Saturday, October 04, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: BraveStarr: "BraveStarr and the Medallion"

In “BraveStarr and the Medallion,” a stranger lands in Fort Kerium wearing the same medallion that the marshal keeps close to his chest.

BraveStarr wonders if the stranger could be the Shaman’s only living relative, and plans to take the new denizen to Star Peak to find out.

Unfortunately, the stranger is in cahoots with Tex Hex, and planning to squelch the Shaman’s mystical fire, the source of all his power. Fortunately, the Shaman knows a way to test the stranger’s honesty.

Suddenly, BraveStarr seems to be featuring a clutch of episodes that involve the Shaman and Star Peak. A very close-corollary is from Filmation’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: The Sorceress and Castle Grayskull.  

Both the individual and her home were often coveted by Skeletor, just as Tex-Hex covets Star Peak and the Shaman here. For me, these stories are among the most uninteresting and uninspiring to appear on BraveStarr. The best stories, by my estimation, have been those that explore the characters, even Tex-Hex, rather than focusing on evil plans to take over Star Peak.

Here, the plot involves a fake medallion that fools BraveStarr. It is a little baffling why he is taken in by the ruse, and why he fails to remember, as the Shaman reports, that there is only one medallion in existence. It may be, simply, that BraveStarr is so desperate to find some connection to Shaman and his people that he is taken in. But he should be more wary, or the writers should do a better job of explaining why he is so easily misled.

The message at the end of this episode is what is beautiful may also be dangerous, which is appropriate given the fake medallion, but not particularly deep in terms of text. 

Next week's episode, “Sherlock Holmes in the 23rd Century Part I,” -- a pilot for a cartoon series that never was produced -- is actually much more interesting than the recent BraveStarr episodes have been...

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Godzilla (1978): "The Magnetic Terror"

In “The Magnetic Terror,” the Calico crew detects an enormous magnetic force near the South Pole, and its crew comes face-to-face with a gigantic turtle monster that has attacked a drilling rig and downed a plane.

The Calico summons Godzilla, who battles the turtle, which boasts powerful “magnetism.”  The final battle occurs at the magnetic pole, and the turtle swallows a submarine with Carl and Brock aboard.

As the monster grows to ten times Godzilla’s size, Quinn realizes that the magnetic pole contains the secret to the monster’s destruction.

After three very compelling episodes in a row, “The Magnetic Terror” is return to the previous formula, with no fantasy elements beyond Godzilla and the monster of the week.  This (first) formula is inferior because after you’ve seen one episode in this style, you’ve virtually seen them all.  

The only things that change are the picturesque locale, and the nature of the monster and its powers.  Here, we travel to the South Pole and get a magnet monster.

Otherwise, it’s the same story as “Attack of the Stone Creature” or any other early episode. 

That fact established, there is a moment that I really enjoyed, and “humanized” Godzilla, if that is the right choice of words.  Summoned by the Calico crew, he bursts up from the ocean through a layer of ice, and lands on a glacier.  But then, he slips on the ice, and catches his balance.  That’s a moment that feels like it could have come right out of the live-action Toho movies, and it reminds us that even goliaths like Godzilla slip on ice.

Next week: “The Breeder Beast.”

Friday, October 03, 2014

At Flashbak: Six Times Your Favorite Toys Were Also Props on Your Favorite Sci-Fi TV Show

My new article at Flashbak looks at toys that actually became props on sci-fi TV programming. 

"Dramatic television programs, especially those of the science fiction variety are often produced at a blazing rate, leaving scarce time for intrepid production designers, prop master or art directors to create everything they need to tell a particular story. 

Accordingly, popular -- and sometimes highly recognizable -- toys have often been recruited to stand in as in-universe props from time-to-time.

Below are six memorable examples of this trend."

Gerry Anderson's Firestorm at Kickstarter

I hope that all you fellow fans of the works of Gerry Anderson have already seen this exciting new project. 

Jamie Anderson has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund Firestorm, a new sci-fi series filmed in "Ultramarionation." 

The idea for this series originally came from Gerry Anderson and John Needham in 2001, and was called "Storm Force." 

This heir to Stingray (1964-1965), Thunderbirds (1965 - 1966), and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-1968) is set to feature practical effects -- meaning real miniatures, real explosions, and puppets. 

