Monday, November 30, 2020

Memory Bank: Sears Wish Book for the 1979 Holiday Season





A few years back, I tried explaining to my son, Joel, the idea of ordering items from a catalog. 

I explained that it’s like ordering something from Amazon.com, only your choices are more limited, you can’t buy the items online, and you have to wait longer to receive your toy.

He didn’t see the appeal.

But when I was growing up, it was tremendously exciting to order from a catalog, or I should say from one catalog in particular. 

Every year, Sears sent out a mammoth Christmas catalog or “Wish Book,” a hugely fat inventory of everything it sold, from appliances and clothes to toys galore.  

One of the Wish Books that I’m remembering today -- from the year 1979 -- was illustrated with the tag-line “Where America Shops For Value.”

Forget value, I just wanted space toys. 

The 1979 Sears Wishbook Catalog had ‘em too. 

From Page 613 thru 620 in that catalog, there was everything a 1970s space-kid could possibly desire: toys from Mego’s Micronauts, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Star Wars, and Star Trek too.  There were models, play-sets, toy action figures…the works.



And the great thing about Sears was that it not only offered toys you could find elsewhere, it also offered exclusive toys, like the Star Wars knock-off playset called “The Star Fortress” (seen on page 617).  I’ve covered this toy before on the blog, but the giant fold-out space base has a position of honor in my home office to this day.  


Another Sears exclusive from the same era (although it may have been first sold in 1978…) was the Star Wars “The Cantina Adventure Set” (not to be confused with the Creature Cantina).  The legend in the catalog read “If you stop at this cantina, watch out for strangers.”



This diorama of the exterior of the Mos Eisely drinking hole came with four new Kenner action figures that were unavailable elsewhere: Greedo, Hammerhead, Walrus Man, and Blue Snaggletooth.  The Blue Snaggletooth has become a highly-prized collectible.

Without me knowing, my Mom ordered me the Cantina Adventure Set, and I loved it. 


I kept it intact until about two years ago when the diorama base finally ripped. But it’s the item I remember most from the catalog.  

After I received the toy in the mail, I would play adventures with Sheriff Snaggletooth and Deputy Hammerhead.  They’d drive the land speeder around Mos Eisely, catching the gangsters Greedo and Walrus Man.

Back in the 1970s I loved coming home from school and finding in the mail either the next week’s issue of TV Guide (so I could see if Star Trek or Space:1999 was playing…), but it was a day of absolute delight and toy nirvana when the Wish Book arrived.

I still remember the feel and scent of the Wish Book catalog's pages. I remember poring over those toy pages too, imagining adventures with Buck Rogers, the Micronauts, the Cantina, and that Space Fortress...

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Saturday Morning Flashback: Land of the Lost: "The Musician"


“The Musician” is Land of the Lost’s highly intriguing, Saturday morning version of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Only here, it is Chaka (Philip Paley) -- not primitive man -- who undergoes a sudden, evolutionary leap in intelligence. We learn from a strange humanoid visitor to Altrusia -- a Builder?-- that now”  is Chaka’s “time.” And, when the episode is over, Chaka has learned how to play Holly’s recorder, an act which previously eluded him.

One of the most memorable images from “The Musician” finds Chaka confronting a human, evolved version of himself; one also played by Paley.  The human version of Chaka informs the Pakuni that it is his time to be tested, and he wears a uniform that looks like it came straight out of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).  Is this form Chaka’s destiny? His form in another universe?



What precipitates Chaka’s evolutionary leap is a visit to the strange temple near the Lost City of the Sleestaks, the temple first seen (but not explored…) in the second season episode called “The Test.”   In a certain sense, I suppose, one might claim that Season Two of Land of the Lost boasts a story arc since elements of earlier stories pay off in later ones, and build on one another. 

Inside the temple, the Marshalls and Chaka find the “great granddaddy of all matrix tables” and it materializes a strange red ring, one apparently belonging to “The Builders.”




I love the idea that Land of the Lost -- on a TV budget and in a time slot for children -- attempts to tell a complex story in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey, one that gazes at, explicitly, the idea of intelligence, or genius, and asks (as Will does in the story): “where does it come from?”

I like the idea encoded in “The Musician” (as well as other episodes of the series) that Altrusia is an artificial world created by highly-intelligent, but mysterious beings.  On the temple wall in this episode, for instance, we see a sculpture of human hands.  What role do human beings -- perhaps a future Holly?  -- play in the shaping or maintenance of this world?  It would have been truly fascinating to learn where more about these beings, and their purpose, but a format change in Season Three left the idea unfulfilled.



