Saturday, October 18, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Godzilla (1978): "The Breeder Beast"

In “The Breeder Beast,” the Calico encounters a strange blob monster, “some strange poisonous substance” and “oozing mass of nitroglycerin.”

After the creature feeds on a natural gas pipeline and grows to extraordinary size, it heads inland to Washington D.C., where it wreaks havoc, nearly destroying the Capitol Dome.

Quinn and the others summon Godzilla to help defeat the creature, but if his laser eyes strike the monster’s glowing nucleus, a nuclear explosion could wipe out the whole coast-line.

 “The Breeder Beast” is a fun, if not overly original or inspired episode of the 1978 Hanna-Barbera animated Godzilla series.

In this case, the Big Green Guy goes up against a “pollution mutation,” but must fight with one hand ties behind his back, metaphorically-speaking, because if the creature explodes, millions of humans will die.

Two qualities elevate this episode above average fare.

First, it’s cool to see Godzilla stomping through Washington D.C., and the episode takes him to the Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the U.S. Mint. There’s even a nice shot of traffic stopped-up on I-95.  Another moment sees the monsters throwing the Capitol Dome at one another.

Beyond the good location, the monster of the week is pretty neat too. It can absorb objects (like an anchor) through its glowing red nucleus, and at one point, Godzooky can’t extricate himself from the sticky, blob-like monster. For a while, it looks like he could be absorbed.

Also worthwhile here is the notion that only Godzilla can stop the monster but that some powers (fire breath and laser eyes) must remain off-limits to him, because their use could spark wide-scale destruction in the human world. 

Godzilla refrains from using either beam, but still saves the day. To me, this development suggests he is pretty intelligent, and understands what the scientists tell him, not just in general terms, but specifically. The key to the breeder beast’s destruction is a shot straight to his nucleus, a shot that transforms the beast into its component parts of rock, oil, gold, silver and – tellingly – pollution.

Next week: “The Sub-Zero Terror.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Bravestarr: "Sherlock Holmes in the 23rd Century" Part II

In Bravestarr’s “Sherlock Holmes in the 23rd Century” (Part II), BraveStarr and Serhlock Holmes find themselves trapped in a dungeon along with the little boy, Fleeder, who disappeared on a Kerium freighter while in search of his parents.

It turns out the person behind the capture of that vessel and of Fleeder too is none other than Holmes’ old nemesis: Professor Moriarity (Jonathan Harris).

Moriarity reveals that on the day Holmes fell through a natural time warp in the 19th century, something else emerged from the warp: a newspaper reporting the freighter’s robbery, and Holmes’ awakening in the future. 

Seeing the future, Moriarity resolved to build a suspended animation chamber, and re-awaken in the 23rd century. Now he plans to conquer Earth using Fleeder’s alien voice to augment his powers of hypnosis.

With the help of Marshal BraveStarr, Holmes defeats Moriarity, and Fleeder sings a song that reunites him with his long-lost parents.

Sherlock Holmes ends this episode of BraveStarr with the promise that his “greatest adventures” are yet to come, but alas this pilot never went to regular series, and so audiences never got to see any further adventures of the great detective in the 23rd century.

Despite this fact, “Sherlock Holmes in the 23rd Century” still stands as one of the best installments of this Filimation series. Jonathan Harris does a good (and surprisingly not over-the-top...) job as Moriarity, and the episode’s resolution, which reveals the aliens’ and Fleeder’s true form, is beautifully done. 

Everything just clicks n this two-parter, and the necessity of making the story fit together like a complex puzzle (in the tradition of most Holmes stories…) brings out the writer’s best game. This story, with its flashbacks, explanations and jumps of logic, is a joy to behold.

In fact, at this point, I’d say the Sherlock Holmes notion is superior to the space-western concept on BraveStarr and I’m kind of bummed that next week I have to return to the milieu of Tex-Hex, the Shaman and the like.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Girdler Guide: Grizzly (1976)

The first shot of William Girdler’s Grizzly (1976) is actually a really good one. The film opens with a lovely, wide-angle establishing shot of the natural forest.

