Saturday, March 21, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Secrets of Isis: "The Outsider"

In “The Outsider,” Mrs. Thomas (Joanna Cameron) is worried about a bright new student, Wayne Moss (Mitch Vogel), who the other students bully and call a “hillbilly.”

Wayne spends most of his time away from school, exploring old Wilson’s Pond, and learning more about the wild life there.  He says he hates city life and the “pavement, concrete, and smog” of urban living.  Meanwhile, two bullies decide to steal the raccoon mascot of a competing sports team, and blame the theft on Wayne.

When Wayne learns that a land developer plans to dynamite and drain Wilson’s pond, he steals a bull-dozer, but soon loses control of it.

It’s Isis to the rescue!

“The Outsider” is a charming but totally fantasy-land installment of Isis.

In this episode, an “outsider” boy attempts to stop contractors and land developers from destroying a beautiful and precious natural habitat. 

Andrea gets a great (but odd idea) to help: “Let’s file an environmental impact report!” 

But, alas, it’s too late for the grinding wheels of bureaucracy to slow the project down.

Desperate, Rick Cutler goes to Mr. Winstead (Harry Hickox), the land developer -- while he is playing golf, no less -- and tells him about the white owl and other wild-life that will be destroyed by his actions. 

Horrified, Winstead calls off his multi-million, environment-destroying project right then and there. 

The dynamite fuses are already lit, but fortunately Isis can help.

If only life were really like this episode of Filmation's Secrets of Isis.

There is no land developer in the world, I fear, who would change course -- even if it is the right thing to do -- on the cusp of creating a multi-million dollar project (a new suburb). 

Indeed, this idea, of a millionaire businessman actually caring about the environment, is the most “fantastic” or fantasy element of the episode.  I would sooner believe in Isis, a near Goddess superhero, frankly. 

Still, this 1970s idealism is quite a wonderful, if innocent thing.  Too bad more children didn’t learn the lesson of Filmation’s “The Outsider,” that when we destroy the environment, we contribute to our own destruction. 

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Bigfoot and Wildboy: "White Wolf"

In “White Wolf,” a sneaky veterinarian’s assistant, Tom (Brian Farrell) concocts a spray that can control animals and people.

He tests it on an old white wolf, Smoky, who then bites a local teen, Doug (Christopher Knight).

Soon, Doug begins transforming into a werewolf, showing the same signs of aggression infecting Smoky. 

Bigfoot and Little Boy team up with Dr. Stewart (Ed Peaker) to reverse the effects of the formula…

Here’s another strange and yet wholly enjoyable episode of Bigfoot and Wildboy. In “White Wolf,” Peter from The Brady Bunch (1969 – 1973) -- Christopher Knight -- gets infected by a wolf-bite and becomes an angry werewolf boy. 

The only problem is that there are virtually no make-up effects to chart his transformation. Instead, Knight's Doug simply grows hairy hands, or paws. 

And we all know why a guy grows hair on his hands, right?

The cool part of this story, however, is watching a Brady Bunch kid armed with the equivalent of bionic powers. Doug picks up a boulder in slow motion photograph, for example, and so there’s the inescapable feel here of The Brady Bunch meets The Six Million Dollar Man by way of Sid and Marty Krofft…and, naturally, on the cheap.

Also quite strange here is the nature of the weekly villain. A meek vet’s assistant -- the anonymous sounding Tom -- creates a formula to bend animals to his will, all while working at a little local office in the woods near Bigfoot and Wild Boy. 

I guess even evil geniuses have to start somewhere.

Alas, there are no further complete episodes of Bigfoot and Wildboy currently available for review, so this retrospective is complete, for the time being, after just four episodes (“Abominable Snowman,” “Amazon Contest,” Prisoner from Space” and “White Wolf.”) 

Based on these episodes, Bigfoot and Wildboy is cheaply-made, strange, and a heck of a lot of fun.  I’d love to see the whole series released on DVD or blu-ray. Some episodes, like “Amazon Contest” and “Prisoner from Space,” in particular, are really inventive and bizarre.

Next week, I’ll veer over to cover one episode of Mystery Island (1977)…again, the only one available.

