Saturday, December 10, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle: "Tarzan's Return to the City of Gold" (October 16, 1976)

In “Tarzan’s Return to the City of Gold,” Tarzan rescues a young man, Orando, from a wild rhinoceros. 

He soon learns that Orando is attempting to prove himself a man, and undergoing a rite of passage.

Tarzan also learns that Orando is the brother of Thia, from the city of Athne.  He resolves to return the thirteen year old boy home.

Before that can happen, however, Tomos -- the major domo of  despotic Queen Nemone -- captures Orando and takes him back to the city of Gold: Zandor.

Now Tarzan must travel to Zandor and seek the help of his friend in Nemone’s guard, Phobec.  But Nemone is bound and determined to get her hands on Tarzan.

This sequel to Filmation’s first Tarzan episode of the season is not as strong or as involving as some of the other recent episodes I’ve written about, in part because it feels like a rehash. It may be a little bias on my part too. I will readily admit I have a hard time staying tuned to all the politics between Athne and Zandor, and with names like Phobec and Tomos and Orando.

Also, I don't typically like stories of this type, where villainous but beautiful princesses continually lust after a man.  I've seen it too often, on Filmation's Flash Gordon for instance.  I find it outdated and sexist, for sure.  

Still, there is an attempt to move the story of Zandor forward a bit in "Tarzan's Return to the City of Gold," and I do credit the episode with that feat. Here, by the end of the show, Nemone promises to change her behavior, and be a more just queen.  She amends her tyrannical ways, and seems to take to heart Tarzan’s counsel.

But otherwise, the story seems like a whole lot of running around, getting captured and held in dungeons, and more running around.  The episode’s final (moral) statement involves Orando’s journey.  By realizing your mistakes you go a long way towards growing up.

Next week’s episode is an improvement: “Tarzan and the Strange Visitors.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam: "Double Trouble" (September 25, 1975)

In “Double Trouble,” a thief dressed as Captain Marvel (Jon Davey) robs a gas station. In truth, the impostor is wearing a Captain Marvel costume and mask.  Before long, a local law enforcement official, Sheriff Martin (Ross Elliott), has issued a warrant for the superhero’s arrest.

Meanwhile, the Elders inform Billy Batson (Michael Gray) that “all laws should be respected. Even those which seem unfair.” The young man is also told to “practice” what he preaches.

Realizing the meaning of these phrases, Billy transforms into Captain Marvel and turns himself in, spending the night in the county jail as a prisoner.

With Captain Marvel incarcerated, Mentor (Les Tremayne) and the sheriff’s son, Kelly (Jimmy McNichol) go in search of the criminal impersonators. Kelly finds the cast-off costume and mask, but it is too late: the criminals are gone.

After the robbers tangle with the sheriff, he releases Captain Marvel to save the day.

There’s actually something akin to a criminal plot in this episode of Filmation’s live-action Shazam! (1974-1976). In “Double Trouble,” Captain Marvel is targeted as a criminal, but it’s all a mistake owing to a thief wearing Captain Marvel mask and costume.

After a warrant is issued, Billy decides he must obey the law, even though it means he won’t be able to clear Captain Marvel’s name. Instead, that task is left up to Mentor.

It’s a fun episode, seeing Captain Marvel behind bars, and then, later, bending those same bars. It’s also fun to see Captain Marvel, apparently, robbing a gas station.

Actually, Davey really makes the role his own this week. Captain Marvel is on-screen more frequently than he is in many episodes, and he even has more dialogue here, too.  Davey does a good job portraying the character, essentially a paragon of virtue.  But there's something also very human about this iteration of the character.

The ending sequence of “Double Trouble” is also exciting, as Captain Marvel lands from the air into the back of a small truck in motion to stop the thieves.

Next week: “Goodbye, Packy.” 

Friday, December 09, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Night Stalker (1971)

The Night Stalker, a TV movie first aired in 1971, was -- and for many years after, remained -- the highest rated TV movie of a generation.

It also introduced a hero, Kolchak who returned in a second TV-movie, a TV series in 1974, and a reboot in the mid-2000s. 

Our journey begins in Las Vegas in the early 1970s.  

There, down-on-his luck reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is working for a rag called the Daily News under the thumb of editor, Tony Vincenzo. It seems Kolchak was once one of the great journalists of the day, but he's been fired more times than you can count, and is looking for that one earth-shattering story that will catapult him back to the big time in New York City. He shares these dreams with a local prostitute, Gale Foster (Carol Lynley), but she isn't holding out much hope.

