Saturday, January 07, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle: "Tarzan and the Knights of Nimmr"

In “Tarzan and the Knights of Nimmr,” Tarzan finds a crashed hot air balloon, and follows the trail of the balloonist, perky journalist Anne Talbert, to the lost city of Nimmr, a realm of Medieval Knights.

There, the people are ruled by Queen Grenalda, a kind and compassionate ruler.  Unfortunately, her brother, Sir. Mallad, covets the throne, and has been slowly poisoning her, so he may assume it.  He wishes to marry Anne, and rule the kingdom.

Tarzan attempts to save Queen Grenalda and Nimmr, and accepts Mallad’s challenge to a joust.

Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, visits another “lost world of fantasy” in this story. Tarzan finds a journalist (who wants to write a million dollar book), who has been taken to a kingdom of knights and jousting contests.  He once again brings a sense of (Western) morality to this kingdom. We get a little of the history of the kingdom, too.  The people dwelling there are descendants of an English crusade.

Like so many stories, this Tarzan adventure is one that focuses on simple issues of right and wrong.  Tarzan helps the kind Queen, and his example rubs off on Anne Talbert. She realizes she cannot write her book, because to do so would call attention to Nimmr, and result, probably, in its destruction. She gives up her "fortune" for the freedom of others.

After watching (the generally excellent) Filmation Flash Gordon (1979-1981), I’ve grown a bit tired of stories in which a lovely queen falls for an outsider (a powerful male) who must preserve her kingdom from some internal insurrection.  At least, in this case, Queen Grenalda doesn’t fall in love with Tarzan.

Next week: “Tarzan’s Rival.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam: "The Odd Couple" (October 18, 1975)

In “The Odd Couple,” Captain Marvel (Jon Davey) comes to the aid of two teenagers on an out-of-control airplane.

Later, the same two teenagers trek into the woods just as a forest fire begins burning.  Realizing he can’t handle the situation alone, and remembering the Elder’s admonishment that he shouldn’t be 
prideful, Captain Marvel must team up with Mighty Isis (Joanna Cameron).

Captain Marvel’s example makes one of the teens, Don (Steve Benedict), realize that is okay to ask for help instead of blundering into dangerous situations.

Isis (Joanna Cameron) and Captain Marvel (John Davey) first join forces in “The Odd Couple,” a second season episode of Filmation’s Shazam (1974-1976).

Here, Captain Marvel needs help dealing with a forest fire, realizing he cannot handle a problem of this scope all alone.  Accordingly --- for the first time in the series -- Mentor contacts the Elders himself.  They tell him the secret identity of Isis, and where to find her.

Surprisingly, Isis knows all about the Elders, and is more than willing to help out. I would love to know how she is familiar with the Elders, and they with her, but viewers don’t get any additional details.

Once Isis is on the scene, she is able to squelch the forest fire, and save the day.  I confess: I loved seeing Joanna Cameron in full Isis regalia again, having finished reviewing that series over a year ago.  As I recall, the series grew somewhat repetitious and tiresome.  

But Joanna Cameron never did.

Next week: "The Contest," the first episode of Shazam's third and final season.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Last Dinosaur (1977)

Can a badly dated TV movie about rampaging dinosaurs actually be more than just a badly-dated TV movie about rampaging dinosaurs? That is the paramount question one must confront during an attentive viewing of the 1977 Rankin/Bass television movie, The Last Dinosaur.

Because, as dopey and inconsequential as The Last Dinosaur may appear at first glance, with the seventies era man-in-suit monsters and wacky lost-worlds of fantasy premise (tropical paradise discovered in the polar ice caps!), this Japanese/American co-production also (rather surprisingly...) fulfills one criterion I apply to the finest genre movies. It states something important about the cultural context in which it was crafted; it reveals to us something important about the times; in this case the turbulent 1970s.

Specifically, the titular last dinosaur here is not merely a rogue tyrannosaurus dominating a land that time forgot; but rather the film's protagonist, a raging male chauvinist, an alpha male of excessive virility and masculinity, the appropriately if humorously named Maston Thrust (Richard Boone).

As the film's boozy theme song notes, "there's nothing new" (for this manly throwback) in an emasculating modern world; one that no longer recognizes his (macho) form of supremacy and domination. So Thrust is literally a "dinosaur" of the late twentieth century, and thus the movie concerns the twilight of unquestioned white male supremacy in the age of ascendant women's lib; and the age immediately preceding stifling political correctness.