The following week, I’ll begin reviewing the extant episodes of a childhood favorite: Run Joe Run (1974 - 1976). Once more, only about four episodes are available for review, but hopefully the series – basically The Fugitive with a German shepherd -- will be worth a re-visit.

Friday, March 20, 2015

From the Archive: Z.P.G. (Zero Population Growth) (1972)

In 1968, author Paul R. Erlich had an unexpected best seller with a book entitled The Population Bomb.  It sold over two million copies and yet was vociferously derided by the forces of the extreme right and the extreme left in America. 

In short, Erlich's book suggested that if birth-rate trends continued unabated, over-population would cause mass starvation and country-wide die-outs in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Since we survived those years and decades without any such famine or mass-deaths, it is tempting to gaze at The Population Bomb today as just another end-of-the-word scenario that didn't come to pass. At the time of publication, critics widely termed The Population Bomb "alarmist" for what they termed the author's wild "predictions."

But jokes, political agendas, and critiques aside, The Population Bomb remains an initiative that contains at least some kernel of currency in our world today; the idea of Earth's "finite capacity to sustain human civilization," as the author himself put it in a defense entitled The Population Bomb Revisited, available in The Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development. 

In terms of film theory, if we recall the axiom that movies universally mirror their social-political contexts, then The Population Bomb is certainly a major "bugaboo" and influencing factor in the late 1960s and early 1970s genre cinema. This period -- pre-Star Wars (1977) --  was a highly inventive one for filmmakers, who veritably obsessed on dystopian futures and apocalyptic scenarios. 

Aside from the brilliant Planet of the Apes films (1968-1973), the social commentary of  John Boorman's Zardoz (1974), and the satirical Death Race 2000 (1975) there were several major films of this epoch that explicitly broached the topic of overpopulation and suggested (mostly horrible...) ways to "sustain human civilization" in the event of planetary disaster. 

Among these  notable efforts were George Lucas's visually-dynamic THX-1138 (1971), the macabre Soylent Green (1973), the colorful and action-packed Logan's Run (1976) and the subject of today's review, ZPG: Zero Population Growth (1972).

In some ways, ZPG was just as casually dismissed by critics of the day as had been The Population Bomb.  

The New York Times' Vincent Canby wrote disparagingly of the film that it was "a sometimes funny (unintentionally), untimely meditation on the earth's over-population problems, set in some future smog-bound England where the World Deliberation Council has decreed that for 30 years there shall be no babies born. Women mad for motherhood who refuse to be content with mechanical dolls programmed to say "Mummy, I love you Mummy," take to giving birth in cellars and stealing each other's offspring."

Even in science fiction circles today, ZPG is rarely discussed or debated, despite the fact that it is an intriguing and rather forward-looking sci-fi film. A grave atmosphere of despair hangs over the entire picture, and the film by director Michael Campus paints an unforgettable portrait of a totalitarian society that controls every aspect of the citizenry's day-to-day life. 

Most importantly, however, ZPG is worthwhile for the main questions it zeroes in on. What sacrifice is too great to save the planet? And secondly, should one generation be the one to carry that enormous burden?

"We conquered cancer and then heart disease...and for what?"

A hovering government craft announces the Zero Birth Edict; and forecasts Blade Runner's (1982) megapolis. 
Set in an unspecified future, ZPG begins as "The Society" and the "World Deliberation Council" announce over a smog-filled metropolis the inception of the "Zero Birth Edict."  For thirty years, no women will be allowed to bear children. Women already pregnant are to be registered with "The Department of State Security."

If, during this thirty year ban on child bearing, a woman does become pregnant, she has two options.  She can report to an "Ab Lab" (an Abortion Lab), or have a home abortion courtesy of a new bathroom appliance apparently installed in all houses.

At home abortion appliance, in close-up.
In the latter case, the pregnant woman need only press her swollen uterus against a kind of belt-like radiation device (glowing red) and hit the "abort" button.

If, however, a woman should choose to go to term and is discovered, she and her husband (and the child too...) are captured, then suffocated inside transparent, mobile tents, in full view of the disapproving community-at-large. 

Those citizens who report such "criminals" are rewarded with bonus food rations. In the world of ZPG, child-bearing is "the gravest crime" imaginable.

