Saturday, June 14, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Big John, Little John (1976)

Big John, Little John (1976) is a short-lived, live-action Saturday morning series from Lloyd and Sherwood Schwartz (1916-2011). 

Sherwood, as you may recall, is the creator of Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967), It’s About Time (1966-1967), and The Brady Bunch (1969-1974).  

This series ran for just one season -- and thirteen half-hour episodes -- on NBC and concerned science teacher John Martin (Herb Edelman) of Madison Junior High School. 

On vacation at Ponce De Leon Park with his wife, Marjorie (Joyce Bulifant) and son Ricky (Mike Darnell), John drinks from the Fountain of Youth and it changes his life.  Before long, his body begins to undergo a transformation.

Now John randomly goes from being forty years old to just twelve, and then back again.  Unfortunately, the “change can happen anywhere, anytime,” especially when John “doesn’t expect it.”

In the first episode, “a Sizeable Problem” John undergoes the transformation for the first time, and becomes twelve years old (and played by Robbie Rist) just as he must interview for the position of head of the science department at his school. 

John tells his wife and son what is going on, and they help to keep his secret.  In age twelve mode, John says he is Martin’s nephew, John, someone who is staying with the family.  This lie is accepted by virtually everyone.

Meanwhile, John’s perpetual nemesis in Big John, Little John is Mrs. Bertha Bottomly (Olive Dunbar), the stern school principal who is always in danger of learning his secret and firing him.

For its thirteen episode run, Big John, Little John treads all-to-familiar sitcom material, as John must navigate his random transformations and not get caught by the school authorities. 

One episode, “Peter Panic” sees Mrs. Bottomly cast Big John as Captain Hook and Little John as Peter in a school play of Peter Pan. Now he must be in two places at the same time!

Another story, “Very Little John” involves a case of mistaken identity.  Big John believes that he can “dilute” the aging transformation by drinking excessive amounts of water (!) and thus remain an adult.  He conducts this experiment in dilution when Marjorie and Rick are away from home.  While they are gone, however he agrees to take care of a neighbor’s baby.  So when Marjorie and Rick return, they mistake the infant for Little John, and believe that the dilution has changed him into a one year old.

As you may suspect, the jokes in Big John, Little John are pretty lame most of the time, and common sense is in short supply among the characters. 

For example, it is never really explained why John can’t notify authorities (particularly scientific authorities) about his physical situation, and allow them to witness the transformation for themselves.  He could become the world’s most famous and perhaps richest man.

Similarly, John never shares with other scientists the location of the Fountain of Youth, even though young and old alike could benefit from its effects.

Instead, Big John, Little John is all about its formula -- John suddenly finding himself in awkward situations as either an incongruously placed child or an adult -- and that formula is hammered home relentlessly.

Today, the Sherwood brand of sitcom this series represents is pretty much completely dead, so Big John, Little John feels like a relic from not just a different time, but a different culture all together. 

In fact, the series seems frozen in amber, like the mosquitoes of Jurassic ParkBig John, Little John repeats the same formula again and again, telling the same story as the characters fail to grow or learn, week-to-week.

I have vivid memories of watching Big John, Little John in 1976, when I was six years old.  At the same time, I remember not liking it terribly much, and yet feeling compelled to watch it because there was, essentially, nothing else on TV…and Saturday morning TV was an important ritual for kids in those days. 

Today, you can satisfy your hunger for Big John, Little John 1976 nostalgia with a look at the introductory theme song/montage, embedded below.  This sequence I remember very well, particularly the images of John Martin drinking from the Fountain of Youth.  Also, this title sequence depicts John going from age forty to thirty-three, to twenty-five, to nineteen, to twelve.  But only the 40 year old and 12 year old John are ever featured in the actual stories.

Next week, I start a blogging retrospective of Filmation’s BraveStarr (1987-1988), an early space western.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad (1976): "The Wizard"

In “The Wizard,” the Monster Squad learns the Washington Monument and Mount Rushmore have completely vanished. Walt (Fred Grandy) worries that America will become a country “without traditions” and he sends his friends to investigate.

