Saturday, October 11, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: BraveStarr: "Sherlock Holmes in the 23rd Century" (Part I)

In BraveStarr’s “Sherlock Holmes in the 23rd Century (Part I)” the audience learns that the Great Detective of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is not a work of fiction at all, but a real man. 

Furthermore, we learn that Holmes does not die at Reichenbach Falls while fighting Professor Moriarity.  Rather, he falls through a “natural time warp” and emerges in England of the 23rd Century.

Holmes doesn’t require much time to adjust to the future, and promptly agrees to help the visiting Marshal from New Texas, BraveStarr, solve the mystery of a little alien boy who disappeared on a missing kerium freighter.  The boy was searching for his parents, and is now lost himself. 

Also helping Holmes on this case is a Scotland Yard detective -- and his grand-niece -- the beautiful Mycraft Holmes, and a Rigellian doctor named Witson…

“Sherlock Holmes in the 23rd Century” (Part I) -- an endearing riff on Buck Rogers tropes -- shows a lot more life and ingenuity than do many episodes of BraveStarr that I’ve seen so far.

This story was apparently intended as the pilot for a spin-off Filmation series which never came to be, alas.  Still, the story shows tremendous promise, and I enjoyed the look of a Retro-Victorian England of the Future, one replete with Dickensian pick-pockets and so forth.

Although it defies credibility that Holmes would wake up in the 23rd century to partner with a physician named Wittson, a superior at Scotland Yard named Lestrade (after her ancestor…), not to mention a kick-ass detective named Holmes, we must, as Mr. Spock would remind us, no doubt, remember that the universe unfolds as it should. In whatever time period he dwells, Holmes’ life as we remember it in fiction seems to form around him.

Alas, as we learn in the second part of that episode, that means his greatest nemesis is also still alive in the future, and waiting for him.

Next week: “Sherlock Holmes in the 23rd Century” (Part II).

Friday, October 10, 2014

At Flashbak: Freddy Slays ‘Em: The Five Greatest Death Scenes in the Nightmare on Elm Street Film Series

Beginning in 1984, the Nightmare on Elm Street films ruled the box office, and the horror genre too. Wes Craven created a timeless demon in crone-like Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), the ultimate “bad father” and a bogeyman who would visit the sins of the fathers upon the children.  The original film series stretched from 1984 to 1991, and Wes Craven himself re-booted the monster with a darker tint in 1994’s New Nightmare.

Freddy was and remains terrifying for many reasons.  First and foremost, Freddy was in total command of the dream world, a realm that we all have to visit sooner or later, lest we lose our minds.  None of us can avoid sleep for long.

But Freddy was also scary because he served as a reflection of that universal quality of teen angst, from drug use in the “just say no” Reagan years, to body image worries and anxieties about eating disorders.

The key to Freddy’s particular brand of horror was that he was -- after a fashion -- a kind of nasty therapist, forcing his victims to face their deepest insecurities before, finally, murdering them in terrible fashion.  Whatever psychological foible Freddy found in those whose dreams he stalked, he ruthlessly and colorfully exploited. And the special effects masters brought those phantasms to vivid, incredible life.

Freddy did not play favorites, either, or act in a politically-correct fashion. His best kills in the series are those that, to some extent, contend with topics that the mainstream culture simply didn’t want to discuss either then or now.

Kill a kid in a wheelchair?  Check.

Force feed an anorexic/bulimic to death? Check.

Make an ex-junkie overdose on heroin? Check.

In short, Freddy never feared to go to the dark places of the psyche, and the five best “kills” in the series reflect that key aspect of the franchise...."

The Girdler Guide: Three on a Meathook (1973)

The quaintly titled Three on a Meathook (1973) from director William B. Girdler is a full-on homage to -- or perhaps rip-off of -- Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark film, Psycho (1960). 

