Saturday, October 17, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Chapter Four: A Cry for Help;" (September 30, 1978)

In “A Cry for Help,” The officers of Star Command, including Nicole Davidoff (Susan Pratt) and Professor Parsafoot (Charlie Dell) must deal with the energy clone of Commander Canarvin ensconced in their midst.  They manage to defeat him, but not before he de-activates the station's force field.

Dragos seizes his moment and attacks Star Command. Before long, the facility begins to plummet towards a sun, where it will burn up.  At this juncture, Dragos demands the surrender of Star Command.

Meanwhile, on the Dragon Ship, Jason frees one of Drago’s mindless minions.  

The being is transformed into a beautiful princess, Allegra (Roseanne Katon). Her father is the prime minister of a civilized world, Claru, and Dragos has been keeping her prisoner to secure his allegiance.

Jason and Allegra manage to escape the Dragon Ship and destroy Jason’s energy clone. Wiki, meanwhile, goes off to find Nicole, now captaining a star fire and in search of the missing Jason…

The Star Wars-y-ness of Jason of Star Command begins to come more sharply into focus in this fourth episode, “A Cry for Help.” 

Jason, stranded on a death star-like space station/vehicle, seeks to rescue a beautiful princess, in this case Allegra, rather than Leia. 

Meanwhile a helpful little droid – Wiki rather than R2-D2 -- just may save the day.

The Star Wars story tropes pile in in some upcoming episodes, particularly one wherein Jason and Allegra suddenly take to bickering, as though they are latter-day Han Solos and Princess Leias.

Still, one must credit the series with ambition.  Episodes like this feature space battles, starships (or asteroid-starships, to be precise...) falling into stars, and so forth.  There's a tremendous amount of action featured here.

Meanwhile, on a human scale, this story is quite satisfying on a human level.  The Canarvin energy clone is finally eliminated, putting Star Command back in the hands of the heroes.

Longtime fans of Filmation productions may feel déjà vu in this "chapter" for another reason.  The soundtrack in this fifteen minute installment of the series can also be heard on Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973), in the episode “Beyond the Farthest Star,” as well as others.

Next episode: “Wiki to the Rescue.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Academy: "Countdown" (October 1, 1977)

“Countdown” is an action-packed installment of the 1977 "space adventure" kid's show, Space Academy. 

"Countdown" begins in silly fashion with each of the main characters showing off their super-human abilities while attempting to move a storage crate. Laura (Pamelyn Ferdin) and Chris Gentry (Ric Carrott) demonstrate their PK abilities; Loki (Eric Greene) flaunts his teleportation skills, and Tee Gar Soom ( Brian Tochi) reveals his super strength. Poor Paul and Adrian...they don't have any superpowers, which must be tough for them.

After this demonstration, Commander Gampu (Jonathan Harris) contacts the gang from the control room to tell them it's their job to clean up floating space debris left over from the Vegan Wars, three hundred years ago.

Today, the debris poses a "potential danger" to space navigation; but Paul isn't too happy about it. "The Academy isn't here to teach garbage collecting," he whines.

Gampu's response? "The Academy is all things to all people."

The team sets out in a Seeker to blow up the offending debris, but stumbles across a chunk of Vegan dreadnought from the "Third Star War" which occurred 200 years ago, near "Proxima Centauri."

The Seeker docks with the spinning debris (in a splendidly-realized miniature sequence...) and Laura, Chris and Loki discover a "Frozen Vegan" in a suspended animation chamber. His name is Roarg.

Meanwhile, a small space mine attaches to the Seeker's hull and begins a countdown to destruction. 

The debris field is a mine trap!

Now Chris must convince Roarg that the war is indeed over, and he should help them defuse the space mine. Eventually Roarg, a fleet communications officer, agrees, and aids Chris. .

There’s a pretty solid case to be made that “Countdown” is Space Academy’s finest episode.  The special effects are stunning, and include the impressive visual of a Seeker docking with drifting space debris.  We see the debris from many angles, as well as the Seeker’s maneuvering.  

Again, I find it shocking that this Saturday morning series -- shot on a shoe string -- rivals the special effect visuals you see in prime-time (expensive) contemporaries like Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) and Buck Rogers (1979-1981).