Still, “The Musician” is likely one of the best episodes of Land of the Lost’s second season since it explores this (abandoned) mythology.  The episode features a Builder (or at least I think it’s a Builder), their strange temple, and the mysterious brain boost for Chaka.

Today, one can only wonder where this storyline might have eventually led if things had been different…

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Mighty Joe Young (1949)



In several significant ways, Mighty Joe Young (1949) might be described as the “most evolved” of the Merian C. Cooper/Ernest Schoedsack giant ape films of the 1930s and 1940s.

In part this is so because the third (and last) film in the cycle understands that audience sympathies rest with the exploited main character, a kindly gorilla named Joe, and not with the humans who exploit him for financial gain.

And in part this is so because this film depicts the female lead character, Jill Young (Terry Moore) as more than a screaming ninny.  The feisty Jill can see beyond Joe’s intimidating physicality -- in part because she raised him -- and recognize that he is an intelligent creature worthy of dignity and respect.  Jill is no mere damsel in distress, but rather a very human woman trying to do the right thing, and honor the important relationships in her life, both with Joe, and with promoter Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong again), the man who brought her “fame and fortune” in Hollywood.

These elements, along with an exciting chase and nail-biting finale, make Mighty Joe Young a solid addition to the King Kong canon, even if the film doesn’t actually concern Kong or his progeny.

Mighty Joe Young begins with little Jill Young (Moore) living on her father’s farm in Africa.  She trades a baby gorilla for several trinkets, including a flashlight, and decides to raise the ape she names “Joe.”  Her father objects to this course of action, worrying that the gorilla will one day grow into a fierce animal and menace.  

But Jill prevails, and a friendship is born.




Twelve years later, Max O’Hara (Armstrong) plots to make his next Hollywood night club, “The Golden Safari,” a runaway success.  He strikes on the idea of going on a dangerous safari in Africa with cowboy, Gregg (Ben Johnson) in tow.  Once there, they collect man-eating lions and other animals, and then unexpectedly encounter a fully-grown gorilla, Joe.  Max urges Jill to sign a contract making the ape and his master the newest (permanent) attractions at the Golden Safari.

Back in Hollywood, Joe grows increasingly depressed by the nightly festivities in the club, and his near-continual entrapment in a too-small cage.  Jill sees the gorilla suffering, and attempts to get out of her contract with Max.  He sweet-talks her back into compliance, and the Mighty Joe Young show continues for a whopping seventeen weeks.

Then, one night, a trio of obnoxious drunks release Joe from his cage, feed him champagne, and watch as the gorilla trashes the club from top to bottom.  Deemed a public safety menace by a judge, Joe is ordered executed.  Realizing what he has done to Jill and Joe, Max O’Hara teams up with Gregg and Jill to free the ape from captivity, and return him to his home in Africa.

On the way to freedom, however, Gregg, Jill, and Joe spy a disaster in the making.  An orphanage is burning down fast, and three children are trapped upstairs with no hope of escape. 

One last time, it’s Joe to the rescue…

Although there are no prehistoric monsters on hand in Mighty Joe Young, the film nonetheless perfects (or evolves) the King Kong formula.  Max O’Hara -- the familiar showman character -- undergoes his transformation from exploiter to defender in one movie, not two (as was the case with Carl Denham), and the movie also makes the point that there is something worse than imprisonment…the loss of dignity.  

Here, Joe undergoes a horrible humiliation when a nightclub routine requires Jill to dress up as an organ grinder, and Joe as her monkey.  Then, the unruly crowd is encouraged to throw giant coins at Joe while he catches them in his cap.   One drunk gets out of hand and tosses a glass champagne bottle at the ape.  This is a miserable moment for Joe, one which reduces the noble beast to the level of carnival freak.



Joe goes wild soon after this humiliation and destroys Max’s night club, but he finds redemption by saving the imperiled children at the burning orphanage.  Again, this kind of redemption was something denied Kong in the original film (though awarded to his son, in The Son of Kong).

Though it is impossible to argue that Mighty Joe Young is more spectacular or exciting than King Kong was, one can certainly detect how a very similar story (with similar characters) is more completely and emotionally told here.   Some may consider that comment a heretical remark in terms of cinema history, but at least three of the four leads in Mighty Joe Young -- Max, Jill, and Joe himself -- are treated with greater humanity than their counterparts were in King Kong.  