Like that film (and like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [1974] as well), the film is loosely based on the exploits of real-life, mid-western serial killer Ed Gein. Girdler’s version of the macabre tale, however, is shot in Louisville, Kentucky, and on a budget of just twenty-thousand dollars. Still, Girdler actually apes the Master’s moves in some key sequences here, though to little avail.

The fledgling artistry evident in the best moments of the admittedly uneven Asylum of Satan (1972), is, alas, not present here to any significant degree. Perhaps this is so because Three on a Meathook arises from a more naturalistic school of horror filmmaking, and Girdler doesn’t seize opportunities to make his film particularly stylish.

In fact, the film is relatively short on close-ups, which saddles Three on a Meathook with a distant or remote quality. This approach makes it difficult to invest in the characters, and without investment, fear cannot blossom.

Worse, the film grinds to a halt during the protagonist’s stop at a Louisville dive, where a local band performs not one but two songs in their entirety. In a film just eighty-minutes in length, that’s a lot of time to lose on a musical interlude.

Never reaching a real fever pitch of tension or suspense, Three on a Meathook proves interesting mostly in a few nicely orchestrated death scenes, particularly one shocking moment involving a decapitation. 

Other than that, however, the film showcases a sort of developmentally-arrested Girdler, a director still finding his way with actors and visualizations. Call it a sophomore slump.

“Let this boy keep his evil to himself.”

In Kentucky, four young women get together at a lake resort for the weekend. When their car breaks down, the friendly local, Billy (James Pickett) offers to help them, letting them stay on his farm for the night. Billy’s strict father, Pa Townsend (Charles Kissinger), doesn’t approve of the arrangement. He worries about Billy’s behavior when he is near women. The boy has never been the same since his mother died years earlier.

By night, an unknown assailant brutally murders all four young women, some in their sleep. Pa blames Billy for the blood-bath and promises to clean up his mess. A guilty-feeling Billy goes to see The Graduate, and then visits a bar to drink away his blues. There Billy meets and falls in love with a free-spirited bartender, Sherry (Sherry Steiner).  He wants to invite her back to the farm, over Pa’s objections.

Sherry and a friend, Becky (Madelyn Buzzard) stay at the Townsend Farm, but Becky is butchered, and a frightened Sherry finds the corpses of the dead girls in the barn…on a row of meat-hooks. 

Soon, she is accosted by Billy’s father, who is behind the killings…but for a strange and sinister purpose.

“I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen.”

William B. Girdler has sometimes been termed the movie “rip-off” king because his movies almost universally ape a famous formula or particular film. His Abby (1976) is the “black” The Exorcist (1973). His Grizzly (1976) is essentially Jaws (1975) on land, and so forth. Similarly, one can make the case that Three on a Meathook follows this example.  It is -- no bones about it -- the director’s version of Psycho.

To start with, both films commence with a camera pan across a modern metropolis. In the case of Psycho, it’s Phoenix, AZ, and here it’s Louisville, KY. 

Then, immediately following this exterior pan we move into a hotel room, where a sexual liaison is already occurring.  Girdler is able to show more flesh here, however, than Hitchcock was permitted in 1960.  Girdler’s lovers are seen locked under the sheets together, topless. The man is mounting the woman. When the woman emerges from the coupling, she performs the rest of the scene without a bra.

Then, four women go on a trip (as Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane undertook a trip…), and end up at the abode of terror, in this case not a motel, but a farm. 

In both instances, the boy-ish host, either Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) or Billy offer to feed the hungry guests, and in both cases a murder soon occurs in the bathroom. 

Here, the shower is not the location of the brutal murder however. A bath-tub does the trick instead. Intriguingly, four victims die during this sequence, and the best moment occurs not in the bathroom, aping Psycho, but in a hall-way where a lightning-fast and well-executed decapitation offs the last victim, and captures the attention.

After everyone in the initial victim pool is dead, a new female lead is introduced (Sherry, in this case, rather than Vera Miles’ Lila Crane). As she goes cross close to Billy, we are left to wonder as to the identity of the killer.  Is it his father?  Or is it his mother, whom we are told died when he was ten years old?

