Saturday, November 01, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Godzilla: "The Time Dragons"

In “The Time Dragons,” the Calico detects a nuclear satellite falling from orbit on a collision course with the ship.  Godzilla is summoned, but when he catches the falling object, the exploding uranium causes both the giant monster and the Calico to travel back in time, to a prehistoric epoch.

In this prehistoric age, the area is geologically unstable, and the Calico crews help save a tribe of cave-men from local threats including a tar pit, flooding, and a diplodocus. Peter, meanwhile, is nearly dinner for a carnivorous plant.

Godzilla and the Calico eventually make it back to the present -- to the moment immediately prior to the satellite’s fall from the sky -- but something else has come along to the present with them: a giant, combative dinosaur.'

The season finale of Hanna Barbera’s Godzilla (1978) is a fine note to go out on, one that -- like the best episodes of the series (“Colossus of Atlantis”) -- is crowded with ideas, and not just giant monster fights. 

Here, a time travel story is pretty compelling, even if some key issues are side-stepped.  For instance, if the Calico emerges from the time warp before the point it left, shouldn’t there be two such vessels now?

Similarly, none of the characters enunciate much concern that by saving the cave-men of the region, the crew is actually altering their own time-line, and the shape of the future.  Perhaps that tribe was selected (by nature) to become extinct.

In short, no one stops to weigh their actions, or consider the idea that an act in the past (like the killing of a man-eating plant) could have repercussions for the timeline’s future.

Finally, it’s also a shame that there is no discussion of Godzilla that relates him to prehistory, presumably the age in which his species thrived. Would Godzilla feel more at home in this epoch, an age of giant creatures?  Perhaps…

The crew never once voices the obvious idea that Godzilla has come home, and that, for his own good and happiness, perhaps should remain in this home.

Still, “The Time Dragon’s” book-end structure makes for some fun moments, with the meteor appearing at the episode’s beginning (to hurl the Calico and Godzilla back in time) and at the episode’s end, to hurl his dinosaur opponent back instead. 

Sadly, “The Time Dragon” is the last commercially available episode of the 1978 Godzilla, so starting next week I’ll be reviewing a different series instead.  I must admit, I really like this program and its occasional high-concept lunacy. If the second season should become available, I’ll continue blogging the Hanna Barbera series from that point.

Next week, I begin blogging Korg, 70,000 BC, a live-action Hanna-Barbera series from the mid-1970s.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: BraveStarr: "Hail, Hail, The Gang's All Here."

In “Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here,” evil space pirates come to New Texas, and look up their old cohort, Handle-Bar. They want him to open the gates to Fort Kerium, allowing them to sweep in and take over the town with Tex-Hex. 

Handle-Bar, fearing that BraveStarr will think less of him because of his criminal past, contemplates their plan, but comes down on the side of right, despite threats of blackmail...

In this episode of BraveStarr (1987) we learn more about the background of Handle Bar, saloon owner in Fort Kerium. 

He was a space pirate along with “Rat Face” and other goons before going to prison and paying his debt to society.  As BraveStarr and the judge note, “a man can start fresh” on New Texas, and it looks like that was Handle Bar’s plan. He is clearly embarrassed and ashamed of his former life, and attempts to hide the space pirate tattoo he still has on one arm.

The notion of Handle Bar grappling with his past is coupled, in “Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here,” with a prologue in which BraveStarr searches for the missing pieces of his own past.  The Shaman tells him it is more important who he is now, than where he came from.  That message, of course, can be applied to Handle-Bar and his crisis as well.

At the end of the episode, the message is put in more direct terms, as the Filmation approach prefers. “Judge people by what they are, not what they were. Friends forgive friends.”

In terms of the BraveStarr canon, this episode isn’t one of the more adult, or interesting ones. Once again Tex-Hex is fixin’ to make trouble, and once again he’s stopped. Once again, BraveStarr is wise about who he chooses to be his friend.

Also, I found the visual design of the space pirates to be underwhelming. They look like refugees from a late 1970s Disney movie.  By that I mean they are of a more fanciful nature than seems right for the downright gritty world of BraveStarr. 

