Saturday, May 09, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Valley of the Dinosaurs: "A Turned Turtle" (September 21, 1974)

In the third episode of CBS’s Valley of the Dinosaurs (1974), titled “A Turned Turtle,” the Butlers learn of an old hermit who may know the pathway out of the valley. 

The only problem is that to reach the old hermit, and find the pathway itself, is quite a dangerous journey. The hermit lives in the territory of a fearsome dinosaur called “Godon.”  And unstable volcanoes threaten to erupt at any moment. 

While Kim and Kate go to speak to the hermit about his knowledge of a path, Mr. Butler and Gorak realize they need a way to reach them after an eruption, and use a giant turtle shell to create a vehicle that will help them pass through a submerged passageway….

In “A Turned Turtle,” The Butlers have a chance to escape the prehistoric land where they are trapped.  Uniquely, the cave-man family is confused by their desire to leave. To the family, life in the valley of the dinosaurs is quite normal. The Butlers explain that they have “a world” of their own out there, a world where they “belong.”

As is clear from this episode, the third in the series run, a format is developing. Each week, a prehistoric crisis occurs, whether it is an army of ants, a dinosaur attack, or a volcanic eruption that blocks egress to family members.  The two families then work together to solve the problem.  

That solution, almost every week, has something to do with the Butlers’ knowledge of 20th century science.  For instance, a hot-air balloon was used last week (“What Goes Up,”) and a lever and water siphons were used the week before (“Forbidden Fruit.”)  

This week, Mr. Butler -- the high school science teacher – explains how the turtle shell, when upside down, will create a pocket of air that they can breathe, while traversing the underwater passageway.

The format is predictable, but leaves enough room for some intriguing and fun stories.  

Even more predictable than the formula becomes, however, is the solution to the crisis this week.  The Butlers realize there is no passage out of the Valley that they can traverse and that -- until one is discovered -- they are trapped.  

Alternately, the series would have ended if the old hermit was able to take them out of the valley. Like the castaways on Gilligan's Isle, there's an awareness here that our heroes will never make their escape.

Next Week: “Smoke Screen.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Secrets of Isis: "The Hitchhiker" (September 8, 1976)

In “The Hitchhiker,” two high school girls -- Hope (Jewel Blanch) and Joanne (Lynn Tufield) -- make a habit of hitchhiking. 

One morning they almost die when their driver, an irresponsible teenager named Charlie (Barry Miller) takes them on a speeding trip that catches the eyes of the police and nearly ends with a deadly wreck.

Fortunately, Isis (Joanna Cameron) is present, and helps the girls avoid a deadly crash. Joanne promises that she will never “hitchhike again,” but Hope doesn’t seem to get the message.

The next day, rather than wait for the bus with Joanne, Hope gets back in the car with Charlie, and another dangerous ride ensues.

This time, however, his car breaks down on railroad tracks as a train barrels towards it...

According to Saturday morning television, hitchhiking was apparently one of the great social issues of the 1970s. It was dangerous…and everybody was doing it!

Secrets of Isis (1975 – 1976) takes on the problem in “The Hitchhiker,” an episode which sees the super heroine helping two teenage girls who fall in with the wrong driver.  

And yes, this narrative or plot-line was absolutely re-used on an episode of The All-New Super Friends in 1977 (“Hitchhike.”)  There, two high-school girls also ran afoul of a bad driver, and required rescue from the Wonder Twins.

The idea of both of these stories (and for audiences) is: get scared straight!  

Violent, dangerous hitchhiking incidents should prove how dangerous it is, and prevent people (especially kids) from doing it. Today it all feels like silly exaggeration, and much ado about nothing.  I find it hard to believe that teenage hitchhiking was ever quite the epidemic that Saturday mornings of the disco decade made it out to be.

Intriguingly, this is one of the few episodes of Isis in which we see Mrs. Thomas (Cameron) actually teach a class.  Here, she undertakes a chemistry lesson, but it’s really all about hitchhiking. She discusses the danger of a “catalyst” in an unpredictable situation, and likens it to the plight of Joanne and Hope.