After the murders are resolved, we get, almost note-for-note, Psycho’s talky “restoring order” ending, in which a psychiatrist explains at length the details of the case.  Just as Simon Oakland discussed Norman Bates’ schizophrenia in Psycho, the psychiatrist character here goes on at great length about Pa Townsend’s psychosis.

And finally, in time for the last shot, we get the composition of an imprisoned madman, not Norman, but rather Pa Townsend. This is where they will spend the rest of their days…incarcerated.

From A to B to C, Three on a Meathook leads right back to Psycho. The movie’s “clever” twist, however, is an inversion of Norman’s story. Whereas Norman’s mother was really dead (and stuffed in the fruit cellar) but Norman was pretending she was alive by becoming her, Billy’s mother is believed to be dead, but actually alive. 

You see, she suffers from “cannibalistic tendencies” and Billy’s father, Pa, has been murdering passersby (and blaming Billy…) so as to procure meat for his beloved wife. 

The idea here is not bad: to ape Psycho relentlessly and for as long as possible and then, at the final surprise juncture, reverse a key plot point. But again, Girdler doesn’t do much with his narrative or his twist-in-the-tale that is commendable or even memorable.

The thrill of watching a film like Three on a Meathook, even today, comes from the fact that the film was made outside of Hollywood proper. Accordingly, you are never quite sure how far it will go, or what you will see. Hollywood decorum doesn’t matter in the Girdler-verse, and so you could see something that simply wouldn’t be allowed in an establishment film.

For me, that moment of spiky, nasty invention comes with the aforementioned decapitation. I’ve included the still of that moment, which does it no favors since a photograph reveals how the trick was accomplished.

But on film it all happens so fast and is so nasty in conception, that the moment is momentarily shocking.  The film could have used more moments like this one, and less like the unnecessary musical interlude.  The decapitation gag, rough as it is, deserves a mention because Girdler always sought to give audiences their money’s worth, and took apparent glee in creating weird and experimental effects.  The apex of that trend comes in The Manitou (1978) which boasts some very inventive, very ingenious and very weird visuals, but you can trace a line backwards from there to Three on a Meathook. Everyone starts somewhere.

Outside the decapitation gag and a nicely-shot “discovery” moment of revelation with three corpses on the aforementioned meat-hooks, however, the film feels flat and remote, as if we’re watching the whole thing from a distance.

This approach actually diminishes the sense of horror, rather than augmenting it.  If Girdler could have aped any characteristic of Hitchcock’s, it should have been the master’s devotion to formalism, and the desire to make the audience feel -- through film grammar -- real terror.  Similarly, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre plays like some surreal, bizarre version of Alice in Wonderland, in a world where order is unsettled, and never restored. By comparison to either masterpiece, Three on a Meathook is very, very flat.

Next week, Girdler does Spielberg in Grizzly (1976).

Movie Trailer: Three on a Meathook (1972)

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

At Flashbak: Bitter Dregs: Six Times that Sci-Fi TV Characters Broke into Song

My new article at Flashbak, "Bitter Dregs" remembers six times that beloved sci-fi TV characters succumbed to the urge to...sing.

"Inside every actor is an aspiring singer yearning to perform…or something like that. 

This truism has been put to the test several times in science fiction television history, with beloved characters from favorite shows breaking out suddenly -- and often horrifyingly -- into song.

Below are six memorable examples of this trend."

Bat-Tech: 1966

"Fishing in the backwaters of popular culture, it [TV] has achieved its first indigenous artistic triumph - it has upgraded the comics."

- Robert Lewis Shayon. Saturday Review: "All the Way to the Bank." Saturday Review, February 12, 1966, page 46.

Today, many comic-book and Batman fans casually dismiss the 1966 - 1968 TV series starring Adam West as a "camp" atrocity, but the quotation above from Saturday Review reminds us that the series wasn't always considered in such a negative light.  

On the contrary, many critics and audiences of the mid-1960s considered the series a legitimate and even audacious form of avant-garde "pop art."   