Behind the missing monuments, Drac, Frank, and the Werewolf discover a villain called the Wizard (Arthur Malet). The Wizard is upset with the United States government because it sold him a thousand acres of worthless land.

Now the Wizard plans on miniaturizing and stealing all the nation’s monuments -- including the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building -- using his “presto changer” device. 

Then, once the treasures are in his possession, the Wizard will restore them to their normal size and offer admission to visitors…on his no-longer worthless real estate investment.

“The Wizard” is yet another high-camp goof-fest on Monster Squad (1976), a Saturday morning series that tries hard to be funny but is generally only cringe-worthy.

In this installment, the Wizard -- possessed of his “presto changer” shrinking/enlarging device -- wreaks havoc in Arizona.  The monsters defeat him, but not before Frankenstein and the Wolf Man end up in shrunken form, and Dracula is hit with laughing gas.  Also in “The Wizard,” Walt develops a “universal antidote” to al poisons to medical science…and puts it into cookie form. 

There’s not much to note here besides Monster Squad’s slavish, persistent devotion to repeating Batman’s (1966 -1968) camp formula.  On that ABC show, however, the performers were better, the production design -- while ridiculous -- was also far superior, and a lot of the material was genuinely funny.  Batman is high art compared to this program.

One point to note here: Dracula’s (Henry Polic II) white pancake make-up is a good deal lighter and more flesh-toned in “the Wizard,” and future episodes than in previous ones.

This is an indication, perhaps, that either the heavy make-up was harming Mr. Polic’s skin, or taking too much time to apply. 

But the change in Drac’s complexion is very noticeable indeed, especially when one looks back at previous segments.

Next week: “The Skull.”

Friday, June 13, 2014

James Bond Friday: The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

Although not precisely a good James Bond film, 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun is not as overtly or consistently unlikable as Diamonds Are Forever (1971), A View to a Kill (1985) or Die Another Day (2002), the three worst franchise outings in 007 history.

Instead, The Man with the Golden Gun showcases the film series’ continuing growing pains as producers attempt to accommodate a new era, a new pop culture, and a new actor, Roger Moore, in the iconic role of British agent 007.

The Man with the Golden Gun is Moore’s second outing, and the formula is clearly not yet perfected. 
For example, the humor (which has been developing and growing as a substantial factor since Diamonds…) is further highlighted here, but there are also remnants of Connery’s tough guy or “brute” image, and they don’t fit the dapper, suave Moore at all.

In terms of the pop culture, The Man with the Golden Gun --  like its predecessor Live and Let Die – also seems intent on aping other successful film forms, rather than innovating within the pre-existing confines of the enduring spy series. 

Live and Let Die’s energy and life-blood emerged from the Blaxploitation film movement of the early 1970s, and similarly, The Man with the Golden Gun is an “Eastern” Bond film arriving in theaters just in time to capitalize on the global box-office’s love affair with Bruce Lee and Kung-Fu films such as Enter the Dragon (1973).

Although it would be easy to scoff at The Man with the Golden Gun’s “energy crisis” plot-line, one can see that the film is veritably loaded with pop culture references of a similar stripe that attempt to keep Bond relevant.  These references include the mention of Evel Knievel, and the sinking of the Queen Elizabeth in 1973. Such touches, actually, help to ground the film, especially when The Man with the Golden Gun threatens to descend into slapstick.  The allusions remind us that the real world is still relevant to Bond’s increasingly fantastic adventures.

Still, there are a number of grievous creative missteps one must contend with in The Man with the Golden Gun, most notably the re-appearance of a stock Southern sheriff, J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) from Live and Let Die. 

And yet, as noted above, the film is not as painful to watch as many of the worst Bonds are. For example, the photography, particularly at Scaramanga’s island paradise, is frequently stunning.

Furthermore, some visual compositions nicely (and covertly…) suggest a unique subtext; a sexual undertone to the action.  Indeed, much the drama in the film emerges, one might conclude, because of the acts of a sexually dissatisfied mistress seeking liberation.

