Saturday, March 17, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad: "The Ringmaster"

In “The Ringmaster,” Frank’N’Stein (Michael Lane) wants to visit the circus while it is in town, but Walt (Fred Grandy) learns that a terrible crime is in the offing there.

The evil Ringmaster (Billy Curtis) and his sidekicks, Sam Strongman (H.B. Haggerty) and Bonnie Bon (Simone Griffeth) have captured 20,000 orphans attending the circus, and are holding them hostage for ten thousand dollars apiece.

If the city doesn’t pay up, the Ringmaster plans to poison the children with “stupid gas,” transforming even the smartest kids into “dumb dumbs.”

Dressed up as clowns, Walt and the Monster Squad infiltrate the circus and confront the Ringmaster, but Drac, Frank, and the Wolf Man (Buck Kartalian) are captured and put into a jail cage with a lion. 

Unless they can tame the lion, the stupid gas will activate and a generation will succumb to utter stupidity…

More high-camp hijinks are afoot in “The Ringmaster,” as the gang of monsters and Walt confront a villain with “stupid gas,” “the wheel of misfortune,” and other menaces at an arena called “Madison Round Garden.

As before, the format of Monster Squad deliberately and relentlessly apes Batman (1966 – 1969), and all the laughs -- and props -- are cheap ones.  The episode also borders on bad taste with the presence of Bonnie Bon, an obese woman constantly seen eating food -- messily -- including chocolate bars, ice cream, and, suggestively, a banana.

As is par for the course, the villain’s plan doesn’t make much sense. The Ringmaster plans to ransom 20,000 orphans for ten thousand a piece (or 200 million, total…) so that he can buy up and then close-down all the toy stores in the country.  His motivation to do so stems from his hatred of all children after years spent performing for the little brats.

As for the Monster Squad -- here termed the “Quixotic Quartet” -- it tangles with a very sedate-looking lion in this episode, and the confrontation with the Ringmaster ends in what appears to be a glitter-filled pillow fight.  The Ringmaster is defeated when Drac jams a tuba over his head.

Other than all these bizarre touches, there isn’t much else to talk about here, except the notion that high camp, vetted poorly, is often excruciating to watch, and ultimately turns every effort -- including  good performances -- to shit. 

In the end of “The Ringmaster,” Frank’N’Stein is exposed to the stupid gas and he becomes brilliant.  One can only hope that the kids exposed to Monster Squad in 1976 ended up the same way

And seriously, I loved this show as a kid, and was heart-broken when it was canceled.

Next week: "The Music Man"

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "Paradise Bay" (December 10, 1970)

Ben Richards (Christopher George) visits a strange coastal ghost town called Paradise Bay, where his brother -- or a man with his brother’s name -- Jason Richards, was last seen.

Once in the ghost town, however, Ben encounters a group of strange, secretive and unfriendly individuals, including Arthur Cameron (Howard Duff): an industrialist who claims to own the town. Cameron claims that Jason Richards died in a scuba diving accident. And Cameron also controls the local sheriff, who takes an instant dislike to Ben.

Ben also meets beautiful twins Nancy and Julie Dudley (Tisha Sterling) in Paradise Bay.  Nancy owns a local motel, and seems stable, but Julie is a free-spirited, slightly unstable sort, one who was in love with Jason.

Ben digs to discover the truth about Paradise Bay, wondering if Jason, working for Amity Development, learned that the bay had been contaminated by Cameron’s chemical factories. 

When Ben finally learns the truth about Jason’s fate, however, it is somewhat different than what he expected.

“Paradise Bay” opens with a surfeit of atmosphere or mood. Ben Richards arrives alone in a scene ghost town (motto: “A Happy Place to Live”), and it quickly proves far from welcoming. The local sheriff is threatening, and Ben even finds his (apparent) brother’s tombstone in the local cemetery.  

Soon, the audience meets twins, and a gang of violent surfers, who want to do Ben harm.  The near empty nature of the town makes for a creepy and effective backdrop to the narrative.

Overall,”Paradise Bay’s” opening act is weird and unusual, and therefore promising, in terms of The Immortal’s repetitive nature. For a while, it looks like the series is actually going to address the mystery of Ben’s brother, and more.

But it’s all a (not-so-clever) misdirect, and a lead-up to disappointment. 

This Jason Richards is not Ben’s long-lost brother, rather but an “only child.” And the mystery behind Paradise Bay is a lot less interesting than the ghost town environs first suggest. 