Leaving aside the visuals and imagery, the narrative is strong.  The story is filled with danger, while at the same time allowing the cadets to put their “peaceful” learning into action.  To wit, the cadets must face off against a strange alien, just awoken from cryo-sleep, as well as stop a mine counting down to destruction in the debris field. There’s some tension and suspense, as well as a believable confrontation with Roarg.

“Countdown” has some unique antecedents too.  The plot reminded me of that old TV nugget about a Japanese soldier living on a jungle island into the 1960s, not believing the war is over, even when he encounters friendly Americans.  “Countdown” updates that story to space, works in suspended animation, and even has a plea for peace and friendship.  It all works in surprisingly economical and creative ways.

If “Countdown” seems familiar to you, it may be because Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) told a very similar story in its third season.  In the story “Booby Trap,” Picard’s Enterprise blunders into a debris field from a centuries-old war, and runs into an ancient trap, power-sucking mines, as opposed to the destructive one here. It’s essentially the same story seen in “Countdown,” but “Countdown” adds the Roarg factor, an alien from the past forced to contend with the present.

The only disappointing aspect of “Countdown” involves some of the on-the-nose writing of the finale. Tee Gar actually says “I learned something today,” making sure that kids get the lesson of the week -- cooperating among former enemies -- hammered home.

Next week, another decent show: “The Rocks of Janus.”

Friday, October 16, 2015

From the Archive: Deliverance (1972)

“I think only one thing; that men…settle for too little in their lives. And this chance encounter in the river was for…Ed Gentry, some kind of opening to a dark place he would never know was there…John Berryman [the poet] once said that a man can live his whole life in this country without knowing if he is a coward or not.  I think it is necessary for him to know.”

-     - James Dickey, on Deliverance, in author David Zinman’s survey, Fifty Grand Movies of the 1960s and 1970s. (Crown Publishers, 1986, page 133).

Early in John Boorman’s harrowing and savage film Deliverance, a character notes, rightly: “You don’t beat it.  You don’t beat this river.

He is discussing, explicitly, the raw power of Mother Nature and a roaring river, but he might as well be communicating something significant about human nature.  You don’t beat it.  You don’t conquer it.  It is part of your essential make-up.  And when the situation calls for it, all those “evolved” senses of civilization and civility simply fall away by necessity.

Or else you die.

Deliverance asks its audience some pretty serious questions about human nature by forging a streamlined but illuminating scenario wherein four men -- each one symbolizing elements of modern American life -- embark on a recreational journey down a river, but conquer there not a new apex or summit.  Instead, they experience a particularly personal brand of horror.  And these men live or die largely based on the qualities they bring to the river with them.

In terms of the film’s deeper meaning, one must consider what it means, precisely, to be “delivered.” “Deliverance” is the act of being rescued or “set free.” A few of the protagonists in the film escape the river and its challenges, of course. They are literally “delivered” from mortal danger.  But I don’t believe this is the deliverance of which the title specifically speaks.

For one man, Ed (John Henry) the terrifying journey is all about setting his nature free so he can survive a life-and-death contest and see his family again. Now, this may sound trite, simplistic, or even unnecessarily macho. A terrible ordeal sets one free?  A man can only test himself through violence, or by meting out death? 

That criticism misses the point. For Ed the point is very much the self-knowledge he gleans after he is forcibly set free. 

Who is he now? How does he go back to his civilized life with the things he has learned about himself? 

How does he stuff the ugly truth back down, and go about facing a meaningless job, or living a life of polite domesticity with his wife and children?   

The ultimate irony is that Ed needed his “dark side” to return to his family, but his dark side – now alive – has no place with that family. Suddenly, Ed belongs in neither the civilized world nor the savage one.

So Deliverance reveals to its Every Man his dark side in living, breathing color. Once knowledgeable about this hidden facet of his nature, there’s simply no going back to the innocence of paradise. Ed ends the film suffering from traumatic nightmares of the experience, a changed man.  T

Thus Deliverance concerns a problem with our modern safe-and-secure lives. Once forcibly exiled from the Garden of Eden, can a man or woman ever be a fit citizen to return?

“Don't ever do nothin' like this again. Don't come back up here.” 

In Deliverance, Ed (Voight), Lewis (Burt Reynolds), Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox) brave the roaring rapids of the Cahulawassee River in rural Georgia. They do so because the river will soon be gone: transformed into a placid lake by bulldozers and other instruments of man’s modern technology.