In the latter half of May, however, a series of brutal killings are uncovered in Las Vegas. Four women are found dead, their corpses drained entirely of blood. And oddly, the coroner (Larry Linville) has found saliva in their wounds, indicating that an honest-to-goodness vampire might be the culprit.

Kolchak considers this avenue of investigation, but runs into a brick wall erected by the mayor and Las Vegas's chief law enforcement official, Sheriff Butcher (Claude Akins). They refuse to consider Kolchak's theory, and consequently more citizens die.

Finally, once the culprit is named - Janos Skorzeny - the police are unable to stop the 70 year-old man because bullets seem to have no effect on the oddly youthful assailant. Realizing it is up to him to put anen d to this nightmare, Kolchak locates the vampire's house, rescues Skorzeny's latest victim, and finishes off the vampire with a well-placed stake to the heart. But In order to keep the story quiet, Butcher prepares to charge Kolchak with murder...unless he leaves Las Vegas for good. 

Kolchak does so, and also learns that Gale Foster has left town, never to be heard from again.

Richard Matheson (1926 - 2013) is a legitimate genre great, and as such penned some brilliant teleplays, including Duel (1973), too many Twilight Zones to name here and, of course, The Night Stalker

In this project, he provides reporter Carl Kolchak with a real and individual voice, a stirring and interesting first case, and even a sense of humor. The late Darren McGavin (1922 - 2006) does the rest, playing up the role with a rat-a-tat delivery that is unmatched to this day. 

Kolchak's not your typical TV protagonist, but rather a persistent voice for the truth, a fact which distinguishes him in this era of fake news. The Night Stalker introduces us to a man who lives on the edge, in a cynical time, and yet there is an optimism here that I appreciate, having a training in journalism. Embedded in Kolchak's DNA is the once-popular and common-held belief that one man can fight City Hall; that one man can make a difference. In the telefilm and follow-up series, Kolchak is always battling corrupt cops or politicians and trying (and often failing...) to get the truth out to the people. This was before the age of a corporate news business and a compliant media. Kolchak -- for all his failures as a human being -- is a sterling journalist and a paragon of virtue in the sense that he always follows a matter where it takes him.

The made-for-TV movie's story itself -- about a vampire on the loose in Las Vegas -- remains more intriguing, perhaps, for what it doesn't directly tell audiences. Rather than spoon-feeding audiences the background information, there's plenty here that is just mentioned in passing.

For instance, late in the story, Kolchak breaks into Skorzeny's house and finds an open traveler's crate. Inside the trunk, we see Skorzeny's disguises, and even some make-up. He finds face-paint and wigs, and instantly (but importantly, without comment...) we get a sense of the vampire's long history, and his travels from Berlin to London to Canada to the United States (as enumerated in a police press conference.) 

It's just a nice little touch that acknowledges how a vampire could be immortal, and as a consequence of that life span, well-traveled to boot.

I also admire the artistic and efficient way this TV film was shot by director John Llewelyn Moxey. The opening shots are hand-held, on-the-spot views of a busy strip in Vegas at night, and the atmosphere is pure seventies, pure sleaze

As a set-up for the first vampire attack in a dark alley, it's just perfect how quickly and cogently a sense of atmosphere is mastered with one tool -- a hand-held camera -- and one well-observed location (a crowded street corner.) It's an informative opening shot, and an atmospheric one too. The hand-held feel of the camera makes us feel tense immediately, like we're among the street walkers.  There's a feeling here that we're going to see an underside to an underside of Las Vegas.

Watching the tele-film, I also noticed how the soundtrack goes almost completely silent during Kolchak's long, tense exploration of Skorzeny's house. No mood music to speak of; very few sound effects, even. The sequence must have lasted a good four or five minutes, and when the music and sound effects did finally arrive (as Skorzeny returns home...) the transition from silence simply made the denouement all that more exciting.

One of the things that I will always love about Darren McGavin's Kolchak is the fact that we say he's a hero, but he really isn't a traditional, physical hero. As displayed here, Kolchak's great gift is that he speaks truth and common sense to power. That's a wonderful trait. But it's not exactly something that comes in handy while monster hunting. So he's vulnerable in a very sympathy-provoking way.

There's a great moment in this telefilm when Kolchak walks to his car at night. He sits down, starts driving, and then gets a sense -- just a sense -- that there's someone in the car with him. 