No one had ever seen anything like it.  

For better or worse, Batman might even be considered television's first legitimately post-modern effort: a reversal and rejection of well-established modernism in terms of narrative point of view and attack.

True, our cultural taste in terms of superheroes has changed radically, as proven by Christopher Nolan's opposite -- but immensely popular -- smaller-than-life approach to the Caped Crusader and his universe.    Before someone gets angry with me for writing that Nolan's approach is smaller than life, consider for a moment his meticulous aesthetic. Everything in Nolan's universe could be real, whether it is the "Nomex" Bat Suit or the experimental military vehicle that becomes the Batmobile.  

In short, Nolan makes the Batman universe intrinsically believable by skewing all the superhero tech to contemporary reality as we understand and perceive it.  This is Nolan's modus operandi.

The 1960s series adopted precisely the opposite approach, exaggerating Batman's world -- in terms of color, scope and believability -- to such a degree that humor became inevitable (and desirable).

Whether subjectively you prefer the Nolan approach or the Dozier TV approach, it's nonetheless difficult to deny that the Batman TV series boasted  its own...unique vision.  We might not like or approve of that vision (just as we might not like or approve of Nolan's or Tim Burton's vision), but it's there for the appreciation...or denigration.  As with all works of art, it's incumbent on us to at least consider it on its own terms.

Regarding Bat-Tech, the Batman series deliberately developed two running gags of the visual variety.  

In the first instance, the creators of the series made certain that every single item in the Batcave was assiduously labeled.  

Of course, on the surface, this labeling fetish doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  We don't label our computers, laptops, microwave ovens, TV sets or other every day tools.  Yet every item in Batman, no matter how obscure, gets (obsessively-compulsively) labeled.  

Thus, in the Batcave, one may find a "Lighted Lucite Map" of Gotham City, a "Bat Analyzer," "Bat Poles," a "Bat Tape Reader" or other strange devices.  Again, surely Batman and Robin would know and remember which device is which inside their own headquarters and even we, as viewers, quickly come to recognize the Bat Poles and other tech.

But the gag makes us laugh. The ubiquitous labels grab the attention, and reveal to us something important about this hero. He's not just square-jawed, he's a very straight-forward thinker.  Everything goes in its proper place, and is obsessively organized.  He's a "rules" guy after all, as we see in his constant lessons to Robin.  In "Ring of Wax," he told Robin he "never gambles" and in The Riddler's False Notion," Batman opined that Robin owed his life to "good dental hygiene."   The labels thus fit into Batman's "character" and represent an example of form reflecting content.

Even funnier, every device in Batman's arsenal gets a "Bat" prefix.  Why not just call Batman's computer a computer, instead of a Bat Computer?  On and on, this joke grows funnier on Batman as the writers really pushed the envelope in terms of Bat-centric imagery.  

Bat Tweezers?  Bat Fly Swatters? Anti-Thermal Bat T-Shirts? Anti-Mesmerizing Bat Reflectors? Bat Springs in Bat Shoes?  These items are mentioned and played absolutely straight, and yet we giggle at them.

The second visual joke featured on the series involves a logo, if you will: the bat.  Every tool, it seems, is shaped like one.  Bat Binoculars. The Batphone in the Batmobile.  The Batarang.  

Again, the audience brushes up against this idea of a hero who is, perhaps unhealthily, obsessed with one image.  Is it really necessary to use a boomerang or telephone shaped like a flying rodent?  

Is this "branding" or self-marketing run amok?

I realize the purists absolutely can't stand these humorous touches, but in a very real sense, Batman the TV series mirrors the Batman comic as it existed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  It's not fair to say that the series isn't faithful to that period in the franchise, only to say that the producers and writers detected a source of humor in how the Caped Crusader was portrayed in the comics, and ruthlessly and effectively capitalized upon it.  