Without giving too much away, all the material about Cameron dumping chemicals in the bay and poisoning it is but a red-herring.  The solution to the week’s mystery is grounded in the twins, and a very 1970’s interpretation of mental illness.

The remaining townspeople, including Nancy, you see, are protecting Julie. Apparently, she did love Jason, but she also killed Jason. The schizophrenic Julie hit him on the head with a rock during a game of hide and seek on the beach. Ben susses this information out of her by pretending to be Jason in the final act, and the whole reveal is largely underwhelming, even though set against the picturesque beach.

By being loose and free spirited, apparently, Julie is actually expressing some serious type of mental illness. She doesn’t seem sick or disturbed, actually just, well, young, uninhibited and a bit naïve.  The townspeople are aware of Julie’s crime, and are protecting her. That is the grand conspiracy of Paradise Bay. Rather than give up the money they would receive by selling the town, they decide to keep Julie’s condition (and murderous behavior) a secret.  As Ben points out, she badly needs “professional help.”

Then, out of the blue, “Paradise Bay” ends with Ben Richards bedding Nancy at her motel. Literally a girl in every port! Every single week! 

I suppose it could have been worse. He could have bedded Julie, the free-wheeling, free-spirited schizophrenic.

So, “Paradise Bay” opens in high style, and feels unlike any other The Immortal episode thus far.  It closes, however, in un-inventive and familiar fashion.

Next week: Ben Richards goes home in “The Return.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Guest Post: Love, Simon (2018)

Love, Simon is an email lost in translation

By Jonas Schwartz

Love, Simon, a quaint, but unremarkable comedy by television producer Greg Berlanti, wants to be something remarkable, but misses the mark of dazzling the audience. Despite a winning lead performance by Nick Robinson, Berlanti's direction, and Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker's screenplay feels built by a committee, stealing tropes from better teen films and never really surprising the audience. Robinson is desperately trying to jump over into the complexities and naturalism of Call Me By Your Name, while the creators have caged him in an episode of Dawson's Creek.

In a suburban utopia, young Simon's teen angst has come to a head when an anonymous schoolmate admits he's gay. Tired himself of hiding in the closet, Simon takes a leap and begins corresponding with his phantom new friend. Feeling empowered every day, Simon slowly removes the shackles of hiding, and decides to seek out the charmer on the other end of the computer. Complications toss Simon out of the closet quicker than he anticipated, and his own stupid decisions isolate him from his closest friends. His own disastrous reveal to the school scares off Simon's love interest from exposure leaving Simon completely alone and heartbroken.

If one looks at the teen movies of the past that really resonate, their unconventionality and sizzling dialogue raise them above the standard fare: the nihilistic humor of Heathers, the aching relatability of John Hughes' characters of the '80, the utter confidence of the modern Hester Prynne in Easy A. The films took risks with eccentric casting (who would have thought in 1986 to cast Harry Dean Stanton as a lovelorn father to the heroine), dialogue that could have been transcribed from a school lunchroom, and plots that disclosed how rocky teen life can be. Love, Simon is affable, with an identifiable youth, but so many script choices were banal. The desperate, unhip but caring school administrators who overshare (Allison Janney in 10 Things I Hat About You and Chris Parnell on TV's Grown-ish), the school carnival on school grounds that looks like Six Flags (Grease), the best friend who secretly loves the hero (Dawson's Creek), the loving, but clueless parents (Heathers), and the deadline for true love to arrive while the entire cast waits around and roots for our protagonist (Never Been Kissed), all feel like snippets stolen from a night of Netflix and chill.

The biggest problem with the film is Simon's sensibility feels anachronistic. He seems to live in this '80s world where teens have little exposure to gay life. Coming out is no doubt still traumatic to this day, and bullying has not subsided, it may even have gotten worse in this conservative age, but gay teens see gay characters on TV all the time on hit shows like Will & Grace and Rupaul’s Drag Race and in movies. Simon feels like a fish out of water from the days when gay life was foreboded in the mainstream world.

The cast are all excellent but deserve more nuance.  Robinson, whose charisma could fuel a jet, carries the entire film on his shoulders. Katherine Langford, who was heart-shredding in the Netflix Hit 13 Reasons Why, is given no material as the forlorn best friend. As the folks, Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel belong on a sitcom.