On the trip, the friends unexpectedly encounter belligerent mountain men (Bill McKinney, Herbert Coward).  These mountain men rape Bobby, and threaten to do something much worse to Ed.  But the city men kill one of the locals, and then debate their moral responsibility in the matter.  

Drew wants to inform the police. But Lewis is convinced that the police will view them as outsiders, as automatically guilty. Over Drew’s objections, the group decides to bury the body and not inform the authorities of the conflict. Soon this river will be at the bottom of a lake, and no one will ever find out what happened…

Unfortunately, one mountain man is still alive…and gunning for these weekend warriors. When Lewis is badly injured on the rapids, Ed must scale a treacherous rock face to take out the threat.  But he’s never killed anyone before, and he’s scared to death…

“Let's just wait and see what comes out of the river.

Nature gets raped too...
Deliverance plays almost like some fiendishly clever and sadistic psychology or personality test.  You take four diverse specimens of 1970s manhood and then make them endure existential threats from nature, and from frightening mountain men.  

How will they react?

Our first subject is Drew (Cox), the affirmed “bleeding heart liberal” of the foursome, and the man who attempts to make certain that society’s established laws successfully transition to the wild. In other words, Drew’s response to the violent attacks is an intellectual or a cerebral one.  Therefore, he still views the law as a viable solution to the dilemma. “It’s a matter of the law,” he declares of the mountain man’s murder. 

Yet there is no law present in the jungle or on the river to mediate the matter. Disillusioned, Drew grows virtually catatonic at this knowledge.  And accordingly, he’s the first to die. What do we glean from this information? 

Perhaps that the voice of society or morality has little practical value in a Darwinian, kill-or-be-killed universe.

Drew can’t adapt to a world without the artificial infrastructure that made and nurtured him, and so he dies. Drew’s skill set -- abstract thinking and an artistic bent (he’s a musician) -- don’t permit him to tap into his primitive self.  He dies because he can’t access that crucial part of his nature.  He won't put himself above the law -- symbolically refusing to put on his life jacket -- and so he dies.

Of all the characters in the film, Drew is probably the one I most sympathize with; the one I imagine I’m probably most like in a crisis. I’d like to say I’m like Ed…but who knows? I tend to seek answers in consensus and spend most of my time debating art.  So nobody take me on a trip to a river, okay?

By contrast, Lewis (Reynolds) is undeniably a representation of American swagger, arrogance and authority.  He’s a macho man who believes that all life is risk, and who lords it over his friends about what a tough guy he is.  

He’s not so tough, however, once badly injured. In fact, deprived of his physical acumen, Lewis becomes a whimpering suck-up to Ed, who has by then established his credibility as a capable man.  

The message here is that overconfidence, vanity, and arrogance don’t survive in the wild, either.  Nature doesn’t like excess, whether in terms of abstract thinking (like Drew) or in terms of reckless, over-the-top muscle-flexing (like Lewis).  If Drew was all brain, Lewis is all muscle. Neither one strikes the necessary balance to survive the river experience intact.

Poor Bobby (Beatty) likely represents American cynicism…or flab.  He depends on everybody else to carry his considerable weight on the river, rescued both by Lewis and then by Ed. Worse, he is condescending and cruel to the locals…simply because he can be.  But this cruelty and anger are not supported by anything meaningful, as he soon learns.  

In other words, he can’t back up his snide jokes with actions. Once his friends are out-of-power, then, Lewis is left vulnerable…and a prime target.  He is the ultimate representative, perhaps, of well-fed, modern man, convinced of his intelligence and superiority, but without the actual skills or chops to back up those perceived qualities.  

He is the fat of our society, suddenly put in a situation where there’s nobody to protect him.  And yes, the Mountain man’s designation of Bobby as a “pig” is probably inevitable.  Bobby is the overstuffed, soft animal hat could only exist in a society of extreme comfort and leisure.

Finally, Ed (Voight) is the cherished Every Man -- a regular Joe -- an average family man who holds down a job and is a good father and husband. He has never really been forced to face too dangerous a situation, and therefore never had to reckon with his own, dark capabilities.  But the events in the film force this Every Man to reckon with the seemingly placid surface and look underneath it.

