Saturday, May 19, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad "Albert/Alberta" (1976)

In “Albert/Alberta” the Monster Squad combats a villain who is half-man/half-woman: Albert/Alberta (Vito Scotti).

This nefarious fiend is using a highly-advanced laser weapon to melt the polar ice and cause a second great flood. 

Meanwhile, he plans to convert his ship, the Mezzo-Mezzo, into an ark carrying two of every animal species…including vampire bats and werewolves.

Dracula and the Wolf Man sneak aboard Albert/Alberta’s ship and attempt to reverse the melting of the ice, but they are captured and Albert/Alberta plans to tear them asunder inside his weird device, “The Great Divider.”

Fortunately, it’s Frankenstein to the rescue…

Monster Squad (1976) comes to an end with Victor/Victoria…er “Albert/Alberta.”  The episode is the same sort of nonsense we have been treated to in previous weeks: an unimaginative, thoroughly derivative regurgitation of Batman’s high-camp TV adventures, right down to the threat of the week (in this case, the Great Divider), the notable villain, and the final tussle.

I’ll be honest, re-watching all thirteen episodes of Monster Squad in 2014 has been a bit of a chore, but I wanted to do it because I loved the show in 1976, and felt it was great that the long-forgotten Saturday morning series was getting a DVD release. 

I appreciate all the performers on the show -- particularly the actors who play the monsters -- because they gave the production their all, even when the props department, the sets, and the writers let them down.  I especially like Henry Polic II as Dracula.  He’s always been my favorite performer on the series, and despite the high camp, his take as the count is indeed memorable.

If you watched Monster Squad back in the 1970s, I recommend that instead of watching the series from start to finish, you instead rely on your no-doubt foggy memories and affection of the series. Pick out two shows, perhaps, to revisit.  I would recommend “Ultra Witch” (with Julie Newmar) and perhaps “The Tickler.”  If you’ve seen one episode of Monster Squad, you’ve pretty much seen them all, so try to pick the top of the formulaic heap…

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: Kolchak: The Night Stalker: "The Ripper" (September 13, 1974)

From May 25 to June 2nd 1974, Chicago is terrorized by a brutal murderer of women. A stripper and masseuse are among the victims.

Idiosyncratic INS reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) itches to investigate the ripper-style homicides, but has been tasked by his boss, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) with a different assignment. Kolchak has been ordered to fill in for the vacationing Miss Emily, and answer her “Dear Emily” letters.

Worse, a journalistic competitor, Jane Plum (Beatrice Colen) is reporting on the ripper crimes.

Kolchak disobeys Tony’s orders and begins to investigate the shadowy killer who seems to evade police (and bullet-fire) with ease. 

He soon realizes that over seventy women have been killed in the last 80 years, all over the world.  

They have all been murdered in the exact fashion of the Chicago deaths. Even more disturbingly, they trace their origin to Jack the Ripper, in London.

Oddly enough, Kolchak is able to determine the Ripper’s hide-out from a Dear Emily letter he remembers reading...

The first regular hour-long episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974 – 1975) is a bit of a disappointment, in part due to the nature of its titular monster.  

The Ripper is a shadowy figure with a cane and cape, who leaps across city roofs like a superhero, evades bullets easily, and isn’t seen to vet any bloody handiwork.  I understand that TV of the 1970’s could not show extreme -- or even moderate -- violence, but this monster comes across, at least visually, as toothless. Energetic, for certain, but toothless.  He’s a running, fighting, indestructible force, but not at all scary. He throws police men and innocent bystanders around, but is never seen to stab or cut, or or gut anyone.

Still, in some way, “The Ripper” is an important influence in TV history, not for re-telling yet another variation of the Jack the Ripper tale, but for anticipating the idea of a killer who lives for decades, and reappears in modern times after a long absence. This facet of the killer forecasts the Tooms monster-of-the-week on The X-Files (1993-2002), though both “Squeeze” and “Tooms” are, frankly, superior to “The Ripper” both in terms of writing and execution. 

In terms of a Jack the Ripper story, Kolchak: The Night Stalker,  in 1974 ,was a late comer to the party. Boris Karloff’s Thriller in 1961 (“Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,”), The Sixth Sense in 1972 (“With Affection, Jack the Ripper”) and even Star Trek in 1967 (“Wolf in the Fold”) had already featured the murderer, and some supernatural or paranormal element.