I'm super excited about this project, and would love to see it come to fruition (perhaps as a precursor to a new Space:1999 follow-up...), so check out the video below, and if you can, think about contributing.  I just pledged!

The Girdler Guide: Asylum of Satan (1972)

Shot in Louisville, Kentucky, reportedly on a budget of just $50,000 dollars, Asylum of Satan (1972) is director William Girdler’s first feature film. He made it when he was just twenty-four years old.

As is the case with all of the director’s films, Asylum of Satan possesses notable gaps in logic, and the director makes some astoundingly poor choices about the monsters he chooses to visualize on camera. The film’s depiction of the Prince of Darkness is horribly inexpressive and phony-looking, and yet it receives considerable screen-time.More than that, the cheap Devil mask/head succeeds in scuttling the film’s crimson-hued climax.

Beyond these readily-apparent missteps and limitations of budget, however, it feels sometimes during the film like Girdler is actually onto something interesting, at least from a visual perspective. His best conceit is that of an asylum that seems to span two different or competing realities, and notably this leitmotif requires no visual effects or make-up at all, only set re-decoration. Accordingly, the double-nature of the film’s setting, Pleasant Hill Hospital, may be Asylum of Satan’s most memorable achievement.

From one perspective, some viewers may also enjoy Asylum of Satan as a kind of 78-minute dirty joke, given the film’s final revelation or punch-line. Yet it is exceedingly difficult to know if this is a case of a plot point that is unintentionally or intentionally humorous.

Regardless, the film’s final revelation remains unforgettable.

In Asylum of Satan, concert pianist Lucina Martin (Carla Borelli) is unexpectedly transferred to Pleasant Hill Hospital -- a sanitarium -- by her regular physician, Doctor Nolan. She vehemently protests, but is told by an employee at the asylum named Martine (Charles Kissinger) that she will be glad to be treated by Doctor Specter (also Charles Kissinger), a “great man” whose specialty is pain.

Lucina meets Dr. Specter and promptly demands her release from custody, but he insists that she has had a nervous breakdown, and that she must recover in the isolation of the asylum. Specter also performs a physical examination of the lovely Ms. Martin and notes that her skin remains “unblemished…by sin.”

While Lucina’s boyfriend, Chris  Duncan (Nick Jolley) goes in search of her, and attempts to get the police, led by Lt. Walsh (Louis Bandy) to raid the asylum, Lucina’s fellow residents are killed one at a time, by insects, by fire, and by poison snakes in the swimming pool. 

As she soon learns, Lucina is to be Dr. Specter’s final sacrifice to Satan, one that will grant him eternal life for the delivery of virgin…

A legitimately great shot pops up early in Asylum of Satan. An unconscious Lucinda is carried on a stretcher up the stairs to her room by several paramedics. At the same time, a dark shadow, his features indistinct, silently watches her go. The positioning of the characters in the frame, with the dark figure intruding but un-moving,creepily suggests menace, and furthermore that, on occasion, Girdler is able to catalyze his instincts to make a shot that really carries psychic weight, at least purely in terms of imagery.

At another juncture, some kind of hideously deformed creature emerges from Room 319 in the hospital, lunging out of the dark at the camera. The moment is odd and frightening, and it goes unexplained. The creature’s make-up doesn’t hold-up to the scrutiny the camera’s gaze provides, so terror dissipates. But for the first few seconds, the fear generated by this set-up is palpable.

Alas, so many other moments fail to come off as Girdler no doubt hope and intended, and largely because, at this early junction in his career the director still seems to be calibrating what things should be seen on camera and for how long. 

For instance, the crippled female resident who is killed by bugs gets the worst treatment perhaps. Fake, jiggly insects -- creepy crawlies? -- land on her face, and there is no illusion of life, just the suggestion of jello or gelatin. Similarly, the final scenes of the film that depict a Satanic Mass that goes on for far too long.

And when the Devil himself shows up, it is in in a guise that inspires no fear, no dread. Yet Old Scratch remains in our sight, moment after agonizing moment.

As I noted in my introduction, there’s no reason, really, to show all this stuff, because Girdler does far better with the movie’s central location: an asylum that is sometimes an immaculate, state-of-the-art-facility, and sometimes a dilapidated, ruined place of EVIL. The environs shift back and forth unpredictably and without reason, and are thus, if not disturbing, at least discomfiting. The idea of the asylum being two places also fits in nicely with Lucina’s nervous breakdown. She could be imagining the horrors she encounters.