The shot is well-composed, with an imposing mountain in the distance, slightly off-center. Just as you settle in for a viewing -- pondering the natural beauty of the environment -- the unexpected buzz of a helicopter in flight suddenly and loudly interrupts the tranquility, and the craft jets into the frame.

The pastoral setting is thus shattered by the presence of the helicopter, and this transgression is followed up by the dire warning of its pilot -- played by Andrew Prine -- that if man keeps encroaching on the wild, he will “destroy the natural beauty” of forests just like this one. 

Girdler’s inaugural shot cannily demonstrates that this brand of destruction is already occurring, and that’s the perfect note on which to commence a revenge of nature film. Especially one about a killer grizzly bear coming down the side of a mountain even as vacationing hitchhikers and campers insist on encroaching from the other end, probing ever higher up the same mountain. 

Bear and man will meet in the middle…for terror!

The best-looking of Girdler’s films so far – and by far -- Grizzly (1976) proved a huge box-office hit in the year of America’s bicentennial, in part because it was the first “when animals attack” movie to arrive after Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws (1975).  The movie was not a critical success, however, and reviewers such as the one at Time Magazine dubbed the Girdler film “an idea-for-idea, character-for-character, and sometimes even shot-for-shot knock-off of Jaws.” 

That assertion, alas, is accurate. 

Last week in the Girdler Guide, I noted that Girdler is often remembered as the king of the rip-offs for his cinematic variations on Psycho (Three on a Meathook), The Exorcist (The Manitou) and, yes, Jaws (Grizzly), but really, Grizzly is the most on-the-nose and derivative knock-off of that bunch.  You can go up and down the line in the film -- from narrative, to characters, to compositions -- and see how Spielberg’s great white shark film casts a heavy shadow over virtually every aspect of this work.

“You know…bears got patterns.”

In an American national park, Ranger Kelly (Christopher George) and his men and women are concerned about the number of campers and back-packers visiting during the season. 

When two female campers are found ripped apart and mauled to death by a grizzly bear, Kelly realizes that the tourists are in terrible danger. The administrator at the park, however, refuses to close the forest to visitors. After more attacks, Kelly prevails and plots a strategy to hunt the grizzly, which has demonstrated murderous and even cannibalistic tendencies.

With the help of a pilot, Don (Prine) and a naturalist, Scotty (Richard Jaekel) Kelly heads out into the deep woods by helicopter to face the monsters on its home territory

“That’s all we need: a killer bear on the loose.”

The DVD version of Grizzly I watched for this review came complete with a good, informative documentary about the making of the film. In the doc, the project’s writers good-naturedly noted that they had not intended the film to be a Jaws rip-off, and that, if you pay attention to the script, Grizzly is not really a Jaws knock-off at all.  They are so charming and informative that you really want to believe that assertion.

But allow me to tally, just briefly, the various points in common shared by Jaws and Grizzly.

The heroic triumvirate: Both films feature three male heroes who “bond” over the hunting of a wild, dangerous animal.  In Jaws, the triumvirate consists of the law-enforcement official, Brody (Roy Scheider), the man of science, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and the local man, Quint (Robert Shaw) who captains a boat and is a veteran of World War II.  In Grizzly, we have the ranger, Kelly, the naturalist, Scotty, and Don, who captains a helicopter and is a veteran of Vietnam. Also note that both Quint and Don stand-out by virtue of their local accents, New England/Southern, respectively.

The over-sized nemesis is more than mere animal: In Jaws, we meet a giant great white shark who is almost supernaturally clever, and efficient, out-smarting its human hunters at every turn, and evading both capture and death. 

In Grizzly, we likewise get a very large, very intelligent bear instead. And as one character notes, this giant man-eater “seems to know what we’re thinking,” meaning that it is not, as Yogi might say, your average bear.  There is the implicit suggestion that the bear here, like the shark in Jaws, may actually be a supernatural monster.

Economic/professional interests are imperiled by the presence of the intruder:  In Jaws, the beach town of Amity thrives on summer business, and so the Mayor (Murray Hamilton) argues that “the beaches stay open.” He even covers up a coroner report to assure that the beaches stay open.