The beauty of the TV approach, as I have always maintained is that children see the program one way (as a straight-forward adventure with great gadgets and colorful heroes, villains and sets) while adults view it on another level all together (as a post-modern, tongue-in-cheek commentary on the superhero/comic-book milieu.)   There's an artistry and maturity to this successful two-track approach, and it accounts for the continued appeal of the series.  But some people will never approve of it because they see the series as making fun of Batman, and thus, by extension, making fun of their affection for the character and his universe.  

Whether labeled or unlabeled, I continue to find the Bat-tech of Batman fascinating as an example of 1960s era "retro future" design.   Computers were huge, colossal things, and visual read-outs never included text you could read...only blinking, winking, gaudy lights that characters could somehow magically interpret.

Once upon a time, we indeed  thought this was indeed how the future might look, and Batman shares this "retro" futuristic approach in common with Lost in Space and certainly Star Trek.  The revolution in miniaturization had not yet occurred, and so these programs evidenced the belief that bigger was always better and more high tech.

Mego Batman Toys

If you loved Batman as a kid in the 1970s, you really loved Mego, the wondrous and storied toy company that produced action figures, vehicles and play sets for the Caped Crusader during that decade.

In 1972, Mego released action figures of the Dynamic Duo -- Batman and Robin -- as part of its impressive World's Greatest Superheroes line.  And in 1974, Batgirl, Catwoman, Joker, the Penguin and the Riddler were added to the catalog.  But that was just the beginning of the good news for would-be Gothamites.

Before long, Mego released the Batcave, a large-scale toy which closely resembles the Planet of the Apes Village Playset in terms of overall structure, but with the detailing you expected of Batman's subterranean lair.

The box described the Batcave toy as "an all-encompassing play case built to accommodate all the bat vehicles.  There is a secret entrance way for the Batmobile, a landing platform for the Batcopter, and a garage area for the Batcycle.  Included in the case are the Batpole and Batcomputer.  Everything necessary to stimulate your child's imagination towards bold new adventures."

Other great Mego Batman toys included the "shiny and sleek" Batmobile -- the TV series design -- for the action figures, plus a Batcycle for "free-wheeling fun."  The Batcopter featured a canopy you could open up, and a rotor you could spin in order to capture "super foes."  Two other vehicles -- which look like Volkswagen vans -- were also released: a Batlab and Joker Mobile. Both of these are highly-prized items today.

The holy grail of Batman collecting, however, remains Batman's Wayne Foundation Playset, a four-floor Goliath featuring a working elevator, secret compartments, room to park the Batcycle, and more.  The toy was the Batman equivalent of Barbie's famous townhouse, perhaps, and beautifully-detailed.  

It features seven good-sized rooms (supported by yellow pillars), a blue Batcomputer, a landing pad for the Batcopter, and a blue conference table and other furniture.   Boy, do I wish I had one of these in my home office...

Pop Art: Batman Magazine Covers

Batman GAF Viewmaster

Model Kit of the Week: The Batmobile (1960s Edition)

Trading Card Close-Up: Batman (Topps)

Lunchbox of the Week: Batman and Robin

Board Game of the Week: Batman (Milton Bradley; 1966)

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future: "The Abyss"

In “The Abyss” by J. Michael Straczynski (or JMS as he is known by his admirers), Captain Power (Tim Dunigan) and Hawk (Peter McNeill) conduct reconnaissance in Sector 7, and unexpectedly come under ambush from other humans.

The two soldiers are captured and interrogated under the command of an army general, Briggs (Michael J. Reynolds) who has gone mad. Briggs believes his new captives are moles working for Dread, and has them bound and ruthlessly interrogated, even slated for execution.

As Sauron and his minions approach, however, Power and Hawk must engineer both an escape from their captors, and a defense against the encroaching machine army.

“The Abyss” is the best Captain Power episode thus far (three in…), and after the narrative treading water of the last installment, a real relief to boot. 

Here, JMS provides a veritable orgy of new information about the series’ world, and manages to craft characters who feel like more than mere clichés.