While there’s nothing as awe-inspiring as a battle with a T-Rex in this film, Mighty Joe Young nonetheless satisfies on a purely human level.  No one in King Kong really listened to their conscience, at least until it was far too late.  Here, the characters all make difficult personal decisions to repair the breach, and honor their friendship with Joe.

I had not seen Mighty Joe Young in several years before this recent viewing, and was delighted to find the film so engaging, and so action-packed. My wife watched this one with me, and was on the edge of her seat during the finale at the orphanage.  She told me that if Joe died, I should just turn the movie off right then, because she couldn’t handle it.


That in-the-moment exclamation/protest reveals how successfully Mighty Joe Young works on an emotional level. It’s not the Beauty and the Beast epic or prehistoric safari that King Kong is, but it’s a damned exciting and engaging adventure film with some fine special effects (from Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen).

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Son of Kong (1933)



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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




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

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



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

King Kong (1933)


King Kong (1933) commences with a title card that recites an old Arabian proverb:  “And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty.  And it stood its hand from killing.  And from that day it was as one dead.”

This on-screen legend frames the famous monster movie as a beauty-and-the-beast story, though King Kong has been interpreted quite frequently over the decades as a coded social critique as well.  

No less prominent a figure than director Quentin Tarantino has interpreted the Merian C. Cooper (1893 – 1973)/Ernest Schoedsack (1893 -1979) film as an “allegory about the transatlantic slave trade and America’s fear of the black male.”

I recently re-watched the original King Kong in preparation for this review, and can’t deny that the sub-textual material is present.  Nor can I deny that the film is mindlessly racist and sexist by today’s standards, at  least at certain junctures.

But I was struck by another intriguing aspect of this famous monster movie as well.  

In short, this 1933 fantasy film seems very world-weary, and disappointed with the predictability, safety and even bureaucracy of modernity.  Accordingly, the film positions itself as an escape from modernity.

The modern world, represented by the gleaming skyscrapers and skyline of New York Harbor in the film’s inaugural shot, is a place that -- especially during a financial Great Depression -- can’t seem to provide much of anything to people in terms of answers, or even sustenance. 

Instead, people like filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) actively seek the “thrill of a lifetime” outside of modernity, in places such as Africa or the West Indies.  This desire for freedom and excitement is contextualized as the thrill of something new, or conversely, the thrill of something very old, and very natural…but never-before-seen and recorded by modern eyes or cameras.

Denham sees it as his mission to show “something new” to a depression-weary people.  The first such “new” thing he finds, for example, is the untested screen presence of Ann Darrow (Fay Wray).  Denham’s bosses want a female to appear in his latest motion picture to ramp up the box office grosses, and Denham must kowtow to their wishes.  But the “reckless” Denham goes out and finds a female star on his own, in his own way. He discovers the young woman, Ann, attempting to steal an apple from a fruit stand, on the verge of starvation.  

He essentially offers her an escape from modernity too.  

Denham then goes in search of that elusive “something new” on Skull Island, far beyond the well-populated waters of New York Harbor….beyond the horizon itself.  An old legend in the South Seas tells of an “island held in the grip of fear…”  

Kong’s island stands in unexplored, mysterious waters, beyond a gateway made of natural reefs. And Kong himself -- the ultimate unknown or something new -- exists behind yet another barrier, a large perimeter wall built by an ancient society of natives.  

To find Kong -- to find something new and natural, then -- one must pierce all the various “gates” of modernity, and head straight back into the less-calculated, less buttoned-down past…even to prehistoric times.  

The sea voyage of the Venture (a name meaning “risky or daring journey”) is accordingly one that escorts audiences and the film’s dramatis personae through a series of doorways leading from staid modernity to unfettered antiquity, and “freedom.”

This freedom is first expressed in terms of the rigidity of New York’s bureaucracy, where Denham learns that an insurance company plans to halt his voyage because of the dangerous explosives he is transporting.  Denham orders an early departure to assure there are no such further impediments to his…entrepreneurship.   

Once en route, Ann and Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) let down their guards and fall in love.  This is a big deal for Jack, who finds that women are a “bother,” but comes to change his mind.  Something about the open air of the sea makes them connect, and come to love one another.

In modernity...


...the search for new faces and new things begins...


Beyond the reefs...


...and behind the wall...

...lives Kong.