But before I excavate too deeply into The Last Dinosaur's deeper meaning, I want to recount the plot for those who haven't seen the film (which aired on American TV on February 11, 1977), or who haven't seen it in a while.

As the film opens, big game hunter, Maston Thrust is feeling noticeably past his pri
me, seeking his last hurrah. During the film's opening credits, Thrust's latest one night stand (whom he soon ditches...) leafs through his impressive photo album of memories, and we see Thrust's biography in photographs, in images. It is a life of exceptional accomplishment: enlistment in the U.S. Army, battling the Nazis in World War II, setting up a robust and successful global oil exploration company (Thrust Industries), leading safari expeditions to Africa -- even battling with namby-pamby animal rights activists.

Thrust, the great white hunter, soon pinpoints his white whale -- his much-sought after last hurrah -- in the surprising form of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. 

You see, one of Thrust's drilling expeditions -- while ensconced aboard a phallic-shaped laser drill/vehicle called a "polar borer" -- has discovered a prehistoric refuge in the polar caps. The only survivor of that mission is prissy, effete "seventies"-style man Chuck Wave (Steve Keats), who saw his four companions eaten by the T-Rex. It was, Wave claims "an enormous animal." Twenty-feet high, forty-feet long, and weighing eight tons, the Tyrannosaurus is, according to Thrust, "the greatest carnivore that ever lived" and the "king of dinosaurs." The dinosaur represents a challenge Thrust can't ignore. 

Accordingly, Maston assembles an expedition to return to the prehistoric land and "study" the beast. Said expedition includes Nobel Prize winning scientist Dr. Kawamoto (Tetsu Nakamura), a Masai tracker named Bunta (Luther Rackley) and Wave himself. A female photographer, Francisca "Frankie" Banks (Joan Van Ark) is also assigned to join Thrust on the voyage, but he blocks her participation with blatant and forceful chauvinism. "There's no woman going on this trip!" he barks. "I've never taken a woman on safari before!"

But Frankie is wily, and knows how to ingratiate herself with Thrust. At a party celebrating the group's departure (at a Japanese restaurant), this professional gal dresses up as a Japanese servant girl, and then seductively disrobes for Maston under a pagoda. Thrust is tantalized by the attention of the young, attractive woman, and then Frankie takes him back to her boudoir for more convincing. There, while they are in bed together smooching, Frankie surprises Mast by showing a slide show of her photographs. He was expecting to get laid, (and the movie chickens out and doesn't show us if they have sex or not; but the implication is that they did.)

Anyway, the expedition (with Frankie along, naturally...) travels to the prehistoric world, and things quickly go awry. The T-Rex soon crushes poor Dr. Kawamoto underfoot and wrecks the polar borer, rolling it into a vast dinosaur bone yard.

The expedition is trapped for a long time in this perilous world. As the months go by, the marooned 20th century folk devolve after a fashion. They learn to hunt, to skin animals, and to survive without modern conveniences. They must fight for the available food with a local caveman tribe.

A cave woman, nicknamed Hazel (don't ask...) joins the ad-hoc family, as Thrust becomes increasingly obsessed, Ahab-style, with hunting and killing the murderous T-Rex. Thrust constructs a cross-bow and -- eventually -- a giant catapult so as to combat his own personal Moby Dick.

Frankie, now reduced to role of cave mother --- cooking in the cave for the hunters (the men: Wave, Bunta and Maston) -- also finds herself increasingly attracted to Wave, who -- at the very least -- seems to respect her mind. This change of fortune upsets macho Thrust, who wants Frankie to remain the Eve to his Adam in this strange, lost-in-time world.

"Here's where life is. Pure and simple," Thrust tells her. "What's back there for you? Confusion?" 

If you're paying attention at this point, you realize what this dialogue really means: back in the twentieth century world (where she is an accomplished and prize-winning photo-journalist), Thrust believes Frankie can't be the "real" woman that she is here, in this prehistoric world (where she fills her biological imperative of serving man, apparently). 

Frankie ultimately rejects this argument.