One of the episode’s most interesting touches involved Lord Dread’s penchant for quoting New Machine Scripture. He talks of “machines casting off the flesh,” and it is a welcome indicator that the enemy in this brave new world isn’t just a two-dimensional “baddie,” but a life-form that mythologizes its history, and sees a destiny for itself.  A new social order is in the offing, one that hates and derides organic life-forms.

Captain Power himself is also handled with far more flair than previously, at least in terms of writing in “The Abyss." Here, he risks electrocution so as to activate his damaged power-suit, a dangerous gambit that pays off.  

And in the final battle, he shows some kick-ass combat moves, taking out a squad of Dreads after it has him surrounded.  In other words, “The Abyss” demonstrates why the other soldiers would feel such loyalty to Captain Power.  He is shown here to take deadly risks for his soldiers, and to be die-hard in bringing the fight to the enemy.

The episode also works in a good reference to Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1983), a film about the horrors of war.  

Here, the insane Briggs laments the fact that his war (with the machines) is a failure because it has not produced any great songs.  When he is digitized by Sauron, Briggs sings 1912’s “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” which was featured in the Renoir film, and is considered to be the big song (at least of the English...) of World War I.  

By using “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” JMS reminds us of mankind’s long history of warring with his own kind, an important commentary in “The Abyss,” since Briggs can’t seem to focus on the real enemy, the machines, and instead wants to execute Captain Power and his men.

One final cool bit of information also appears in “The Abyss.” Hawk reports that he knew Lord Dread (David Hemblen) before he changed into a cyborg, when he killed Power’s father.  This fact makes for an intriguing note about the series’ villain, and suggests that the world shown by this series is deepening. I hope we learn more about the history between Lord Dread and Power's family in the weeks and installments to come.

Next Week: "The Final Stand."

Mars on Film: Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

George Pal and Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) is fifty years old in 2014 and remains beloved by the generation that grew up with it. By and large, genre critics praised the sci-fi film upon its original theatrical release and soon after, as well.

For example, author and scholar Jeff Rovin termed the film an “excellent and offbeat ride” and a “thoroughly convincing retelling of the classic tale” in A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films (Citadel Press; 1975, page 131).

And while noting that the film is “not fast-paced,” the authors of Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films observed that Robinson Crusoe on Marssucceeds…in its ability to evoke a sense of wonder in the minds of its audience at the exploration of a new and different kind of world.”

Furthermore, the same authors wrote that director Haskin accomplished this task by making Mars itself one of the film’s essential or key characters (Arlington House; 1982, page 174).

That last observation is the most trenchant one because Robinson Crusoe on Mars impresses even today on the basis of many of its colorful and dynamic visualizations. Shot in Death Valley and buttressed by some still-impressive matte paintings, the film feels both authentic and vivid in its depiction of a desolate, lonely planetary surface.

At times in the film, the landscape itself feels almost oppressive in its craggy, mountainous appearance, and at other junctures -- such as the discovery of the polar ice caps -- it appears downright wondrous.  The film conveys the idea of not just a single locale, but of an entire, harsh ecosystem, and that’s quite an accomplishment.

In terms of narrative, Robinson Crusoe on Mars succeeds too because it clearly has the literary model -- Daniel Defoe’s 1719 book -- to fall back on, and it needn’t veer too far from that impressive source material.

In fact, by retelling Defoe’s famous story in a “final frontier” setting, the 1964 film suggests some universal qualities about mankind. Specifically, Robinson Crusoe on Mars meditates about both the human desire to survive even when survival is damn near impossible, and about our need for companionship. 

In fact, companionship is right up there with the other essentials to human life -- air, food, and water -- and Robinson Crusoe on Mars does a good job of exploring that powerful notion.

I count Robinson Crusoe as one of my favorite stories of all time, and find that in 2014 Robinson Crusoe on Mars still captures the essence of that classic tale well, even if all the details of life on Mars in the film don’t conform to modern scientific knowledge.