He stops the car, jumps out in a panic, and learns that one of his informants has fallen asleep in the back seat. He's pissed off and humiliated that he reacted in such a fashion, and we get a laugh out of him. There's absolutely nothing heroic or grand about Kolchak's case of the creeps or jitters (or his embarrassment afterwards), but boy is it human, and therefore realistic. McGavin's humorous, honest and human portrayal greatly enhances the efficacy of the blood-curdling finale. 

None of the action in the film would work half-as-well if McGavin were a more traditionally handsome, more physically "capable" kind of action-hero. As it is, we breathe a sigh of relief that he made it through the night! (Let alone a TV series and a series of "monsters of the week.")

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)

This TV movie, The Horror at 37,000 Feet -- from 1973 -- has not, historically, received a lot of love from critics or audiences.  

It stars William Shatner as an alcoholic ex-priest, and even Shatner’s die-hard fans, believe that the movie is the worst production the icon has ever been associated with.

Well, I’m going to buck conventional wisdom a bit and give the telefilm a little much-needed love today. 

Although it is undeniably a cheap-jack production -- with virtually no resources upon which to draw -- The Horror at 37,000 Feet does succeed in effectively generating a sense of terror.

And it does so the old fashioned way.

Largely by hiding the titular horror from our eyes, and letting, instead, film grammar “sell” the scares. 

First, a confession: I first saw this made-for-TV movie as a child, and it terrified me. 

I have recalled, for probably three decades, isolated moments or images from The Horror at 37,000 Feet, such as a gaudily made-up baby doll “oozing” green death, or an unlucky passenger ejected from a plane in flight into the infinite sky at dawn.

I suspect that these images resonate, in part because director, David Lowell Rich, realized he had very few options. He had to marshal all the (meager) resources he had to create images that carried frightful impact.

There was no budget, apparently, to showcase bells and whistles. The was no budget to reveal the face of evil, to orchestrate elaborate special effects, or even afford the audience a single, solitary gaze at the “haunted” Druid altar that informs the film’s supernatural scares.

So Rich, instead, figured out, in many instances, how he could heighten suspense or anxiety utilizing visual compositions.  I’ll write about a few of those in this review. But long story short: he picks the right tools for the right job. He finds the best angles to utilize -- at key moments -- to ramp up feelings of discomfort and ambiguity.

Essentially, his approach of necessity -- not to really show anything – echoes the movie’s narrative, which concerns a plane flight wherein something dark and malevolent mysteriously suspends the laws of physics.

It’s not clear what that force is -- Satan, Druids, or H.P. Lovecraft’s Old Ones -- but for one night, the summer solstice, this unseen power exerts control over one tiny corner of the human world.

Sure, the actors are mostly 1970s TV has-beens (Buddy Ebsen, Chuck Connors, Russell Johnson) and the writing is muddled at times.

But consider that the scariest movies aren’t always the ones that make the most rational sense, or which present the clearest explanations of things. 

Sometimes the best ones are those in which “sense,” as we understand it, is almost graspable, and then, suddenly lost. We are scared by uncertainty, after all, not certainty.

Whether intentional or not, this kind of irrationality also echoes the dream language of nightmares.

The Horror at 37,000 Feet is a modest but effective little nightmare, for certain.

“The air feels funny tonight.”

AOA Flight 19X leaves Heathrow Airport by darkest night, bound for Long Island, New York.  It is a cargo flight with only a few passengers aboard. 

Among those passengers: a defrocked priest, Paul Kovalik (Shatner), a cranky business-man, Farley (Ebsen), a British physician, Dr. Enkalia (Paul Winfield), a model (France Nuyen), and an architect, O’Neill (Roy Thinnes) and his wife, Sheila (Jane Merrow)

The cargo in the hold belongs to O’Neill. He is transporting in a large crate the stones of an ancient altar found in an English abbey, from his wife’s land.  The O’Neills' decision to remove the ancient stones from their native soil is a source of controversy, especially for another passenger, Mrs. Pinder (Tammy Grimes).

Once in flight, strange things begin to occur. 

The pilot (Connors) and flight crew are shocked when the plane appears to be suspended in air, using fuel, but not moving. At first the crew suspects a dangerous, powerful head-wind. But even upon turning around, the plane can make no progress through the skies.

Then Mrs. O’Neill faints, and after awakening, speaks words in Latin.  Paul identifies them as words used in a Satanic black mass.

The force in the cargo hold soon breaks loose, trapping an attendant on an elevator, and freezing Mrs. Pinder’s dog, Damon, solid.  It then kills a flight engineer (Johnson).