The driver in this case, Charlie, is the episode’s real menace.  He decides to take the girls on a police chase, drives the car through a parked construction vehicle, runs off the road, drives without a license, and stalls out on the aforementioned race tracks. Charlie learns the error of his ways at the end (on Isis, the perps always do…) but if anyone on the series ever deserved some jail time, it’s this guy.

In terms of Isis and her abilities, we see her take apart the molecular cohesion of a vehicle in the road, so that Charlie’s car won’t crash into it.  

Molecules by which we’re bound separate…let space be found,” she says, invoking the mighty goddess.

Vis-à-vis the series’ special effects, there appears to be some new footage of Isis in flight this week. I would say this is so, in part, because these shots feature Isis’s new hair-do and cut.

Next week: “Class Clown”

Friday, May 08, 2015

Found Footage Friday: The Pyramid (2014)

(Watch out for spoilers!)

I generally don’t pay a lot of attention when mass media, front-line movie critics review new horror movies.

This is so because many of those critics either don’t appreciate horror as a form, or simply don’t understand the horror genre well. In just the last year, for example I read egregiously over-the-top negative reviews of Annabelle (2014) and Ouija (2014).

But when I watched those films, I found that they weren’t actually awful.  They weren’t the “worst” films of the year, as advertised. The story was much more nuanced than that. They weren’t great; but the films showed promise, and featured some good scenes. At worst, they were mediocre efforts.

Long story short: I ignored the negative mainstream reviews for the new found-footage horror film -- and major studio release -- The Pyramid (2014) and watched the bloody thing anyway.

In this case, the mainstream critics were absolutely correct (demonstrating to me why I should never consider a rule or behavior an absolute…). 

It’s difficult to know what’s worse about The Pyramid: the incompetent execution, the bad CGI, or the hopeless, half-enunciated script.

I’ve watched many found footage films -- including the love it/hate it disaster/masterpiece micro-budgeted Daylight (2013) -- and few can hold a candle to The Pyramid in terms of pure unadulterated wretchedness.  

It isn’t just bad…it’s Jaws: The Revenge (1987)-level bad.

All the stereotypes viewers think of when they hear the words “found-footage” -- and which I have tried here on the blog so hard to dispel -- are abundantly true of The Pyramid.  The acting is lousy, the cinematography is bad, and the film, finally, makes no sense at all. Characters don’t just make bad choices, they’re dumb as stumps.

If you’re a regular reader here, you know how much I hate to write negative reviews. I would much rather appreciate a movie than tear one apart.

But The Pyramid?

Too bad it didn't stay buried.

“This is the find of the century…”

In Egypt in 2013 -- at the height of political unrest in Cairo – a team of archaeologists unearth an ancient three-sided pyramid. This lost structure is 250 miles from Cairo, and is believed to be colossal, with much of its structure still underground.  When the pyramid, toxic fumes are expelled, but the choice is made, nonetheless, to explore it.

Leading the team are Dr. Miles Holden (Dennis O’Hare) and Dr. Nora Holden (Ashley Hinshaw), who differ dramatically about the role technology should play in archaeology.  Filming them is a documentary crew led by producer and rock climber Sunni (Christa Nicola) and camera-man Fitzie (James Buckley).  The last member of the team is a robot wrangler, Zahir (Amir K.)

After Zahir loses contact with his NASA robot, Shorty, inside the pyramid, the Holdens decide they can’t obey government orders to evacuate (because of the unrest) and go anyway inside the structure to find it.  

Almost immediately however, the team finds danger within the pyramids walls; dangers including collapsing floors, sand-traps, and the pyramid’s dark, cannibalistic inhabitants.

But ruling over all this chaos is a God of the afterlife (or is it the underworld?)

“This asshole has led us into a death trap!”

The Pyramid violates one of the key qualities of the found-footage format.  The movie starts out as found-footage in nature, showing audiences material from the robot Shorty’s camera, and from Fitzie’s camera too. 

Then, at some point -- once everyone is inside the pyramid -- the found-footage aspect of the film just ends.  Without comment, without note.  

Suddenly, while watching, you’re realize that nobody in-story can be filming this material. The angles are wrong. All the character are on screen.

Now, I don’t object to a film that features two distinct visual approaches. Efforts such as Lovely Molly (2012) and REC 3 (2012) create a nice blend of approaches, sometimes harnessing found-footage style, and sometimes going a traditional film-grammar route. 