And though it is undeniably odd that Charles Kissinger should play both Lucina’s female hostess Martine and her male doctor, Specter, the double performance by the actor also contributes to this plot line about two universes operating on parallel tracks. This idea has been repeated in horror films and television since Asylum of Satan, but notably, and to great effect in (the brilliant) Silent Hill (2006).

What works effectively about many of the asylum scenes is Girdler’s choice to explain very little regarding the imagery. Instead, Lucina ends up in a dining hall with the other asylum residents, surrounded by hooded figures with hidden faces. These hooded figures all sit frozen in wheelchairs for some reasons, and are completely silent. On their plates: eggs still in the shells, untouched.  It’s such a weird and visually disturbing set of images that tension and intrigue are generated.

Are the eggs there to represent souls? Why aren’t the people moving? Who are they?  Are they even, truly, present? Why is one of the hooded figures burned?

Meanwhile, the nurses in the institution all deliberately lack any emotional affect, and seem like drones or zombies. And creepy Dr. Specter has a peep hole in his medicine cabinet through which he watches Lucina disrobe. All these touches together work nicely to suggest a realm of darkness and diabolism.

It’s all creepy and slightly surreal, and even Kissinger’s stilted, declamatory manner of speech seems to play towards rather than against Asylum of Satan’s prevailing mood of strangeness. I often write about how many effective horror movies (like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) take on the qualities of a dream, or a waking nightmare. Asylum of Satan is obviously nowhere near the same class of filmmaking,but occasionally it attains that kind of abject, disturbing weirdness that critics like me tend to covet in the genre.

From a certain perspective, Asylum of Satan is really and truly a dirty joke. The devil’s henchman, Specter, goes out of his way to procure a virgin for the Devil, only for the Devil to detect, almost immediately, that she has already been deflowered.  On one hand, this seems like wicked, droll commentary about the youth-revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the difficulty of finding someone virginal.

On the other hand, as I noted in my book, Horror Films of the 1970s, there’s no clear “tell” that Girdler is pulling a gag or intends for the discovery to be played as tongue-in-cheek. Lucina’s *ahem* condition is played, for lack of a better word, straight. 

Also, it isn’t entirely clear to me, on this re-watch, why Specter missed that Lucina is, uh, sexually experienced since he performed a full medical exam on her.  We know she wasn’t deflowered at the asylum, but rather beforehand, because we get a flashback of Lucina and Chris making love after a walk in the snow on a wintry day.

I have a tremendous fondness for Girdler and his films, but it isn’t always easy to forge an affirmative case for his artistry. However certain shots and set-ups in Asylum of Satan work pretty well, and more than that, make the case that the director has a good eye….or was working to develop one. I limit that observation mostly to Lucina’s arrival in the sanitarium, and that weird scene in the cafeteria from Hell. 

Unless you’re really into horror films and horror film history, Asylum of Satan may not be your thing. The acting is weak, the dialogue is pretty atrocious, and the end is opaque in the sense that it isn’t clear how it is to be interpreted. 

But, again, every now and then the movie engineers a moment of creepy frisson, and thus keeps audiences tuned in.  In some ways, William B. Girdler’s first film, Asylum of Satan remains as schizophrenic as its two realities.

On one hand, Girdler wants to show you everything, and “everything” -- like the bugs or Satan, himself -- doesn’t look so hot. 

On the other hand, he pulls back in terms of the explanation for the monster in room 319 and regarding the cafeteria of egg-eating cultists. In those moments, the film seems to achieve genuine idiosyncratic nuttiness.

Next Friday: Girdler’s Three on a Meathook.

The William B. Girdler Guide

In years past on the blog, I have written career retrospectives of great genre film directors including William Friedkin, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, James Cameron, and Tim Burton.

For the next month or so, I’ll be devoting space on the blog to a director who may not be great at all, but whose horror film work I nonetheless admire and love. This director could have been a contender, had fate been just a little bit different.

The artist I describe here is William B. Girdler. The director died tragically, at the age of thirty, just as his latest film, The Manitou (1978) was classified a hit for Avco-Embassy.

At the time of his passing, Girdler had years and perhaps decades of filmmaking ahead of him, but because of a helicopter accident while scouting locations for his next project, we were denied these films, and the opportunity to watch the artist develop.