King Kong’s final act -- with Kong returned to New York City as Denham’s captive -- reverses the film’s conceits regarding freedom.  

Once found by Denham, “freedom” (represented by Kong himself) becomes a commodity not to discover and enjoy, but to exploit, and share (at a price) with those dwelling in modernity.  People will pay good money to vicariously experience the danger of Kong Island, the expedition, and Kong himself.   The giant ape is billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” something human eyes have never seen before. 

To put a fine point on it, Kong -- the thing beyond modernity, the thing with the capacity to thrill a jaded modern audience -- is brought back and caged, but Denham quickly learns that no chains and no bars can hold him for long.  Instead, Kong runs free and, by nearly reaching the clouds atop the Empire State Building, eludes modernity again.  Modernity and nature, or freedom, cannot exist side-by-side, the film suggests.



If one considers the biography of the film’s producer/co-director, Merian Cooper, one can see how these ideas of escaping adventure-crushing modernity and pinpointing thrills in incorruptible nature fit in well with his career and biography.  An air force pilot during World War I and a founding member of Pan Am Airways, Cooper directed several early films such as Chang (1927) which were, essentially, travelogues set in far-flung, wild locales.  That film, for instance, famously featured an elephant stampede.  

For long stretches, King Kong plays like a travelogue or documentary, with hearty men of adventurous spirit witnessing beasts never-before-seen. In short, the film is a safari into the wildest jungle ever, with the most spectacular beasts in cinema history.  “Safari” is a Swahili word meaning “long journey,” and a safari usually involves explorers or other adventurous-types going where no man has gone before for the express purpose of seeing new wild life.   

Yet, what remains so interesting about this juxtaposition of a fantasy setting with the safari motif is that Cooper has utilized a tool of modernity -- film -- to bring this story back to his audience.  In fact, it’s not only modernity on display in King Kong’s creation, but pioneering technical innovation as well.  The Willis O’Brien stop-motion effects and optical composites look staggeringly good even to this day, particularly in black-and-white, a schema which hides seams beautifully.  

Thus, one can gaze upon King Kong as the work of a man who looked at the world, couldn’t see any new kingdoms to conquer, and so utilized technology to create something from whole-cloth that his audience had never before witnessed: a prehistoric world populated by the “dinosaur family” of Skull Island. He uses special effects to bring to life creatures people have read about, but never seen “alive.”

This travelogue or safari approach to the film precludes, to some degree, much in terms of humanity or characterization.  After Ann is taken by Kong to the interior of Skull Island, the film descends into a series of (still) harrowing fight sequences and battles, but always with a new animal on display, front-and-center in the frame.  

In short order the audience “discovers” Kong, a stegosaurus, an apatosaurus, a T-Rex, a giant snake, and a pterodactyl.  The film’s soundtrack, largely, is a sustained scream from Fay Wray, from about the forty-five minute point on.  People don’t talk or relate as people, they just delve deeper and deeper into the prehistoric jungle, and attempt to survive each new animal featured on the safari.

The Skull Island Safari #1


The Skull Island Safari #2


The Skull Island Safari #3


The Skull Island Safari #4

I also noted on this viewing that more than ever, King Kong boasts a strong reflexive quality.  Carl Denham takes a camera and a girl, Ann, into the jungle to make an adventure movie, a new kind of safari in a different kind of habitat. 

But the movie that the audience is watching -- King Kong -- is also a safari…with a pretty girl fronting it.  When Denham complains about having to kowtow to studio bosses, one feels that the comment originates from Cooper himself. Denham is clearly his surrogate figure.

While we watch a safari film, Denham is also making a safari film.


A girl is needed to front both films.  Hence the presence of lovely Fay Wray.

Fans of later generations of King Kong – in 1976 and 2005 – will be surprised upon returning to this 1933 classic that there is almost no reciprocal relationship between Kong and his bride, Ann. He may love her, but here it’s an unrequited love.  She never moves beyond terror for the “beast,” whatever he may feel for her.  By Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949), a sympathy or love for “the beast” is added as a crucial element of the equation, but it is definitively not present in this film. 

Certainly, one can look at King Kong today and consider it a beauty and the beast story, though beauty has but distaste and fear for her groom.  

And certainly, one can see how Kong himself is a stand-in figure for a proud African slave, dragged from his country in chains to provide the entertainment for an elitist society that is both fearful and envious of him.  But the quality that makes King Kong so great is its sense or spirit of adventure.  