But in those cases, it is clear instantly when the in-world camera view goes out (a camera is de-activated, for example).  

In other words, there is a delineation in approaches that we recognize with our eyes. Not so here.  The film looks exactly the same, visually-speaking, when it is found-footage and when it is not found-footage  There is not a visual palette or color change, for example, to suggest we’re no longer gazing through Fitzie’s camera;  and no “stopping” point that tells us he has stopped filming, either.

Instead, this shift just happens, without comment, without note, without any kind of change at all. The whole found-footage approach just gets dropped unceremoniously, and the filmmakers can’t be bothered to provide a visual or contextual clue about that fact. The sudden realization that the movie’s central format is dropped without warning will hit you like a brick, and take you right out of the narrative for a good minute or two.

And that narrative, from which you are rudely kicked, is no great shakes either. It starts out promisingly, as the writers set up this interesting generation gap approach to archaeology. Miles and Nora argue about how to undertake their chosen field of study. 

Miles -- a traditionalist – believes that nothing can beat a hands-on, physical approach. 

Nora, by contrast, prefers to rely on high technology: satellites, roving robots and the like.  We get at least two scenes in the first act where this matter is intensely discussed…and I thought it was worthwhile and interesting.  I wondered where it would go.

And then I got my answer.

Like the found footage visual approach, the whole subplot about archaeology is just dropped…ignored or forgotten. It ultimately has nothing to do with what occurs in the pyramid, or how the people inside either escape or killed. It’s just an intellectual exercise promising something interesting, and an unfulfilled promise.  

Alas, the script makes the characters stupid too. Early on, Zahir finds one of his legs trapped and crushed under a very heavy rock. The rest of the party tries to move the rock with their bare hands, but can’t save him. The stone is too heavy. 

Yet in frame in some shots -- just feet away -- are several long logs braced against a doorway to another chamber.  

Apparently nobody – not a TV producer, a camera-man or two highly-educated archaeologists (even one who likes a “hands-on” approach) -- think for a second that they can use these logs as a lever to lift the stone off Zahir’s leg.  Ever heard of Physics?

Nope, they just move the logs out of the way, and leave Zahir there, in the hope that they will find help for him.

Not great thinkers, these folks…

Later in the film, the protagonists are confronted with a murderous creature in the pits of the pyramid: Anubis himself. This half-man/half-jackal is rendered with the worst CGI you’ve ever seen in a major release (arguably the worst since An American Werewolf in Paris [1997]). The dimensions of his waist are so patently unreal, so phony, they make “waif” Kate Moss look fat by comparison. 

And Anubis's face looks like something straight from a Warner Bros. cartoon.  Unfortunately, the monster is seen on screen, for a good amount of time, so your eyes can take in his full, fake, digital appearance.  

This is an example in which practical effects (a costume, like the one seen in Stargate [1994]) would have been infinitely preferable.  

Or, like the much-derided Blair Witch Project (1999), The Pyramid could have kept Anubis hidden all-together. Some combination of approaches -- keeping him in the shadows and showing only pieces of him -- would have been far preferable to what we get here. Anubis is a big, waif-ish computer-created avatar with big cartoon eyes. He lives gravity-free, Physics-free through the film's frames and destroys any sense of reality the film has attempted to create.

The whole story involving Anubis makes no sense, anyway. He has just been sitting inside this pyramid for something like 3000 years, so he can rip out of the hearts of any eventual visitors?  

Talk about dedication to the job....

The film makes a half-hearted attempt to suggest that Anubis was actually trapped here in a prison (the pyramid) by those who worshiped him, yet the end of the movie shows that the exit to the “after life” -- a critical aspect of his test of “virtue” for those Anubis punishes or rewards -- is right in the burial chamber where he operates!  

So in 3,000 years, he never figured out how to climb up a hole, but was able to navigate sand-traps, collapsing floors, and spike-rooms?  

Not to mention cannibalistic cats (which, I presume, is what he feeds on…)?  

With the strength he demonstrates throwing a stone on Zahir early on, it is perfectly natural to assume Anubis could built a rock platform, and exit the pyramid any time he pleases.