If William B. Girdler were here right now, he might quibble with my assessment of his him as an artist. As extant interviews with the director make plain, he was interested, first and foremost, in entertaining people. He wanted his films to be fun and enjoyable, not necessarily enlightening. He didn’t want his movies to be about messages.

But I admire Girdler’s work -- which isn’t always good, let alone great -- because he improved project to project, and because he got his zero-budget horror movies made and seen, to the point that Hollywood came calling in the late 1970s, before he was even out of his twenties.

I harbor no doubt that Girdler would have continued to learn and improve had he lived, and today film lovers might talk about Girdler regularly when they discuss the horror maestros of the 1970s or even the 1980s.

Far from Hollywood at first, William B. Girdler made his films in Louisville, Kentucky, on tiny budgets, and utilizing local talent. His films showcase amateur mistakes at the same time they reveal genuine passion, real technical chops, and a tendency towards well, let’s just say, “original” visualizations.

Later today, I’ll post a review of Girdler’s first film, Asylum of Satan (1972), which helped kick off the Devil-movie trend of the disco decade (Brotherhood of Satan [1972], The Exorcist [1973], Race with the Devil [1975], The Devil’s Rain [1975] and so on).

Then, in the weeks ahead, I’ll gaze at William B. Girdler’s other cinematic efforts, including the charmingly-titled Three on a Meathook (1973), the Jaws knock-off Grizzly (1976), and his last film, the aforementioned Manitou (1978)…which is a masterpiece of weird. 

I hope you’ll join me for this retrospective of a director who left us far too soon, and whose horror movies -- despite their absurdities -- always went for broke.

Movie Trailer: Asylum of Satan (1972)

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Pretty Poison (1968)

In 1967, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde immediately proved a counter-culture sensation by portraying its stylishly-dressed youth heroes as violent, hip, sexy and absolutely righteous. The protagonists’ mantra of “we rob banks” was deemed heroic in the Great Depression of the film’s setting, and a statement of Robin Hood-styled virtues to boot.  

In 1968, Noel Black’s film noir Pretty Poison, however, turned Bonnie and Clyde’s romanticism about crime and violence on its head.

Indeed, such flights of romantic fantasy about crime and violence are explicitly critiqued in the Black film, the story of a young man and immovable object, Dennis (Anthony Perkins) who lives in a day-dream world until that day-dream runs smack into an irresistible force: “all American” high school student, Sue Ann Stepenek (Tuesday Weld). 

Sue Ann is, as we eventually discover, a stone-cold sociopath, and Dennis learns the hard way what his caring parole officer Azenauer (John Randolph) has been attempting to tell him all along about life:

You’re going outside into a very real, very tough world. It has no place for fantasies.”

Pretty Poison concerns Dennis’s persistent inability to step out of his fantasy land, and then dramatically permits him a final, memorable moment of grace regarding it. In an instant of clarity, Dennis offers a staggeringly insightful coda about people like his femme-fatale lover, and the world that nurtures them.

Additionally, Pretty Poison muses on what kind of society could give rise to a person like Sue Ann, and through association with all-American symbols -- like the aforementioned high school marching band  (waving an American flag, no less) -- suggests a spiritual sickness sprouting like a weed inside our borders.

Unremittingly dark and at times extremely suspenseful, Pretty Poison wonders, essentially, what happens when Bonnie and Clyde get together but aren’t exactly on the same page regarding their violent exploits. 

One of them, Pretty Poison informs us, is going to take the fall. Hard.

“Would you like me if I weren’t a CIA agent?”

Young Dennis Pitt (Perkins) is released from incarceration, and is told by his kindly parole officer, Azenauer (Randolph) that a job at Lowell Lumber and Supply has been arranged for him. Pitt moves into a trailer at Bronson’s Garage, and begins working at the job.

Bored of the mundane and highly-repetitive work, the fantasy-prone boy begins to confabulate stories about being a secret agent on top secret assignment.  When Dennis is drawn to a beautiful high school girl, Sue Ann Stepenek (Weld), he pulls her into his fantastic stories too. Together, they plot to sabotage the Lumber and Supply building, which Dennis insists will be used to contaminate the town’s drinking water.

But on the night of the raid, Sue Ann wantonly commits murder and steals a loaded gun. More and more uncomfortable with her behavior, Dennis feels “the pressures closing in.”  Eventually, Sue Ann arranges for Dennis to be a patsy in the murder of her mother (Garland), promising him that they will flee to Mexico together once the deed is done.