In Grizzly, the park administrator similarly refuses to act responsibly in order to save people. “There’s no need to close the park,” he insists, despite the presence of the vicious predator. When bear attacks keep occurring, however, and bad press threatens to overwhelm the park, he is forced to change his mind.

Local yokels: Sheriff Brody almost has a conniption fit in Jaws when amateur local fisher-men take to their boats, go out to sea, and start hunting the great white shark.  They get drunk, dynamite fish in the sea, and cause all sorts of problems for law enforcement

In Grizzly, rednecks put on their camo vests, grab their rifles and head into the woods to hunt the grizzly bear, threatening everybody in the process.  “Those clowns are going to shoot everything in sight,” Kelly complains, echoing Brody.

Naked or half-naked girls are delicious: In the first scene in Jaws, Chrissy’s midnight skinny-dip turns sour when the great white shark attacks and kills her. Early in Grizzly, a half-naked camper, also a young woman, frolics in a waterfall until a grizzly attack turns the mountain waters blood-red.

Children also make good lunches: In Jaws, little Alex Kitner gets killed by the great white, and his mother slaps Brody for allowing the beaches to stay open when he knew better.

In Grizzly, a little boy gets attacked by a bear (though “part” of him survives, according to Kelly), and the attack is proof that the park’s approach to the problem is not working. 

In both cases, the attack on the child stiffens the spine of the law-enforcement official, either Brody or Kelly. They commit themselves to the hunt, lest any other innocent (like a child) suffer.

Animal P.O.V.: Several shots in Jaws represent the subjective perspective of the great white shark as it hunts and stalks it unwitting victims. 

Likewise, Grizzly features a number of bear-attack style P.O.V. shots.

On the monster’s turf: Jaws culminates with a splendid third act in which the heroic triumvirate takes to the sea aboard Quint’s boat, the Orca, to hunt the monster.  The Orca is pulped in the ensuing clash, and Quint is killed. The law enforcement official, Brody, blows up the shark with a well-timed shot to a flammable gas tank. 

In Grizzly, the heroic triumvirate takes to the wooded mountain aboard Don’s helicopter.  The helicopter is pulped by the bear in the ensuing clash, and Don is killed. The law enforcement official, 
Kelly, blows up the Grizzly with a bazooka.''

Despite these many similarities, I must establish one fact: Grizzly looks absolutely great on DVD.  Frankly, I don’t remember the film looking so damn good when I watched it on VHS for a review in Horror Films of the 1970s

On this viewing, however, I was struck several times by the lovely photography, and the utter bluntness of the editing style. Several attacks are editing with lightning-fast “shock” cuts so that severed limbs, decapitated heads and other extremities fly across the frame. 

They may not be scary, but these moments are certainly…bracing.  Having watched Asylum of Satan and Three on a Meathook in recent weeks, I can happily and confidently assert that Grizzly looks prettier and much more professional than the previous films in the Girdler oeuvre.  In fact, I’ll go further.  I believe that Girdler did the best work anyone could reasonably expect on Grizzly with the script he had in hand, which -- clearly -- was highly derivative. 

When I look at a film like Three on a Meathook, I can detect how Girdler failed to execute it well, not filming enough close-up shots of the characters, for example, so that we could relate to them as people.  The opposite paradigm is at work here. Girdler actually executes the film well in terms of its exploitative content, but it’s difficult to leave behind, even for a moment, the fact that the film seems to ape Jaws with a near-religious fervor.

One other big difference between Jaws and Grizzly bears a mention.  Sharks are inherently scary on screen.  Bears…not so much. Sharks have soulless-seeming black eyes, razor-sharp fangs, and exposed, meaty gums. They hide beneath the roiling ocean surface, with only a jutting fin signifying their presence. They can break the ocean surface and then retreat beneath it suddenly, and seemingly anywhere at any time. 

But Teddy in Grizzly is a big, roly-poly, fuzzy animal with sleepy eyes. His stomach rolls jollily from side to side when he runs. And when he rears up on his hind legs, he looks like he wants to give you a hug, not rip you apart.

