Saturday, August 09, 2014

At Flashbak: The 5 Most Underrated Episodes of Star Trek (1966 - 1969)

My new article at Flashbak takes a close look at five episodes of the original Star Trek that I consider underrated, given their quality.

"In 2016, the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (1966 – 1969), a TV series and cultural phenomenon that has spawned cartoons, comic-books, films, live-action spin-offs and more toys than you can shake a tribble at.

The original series episodes have been updated to feature modern CGI special effects too, in a bid to make the series seem more contemporary, but the effort was largely unnecessary because the storytelling on the program remains so vibrant and cerebral, even half-a-century after first broadcast.

Many episodes of Star Trek are considered classics because of their importance to the franchise. “Space Seed” introduced Khan (Ricardo Montalban), for example. Some episodes reveal new shades of the beloved characters, and engender empathy for them (“City on the Edge of Forever,” “This Side of Paradise,” “All Our Yesterdays.”)  Others involve events important to the galaxy itself (“Errand of Mercy,” “The Doomsday Machine.”)

But some of the seventy-nine Star Trek episodes produced simply don’t get their fair share of the sunlight.  Perhaps these shows don’t possess the most memorable high-concepts of the most enduring episodes, or perhaps they are superficially similar to other, more popular segments, and thus easy to forget.

With that description in mind, here are my choices for the five most underrated Star Trek episodes."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: BraveStarr: "Showdown at Sawtooth"

In “Showdown at Sawtooth,” BraveStarr learns that a friend named Roark is packing up his belongings and family, and leaving the planet because of strange goings-on in his town.  In particular, there have been many accidents, explosions and the theft of Kerium from a nearby mine.

BraveStarr investigates and learn that Tex Hex (working with Sandstorm) is up to his old tricks, attempting to get the Kerium for himself, and to bully the settlers out of their rightful ownership. 

BraveStarr helps the settlers fight Tex Hex, and stands-up to the bandit himself.

“Showdown at Sawtooth” is definitely one of the less-interesting BraveStarr episodes I’ve encountered thus far, even though it takes up High Noon (1952) as a template. 

Specifically, BraveStarr must stand-up against a fearsome villain (Tex Hex) and his henchman, while settlers cower in fear, unwilling to step from the sidelines to fight for their own cause. 

At one point, we even get the famous ticking clock moment from the 1952 film, as the hero goes to face the villains alone. We even get the shot of the empty saloon.

The message here is that “anything worth having is worth protecting,” and eventually the “lily-livered” town folks do take up for themselves.  The school children even throw mud-pies at the bad guys.  It’s all pretty predictable, and unlike some episodes which focus on gray areas in frontier law, there’s not much to hold onto.

The episode’s message -- redundant after the narrative’s detail on the subject -- is that we all must find the courage within ourselves to stand up to bullies.

Next week: “BraveStarr and the Law.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Godzilla (1978): "The Megavolt Monster"

In “The Megavolt Monster,” an oil tanker traverses a remote ocean trench, only to be struck and downed by a storm of electrical charges.

The Calico heads to investigate, and Quinn wonders if the electrical charges could be caused by a new power source beneath the sea itself.  If so, she wonders if it could be the breakthrough the world needs in a time of crisis.  She also reports legends that claim the trench is bottomless, and populated by monsters.

Quinn and Brock take a bathysphere to the bottom of the trench, and find a world there beneath the sea, a “freak of nature” or giant “air bubble.”  They also find there three giant monsters that are the equivalent of “gigantic electric eels.”  The monsters appear to feed off of a strange rock that constantly energizes them.

The Calico crew summons Godzilla, and the giant lizard arrives to fight the beasts, and destroy their power source so they can’t recharge.

I really enjoyed this episode of the 1978 Godzilla cartoon, perhaps because it reminded me so much of all my favorite stories as a kid.  

First, of course, there’s Godzilla himself, fighting a trio of giant, electric-eel type monsters.  