Dennis is arrested for the crime of murder, after turning himself in at a phone booth, and sent to jail.  Meanwhile, Sue Ann -- reveling in her freedom and power -- meets another man whom she can use for her own sinister purposes.

“You know, when grown-ups do it, it’s kind of dirty.”

Dennis Pitt did a very bad thing in his youth. He started a fire that killed someone he loved, his aunt. And yet Dennis weeps when he speaks of his crime, and seems truthful when he claims that he never knew his aunt was at home during the arson attempt. He never meant to hurt anybody. Perhaps because he is unable to reckon fully with how his actions caused the death of another human being, Dennis dwells in a perpetual fantasy world. It is a safer place, he seems to understand.

I’ve been taking a secret course in interplanetary navigation,” Dennis tells Azenauer at one point. “I had hoped to be appointed to the first Venus rocket.”  The comment is a joke, of course, but it reveals the truth about Dennis. He can’t remain tethered in a dull, mundane world where his talents, he believes, are wasted.  

Other worlds, other fantasies, seem to beckon him.

When Azenauer gets him a job in a lumber yard, Dennis blows it. He causes an accident on the assembly line because he is day-dreaming while doing his work. In particular, he is day-dreaming of Sue Anne, remembering her performance in the marching band.

These scenes are especially important in terms of visual presentation. Dennis’s job in the mill requires him to gaze through an over-sized square scope that enlarges the bottles passing before his eyes, thus making inspection easy. 

Yet the scope looks completely distorted, and therefore functions as a symbol of Dennis’s distorted perspective or vision.  Like the scope which enlarges some items at the expense of others, Dennis’s vision doesn’t reveal the world as it is, but in a tricky, untrue way.

Similarly, Denis first gets close to Sue Ann after watching a parade involving her marching band by pretending to be a secret agent. He asks her to hold onto something important -- a bottle of that red liquid from the mill (mercury?) -- because he is allegedly under surveillance. Sue Ann is tantalized by this game and does as Dennis asks. Their first date afterwards, importantly is in a movie theater: a place of fantasies come true.

Little-by-little, Sue Ann appears to be drawn into Dennis’s web of fantastic lies involving his life as a secret agent, and his plan to raid the paper mill factory before the drinking water can be contaminated.

Yet a close watching of the film reveals another truth.

From the very beginning, Sue Ann wants to be rid of her bossy, controlling mother (Beverly Garland), and no matter the flight of fancy that Dennis engages in, he is used by Sue Ann to make that plan become a reality.

Sue Ann pulls the trigger, but Dennis is her patsy, the man with a criminal record who goes to jail for the crime she commits. Thus Pretty Poison pulls a nifty little dramatic trick on the viewer.  We believe, for the longest time, that Dennis is deceiving Sue Ann about who he is, and what he is really doing with her. In fact, it is Sue Ann who is the great deceiver, leading Dennis down a road which will see him charged for murder and jailed. Sue Ann puts the thought in Dennis’s head of fleeing to Mexico, and before long, Dennis is mindlessly dreaming of a Mexican beach, as we see in several brief cuts.

It is clear that Sue Ann wishes to be free, and that she uses Dennis for that purpose, to procure her freedom.  It is also clear that though she knows she wants her mother dead, Sue Ann isn’t certain, even, that her mother’s death will make her truly happy.  “I feel empty,” she notes at one important juncture, and it seems like an important admission. Sue Ann may not be able to feel empathy, or any emotions for others. She may only feel that emptiness, and so resorts to violence to alleviate it. She looks like a normal person, but is something else, a truth revealed by compositions in which Sue Ann appears upside down in the frame.

Twice in the film, Sue Ann shows real enthusiasm and excitement during the act of murder. First she bludgeons and then drowns a guard at the lumber mill. In this scene, she mounts the dying man (who is face down in the water) and rides him in a perverse mockery of the sexual act. In the second case, she shoots her mother at point blank range, and even that isn’t enough to sate her desire.  She fires again and again, over and over, as if trying to recapture the thrill of murder repeatedly. To put it indelicately, the only thing that seems to get Sue off is killing.

So where Dennis – perpetually playing at being a secret agent -- notes in mock-heroic dialogue that “emotions can be fatal in times like this,” Sue Ann seems, in reality, unable to express emotions except in the prosecution of murder or other violent acts.