Soon, strange green ectoplasm begins appearing all over the plane in flight, and the passengers panic. 

They believe that they must sacrifice a passenger, preferably Mrs. O’Neill, to the dark forces manifesting on the jet.

But Kovalik -- who has lost his faith -- chooses to confront the terror for one just one glimpse of the supernatural world.

“We’re caught in a wind like there never was.”

I could easily make the case, as many other reviewers have done, that The Horror at 37,000 Feet is a bad movie.’:

That argument would look like this:

First, the movie is unoriginal in setting and conflict.  At heart, it’s just another a 1970s Airport movie, about a plane in flight experiencing some form of existential jeopardy. 

Been there, done that.

I could even go outside the “plane-in-flight” genre and note that as a horror production, this telefilm has superior antecedents. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” a classic episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) certainly generated scares aplenty, and it also featured William Shatner in a starring role.

So I could argue, without much effort that The Horror at 37,000 Feet is overly familiar, a retread.

I might also note the film’s inherent cheapness. As I noted in my introduction to this review, we never even see the altar that is the cause of the terror. It is crated up. Hidden from the eye.  After a few scenes set an airport, we're on the plane for the whole movie. On the upside, this does generate a feeling of claustrophobia, at least.

And yes, the teleplay mixes up Devil Worship, Paganism and H.P. Lovecraft willy-nilly. All those aspects of the apparent “occult” are thrown into a cocktail blender and mixed, none-too-elegantly.

Then, finally, you have the actors chewing the (very limited) scenery, and a total lack of visual effects to back up the horror.

As Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1989-1999) once noted (of a different production) “Bad movie? You’re soaking in it.”

But let’s travel beyond surface values for a moment and dig a little deeper.  

What The Horror at 37,000 Feet truly concerns is an outbreak of the irrational and supernatural in a world explicitly of the modern, the technological, the reasonable. Something older than Christianity itself awakens and seizes control of state-of-the-art human technology, a plane in flight.

Just the sight of this thing can kill you. It can freeze your blood.

And the old, irrational force, cannot be reckoned with using science, engineering, or any “daylight” recourse. 

The flight team attempts maneuvers to escape the strange, inexplicable jetstream…all of which are (impossibly) ineffective.  The interior of the plane freezes, even though the jet’s skin or hull has not been breached.  And all over the plane, outbreaks of ectoplasm -- green goo -- sprout up.

In total, the forces of the irrational and nightmarish are infecting the plane, coming into the sunshine world of reality. It's a highly localized invasion, of a sort.

What does the Dark Force want?  The passengers become a mob and settle on human sacrifice as the best answer.  What do they sacrifice? Well, Mr. Farley burns all of his money. The wealthy businessman who has spent his life negotiating profitable deals immediately forsakes his God (capitalism) to save his life.  How quickly he gives up a lifetime of greed and avarice in the face of something he can’t rationally grapple with.

But it is Paul’s journey which I find the most fascinating.  He has given up his life as a priest because he never saw one iota of the Divine. All he wanted was one second of validation for his belief system that God exists.  He never got it. And he turned to the bottle for comfort and succor.

Finally, Paul gets the opportunity to confront something beyond the concrete, beyond the rational. He dies for one peek at the “world beyond” ours. What he sees is terrifying, but also, ironically, a confirmation of the life he abandoned. 

As Dr. Enkalia notes, “If there are Devils, there must also be Gods.”

I’ve written before about the Zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early 1970s, leading up to the premiere of Star Wars (1977). It was an era of intense cynicism and doubt in America, and in the pop culture. We lost a war, we had a president resign in disgrace, and one of our most popular weekly periodicals asked the question, on its cover, no less: “Is God Dead?”

We all seemed to be brooding in a state of existential angst and uncertainty.

The horror genre responded in full force to this period of questioning, and from 1967 – 1976 we saw a slew of films raising our doubts: Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), and beyond.

The Horror at 37,000 Feet is preoccupied with the same questions. It is of a piece with that historical and entertainment context. As it acknowledges with its settings, we’ve created a world of amazing technology and innovation. But are we spiritual beings

And is there a spiritual order to the universe beyond the gadgets and forces we harness through science?

With no real budget to speak of, and no special effects, either, The Horror at 37,000 Feet visualizes an incursion of the supernatural realm into the realm of “reality.”  The director deploys some terrific shots to do so.