But secondly, there’s the discovery by the Calico crew of a kind of “lost world” beneath the sea, and I have always enjoyed stories of this type: the modern world interfacing with places forgotten by time.  I've always found such "lost worlds" fascinating, and when I was a kid, I loved movies about them; movies like Island at the Top of the World (1974), for instance.

Although it is frustrating that the comic-relief, Godzooky, continues to get more screen time than Godzilla does in this series, some of the character touches in the episode are actually quite good.  

For instance, I really liked the overall depiction of Quinn (Brenda Thompson) here.  She is in control of the Calico and its mission.  She is the boss, and yet not bossy at all.  She is a strong, authoritative figure who shapes the dynamics of the ship’s quest, and makes decisions about to proceed.  There is not a whiff of “damsel in distress” about her, nor one of stereotypical “over-controlling, professional woman.”  Sadly, Hollywood vacillates between those two extremes and has a really tough time presenting a woman authority figure without making her either weak and helpless or so authoritative that she comes across as a jerk.  Quinn - an artifact of the 1970s – is a great role model, and a three dimensional character.

The thing to remember about this iteration of Godzilla, I suppose, is that it is designed for children, and for children of 1978.  Godzooky always gets into trouble, and at my age now, I find him more annoying than funny.  My seven year old son?  He thinks Godzooky is a hoot.  Therefore, I resolve not to complain about his presence. At least not too much.

In terms of Godzilla himself, we again see here that he is Johnny-on-the-spot, appearing mere seconds after being summoned.  And, we also see that he has powers not noted in the films, specifically “laser beam eyes.”  

At another junction, Carl notes that by being held in Godzilla’s hand underwater, he and Pete will be safe in an “air-tight” compartment.  I’m not so certain about the science behind that assertion...

Finally, I like some of the art in this episode, particularly the visuals of the oil tanker going down, and the crew escaping in life-boats.  It's a bit expressionistic and "dark," and sets up well the mystery of the episode.

Next week: "The Seaweed Monster."

Friday, August 08, 2014

Volumes of Blood Update

I have been working this morning on my shot-list for "A Little Pick Me Up," my vignette in the Volumes of Blood (2014) horror anthology I'm directing in late September. 

So far, I am planning for shots called "The Jacob's Ladder Shot," and "The Scanners Shot."  And that's just for starters.

But as I worked, I thought it might be an appropriate time to post another reminder about the Volumes of Blood Kickstarter, here.  

We are shooting the film, no matter what -- come Hell or high water -- but the Kickstarter will allow us to shoot practical effects on a bigger scale.  

And since I have a Scanners shot in my film, a solid budget will help. A lot.

So, if you're into exploding heads, please consider giving a little to the project. Even five bucks would help.

We have a little less than a month to go on the Kickstarter and we're getting nearer our target every day, but you can help tip us over.  

And one factor, I believe, that helps distinguish our project is the fact that it part of the Unscripted Film School, meaning that Volumes of Blood is not only the bloody, gory, utterly debauched horror film of my dreams, but an opportunity for people in the community to learn about film, and filmmaking.

Finally, I want to thank the readers and friends who have supported the project with their wallets, so far.  It means a lot to me.  

I'll let you know more about the project, as it develops.

Now, back to that shot-list...

Coming Soon: The Spielberg Blogathon (August 23 - 24)

Just announced: It Rains...You Get Wet, Citizen Screenings, and Outspoken and Freckled are hosting a Steven Spielberg blogathon on August 23-24th of this summer!

Here is some further information, if you wish to contribute:

"A prolific filmmaker to be certain. But more importantly, so many of his films became part of our American experience — thanks to his signature style of weaving in very heartfelt and little “real” moments into every film. With so many wonderful Spielberg offerings, why not bid adieu to summer with a SPIELBERG BLOGATHON? While I’ve participated in a number over the years, I’ve not hosted such a blog event.
So, Ye Ol’ Blog IT RAINS… YOU GET WET will join the dynamic blogathon duo, Aurora of CITIZEN SCREENINGS aka @CitizenScreen and Kellee of OUTSPOKEN & FRECKLED aka @IrishJayhawk66, in paying homage to this beloved master of cinema with a blockbuster blogathon to end the summer with a BANG!