Love, Simon could have been groundbreaking. Unlike last year's award darling Call Me By Your Name, Love, Simon is a gay movie produced by a major studio, 20th Century Fox. Greg Berlanti's smoothing of the edges may get a swarm more people to the seats, but will audiences be talking about the film in a year, or 20, as with Clueless, one of the zeniths of teen films?

Postscript: One day after writing the first draft of this review, I caught Riverdale, the hit Berlanti CW show. The B-story was all about the characters going to see Love, Simon and how the film affected their lives.  The cold synergy only made the movie seem more manufactured.

Check out Jonas's reviews at 

Swamp Thing (1990) - Season One

The comic-book character Swamp Thing first came to life -- courtesy of writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson -- in the early 1970s, in DC Comics’ House of Secrets.

The character moved to his own title in 1972, and the comic-book depicted the tale of Dr. Alec Holland (Alex Olsen, originally…), a scientist hoping to defeat the plagues of starvation and famine throughout the whole world.  But instead Holland merely changed dramatically his own human nature.  In particular, an incident his laboratory involving his work -- a bio-regenerative compound -- caused Alec’s very biology to be impacted.

In this ecology-driven story, Holland emerged from what should have been his grave in the Louisiana swamp, but as a sentient plant being…one sworn to defend the local wild-life and terrain. Over the years in the comic stories, Swamp Thing faced many different menaces, but his most notable human opponent was the glory-seeking, avaricious Dr. Arcane.

In 1981, Wes Craven directed a low-budget Swamp Thing movie that emerged as one of the box office and critical winners of the summer of 1982.  The film starred Dick Durock as Swamp Thing, and the Craven film inaugurated a long movie and TV franchise, which eventually came to encompass a movie sequel, Return of the Swamp Thing (1989), a 1991 animated series, and this effort, the USA Channel Swamp Thing: The Series.

Durock returned for the TV series, which aired from July 27, 1990 to May of 1993, and Mark Lindsay Chapman essayed the role of Arcane. Shot at the Universal Studios Florida facility, the series quickly became the highest rated original program on USA, and was later rerun extensively on The Sci-Fi Channel throughout in the decade.  The series was developed by Joseph Stefano, who had also, with Leslie Stevens, given the world The Outer Limits (1963-1964).

The series premiere, “The Emerald Heart” re-introduces the viewer to the locale of the Swamp, and to Swamp Thing himself.  In particular, we meet young Jim Kipp (Jesse Ziegler), a troubled youth from Philadelphia who has moved to Louisiana for the summer, to live with his grandmother.  After rescuing one of Dr. Arcane’s prisoners in the swamp and losing his video camera in the drink, Jim meets Swamp Thing, who returns his camera and tells the boy that “The Swamp is me. I am the swamp.”  

This admission turns out to be one of the key conceits or leitmotifs of the series, and the first season in particular: the Swamp Thing is inextricably joined and connected with the land where he was born, or rather, re-born. The message is clearly environmental and pro-social in nature, as we are all a part-and-parcel of the natural environment. But Swamp Thing: The Series forges a direct life-and-death connection between Swamp Thing’s life, and his proximity to the swamp.

Some of the visuals in "The Emerald Heart" are quite effective, if simple. When Jim meets Swampy for the first time, they take a walk together, but a row of trees separates them, a fact which keeps Swamp Thing in the background. This visual selection not only obscures the suits and makes Swamp Thing look camouflaged, it reinforces the idea of Swamp Thing as part of the natural landscape.

Continuing with the story of "The Emerald Heart," Jim’s Mom doesn’t want to let the boy stay for the summer, but after Swamp Thing gives her an emerald heart necklace she lost as a child, she has a change of heart…and allows Jim to remain.  

The introductory episode, like many of the first season episodes, is incredibly simple and straight-forward.  In fact, it plays to me a lot like the episodes of The Lone Ranger from the 1940s.   

By that I mean simply that camera-work is economical, the scale of the stories is small, there’s a simple parable dominating each episode, and the story is complete and resolved in a warp-speed 22-minutes.  

Today, we are accustomed to long story-arcs and lengthy, serialized installments of superhero films and TV series, but Swamp Thing: The Series arose in the pre-history of that creative movement, and is refreshing in the sense that episodes are enjoyable on their own terms, without having to understand too much about the character or his world.  