Consider the moment, for example, wherein a flight attendant becomes trapped in a rapidly freezing elevator. The window is a narrow, vertical rectangle. But the director doesn’t limit our view to the glass. Instead, he shows us the whole door, so that as the flight attendant screams for help, her visual space in the frame is constricted by a considerable amount. She is inside a box within a box, to put it another way, trapped.  

In a way, that’s a metaphor for all the passengers.  They are trapped on a plane, a box of another sort, with no possibility of escape. Science has put them there (at 37,000 Feet), but the unknown is holding them there.

Secondly, as I’ve noted above, the film is about Paul’s desire and attempt to see the forces beyond human understanding. As The Horror at 37,000 Feet nears its conclusion, the perspective switches --for the only time in the movie, if memory serves -- to a P.O.V. shot.

Clutching a torch, and moving to the darkened back of the cabin (and the source of the terror), Paul approaches his moment of discovery.  

It quickly becomes -- through the subjective camera angle -- our moment of discovery too. We see a fleeting glimpse of a person shrouded in a cloak.

And then we get the pay-off. An extreme close-up of Paul’s face as he sees his “proof” of the other world. It is a moment not of transcendence, but utter, soul-shredding terror.  I know that many film lovers and critics love to dismiss Shatner as hammy or over-the-top in his acting choices.  But it is his reaction shot, lensed in that extreme close-up that serves as the punctuation for the whole movie.  

Paul gets his wish to see the other “reality,” and what he sees is so terrible that he cannot reckon with it. 

I would say Shatner pulls this moment off.

When Paul is ejected from the plane, however, terror gives way to something else.  We see him in the sky, at dawn. The sun is emerging

He will die, of course, and yet the order of the universe (the sun rising and setting) is restored. Paul paid for his glimpse of the “the Old Ones” with his life, but the next shot suggests the restoration of order, and perhaps, then, even the journey to Heaven.

Another sequence in the film is also well-shot.  Late in the story, the passengers decide to attempt to trick the Old Ones. They use a child’s baby doll as a sacrifice. They cut Sheila’s hair and fingernails, and put it on the hunk of plastic.  

Then, they give the doll to the dark force.

This sinister power sees through the trick, instantly, and green, bilious ectoplasm pours forth from the toy.  

This is a creepy moment that requires virtually nothing in terms of expense. It is dream horror at its finest, bringing the doll to life, in a sense, as the lifeblood of The Other Side boils up within it.

I don’t argue that Horror at 37,000 Feet is a great production, or one of the all-time great horror films, only that it has something that makes it effectively unsettling.  

That something, as I've hopefully pinpointed, is likely a grounding in the language of film grammar.  The shots, in some weird way, enhance the irrationality of the teleplay, and therefore bring forward the idea of an irrational horror, and a time and place where -- for a horrifying 71 minutes -- two worlds seem to collide.

I find that many 1970s TV films manage to be extremely frightening, even today. This isn’t merely because my generation experienced them in childhood. It’s because they were made in a time when American society was questioning the pillars of our nation (faith, and patriotism), and because they were cheap as Hell.

If they were to work at all, the talents making telefilms such as The Horror at 37,000 Feet had to find (cheap) ways to showcase the horror in unusual but effective ways.

On those grounds, The Horror at 37,000 Feet may be silly and muddled and hammy, but it sure as Hell sticks the landing.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Mister T in Your Pocket

Mister T Bling (Complete Jewelry Set; Imperial)

Mister T Shrinky Dinks

Jigsaw Puzzle of the Week: Mister T

Halloween Costume: Mister T (Ben Cooper)

Comic Book of the Week: Mister T and the T -Force

Board Game of the Week: Mister T (Milton Bradley)

Mister T Breakfast Cereal (Quaker Oats)

Lunch Box of the Week: Mister T

Theme Song of the Week: Mister T (1983 - 1985)

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Obsession" (December 15, 1967)

Stardate 3619.2

While a landing party scans for rare minerals on a planet surface, a strange alien nemesis from Captain Kirk’s (William Shatner) past attacks. It is a gaseous organism or cloud, composed of the ultra-rare substance dikironium.

Eleven years earlier, the starship Farragut encountered this unusual life form on the other side of the galaxy, and the encounter resulted in the death of many crewmen, including Captain Garrovick. All the victims had their red blood cells drained of hemoglobin by the alien.

Kirk was a young lieutenant aboard the Farragut during the incident, and hesitated to fire phasers before the attack. Ever since, he has blamed himself for the death of his captain and crewmates. He has blamed himself for his moment of hesitation; fearing that it cost lives.