Rat-face (of Aldebaron II) is literally a humanoid rat, and his cohort is an elephant man, replete with elephant trunk.  So there are aliens out there who are humanoid version of Earth animals?  

It just seems weird, and spectacularly lacking in creativity to feature such obvious and childish-looking aliens.  But that fact established, the pirates have an awesome spaceship.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Monsters: "The Hole"

(Re-Posted from Earlier in the Week)

In the Monsters (1988 – 1991) episode “The Hole,” three soldiers in the Vietnam War, led by Sgt. Kenner (Ahmad Rashad) probe deep into the ground, into an unexplored Vietcong tunnel system.

As they tread deeper and deeper into the Earth, into the network of tunnels, Corporal Torres (Antone Pagan) leaves shot-gun shells in the cave walls as bread-crumbs to chart the way out of the confusing labyrinth.

At the bottom of the tunnel system, however, the trio discovers a Viet Cong headquarters, and is surprised to see guns, ammo and sensitive intelligence documents left behind. A dying Viet Cong soldier is also there, and he offers the Americans a grave warning. 

When this tunnel was dug, its builders went “too deep” and awoke something in the Earth. 

The Viet Cong also buried their dead in the dirt walls, and the dying soldier warns that they are coming back to life to kill the living, and that “the Earth might be avenging all the blood spilled upon it.”

Afraid that they are “crawling through a cemetery,” Torres suggest they leave at once. Kenner agrees and the trio retreats, only to find that there is no way out of the tunnel; that it wraps around itself again, and again, with no end and no beginning, no top and no bottom.  The Earth has swallowed them whole.

Worse, skeletons are coming out of the walls, hungry for the flesh of the living…

Monsters, a 1980s horror anthology, features some great, chilling horror stories, but one of the darkest and most unforgettable of the catalog is “The Hole,” a third-season entry. 

The late 1980s and early 1990s was a time in the pop culture when America was trying to exorcise the ghosts of the Vietnam War.

Films such as Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), The Hanoi Hilton (1987), 84 Charlie Mopic (1989), Casualties of War (1989), and TV series such as Tour of Duty (1987 – 1990)  explored this uncomfortable milieu, and for the most part without resorting to simplistic tropes about American Exceptionalism or patriotism.

Instead, these films examined, in three dimensional fashion, America’s involvement (and behavior) in the controversial conflict.

“The Hole,” like many of those films, is strongly anti-war in general. Here, soldiers blunder into a man-made cave that has tread too deeply upon the Earth, and the Earth responds angrily by trapping and killing them there.  Corpses burst out of the cave-walls, re-animated, and on the war-path.

The cave, or cave entity, importantly, does not distinguish between Viet Cong or Americans. 

Human blood is human blood, the episode suggests, regardless of nationality. The Earth is angry about all the death that has taken place on its soil, and isn’t out to parse politics or take sides in a petty conflict of man’s making (and over man’s ideologies).  The idea here, is that nature doesn’t separate us into “tribes” (like American, or Vietnamese, capitalist or communist), but instead sees us as being all of the same group.

When man goes to war against his own kind, the episode suggests subtly, he is falling into a hole where there is no escape, and, ultimately, no winner.

What makes “The Hole” so frightening, in part, is the claustrophobic setting. The entirety of the episode is set in the extremely-tight cave system, which is so narrow  that the soldiers can’t even stand up straight at points.  Only twice -- at book-end points; at the beginning and ending of the episode -- are we afforded a peek at the outside world.

By keeping the soldiers trapped in these tight, dimly-lit tunnels, the director of the story gives us, like Corporal Torres, a bad case of “tunnelitis.” 

The fear at work here is not only of being lost, but of being buried alive. These soldiers are the walking dead, in their graves, they just don’t realize it yet.  Indeed, there’s a good argument to be made that this tunnel is Hell itself, a place of endless torment, with no escape, and no exit.

