Saturday, April 26, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Thundarr the Barbarian: "Last Train to Doomsday" (October 10, 1981)

In “Last Train to Doomsday,” Thundarr, Ookla, and Ariel defend a locomotive from a Mummy, who actually turns out to be the two-faced Gemini, a deadly wizard. 

Still holding a grudge from his last encounter with Thundarr, Gemini captures the barbarian and traps him in a rock pool with silicon-based life-forms called the Silicoids.  Unless Ariel and Ookla can rescue him, Thundarr will be transformed to stone…for eternity.

“Last Train to Doomsday” feels a bit like old-home week for Thundarr the Barbarian (1980-1981).

The episode features not only the return of the Janus-like sorcerer Gemini from the episode “Secret of the Black Pearl,” but also the young blond “swamp urchin” from the episode “Harvest of Doom.” 

Less impressively, “Last Train to Doomsday” also reruns the central threat from the episode with Circe (“Island of the Body Snatchers”), that of being transformed into a statue.

Still, there are some good touches in this installment, including Gemini’s use of “acid rain reservoir” to threaten the heroes, and also Ariel’s powerful magic, which turns a runaway train into a walking vehicle on the equivalent of stilts. That’s something you don’t see every day: a walking locomotive engine with long steel railroad metal for legs.

The best touch, however, is a brief tribute to Marvel Comics, home of series mastermind Jack Kirby. At one juncture, Ookla stops to read an ancient “Marble” comic-book titled Slime-Boy.  He promptly breaks up with laughter.

That’s the kind of touch that renders Thundarr the Barbarian a delight more often than not. Although I wish this episode featured more certainty in terms of its post-holocaust locations, a frequent pleasure of the series, it’s nice to see the throwaway Marvel Comics homage.

Less pleasant is yet another sexist touch. Thundarr dismissively scoffs “Females!” at one juncture, and it’s irritating to see that male chauvinism has endured two centuries and a global catastrophe.

Oddly, 1970s-era slang has also endured this span. “Let go of me, you turkey!” shouts on character here.

Next week: “Master of the Stolen Sunsword.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad (1976): "Mr. Mephisto"

In “Mr. Mephisto,” the Monster Squad goes up a cunning hypnotist (Barry Dennen) with the ability to bend anyone to his diabolical will. 

In this case, Mr. Mephisto hypnotizes the town mayor, Goldwyn (Edward Andrews), and makes the hoodwinked public official raise property taxes on everyone in the city. 

Specifically, Mephisto uses a device called a “magical-type-a-tongue” which allows him to put words in the mouths of his victims.

Fortunately, Walt (Fred Grandy) finds Mr. Mephisto’s hide-out at the Doll Factory on Broad Street, and sends Dracula and Frankenstein to bring the villain into custody.  Unfortunately, he hypnotizes them and attempts to feed the famous monsters into his sausage maker…

This week’s episode of Monster Squad (1976) is another Batman-(1966 – 1969) –on-the-cheap-styled show, one with an exceedingly campy tone, a colorful villain, and a deadly “cliffhanger”-type menace (the sausage maker).

The Batman-template, alas, doesn’t really do Monster Squad any favors in the long term. High camp gets old very quickly, and the same tone prevents the characters from really coming to life as anything other than walking jokes. 

“Mr. Mephisto” is commendable, perhaps, for its many jokes about politics and politicians. One such joke is about the sausage maker, since sausage-making is often a term utilized in relation to drafting legislation. 

In other words, you don’t want to know what goes into it.

Secondly, “the magical-type-a-tongue” device suggests that politicians are generally just mouth-pieces for hidden but powerful interests.  Devoid of belief or feeling, they just say what they are told to say.

Granted, such commentary is pretty cynical for a Saturday morning kid’s show, but it is also, sadly, often accurate.  These moments give adults something to latch onto, while the high camp silliness runs out of control.