Obsessed, Kirk makes hunting the creature a priority, despite the fact that the Enterprise is carrying medical supplies that are badly needed for Theta VII, and bound for an important rendezvous with the starship Yorktown.

Meanwhile, Ensign Garrovick (Stephen Brooks) is stationed aboard the Enterprise, and when he fails to kill the creature with his phaser, he blames himself, much as Kirk has done.

When the alien vampire cloud heads to Tycho IV -- possible to reproduce -- Kirk and Garrovick attempt to destroy it with an anti-matter bomb.

Buoyed by a tense finale, “Obsession” is a solid episode of Star Trek (1966-1969’s) second season, even though it falls into a pattern seen very commonly during this group of episodes.

Specifically, the Enterprise must intervene to stop a galaxy-threatening menace  

This formula might seem familiar to you. 

The menaces encountered during this span are “cosmic” ones, meaning that they don’t just threaten the ship, or a planet, or a solar system, but whole swaths of civilized space.

In the second season, the Enterprise stops such a menace in the best of these episodes, “The Doomsday Machine,” but also engages (and stops them) in “The Changeling” (Nomad) and here in “Obsession.”   Later, another such menace attacks in "The Immunity Syndrome."

Specifically, the vampire cloud featured in this tale is on the verge of initiating reproduction, spreading out across the galaxy, sucking the life from all red blooded beings, ostensibly.

For a personal story -- one that is really about Kirk’s sense of guilt over something that was never his fault -- this “galactic” canvas is simply unnecessary.  Actually, it's counter-productive from a character development standpoint.

The creature is a menace, it seems, to Kirk’s self-esteem, his sense of self.  It doesn’t need to be a threat to ALL HUMAN LIFE for the episode to work.

Also, and quite unfortunately, this episode goes out of its way to redeem Kirk when it is not necessary to do so.  

Consider: Kirk punishes Garrovick unnecessarily, delays a rendezvous with another starship, and imperils the safety of a distant world all on a hunch about this creature.  

Well, lo and behold, the episode vindicates Kirk's impulsive choices in the end, by revealing that the life form is on the verge of becoming a galactic threat.  So Kirk’s stubbornness and reckless command choices are all revealed to be completely valid.

All's well that ends well, right?

Yet the title of the episode is “Obsession,” and that term may be defined as a preoccupation that continually intrudes on the mind. In other words, obsession is a craze, a compulsion, a mania.  

An obsession is generally not considered a good state of mind, and an obsession usually boasts negative consequences.  

“Obsession” is smart enough to establish the consequences of Kirk’s behavior (a planet in jeopardy, a disease out of control, a starship idling on standby waiting for a rendezvous, a young man’s ego crushed) but then permits him to play the hero when things turn out okay.

When one thinks of obsession, the great literary work Moby Dick comes immediately to mind.  Consider that on at least two occasions in Star Trek lore, that Melville classic is  directly referenced.  

Khan (Ricardo Montalban), for example, is obsessed with Kirk in The Wrath of Khan (1982). He dies trying to execute his revenge, leading his people, in the process, to death and disaster.

In First Contact (1996), Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is obsessed with the destruction of the Borg, but, in the end, recognizes his obsession, and pulls back to a more responsible decision -making stance (choose to self-destruct the Enterprise and evacuate his crew to safety). Picard realizes that obsession has transformed him into an Ahab-type personality, to the detriment of all those loyal to him.

Here, Kirk never has that reckoning. 

Instead, the episode asks us to consider the idea that Kirk was right to do all the things he did, because the ends justified the means. The creature was going to reproduce, become a cosmic menace, and thus had to be stopped.  

So Kirk’s obsession -- even though he didn’t know any of that information -- was justified.

A more thoughtful narrative would see Kirk realizing, finally, that he was willing to sacrifice too much to settle an old score, to rectify a (perceived) mistake from his youth.

As I see it, there are two opportunities for Kirk to grow in “Obsession,” and two opportunities for the audience to gain a better appreciation of the character.  

The episode handles one opportunity masterfully, and one poorly. 

In the first case, Kirk realizes -- as he teaches Garrovick to go through the same thing -- that it is natural to feel fear, and freeze in the presence of something alien.  Kirk froze aboard the Farragut, but his actions made no difference, after all. He hesitated for a few seconds, as any of us would in the same scenario.  There should be no shame or guilt from this. Kirk was, and is, human.