The kicker is the episode’s final scene, which sees heroic but desperate Sgt. Kenner scrambling to dig a tunnel up through the cave roof to the surface.  He finally succeeds, but when he lifts himself up through the hole, he promptly finds himself back at the bottom of the tunnel, climbing up into the lowest floor. 

This is the very stuff of nightmares.

“The Hole” ends on a down-note, which seems appropriate given the story’s themes. All those who have fought in this war, and spilled blood upon the Earth for man’s petty causes have “transgressed,” and when they wander into this cave, Nature shall have them. 

Surreal and circular, “The Hole” is a throat-tightening descent into terror, and one of the most accomplished and horrifying of all Monsters episodes. 

Monsters: "Jar"

In the Monsters episode “Jar,” a scheming femme-fatale named Ann (Gina Gershon) takes her mobster husband (Ed Kovens) with a weak heart to an out-of-the-way motel near a swamp in New England.  

There, she finds that the owner of the motel, Mr. Hallett (Fritz Weaver) captures strange, homicidal swamp creatures and keeps them in pickle jars. He then sells the jars (and the creatures inside) for a high price.

Gina plans to use one of the creatures -- which can dissolve a human body in seconds -- to get rid of her mobster husband and live off his wealth while the authorities search for him. 

Everything should go just according to plan, but an investigator named Bateman (Richard Edson) shows up at the motel in search of another missing person, and realizes what Ann is up to. 

She attempts to seduce him, suggesting that he can share her husband’s wealth with her…

“Jar”, a second season installment, nicely reveals the elasticity of Monsters’ horror anthology format. 

Some stories in the canon are straight-up horror, some are ironic comedies with social commentary, and this episode is a dedicated film noir, the story of a private dick, a femme-fatale…and murder.

Down to its shadowy, chiaroscuro lighting and textbook characters, “Jar” apes the film noir format. 

We meet a jealous husband, a private “dick,” and even a “trapped” (and dangerous) woman trying to make her way in a man’s world independently.

The story also features other film-noir trademarks, notably a pessimistic tone, and moral ambiguity. On the latter front, both Bateman and Ann leave the motel with a jar (and monster) intended for the other. 

So much for true love, right?

The implication is that each lover is ready to kill again, and claim the stolen money.  The message: nothing matters more than money.

The hard-boiled dialogue here is occasionally stilted (“If I die, she’s cut off…bye-bye Golden Goose…") and yet in its own fashion it also harks back to the 1940s era of film noir, even if it could be a bit more accomplished.

The highlight of “Jar” for horror fans may not be the milieu it successfully apes, but rather the monster of the week. At about the twelve-minute mark of the episode, the pickle jar opens and a green, face-hugger-like thing leaps out and promptly eats/dissolves the mobster’s face.

It doesn’t stop there, either. 

After the face is liquefied, the thing works its way down the neck and trunk of the body, leaving the husband’s clothes to wither and deflate in place.  It’s a show-stopping moment, and one of high suspense because the episode has built up to it for approximately half its running time.  Sometimes in horror, patience is really a virtue, and "Jar" has a nice pay-off with this gruesome scene.

Wickedly effective here, as well, is Fritz Weaver who plays a taciturn motel owner, and keeps his cards close to the vest. 

In keeping with the ambiguous morality of film noir, Hallett is not really depicted as being good or evil, just interested in making a buck and selling those jars. Again, we see that (the love of) money is the root of all evil.

Monsters: "The Match Game"

In “The Match Game,” four teenagers -- Jody (Ashley Laurence), Paul (Byron James), Matthew (Sasha Jensen) and Bev (Tori Spelling) -- decide to spend the night in the old Waverly Mansion, which stands on a thick swamp called Becker’s Pond.

As night approaches, the group decides to play “the match game,” wherein each teen lights a match and tell a portion of a horror story, until their match dims. Then, the next person lights a match, and continues to tell the same story. 

Little do the teenagers realize, however, that one of their number boasts the power to make the stories come true. 