“Mr. Mephisto” also features a mention of “Sid and Marty Kraft,” a nod – or perhaps tribute -- to Monster Squad’s key competitors in the Saturday morning TV market: Sid and Marty Krofft.  

As was the case with “Queen Bee” last week, the production values here are particularly threadbare, and Barry Dennen doesn’t make much of an impression as the villain, especially compared to his life-sized dolls, Baby (Cathy Worthington) and Arlene (Mindi Miller). 

Edward Andrews (Gremlins [1984]) does well here as the good-natured but vapid Mayor Goldwyn but otherwise this episode of Monster Squad doesn’t hold up particularly well.

Next Week: "The Tickler."

Friday, April 25, 2014

Late Night Blogging: Amicus Fantasy Edition

James Bond Friday (At Anorak): "If He Fires Me, I'll Thank Him For It: Five Great Character Moments in the Timothy Dalton Era"

My new article is up at Anorak now, and it looks back at Timothy Dalton's era as 007, circa 1987 - 1989. 

As James Bond, agent 007, Timothy Dalton only lived twice, unfortunately.  he actor, who long performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, starred in two of EON’s Bond films, The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill (1989) and his brief tenure as the super-spy remains a controversial one with Bond fans to this day

"In broad terms, the Timothy Dalton era of James Bond films dispatched with the cheeky humor, super-heroics, and comic-book villains of the Roger Moore era, and attempted to reground Ian Fleming’s beloved character in the real world.
In The Living Daylights, for instance, Dalton’s Bond battled Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), an egotistical U.S army officer clearly patterned on the disgraced Lt. Colonel, Oliver North, in a plot involving an illegal weapons-for-drugs deal and reflecting the Iran-Contra Scandal.
And in Licence to Kill, Bond combated a Pablo Escobar-type drug lord, Sanchez (Robert Davi) “south of the border.”
Both villains seemed ripped from contemporary headlines, and were a far-cry from the likes of Stromberg (The Spy Who Loved Me) or Drax (Moonraker)…men seeking to cause global Armageddon and create a “master race” under the sea, and in outer space, respectively.
The Bond films of the Timothy Dalton Age —  arriving shortly after President Reagan’s first public comments on AIDS on March 31st, 1987 — also played down 007’s penchant for womanizing, and stressed realistic, even gritty action instead.
In a very real sense then, both The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill forecast the 21st century direction of the beloved franchise, dealing explicitly with Bond’s internal angst, and occasional obsession with revenge.
Before Daniel Craig went that very route, Dalton’s Bond blazed the trail.
Harking back to the literary source material, Dalton’s James Bond was frequently on edge, and not at all happily ensconced on Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  Indeed, much of The Living Daylightsconcerns Bond’s freedom (or lack thereof…) to interpret orders as he sees fit and not execute them mindlessly, as a martinet.
And if “M” — his superior at M.I. 6 – didn’t t like his interpretation of said orders, well… he could fire Bond.
Indeed, Bond would be just fine with that outcome, as 007 himself notes caustically early in The Living Daylights.
Reflecting on the character and franchise re-boot of the Timothy Dalton age, I submit below my choices for five great character moments from this span in the franchise’s history."

The Films of 1984: The Last Starfighter

During an era in which computer-generated special effects are often over-utilized, the phrase "it looks like a video game" has frequently been deployed by film critics as a cutting insult.

In the case of Nick Castle's thirty-year old outer space epic, The Last Starfighter (1984), however, the phrase is actually a compliment.

This is especially true if one subscribes to the critical theory -- as I do -- that a movie's shape or form ought to reinforce and supplement the movie's content.

Here, The Last Starfighter's video-game-themed visuals and flourishes -- primarily featuring outer-space warfare -- hark back to the movie's central concept: that of an earthbound arcade video game serving as a futuristic sword-in-the-stone, Excalibur test that uncovers hidden greatness and heroism among certain players..

And one quality I especially admire about The Last Starfighter today is that it this Excalibur test concerns skill and ability and not blood-lines.  