Furthermore, The Pyramid never really makes a case (at least in the consistent way that As Above, So Below [2014) did) that the central structure is supernatural in character or nature.  The team gets lost early on, but is the pyramid shifting and changing on them, or are they just incompetent?  

It’s tough to say, since a soldier manages to find the way in and out (and drop a ladder down for the team).  How come he can do this, but the team -- of brilliant archaeologists, remember -- gets turned around and can’t find a way out?

The deeper one moves into the creative mess of The Pyramid, the less sense it makes. Everyone decides to go into the weird structure -- when they have been ordered to evacuate -- because the robot, Shorty stops transmitting.  

Wouldn’t you just send the robot wrangler, and maybe one archaeologist in, first?  

Why does the producer need to go at all? (Answer: fodder for violent deaths). Presumably, Sunni could watch the whole thing from the comfort of her tent, on a video monitor. 

Still, the first twenty minutes of The Pyramid are probably the best in the picture.  That’s when there’s still promise that the movie could follow through on the values of the found-footage visualization, or the thematic terrain: using the future to understand the past.  

Instead, all the good stuff just gets dropped, and we are dumped into a CGI-heavy monster movie that makes no sense and insults the intelligence.  

Shockingly inept, The Pyramid lives up to the press reports about it. 

Per Dr. Holden's dialogue, we probably shouldn't “mention the word ‘curse.' in relation to The Pyramid.

But what the hell? This movie is cursed.  

Caveat Emptor.

Movie Trailer: The Pyramid (2014)

Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Films of 1999: The Thirteenth Floor

The Thirteenth Floor (1999) had the misfortune of being produced and released at just around the same time that the similarly-themed Dark City (1998) and The Matrix (1999) also bowed. Sadly, it very much got lost in the 1999 - 2000 VR shuffle.

Much like those other efforts, The Thirteenth Floor, from director Josef Rusnak, concerns simulated realities, and also boasts a kind of film noir veneer. What it notably lacks in comparison to these more well-known genre films is the budget, simply, to stage incredible action, or meaningfully visit other, non-traditional, genre realities.

Thus, The Thirteenth Floor, in many ways, is a more intimate, more organic examination of its “virtual reality,” ethos: a world in which the concept of “I think, therefore I am,” defines sentience, even for computer-generated life-forms. 

The film is based on Daniel F. Galouye’s (1920-1976) novel Simulacron-3 (1964). That literary work told of a character named Hall coming to reckon with the fact that he was living inside a computer simulation, even as he visited a world that he and his co-workers had created as a computer simulation.  

In other words, the sense of reality in the novel was layered, with worlds upon worlds stacked atop another. In each world, the individuals inhabiting it believed they were "real," not simulations...but were in error.

The Thirteenth Floor faithfully recreates this creative dynamic, and features all the trappings one expects of the sturdy film noir format. The film then applies these standards to its science fiction premise with aplomb and meticulous attention to detail, both in the depiction of its 1937 setting, and in charting the possibility of multiple realities, with personalities overlapping. 

The Thirteenth Floor isn’t a big and showy film by any means. I should get that out of the way early. It certainly doesn’t qualify as an epic, or as spectacular in presentation. 

Yet it garners audience respect through its consistent sense of curiosity and intelligence, and by the apparent pleasure the filmmakers take in unraveling the mystery’s clues, one at a time.

At least one sequence orchestrated by Rusnak involves a visual revelation that is nothing short of mind-blowing.

The Thirteenth Floor may not hold a place in pop-culture as coveted as that occupied by The Matrix, or Dark City, but it is nonetheless worth re-visiting.

“They say ignorance is bliss.”

In a computer simulation of a 1937 Los Angeles, a man of 1999 named Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) learns a terrible secret. He writes down the secret in a letter, and asks a bartender (Vincent D’Onofrio) to deliver it to his business-partner, a man named Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko).

When Fuller returns to 1999, however, he is stabbed to death by someone he recognizes.

Meanwhile, Hall -- who is suffering from bouts of inexplicable amnesia -- finds a bloody shirt in his laundry, and learns that Fuller attempted to telephone him immediately prior to his death.  

The police, including Detective McBain (Dennis Haysbert) suspect Hall may be guilty of murder, especially because he stands to inherit Fuller’s two billion dollar company. 