As far as the second opportunity goes, it is squandered. Kirk does not recognize his obsession. and contend with the fall-out from it. 

He is willing to commit everything (his starship, his crew, another starship, a planet’s ENTIRE population...) to resolve his personal obsession.  

One can argue, I suppose, that Kirk's obsession grows, in part, from his ability to sense the thoughts/emotions of the creature on some basic level.  But even that is a weak argument.  Kirk should certainly apologize to his command crew for his behavior -- or at least his unnecessarily brusque manner -- during this incident. 

But importantly, Kirk doesn’t learn about himself here, that he too is vulnerable to irrational obsessions, and that it nearly costs a lot of people everything.

So thematically, “Obsession” is not entirely effective, I would assess. The writing misses the bigger story.  

Again, I am reminded of A Next Generation (1987-1994) story, “Silicon Avatar.” It too concerns a space-going entity that murders people: the Crystalline Entity.. A character aboard the Enterprise, a scientist, has been obsessed with it for decades, since it killed her son. She kills the dangerous out of spite and vengeance, but at least, in the last act, is held to account for her actions.  She realizes that the reasons she behaved the way she did were not really valid.  She committed murder for herself, for her own satisfaction, not for anyone else.

To restate the point: Kirk has no such reckoning about obsession here.

Still, I do enjoy “Obsession” for a number of reasons. 

For example, I love the concept of a blood sucking alien (see: It! The Terror from Beyond Space.) I also appreciate  learning something of Kirk’s early Starfleet career.  I also believe that the denouement, with the monster sucking up the bait -- a vat of blood -- works very effectively in creating and maintaining tension.

But overall, this is a “galactic” scaled story that should have been a “human” scaled story.  "Obsession" could have been a real meditation on leadership, instead of a an ends justify the means story.

Next week an episode that turns out not to have aged very well at all: “Wolf in the Fold.”

The Films of 1958: It! The Terror From Beyond Space

It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) is famous -- or perhaps, notorious -- these days mostly because some viewers and films scholars view it as a heavy influence on Ridley Scott’s landmark horror film: Alien (1979).

It’s easy to see why people might make this particular case.

In particular, both films involve hideous, hostile alien life-forms killing the crew-members of a space ship in flight. Both films involve scenes set in spaceship vent tubes too. 

Plus, both malevolent alien life-forms do nasty things to human bodies during their rampages.

The truth, however, is that there are many possible antecedents for Ridley Scott’s Alien. These include Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965) and episodes of Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999 (1975-1977), namely “Dragon’s Domain” and “End of Eternity.”

But what makes Alien endure as such a classic genre movie isn’t really the streamlined plot outline -- monster on a spaceship killing people! -- but rather the fashion that Scott so adroitly visualizes the tale.

The Scott film imagines a lived-in world of blue collar astronauts, and puts that world in dynamic juxtaposition with a bio-mech alien life-form in a constant state of physical flux.  We never know what the alien is going to “be” the next time the crew encounters it.  The vastness of the Nostromo means that there are plenty of places for the nasty xenomorph to hide, too. And there is no escape possible, since the ship is alone in the vastness of space, light years from port.

So there indeed exist commonalities in terms of narrative between It! The Terrror From Beyond Space (penned by the late Jerome Bixby) and Alien.

But in terms of imagery and impact, Alien remains light years beyond the 1958 film.

To put it bluntly, Alien is a masterpiece of the format, and It! is but an occasionally resourceful or inspired B movie.

In fact, It! suffers greatly in 2016 because of its low-budget production design, general lack of meaningful characterization, and, finally, the director (Edward Cahn’s) visual selections. 

On the final front, the film features few close-ups, relying instead on master or long shots. This approach subtracts from the horror quotient, and diminishes the feeling of “isolation” or terror that should be (but isn’t…) generated.

It! The Terror From Beyond Space is a lot of fun, and, of course, it deserves credit for scaring a generation of kids silly.  But the film also plays a bit like a low-rent version of a truly remarkable monster picture of the 1950s: the brilliant and (quite possibly immortal) Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The creature featured here, however, lacks the elegance and pathos of the Gill Man.

Maybe someone should look at how that film influenced Alien?

So today, It! The Terror From Beyond Space plays as mostly a curiosity. It features moments of intrigue and horror, but more-than-half-a-century later many other films (and TV programs) have dramatized a similar story with more flair, color, and successful imagery.

“This is where we die. Or where it dies.”