Alas, the "Zero Birth Edict" is only the latest indignity that this unfortunate culture must suffer.  The surfeit of smog in the atmosphere has rendered the air largely unbreathable, and outside, all citizens must wear face masks, or make occasional stops at air stations strategically located throughout the city.

And overpopulation also means long lines to visit the local museum. The wait to get in -- for an hour, no less -- is four years, according to the dialogue. At the museum, you can also see extinct species like cats and dogs...stuffed, and featured in action-poses in dioramas

Another grim scene reveals a restaurant overflowing with patrons. Diners-in-waiting stand everywhere, surrounding seated diners, looking forever over their shoulders as the lucky ones eat first.

Despite the difficulties of this future, many companies have discovered a way to make a profit in such dark times. 

 The "MetroMart" is a TV-based department store-- that forecasts the Internet and online stores -- and makes a killing selling artificial Christmas trees and other rarities. And then there's "Babyland," a store where mechanical dolls are sold to men and women who long to be parents.  

The store's motto: "You come to us as a man and a woman, you leave as a family."

One of the best and most horrifying scenes in the film involves Babyland, and the desperation of prospective parents as they meekly accept plastic automatons as their "children."   These child dolls -- who make whirring, mechanical sounds when they turn to look at you -- are the stuff of nightmares. They walk, they talk, they demand attention, and their eyes are as dead as you can imagine.

The heart and soul of ZPG involves a young couple, Russ McNeil (Oliver Reed) and Carol McNeil (Geraldine Chaplin), who break the Zero Birth Edict and decide to conceive a child. They do so, I hasten to add, without really thinking out the consequences for their baby. Because of the Society's law on children, Carol must give birth in an old civil defense bunker. And worse than that, the child can never -- in his entire lifetime -- leave the bunker, for fear of discovery.

Russ and Carol's world has gotten very, very small.
The birth scene in ZPG is crafted artistically, if also in grim fashion.  It is a natural birth, since no doctors can be present. The director, Campus, charts the delivery entirely by focusing on the silhouettes moving over the bunker's stone wall.  It's like a weird cave birth from man's prehistory, a strange futuristic book-end to a long-forgotten and humble beginning. 

There's also a terrific shot in the film of Russ and Carol (pictured above) -- looking defeated -- inside that civil defense bunker. Their world is now tiny; they are visually, metaphorically and literally trapped, even as they seek to escape The Society's Zero Birth Edict.

After the baby is born, the infant develops a fever, and Russ and Carol's neighbors, George (Don Gordon) and Edna (Diane Cilento) discover what the McNeil's are hiding. Now these also-desperate, would-be parents want to "share" the baby, and their demands on Russ and Carol just grow and grow.  

This passage of ZPG is a truly horrifying look at human nature. George and Edna resort to blackmail. They let Russ and Carol know that they could report them to The Society at a moment's notice, if the parents don't cave to their demands. This is ugly but also strangely believable behavior.

Refusing to give up or share their child, Russ and Carol make a last ditch effort to escape their neighbors and the rules of The Society...

"It is as it is..."
 Bonnie is ready to greet her new parents at "Babyland." 
There's not a single action-sequence or consequential effects sequence in ZPG, save for establishing shots of the city and the overhead vehicles that patrol it and catch law-breakers. Yet this 1972 film is fully engaging because of Carol, the character played by Geraldine Chaplin. She is desperate to be a mother, but her society has determined that no woman in her generation will be permitted to play that role. 

There are no do-overs in life. We all get one shot on this mortal coil, and yet Carol -- for the sake of the planet -- is asked to give up her child-rearing years; her only shot. She is in her late twenties, perhaps, so will be too old in thirty years, to become a mother. The joy of being a parent is thus something forbidden; never for her to experience. This situation raises all kinds of moral questions.

Does the good of "The Society" and the need for the human race to endure outweigh the personal dreams and aspiration of one woman, or one man, for that matter?  

And secondly, why is it so hard for Carol to share her joy -- her baby -- with one other couple, once she has staked out her position of defiance?  

Make no mistake, the movie lands firmly on Carol's side: she is right to reject the inhuman State that dominates her life; but there's another side too, that the movie subtly hints at.