But then, out of the blue, Fuller’s heretofore unknown daughter, Jane (Gretchen Mol) appears, ready to stake a claim on the company, and to provide Hall an alibi for the night her father was killed.

Hoping to prove his own innocence, Hall goes into the simulated world of 1937 Los Angeles, using hardware on the thirteenth floor of his building.  

He inhabits the body of a man in 1937 named Ferguson, and goes in search of the message Fuller left him.

Unfortunately, Ashton -- the bartender in 1937 -- has opened and read the letter, and has made a disturbing discovery about his reality.  

“They’re as real as you and me.”

The Thirteenth Floor adopts all the standards of the film noir format. There is a terrible crime -- a murder – and a decent, hard-boiled cop (McBain) investigating it. The film also features a central character who becomes drawn into the murder and suffers from a malady like amnesia, thus proving himself unable to establish his innocence…even in his own mind.  

And finally, we meet the mysterious woman in this mystery -- in this case, Jane Fuller (Gretchen Mol) -- who could either be a damsel-in-distress or your standard femme fatale.  Even the noir’s overall sense of a corrupt world, is echoed in The Thirteenth Floor’s with the discovery that reality isn’t even true; it’s a lie that preserves an illusion.

But what truly marks The Thirteenth Floor as a noir is its hero’s powerful journey.  The best noir films (and consider such modern horror examples such as Angel Heart [1987] or Polanski’s The Ninth Gate [1999]) are -- at their core -- about the search for self; for the recognition of self.  

The journey of helping another individual (like Jane), or solving a murder (like Fuller’s) is merely the “cover” journey that actually cloaks a deeper one: a story that reveals identity, character or nature. In the act of following a mystery through to the end, a hero finds not just an answer to a riddle, but an answer that reveals him or her fully to the audience and to the protagonist too.

Here, that is also abundantly true. Hall comes to realize that he is not real, but a computer-generated individual made by computer programmers in a different reality. And yet, in the end, he is re-affirmed in his self-hood, individuality and very sentience by the fact that at least one of the real world personas he encounters – a brutal murderer named David – is eminently less human than he is.  In fact, he’s a monster.

Thus, the viewer must confront a powerful notion. A computer simulation can be a better human being than a flesh-and-blood person, in some cases.

The Thirteenth Floor sees Hall awaken in the real world -- of 2024 AD -- and assume David’s life as (presumably) a biological being and not a simulated person. This Pinocchio, in other words, achieves the dream of becoming a real boy.  

But the glorious thing about this journey is not necessarily Hall’s transition to 2024 -- and the golden-lit paradise the film portrays there - but all the questions we must ask, even if the film doesn’t raise them explicitly.

Specifically, how can any of us be sure we are living in the real world? 

How does Hall know that he has now arrived in concrete reality, and not in a simulation?  He asks Jane at one point, how many simulated worlds there are, and she replies, with no further elaboration, “thousands upon thousands.” 

Could 2024 be one of those thousands? Could our world be just another simulation, one created by the inhabitants of some other reality or universe? 

Surprisingly, perhaps, that very idea is one that is still debated and argued in science today, and so The Thirteenth Floor reflects this key question about creation.  How can we know that we are in the real universe? 

 And more so, does it even matter if we’re not?

I think, therefore I am.  That’s all that matters, right?

Although it is never a driving film in terms of pace or acting, I appreciate how The Thirteenth Floor keeps tossing out these little, meaningful clues about the nature of reality. Haysbert’s detective, McBain, for example, notes an advertisement he likes about apartments in the downtown city area.  Those advertisements declare “You can be home already.”  

In a sense, that’s a key phrase in the film. Those who travel between 1937 Los Angeles, 1999 Los Angeles and the 2024 version of the same city never actually leave their homes in any physical sense.  They “jack in” (in the terminology of the film) but stay home the entire time they voyage.

Like The Matrix does, The Thirteenth Floor also diagrams a kind of virtual reality meaning for the phenomenon of “Déjà vu.” In The Matrix, an instance of deja vu meant that the machines were re-ordering reality; it was a glitch.  In The Thirteenth Floor, simulated characters experience déjà vu when meeting people who they had only previously encountered when “possessed” by visitors from other realms. Although their consciousness wasn’t present for that meeting, some part of their mind nonetheless remembers, and experiences the sensation of déjà vu.

