sold Denham the map to Kong’s island. Helstrom -- a murderer -- is looking for a way to escape Dakang too and soon he, Denham, Englehart, and Helene head to Kong’s island in search of a legendary treasure.

On Skull Island, Denham and Helene encounter a young giant ape, Kong Junior.  He’s more playful than his father, but no less fierce when it comes to fighting dinosaurs.  After Denham and Helene save Kong Jr. from a quicksand trap, he defends them from a giant bear, a four-legged dinosaur carnivore, and other grave threats. 




After the giant ape helps Denham retrieve the legendary treasure from a secret temple, an earthquake sinks the island, and Kong Jr. gives his life to save Denham.

While it’s true that the pleasures of The Son of Kong are relatively mild in comparison to King Kong, some are certainly worth noting.  I love the first act in particular, set in a corner of the world where people go to disappear.  There are some great deep-focus shots in the local bar, which sell beautifully the nature of the people living in that environment.  



I also admire the fact that the sequel attempts to make a human judgment about what happened to Kong in New York City…a subject the original film did not broach. 

Here, Denham admits that he owes Kong’s family “something,” and when he takes care of Kong Jr.’s injuries, he notes that the act is “sort of an apology.”   

These moments reveal Denham’s humanity and decency, and also acknowledge the audience’s (quite correct) feelings that King Kong was badly exploited in the first film.  This movie rehabilitates Carl Denham, one might assert, and that’s a worthy enterprise for a sequel.

The stop-motion effects of The Son of Kong are certainly as impressive as those of its predecessor, and the film suffers mainly in the final act when, out-of-the-blue, an earthquake arrives to, literally end the movie.  The earthquake comes from out-of-the-blue, and stops the movie’s development cold, skipping essentially from the beginning of the third act (arrival on the island and discovery of the treasure…) right to the denouement, Kong Jr’s sad death, and the ape’s heroic sacrifice to rescue Denham. 

Those valedictory images of heroic Kong Jr. holding Denham aloft above the swirling ocean waves as Skull Island sinks below the roiling surface are arguably as powerful as any image in King Kong, but in some sense they have not adequately been prepared for or built-up to.  The moment of Kong Jr’s death is powerful, but could have been infinitely more so if the film actually spent more than twenty or so minutes in the company of the mighty ape.


The Son of Kong’s final “happy ending,” that Denham and Helene will marry and share the proceeds from the island’s treasure, also fails to ring true.  Even a huge payday isn’t going to take away a grand jury indictment for Denham.  Plus, Carl has once again looted Skull Island for a resource or treasure by which he hopes to profit…an act which in some sense hampers his character’s development and maturity.  He's still, even after everything that's happened, a profiteer.

But taken in total The Son of Kong is a charming little monster movie, a good dessert after King Kong’s main course.  The sequel boasts some real humanity, and represents a turning point in the Cooper/Schoedsack saga because it is the first big ape film to suggest sympathy for the central animal, and to recognize that the exploitation of natural resources like Kong results only in destruction for everyone.

Also, I must admit that on a personal note, I get a kick out of one idea in The Son of Kong that is often not even considered in terms of sequels.  In essence, this humble movie acknowledges that King Kong was the main event, and that this is a smaller, perhaps less important story in the same universe.  That kind of modesty is, at the very least, refreshing.  It also seems realistic, to some degree.  Sequels traditionally get bigger and bolder, and more outrageous.

But how do you create a sequel bigger than a giant ape climbing the Empire State Building? 

I submit that The Son of Kong’s human, if small potatoes approach, works just fine.

Thanksgiving Blogging: Turkey Day in New Jersey in the 1970s



When I was growing up in the New Jersey burbs during the seventies and early eighties there was a great Thanksgiving Day tradition that I’d like to share with you today, on the eve of the holiday. 

Every year, WOR Channel 9 would broadcast King Kong (1933), Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949) on Turkey Day.

Then, on Friday, the same station would host a Godzilla marathon consisting of such films as King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971) and many others.  Some years, if memory serves, War of the Gargantuas (1968) also played.

I remember showering and dressing early on those Thanksgiving Days, so I could be lodged near the TV when the Kong movies started.  Meanwhile, my Mom and Dad would be busy in the kitchen preparing a great meal of turkey, stuffing, baked carrots with cinnamon, and home-made biscuits.  The house would fill with the delectable aromas of the feast, and even downstairs -- while glued to WOR-TV -- I could feel my appetite for dinner building.

Our guests, usually my grandparents and aunts and uncles, would arrive sometime in the early afternoon, around 1:00 pm and I would socialize with them, and then sneak back to the family room for more King Kong.  Sometimes my uncle Larry, a horror fan after a fashion, would join me.

Then the meal and dessert -- a chocolate cream pie and a pumpkin pie -- would be served, and we’d all enjoy each other’s company over the delicious food.  After an appropriate interval of visiting and socializing, I’d high-tail it once more back down the stairs to watch more of the movies.