Indeed, this George Pal production remains just the brand of imaginative, colorful sci-fi epic that spurred my fascination with outer space and other worlds in the first place. And in its exploration of companionship as a key “resource” permitting humans to survive in any frontier, Robinson Crusoe on Mars makes a case about man in space that we must not forget.

When at last we travel to the stars, we should go in great numbers, because we will likely find it impossible to thrive there in isolation. As Robinson Crusoe on Mars reminds us, we need each other, whether here on Earth, in darkest space, or on the surface of the red planet.

In the near future, Mars Gravity Probe 1 narrowly avoids a disaster in planetary orbit, specifically a collision with an asteroid.

Unfortunately, the ship cannot hold altitude after altering its trajectory, and the crew must eject from the vessel. 

Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) lands his craft in a crater, scuttling it, and finds that his commanding officer, McReady (Adam West) has died during his landing attempt. The ship’s monkey, Mona (The Woolly Monkey), however, has survived.

With Mona in tow, Draper attempts to solve the problems of human survival on Mars. He finds the atmosphere thin, and therefore breathable only for short durations, and must determine a way to maintain a breathable air supply. With the use of native rocks, he does just that.  Draper’s next problem is locating water on Mars. When Mona doesn’t evidence signs of thirst, Draper decides to investigate her daily routine, and discovers a water source.

Sometime later, Draper sees a ship landing in the distance, and realizes that it is an interstellar craft.  Alien slavers have come to Mars, but one of their slaves -- whom Crusoe names Friday (Victor Lundin) -- escapes from their custody. The two survivors become friends, and set about to evade the aliens for as long as possible.

Draper and Friday make a long trek to the polar ice caps, and there receive a happy transmission from an Earth vessel and rescue ship.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars remembers and translates to the “space age” virtually all of the important story beats of the famous Defoe literary antecedent.

In Robinson Crusoe, as you may recall, the sea-going protagonist escapes a shipwreck, and salvages what he can from it, with only the captain’s dog (and a cat or two) for companions. Crusoe then lives on an inhospitable island alone for some time, dwelling in a cave and growing his own food.

Over the course of his stay on the island, Crusoe becomes more religious, reading the Bible, and ultimately saves a man, whom he names Friday, from cannibals. He eventually converts Friday to Christianity, and together the men leave the island on an English ship.

In Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Kip Draper is marooned on the planet Mars, rather than on an island. He has no humans to keep him company, but rather an animal companion like the captain’s dog: the monkey named Mona.  The alien slavers substitute for the novel’s cannibals, and of course, Crusoe’s Friday is a one-to-one corollary with Draper’s alien friend. The topic of the Divine and religion come up in both stories as well, with Draper quoting Scripture to the alien at times in the film. Finally, the two men are rescued by an Earth ship as the film closes.

Beyond its relocation of narrative points from the Defoe story, Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ strongest interlude occurs shortly before Draper first encounters Friday. He is ensconced in his home cave, at night, and the shadow of a humanoid falls across his transparent-rock cave door. Draper opens the door and suddenly encounters a silent, zombie-like McReady, who refuses to speak to him, or even acknowledge him.

Draper awakens --sleepwalking -- and realizes he has experienced a nightmare. This scene is creepy as hell, from the first appearance of the silhouette (surrounded by weird Martian lighting), to McReady’s unearthly demeanor as Draper desperately tries to make him talk to him. The scene beautifully expresses the absolute terror of Draper’s predicament as the only intelligent being, essentially, on an entire planet. He also, no doubt, feels survivor’s guilt. He lived, and McReady didn’t.

Importantly, this sequence in the film follows those in which the resourceful Draper has licked a number of survival problems. He has learned how to breathe on Mars (using yellow, air-producing rocks) and he has found food and water.