Here’s how it works

For any folks who wish to submit one or more blog posts dedicated to Steven Spielberg’s career (film/TV/directing/producing/writing,etc.) particular work or life, simply contact one of us hosts…
Kellee of OUTSPOKEN & FRECKLED ~ twitter @IrishJayhawk66 ~ prattkellee at gmail (dot) com
Aurora of ONCE UPON A SCREEN ~ twitter @CitizenScreen
Michael of IT RAINS… YOU GET WET ~ twitter @le0pard13 ~ macsurferx07 at gmail (dot) com


  • leave us a blog comment or tweet us with your Spielberg topic
  • let us know when your entry is published so we can promote it
  • include one of the provided banners (see below) and the following statement…
“This post is part of the SPIELBERG BLOGATHON hosted by Outspoken & Freckled, It Rains… You Get Wet, and Once Upon A Screen taking place August 23-24. Please visit these host blogs for a full list of participating blogs.”

James Bond Friday: From Russia with Love (1963)

Many film scholars and long-time James Bond fans will tell you that Goldfinger (1964) -- the third Eon film -- is the greatest of all the twenty-three 007 films, but I respectfully disagree with that assessment.

The very best of them all is actually Goldfinger’s immediate predecessor, From Russia with Love (1963).

This judgment is rendered for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, this superbly-crafted entry in the young 007 series features a coherent, concise and extremely tense storyline rather than a series of action set-pieces loosely connected by an umbrella narrative.

In particular, the film finds James Bond (Sean Connery) forced to survive on only his wits if he hopes to escape enemy territory: Istanbul. He makes good his escape by train, by foot, by truck, and finally by boat, with enemies in hot pursuit throughout. The last half of the movie features a relentless, unceasing push, as Bond seeks sanctuary in Venice.

And although there are some nifty gadgets on hand in From Russia with Love, namely an explosive attaché case provided by Q Branch, Bond still must mentally out-maneuver his most fearsome opponent, Red Grant (Robert Shaw), if he wishes to make use of it in battle. This fact makes the film’s climactic conflict all the more suspenseful. Cleverly, the manner in which Bond ultimately outwits Grant goes right back to matters of class and class resentment in England, a recurring motif in the Bond novels and films.

From start to finish, From Russia with Love also depicts a significant core idea, a conceit that helps to tie many moments together.

A secret organization (SPECTRE) monitors and shadows Bond’s movements at every step, and sometimes even gets one step ahead of him as he undertakes his mission. He is a man under the spotlight, then, but he doesn’t realize it.  This point is made clear by visual framing which frequently positions Bond in unknowing danger; danger that only the audience detects.

Also -- in terms of the film’s virtues -- the primary characters surrounding Bond in From Russia with Love, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) and Red Grant,  represent two sides of the same dangerous coin, a connection established visually by the importance of a “choker” to both.

Finally, two more brief notations to make. 

From Russia with Love features one of the cinema’s greatest fight scenes: the claustrophobic brawl between Bond and Grant inside a cramped train compartment.  Today the fight scene remains incredibly impressive in terms of stunt choreography and editing.  It still plays as absolutely brutal.

And furthermore, this early Bond film is legitimately sexy, unlike some latter entries, which are more... let’s just say…a bit Disney-fied in their approach to sex.

Here, Bond emerges from a hotel room shower in only a towel to find Tatiana in his bed. After observing that her mouth is “just the right size” (for him…), Bond beds her, blissfully unaware that SPECTRE is taping the whole affair. 

Today, this scene may not seem particularly graphic but there’s a palpable sexual chemistry between Connery and Bianchi nonetheless, and the scene still goes further in terms of innuendo and deed than anything we’ve seen in the 21st century Bond films.  

In 1963, this scene in From Russia with Love was downright scandalous, and it helps to explain why Bond was considered so edgy, and perched on the very vanguard of pop culture.

They always treat a trap as a challenge.”