The futuristic year of 1973, Colonel Van Heusen (Kim Spalding) leads a rescue mission to the surface of Mars. There, an earlier ship, the Challenge 141 under command of Col. Edward Carruthers (Marshal Thompson) has suffered a terrible tragedy.  All the crew members are dead, save Carruthers. They have been murdered.

Carruthers is arrested for the crime, and Van Heusen suspects that he murdered his crew as a way of preserving supplies. By contrast, Carruthers insists that his crew members have all been killed by a monstrous alien being. 

With Carruthers aboard, Van Heusen’s ship leaves Mars, but with an unwanted stowaway in hiding: a terrifying alien creature bent on killing every human it encounters.  It begins picking off the crew-people, and it is theorized that the monster may be the last survivor of a once-great Martian civilization, reverted to barbarism and hostility

Grenades, bullets and fire don’t stop the monster, and the crew soon learns that it is deriving sustenance from the men it kills, draining “every ounce of fluid”from their bodies.

A desperate plan is launched to depressurize the ship and suffocate the creature.

“You were right. And we were all wrong.”

It! The Terror From Beyond Space clocks in at 69 minutes, and yet it ends not a moment too soon.  Had it lasted any longer, viewers might very well begin to ask questions that the filmmakers would probably rather not answer.

For example, how can grenades be detonated, and bullets fired willy-nilly on a spaceship in flight -- especially the one the size of a Challenge rocket -- without damaging the vehicle?

Here, there is no problem at all using explosives and projectile weapons aboard what is apparently quite a small craft.  And on the same deck as the power generator, to boot!

The crew people wire grenades to a vent covering, for instance, without any worry that it might cause a hull rupture, or cause explosive decompression. The possibility of such a disaster is not even name-checked.

With so many crucial ship’s systems and control panels around, the plan to fight the monster with grenades and guns might be a little reckless, no?

A second question might involve the creature itself. How does it successfully stay hidden aboard a craft of this size for any length of time whatsoever?

Basically, the inside of the rocket consists of just three “ringed” decks. Each deck or ring contains a large center room, with, apparently, a string of rooms on the outer ring that are only accessible form the center portion of the ring.  The monster -- which is large and loud -- wouldn’t seem to have many places to hide here.

While it’s true that the sequence involving a crew-member in a circular vent shaft does forecast Captain Dallas’ death scene in a similar locale in Alien, it’s important to clarify that this vent doesn’t apparently traverse the levels of the ship. It’s limited to one level, so the alien is, for much of the film, limited to one ring or deck, and not able to move back and forth between them. In other words, it’s contained there.

Nobody suggests just decompressing that deck, or sealing it off till they reach Earth. Both seem like eminently logical solutions.

The entire movie takes place on these rings or decks, which would seem an opportunity for a clever director to create and maintain an aura claustrophobia, but director Cahn instead shoots mostly from a distance, populating his shots with many characters, as they debate the crisis. 

The relative lack of close-ups not only makes it more difficult to identify with particular, individual crew-members, but lessens the impact of the terror.  If all the crew-members -- ten or so -- stay together in the frame, there’s little opportunity to create a mood of terror or isolation, rather just a feeling of overcrowding.

A movie like this depends on scenes with crew-members, by themselves, moving through dark corridors, not knowing what is around the next corner. It! The Terror from Beyond Space doesn’t feature many scenes like that because of the rocket’s size and interior layout.

The book-end scenes on Earth, with an official briefing a press gaggle, are also shot in dull fashion, and seem to exist as padding. I do enjoy the film’s final lines of dialogue, however, which suggest that a.) Mars be bypassed in future space travels. And b.) it should be renamed “Death.”

I understand why It! The Terror From Beyond Space maintains a fan-base, for certain.  Some of the scenes of the monster skulking in the darkness, or in silhouette, remain effective.  The monster loses some of its impact, however, when we see it in the light.

Also, the notion of something damn-near unkillable ripping open deck flooring/hatches with its bare hands -- like sardine cans -- is one that is downright nightmarish.

I also admire the fact that the film doesn’t go overboard with explanations or a back story. We don’t really know anything about the monster except what one scientist concludes. But it’s just a theory, and so the monster retains its mystery throughout the film.

Oddly enough, I would say It! The Terror From Beyond Space may share more in common with Aliens (1986) than it does with Alien.  Think about it: the survivor of a doomed expedition (Carruthers/Ripley) is rescued.  Then, that character is suspected of wrong-doing, and illegality, until his/her story of an alien monster proves true.