But the problem of companionship is not something he can tackle alone, and his so Draper fears his mind will fall apart, that he will start to lose his grip on sanity. Draper notes that the “hairiest” problem for astronauts is “isolation,” and also makes a special point of describing how for astronaut training he was in an isolation tank for a month to prepare for the hazards of lonely space travel. But, as he says, he knew, at that point, that he would be with people again. At this juncture, there is no certainty. He could live the rest of his days without seeing anyone else. That is a tremendous psychic weight to carry. Thus the movie equates companionship with the survival necessities of air or water, or food.

If the small, intimate scene of McReady’s visitation sells Draper’s terror at being the only living being on Mars (outside of Mona), then the many shots of the astronaut traversing the landscape alone help enormously as well.

In sustained long shot after sustained long shot, we witness Draper making his way from one dead zone to another, from one rocky outcropping to the next. Seen against the land, he looks truly small, truly insignificant.  Some shots see the camera pointed at our eye level (and below) so that we don’t even see the red sky.  Instead, we see a lot of ground.  On one hand, this prevents the need for every shot to be fixed with a Martian skyline in post-production. On the other hand, the effect is that we see just this one tiny figure moving against a sea of rock and sand.  He seems truly lost there.

But impressively, the film’s visuals aren’t boring or repetitive, and don’t sacrifice interest, even considering the desert landscape. There’s one scene set in a grotto or grove, where Draper goes swimming, and the view is magnificently imaginative. 

At another point, Draper and Friday seek to escape the slavers, and head down into a subterranean world, where they must navigate a narrow ledge.

Again, the effects work is stunning, and a reminder of how Hollywood successfully performed “world building” in an age before CGI.  The film’s final visual flourish plays as catharsis and relief. We see Friday and Draper at the polar ice caps, surrounded by cleansing water and immaculate white ice.  They have been delivered from the red, fiery Hell of Mars’ surface.  This is a great note to go out on.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars also features, perhaps to its detriment, a strong colonial tone. Almost immediately after meeting Friday, Crusoe assumes his superiority over his new friend and tells him that he is the boss, demands that Friday learn English, and attempts to convert him to his own religion.  In 1964, this attitude would not have been questioned, but today it seems as dated as the portrayal of Mars’ atmosphere as breathable by humans.  Later films of this type, like Enemy Mine (1985), go out of their way to suggest that representatives of different cultures have much to teach each other, but here a lot of the teaching is one way: Draper to Friday. In fairness, however, this was also the nature of the Defoe literary work. It concerned a "civilized" Englishman sharing his culture (and breeding) with a savage.

It is not fair, perhaps, nor entirely appropriate, to judge a film made fifty years ago on the basis of knowledge we possess today, but if Robinson Crusoe on Mars is judged not to pass muster by some viewers today, it is likely because the film doesn’t conform to our 21st century fund of knowledge about the red planet.  

To put this another way, film lovers and science fiction lovers can and will look past this particular deficit, and judge the film accordingly, based on its historical context. But there will be some viewers who can’t do that, and who will be put off by Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ flights of fancy about a Mars consisting of subterranean water pools, ample (purple) vegetation, and a breathable atmosphere.  Today we know that this depiction is not even in the neighborhood of true or accurate.

The film’s re-use of some stock props and miniatures, such as the costumes from Destination: Moon (1950) and the Martian war machines from War of the Worlds (1953) -- as well as some oft-repeated footage of those alien ships -- may prove more legitimately disturbing to some fans than do these scientific errors.  The alien slaver ships are seen, in particular, in the same three or four shots, and these shots are repeated over and over again. For a film that features such lush visuals in other arenas, the sort of cheap-jack depiction of the slavers is doubly disappointing. 

These points diminish Robinson Crusoe on Mars significantly, but they do suggest how far ahead of their time later works, like 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey were by comparison. In some ways, the Pal film feels like the last gasp of a 1950s version of outer space, while Kubrick’s film (followed by efforts like Moon Zero Two and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun) feel much more modern. 

Yet what doesn’t age Robinson Crusoe on Mars -- and indeed what renders it relevant fifty years later -- is its focus on the human equation, and its message that friendship is as nourishing -- and as necessary -- to the human animal as oxygen, or fresh water.