The most memorable shot in the film, and one featured on some posters -- thus ruining the surprise, I suppose -- involves what Douglas Hall and D’Onofrio’s character, Ashton, each find at the “end of the road” literally and metaphorically in their worlds.  

They see the equivalent of a grid; the wall or boundary of their simulation.  It’s not “here be dragons,” but rather, here be the end of everything.  The world is finite, and constructed not by God, but by scientists. Everything you know is made up.

The Thirteenth Floor is also clever in the way it maintains Hall’s innocence throughout the story. A murderer from the “real world” of 2024 inhabits his body for periods, resulting in memory loss, and proving a perfect corollary for the noir standards of amnesia, or alcoholic black-out.  

Hall can thus be both killer and investigator; just as Jane can be both innocent and knowing, simultaneously in need of romantic rescuing, and manipulative at the same time. Consider the end of the film and ask yourself about Jane’s motives.  

Has she arranged much of what we see in the film, simply to rid herself of the “soul” in her husband’s body?  

That’s one possible reading, certainly. Jane ends the film with everything that she wants, and -- in keeping with the idea of "engineered" realities -- one must ask exactly what kind of architect of realities she truly is.

Cleverly, The Thirteenth Floor also draws parallels between the world it depicts and the world of motion pictures and television.  Hall and Ashton, for instance, discuss the similar nature of their realities (both simulations, as it turns out), while an old black-and-white movie plays on a TV nearby.  

So, by visual connection, their world is no more real than the movie is. Instead, movies and the simulations share in common the idea of “smoke and mirrors” as Hall notes.  Our world is one on top of another (movies), just as Jane’s world (2024) is atop both Ashton’s (1937) and Hall’s (1999), to use the movie’s vernacular. Featuring a movie in the background while characters discuss layers of reality is just one nice self-reflexive touch in the film.

By exploring consciousness and its very nature, and by using the film noir format to do so, The Thirteenth Floor demands respect, and engagement. It may not be a "wow" film like The Matrix is, but it remains, nonetheless, one of those genre treasures that succeeds as a work of art, and richly rewards repeat viewings.

Movie Trailer: The Thirteenth Floor (1999)

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Get Smart: "Dr. Yes" (1967)

In “Dr. Yes,” a 1967 episode of Get Smart (1965 – 1970), Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), 99 (Barbara Feldon) and CONTROL investigate the secret unknown force that is toppling U.S. rockets shortly after launch.. 

They fear that the evil Dr. Yes (Donald Davis) is behind the sabotage. The agents trace the electromagnetic disturbances to Lost Lake, and learn that Dr. Yes maintains an underwater base there. 

From this installation, he plans to destroy SAC (Strategic Air Command) using the United States’ own rockets.

Fortunately, Max is on the job, and is equipped with an electronic mosquito, the latest high-tech gadget concocted by CONTROL.

As its title indicates, “Dr. Yes” is a straight-up parody of the first James Bond movie ever made, 1962’s Dr. No.  

At the same time, however, the episode parodies the big screen’s fascination with Asian-styled villains in the mold of Sax Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu.

The episode’s narrative follows the details of Dr. No, with a super-villain diverting state-of-the-art rockets from his secret base.  In the movie, that base was in Jamaica; in the Get Smart episode, it’s at scenic Lost Lake. 

And like Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), who puts Bond (Sean Connery) through some tough, brutal paces, Dr. Yes resorts to torture to get information from captives 86 and 99.

Dr. Yes closely resembles Fu Manchu, however, rather than Wiseman’s character, with a severe mustache and beard, long fingernails, and stereotypical Chinese fashion. He also speaks with a “movie” Chinese accent, which is about as realistic as the silver screen’s peculiar brand of Pidgin English.

The jokes fly fast and funny in “Dr. Yes.” Max’s gadgets in this installment are classic, including a diamond-cutting ring, a fishing rod that is an electronic homing device, and the aforementioned electronic mosquito.  

The mosquito is the weapon that defeats Yes. After Max clips Yes’s razor-sharp finger-nails, only one is left, and it is laced with poison.  Fortunately, when the Mosquito lands on Yes’s face, it impels him to scratch his own face, causing the super-villain to poison himself.