Everything in the first season is plain and self-evident.  And Dick Durock brings a nice gravity and authority -- not to mention dignity -- to his super-heroic role.  Whatever reservations you may have about a talking plant, or a man in a plant suit, are almost instantly dispensed with.  The late Durock really inhabits the character in a meaningful way.  And after watching a few episodes, I also feel that the Swamp Thing suit looks pretty good.  The memorable theme song, additionally, implies a level of seriousness or sincerity that is praise-worthy.

Other episodes of the first season, such as “Grotesquery” involve specifically the developing friendship between Jim and Swamp Thing.  

In this story, Swamp Thing is paralyzed after being exposed to barrels of toxic waste in the swamp, dumped there by the villainous Arcane.  Two workers sell Swampy into captivity at a local freak show, a venue where Arcane sends many of his failed genetic experiments.  Jim must rescue Swampy, because the freak show is far from the swamp, and the superhero’s strength is fading.  

The episode offers little more than that description, but as a testament to a growing friendship, it doesn't need to much else, either.

Another tale, “Natural Enemy” reverses the relationship dynamics.  

Here, Swamp Thing takes Jim to a little-seen, remote area of the swamp and shows him several near-extinct plants and creatures.  

Again, the explanation for the coming extinction is simple: “people.”  

When Swamp Thing senses danger from a local life-form, he tells Jim they must leave at once, but on his own Jim returns that night, and is bitten by a horrible insect creature, another of Arcane’s mutants.

Jim is poisoned by the bite, and is taken to the hospital, near death. Swamp Thing risks exposure and discovery, and saves the boy by giving the child some of his own (green and yellow...) plant blood. 

The first season more or less progressed in this fashion.  Many critics have termed the series camp, but I feel that such a descriptor is more appropriate for the 1989 movie sequel, directed by Jim Wynorski. The TV series is merely very straight-forward, very plain-spoken, and in a  crucial sense, child-like.  It's sort of innocent and guileless. The campiness that does arise in the series, in large part comes from the portrayal of Arcane.

Swamp Thing: The Series, in its first season, does two specific things, expressly: it develops the friendship between Jim and Swampy, and it explores the environmental leitmotif. With limited sets, performers and other locations, these episodes, like those of contemporaries Tales from the Darkside (1984 -1988) or Freddy's Nightmares (1988 - 1990) have a low-budget veneer to them.  If you can get past that limitation, there is some enjoyment to be had.  If you have young children to watch the season with, that enjoyment may double.

Joseph Stefano left Swamp Thing: The Series after the first season, and great changes were in the offing for the successful series. Young Jim was written out of the program (in a surprisingly brutal and merciless fashion) and the series found its creative voice by presenting science-fiction stories rather than the familiar -capture--rescue-escapes of the “superhero” genre, as it was perceived (correctly or not…) by many TV writers at that point. 

Swamp Thing TV Series Intro and Analysis

Although it was a low-budget affair airing on the basic-cable USA channel, Swamp Thing (1990 - 1993) actually features a very strong, very lovely introductory montage, one that captures well the essence of the "dark" superhero series.

The opening montage commences with misty, dark views of what could be another planet all together: the swamp.

In virtually all the shots featuring views of the swamp (save for the moment that the title comes up...), the camera is in motion, suggesting that we are prowling or moving about in this world.

We are in motion, traveling, seeing the sights of this strange terrain...

The title lettering, below, is replaced by a view of Swamp Thing's face. We get a look at his focused, monstrous eyes and face. 

The implication is that we may not see him at first, in the swamp, but he is ever-present, watching our every move.

In the following shots, we see many more views of the swamp and wild-life there. Again, the impression is of a terrain of mystery and wonder, beauty and danger. These views of nature (with the camera in motion, again), are inter-cut with title cards introducing us to the series' cast and crew members.

The montage's final visuals take us off guard.  

We are still moving through the swamp but, finally, we see Swamp Thing.  

He is there, in plain view, but camouflaged by the plant-life of the swamp.  

His voice-over warns us not to bring our "human" "evil" to this world, lest we face his wrath.  

The opening montage not only shows us his world, and marks him as its protector, but makes us very aware that we do not belong in his world.

We zoom in closer and closer on Swamp Thing's inhuman face, and contemplate his warning. 

Despoil nature, and we will face his vengeance...

Below, the live-action version of the Swamp Thing opening montage, from later in the series' run.


Swamp Thing Presto Magix

Swamp Thing Crayon by Number (RoseArt)