Carol (Chaplin) and Russ (Reed) conceive a child.
Perhaps what it all comes down to is that Carol and Russ are just regular married folks, even in this crazy, Orwellian future. They want to live free, as they wish, and want to experience what we all do, particularly parenthood.They aren't fantasy heroes, or larger-than-life icons. They're just regular folk. 

They make some big mistakes in the movie, but that fact only makes them all the more human, and therefore touching.  There are times during the film you will grow infuriated with Carol and Russ for their decisions -- and for their lack of planning -- but you also understand their deep desire to be a family.

I wrote above that ZPG is a forward-looking film, and in several ways, it predicts the future world of Blade Runner (1982).  For instance, the opening scenes of the film involve a slow, hovering craft that makes governmental announcements to the populace far below. In Blade Runner, it was a blimp advertising "off world opportunity" but the image in ZPG is very much a primitive version of the one in Scott's (superior and more accomplished) film.

"This is called a gas pump..."
In terms of our society today, well, we've already seen some of strange things come to pass in the last decade, and ZPG is prophetic.

The idea of citizens turning in and spying on fellow citizens in ZPG is oddly reminiscent of the Bush Administration's proposal for "TIPS" the so-called "Terrorism Information and Prevention System" of 2002. It was designed to help "every American become active in the homeland security effort," much in the same way that the Society uses informants to report violators in the film.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are scenes in ZPG during which citizens are indoctrinated by movies that describe how poorly previous generations selected their diets and portion sizes.  In other words, "The Society" of the film tells people exactly what to eat and how much to eat. And, of course, there are those on the right side of the political spectrum who feel that the current Obama Administration has taken the first steps down that same road.

So there's ample fodder here to read the film both as a critique of both right wing excess (particularly in the depiction of the companyies profiting off of the misery of Zero Birth Edict) and left wing excess, namely in the depiction of a Nanny State gone berserk.

But beyond questions of left and right, and of today and yesterday, ZPG is fascinating because of the questions it raises about community vs. the individual.  What would you give up to save the planet?  

Would you surrender your right to become a parent? 

Furthermore, what would you give up for the pursuit of your liberty in general? And if you pursued that liberty, what if you risked the very future in the process?

I can't declare that ZPG is always smart or knowing about the answers to these questions, only that it raises them in a fascinating and frequently terrifying way. Most of all, I'd describe the movie as haunting.  

Late in the film, there is a montage of Carol, Russ, George and Edna playing with the "illegal" child. The images are joyous: the realization of a dream, of an aspiration.  But the montage is scored with sinister, nay diabolical music that grows more and more unsettling as the sequence reaches its crescendo.

In microcosm, this scene gets at the problem of our human condition (and human contradictions).  We want our species to survive, but we also want the freedom to live life our way. Carol and Russ want a baby, period; they don't think about the future. There is no sense of balance, of weighing immediate gratification versus long-term stability. I mean, what kind of life will that baby have in this world, especially if other parents make the same choice as Carol and Russ?

Then the world would end; the planet couldn't sustain everyone. And yes, that would mean an end to the corrupt, Big Brother-esque Society, but also an end to love, and to all future generations of children.

I also appreciate how the film adopts the perspective of the future in several important, satirical scenes set at a museum.  On display in one such sequence is a 1971 gas tank and automobile, utilized as an object lesson for how the 20th century culture used up resources without any thought to the future. A later scene terms industrial leaders "inept" and even "criminal" for fostering the destruction of our environment, and the wholesale extinction of so many species.   

If a future like this does come to pass, it will be us -- the Boomers, the X'ers, etc. -- who are under such a microscope; who are judged for the way we live today. Right now, I'm not certain the future will judge us so kindly, but as always, I hope there's time to reverse that judgment.

Not an easy or simple movie to parse; ZPG is an underrated science fiction gem, and one well worth seeking out.  But don't go in expecting action and special effects.  Here, it's all about the concept and the characters, and a grim vision of the future that I hope is as erroneous as The Population Bomb's was in 1968.