I also like the pre-Star Wars (1977) trash-compactor gag here, with a trailer’s walls closing in on Max and 99.  They nearly get squished.

Another great joke involves the KAOS agents that Max and 99 encounter at Lost Lake. Like Max and 99, they are undercover as “harmless, fun-loving vacationers.”  They just happen to speak with thick foreign accents.

Pop Art: Get Smart Novels (Temp Books Edition)

Get Smart Electronic Question and Answer Game

Model Kit of the Week: Get Smart

Pop Art: Get Smart (Dell Edition)

Trading Cards of the Week: Get Smart

Lunch Box of the Week: Get Smart

Board Game of the Week: Get Smart (Ideal)

Theme Song of the Week: Get Smart

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Ghost in Space" (February 2, 1966)

In “The Ghost in Space,” Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) drops an explosive device -- one slated to help the Robinsons’ mine for Neutronium ore -- in a gassy bog.

His ill-considered action arouses a strange alien bog creature, one who can hide under a cloak of invisibility.  This strange creature soon menaces the Robinsons and their settlement.

Smith, however, believes, that the alien creature is actually the ghost of his Uncle Thaddeus, and hopes to exorcise his spirit.

“Ghost in Space” is -- like quite a few episodes of Lost in Space (1965 – 1967) during the first season (think: “Attack of the Monster Plants”) -- one of those stories that works well on a visual and emotional level, but not really a concrete one.

The narrative is silly and poorly considered. Smith, who just one week earlier went into fits of fear and hysteria over Albert Salmi’s non-menacing space pirate (“The Sky Pirate”), now willingly accepts levitating objects and other phenomena as the perfectly reasonable symptoms of a haunting by a family member. 

And yet, he is not afraid of that haunting.

Smith is afraid of everything, previous stories have established, but a ghost doesn’t arouse his anxiety?

Not likely.

And again, the monster of the week -- though intriguingly visualized -- disappears at the end of the episode and we never learn what it was, what it wanted, or what happens to it after this adventure ends.  

In other words, the monster is just a device to get through this particular story, and not a creature considered in light of the environment on Priplanus, or in any other meaningful in-universe context.

This happens a lot on Lost in Space.

And yet, it is impossible to ignore or discount the visual effectiveness of certain scenes in this story.  

By night, for example, we see the monster’s creepy foot-prints forming in the mud/sand of the bog, as it moves about, invisible to the human eye.  

The effects are quite good (and reflective of similar invisible Monster from the Id footprints in the classic Forbidden Planet [1954]). 

Additionally, some of the scenes in the smoky, alien bog evoke the Gothic Horror of the 1930s and 1940s. 

There's a moment here, in the bog, for example, when Will -- holding what appears to be an old-fashioned lantern -- approaches a gnarled, mist-encrusted tree.  The imagery is remarkable.

I love it when Lost in Space adopts this particular visual tenor; of a Gothic, black-and-white world of alien monsters, essentially.

The vibe is amazingly effective, for example in “Wish Upon a Star” (which seems to resemble the Universal Mummy movies, at points), and in the weird, romantic visuals of “Attack of the Monster Plants,” which reminded me of the work of Val Lewton in the 1940s. 

But here, the moments don’t resonate strongly enough throughout the episode to earn it a recommendation.  “Ghost in Space” is weird, but not necessarily in an effective, or good way.

What seems of authentic interest in “Ghost in Space,” however, are the series’ uncharacteristic attempts at maintaining continuity. 

For example, the specimen cage left behind by “The Keeper” (Michael Rennie) is seen in one scene.  And at another point Maureen works on creating new uniforms (or “fatigues” as she calls them), for the crew. 

This last bit is a neat touch. The Robinsons are in a totally different environment than the one they intended to live in, so it makes sense that there would be adjustments in terms of their uniform choices.

The invisible monster of “Ghost in Space” is a good if underutilized villain in visual terms, and I also loved the incongruous use of a Ouija Board in a “tech,” space age setting.  But other than that, this episode is a largely forgettable and half-baked one.

Next up on Lost in Space: Robby the robot guest stars on “War of the Robots.”