And therefore, on this night, monstrous old Herbert Waverly (Tom Woodruff Jr.) will rise from his watery grave in misty Becker’s Pond to take vengeance on anyone he finds trespassing in his home...

“The Match Game” is such a great capsule of the late 1980s, in part because of its cast, in part because of its rubber-reality nature. 

Regarding the cast, it is headlined by Hellraiser’s (1987) Kirsty, Ashley Laurence, and by Halloween IV’s Sasha Jensen. 

Intriguingly, Jensen’s character, Matthew, is killed the same way  in “The Match Game” as his character, Brady, is in The Return of Michael Myers. There, his head is crushed by the Shape. Here it is crushed by Herbert Waverly.

More intriguingly, perhaps, “The Match Game” feels like a missing link between the rubber-reality films of the late 1980s and the post-modern horrors of the 1990s, like Candyman (1992), In The Mouth of Madness (1994) or Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994). 

Specifically, the story involves a ghoul at the bottom of a swamp who comes to life because he is “created” in a fictional campfire tale (or thereabouts) by four teenagers. 

Paul’s energy, specifically, brings the rotting Herbert Waverly to horrid life, and the monster can only be dispatched when Paul conceives and repeats aloud an ending to the story.  “We made it up,” Jody notes “But you brought it were. We have got to finish the story!

In this case, finishing the story means limiting the corpse’s life to one night, and suggesting that by light of dawn he must return to his watery grave.  That’s precisely what happens, and “The Match Game” suggests that evil can’t be vanquished, at least not fully, until its story is told to an appropriate conclusion.  

Again, this idea would be treated (with greater depth) in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.  That brilliant film acknowledges the fact that children, listening to bed time stories, need closure in their tales, or the story's monster can roam free in their psyche.

This is also one episode of Monsters that eschews humor or irreverence and goes right for the horror jugular.  There’s a moment here when one of the match game participants, in the dark, discusses the rules of dealing with Waverly. If he looks you in the eye, “Don’t look back. Don’t look into his eyes. One look will drain the soul from your very body.” 

Poor Tori Spelling learns the hard way that this warning is not hyperbole.

But the horror of the episode is carefully constructed from a filmmaking standpoint as well, not merely through chilling dialogue. Specifically, long takes are deployed. At one point, we move around the players of the match-game in a long, slow circle, as the story continues, develops, and grows ever more menacing.

Like “Sleeping Dragon,” this is one episode of Monsters that I saw on its original broadcast in 1988, and I remember, afterward, that “The Match Game” troubled my slumber. That's appropriate, because the episode reminds us that the greatest power in the world is that of imagination.

Monsters: "Sleeping Dragon"

In “Sleeping Dragon,” a sixty-five million year old stone capsule is discovered at a fossil dig outside Reno. The object’s discoverer, Merrick (Kin Shriner) brings it to a local university for further study, but the professor (Russell Johnson) there has grave doubts about its authenticity, even if his beautiful daughter, Lisa (Beth Toussaint) believes the evidence of their eyes.

The trio attempts to pierce the ancient capsule with a laser drill, and a carnivorous prehistoric reptile emerges, one that possesses a great, if malevolent intelligence. 

Merrick postulates that perhaps some dinosaurs survived the Great Extinction by going into hibernation in capsules of these types. His hypothesis that proves frighteningly accurate when another four hundred capsules are discovered in the desert…

“Sleeping Dragon” is actually the first episode of Monsters I remember watching on broadcast TV, in the fall/winter of 1988. The story is practically a bottle show, set in one room -- a college laboratory -- and in this case the monster of the week, the dinosaur, isn’t terribly convincing.

Yet this is a taut, well-directed show that transmits a strong sense of claustrophobia and danger. Outside the laboratory, the snow relentlessly falls and inside the (intelligent) dinosaur has cut the power, trapping its human prey in darkness.

Monsters often plays like a traditional, Grade B, 1950s horror movie, and this episode even has a veteran of that era (and This Island Earth [1951]), Russell Johnson playing a wrong-headed scientist  At one point, the professor attempts to talk reason to the dinosaur and he is promptly eaten alive for his troubles.  We have seen moments like this both in Howard Hawks’ version of The Thing (1951) and George Pal’s War of the Worlds (1953).