Alex  Rogan makes it to outer space (and escapes his trailer park origins...) based on his own abilities, not because he has the "right" genetic heritage, or midichlorians, or what have you.  

That's a message that bears repeating today, especially when it is becoming more and more difficult to achieve success if you are not rich, or from the right family.

“Things change. Always do.  You’ll get your chance. The import thing is: when it comes, you’ve got grab it with both hands and hold on tight.”

The Last Starfighter depicts the heroic journey of young Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), a man searching for meaning in his life. 

Alex lives in a "flea-speck" trailer court -- the Starlite-Starbrite -- along with his Mom and little brother, Lewis. He has been turned down for a college loan, and now plans to partake in "a world-wide tour to nowhere."

Alex is also in love with the gorgeous Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), a girl who seems afraid to cast her eyes and aspirations beyond the confines of their small world. 

"The truth is," he tells her, "you're scared of leaving the trailer park." But Alex actively desires an escape from his life of quiet desperation.

And to his surprise, he gets his wish...

When Alex achieves the new high score on an arcade game called Starfighter, he is promptly recruited by a flamboyant alien named Centauri (Robert Preston). 

After a lightning-fast journey to the stars, Alex must then save the peaceful planet Rylos from the invading space armada of the traitorous Zur and the barbaric Ko-Dan fleet.

At first Alex refuses to fight in this dangerous galactic confrontation, but soon he accepts his destiny as a Starfighter, and -- with the help of an Iguana-like co-pilot named Grig (Dan O'Herlihy) -- takes on "The Black Terror of the Ko-Dan" in a ship called a GunStar.

"Death is a primitive concept."

Along with Walt Disney's Tron (1982), The Last Starfighter is one of the earliest Hollywood productions to eschew models, miniatures, and motion-control photography for a new way.

Instead or relying on tried-and-true physical techniques, the film deploys digital representations of spaceships, planet surfaces, star-bases and the like in its various visual effects sequences. 

From space cars to GunStars, from the force-field of the breached Frontier to the Rylosian base, every image in The Last Starfighter is computer-generated.

These CG creations indeed appear primitive and lacking-in-necessary-detail to our trained, experienced 21st century eyes, but nonetheless, they still interact meaningfully with The Last Starfighter's subject matter and core themes.

Specifically, Alex Rogan's cry of jubilation that real outer space combat is "just like the game!" is meant literally. 

Space battles intentionally look like golden age video game battles, and spaceship read-outs resemble the arcade game interface/console. 

When Alex grabs the joystick on his GunStar and blasts Ko-Dan fighters to smithereens for the first time, the audience is meant to remember and embrace Alex's experience with the arcade model; and indeed, its own experiences playing video games.

This is an important element of The Last Starfighter. The film forges a positive connection between our grounded reality -- our popular forms of entertainment such as video games -- and the intergalactic society of the stars, which the film uses explicitly as a metaphor for achieving one's dreams and goals.

Released during the aforementioned video game's so-called Golden Age (1982-1987) -- the epoch of home systems such as the Atari 2600, Intellivision, Colecovision and Vectrex -- The Last Starfighter thus develops an idea that every gamer has at least briefly, or perhaps subconsciously, entertained.

Simply stated, that idea is that the immersing video game platform is a gateway or training-ground that leads straight to real life adventure. The player thus imagines -- or wishes himself -- essentially, into the world of the game.

A 1983 anthology film, Nightmares offers a darker contemplation of the same wish-fulfillment notion, landing Emilio Estevez's character into a deadly contest based on a fictional video game called "The Bishop of Battle. 

But in The Last Starfighter, Alex realizes his dream of escape (and personal importance...) via his skill in video games...and actually comes to touch the stars.

These two productions function as two sides of the same coin, and both acknowledge something brewing in the American pop culture at the dawn of video game popularity: the experiential nature of the new medium and the manner in which some players view reflexes and talents honed in the game world as real-life tools. 