That’s actually the film’s central metaphor: a deliberate comparison between Ed and the soon-to-be lobotomized river.  

Modern life has the same effect on both characters, in essence. the raging, dangerous river will be replaced by a serene – but dead – lake  And Ed has lived a life as that tranquil lake, never understanding the forces roiling beneath it. 

You can't drown human nature. It will re-surface...
One of the film’s valedictory images -- of a dead hand reaching out above the black, still lake -- reminds us of Ed’s situation.  He now understands that something violent exists within him, beneath the milquetoast exterior.  

And under the right circumstances, it will rear up again.  Just like that hand – a representation of violence and conflict – could re-surface in the calm lake.

As I’ve also written before, I see a lot of parallels to The Vietnam War in Deliverance.  Here, a group of Americans leave behind their home territory and comfort zone for enemy territory, so-to-speak.  

They greet the locals with disdain and disrespect, and with an air of superiority. They have the best tools (canoes), the comforts of home (a guitar), and an arrogant attitude. Despite Lewis’s unfamiliarity with the terrain, he attempts to race the local guides to the river, because, he just knows better.  Once in alien territory, however, Lewis and the others realize they are outmatched, and that domination isn’t going to be as easy as they imagined.

Deliverance is notorious in part because of the extremely unsettling scene in which a mountain man rapes Bobby….on screen.  The scene unfolds slowly and lasts for some duration. It goes on and on, without interruption or reprieve. There are few tactful cuts to relieve the audience of its burgeoning discomfort. An air of suffocating desperation is crafted by Boorman in the process. Like Bobby, the audience starts the scene with a sense of disbelief that this violence could actually escalate so monstrously.  

Watching Deliverance for the first time, you can’t believe what you are seeing, and this slap in the face is part and parcel of the sub-genre that I term savage cinema. The approach to violence pushes right past the line of acceptability, and beyond the movie traditions and parameters of good taste and decorum.  In doing so, it makes the audience face that possibility that anything can happen; that all bets are off.  

This is one of those movies where you feel vulnerable just watching it; like you might be forced to see things you had never really consciously considered before.

That’s fertile ground for a horror film to occupy. In that place of extreme audience vulnerability, a good director has us exactly where he or she wants us.

Why would the mountain men attack Bobby in this brutal and bizarre fashion? It goes back to the city folk’s disdain for the locals. The city folk are arrogant and condescending, but the country folk – in their home territory – assert their dominance, their power, by raping Bobby and threatening Ed with another form of sodomy. It’s not about sex for these mountain men, it’s about dominating the city people in the most degrading way imaginable.

The rape also reflects, in some way, the “rape of nature” theme in the film, specifically by man’s technology.  Bulldozers encroach upon the water, and dams force back the river’s edge.  The idea is that human nature is destructive, and seeks to assert dominance over the Earth. The comparison between rapes extends to the dialogue, such as the assertion “we’re gonna rape the whole darn landscape…”

If the rape is the film’s most notorious sequence, then the “Duelling Banjos” scene between Drew and a local boy is, perhaps, the most widely remembered.  As you may recall, the scene finds Drew on guitar and a young, inbred boy on a banjo, talking the same language: the universal language of music. 

Who is looking down on whom?
This scene is the high point in the movie’s conflict between city and rural folk.  It’s clear that music could symbolize a common ground for understanding, if only both sides let it be so, but the gulf between the two cultures is too great to cross.  

There’s too much suspicion, too much distrust to allow real communication or trust to occur on either side.  

Therefore, this scene of would-be optimism instead emerges as one of further competition for dominance.  And to see who is dominant, you need only look at Boorman's framing (above).  Who is in the superior position here?

Cause and effect: In the foreground, the face of death.
In the background, animal instinct takes over.
In viewing Deliverance again recently, I came to the conclusion the film is not about manhood or machismo tested, but humanity tested. One of the most unforgettable moments in the film reduces our four protagonists to thoughtless animals. They desperately attempt to bury the murdered man in the dirt, but have no shovels with which to accomplish the task. They sweat and claw at the ground feverishly as if primitive primates. They have shed civilization entirely and returned to a basic, animal nature.  