As the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West intensifies, a criminal organization, SPECTRE, makes plans to heat it up even more. 

A mastermind named Kronsteen (Vlaedk Sheybal) -- who works for an unseen master, Number #1 00 collaborates with former SMERSH operative Rosa Klebb to lead the British Secret Service into a trap.

A Russian patriot, Tatiana Romanova (Bianchi) will dangle out the possibility of the West recovering a cryptographic instrument, the Lektor, in exchange for a meeting with 007, James Bond (Connery) and his help arranging her defection. In truth, however, SPECTRE plans to humiliate Bond make East-West tensions worse.

The British understand they are being led into a trap, but do not know who is behind it, and send Bond to Turkey, where cipher clerk Romanova is stationed. 

There, Bond meets a British ally and local power-broker, Kerim Bay (Pedro Armendariz), who assists him in the theft of the Lektor. 

After acquiring the device, Bond, Tatiana and Bay board a train to West, unaware that Kreb’s agent, Red Grant (Shaw) has been shadowing Bond’s every move. 

When Kerim Bay is discovered dead on the train, Bond seeks help from another agent, Nash.  But Grant has murdered the real Nash and taken his place…

“Well, from this angle, things are shaping up nicely.”

From Russia with Love plays throughout as one of Bond’s most dangerous (and hence suspenseful) cinematic adventures. To wit, Bond struggles to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together and make good his escape from Istanbul along with the object of his quest, the code-deciphering Lektor device.

An ominous sense of menace haunts From Russia with Love thanks to several scenes -- from pre-title sequence to gypsy camp to denouement on the train -- that visually suggest a presence both literally and metaphorically hovering right over Bond’s shoulder…like a vulture. 

First, we see Grant hunt and kill a Bond lookalike in the pre-title sequence, a harrowing sequence until we see the 007 impostor unmasked.

Similarly, the final shots of this opener reveal the truth behind Red Grant’s hunt. At SPECTRE headquarters, spotlights suddenly activate, revealing that Bond and Grant were being watched all along by hidden masters.

Later in the film, Grant saves Bond at the Gypsy Camp, shooting down an attacker, and leaving Bond bewildered.  Bond writes it off as a lucky shot from an ally, but only we know the truth.  He is being kept alive by his enemies.

The most impressive of the visuals showcasing the “hidden” menace tracking Bond, however, arrives at a train station, late in the film. Bond is off the train, seeking to make contact with another agent. He walks among a crowd of travelers, and in a careful tracking shot, we see Grant on the train, moving with him, observing his every movement and word.  Bond is not aware of the danger.  We are.  And the film’s sense of suspense goes right through the roof.

All these visuals contextualize Bond as being in danger “on the ground” while sinister forces “above” watch him and contend with him as though he is but a chess piece on a board. 

In a sense, that’s an outstanding metaphor for the secret agent business, and the Cold War context itself. Accordingly, one of Bond’s nemeses, Kronsteen, is actually depicted in the film as a chess master. He moves pieces for a living, but the rub, of course, is that Bond doesn’t move predictably, like chess pieces do.  

The visual compositions depicting Bond in danger (but not knowing it…) contribute to the film’s overall suspense and sense of danger.  We worry for him, because he doesn’t know he is being taped, for instance, tracked (by Grant), or duped (by Grant as Nash).

The point seems to be that on the field, Bond doesn’t know, at any given moment which people in his life are actually going to prove trustworthy and so must therefore depend on his gut instincts. 

He should trust Tatiana, but doesn’t…at least at first.

And he shouldn’t trust Nash/Grant, but at first he does.

The question becomes why is he wrong in both cases? 

Is it because Tatiana appears Russian (hence an enemy), whereas Nash appears to be a fellow countrymen? 
Bond only begins to get suspicious when Grant betrays his lack of breeding, his lower-class origins.  In the dinner car, Grant orders “red wine with fish,” for example.