Thus video games are no mere entertainment, and certainly not a waste of time.  They are, in fact, teaching tools.

Any film attempting to make this point in cinematic terms should indeed utilize special effects that audiences directly associate with the visuals of early era video games. Both Nightmares and The Last Starfighter accomplish that feat. 

In the latter case, the visuals of a Star Trek or a Star Wars film wouldn't work as cleverly here as do the CG effects. The audience wouldn't make the leap so cleanly from game to reality without the game-like special effects to connect the realms, or, more aptly, to connect the dreams with the achievement of the dreams.

While integrating the up-to-date video game craze of its time, The Last Starfighter also puts a mythical, classical spin on its tale. Specifically, the movie terms the Starfighter arcade game, an "Excalibur" test, alluding to the Arthurian legends of Camelot.

Or, to adopt the movie's terminology itself: "only a few were found to possess the gift." Thus a joystick jockey isn't just a simple player then, but a hero-in-waiting, a king-in-the-making. One ready to pull the sword from the stone and accept his or her true destiny as hero. This approach to heroism is also splendidly democratic: anybody with the skill and talent can become a Starfighter. Station in life -- or point of origin -- (like a trailer park) doesn't matter.

What remains so much fun about The Last Starfighter today is the manner in which it imaginatively and humorously integrates the entertainment past (films like Star Wars and Arthurian literature) with what it views as the "future" of mass entertainment (video-games; CG effects).

This means that Robert Preston -- playing an alien named Centauri -- offers a variation on his beloved character from Morton DaCosta's classic The Music Man (1962). Like Harold Hill in that production, Centauri arrives at his destination (Starlite Starbrite Trailer Court, not River City) in a disguise of sorts. And like Harold Hill, Centauri's primary concern seems to be wealth. Of course, in the end, the scoundrel is revealed to have -- surprise! -- a heart of gold. That's true in both films.

Also, in keeping with the video game aesthetic of The Last Starfighter, Centauri's/Hill's colorful language has been updated. "You bet your asteroids," he quips at one point, and the audience just knows he's referring not to space-going rocks...but rather to Atari's 1979 arcade game, Asteroids.

And when a Ko-Dan weapon targets a vulnerable starbase, the high-tech screens inside that facility cut to a real-time image of a streaking-missile or bomb that could have been lifted right from Dave Theurer's initiative for Atari, Missile Command (1980). A weapon with a trail inches irrevocably towards its destination, an unprotected (unshielded) installation. What follows -- just as in the game - is total annihilation.

The Last Starfighter even offers a metaphysical spin on life and death, and one also related to the Tao of video games. After Centauri is believed dead, he returns to life (just in time for a happy ending). He claims to have simply been "dormant."

Of course, in video games, our avatars die and are re-born on a regular basis every time we hit the reset or start button on our consoles. 

In the world of The Last Starfighter, as in the world of video games, death is not a permanent state of's actually a "primitive concept" according to Grig.  We live to fight another day and death may just be that "unseen dimension" in which we've activated the "off" switch till the next contest, the next burst of "life" and action.

The Last Starfighter is a lot of fun, and a memorable genre film overall...if not always a great one. 

Watching it today, one can see how it suffers from a case of that 1980s affliction called "the cutes." Specifically, there's a lot of sub-adolescent humor involving Alex's little brother, and it's just seems goofy and unnecessary today. 

Of course, Lewis serves a purpose in the plot beyond the wise-cracks and young-skewing humor too. Near film's end, we see him applying himself to the Starfighter arcade game. The next generation awaits its turn...

But when The Last Starfighter fires on all thrusters, it really works. It captures what few films that followed Star Wars managed to re-create: a sense or aura of unfettered fun.

Appropriately, the film's final shot is a memorable and even stirring one. The camera is aimed towards the Heavens, as Alex, Maggie and Grig return to the stars aboard the accelerating GunStar. 

But below the GunStar -- closer to us in the shot, at the lower left-hand corner of the frame -- stands the neon, flickering star icon/sign of the Starlite/Starbrite Trailer Park.