But again, gaze at Boorman's choice in terms of composition.  In the foreground: the face of death. In the background: the animal response to danger.  It's a brilliant cause-and-effect image.  It reminds us that when threatened, civilization slips away.

No less an esteemed source than author James Dickey thinks Deliverance is about testing your courage.  

I submit the film adaptation is actually about learning to deal with the things you keep buried and locked away. 

 Once you let the beast out, it doesn't drown easy. 

 It's always there, threatening to surface again, like that hand reaching up from the lake...

Movie Trailer: Deliverance (1972)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Cult Movie Review: Curse of Chucky (2013)

Twenty-five plus years later, the original Child’s Play (1988) remains a great, even classic horror film.

The big question, in light of some of its poorer sequels -- and even regarding Curse of Chucky (2013) -- is, simply, why?  What qualities make the original hold-up decades later?

I would consider two factors, primarily.

The first and obvious factor is, of course, Chucky himself.

He’s nothing less than a brilliant creation, a modern horror movie icon. The combination of innocent-looking -- even cherubic – toy doll and Brad Dourif’s malevolent, caustic delivery, creates a vibe both memorable, and creepy. There’s a real tension between the original film’s childish presentation of the doll -- with a mop of red hair, wearing colorful overalls -- and his R-rated vocabulary.

Chucky can be absolutely scary, or totally hysterical; appropriate, or hilariously inappropriate. And Dourif’s vocalizations never err in determining those lines. 

The second factor relates to the film’s director, Tom Holland (Fright Night [1985]) and his approach to the genre material. This is a director who never shies away from mining subtext, either in terms of visuals or themes.

For example, Fright Night is a story of the vampire-next-door, but Holland has a lot of fun there talking about vampirism as a cover for other, real-life issues, including adolescent sexual awakening, homosexuality, and even bullying. Holland brings that same social sensibility to Child’s Play, and that’s a crucial factor that makes the film thrive, even after nearly thirty years.

Bluntly put, Child’s Play is about “who we are,” not just about a killer doll on the rampage.

In my estimation, Child’s Play concerns -- no holds barred -- the way that a materialistic American society in the 1980s sold its children’s souls to the not-so-tender mercies of toy companies.

What happened?

Well, in the first Reagan Administration, Mark S. Fowler was appointed chairman of the FCC and he championed the idea that television, as a milieu, boasts no social responsibility whatsoever.

He famously noted that TV is simply an appliance, a “toaster with pictures” and therefore it requires no regulation, no oversight. He further determined that “the marketplace will take care of children,” and so by Reagan’s re-election in 1984 his FCC was no longer regulating children’s television for toy/marketing, program “synergy.”  Or rather, for rampant product placement.

By the mid-1980s this laissez-faire notion of TV with no social responsibility was in full effect, and TV shows marketing toys -- or “program length commercials for pre-existing toys,” as scholar Julia Schur called them in The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture -- were on the rise. 


Now, I absolutely love and adore He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Challenge of the Gobots, Thundercats, GI. Joe, M.A.S.K., Silerhawks and other programming of this era as much as any 1980s kid does.  Hell, I collect these toys to this day!  But that doesn’t mean the subject isn’t ripe for parody, or satire.

It is difficult to deny, after all that younger children are generally, in psychological terms, incapable of distinguishing between ads and programming. These kind of properties, based on pre-existing toys, knowingly blur that line.

And so we arrive at Child’s Play (1988): a rollicking commentary on this kind of programming, one in which commercial and entertainment imagery are virtually indistinguishable. 

The original film mocks not only the 1983 Cabbage Patch Doll craze, but suggests that children of the 1980s have become slaves to their materialistic desires. Poor little Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) is a pre-adolescent “Good Guys” addict who eats Good Guys cereal, wears Good Guys clothes, watches the Saturday morning cartoon, and buys every toy that comes on the market.

The toy, meanwhile, promises not material enslavement, but constant and eternal companionship.  “I’ll be your friend to the end!”

This companionship, however, does not come cheap, and Andy’s Mom (Catherine Hicks) can’t keep up with the expensive bills maintaining Andy in the Good Guys lifestyle.

Then, of course, Andy gets a hold of Chucky -- a malevolent personality hiding inside the “brand name” Good Guys -- and realizes that his desire for all things Good Guys is, actually, going to ruin his life.