I’m not saying that I’d like to encounter a grizzly in the woods, or that it wouldn’t be terrifying to do so.  I’m talking about visual representations here. The bear just doesn’t transmit as some kind of hideous monster on screen and is thus a markedly less-effective “monster” than the shark in Jaws is.

Screening Grizzly this time, I also had more respect for the performances, especially those of Prine and George.  They are thoroughly professional here, and try to do more with their thin characters than merely ape the performances in Jaws.  Between Girdler’s occasionally tactless but fun visualizations and Prine’s good ole boy drawl, I must confess I felt more positively about Grizzly than I did when I last watched it in 2000. 

It’s still a rip-off of Jaws, through and through, but Grizzly has its moments. It may be a bad movie, but the film is an entertaining bad movie, and a good time-capsule of the Jaws craze that struck the nation in the mid-1970s. 

Movie Trailer: Grizzly (1976)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Guest Post: Stonehearst Asylum (2014)

Stonehearst Asylum Will Lock You In

By Jonas Schwartz

I spent the first hour of Stonehearst Asylum frustrated because the twists were so obvious they were even revealed in the poster. Plus, so many movies in the past had already treaded the same territory; from the classic flower power King of Hearts to the abysmal slasher film Don’t Look In The Basement. But director Brad Anderson (Session 9) pulls a major reversal through flaunting a misdirection. Even if 50% of the audience figure out the twist, it’s still a rewarding thriller with a striking visual design and a creepy performance by Sir Ben Kingsley.

Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” Anderson’s film delves into duality, particularly showing both the doctors and patients as crazy and cruel. In 19th century Europe, young doctor Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess, Across the Universe) arrives at the prestigious Stonehearst Asylum to learn from the distinguished doctors. He finds the staff quirky at best. The lead doctor, Silas Lamb (Kingsley) rules over the hospital like a tyrant, with a henchman (David Thewlis). Newgate is weary of his new home but becomes entranced by the ravishing Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale). The hospital has a secret locked away; one that reveals Stonehearst’s perverse past.

Like the source material, Anderson plays up the darkly comic elements of his tale. He visually presents an ugly world, where it’s unclear who is sane and decent. The doctors are sadists – Brendan Gleeson as a fellow doctor treats a female patient like she’s a rag doll. The doctors use equipment more apropos for The Spanish Inquisition. The motif of chess highlights the one-upmanship between the dictatorial Lamb and the equally volatile Dr. Salt (Michael Caine). Lamb and Salt are two sides of the coin and instead of Newgate being caught between the angel and the devil; he has two devils vying for power.

Visually, Anderson has achieved a gothic nightmare. In the opening scene, the hospital emerges like a haunted house on a hill engulfed by the fog. To hammer home the dread, Anderson has Newgate arrive during an electrical storm, with lightning flashing through the murky sky and pitch black ravens flying past the cast iron gate. The rooms are moodily lit with fireplaces and gas lamps giving the hospital a shadowed environment. The camera is often obfuscated, shooting the characters through bars or shutters.

Kingsley and Caine, who haven’t shared a screen since the Sherlock Holmes spoof Without a Clue (1988) have delectable chemistry. It’s shocking the two don’t perform more often. For most of the film, the story has them separated, but once they’re in a room together, they attack like two pit-bulls after a ham steak. Both find the absurdist comedy in their lines. Kingsley swats his cigar around like it's a deadly saber. Sturgess is fine as the befuddled doctor in over his head. Beckinsale is a lovely enough presence that it’s clear why she has bewitched Newgate so.

A slightly campy, atmospheric thriller, Stonehearst Asylum is reminiscent of the Hammer horror films, not just the Gothic monster movies starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee but also the Hitchcockian thrillers like Scream of Fear starring Susan Strasberg, where everyone’s plotting against each other and the audience can’t believe anything they see or hear.

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

Movie Trailer: Red Planet (2000)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

At Flashbak: “Some Folks Have a Strange Idea of Entertainment:” The Five Greatest Kills of the Friday the 13th Films

"The Friday the 13th film series possesses its ups and downs, high-points and low-lights, and yet virtually every entry in the franchise features shocking and often grotesque death scenes. 