Where “The Ripper” shines is in the arena where the series always proves remarkable, frankly: in diagramming the sleaze of the 1970’s urban government and bureaucracy. 

For lack of a better term, one might conclude that Kolchak is reckoning with “The Swamp” as he hunts his monsters, though resolutely unable to drain it. 

Instead, Kolchak must, well, negotiate the swamp.  Watching him do so, week after week, is one of the continual joys of this forty-four year-old series. In “The Ripper,” Kolchak attends a police press conference where he is stonewalled with euphemisms and lies that obfuscate the truth. Sarah Huckabee Sanders would be proud at the way that Captain Warren (Ken Lynch) manages to stand in front of a podium, and provide non-answers to every single question that the public has the right to know the answers about. He denies facts, and spins lies with the best of them. But Kolchak's skills for pushing and prodding, for needling,  are incomparable.

Many weeks on the series, we will see Kolchak bribe civil servants, flatter obsequious gatekeepers, and grapple with politicians and policemen who want to keep him -- and the people -- in the dark.  The quality that makes Kolchak (and indeed, many journalists) so admirable is the fact that he knows what his job is.  

It's reporting the truth, so people will be informed.

His duty is to follow the facts, wherever they lead.  

The spin-artists, liars, and mouthpieces for entrenched power, have forgotten that it is their job to serve the public, not their masters. “The Ripper” diagrams this aspect of Kolchak’s character, and professional life brilliantly.  He speaks truth to Power. And the Powers that be hate him for it.

I also enjoy how the series makes Kolchak a reluctant hero, when it comes to battling monsters not of human nature. Here, he scares himself while in the Ripper’s house, and shrieks with terror. Kolchak is a hero, but not a traditional one. He is brave, but also very fallible, and human. When he faces monsters, it is usually with a keen sense of not just responsibility, but terror.  There's no joy or satisfaction hunting monsters in the dark.  The satisfaction comes from discovering (and at least attempting to...) report the truth about them.

Next week, a look at perhaps the greatest episode of the series: “The Zombie.”

Kolchak Blogging: Series Intro (1974)

A horror TV cult-classic from the 1970s, Kolchak: The Night Stalker remains the great grandfather of the "monster of the week" genre in some crucial ways.  The series follows the adventures of a rumpled reporter, Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) as he uncovers evidence of monsters in plain sight. 

But -- because the series was produced concurrently with the Watergate Scandal that felled President Nixon -- there's a strong Man versus City Hall aspect to the series, in addition to the monsters. 

In short, Kolchak the truth-seeking journalist must not only contend with vampires, werewolves, zombies and the like, but politicians and civil servants as well, and that's a key aspect of this series.

Kolchak -- in the spirit of the era's Woodward and Bernstein -- seeks to get the truth to his readership, but is stymied by power and corruption at many turns.  

The series' opening montage is brief, but also beautifully-done.  The following montage captures very nicely Kolchak's singular -- or is it solitary? -- presence, and prepares us for the chills and thrills to come.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker's introductory montage begins, quite literally, with a whisper in the dark. Late at night, Carl enters the office of the INS, the news service he writes for, and whistles a pleasant tune.  At first, as Kolchak enters the office, his space in the frame is abbreviated or cut-off.  On both sides of him are darkness, and this is a crucial metaphor. On one side, monsters.  On the other...avaricious politicians.

After a moment, we see that we are gazing at Kolchak through a book shelf (which accounts for the blackness bracketing him...) and the camera tracks him as he pours himself a cup of coffee.

Next, a pan follows Kolchak as he moves to his desk.  He throws his hat on a rack, and it falls off.  He doesn't notice, and that's a key indicator that his mind is not exactly on what he is doing, but on bigger issues instead.

Next, Kolchak reveals his vocation as a writer or journalist to us.  

After sitting down at his desk, he gets out a blank sheet of paper, inserts it into the typewriter and begins typing.  Importantly, the montage cuts to several insert shots of the type-writer mechanism at this juncture. We see the keys clicking and other details.  

These close-up shots inform us that mechanics are indeed going to be important in the following tales.  We are going to be asking -- like Kolchak the journalist -- who, what, when, where, how and why?