But the quality that makes “Sleeping Dragon” hold up today is its core conceit of a dinosaur civilization that saw the end coming and took steps to survive it. These clever dinosaurs went into suspended animation and waited for the climate to be more to their liking. 

Now, their “alarm clocks” are going off, and they are awakening in the human world. 

This is not entirely unlike the Silurian/Sea Devil stories in Doctor Who, but Monsters tilts the narrative towards terror by associating the intelligent dinosaurs with early man’s legends of dragons.  

Perhaps some of these creatures awoke generations ago and confronted mankind. He thus created the dragon stories to describe encounters with them. Also terrifying is the notion that even though they are “civilized” enough to create suspended animation chambers, the dinosaurs refuse to recognize mammals as intelligent beings.

The episode’s denouement -- which reveals that three-hundred and ninety-seven new predators will soon be on the prowl -- is appropriately chilling, and it made me consider that someone could make a pretty good horror movie today out of this premise. 

With a little more dough, such a film needn’t be limited to one room. Instead, it could be the story of a dinosaur civilization awakening --- hungrily – in the midst of our own. Throw in a message about climate change, and the way we are reshaping the planet to be more to a reptile’s liking, and you’ve really got something. 

Monsters: "The Feverman"

In “The Feverman” -- the very first episode of Monsters -- a desperate family man in Victorian England, Mr. Mason (John C. Vennema), takes his feverish daughter to an alternative healer called “The Feverman” over the objections of his traditional physician, Dr. Burke (Patrick Garner).

At first, Burke’s concerns about the Feverman, Mr. Boyle (David McCallum), seem well-placed, since he is a grumpy, ill-mannered alcoholic. 

However, when Mr. Burke interferes in Boyle’s ritual to cure the Mason girl, he is surprised to learn the truth of the matter: The Feverman engages each disease he encounters in mortal, physical combat, and in this case, the girl’s fever presents as a blubbery, tumorous monster.

When Burke’s interference causes Boyle to be mortally-wounded, the Feverman tells the conventional physician that he must take his place, and kill the hulking, fleshy fever with his bare hands.

With the great David McCallum (veteran of such anthologies as The Outer Limits [1962 – 1964]) leading the way, “The Feverman” qualifies as an assured debut for Monsters. At its heart, the premiere story concerns the idea, deeply ingrained in our culture, that only Western-style medicine can “heal” the sick and that anything else -- or from any other tradition -- qualifies as quackery.

In “The Feverman,” for example, Dr. Burke is disrespectful and cynical about Boyle’s approach to healing the sick, and he even calls him a “trickster.” He worries that Mason is being conned. He also asks Boyle if he will refund Mason’s money if his patient dies.

Boyle’s response is perfect. He asks if Burke also refunds his fee when his patients die. The implication is that they are both doctors, but that their approaches differ.  In some way, this seems a subtle acknowledgment of the East/West divide in terms of how to approach healing.

Of course, in real life there are charlatans and fakers the world around, but “The Feverman” suggests that in this case, Boyle is the real deal. The episode reaches its apex when Burke comes to understand that fact, and is faced with a very grotesque and memorable monster, the first in the series’ stable.

In this case, the Mason girl’s fever is depicted as a giant, fleshy obese thing, one that is “big and strong” in Boyle’s words, and which knows how to “attack, but not defend.”  The key to destroying it is to attack it full-on, and that’s, finally, exactly what Boyle does. He literally wrestles the hulking, tumor-covered infection to the ground, and then snaps its neck.

In a very real sense, doctors do battle with the diseases of their patients every day, but it is fun how this Monsters episode visualizes that conflict as a real-life, physical wrestling match, one where the doctor has as much skin in the game as does his patient.   

Indeed, from a certain perspective, “The Feverman” is really all about Burke, and how he travels from being set in his ways, attached to convention and protocol, but finally breaks out of that thinking to save a life. 