The film steadfastly takes us through the gates of a real world lacking magic, happiness, and perhaps even romance, and reminds us that there are places and things on this Earth yet unseen by man.  And those things, fierce or beautiful, still have the capacity to surprise us, and perhaps change us for the better if we don’t abuse or exploit them.

I suspect one reason that King Kong has survived for roughly eighty years at this juncture, and translated ably from one generation to another, is that many of us still want to believe in our own capacity to be surprised and delighted by nature.  The film is a non-stop safari of vicarious thrills and terrors, a spectacle in the truest sense of the word (meaning that it shows the audience things never before captured on film).  

Even today, King Kong exists to show bored and world-weary audiences that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of in "safe" modernity.  

And even today, the film’s spirit of adventure -- if not divine -- is at least as “royal” as its title indicates.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Thanksgiving Monsters


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Saturday Morning Flashback: Land of the Lost: "The Zarn"




The Land of the Lost gets a new resident -- the emotionless and pitiless alien “Zarn” (Marvin Miller) -- in this week’s episode penned by Dick Martin and directed by Bob Lally. 

The Zarn is an energy being, mostly invisible, whose presence is accompanied by the unsettling sound of wind chimes. 

What’s even scarier is that the Zarn’s space craft has crashed in the gloomy Mist Marsh, place of fog and gnarled old, dead trees.  And as the Marshalls learn this week, The Zarn can read their very thoughts, though he is repelled by the power of intense emotions.


In “The Zarn,” this stranded alien creates an android in the shape of a human female to observe and study the human Marshalls.  

Because she is created expressly from Rick’s thoughts, Sharon (Brooke Bundy) shares his memories of growing up in Indianapolis.  Holly and Will immediately recognize Sharon is too good to be true, but Marshall is lonely and hungry for adult companionship.  He can’t help but love Sharon.


Rick Marshall’s tunnel vision about Sharon may be a little unrealistic in these circumstances, but this is nonetheless one aspect of Land of the Lost I admire. 

It’s that part of a “kid’s” show that is very grown-up, and features mature plot lines.  Rick’s confession of loneliness is heartfelt and rings true. And yet Holly and Will’s feelings of being shunted aside for the interloper are just as valid.

The alien Zarn himself makes a great addition to this series extensive “creature” list, a new not-quite friend and not-quite foe who -- like the Sleestak -- possesses his own distinctive technology and world view.  

Despite his great knowledge and science, however, the Zarn -- like The Marshalls -- is a prisoner in the Land of the Lost.  


And keeping with the series’ environmental message, the character is something of a loose cannon, one will apply his technology at the expense of Altrusia as we see in the episode “Gravity Storm.”  The Zarn is out to help himself, in other words, and no one or anything else.

One question raised by the Zarn’s presence here involves the last episode of Season One, “Circle,” which established that balance in Altrusia must constantly be maintained.  So if the Zarn came in, who left?  And how did they escape?  This episode never addresses this contradiction.

Another aspect of this episode that seems dated poorly involves Holly, who is left at the High Bluff Cave to cook dinner for Will and Rick while they explore the Mist Marsh.  Girls can’t go exploring?  


Worse, it is Holly who feels most displaced by the presence of Sharon, another woman.  She’s clearly jealous that someone could jeopardize her standing in the family, and it comes off as catty and kind of demeaning…even though she’s right that Sharon is hiding something. 

For a series that stressed Holly’s courage (“Elsewhen”) and dawning independence/maturity (“The Search,”) this re-establishment of 1970s traditional American sex roles feels like a big step back into the prehistoric era.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

30 Years Ago: Predator 2 (1990)


The opening shot of Predator 2 (1990) is a remarkable one. 

Director Stephen Hopkins’ camera rockets over a dense jungle landscape, thus reminding audiences of the 1987 John McTiernan film and its Central American locale.  

Then -- as the camera continues to speed over myriad tree tops -- it pans up to reveal…modern Los Angeles, the urban jungle, on the horizon.

This composition is a great visual way to connect the two films in the franchise, and a sure sign that Hopkins boasts an active intellect and more to the point, a great eye. 

It’s as if the last moments of Predator have become, literally, the first moments of Predator 2.  




Predator 2 is also appreciated by many horror movie fans because it provides the first cinematic evidence of a “shared” universe with another beloved franchise: Alien (1979).  