The focus on the typewriter mechanism hints at the actual "mechanisms" Kolchak's reports as he assembles his impossible tales.

Next, we are introduced to our series lead, Darren McGavin.

What remains so intriguing here is that the credit with his name on it is followed up by a close-up of the typewriter keys pounding out the word "victim."  

This seems an almost subconscious indicator of further danger.  In seeking a story, Kolchak could become part of the story, and an unfortunate part as well.

The final section of Kolchak: The Night Stalker's opening montage moves purposefully from the mechanics of Kolchak's vocation to the horror vibe of the series.  to wit, Kolchak looks up from his typewriter as if he has heard something, or as if he is aware of some malevolent presence nearby.

We move quickly from his quizzical face to extreme close-up insert shots of a clock, and then a fan spinning.

There's a definite sense of building momentum here, as a kind of tension-based metronome ticks faster.  

At first, that metronome is the beat of the clacking keys.  

Then it is represented by the pace of the seconds hand on the clock.  

Finally, we are at top speed, watching the spinning blades of a fan.

Suddenly, we zoom in on Kolchak's face, and he pivots towards us, detecting out of the corner of his eyes the previously hidden terror.  

He turns towards us (and we are in the position of that unseen terror), and the image freeze-frames on his inquisitive but terrified orbs.  

As we zoom in on the freeze frame, we fade to black.  The monster is confronted.

Without ever revealing a monster, a crime scene, blood, or any other tell-tale element of the horror genre, Kolchak: The Night Stalker's opening montage (accompanied by Gil Melle's at first pleasant and then driving title composition....) reveals a man alone, in darkness, reckoning with something terrifying and, at least at first unseen.

Commendably, the entire montage plays as a representation of a journalist's life.  He or she walks alone,until a story literally seems to attack, galvanizing the attention.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Action Figure of the Week: Casper the Friendly Ghost Talking Plush Doll (Mattel)

Halloween Costume of the Week: Casper the Friendly Ghost

Casper the Friendly Ghost GAF Viewmaster

Casper the Friendly Ghost (Wonderland Records)

Comic Book of the Week: Casper the Friendly Ghost (Harvey Comics)

Comic Book of the Week: Casper the Friendly Ghost (Dark Horse Comics)

Lunch Box of the Week: Casper the Friendly Ghost

Board Game of the Week: Casper the Friendly Ghost (Milton Bradley)

Theme Song of the Week: Casper the Friendly Ghost (1953)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "The Arsenal of Freedom" (April 11, 1988)

Stardate: 41798.2

The U.S.S. Enterprise-D travels the Lorenze Cluster in search of a missing Federation starship, the U.S.S. Drake. The ship was last reported near Minos, a heavily-populated planet of arms merchants that gained notoriety for arms deals during the Ersalrope Wars. Upon reaching orbit, the Enterprise is greeted by an automated salesman (Vincent Schiavelli), who espouses strength through superior firepower.

An away team by Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) explores the now-uninhabited Minos. A weapon that imitates Captain Rice of the (destroyed) Drake attempts to gather tactical information from Riker, and when he proves uncooperative, encases him in a force field.  Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) beams down with Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) to help Data (Brent Spiner) and Yar (Denise Crosby) with Riker, leaving Geordi (Levar Burton) in command of the Enterprise.

On the surface, the away team is hunted by automated drones, and Picard and Crusher are separated from the others. They fall into an underground control center, and it is here that Picard realizes the Minos’ own technology destroyed the planet’s population. Their weapons grew too smart; too powerful.

While Geordi grapples with a Minosian weapon in space, Riker and Yar must contend with constantly adapting drones determined to kill them.  Dr. Crusher, meanwhile, is badly wounded, and Picard must find a way to save her life, and the lives of those on the surface.

“The Arsenal of Freedom” is one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s (1987-1994) first season.  The episode provides a healthy social commentary about a real-life “diplomatic” or ideological belief system of the eighties (Peace through Strength) and features more action than most episodes of the series, combined, at least up to this point.