Bond uses Grant’s lack of “breeding” to help defeat him, offering to pay him an exorbitant amount of money to let him live.  In truth, he’s tricking Grant, hoping he will open the case and trip the explosive device, thus giving Bond the opening he needs. And Grant, for his part, clearly despises everything Bond stands for.  “You may know the right wine,” he barks, “but you’re the one on your knees.”

Importantly, the prominence in the film’s action of Tatiana’s choker/Red’s garrote points out that to Bond Tatiana and Grant are alike, in some sense, and therefore must be treated alike in some crucial ways.  They are “x” factors, or unknowns that must be quantified.  The choker/garrote is a symbol of this fact. One item is but a decoration, an affectation.  The other is a murder weapon.  But Bond doesn’t always know which he’s going to be faced with (an idea always expressed in Klebb’s final weapon: a shoe with a poison knife).

One also might look at the choker/garotte symbolism in another fashion.  Bond gives a choker to those he interacts with, expressing his nature as a good guy.  Grant offers strangulation to those he interacts with, expressing his nature as a monster.

From Russia with Love’s sense of danger reaches its zenith in the moments leading up to the train car fight between Grant and Bond. Theirs is battle between two men whose capacities for lethality the audience knows quite well. We’ve seen Bond in action several times by now, and know he can handle himself in a fight.  But we’ve seen Grant in action too with his watch-garrote…killing a Bond double and other victims. 

So this fight is as much about the characters and their capabilities as it is about thrills. We’ve waited for the whole movie to see who emerges triumphant.  Will it be the elite, urbane Bond, who has been successfully manipulated to the point of death? Or the thuggish but thus-far-successful Red Grant: a killer with a chip on his shoulder?

Who has the edge?  The killer instinct? Grant has prepared for this fight for some time. Bond, on the other hand, must rely on his wits and instinct.  He doesn’t know his enemy the way Grant knows him. The actual fight is not only fast-paced, and brilliantly-edited, but buttressed by the fact that there appear to be no stunt doubles involved (though, of course, there were…)  It really looks like Connery and Shaw are slugging it out, and vying for superiority, and the sense of authenticity is incredibly powerful. The fight feels frighteningly and painfully real.  

When it is over, Bond emerges with bloody knuckles, and looks quite disheveled.  In From Russia with Love he is not yet the suave superman he would become, but rather a very human man trying to stay alive in a dangerous business.

The performances in From Russia with Love are superb, and Shaw is particularly strong as the cold-blooded but not uninventive Grant.  Yet it is Sean Connery who holds the attention.  Here, his Bond is jocular, fresh-faced, and always lining up (or eyeing up) his next lay.

Connery’s Bond is charming and funny, and yet this Bond is also at the whim of fate, unlike some of successors.  He is badly outmaneuvered on the train by Grant and survives not because he is stronger, not because he is better equipped, but because he thinks on his feet, and gets lucky.

Watching Connery in action here, it is easy to understand why so many fans still retain such loyalty to his portrayal of 007.  He is thoroughly disarming, and yet also thoroughly relatable, right down to his sense of humor, appetite for sex, and obvious desperation when he realizes the cards are stacked against him.

When I write that From Russia with Love is the best film of the Bond series, it is largely because Bond is so relatable here, and because he faces such abundant danger.  It is a danger established not just by the narrative, but by the clever visuals.  The form represents the nature of the content, and for me, that’s what the film-going experience should be all about.

But I also reserve such high praise for this Bond film because From Russia with Love has the good sense not to over-gird itself with unnecessary or bloating elements. The story is, simply, that Bond must walk into a trap to get a McGuffin, and then survive the trap. The film hits every point it needs to hit in service of that story.  It doesn’t hinge on slapstick humor or spectacular action scenes set over global landmarks like the Eiffel Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge to be interpreted as successful.  Instead, From Russia with Love is the meanest and best-shot Bond film, though I also boast great affection for Roger Moore, because I grew up with him, and believe that Timothy Dalton’s efforts are vastly underrated.

And so I agree with James Bond’s assessment in From Russia with Love.  Looking back, one can see things “shaping up” nicely in the franchise. 