Also -- and this is entirely a personal conclusion -- I enjoy Moore’s performance as Bond here (when he isn’t strong-arming women, anyway…) as a bit of a cad, and a poor sportsman.

It’s pretty clear that his Bond is a hedonist, and one who won’t expend valuable energy if he can gain an advantage without doing so.  

The later Moore films downplayed this aesthetic, so that Bond was more of a traditional “good guy” but The Man with the Golden Gun certainly showcases the secret agent’s naughty side.  Bond dispatches a martial-arts opponent in sneaky, bad-sportsman-style, and I love it.  After all, 007 isn’t playing for the title of world’s nicest secret agent…he’s fighting for his life.  Who cares if he bends the rules a bit?

“He must have found me quite titillating.”

Agent 007, James Bond (Roger Moore) receives a golden bullet with his number engraved on it, a sign that he is the intended target of a high-priced assassin named Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee). 

This grave situation precludes Bond from continuing his hunt for the missing Solex Agitator, a miraculous device that harnesses the energy of the sun, and could be the solution to the ongoing Energy Crisis. 

Instead, Bond tracks down the golden bullet’s origin, and cuts a path from Beirut to Macau, to a Hong Kong casino. 

Bond soon learns that Scaramanga’s mistress, Andrea Anders (Maud Adams) sent him the golden bullet in hopes that 007 would rid her of a man she loathes and despises. 

Bond also learns that Scaramanga is after the critical Solex Agitator and 007 masquerades as the assassin in Bangkok, attempting to learn more from the wealthy industrialist Hi-Fat, a ruse which fails. 

After Bond escapes from a karate school where he is used as a real life training dummy by the students Scaramanga captures Bond’s assistant, lovely Mary Goodnight (Ekland) and takes her, via a flying car, to his private island. 

There, Bond must recover the Agitator, which Scaramanga intends to sell for a huge profit. But the man with the golden gun is more interested in a duel with his greatest rival than the energy crisis…

“You’re the only man in the world that can kill him.”

Rather uniquely for the male-driven Bond series, most of the action in the Man with the Golden Gun is driven by the actions of a woman, Andrea Anders (Maud Adams).  She is Scaramanga’s mistress, and an unsatisfied one at that.

Trapped in her unhappy life with Scaramanga, Anders executes a strategy to rid herself of the assassin and her oppressor.  She sends one of his gold bullets to the only man in the world who can kill him: James Bond. 

Although Scaramanga possesses three nipples -- and men with three nipples are legendarily supposed to possess remarkablesexual prowess -- it is clear that this is a myth in terms of Scaramanga...not a reality.  

As the film opens, we see Andrea bend down on her knees to towel him off after a swim. She kneels before his crotch…and the film cuts immediately to Nick Nack (Herve Villechaize) popping a champagne cork.  

The one-two punch of this edit suggests, quite simply, that Scaramanga can’t hold his wad. He’s a poor lover. Andrea not only hates Scaramanga, she feel s he is a rotten lover.

On at least two other occasions, the camera registers sympathetic close-ups of Andrea Anders during foreplay and love-making, as she practically blanches at Scaramanga’s closeness and touch.  

At one point he fondles her aggressively with his gun, and she turns away in displeasure.  Again, the concept here is one of dissatisfaction, and Bond is the antidote in two ways.  First, he will provide sexual excitement, and second, he will actually kill Scaramanga.

We know Bond is a better lover, in part, because the film shows us that fact.  For example, we witness 007's foreplay with a belly-dancer in Beirut.  He kisses her belly, attempting to extract a golden bullet from her navel.  But what does it look like he's really doing?

It’s clear that Bond is not a stranger then, to using his mouth.  By contrast -- as we have seen -- Scaramanga always leads with his “golden” gun. And he pops his cork too soon!

Given Andrea’s crucial role in the film and the fact that she  literally brings Bond into the action, it’s a shame that the remainder of the film doesn’t score too highly in terms of its treatment of female characters. 

Mary Goodnight, while absolutely gorgeous, is a dumb blond.  One minute she refuses to be another of Bond’s “passing fancies,” and literally the next moment she has undressed for him in his hotel room and is ready to bed him.  She also ends up trapped in a car's trunk for much of the film's last act.