During the climax of this sequel cop/warrior Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) finds his way aboard a grounded Predator spaceship and sees a trophy room that boasts a Giger-style alien skull. 

At first blush this might seem like a throwaway moment, but, certainly, it paves the way for the Alien vs. Predator movies of the 2000s. Already, Dark Horse had seen success by pairing the two monsters in a comic series, but Predator 2 is the first such evidence of a shared universe on the silver screen.

Whether that’s a good thing or not, I’ll leave up to you, the reader, but Predator 2 intimates a shared history between two great movie monsters in a way that isn’t entirely obvious or craven (like, say, Freddy’s finger knives dragging Jason’s hockey mask down to Hell.) 

Instead, the reveal of the alien skull in Predator 2 is an awesome moment that expands significantly both franchises.We now know that Predators have defeated the acid-dripping, silver-jawed monstrosities, and likewise that those monstrosities have been around since well before Ripley’s first encounter with them. This moment in the film thus succeeds in the manner that was intended.  It tantalizes us with possibilities, and with a history/relationship we don’t fully understand...but can imagine. 

 

This sequel also shares much with another science fiction film of 1990: RoboCop 2.

For example, both Predator 2 and RoboCop 2 feature moments that suggest the tabloidization of American news, the rise of such fare as Inside Edition or A Current Affair. Both films also worry about runaway crime rates in America at the time, and obsess on the notion of our streets becoming the battleground for drug and gang wars.  

And both films -- truly -- are anarchic in visualization, graphic violence and tone, suggesting that the near future will be a time of visceral, bloody horror, sensational news and beleaguered infrastructure. 

In both films, the cops can barely hold their own.

Predator 2 never quite reaches the provocative and anarchic highs or lows of RoboCop 2 but -- to its ever-lasting credit -- the Hopkins sequel is more than willing to acknowledge the humor inherent in its central scenario. 


At one point, the hulking Predator ends up in the bathroom of a cranky old woman, and at another juncture attacks a busload of commuters (including a Bernard Goetz character…) simply because they are all armed. 

This scene may represent the best argument for gun control ever put to genre film: Don’t carry a weapon on your way to work, because the Predator -- while on safari -- interprets all gun-owners as “soldiers” and wipes them out with extreme prejudice. Seriously, this film imagines Bernard Goetz-vigilantism as the norm of 1997, and it's a commentary right in line with the imaginings of the RoboCop films.

I admire many aspects of Predator 2 and consider it a worthwhile sequel overall, yet I don’t see it necessarily as an equal to its predecessor in terms of suspense and storytelling. The movie occasionally suffers a bad case of Alien-itis too: cribbing too liberally from 20th Century Fox’s other space monster franchise.

That tendency doesn’t help the film to cement its own individual identity, and works against the director's best efforts.




“Shit happens.”

In the near-future year of 1997, Los Angeles is choking under perpetual smog, and its streets are a war-zone.  

There, rival gangs -- the Jamaicans and the Colombians -- duke it out for superiority. One of the city’s best cops, Mike Harrigan (Glover) attempts to bring order to the streets, but soon finds that a third, chaotic element has been added to the summertime bloodshed.

In particular, a stealthy alien hunter or predator has arrived in L.A. and begun picking off gang members, as well as cops like Harrigan’s trusted friend, Danny (Ruben Blades).

When a federal agent, Keyes (Gary Busey) begins interfering in his investigation, Harrigan suspects a dark secret.  

He soon comes face to face with the intimidating alien hunter, and learns that Keyes and his men are planning to capture it…




“There’s a new king in the streets.”

When I think back on Predator, the images that stay with me, in particular, come from the last third of the picture. There, Arnold’s character, Dutch went up against the Predator with no advanced technology in a primordial jungle, and won.  

The battle could have occurred in prehistoric times.

Obviously, a sequel to Predator couldn’t plumb the identical imagery or locale, or even concept, and so Predator 2 tries hard to carve an original space for itself.  The sequel notes, for example, that in the 1990s, “cops” are the warriors of civilization, fighting back criminals on the streets and protecting an endangered populace.  

This is a valid concept, and also feels very much of the epoch. If you gaze at the 1990s, and consider series such as Law and Order (1990 – 2010), or movies such as The First Power (1990), Fallen (1998), Resurrection (1999) or End of Days (1999) it’s not difficult to see how the police procedural format became incredibly popular, and dominated genre entertainment.