It’s probably a romantic notion, but I like to believe that good doctors sometimes operate in this fashion, trying everything they *know* to do first, and then, failing the conventional, launch into the unconventional or untried methods.  In the final analysis, “The Feverman” is about a set-in-his-ways physician opening his mind to new possibilities, new avenues of healing, and a new way of viewing the world. 

Monsters (1988 - 1991): An Introduction

I have always had a soft spot for Monsters (1988 – 1991), the horror anthology from Laurel that succeeded the company’s successful Tales from the Darkside (1984 – 1988).

Specifically, I watched Monsters while I was away college, late at night on the weekends, and even if my expectations weren’t high, the series usually met them. I’ll forever associate the series with my freshman year dorm room at Robins Hall, on the University of Richmond campus, and late night deliveries of Dominos Pizza.

Monsters emerged from the great syndication boom of the late 1980s, the period that brought us such cult-TV favorites as Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994), War of the Worlds (1987 – 1989), Friday the 13th: The Series (1987 – 1990), and more. 

Although it was a distinctly low-budget horror series, Monsters always felt like it was made with love and affection for the genre, and it never took itself too seriously. 

It’s sort of like working in the old B-Movie era,” series writers Bob Schneider and Peg Haller told Fangoria, “…one of the things that’s great about Monsters is that it’s good for writers. Because of the limited special effects and limited sets, a lot of it has to be done with dialogue and characters…the situation demands that you come up with a concept that really works.”

More often than not, those concepts did work. The series featured some great, straight-up horror shows (like “The Match Game,” or “The Hole”) but also, in the spirit of Rod Serling’s horror anthologies, occasionally delved into social commentary. 

One episode – “One Wolf’s Family” was a riff on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1968) and concerned a werewolf bringing home his were-hyena girlfriend to a bigoted, Archie Bunker-like father, played by Jerry Stiller. 

Another story, “My Zombie Lover” was about a girl (Tempestt Bledsoe) who fell in love with a zombie over the objections of her parents. In the age of Howard’s Beach, Tawana Brawley and the disgraceful Willie Horton ad, these and other episodes argued cogently against racism, and did so in funny and entertaining ways.

Time Magazine noted in 1989 that the typical episode of Monsters is a “lively half-hour…which each week delivers just what is advertised: a grotesque and usually malevolent creature,” and that the show was “enlivened by grisly good humor.” 

In 1997, The Blockbuster Entertainment Guide to Television reported that the series was “irreverent” and “provided a good scare, like those old midnight terror tales on the radio.”

That latter observation represents almost exactly how I view Monsters.

The stories are solid, and occasionally inspired, and the overall tone is nostalgic in some sense.  The series doesn’t attempt to belabor grittiness or any other modern qualities of the genre.  So, clearly, it’s a throwback. Even the introductory montage (which I blogged about last Sunday) seems to obsess on the simpler days of Yesteryear, when the American family would gather round the living room TV to eat dinner and catch a show together.

Back in the late 1988, Monsters went up against a better-known horror commodity, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), who was hosting a different anthology, Freddy’s Nightmares: A Nightmare on Elm Street The Series (1988 – 1990), and so proved a ratings underdog despite the advertising lure of a “a new creature featured every week.” Where Tales from the Darkside had signed 125 stations around the U.S., Monsters was able to scare up barely 78 affiliates.

But because of the show’s quality, Monsters showed 55 percent audience growth over the first month it aired while the inferior but better known Freddy’s Nightmares saw its numbers plummet following heavy curiosity viewing.

After three seasons and seventy-two episodes, Monsters went to Rerun Heaven, and it was broadcast on the old Sci-Fi Channel frequently in the late 1990s. Just this year, the anthology was released on DVD for the first time, and so for Halloween this year, I’ll be blogging episodes throughout the day.

I’ll close with another of Monsters’ amusing tag-lines. “Look what they’re hatching now!” 

Today, this blog will be the place to do just that.

Happy Halloween!