Similarly, the scene in which Bond questions Andrea and threatens to break her arm is literally cringe-inducing.  Roger Moore absolutely has his talents and skills as 007, but he just looks mean -- and horrible -- slapping Andrea and twisting her arm. These moments play as horribly anachronistic today, and they are wrong, tonally, for a Moore picture.  This Bond shouldn't be violent towards women.

Moore is much better, I feel, when his Bond cleverly pinpoints an easy advantage, and plays it out. 

For instance, I love how he turns a bullet-maker’s gun around on him.  Bond then tells him to spill his guts or “forever hold his piece/peace,” meaning his genitalia…which the rifle is aimed at.   

Similarly, I like how Bond stuffs Goodnight into a hotel room closet and makes her listen there while he beds Andrea.  Such caddish, wicked, and rotten behavior...and yet this seems like the perfect Bond aesthetic for the 1970s.  This Bond is on the side of right, yet isn’t going to go out of his way to reach the moral high-ground.  He's sort of...sleazy.

The moment in which Bond head-butts an opponent during a bow of respect is classic in that regard.  Indeed, this is how I would have liked to see the less-than-physically-intimidating Moore interpret Bond in all his pictures.  As a guy who seeks the advantage, whether it is noble or not.

While we’re discussing performances, some mention should be made of Christopher Lee.  He’s a great actor, but he doesn’t seem to project much menace, or much character in Man with the Golden Gun.  

His Scaramanga is unfailingly polite and charming, the “anti-Bond”/Bond, but he’s sort of a big black hole at the center of the movie.  Some blame must go to the writers, I suspect.  Why is a laid-back, happy-go-lucky, well-paid assassin even bothering with the Solex when he is living in paradise?  

And why do his confrontations with Bond seem so casual and off-handed, if he is so obsessed with beating 007 in a duel?  

The screenplay never manages to bridge this contradiction.  Again, I love Lee.  He’s a great actor.  But his Scaramanga doesn’t rank as a great Bond villain, or even a particularly good one.

The Man with the Golden Gun possesses a negative reputation with Bond film lovers, in part, because it possesses few memorable stunts or set-pieces. 

The pre-title sequence -- usually a brilliant, self-contained action show-stopper -- is instead but a trip through Scaramanga’s hokey, low-scale fun-house/shooting gallery.  We get a very clichéd looking gangster exploring the attraction, and even making a joke about Al Capone.  One might wonder what all this is about until one remembers that The Man with the Golden Gun came out just two years after The Godfather’s blockbuster success.  

And if The Man with the Golden Gun can be said to concern anything, it is exploiting pop culture trends.

In terms of action, the film’s big stunt is a car jump featuring a rather unromantic automobile: an AMC Hornet.  While incredibly impressive, the stunt is over very quickly, and is accompanied by the ludicrous sound of a slide whistle, a “note” which totally undercuts any sense of shock and awe regarding the spectacular flip. 

Similarly, Scaramanga oversees a huge island fortress and a giant complex that operates an impressive solar laser. And he has precisely one henchman (other than Nick-Nack) to control all that machinery. 

Budget cuts?

The greatest problem with The Man with Golden Gun is not its largely forgettable action, however, it is the return of an unnecessary and distasteful character.  Sheriff  J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) is a Louisiana policeman, a raging racist and Southern by the grace of God. And he shows up in The Man with the Golden Gunshopping for a new with his wife while on vacation in Thailand.

So, first of all, why shop for a car while on your vacation in a foreign country? 

And secondly, who believes for one second that a bigoted, ignorant character like Pepper would leave the confines of ‘Murica and visit a country in the Far East? (Especially during the Vietnam War...).

It makes no sense, and Pepper’s presence in the film’s big action scene is a pandering move to bring the inexplicably popular Archie Bunker-type character back for an encore performance. 

Despite these myriad flaws, what The Man with the Golden Gun does possess in spades is a sense of timeliness.  The film’s McGuffin is the Solex Agitator, a device that can adapt the power of the sun, and the ongoing Energy Crisis is name-dropped in the film on at least one occasion.