Movie Trailer: Z.P.G. (Zero Population Growth) (1972)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Films of 1990: Gremlins 2: The New Batch

At a crucial juncture in Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), an agreeable if dopey millionaire -- an amalgamation of Ted Turner and Donald Trump – learns that if you create a place for things instead of people, you shouldn’t be surprised that things eventually live there.

Daniel Clamp (John Glover) thus comes to understand that his fancy Manhattan high-rise -- automated to the max and designed to sell, sell, sell -- ends up being a place not for human beings, but for gremlins. 

This is an explicit continuation of Gremlins’ (1984) technology critique, which I discussed here on the blog the other day.

We shouldn’t be surprised, the film suggests, when de-humanization actually de-humanizes us.  Play with the building blocks of life, like Splice of Life does, or put people under the thumb of 24-hour surveillance and security guards, or cook exclusively with microwave ovens….and people begin to behave…badly.

Monsters start popping up.

This social critique probably makes Gremlins 2 sound like a deadly serious film, but instead it’s a gag-a-minute, laugh-a-minute treat that skewers the modern age, circa 1990.  This is a time, the film tells us, when technology will either carry the day, making us all “monsters,” or humanity will re-assert itself.

Look up from your iPhone screen for a moment and tell me which side won that particular war.

Caustic and hilarious Gremlins 2 is also “inventive and explosive” according to The Christian Science Monitor’s David Sterritt, and “thoroughly enjoyable” according to Films in Review’s Edmond Grant. The film is much funnier than its predecessor was, though the trade-off may be difficult for horror films fans to accept. 

As brilliant and subversive as Gremlins 2 remains, it has lost some of the scary, suspenseful aspects of the original film.

Yet I suspect the trade-off is ultimately worth it. How many sequels are so delightful, and so thoroughly unpredictable?

“We hope you have enjoyed our programming. But more importantly, we hope you have enjoyed…life.”

Former Kingston Falls resident Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and his girlfriend, Kate (Phoebe Cates) are having trouble adjusting to life in expensive, impersonal New York City.  In Manhattan, the duo works at the technologically-advanced but de-humanizing Clamp Center, the world’s first fully-automated office building and home to the Clamp News Network (CCN). 

After the death of Mr. Wing (Keye Luke Luke), Gizmo is taken to the Clamp Center by a scientist working at the Splice of Life genetic laboratories inside the building. 

Before long, Gizmo and Billy meet up again, and face another outbreak of malevolent Mogwai.

This time, the gremlins are enhanced by Dr. Catheter’s (Christopher Lee) genetic experiments.  The Gremlins soon add to their numbers with a brain gremlin, an electric gremlin, a vegetable gremlin (!), a bat gremlin, a spider gremlin and…a female gremlin.

“This is a complete failure of management.”

In America, we tend to worship those who introduce us to the next level of technology (and its accordant convenience) and make a fortune doing it. Gremlins 2 introduces us to the (great) character, Daniel Clamp, and it is impossible not to love him…but also impossible not to recognize him. 

He’s a little bit Ted Turner, who founded the nation’s first 24-hour news cable network and was a proponent of “colorization,” the expensive process by which old black-and-white films would be updated and made palatable for contemporary (but lazy…) TV-watching masses. 

Clamp is also a little bit Donald Trump (1946 - ), the increasingly unhinged man behind Trump Towers in New York City, Trump Tower Resorts (casinos and hotels…) and such best sellers as Trump: The Art of the Deal (1987) and Trump: Surviving at the Top (1990).

In Gremlins 2, Daniel Clamp (John Glover) is the self-absorbed dynamo behind Clamp Premiere Regency Trade Center, a high-tech sky-rise/headquarters and home to CCN: The Clamp Cable News Network. Clamp is the author of the best-selling I Took Manhattan, and his cable network airs Casablanca,now in full color…with a happier ending.”

And when the Gremlins disaster occurs inside his building, Clamp even has a handy “end of the world” message to air on CCN, a funny reference to Turner’s famous boast that his CNN “won’t be signing off until the world ends.”

The social commentary doesn’t end with the (gentle) skewering of these powerful men, who helped to reshape modern America. The film also comments on the fragmenting or “balkanization” of television brought about by cable networks, a process which creates (in the film) “niche” networks like The Archery Channel, Microwaving with Marge, The Movie Police (starring Leonard Maltin), The Safety Channel and on and on.  