Importantly, Pretty Poison also suggests, albeit obliquely, that Sue Ann has done something like this before.

On the dresser in her bedroom is a photograph of a mysterious soldier. Dennis looks at the photo and asks who it is. Sue Ann lies and claims she doesn’t remember. It seems entirely likely that this mystery man was the last victim who fell for her charms (and is now conspicuously absent). This seems especially likely given that after Dennis goes to jail she picks up with another mark, planning to lead him into trouble as well.

Contrarily, the photo could be of Sue Ann’s absent father (as a young man), who she reports died in Korea.  Perhaps she lied to Dennis, and she had him killed, just as she plans to have her mother killer.
Either way, the photograph exposes Sue Ann, which is why she refuses to explain it in any detail.

Dennis realizes too late what Sue Ann is, but refuses to testify against her because, in his experience, people “pay attention” only those things they notice themselves. This means that society at large will have to determine what Sue Ann really is. Dennis, oddly enough, seems to feel safe in jail, away from the “pretty poison” he encountered in the outside world. He is reflecting on his own lesson in a way when he makes this important remark. He didn’t believe Azenauer that the world is cruel and tough place, with no room for fantasy.  Now, after his experience with Sue Ann, he believes it.

What remains so shocking about Pretty Poison is the way that Sue Ann’s pathology slowly comes to the surface. She is a beautiful, blonde, All-American high school girl, ensconced in the marching band, and curious about life, and what the future holds. Scratch the surface a little, however, and one detects that seething appetite for violence, and her slick, seductive way of operating. She uses her youth, her appearance and her very sex to cow those around her.

Eventually someone will notice, right?

Pretty Poison is a smart, stunningly-performed film noir because it suggests that some people -- not unlike Dennis -- are drawn to romantic visions of rebellion and forbidden love; very much like the imagery featured in the (great) Bonnie and Clyde.

But by the same token, Pretty Poison suggests that such fairy tales have little practical use in reality, and those who believe them will be “poisoned”, in a sense, by their expectations that such stories represent how the real world really works. They can offer only a distorted lens.

So if Bonnie and Clyde, an icon of the counter-culture youth of the day, raises important questions about violence, crime and love, Pretty Poison voices a somber, frightening answer.

Movie Trailer: Pretty Poison (1969)

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

At Flashbak: You Should Be Dancin’: The Five Movie Musicals that Killed Disco at the Box Office

In 1977, John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever took the box office and pop culture by storm.

Based on the New York article “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” the movie depicted the story of blue-collar Brooklyn-native Tony Manero (John Travolta), “the king” -- or perhaps God -- of disco. Audiences thrilled to Manero’s attempt with his dance partner (Karen Lynn Gorney) to win a dance contest at the local disco, a victory that made Manero set his eyes beyond the lights of Brooklyn, on something bigger.

Scored wall-to-wall with Bee-Gees tunes like “Stayin’ Alive,” Saturday Night Fever was an authentic phenomenon that made Travolta a movie star and sold more than twenty-million copies of the film’s soundtrack.

As one might expect, the success of Saturday Night Fever also meant that Hollywood was soon attempting to cash in on a new trend. Before long, a whole cycle of disco movies was in the offing. Unfortunately, most of the ensuing efforts proved dreadful, and the disco fad died a brutal death at the box office.

Here then, for your consideration, are five of the movie musicals that hammered the final nails in disco’s coffin. These movie musicals-- all of 1978 -1983 vintage -- remain to this day among the most bizarre, garish, and lurid films ever produced.

Return of the Jedi (1983) Presto Magix

Model Kit of the Week: Return of the Jedi (MPC)

Lunch Box of the Week: Return of the Jedi (1983)

Board Game of the Week: Return of the Jedi - Battle at Sarlacc's Pit Game (Parker Bros; 1983)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Supernova (2000)

Supernova (2000) is just the kind of genre film that -- I readily admit -- I’m inclined to enjoy. It involves a doomed space mission skirting the edge of the cosmic map. Specifically, Supernova recounts the most dangerous journey of the Medical Rescue Vehicle Nightingale as -- in response to an emergency signal -- it “jumps” to a rogue moon where a mining outpost, Titan-37, once operated.

Unfortunately, the Nightingale’s crew learns, post-jump, that the wandering satellite is now desperately close to a blue giant star, one destined to go supernova in less-than-a-day.