I’m certain my description of Thanksgiving makes it sound weird and anti-social, but you must remember that in the seventies, there were no VCRs (let alone DVRs or movie streaming), which meant that if you wanted to see a movie like King Kong, you had to seize your moment, or else wait for another year.

I believe it took me the better part of four Thanksgivings to see all of King Kong, and then not even in chronological order.  I actually saw the entirety of Son of Kong first, perhaps because it was often scheduled between our early afternoon dinner and dessert course.

This tradition of King Kong Thanksgiving and Godzilla Black Friday continued over a long period at my house -- the better part of a decade -- so much so that I still irrevocably associate the Holiday season with WOR Channel 9 and its monster movie broadcasts.  

I still remember, a bit guiltily, forcing my parents to watch the 1970s Godzilla movies on Fridays, while we ate Thanksgiving leftovers in the family room.  My folks liked the King Kong movies, but when it came to Japanese monster movies, they weren’t exactly big fans.

Happy Turkey Day!


Thanksgiving Blogging: Home Sweet Home (1980)

"A little craziness never hurt anyone..."

- Dialogue from Home Sweet Home (1980)

In honor of the holiday today I'm looking back at a really terrible horror film that I first encountered while writing Horror Films of the 1980s (2007).

Conveniently, it's both Thanksgiving-themed and a turkey.

Advertised with the ad-line "The Bradleys won't be leaving home. Ever," Home Sweet Home (1981) is the not-so-riveting story of a deranged serial killer and his holiday rampage.

Said serial killer is portrayed by Body by Jake's (1988) gleeful Jake Steinfeld. The enthusiastic exercise guru -- also known for his music label, "Don't Quit Music" -- plays this muscular madman as a cackling, bulging-eyed freak. 

This nutty killer has the tattoo "home sweet home" emblazoned on his fist, and was incarcerated for eight years over the bludgeoning death of his parents.

In one of the film's first scenes, this hyperactive, super-fit killer takes PCP by injecting it into his tongue, guns his car engine rowdily, and then runs over a little old lady crossing the street.

Meanwhile, at a Southern California ranch, the unconventional Bradley family is preparing for a holiday that may or may not be Thanksgiving. Let's see: there's a turkey. There's a celebratory meal. There's a family gathering. And there are guests. But no one mentions Turkey Day by name. The VHS box does it for us.

Anyway -- for some reason -- the obnoxious Bradley son, charmingly named "Mistake," is dressed as a mime for the occasion. He's a practical joke-playing mime, no less. And did I mention, Mistake also dabbles in the electric guitar?

Unfortunately, the mime is one of the last characters to die in Home Sweet Home, meaning the audience must endure Mistake's antics for a very long time before the movie arrives at his fateful, and wholly-deserved electrocution.

The holiday meal with the Bradley family promises to be an unusual one too, not just because Mistake is a mime and because an uninvited serial killer is on his way, but because one of the invitees "won't drink anything," since "she hates to go to the bathroom." 

Finally, some cops are on the case, investigating the murders and pursuing the body-builder killer. The classy cops gawk at one character's breasts after pulling her over for speeding, and share this colloquy:

"Did you see that chick with the big bazooms?"

Since Home Sweet Home is incompetently shot, written, and acted, one might hope that the violence Jake ultimately inflicts on the Bradley family would at least prove entertaining. But it isn't (well, except for the death of the mime, to be fair...). 

One character dies when she falls over and cracks her head against a rock. Can you really blame Ole Jack for that? 

Another character gets his head crushed under the hood of a car.

Home Sweet Home exhibits the familiar flaw of the worst slasher films, meaning that the killer is always positioned right where he should be in order to kill the one character who happens to be left alone at any given moment. You might accept that level of expertise from a Michael Myers or a Jason...but by Jake Steinfeld? 

I just can't ascribe uncanny supernatural abilities to this guy. Enthusiasm and gung-ho inspiration, yes. Boogeyman capabilities...no.

Mere words can't truly convey how irrevocably horrible this movie is. So Happy Thanksgiving, caveat emptor, and...gobble, gobble.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Blogging: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Pangs" (1999)


During its generally-underrated fourth season, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003) -- from  creator Joss Whedon -- presented a funny and involving Thanksgiving installment titled “Pangs.”

The episode -- penned by Whedon and Jane Espenson, and directed by Michael Lange -- first aired on November 23, 1999.

In this particular installment Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and the Scooby Gang investigate a murderous demon after the buried Sunnydale Mission -- believed destroyed in the earthquake of 1812 -- is accidentally unearthed.


Or rather, Xander (Nicholas Brendon) discovers the mission by falling into a hole during the dedication and ground-breaking ceremony of U.C. Sunnydale’s new and expensive “cultural center.”

Unfortunately, by breaking into the sealed subterranean chamber, Xander accidentally releases the vengeful spirit of a Chumash warrior named Hus (Tod Thawley). 


Hus's Native American people suffered imprisonment, forced labor, and terrible disease when the white man arrived from Europe and quickly populated the American continent. Now, the demon’s first order of business is “re-creating the wrongs” done to his native people all those years and centuries ago.

Translated, this means that the demon gives Xander malaria, smallpox and syphilis. 