Unlike the death scenes in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, by comparison, the violence in the Friday the 13th movies tends not to be deeply psychological in nature.  Freddy Krueger kills by finding his victim’s personal foibles in their dreams and then ruthlessly exploiting them. Jason kills by brute force, or very sharp machete. He doesn’t play games.

Many films in the Friday the 13th film series follow the same outline:  A group of teenagers head out for a weekend at Camp Crystal Lake, or thereabouts, and are promptly stalked by a killer (either Jason Voorhees, his mother, or a Jason imposter, depending on the entry…). 

A storm rolls in, cuts the power, and it’s time for the killer to go to work on the misbehaving teens, punishing those who engage in premarital sex and smoke weed. The message: if you fuck, you’re out of luck.  If you play, you pay.

Yet even within this repetitive (and eventually highly-predictable) framework, the Friday the 13th films manage a high-degree of ingenuity in terms of the actual death scenes, often highlighting gruesome, cutting-edge special effects in the process.

Here my selections for the five best or most memorable death scenes in the franchise..."

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: GAF View-Master

Pop Art: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (Gold Key Edition)

Trading Cards of the Week: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (Donruss)

Model Kits of the Week: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (Aurora Edition)

Lunch Box of the Week: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Board Game of the Week: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (Milton Bradley)

Theme Song of the Week: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future: "Final Stand"

In “Final Stand” by J. Michael Straczynski, Captain Power (Tim Dunigan) and his officers attempt to save a group of captured humans before Sauron, re-charging nearby, can digitize them. 

Unfortunately, the humans are being held hostage by Kasko (Chaels Seixas), a genetically-engineered human soldier who strongly dislikes Tank (Sven-Ole Thorsen) and wants revenge against him.

Kasko makes a deal with Captain Power.He will release the hostages, and not detonate a bomb threatening his captives if and only if Tank agrees to fight him to the death, no armor allowed…

Hoping to buy the trapped people some time, Power has no choice but to agree to Kasko’s terms…

“Final Stand” is a strange episode of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987) and not a particularly strong one, even though JMS -- the series' finest writer -- is the author. The whole episode exists so that Tank can fight another soldier, mano a mano, but the battle itself feels underwhelming.

The episode never reveals the source of the personal conflict between Tank and Kasko, or why they are such bitter enemies. We know only that they are both genetically-engineered, or “freaks” as Tank terms himself.  Late in the episode, Tank also reveals that when he “escaped Babylon 5,” he thought he put that life behind him.

So yes, that’s a pretty direct allusion to another JMS universe, and one that was still years away from production. 

Clearly, however, it must be a different Babylon 5. In Captain Power the locale sounds like a military colony or camp where soldiers were “grown" or incubated.

Here the reference feels thrown in, like there is a huge back-story we need to know about Tank and the locale…but we get absolutely none of it.  

And worse, Kasko doesn’t feel like a very strong threat. Some of his dialogue is absolutely atrocious.  

At one point he says “Sad, really. You’ve lost the killer instinct.” Today that  line plays almost as parody.

Matters don’t get any better -- or any more three dimensional -- with Tank’s explanation of Kasko’s problem. “He’s crazy.”

Yes, but why does he hate you, Tank, and why does he want revenge?

Like "War Dogs," a couple of weeks back, one gets the feeling in "Final Stand" that the series was attempting to establish the supporting characters, giving them increased prominence in certain stories. But in both cases the writing feels off-the-shelf and cliched.  Hawk discovers an old flame in "War Dogs," and Tank meets an old enemy who makes him question his past in "Final Stand."  Neither story actually deepens our sense of the characters much.

Still, the episode’s end message is a good one.  As “Final Stand” suggests, the reasons why we fight are often more important than the fact of the fight itself.  Kasko kills for revenge, for some personal sense of blood-lust. Tank fights so as to save the hostages. There’s a huge difference there, and in that difference is the definition of heroism, as Power points out.

When Captain Power blogging resumes: "Pariah."