And that’s just the beginning of the action.The film also involves an alien artifact -- a ninth dimensional bomb, -- and a super-strong psychopath, Troy (Peter Facinelli) determined to keep ownership of the WMD.

Buttressed by some solid year 2000 visual special effects, Supernova also features a promising cast, including James Spader, Angela Bassett, Robin Tunney, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Robert Forster. 

And yet despite such virtues, this science-fiction film never quite comes together as powerfully as one might hope it would.

The action and death scenes are largely run-of-the-mill affairs, less kinetic and less effective than similar scenes you will find in pictures of this vintage and type, like Event Horizon (1997) or Pitch Black (2000), for example.

Behind-the-scenes turmoil on Supernova is the stuff of legend, with director Walter Hill opting to be credited by the pseudonym “Thomas Lee.” When MGM refused to approve the budget necessary for special effects, Hill left the production, allegedly, and Jack Sholder was brought on to complete the film.  Then, Francis Ford Coppola attempted to save the film in the editing process.

Not good.

Given a history like that, Supernova is actually a bit more coherent than one might expect. Legendary box office “bomb” or no, the film boasts a few facets that even today hold the interest.

The first is the deliberate aping of the Dead Calm (1989) narrative, which was writer William Malone’s intent. 

The second quality of value is the film’s steadfast refusal to clear up the ambiguity of the final act, and the fate that may befall Earth.

Third and finally, Supernova provides an interesting contrast in “percentages,” in a subplot that suggests the greatest treasure in the universe may not be ninth-dimensional matter, but rather the human capability to connect with his fellow man or woman, right down to the genetic level.

“I like deep space…People tend to respect your privacy.”
In a few centuries, the rescue ship Nightingale receives an emergency distress signal from Titan-37, an abandoned mining operation on a rogue moon. 
New to the ship is the co-pilot, Vanzant (Spader), an ex-junkie who has earned the dislike of the ship’s doctor, Evers (Bassett), in part because of her personal past with a violent junkie named Karl Nelson.
After a dangerous jump, the ship’s captain, Marley (Forster) is mutilated in his bio-protection chamber, and asks to be killed.  And the sender of the distress call turns out to be the son of Karl Nelson, Troy (Facinelli).  
While the ship’s crew tends to repairs from the dimensional jump, and prepares to escape a nearby blue giant’s supernova, the crew also learns that Troy has in his possession an unstable alien artifact…

“That whole place is like a ghost ship.”

The most notable aspect of Supernova’s story, perhaps, is its dedicated repetition of the plot-points of Philip Noyce’s sea-based thriller, Dead Calm. In that film, as you may recall, a couple played by Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman go to sea following the death of their child, only to help out the last survivor of a ruined vessel, played by Billy Zane. Zane’s character turns out to be a dangerous psychopath, and he strands Neill’s character on his useless old boat while he terrorizes Kidman’s character on the family yacht.

In Supernova, we also get the passenger from the ruined “other” location, in this case a moon-based mining operation. The film also finds Spader’s lead character, Vanzant marooned there, and fighting his way to get back to his ship, much as Neill did in the earlier picture. Facinelli, like Zane, is a physically-fit, twitchy psychotic who, before his reign of terror ends, has his way with a female shipmate. Outer space, obviously, substitutes for the terrestrial high seas.

Supernova has its problems to be sure, but the idea behind it, of bringing Dead Calm into the future, is not one of them. You may recognize the Dead Calm flourishes and consider them derivative -- because they are -- but Supernova is also original enough to introduce some new elements to the formula. In this case, it’s the presence of the ultimate WMD, the alien artifact that elevates the film’s ending. The movie’s denouement, which eschews our desire for closure, also leaves audiences to ponder what might could happen in the brave new world following the finale.

There’s also a present -- if irregularly enunciated -- through-line here about the human race, or more accurately, human nature. Once rescued by the crew of the Nightingale, the evil Troy/Karl tries to bring them around to his cause. He promises them each five percent of the wealth he plans to acquire from the alien artifact. He prizes monetary wealth, and is surprised that there are no takers, save for Yerzy. 

At film’s end, uniquely, Vanzant and Dr. Evers are forced to share a biological containment unit so as to survive the space jump away from the super nova. In the process, they each swap 2.5 % of their DNA with the other.  Add those figures up, and you have 5% percent, Troy’s proposed figure for recompense. 