Like so much of the film's visuals, that neon, colored light seems a reflection of down-to-Earth technology, of the video game graphics of the day.

The image is simple and basic, but still a beacon in the night calling us to adventure. And oppositely, calling adventure to us.

In one closing shot, we get both our grounded reality (the reality of video games) and the dream of a better one: a rocket ship bound for adventure. It's a beautiful and valedictory image, and if you consider The Last Starfighter a film about dreaming big dreams, a meaningful one too.

Early in The Last Starfighter, Alex notes with despair that he is "only" a kid from Earth, not a starfighter. Centauri replies that "if that's what you think, that's all you'll ever be."

We can't all be heroes and starfighters, but Centauri's words remind audiences that when humans apply themselves, opportunities arise. When we dream (even if we're "dreaming" video games...), we imagine new possibilities.

A high score in life opens up all sorts of doorways. Not just to outer space, but to adventures unknown and great. And when we hear the words, "Greetings Starfighter," it's our responsibility to grab the joystick, kick in the thrusters, and go for the gusto.

In suggesting that very course of action, The Last Starfighter may not be great art, but in its own entertaining way, it's an inspiring genre film, and one worthy of a re-visit.  The film is as fresh and fun, and rousing as it was three decades ago.

Movie Trailer: The Last Starfighter (1984)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Late Night Blogging: Cliffhanger (1978 - 1979) NBC Promos

Cult-Movie Review: Contracted (2013)

At least two horror films of recent vintage have focused intently on the subject of disease, and even specified the vector for that disease: unprotected or casual sex. 
In particular, two movies -- Afflicted (2014) and Contracted (2013) -- explore this topic, showcasing couplings that end up spreading, respectively, vampirism and the zombie plague. 
The sexual encounter in Afflicted, however, is consensual, whereas the one in Contracted -- though described as “a one night stand” in the film’s promotional materials -- certainly fits every definition of date rape that I’m familiar with.
Nomenclature aside, Contracted, from director Eric England is a really good-looking, well-acted horror film, and one that deals intelligently with a lot of unsettling and difficult psychological material. 
In short, the film concerns a young woman, Samantha (Najarra Townsend), who contracts a disease after being drugged and raped at a party.  She then spends three harrowing days attempting to ignore and deny her condition, a herculean effort that ends with her actually spreading the deadly disease further rather than hindering it.
As a character piece about a woman who has been treated criminally, and who must cope with a horrible personal situation, Contracted is largely compelling. 
Yet the film also loses significant steam in its third act because the physical, outward signs of Samantha’s disease are so blatant -- and so repellent -- that there is no way in the world that her friends, employers, family, and so forth wouldn’t drag her, kicking and screaming if necessary, to a hospital emergency room.
Instead, these characters persistently make selfish, dysfunctional demands on Samantha, even in the face of her obvious bodily disintegration.  One opportunist, Riley (Matt Mercer), even attempts to have sexual intercourse with Samantha, despite the fact that one of her eyes has turned a jaundiced yellow, and she has developed a horrible gray rash on her mouth and jaw.
Samantha looks, literally, like the walking dead.
No matter how horny Riley is, his actions seem unlikely, especially in a youth culture that obsesses on fitness and looks. No self(ie)-respecting millennial is going to make love to Samantha in her compromised physical condition.
The sub-text in Contracted is, no doubt, that a person in need or experiencing emotional difficulty, like Samantha, often feels isolated, alone, exploited, and unheard. Indeed, she is constantly victimized by those in her life who want to be with her sexually, and is seen by such vultures as nothing more than an object of desire. 
This is how the rapist, B.J. sees and treats her. This is how Riley treats her. This is how another prospective lover Alice (Alice McDonald) treats her as well.  And finally, this is how Samantha comes to treat others.
Yet, finally, Contracted parts so resolutely with any sense of reality that identification with Samantha’s victimization is sacrificed.  Not even strangers to Samantha react appropriately to her, given her corpse-like appearance. 
Thus one begins to feel more and more disconnected from the film’s narrative, no matter Contracted’s noble or artistic intentions.