What’s the point? 

That technology (in this case the new shape of television) is merely separating us into our own little worlds, not building a community that reflects life, like Kingston Falls, for example.

Today, we are some way down the line from Gremlins 2.  We not only have over 200 channels, we have Internet streaming, 24 hour cable stations, and a host of other viewing options.  The “glue” that the mass media once used to hold us together as a nation is now gone. You can now choose the news (like a pizza topping) that best reflects your already-established world-view (conservative or liberal) and never be exposed to a new concept, or something that takes you out of your comfortable bubble.

Dante delves into pop-culture movie references too, commenting on the 1989 blockbuster Batman with a Gremlin-sponsored recreation of the movie’s ubiquitous bat logo. He ushers in jokes about the Wizard of Oz (“I’m melting”), The Marathon Man (“is it safe?”), and even laments the fact that a sequel was made to…Gremlins.

Once again, the point is that even our art is now de-humanized.

Batman is now a brand name and trademark, with a corporate logo you can’t mistake.  Forget individual artistry, the Dark Knight is an institution, not a vehicle for inventive storytelling! Matters such as story and character are less important than the creation of a perpetual money dispensing machine.  We watch a superhero movie from Marvel these days, and after the credits are over, we get a tease for another character, or another movie.  Then, we wait months for the trailer for that next movie, and anticipation is ratcheted up.  The actual product – the “movie itself” -- is just one piece of a never-ending media/marketing strategy.

Gremlins 2 likewise mocks the de-humanized essence of business jargon, which had grown and multiplied in American culture by the 1990s like some sort of terrible verbal plague. Workers were no longer asked to come up with good ideas…they had to “think outside the box.” Workers were no longer charged with blending departments, but finding and exploiting their “synergy.” They no longer had to simply do better at their job; they had to “take it to the next level.” 

This kind of inhuman gobbledygook -- this business-speak -- is mimicked and expanded upon with great success in Dante’s film. For instance, the revolving doors at the Clamp Tower entrance remind workers to “have a powerful day!” 

Similarly, characters don’t discuss career aspirations, they reflect on “situational long term outlook perspectives” and “career opportunity advancement.” Even ceiling lights are no longer just lights they are part of an “illumination system.”

And a takeover of the building by malevolent green gremlins is not a catastrophe, a disaster or even an invasion according to some, but rather a failure of management.

So the film tells us that to go along with our inhuman technology, we have developed inhuman modes of communication.

If one catalogues all of these pop culture jokes, a common thread grows detectable. What Dante laments in Gremlins 2 is the coarsening of the American arts and culture and even national dialogue to the point that everything and everybody is a product; a vehicle for squeezing out a profit.

When art and business join forces,” declares one character in Gremlins 2,anything can happen.”  He means it as a net positive; but Dante means it sarcastically.

Gremlins 2 is prophetic in understanding the pitfalls of this modern approach. 

Have you been a success in real-estate? 

Write a book and proselytize your success!

Direct a successful movie? 

Market it and make a sequel!

Have a good idea for a restaurant? 

Franchise it! 

Yet in a culture where the all-mighty dollar is so important, qualities such as individuality and creativity – nay, artistry -- eventually lose their significance.  Clamp’s two-hundred-and-fifty million dollar high-rise, a monstrosity of mechanization, voice-operated elevators, self-cleaning ash trays, surveillance cameras and “eye-pleasing, color-coordinated, authorized art,” is not an environment fit for unique, individual human beings. 

Instead, it’s a big fat, high-tech “work”-extruding beast.

The Gremlins -- the very embodiment of Loki; of chaos and anarchy – descend on Clamp Towers and very quickly prove…bad for business.  They get into the “natural” ingredients at the Yogurt Stand.  They destroy “Splice of Life,” a genetic laboratory that is the very representation of profit put ahead of responsibility and science run amok.  They foul the complicated phone system in the building, and in one wicked joke, are consigned to a hell called “hold,” where the muzak never stops.