James Bond Friday: Movie Trailer, From Russia with Love (1963)

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Night of the Lepus (1972)

The horror cinema of the 1970s is filled with tales depicting Earth’s imminent destruction at the hands (or paws...) of…animals.   

But make no mistake: while Mother Nature may launch her animal armies against us, it is mankind himself that is to blame for her righteous vengeance  By polluting natural environments, by dumping toxic wastes, and by using pesticide, he has only brought upon his own destruction.

Message: it is not nice to fool with Mother Nature.

The Revenge of Nature Cycle may have started as the “when animals attack” genre, a movement exemplified by films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), or Willard (1972).  

But by the mid-point of the decade, filmmakers were almost constantly coupling vicious animal behavior with man’s massive and on-going mistreatment of the environment.

Accordingly, polluting man battles amphibians in Frogs (1972).  

Pesticide-spraying man battles spiders in Kingdom of the Spiders (1977).  

Toxic-waste dumping man faces insect rebellion in Empire of the Ants (1977).  

Other films of the same ilk including The Bug (1975), Squirm (1976), Day of the Animals (1977), and perhaps the most infamous revenge of nature movie of all: Night of the Lepus.

In Night of the Lepus -- a film derived from the satirical novel, The Year of the Angry Rabbit (1964) by Russell Braddon -- the careless mistake of two scientists results in the spread of a dangerous hormone that can cause “genetic deformity.” It becomes unloosed on the out-of-control giant rabbit population of Arizona. 

Before long, the ranchers and law enforcement officials near Ajo are waging a war against giant carnivorous bunnies with teeth the size of “saber tooth tigers.”

The guiding principle behind the movie, and indeed, behind the Revenge of Nature cycle is sound, and not entirely new in the 1970s.  Just as the original Godzilla (1954) is about a monster that represents out-of-control atomic power -- the opening of Pandora's Box, so-to-speak, the bunnies represent out-of-control science and irresponsible man tampering in God's domain, in Night of the Lepus.  

The big problem with the film is that as avatars of fear, rabbits are rather un-intimidating creatures.  Even with red paint splattered on their whiskery mouths. 

Ants, spiders, worms, and even frogs seem more appropriately terrifying.  And Night of the Lepus does itself no favors by showing the “enlarged” rabbits on screen constantly with tiresomely repeat or stock footage. 

 In fact, these giant rabbits hop around -- or rather “stampede” -- across miniature sets in slow-motion, in full view of the camera for long, dull stretches of the running time, and the result is underwhelming to say the least.

“Mommy, what’s a control group?”

A newscaster on TV hosts a special report about the “imbalance in the animal world,” and a “plague of rabbits” infesting Australia.  He then describes how the same situation is bedeviling the residents of Arizona.

There, rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) is seeing his land overrun by ever-multiplying rabbits.  One day, his favorite steed trips on a rabbit hole, breaks its leg, and must be put down, and that’s the last straw. Cole asks a friend, Elgin Clark (De Forest Kelley), to help him solve the crisis.

Elgin contacts two scientists who work with animals, Roy (Stuart Whitman) and Gerry Bennett (Janet Leigh).  With their daughter Amanda (Melanie Fullerton) alongside them, the scientists examine the problem and begin to experiment with hormones in an attempt to suppress the mating drive of the rabbits.  The experiment doesn't work, and the scientists mix up a new concoction with results they can't predict, as they readily admit.

Unfortunately, Amanda accidentally frees an affected rabbit, Romeo, from captivity, and the new hormone it carries causes a mutant strain of giant rabbit to rapidly develop.

The Bennetts, Elgin and Cole attempt to stop the onslaught of the rabbits, even blowing up a mine-shaft where they have made their home.  

But a herd of giant carnivorous rabbits escape from this trap, and make a run for Ajo, where they have the capacity to do major damage in terms of life and property value.

“There’s a herd of killer rabbit headed this way!”

You may not realize it, but if you have watched The Matrix (1999), you have seen, at least momentarily, imagery from Night of the Lepus.  