The film’s action plays in a world that had just endured the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, with all its repercussions and frissons.  M (Bernard Lee) makes a speech about peak oil, and the need for an alternative energy source if the West is to survive.  In the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps this felt like a relic from a different time.  Today it seems relevant again.

The Solex Agitator thus represents one of the most focused attempts by the Bond franchise to be overtly topical in presentation, though The Living Daylights (1987) involves an Iran-Contra-type arms deal, and Quantum of Solace (2008) carries an environmental message. 

Although it is widely considered one of the worst films in the Bond franchise, The Man with the Golden Gun moves with relative agility and pace, and is more often than not entertaining.  

In fact, The Man with the Golden Gun is a whole lot more seamless than the bloated Diamonds are Forever.   This one is close in tone and shape to Moonraker (1979), perhaps, a Bond film that is sort of funny and sharp, even while at the same time it is hopelessly silly.

James Bond Friday: The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) Movie Trailer

Thursday, June 12, 2014

At Anorak: "Horror TV Boom - The 5 Best X-Files Knock-offs of the 1990s"

My latest article at Anorak remembers that special time in the middle-nineties when every new network series on the air was trying to copy Chris Carter’s The X-Files (1993 – 2002).  Many of these knock-off series didn’t last, or weren’t very good. 

But some were actually quite promising, and this article lists my five favorites from the era. Here’s a snippet:
CHRIS Carter’s landmark TV series The X-Files (1993 – 2002) proved not only a ratings blockbuster throughout the 1990s, but a cultural phenomenon too…the Star Trek of the Clinton Age, essentially.  The series, which starred David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson proved so popular that its success led to movies, comic-books, toys, and even spin-offs such as The Lone Gunmen (2001).  Chris Carter even had the opportunity to create another masterpiece for the era: Millennium (1996 – 1999).
But importantly, The X-Files also dramatically proved to network executives that horror and science fiction could play well on television if presented intelligently, and with a strong sense of continuity.
Accordingly, the years between 1995 and 1999 saw a veritable flood — a genuine boom — of horror-themed genre programming hit the airwaves.
These series had titles such as American Gothic (1995 – 1996), Strange Luck (1995 – 1996) , Dark Skies (1996), Kindred: The Embraced (1996), Poltergeist: The Legacy(1996 – 1999), Psi-Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal (1996 – 1999), The Burning Zone (1996 – 1997), Sleepwalkers (1997), Prey (1998), Brimstone (1998 – 1999) and Strange World (1999).
Most of the series above lasted only a season, but nearly all of them involved, like The X-Files, aspects of the police procedural format, and elements of the horror genre, namely the supernatural or paranormal.  Many of the series also involved government conspiracies, or an “Establishment” attempt to hide some important “truth” from the American populace.
Below are my choices for the five best of this post-X-Files pack.

Cult-Movie Review: The Last Days on Mars (2013)

The Last Days on Mars (2013) is a new science-fiction/horror movie about a zombie outbreak on a small research station on the red planet. 

This film from director Ruari Robinson looks great and features some memorable vistas of Mars’ scarlet surface.  And with Liev Schreiber, Olivia Williams and Elias Koteas playing lead roles, The Last Days on Mars is also uniformly well-acted.

But some key component is missing. 

The Last Days on Mars boasts several moments of high-tension and suspense -- as well as some gory death scenes -- but the film never quite comes together in a way that makes the action or the narrative leap off the screen and galvanize your senses.

Another film of this type that I think very highly of is Europa Report (2013), which concerns another ill-fated space mission. 

But that (superior) effort features a thematic through-line about the sacrifices that men and women on the frontier make to push human civilization forward.  The astronauts in that film face horrible death and yet, even at critical moments, remember the importance of their mission. They die for something bigger than their individual drive to survive.