I’m going through change. I need someone that cares.”
In Contracted, Samantha, a lesbian, has broken up with her girlfriend Nikki (Katie Stegeman), and decides to attend a party thrown by her friend, Alice.  
There, she encounters a stranger, B.J. (Simon Barrett) who hands her a spiked drink.  B.J. takes the incapacitated (but still protesting…) Samantha back to his car and rapes her there.
The next day, Samantha begins to exhibit signs of illness. She receives a phone call from Alice, warning her that the police are searching for B.J. and that anyone who knows anything about him should file a report.  Samantha ignores this advice and contends instead with her deteriorating physical condition.
Samantha wakes up bleeding, suffers auditory hallucinations while working at her job as a waitress, and finally goes to see a doctor. He tells her that her heart rate is unusually slow and that her ear canals are infected. But other than those symptoms -- and a severe genital rash -- she seems to be okay.
But before long, Samantha starts bleeding from the eyes, and her hair starts falling out in clumps.
Alienating her over-bearing mother (Caroline Williams), Samantha looks for help anywhere and everywhere, but soon finds herself acting violently…even murderously against the important people in her life.

“She’s no longer interested in what our kind has to offer.”
In some sense, Contracted is all about Samantha’s sense of denial, and the way that it systematically destroys her life.  She contracts the equivalent of the world’s-worst-STD and then spends three days trying to ignore it because she can’t accept what has happened to her.
And let’s face it, accepting the truth is hard.
Samantha is a lesbian, and therefore not interested in men, but she acquires an STD from non-consensual sex with a man.  Under normal circumstances, she would have never been in the car with B.J. He tricked her and drugged her to get he wanted.
But she’s the one paying the price…
Finally, rather than accepting how sick she really is, Samantha lashes out at those around her, and becomes, like B.J. himself, a person willing to hurt others for some dark personal purpose. 
I won’t say that purpose is pleasure, because I don’t think pleasure has anything to do with it, in either B.J.’s case, or Samantha’s.
More aptly, after being date-raped and infected, Samantha finds herself powerless and sick, and growing more powerless and sick every moment. 
She thus lashes out, and exerts her power on both Alice and Riley.  And her only power at this juncture is the same power as B.J.’s: to infect the healthy.
Samantha is an intriguing character, a fact which keeps Contracted from totally collapsing most of the time.  She is a talented botanist whose future is riding on her participation in an important contest, and we also learn that she has attempted suicide more than once.
Samantha may be “weak” in the eyes of the world, but she is also, essentially, blameless, at least at the beginning of the film. She doesn’t deserve what happens to her, and furthermore, has no control to stop it.  Samantha is victimized badly and perhaps it is understandable that she would at first refuse to believe what is happening to her, and then strike out against those that she blames.
.But the problem in Contracted is that Samantha never avails herself of the information she could use to help herself overcome her illness. The police have information about B.J. that might save her life, but she never goes to them; never gets that information.  
Worse, the movie repeatedly dangles that information out there to viewers as a possibility, and never follows up on it.  At the beginning of the movie we see B.J. having sex with a corpse, and that act spawns the “illness,” purportedly.  What else do the police know about this guy?
The movie never tells us. It just lets us know that B.J. is dangerous, and the police know it.
Also, I understand fully that Samantha feels “shame” about being raped, but shame becomes secondary when you bleed out into a restaurant toilet, or your hair falls out in big clumps during a shower.
Or when you pull your fingernails off, and your teeth fall out.
The self-preservation instinct, it seems, would kick in and over-ride the shame pathology, wouldn’t it?
Indeed, Contracted would be a much better film if director England had pinpointed and utilized a good visual technique to suggest that Samantha’s mind is compromised by the illness, and that she is misperceiving both the people around her and the actions of the people around her.
These characters all react un-realistically to her physical illness – so blasé about a life and death matter -- that the only reasonable explanation is that Samantha has lost her grip on reality.  The illness has made her paranoid, perhaps.
There are even strangers featured in the film -- customers at the restaurant where Sam is a waitress, for instance -- who don’t respond in disgust and horror to her behavior and appearance. And unlike her exploitive friends, there is no reason for them not to pay attention.  There is no reason for them not to react to her.
Thus the only way the movie makes sense is if we can be made to understand that the events are “filtered” through Samantha’s (diseased) thoughts.
Similarly, Sam’s mom stages an intervention with a stranger, and the first thing he should notice -- the very first thing -- is that Samantha is physically ill, not merely emotionally weak or vulnerable.
I have seldom seen a movie in which reactions to a character are as off-kilter as the reactions to Samantha are in this film, and that fact works against Contracted’s success.  Again, I understand fully that Samantha is supposed to feel alone, vulnerable and victimized, but those feelings must be achieved through legitimate means, not by altering the way the rest of the universe responds to her.
If you or I saw Samantha bringing us food and drink in a restaurant, I guarantee you, we wouldn’t touch the meal.
This flaw established, Contracted is well-made, especially for what I assume is a very low-budget production. I especially appreciate England’s choice to universally frame B.J. as a “blur” in the compositions.  We never get a good solid look at the rapist, except as a flesh-colored shadow, and this fact adds to his sinister nature. 
The “blurred” appearance of B.J. also suggests, on retrospect, that he may have been just as “sick” looking and infected during the non-consensual sex as Samantha becomes late in the film, but that she couldn’t detect his illness in her inebriated/drugged condition.
So Contracted is sharp and incredibly disgusting, but in the end, there seems to be some diffidence about what the filmmakers are attempting to say about Samantha and her life. 
And the film’s conclusion, which seems to set up a Dawn of the Dead-type scenario, doesn’t provide any clarity about it either. 
As an essay on personal disintegration, denial, self-hatred, and shame, Contracted proves occasionally quite powerful.  But by the same token, the film is so unrealistic that it seems something has gone badly amiss, or been badly misjudged, during the creative process.
Just as Nikki helpfully informs a male suitor for Samantha’s affections, the film isn’t quite working with “the right equipment” at times. 