The movie plays on-screen during the scene in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) visits the Oracle, and sees children bending spoons.  The subtle suggestion is that a movie like Night of the Lepus -- about a “herd of killer rabbit” -- could only exist in a weird facsimile of reality.

That’s a good point, because Night of the Lepus is surely one of the most unintentionally hilarious horror movies of its day, particularly with Amanda, the Bennett’s little girl, asking exposition-heavy questions such as “Mommy, what’s a control group?” or speaking for the audience and noting “I like rabbits!"

Even the humorless narrator of the “Rabbit War” news report at the film’s beginning adds to the film's unintentional sense of humor by noting that these “cuddly pets” could become a terrible “menace.” 

As a general rule, it’s a good idea not to refer to your monster as “cuddly,” because an adjective like that undercuts the sense of horror. In a movie about slobbering, jumping, man-eating rabbits, the word cuddly should simply never be spoken at all.

Another moment of funny dialogue comes from Whitman who worries “Heaven help us if any of them [rabbits] get away before we know the effects of this serum.”

Guess what happens in the very next scene?

If you said that one of the affected rabbits gets loose, you are absolutely right. Amanda switches rabbits without her parents realizing it, and then the infected rabbit gets loose after Amanda keeps it as a pet for a time.  The Bennets are not merely lousy scientists, they are lousy parents too, for taking Amanda to work with them and not paying attention to her actions. It's clear they recognize what dangers could await if a rabbit escapes.

Even Janet Leigh, the great star of Psycho (1960) seems diminished by the film’s ridiculous dialogue. When she comforts Amanda after a lepus attack she soothes her.  It’s gone,” she assures her daughter.  “The rabbit is gone.”

Yes dear, the cuddly pet rabbit is gone now, and you have nothing to fear.  

Again, this is a fear that should not be named, specifically.  Even the very word, "rabbit," doesn't promote scares.

Let's be clear: Night of the Lepus features a monster that would be difficult to make scary under the absolute best of circumstances, but the movie doesn’t create or promote the best of circumstances. Director William Claxton allows for the rabbit scenes to linger on-creen -- in slow motion -- for long spells, and any illusion that they are giant, or dangerous, is lost because of their familiarity.  In fact, you get to the point where you start to recognize the rabbits.  There's the black one, the orange one, and so forth.  

And as the friendly-seeming rabbits hop across miniature sets it is painfully obvious that they are not gargantuan. The sound effects that accompany their runs  may “sound like a cattle stampede” to bystanders, but that too is kind of funny.

I should be clear, it’s not just that the shots linger beyond reason, in agonizing slow-motion, it’s that they repeat.  A scene with rabbits leaping a chasm is seen at least twice, and many scenes of the rabbits traversing a highway seem to repeat as well. Either that or are the roads are so similar as to be visually indistinguishable.

Director William Claxton -- a talent who directed several outstanding episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959 -1965) including the sensitive “I Sing the Body Electric” --  seems to approach this horror film as more of a Western, right down to Hill’s motivation for fighting the rabbits (the death of a horse), and some attractive, even picturesque landscape shots.  The rabbits are treated more as a stampede of out-of-control animals than as a threat resulting from science-run-amok, and nature’s reprisal.

Now, on one hand, treating the film’s threat as fairly realistic could be a good thing…if the monsters inspired fear. 

But on the other hand, Claxton goes way over-the-top in terms of fake-looking gore, a step which moves the film out of the zone of realism. The scene vacillates between deadly dull conversations and over-the-top moments of ridiculous violence, and the approach is not pleasing.

As one might expect from this approach, critics weren’t terribly impressed with the results of Claxton’s efforts.  

Roger Greenspun, writing in The New York Times, noted the “technical laziness,” “stupid story” and “dumb direction,” a kind of trifecta of utter terrible-ness. 

Alan Frank, in 1982, treated the film more gently, though drew the same conclusion, noting that the “enlarged rabbits” don’t “really carry a genuine monstrous charge.

I’ll be introducing the film tomorrow night (via Skype) for the Daviess County Library in Owensboro, Kentucky and the “Cult Movie Night” program.  