There are equally valiant men and women battling darkness in The Last Days on Mars, and yet the movie offers no significant or real viewpoint on their struggle, or how it should, ultimately, be contextualized

One protagonist travels from being a panic-stricken claustrophobic to the custodian of man’s future, and he is indeed brave in the sacrifice he makes.  But his particular “arc” doesn’t emerge in a significant or meaningful fashion.  He just sort of arrives at his heroic decision, and follows through…it seems.

So where Europa Report was structured in a way that made its core notion about man came to the forefront. The Last Days on Mars is not. 

Now, I’m not suggesting that The Last Days on Mars needs to ape the exact same theme as Europa Report, only that as a unique work of art it should possess some layer of meaning beyond the surface level.

In the final analysis, The Last Days on Mars is a perfectly serviceable, nicely-visualized zombies-on-Mars movie.  It passes the time adequately -- and times quite thrillingly -- but it doesn’t raise the bar for the genre, or convey anything fresh or particularly meaningful about humanity to the audience.

When you gaze at films such as Alien (1979), John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), or the aforementioned Europa Report (2013), you detect not merely a well-orchestrated “horror show,” but filmmakers grappling with human dreads; like the fear that you don’t really know the man beside you, or the concern that your very instincts and drives (like reproduction…) are being co-opted to propagate something inhuman. 

The Last Days on Mars has…zombies.

On Mars.

And that’s just not enough.

“It can’t be how it looks. There must be some explanation for this.”
A Russian scientist, Petrovic (Goran Kostic) discovers a “microscopic anomaly” on the Martian surface and keeps its existence a secret from his colleagues at Tantalus Base.  This is especially disturbing because just nineteen hours remain until the team is to be evacuated by a drop-ship and commence a sixth-month journey back to Earth aboard the Aurora.

Petrovic’s scientific competitor, Kim Aldrich (Olivia Williams) is incensed by Petrovic’s behavior, and a team led by Commander Brunei (Koteas) goes out to the surface to retrieve him.  The team arrives too late, however.  Petrovic has fallen into a fissure that has opened up in the rock, and disappeared.  A claustrophobic engineer, Vincent Campbell (Liev Schreiber) descends into the pit and sees a strange micro-organism dotting Martian rocks, but no sign of Petrovic.

Before long, an ambulatory Petrovic is discovered alive, after a fashion, his corpse re-animated by the presence of the bacteria-like micro-organisms in his bloodstream.  Petrovic transmits the “infection” to the facility doctor, Dalby (Yusra Warsama), and then goes on a killing spree across Tantalus Base. 

The survivors of the attack attempt to communicate with the Aurora in orbit, but power outages scuttle their attempts. 

Campbell and the others realize that they must get to the drop-ship rendezvous point before the zombies do, lest the Martian bacteria infect Earth...

“We can’t let this get back to Earth. It has to end here.”

The Last Days on Mars begins like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and ends like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968).

In other words, the film commences with views of a “near future” research team, its facility, and routine, and then descends into attacks by zombies. 

The movie’s mood goes from subdued cerebral to out-and-out visceral madness, and the shift can be a bit jarring.  When a first zombie picks up a power drill and impales a crew member on the base with it, it almost feels like you’ve switched movies all-together.

Several early sequences also evoke Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), as the camera prowls vacant high-tech corridors as a classical piano plays on the soundtrack.  You can sense all these tributes in the film, but overall they can’t really cover the paucity of thematic depth. 

Meanwhile, Campbell struggles meaningfully with his past -- a panic attack on the Aurora -- and worries about the trip home, a journey he suggests is akin to being in a coffin for six months.  Before long, both he and the audience will realize, however, he is not going home any time soon, and that this particular worry is unfounded. It’s a little odd, to say the least, that the film structures Campbell to be afraid of tight or confined places, but then never really has him overcome his fear of it on the return trip.

The most intriguing aspects of The Last Days on Mars remain those that concern the Martian bacteria or micro-organism.  When these creatures take over a human body, they are able to tap into human memory, it seems, because the zombies are able to operate rovers, drop-ship joysticks, and airlock controls.
This fact brings up a brief discussion of what it truly means to be human.  One scientist wonders if the infected people can sense what is happening to them, and can “still feel” what their bodies are doing. 