Is it a wonder that monsters exist in a world like this?
Gremlins 2 is probably the closest thing to a live-action cartoon you are likely to see, but all the mayhem, all the brilliant effects carry pro-social weight.  The real movie monster is our craven consumer culture, and our desire to possess new, better technology. This monster is everywhere, infiltrating every walk of life.  It’s in our television (“an invention for fools,” says Mr. Wing), it’s in our newscast, here presented by a man in a vampire suit (a literal bloodsucker), and it’s in our most revered businessmen like Clamp, who still wants to merchandise Gizmo…even after all the anarchy.

What makes this point so interesting to contemplate is that Dante decides, in this sequel, to make the gremlins non-generic even as the world of humans becomes more generic. There’s not just a furry creature and an evil one here, like in the first film. Instead, we meet dozens of individual gremlins. There’s one little guy with googly eyes who acts like he needs Ritalin, stat. There’s Greta, the female gremlin. There’s one mogwai who becomes a gargoyle. And, of course, there’s my favorite, the delightful Brain Gremlin (voiced by Tony Randall), who wants only, “civilization.” 

Thus, the shape of the film might be interpreted as a mirror of the overall critique. To destroy a world of homogenized, inhuman technology and jargon, you need a return, perhaps, to messy individualism.  The Gremlins -- funnier, and more colorful than ever -- provide that antidote.

Gremlins 2 is wicked good fun, and one sequel that not only differentiates itself from the original, but in some way, exceeds it. I watched both Gremlins films with my son, Joel, and he couldn’t decide which he liked better. He liked the original, he said, because it told a scarier, more suspenseful story.  He liked the sequel because it upgraded the monsters and was very, very funny.

In my assessment, Gremlins fits together better as a coherent central idea or movie, but Gremlins 2 takes the cake in terms of ingenuity and humor. In the final analysis, original or new batch matters little because the franchise provides viewers two remarkable films.

Movie Trailer: Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Late Night Blogging: The Time Tunnel

The Happenings: March 18, 2015

I'm starting a new brand of post here, one devoted to goings-on across the web, especially as they relate to independent artists. 

And I've named it "The Happenings" because I love a little irony, and who can forget that M. Night horror movie from 2008 about killer plants?

Basically, if you have a new book out, or a web series, an album, a new podcast, or anything like that, submit it to me at, and I'll feature it here, on "The Happenings." In your e-mail, simply put The Happenings in the subject heading.  Send me illustrations and links, so I can present your work in a light that will interest readers of the blog

Remember, I won't review a trailer or an unfinished film, but I am happy to review completed films, short or feature length, though that may be in a separate post.  The Happenings is more for announcements than analysis.

Item #1: Now first on the docket: let's talk about me.  

I have had a terrible, throbbing toothache for about two weeks, and finally relented to see a dentist. I now have a root canal scheduled for Monday.

So wish me luck, and pray that I'm not zoned out on meds while writing my blog next week.

Item #2  Filmmaker David Connellan, the artist behind the truly extraordinary Space:1999 fan film from last year, The Passenger, is working on a new vampire web series called Blood Dawn.

Here's a trailer for David's project if you want to share a little love, and give it a shot at getting made:

Item #3: Eleusyve Productions, a community theater company based in Seattle, is presenting the seven plays comprising Aleister Crowley's Rites of Eleusis as musical theater pieces "in a manner that will render them fully accessible to a broad and discriminating audience, using music, light, dance and drama to enhance the poetry and symmetry of the original works."

Check out the web page here.

Item #4: Just received in the mail, from McFarland: Monstrous and Childish Monsters: Essays on Cinema's Holy Terrors. This book, edited by P.J. Bohlmann and Sean Moreland, features essays about Rosemary's Baby, Eraserhead, Frankenstein and other classic horror films.

That's it for now, but let me know what is "happening" in your neck of the woods, particularly if it involves film, TV, horror or science fiction.

In short, I want "The Happenings" to be about you, and your work, so let's see what comes of it.

The Projection Booth Remembers Rollerball (1975)

If you're a fan of the 1975 dystopian science fiction film Rollerball, you will want to check out the latest episode (210) of the podcast The Projection Booth.

Here's a snippet:

"In the future there will be no war. There will only be Rollerball.