The price for owning a Good Guy is higher than he could have imagined. As the end of the film suggests, Andy’s soul is literally vulnerable. The doll is going to take it from him in Chucky’s game of “hide the soul.”

So the original Child’s Play is really about something more than cheeky carnage with evil dolls. It is a purposeful, and wickedly-observed reflection of the society that gave rise to it. You may agree or disagree with the film’s arguments or point-of-view, but it is impossible to deny that the film is actually about 1980s consumer culture as trenchantly as Dawn of the Dad (1978) is about 1970s consumer culture.

The Chucky sequels are of varying quality, to be certain, but not a one manages to capitalize on the second primary strength that I enumerated above. Each features Chucky and Dourif -- thankfully -- but none has a meaning beyond the immediate horror trappings.

Curse of Chucky is included in that list. 

It is better than some Child’s Play sequels (namely, Child’s Play 3, and Seed of Chucky), and worse than some. I would still take Bride of Chucky and Child’s Play 2 over this effort.

It is rewarding, I suppose, that Curse of Chucky attempts to re-balance the horror/comedy quotient of the series, which was way off in Seed of Chucky, but the 2013 film can’t hold a candle to the quality of original, because -- in the end -- it’s just a Chucky-killing-people movie, and not a Chucky-reflects-who-we-are kind of movie, if that makes sense.

The greatest value of Curse of Chucky likely arises in terms of nostalgia.  It is fun to see (and hear) the little guy wreaking havoc again. 

But there’s no sense that this is anything more than an easily consumable, easily forgotten sequel to a classic horror film. Curse of Chucky passes the time, offers some laughs and a few thrills and chills, but overall, isn’t a movie that’s going to move the genre in a fresh direction, or be remembered, a few years from now, as a high-point in the franchise.

It’s just a mediocre new entry in the long-standing saga.

“It’s a doll. What’s the worst that could happen?”

A Good Guy Doll is delivered to the home of artist Sarah Pierce (Chantal Quesnal), and her paraplegic daughter, Nica (Fiona Dourif).  Before long, Sarah dies of an apparent suicide.

Sarah’s death brings Nica’s sister, Barb (Danielle Busutti), and her family to the house to prepare for the funeral. Barb’s daughter, Alice (Summer Howell) takes an immediate liking to the Good Guys Doll, Chucky, and makes him her constant companion.

The family, meanwhile, begins to fall apart over old resentments and new betrayals.

Under cover of this dysfunction, Chucky -- really serial killer Charlies Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) -- engineers a campaign of terror with rat poison, a hatchet, a butcher knife and other tools of his trade.

“That doll looks familiar.”

Curse of Chucky takes place almost entirely in one locale: an isolated house.  Because it is night (and a stormy one at that…), most characters tend to remain in the house, so Chucky can pick them off. 

And he picks them off, admittedly, with the requisite degree of ingenuity.  The film’s best scene sees Chucky putting rat poison in one bowl of vegetarian chili, while leaving five other bowls unmolested.  The dinner scene unfolds, and we watch in droll close-ups as the would-be victims all slurp up the dinner.  At this point, we have no idea who is going to die, but we see all the characters partaking in the meal.

Another murder sequence involves electrocution (a call-back to the original film and the death of Andy’s psychiatrist), and Curse of Chucky also gains steam from Nica’s plight. As a paraplegic, she must work extra hard as our final girl to escape from Chucky, and beat him.  Fiona Davis is great in this role, and not only goes through Hell battling Chucky (and her mean sister), but she earns the love of the audience.

On the details of the narrative, however, Curse of Chucky seems a bit sloppy.  For example, we know from series lore that Chucky can only steal the soul of the first person he revealed his true identity too.  That’s why he spent three movies chasing down Andy Barclay.  However, Chucky is not in a new body in Curse of Chucky, but rather a repaired old body.  We see his stitches and red, stretched flesh underneath a kind of false surface on his face, in one scene.  So by my reckoning, Andy is still the guy whose body/soul he needs to take. 

But this movie asks us to believe it is the little girl, Alice. I’ll confess: I don’t get that. If Chucky is in a new doll body (and Alice is the first person he revealed himself too…) why does he still have the old scars from a different body?  And if he is in a new body, how and why did that transfer occur?