Movie Trailer: Contracted (2013)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

At Anorak: The Five Most Underrated Slasher Films of the 1980s

My new article at Anorak gazes at the 1980s, and the era of the slasher film (or as some call it, the slasher glut...).

FOLLOWING the incredible box-office and critical success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), the slasher film quickly became the go-to-format for up-and-coming horror filmmakers in the 1980s.  These films had titles like Happy Birthday to Me (1981) and My Bloody Valentine (1981), and most of them concerned bloody massacres on holidays.
Although critics denigrated these slasher films as “dead teenager movies” or “knife-kill” films and slammed their apparent sense of misogyny, and formulaic story lines, the slasher craze of the epoch actually produced a number of great and memorable horror films.
 In the thick of things, however, critics weren’t necessarily able to distinguish the good slasher films from the bad ones, and so below is a list of five slasher films that, on retrospect, are much better and much more artistic than their reputations indicate:"

Pop Art: The Last Starfighter (1984) Activity Book

Pop Art: The Last Starfighter (Marvel Super Special No. 31; 1984)

The Last Starfighter Video Game (Atari; 1984)

The Last Starfighter (1984) View-Master

Lunchbox of the Week: The Last Starfighter (Aladdin)

Model Kit of the Week: The Last Starfighter Gunstar (Fantastic Plastic; 2012)

Game of the Week: The Last Starfighter (FASA; 1984)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Visitors are Coming: V: The Series: "The Deception" (November 9, 1984)

In “The Deception,” Diana (Jane Badler) is determined to get her hands on Elizabeth (Jennifer Cooke) – the Star Child -- but is unaware that the child’s accelerated growth has transformed her into an adult. 