Predator 2 fits in with that trend, and Danny Glover makes for a very different kind of “soldier” than Arnie did. Both men are fiercely protective of their teams, but Harrigan is -- living up to his name: “harried” -- forced to accommodate multiple levels of hierarchy and bureaucracy in a fashion that Dutch simply did not.  Dutch eventually had to deal with Dillon’s duplicity (as Harrigan deals with Keyes’ secrecy and cover story), but Harrigan is more constrained from the get-go based on his job, his heavily populated “arena” of battle, and other factors of late 20th century human civilization.. 

One way to gaze at the Predator franchise is simply as a study of soldiers, an examination of the qualities that go into the making of a good one. Predator, Predator 2, and Predators (2010) have different things to tell audiences on that topic, and all the observations are intriguing. Certainly, Predator suggests that  good or advanced weapons don’t make for the best soldiers.  

Predator 2 seems to suggest that a good soldier succeeds by overcoming not his enemy, but those unofficial enemies who make his task more difficult. Harrigan must contend with the presence of innocent civilians, bureaucrats, and infrastructural impediments on his mission to stop the alien hunter. Meanwhile, Predators seems to suggest that real soldiers are a breed apart, and that breed seems to span all cultures.

The downside to Predator 2’s approach is simply that as soon as you have a rampaging alien creature in familiar, city environs, some moments there are going to read as…funny. You can’t play on the feelings of isolation that you might in the jungle setting.  

So when a Predator crashes through a bathroom wall here and nearly runs into an old woman brandishing a broom, you’re in a whole different kind of territory. The last act of the film suffers from a tonal ping-pong between action, comedy, and horror. I prefer the back-to-basics, straight-on approach of Predator’s finale in the jungle. It’s more pure, somehow; more consistent.

Predator 2, at times, seems to verge on camp. If the film featured a more pronounced, consistent social commentary (as is clearly the case in the gonzo-crazy RoboCop 2), the tone-changes in Predator 2 might have tracked better. I like Gary Busey just fine, but his presence -- and line readings -- ratchet up the tongue-in-cheek aspects of the film.


Lions, and tigers and bears. Oh my.

In the introduction, I also noted creeping Alien clichés in this film. There’s one scene here in which right-thinking Harrigan watches on a row of high-tech monitors as wrong-thinking Keyes leads an ill-fated attack against the Predator. The Predator decimates the team, and Harrigan -- tired of being on the sidelines -- steps up to save the day, or win the battle.  

This scene is an exact mirror of a scene in Cameron’s Aliens (1986).  There, Ripley watches on a row of monitors as the Colonial Marines get their asses kicked on Sub Level 3. She must take action herself, because she is right, and Lt. Gorman is so clearly wrong.  

There's even a similar deer-in-the-headlights moment in Predator 2 for  one Gorman surrogate, Garber (Adam Baldwin).



Similarly, Harrigan appropriates a Ripley-ish line from Alien, while talking to Keyes. “You admire the son of a bitch,” he realizes. 

This is also what Ripley realized vis-à-vis Ash and the xenomorph in the Ridley Scott 1979 original

It’s just baffling that a film seeking so aggressively to artistically break free from its successful predecessor would mindlessly ape another film series at the same. These moments are transparently derivative, and undo some of the creative success Hopkins achieves with this sequel.

Still, I appreciate the final revelations of Predator 2. These moments prove chilling. One of the final scenes, inside the spaceship, features not only an alien skull, but evidence that the Predators have been interacting with humans for a very, very long time indeed. They have been here, are here now, and will return soon.  




That’s a creepy thought, and I love how the old Predator leader demonstrates grudging respect for Harrigan, his prey, by gifting him a gun from the 1700s…a souvenir emblematic of their differences, and shared history.

Writing for The Washington Post, review Rita Kempley wrote persuasively of Predator 2’s “dismal irony” and “brooding fatalism” (November 21, 1990). 

I like those qualities too, and I enjoy this sequel quite a bit. I’ll take it over AVP: Requiem (2007) or Alien Resurrection (1997) any day. Predator 2 doesn’t scuttle its franchise, and in some ways it expands the cycle's reach in a wonderful, creative way.   

And yet the tonal lapses into comedy and rip-off territory prevent Predator 2 from being a truly great sequel to one of the best action-horror films of the eighties.

Gremlins Poseable Stripe Figure (LJN; 1984)

Straight from LJN (the company that also held the license to create toys from the movie  Dune ...), comes this 1984 retro-toy treasure: the ...