Another scene that doesn’t play fair involves Barb’s death. She is in an attic with Chucky (and discovers his scars…) but her attention is drawn away from Chucky at a crucial moment by a rocking horse that starts rocking.  She looks away for a split second, and when she looks back, Chucky is gone…seizing the advantage. 

So what made the rocking horse move like that?  We know it wasn’t Chucky, because he’s on-screen, immobile, when it occurs.  And we know that there is not a second killer present in the attic, especially one who could move the rocking horse and disappear.  (Note: Chucky does have an accomplice, but my point is that we would see that accomplice, according to the shot’s composition…).

The movie boasts a lot of lapses in situational logic, just like these. At another point, Barb sees Chucky jump out of bed and walk around on her computer monitor, but seems to mistake the red-head, plastic doll for her blond-haired daughter.  Huh?

And then, of course, there’s the question of the Nanny cam. Why does Chucky -- whose campaign of terror’s success rests on his ability to fool others into thinking he’s an inanimate toy -- allow Alice’s dad, Ian, to place one on his person?

Or at the very least, why not get rid of it at the first opportunity, rather than keeping it on him, filming, the whole time?

And wouldn’t the Nanny Cam footage exonerate Nica? Or are potential jurors to believe that a paraplegic got her wheel chair up the stairs to the attic to kill Barb. And then, of course, she went back downstairs, unnoticed.

I understand that the film was working on a limited budget, and other limited resources. But it seems to me that the opportunity here was to make a really nasty, really tight movie in one location, involving Chucky’s pursuit and slaying of a family that has some emotional resonance for him. But the film’s screenplay is loose and dopey, and doesn’t account for all its trickery and mechanics (like the mysteriously moving rocking horse). 

This quality takes away from the film’s overall effectiveness.

I am glad Curse of Chucky was made. I’m glad the Child’s Play series continues, especially with Brad Dourif. But Chucky deserves a better comeback; one which is internally consistent, and which is about something more than a doll’s killing spree. 

Curse of Chucky tries to be modern by featuring scenes with Skype, nanny cams, and a lesbian affair. But ironically, it could have also seemed modern by being about who we are, today, or rather in 2013.

Think about people clamoring for the newest apps, or the Star Wars Day devoted to selling toys for The Force Awakens.  Think about a generation of Dads -- like me -- maintaining a man-cave/shrine to my youth, via toys from the 1980s.  Art, entertainment, consumerism, toys, and nostalgia are more intertwined and inseparable than ever. 

Certainly someone could make a Chucky movie that concern these ideas, right?

Movie Trailer: Curse of Chucky (2013)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Films of 1966: Fantastic Voyage

"Maybe the philosophers were right. Man is the center of the universe. We stand in the middle of infinity; between outer and inner space..." 

-Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy) ponders the miracle of life in Fantastic Voyage.

This memorable Richard Fleischer effort was the special effects spectacular of 1966; an imaginative, big budget (6.5. million dollar...), award-winning science fiction adventure. If you grew up in the late 1960s or 1970s, Fantastic Voyage was also likely one of your favorite genre movies; one filled with action, danger and special effects spectacle the likes of which you had never conceived.

This well-regarded genre film escorts the audience inside the HQ of the CMDF (Combined Miniature Deterrent Forces), an American military-intelligence agency that has developed the ability to shrink down to microscopic levels everything from people and equipment to large-scale vehicles. The problem with this technique is that the miniaturization process becomes unstable after a mere sixty minutes, and all shrunken persons or objects then return to normal size.

Only one scientist -- a Soviet named Jan Benes -- knows the answer to this riddle. Unfortunately, he's been badly wounded during his defection to the West. An inoperable brain injury threatens his life and all of his advanced knowledge.

CMDF doctors quickly realize that the only way to clear a large blood clot from the scientist's brain is to arrange a "little trip." Specifically, a nuclear submarine named Proteus (model U91035) and a team of medical personnel are to be miniaturized and injected into the dying man's blood-stream. The strategy is to travel by artery to the brain clot, slice open the dangerous occlusion with experimental laser beam, and wait for removal at the base of the neck. 

And all this must occur in just sixty minutes.

The mission doesn't quite turn out that way. Security agent Grant (Stephen Boyd), neuro-surgeon Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy), his beautiful assistant Cora Peterson (Raquel Welch), sub Captain Owens (William Redfield) and team leader, Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasence) encounter an array of unexpected and wild dangers on their fantastic voyage.