Watching the film again for the first time since I wrote Horror Films of the 1970s I felt a little bad for the out-dated wonders of Night of the Lepus. The movie features a lot of likable performers in it -- it’s great to see De Forest Kelley again, for instance -- and it surely capitalizes on the eco-terror Zeitgeist of its moment.  

And yet beyond that, this is a horror film unable to enunciate even a single moment of authentic horror.

Almost funnier than the movie itself is the trailer, which discusses a “night of total terror” and a “devil creature.”  It asks “what happened the night science made its greatest mistake?”

Well, what happens when the horror film makes a great mistake?  

Watch Night of the Lepus, and you’ll see.

Movie Trailer: Night of the Lepus (1972)

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

At Flashbak: Diana vs. Lydia

My newest article at Flashbak tallies my five favorite moments of the Diana/Lydia rivalry on V: The Series (1984-1985).

"V: The Series (1984 – 1985) -- the continuing saga of reptilian alien “Visitors” occupying 20th century Earth -- aired on NBC in America thirty years ago, and this anniversary affords us the perfect opportunity to remember the series and its often over-the-top (but nonetheless delicious…) brand of storytelling.

In creator Kenneth Johnson’s hands, the original V mini-series (1983) was a serious, thoughtful allegory about fascism taking hold in America, and it aped Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here.

Yet by the time the weekly series aired, Johnson was gone, and the new producers opted for a more soap opera approach to the alien and human intrigue.

In short, the series suddenly had to compete in the mid-1980s with the likes of popular programming like Dynasty, Knots Landing, Falcon Crest, and Dallas. 

So while the mini-series had focused on the ways that the sneaky Visitors assumed control of our hearts and minds (via the media, government, propaganda, and scapegoating), the ensuing NBC series focused on fireworks of a more personal nature. 

In particular, many of the series’ most dynamic and involving moments involve the sparring matches between Jane Badler’s brilliantly-drawn villain, Diana and June Chadwick’s equally charismatic Visitor opponent, Lydia. 

The primary reason to watch the series -- especially following a behind-the-scenes cast massacre mid-way through -- very quickly became this character interaction.

Diana and Lydia battled over war strategy, peace, and romantic lovers like Duncan Regehr's Visitor, Charles.  They always attempted to gain ultimate power, making their opponent look bad in the process.

Tallied below are the five of Lydia and Diana’s best moments from the program."

Tribute: Marilyn Burns (1950 - 2014)

The horror genre has lost a Scream Queen and icon today. Marilyn Burns, who played Sally Hardesty in Tobe Hooper’s classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), has passed away at the age of 65.

An early “final girl” in the 1970s horror cinema, Burns brilliantly portrayed in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre moments of true and utter terror. This is no small accomplishment, and there's nothing in Burns' performance in the film that rings false, or proves unconvincing.

Several scenes in the film focus on an extreme close-up of Burns’ wide eyeballs as Sally slips into madness and derangement, and there’s no evidence of artifice or theatricality in these raw, intimate images.  

The same observation goes for the rest of Burns’ remarkable performance in that film. Burns makes Sally into a real person, one who gets annoyed (at her brother Franklin), impatient, and -- as the terror mounts -- increasingly desperate. We root for her not because she is a superhero, or because she is beautiful, but because we recognize Sally as a regular kid, smart and resourceful, believing that life obeys a certain set of rules.

After playing Sally, Ms. Burns had many other notable roles in the horror genre, in Hooper’s Eaten Alive (1976), Future Kill (1985) -- as “Dorothy Grim” -- and in the TV movie Helter Skelter (1976).  

Recently, Burns appeared in Ti West’s film, The Sacrament (2014), a fictionalized version of the 1970s Jonestown cult murder/suicides.

I wish to express my deepest condolences to Ms. Burns’ family on this day of mourning and grief. 

Marilyn burns will be much missed in the horror community and by fans such as me because she always brought such humanity and realism to her roles, and gave every moment in every performance everything she had.  

Rest in peace, Marilyn Burns.