Campbell, however, is certain that the zombies no longer possess human identities, at least “not like us.”  Still, the answer is very much up-for-grabs.  The Last Days on Mars would have been far stronger had it pursued this idea a bit more deeply, and explored what happens when a human consciousness is superseded by an alien one.  I also liked the idea that anti-biotics might be used to fight back the alien bacteria.

Unfortunately, many of the primary characters in the film seem “off the shelf” in terms of their function in the story.  In The Last Days on Mars we meet the scientist who prefers suicide to infection, the man desperate to get home to his family and children, and the team’s obligatory “coward,” who jeopardizes everyone’s survival for the sake of his own skin. 

All these types are well-acted, but their deep familiarity subtracts from the film’s ability to truly surprise or shock audiences.  You’ve met all these characters in a hundred other horror movies, and so you can predict, with a good percentage of accuracy, how they will act when the shit hits the fan.

The Last Days on Mars’ most effective scene, perhaps, occurs when Vincent must navigate a subterranean tunnel that connects two physically-separated buildings.  Being a claustrophobic, this is difficult for him.  But the return journey is even more harrowing, because a ravenous, fast-moving zombie is in pursuit the whole time, and just one touch from him can infect Vincent.  This scene is orchestrated very well, in terms of compositions and rapid editing. 

I make no bones about the fact that I am a huge admirer of this particular genre: the near-future space horror movie.  In this camp I include not only Europa Report, but Event Horizon (1997), and several episodes of Space: 1999.  If I were to analyze the reasons for my enjoyment of this sub-genre, I’m certain they would have something to do with the conjunction of unlike or even opposite worlds: a high-tech, white-on-white, realistic “space” mission with the discovery of something ancient, malevolent, organic and often Lovecraftian. 

The Last Days on Mars manages to make the “tech” here -- the base, the land rovers, the drop ship, the suits, and so forth -- very realistic in appearance and use, and the enemy, a long slumbering entity, a truly dangerous one.  I like all these aspects of the story, and appreciate the visual presentation.  Yet still I wish for something more.

For instance, I would like to know more about the Martians’ level of intelligence.  Do they make for the drop ship rendezvous because they want to spread their life-form to Earth, or because there is some residual humanity in their “hosts” that desires to return home?

Again, a little more depth would be welcome here.

I have read reviews that suggest this movie is a lot like a David Tennant Doctor Who serial, Waters of Mars, and there’s probably some truth to the assertion, only the production values here are far superior.  More aptly, perhaps, The Last Days on Mars feels like an Outer Limits episode in color, but sans that series’ sense of moralizing about man’s place in the universe.

It could have used that discussion about man’s spot in the cosmos, especially in keeping with the cerebral first act.

The Last Days on Mars is not a bad film, by any means, and if you are drawn to near-future space horror – as I am -- I recommend you give it a look. 

But when it’s over, you may just feel that, despite good intentions and a better-than-average visual presentation, the movie doesn’t explore new territory.

In space, no one can hear you yawn.

Movie Trailer: Last Days on Mars (2013)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

At Anorak: 10 Ridiculous (But Awesome) Horror Movie Tag-Lines of the 1970s

My new post at Anorak remembers some of the most creative (and funniest…) tag-lines of the horror movies of the 1970s.

Here’s a snippet:
TODAY, movie-going audiences expect a certain threshold in terms of a film’s technical qualities. Viewers expect the sound to be crisp, the picture to be in sharp focus, and special effects to be, generally, believable.
But way back in the seventies, many low-budget filmmakers couldn’t always hit those rudimentary-seeming bench-marks… and yet they wanted their movies to succeed and to be seen by the most people possible.
One cheap and effective way to achieve theatrical success was to devise a great tag-line, one that veritably guaranteed audience curiosity, or amusement.  Indeed, a key weapon in the marketer’s arsenal in the 1970s, at least as it applied to the horror film, was humor.
Below are ten tag-lines from 1970s horror films that walk the line between humor, hucksterism, and, perhaps even, in some cases, genius.

ALF Magazine (Spring 1989)

ALF's MIssion to Mars

ALF Pencil Cases