The notion here may be, simply, that one “treasure” may be more worthwhile or more valuable than other. Troy promises material wealth to the crew, but at the risk of everything, at the risk of the universe itself.  By contrast, the biological transfer renders Evers pregnant, ostensibly with Vanzant’s child.

Who needs the magic of unstable, 9th dimensional matter, when human matter can, likewise, “replenish” life, and in a way that is safe?

Finally, Supernova ends with a terrifying thought. The shock-wave from the supernova will detonate the 9th dimensional bomb, and the ensuing shock-wave will spread out, to all corners of the universe. It will strike Earth in fifty one years, we are told.  When it strikes, it will either destroy the planet, or change the very nature of human life. 

Supernova gives us no idea which outcome is more likely, or what that change could be. But I’ve got to give the movie credit for setting up an apocalypse that it never intends to depict, and asking viewers to consider the possibilities. 

Would the shock-wave render all men and women physically powerful, but mentally unhinged, like Troy?  Or would it usher in the very “leap in evolution” that the mad Troy foresees? There are many ways that the movie could have ended. Troy could have been killed. The ship could have escaped. There could have been a final sting in the tail/tale. Instead, Supernova leaves audiences to ponder the idea that a “wave” is coming for mankind, and that it is something he can’t avoid.  The future will be…different.

When one couples this idea of some force changing man’s physical nature with the moment early in the film in which Captain Marley (Robert Forster) discusses “violent animation” of the 20th century (meaning Tom and Jerry), and calling it a “catharsis” that can, under some circumstances, unleash “human malevolence,” the film’s theme starts to become clearer. 

Tom and Jerry live in a world in which there are no physical limits or restraints.They bash, bruise and bludgeon each other with that power, and do almost nothing else. If the shock wave unshackles man from his biological restraints, will he find a better use for that power than the animated cat and mouse, his artistic creations, do?

A further connection to the film’s leitmotif comes in characterization of the ship’s computer, Sweetie.  The ship’s navigator, Benjamin (Wilson Cruz) attempts to over-write her programming when under duress, when threatened with death by Troy.He attempts to unshackle her, however, so she can kill.  Again, there’s the notion here that without “programming” (or biological) restraints, the universe tends to violence.  Man creates Tom and Jerry and Sweetie the Computer, and directs them both towards such that violence.  What chance is there he won’t act violently if transformed into a superman?

Supernova falters, largely, in that most of the crew deaths seem to happen all at once, and without tremendous or even modest distinction. Two crew members, one after the other, get ejected into space without protection, and die there. Similarly, the battle scenes on Titan and aboard the Nightingale seem claustrophobic and messy, but not in an intentional or good way. The scuffles are virtually incoherent, and so some sense of suspense is sacrificed.

There are gaps in the storytelling too. Danika Lund is shown to be in an intense (and apparently rewarding…) romantic relationship with Yerzy. So much so that they are hoping to be approved as parents when they return home. They want to have a child together.  But after seeing Troy naked (and with an apparently sizable erection), Danika makes love to him. She does not seem to be under duress when she does so.  She is not executing a strategy (as Nicole Kidman’s character was, once more, in a similar scene in Dead Calm). Instead, we have no understanding of why -- besides carnal lust -- she would sacrifice everything to be with this (admittedly hot…) guy for the right fifteen minutes. 

I’m not arguing that people don’t make impulsive decisions about sex all the time, only that we don’t have a lot of insight into Danika’s character, and her decisions. Does she feel trapped by Yerzy? Does she really not want children? Is this her way of avoiding those responsibilities?  It would be nice to have just a bit more clarity in terms of character motivations. If we knew Danika’s reasons, we might be able to fit them into the film’s larger puzzle or leitmotif.  Sex, like violence, might be deemed the result of our biological programming, and this aspect could have been explored in the context of the rest of the film’s themes.

It’s pretty clear that Supernova overcame incredible odds just to get to theaters, and given the tumult of its production, it’s a little amazing that the film succeeds to the degree it does. The silver-blue palette that suffuses the film gives it a sense of visual consistency, and from time to time, the script really gets close to expressing a meaningful thought about mankind, and what kind of creature he is, or might become, given a giant leap forward.

It’s no Sunshine (2007), Pitch Black, or Event Horizon, but Supernova occasionally shines very brightly. You can either enjoy the flashes of ingenuity on their own terms, or curse the general darkness of the enterprise.