A whirlpool at an artery branch shunts the Proteus into the veins, forcing a dangerous journey directly through the human heart (which is stopped for sixty seconds to permit transit). Then, the Proteus's air supply mysteriously fails, requiring a pit-stop in the lungs, where the oxygenation process is observed and then exploited. A trip through the inner ear is equally dangerous, because any vibration inside the operating theatre could rattle the ship and crew into pieces.

Before the mission ends, the surgical laser is damaged (sabotaged?) and jury rigged, and an enemy agent is found among the crew. 

Take a look at the cast members, and then take a good guess at who the saboteur might be. 

Finally, a swarm of puffy, jelly-fish like white corpuscles attack the Proteus, crushing the marvelous high-tech sub completely. After a successful operation to remove the clot (conducted in four minutes, no less...), the mission survivors evacuate through Benes' tear ducts...just in the nick of time. Their "full reduction" reverses and they are restored to normal dimensions as the end credits roll.

I've always admired and enjoyed Fantastic Voyage, but watching it again in 2015 with my son Joel, it is not difficult for the objective viewer to discern some of the film's more notable shortcomings.

All the characters are two-dimensional and deadly dull, their dialogue stiff and uninteresting. The film also wastes an inordinate amount of valuable screen time on military brass arguing amongst itself and barking orders at subordinates, who dutifully carry these technical instructions out in mission-control-style environs.

Most troublesome, it takes the movie nearly a full thirty minutes to get to the miniaturization process and the actual impossible mission, so the movie starts out at a snail's pace. The pace does pick up, but some won't have the patience to stick with the film.

Still, I would have to say that all of these drawbacks are largely immaterial, given the movie's strengths.  The premise would have to be counted key among those. Movies often exist for the express purpose of revealing to us worlds and vistas we've never imagined or seen before. On that criteria alone, the wacky miniaturization plot of Fantastic Voyage succeeds magnificently. It's the doorway to a world of awesome visual delights and some great 1960s-era effects.

Some of the amazing and jaw-dropping sights you'll see in Fantastic Voyage include: a nuclear submarine submerging inside the choppy waters of a hypodermic needle; a roller coaster ride through that needle into human flesh; a passage through a school of globular red blood cells; a flight through a human heart; a close-up view of the oxygenation process, an exchange of gases that is one of the "miracles of the universe;" and even a rendering of a "blazing" single thought, as Benes' sparkling synapses fire all about the rocketing Proteus.

My two favorite images, however, occur late in the film. There's a terrifying moment wherein a white corpuscle descends on the dorsal dome of the Proteus, where Captain Michaels (Pleasence) has become trapped following a crash. The corpuscle crushes the glass of the dome, and proceeds to envelope Michaels' (screaming) head before our eyes. That fatal moment -- which Pleasence really sells -- has haunted me since I was a kid. Imagine being eaten, head-first, by a giant cell.

And secondly, I love the shot that finds the mission survivors swimming wildly in a single tear drop -- to them the size of a lake -- after evacuating the body through the corner of the eyeball. I remember I once owned the Fantastic Voyage comic-book too (long gone, alas...), and this image really resonated with me both in print and on screen. The kid in me has also nurtured a long fondness for that high-tech submarine, the Proteus ("quite a canoe," as one character describes it...). I always wished there had been a model kit of that ship in the 1970s.

As a dazzling visual travelogue into inner space, a journey into a contained universe all its own, Fantastic Voyage remains an involving cinematic experience. I also detect now a thematic leitmotif I missed as a kid: an early debate about intelligent design vs. evolution. Dr. Duval (the good guy...) sees the oxygenation process as a sure sign of a "Creator's" hand, while the godless communist agent, Michaels, views it as nothing more than evolution.

As you can guess, the movie falls philosophically on the side of intelligent design. Message: do not tamper in God's domain.

So Fantastic Voyage is a nostalgic favorite that features some imaginative sets and more than a handful of grand physical effects. It also generate a fair degree of tension in the final act, especially during the hair-raising "absolute silence" scene involving the journey through the inner ear. I love the film and was glad to see that Joel enjoyed it, though I could tell that the first act tried his 9-year old patience.