I am vengeance,” declares Hus. “I am my people’s cry.” 

As Buffy tracks down the vengeful and murderous Hus, she also broaches another challenging undertaking: She prepares a traditional, home-cooked Thanksgiving meal at Giles’ apartment.

In particular, Buffy recalls the happy holidays from her youth and -- during her first year away at college -- desires to recreate that experience.

Buffy talks meaningfully and wistfully in the narrative about the “sense-memory” of Thanksgiving that occurs every time she smells a roasted turkey.

The socially-minded Willow (Alyson Hannigan) is upset, however, because she believes Thanksgiving is really just a celebration of “one culture wiping out another.” It’s a “sham,” Willow complains, upset.

Buffy’s response? Perhaps it is a sham…but it’s a sham “...with yams.”

Giles (Anthony Head) and the recently neutered Spike (with a behavior-modification chip in his noggin) are bothered by Willow’s unflattering description of the autumnal holiday. They both see the situation more plainly. 

You had better weapons…and you massacred them,” Spike (James Marsters) tells Willow of the Native-American population.

The debate raises an important question. Is it right for Buffy to “slay” Hus when he has a legitimate grievance against our ancestors?

What’s worse, isn’t he right to be upset that -- on his people’s former land – the conquering people are now building a “cultural center,” in effect a celebration of the genocide of the indigenous folks?

What remains so terrific and funny about “Pangs” more than a full decade later is that Buffy’s attempt to host a happy holiday dinner is undercut at every turn by these grave philosophical disagreements in her family, a unit which certainly does include the demonic Spike at this point.

The topic turns overtly political after a fashion, and everyone who has ever returned home for a family holiday knows that politics is the source of much indigestion at real-life gatherings, at real-life holiday feasts.

In-laws who hold different viewpoints are suddenly thrust together for a meal at the same table -- and there’s usually alcohol involved too -- and boy, the sparks can really fly.

The philosophical discussion underlining “Pangs” concerns a question not unfamiliar to most of us in modern American culture. 

Can a wrong in the past be repaired by a wrong in the present?

This idea has been discussed much, especially near the end of Clinton’s second term when "Pangs" aired, specifically in relation to America’s ignoble history of slavery. Are modern Americans -- folks living right now -- to blame for  their ancestors' misdeeds several generation ago? In terms of the Native American genocide, the same question is raised here.

And if reparations forced upon a blameless current generation aren’t particularly just either, does a simple apology to the families of the wronged feel like enough?  Is that the best we can muster? 

 "Sorry..."

Obviously, there are no simple answers to such deep questions of American history, but I admire how Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes the context of Thanksgiving and holiday gatherings and then makes the dramatis personae debate the conflicted nature of the holiday, each according to his or her own personal beliefs.

Nobody is bad. Nobody is evil (well, nobody besides Spike…). Everyone just boasts a different perspective on what remains a controversial subject.

Here -- treading deeper into the quagmire -- some hurtful comments are even made about a “minority” living in Buffy’s modern, diverse Sunnydale: demons. Xander lays down the law, and it sounds perilously like bigotry. “You don’t talk to vengeance demons, you kill them!” he stresses, angry and sick.

Well, of course, this remarks hurts Anya’s (Emma Caulfield's) feelings. She’s a demon after all. they? Not all of them are evil, are they?  What about Oz?  What about Angel?  And on and on.  Is killing them on sight the answer?

Next, Hus and a “raiding party” of demons arrive at Buffy’s Thanksgiving meal, and there’s a colossal battle between the Slayer and a demon she has zero interest in killing. Buffy would prefer to offer an apology, rather than fisticuffs. 

To the direct-minded Spike, however, this approach is folly. “You exterminated his people,” he reminds Buffy of Hus.  

An apology ain't gonna cut it.

Finally, Buffy does fight with lethal force, and the implication seems to be that some hurts, some breaches, just can’t be resolved peaceably.

Ultimately, even the politically-correct Willow feels like something of a hypocrite. When the Native-American demon spirits attack, she’s among those who pick up shovel and fight for their lives. As we all would under the same circumstances.

But the coda in "Pangs" involves a hope for the future instead of a conflict over the past.  In the episode's last scene, the threat of Hus is nullified and Buffy and her friends (including Spike) sit down together -- demon and human -- for an enjoyable "family" feast.

In some way, this final image of an ad-hoc, modern American family consisting of a demon, two vampires, two Brits, a Valley girl, a witch (and lesbian) and a construction worker seems to get at the point of the narrative's debate.  

Just the fact that these diverse folk break bread at the same table may provide the key to healing old, historical wounds. 

Perhaps enemies old and new must share a Thanksgiving table, a special meal together, and start fresh. Build new, better memories. Let go of the angers of the past, even if they are justified. Otherwise, as Hus learns, the only possible future is death.  At least breaking bread, and passing the cranberry sauce is a start.

As Xander happily notes at the conclusion of "Pangs," it’s the perfect Thanksgiving in Sunnydale after all: “a bunch of anticipation, a big fight, and now we’re all sleepy…”