Unaware that her information is faulty, Diana captures Mike Donovan (Marc Singer) and with a combination of powerful drugs and holograms, attempts to convince the Resistance fighter that the war is long over, he is married to Julie, and that his delivery of Elizabeth to a rendezvous point on the way to New York was crucial in defeating the Visitors.

When Donovan spies a mock-up newspaper trumpeting the victory -- but revealing Elizabeth as a child --he recognizes Diana’s plot.  He also realizes that his son, Sean (Nick Katt) has betrayed him…

“The Deception” is a pretty strong episode of V: The Series (1984 – 1985).  The early episodes of the NBC series are the best of the bunch, and it is apparent here that neither money nor imagination has yet entirely run out.  

A replacement for “Break Out,” which went unaired in the original schedule, “The Deception” concocts a more appealing back-drop for Kyle Bates (Jeff Yagher), and ramps up the series’ sense of kink.

In terms of Kyle, he’s less combative and more heroic here than the man we met at the prison camp in “Break Out.”  He is clearly being set up by series writers’ as a maverick-type character, one who works with the Resistance, but isn’t a joiner.

In regards to kink, this quality seems a crucial aspect of the TV series, frankly. The kinkiness arises from Diana’s avaricious nature.  She is clearly a sexual being, but one that -- as we shall see -- is curious about humanity in that regard. 

This is a disturbing (and even a bit arousing…) character trait because Diana also devours humans as a food source. Thus when attractive humans are captured by Diana, it’s an open question whether she will serve them up on a dinner platter, or sleep with them…or perhaps both.

Diana gives new meaning to the term “bi-curious,” since she feels sexual attraction both towards Visitors and human beings.

In “The Deception,” Diana pretends to be Julie, Mike Donovan’s wife, in the deception scenario described in the synopsis above.  She kisses him passionately while they are in bed together, and doesn’t seem bothered at all by the intimacy, though Lydia (June Chadwick) -- watching from behind a two-way mirror -- is clearly disgusted by Diana’s fraternization with a lowly human being.   

In their previous encounters (in the two mini-series), there has been an odd undercurrent of attraction between Singer and Badler, so it is amusing and appropriate that the series almost immediately plays into that unspoken chemistry.  It’s too bad the scenes didn’t go further…

The kinky aspects of “The Deception” make it extremely entertaining, though even this story -- of deception and deceit -- is a far cry from the franchise’s original task of documenting the nature of a fascist state. 

V has officially and permanently moved into soap opera territory here, with smattering of action (mostly in the form of car and motor-bike chases).  So while “The Deception” doesn’t represent the franchise at its best, it does represent the series at its apex of quality.  Future episodes begin the down-hill descent, especially after the cast-massacre mid-way through.

That established, I couldn’t help but notice in “The Deception,” again, that to its credit, V features many strong, individual female characters.  There’s the charismatic Diana, of course, but Julie is also a leader, and one who -- in the tradition of male heroes like Captain Kirk on Star Trek -- reckons with self-doubt and worries over her decisions. 

Similarly, we have Elizabeth, a woman in the process of seeking and finding her own identity outside the constraints of her society. She is determined to be someone that she likes, not what Diana or anyone else expects her to be.

Beyond those three significant female characters, we also have the power-hungry Lydia, and insecure Robin Maxwell (Blair Tefkin).

Off-hand, I can’t think of another science fiction TV program in the 1980s that features such significant -- and numerous -- female roles.  Basically, the action in the series is driven by women, and their choices, on both sides of the combat divide.

By point of comparison, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) features women characters mainly in care-taker/nurturer roles, especially after the early death of Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby).  As late as the fourth season of that series, Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) are breaking crockery over bad guys’ heads (“Q-Pid”) instead of showing competency in hand-to-hand combat or taking charge of away teams.  V: The Series may degenerate into soap opera silliness in short order, but it was also forward-thinking in terms of women’s roles and characterizations.

Next week: “The Sanction.”