“Peace through Strength” was a vital plank in the Republican Party platform in the era of Ronald Reagan, a strongly-held belief that foreign states (such as the U.S.S.R.) could not be trusted in terms of diplomacy. The only way to bring such enemies to the diplomatic table was not through cooperation and treaties, but rather an extensive (and expensive) military build-up[JM1] . “The Arsenal of Freedom” mockingly calls this idea “Peace through Superior Firepower” which is a more accurate description than the more genial sounding “Peace through Strength.” It’s intriguing to note that the 1970’s Battlestar Galactica from Glen Larson explored “Peace through Strength” too, in a sincere, supportive way. An episode called “Experiment in Terra” saw Richard Hatch’s Captain Apollo arguing that the opposite of war was not peace, but strength.  Then we have this Star Trek episode, half-a-decade later, which notes one possible downfall of constantly developing more powerful, deadly weapons: they might come back to bite the ‘creator.’

“The Arsenal of Freedom” positions Minos as a space-age version of America, exporting weapons (planes, guns, tanks) to other countries both legally and illegally (Iran-Contra), and using the “Peace through Strength” as a kind of ideological cover for something less noble than the pursuit of peace: economic war-profiteering.

Part of the reason that “The Arsenal of Freedom” holds up well is that “Peace through Strength” as a concept (and belief system) is back in force today, and has been applied not just to international relations, but domestic gun policy to boot. The answer to gun violence, according to this belief, is always more guns (and therefore more gun sales).  It’s a corrupt nexus of politics and economics, for certain. Many of those politicians who constantly espouse more guns are supported by those who manufacture and sell guns.

Like Cheron in the original series’ “Let that be Your Last Battlefield,” Minos in “The Arsenal of Freedom” represents a warning to 20th century (and now, 21st century) audiences. If we don’t overcome our petty differences (and here, our obsession with weapons of mass destruction), then the end of the world may be nigh. 

In addition to its eighties-flavored yet still relevant social commentary, “The Arsenal of Freedom” is jam-packed with great action.  On the wild planet surface, alien drones hunt an away team, and in space, the Enterprise combats another weapon, even separating the saucer section for the orbital battle.  It’s intriguing to note that the idea of a constantly adapting enemy would be one later developed on the series with the Borg.  Here, the Minos weapons are self-replicating, self-improving too.  And although it would be a violation of Starfleet principles, it would be interesting to see the Borg go up against these drones (or possibly, assimilate them).  Starfleet’s best defense, ironically, could be the Echo Papa Drones seen in this story.

One other aspect of this episode that has always intrigued me is the “point and drag” nature of the hand-phasers used by Data, Yar and Riker. They fire phasers -- holding down the trigger button -- and then move the amplified coherent beams to their targets rather than aiming and trying to score a direct hit.  How can anyone ever miss with a weapon like this one? Just emit a beam, and rake or drag it to your target!  This seems like a real advance in phaser power and function, but is not addressed in this, or later episodes.

Finally, as a Space: 1999 (1975-1977) fan, I should address the minor controversy involving this episode, once brought up in the reader pages of Starlog Magazine in the eighties.  Specifically, one Year Two episode of that Gerry and Sylvia Anderson series featured a scene in which the commanding officer, Koenig and chief medical officer, Russell were trapped in a cave. The medical officer was sick, and used fungus found growing on the cave wall to hand-craft a cure for herself.  The episode was titled “Journey to Where.”  In “The Arsenal of Freedom,” there is a similar scene in which a commanding officer (Picard) and chief medical officer (Crusher) are trapped in a cave, and the doctor uses elements found in the cave to craft a healing compound for wounds.  In both cases, these two officers are trapped together, share an attraction, and character information about the doctor is revealed.

In terms of series continuity, we meet a thoroughly unpleasant chief engineer here, Mr. Logan, and, for the first time since “Encounter at Farpoint,” see the Enterprise saucer separate from the battle section.  In more human terms, Geordi’s anxieties about command are well-played by Levar Burton, and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) seems more hard-edged than usual, which is a positive development. She actually proves helpful in the crisis; counseling the rookie captain about how to address his inexperienced officers on the bridge during a crisis. This seems to me how Troi should have been used more frequently in the series.

I have probably, over the decades, watched “The Arsenal of Freedom” a dozen times. This is because its action and social commentary seem, at least to me, a satisfying updating of the best qualities of the original sixties series  As I’ve written before, too often in the early days of Star Trek: The Next Generation a real sense of danger is missing. Not so here.  This episode, though not remembered as a great one by most fans, blends all the Trekkian elements together in a pleasing, exciting, and entertaining packaged.

Next week: “Symbiosis.”