Writer John Kenneth Muir joins us in our discussion of Norman Jewison's 1975 dystopian film, Rollerball wherein Jonathan E (James Caan) is a star in a game where individual achievement is a threat to the Corporate powers that be. We discuss the 2002 remake, and the two adult versions of the film(s).

We also talk to actress Ashlie Atkinson of the Gotham Girls about life as a present day roller girl."

I want to say it was a great pleasure to join the Projection Booth team for the show, and discuss a great movie of the disco decade.

The Time Tunnel: "Secret Weapon" (November 28, 1966)

Lost in time, Tony Newman (James Darren) and Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert), land behind the Iron Curtain on June 16, 1956. 

These temporal sojourners soon receive messages from Project Tic Toc technicians of “critical importance.” 

Under orders from the U.S. government, they are to act as American undercover operatives -- Williams and Smith -- working on the Russian equivalent of the Time Tunnel. 

That device is at an early stage of development, when a capsule is still being used to test travel inside the vortex.  

Spearheading the project is Professor Biraki (Nehemiah Persoff), who claims to be a friend of the U.S. but secretly hates our country and all it stands for.

He wants to use the Americans as guinea pigs in a time travel experiment. His superior, General Hruda (Michael Ansara) doesn’t care if they live or die, so long as the experiment is successful.

Soon Tony and Doug realize that the Russian tunnel is a death trap because it has not accommodated a “radiation bath.” 

When they go into the tunnel, the two American scientists risk being trapped between time periods in a kind of “time limbo…’

“Secret Weapon” is a routine, slow-paced episode of The Time Tunnel (1966); one that is entirely humorless, and truth be told, without much value in terms of dramatic interest.

In fact, “Secret Weapon” plays in large part like a bad episode of Mission: Impossible, with series leads Darren and Colbert recruited to work on the Warsaw Pact equivalent of Project Tic Toc and ferret out the true motives of its lead scientist, played by Persoff.  

But unlike M:I, there’s no real cleverness to the plot, and no pay-off at seeing a villain tricked and out-maneuvered. There's no real excitement at all.

The first portion of the episode is interminable and not really related to that plot. It involves Tony and Doug trying to receive a message from home base, one sent on a big Lucite brick called an “F-5” probe. 

This device allows Project Tic Toc to deliver messages to them, but malfunctions and explodes.  Three such devices are sent, while Tony and Doug try to interact with it.

This prologue slows the story down considerably, and is an odd plot device. How come Project Tic Toc can sometimes communicate directly with the missing scientists, and at other times must resort to sending these probes?  Why are the first ten minutes of the episode given over to repeated attempts to interface with the probe?

After this narrative blind alley, Tony and Doug motivate nearly nothing in terms of the action. They are forced to participate in a deadly experiment and determine if Biraki is playing a “double game” to sabotage the U.S. and forward his own country’s research. They agree to the experiment, and are nearly killed before being zapped to the next time period (1861 and the assassination of President Lincoln.)  What do they learn?  How do they impact the mission?

There's no real drama here, because these questions are not addressed.  

Nobody in this episode -- outside of Persoff and the bald, menacing Ansara -- displays any sort of character or humanity at all.  

In Project Tic Toc and on the mission, everyone is colorless and bland, totally lacking anything of color to say or do.  Say what you want about the characters of Lost in Space (1965 – 1968), another Irwin Allen series, but at least they have distinctive traits that separate them from one another. Tony and Doug are totally interchangeable.  

The Time Tunnel is all high-tech wizardry (for the 1960s), no humanity. 

Basically, the hour consists of two teams on the same set (slightly re-dressed) pushing dials and reading monitors of the tunnel. The dialogue is unintelligible jargon about “radiation baths,” experiment “A13,” "F-5 probes" and so forth.

The most intriguing aspect of “Secret Weapon” is the fact that other nations have near-identical Time Tunnel technology, which means that Tony and Doug could one day find themselves battling a kind of temporal cold war against foreign agents. 

In the wrong hands, we are told, the time tunnel is a “threatening weapon.”  Certainly this is true, and it would be interesting for the episode to note how America intends to defend against its eventual use, or better deploy identical technology.  But even the Cold War parable here seems to be on mindless automatic pilot, with no real ethical, moral stance beyond the fact that the U.S is good and the Russians are evil.