In the end, the T-Rex survives the catapult, and Wave repairs the polar borer. Wave and Frankie return home, leaving Maston Thrust -- the throwback -- in his real natural environment: the prehistoric world.

It is there, finally, in The Last Dinosaur's closing sequence that Thrust meets Hazel's (the cave woman's) come-hither eyes. The camera pertinently cuts to two extended "freeze frames" (a la Jules & Jim): one for each character. This technique establishes the connection between the character.

What this "extended moment" represents, essentially, in terms of film grammar, is that Maston has indeed found his suitable mate; one who will always acknowledge his male superiority and not travel outside the bounds of the traditional male/female roles he clearly prefers.

Not coincidentally, it was Hazel who -- sometime earlier in the film -- went to Maston's bed (in a cave) and returned to him his rifle site...a device by which he could "see" better. What she was doing with that site, actually, was giving Thrust the means to see her; perhaps. An option other than the "modern" woman, Frankie who has not been so steadfast.

So what are we to make of all this? 

Well, for just a moment, consider the mid-1970s, the era this film emerged from. This was the epoch of the ERA (which was up for a vote in the House of Representatives in 1971; and in the Senate by 1972). This was the epoch of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision (1973), and the battle for a woman to have a say in reproductive rights (a battle joined in earnest with the wide distribution of the birth control pill in 1960).

This was the age of feminism on blazing intellectual and political "second wave" ascent. Prominent feminists in the culture included Gloria Steinem (a founder of the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971), Shulamith Firestone (author of The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution [1970]), Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch [1970]), and Kate Milett (Sexual Politics [1970]).

The old fashioned dominant white male -- the Don Draper of AMC's Mad Men, for instance -- had to reckon with a tectonic shift in culture and, for the first time, charges of sexism. Accordingly, The Last Dinosaur is about the last gasp of honest, unadulterated American machismo (and chauvinism) as a pointedly anti-feminist response.

At film's conclusion, Frankie says compassionately of the T-Rex, "It's the last one." Thrust's response is illuminating. He says: "So am I." 

He positions himself as the last of his species then, the last "macho man." Thrust is an unapologetic hunter (and therefore enemy of animal rights activists), and an unapologetic womanizer (as seen by his treatment of his one-night-stand; whom he literally tells to suck on a bullet...) and so the film establishes that he cannot survive as "the last one" in a modern, equal-rights culture. 

Therefore, The Last Dinosaur strands Thrust in a world more to his liking -- literally a prehistoric world. It is there, with a pointedly un-liberated cave-woman as his mate, that he will spend the rest of his days.

Frankie, by contrast, is a liberated contemporary woman of the disco decade. She experiences a taste of life as a prehistoric domestic woman (a metaphor for marriage?) and doesn't much care for it. She adheres to modern values ("After all we've been through, I'd like to think that we're still civilized enough to be compassionate."), and more importantly -- in her seduction of Thrust for her own means and ends, proves herself a heroine in the true spirit of Germaine Greer. 

Where Greer worried that "women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality," Frankie freely expresses (and revels) in her sexuality with both Wave and Maston Thrust. She is attracted to both men, but ultimately whom she chooses as a mate (Wave) is her choice, not that of either man. She hightails it back to the 20th century, leaving Thrust, the last of his breed, behind.

I write often here about the ways a film's form (the choice of shots, the selection of soundtrack, etc.) can and should reflect a form's thematic content. Look -- for just a moment -- beneath the rubbery monsters in The Last Dinosaur, and you'll see what I did: that the film's themes are reflected by the film's shape. 

In particular, The Last Dinosaur finds methods to associate Thrust with machismo (and then tie that machismo to a fading, dying age). From the selection of his name (we all know what thrusting regards, don't we?), we understand something about Maston. His conveyance -- the polar "borer" -- is another phallic reference (one literally knocked around by Thrust's competitor in "size" for dominance, the T-Rex). And the film's oddly-captivating theme song explicitly equates Thrust with "the last dinosaur." In fact, the entire film is scored (by Maury Laws) in counter-intuitive but highly-effective fashion: as a kind of folksy, tragic (and yet highly sentimental) requiem for a man who has outlived his time, and his usefulness. The only place for Thrust and his views is...the past.

I've already commented on the deployment here of freeze frames, and how they are utilized to explicitly (and visually) establish the burgeoning connection between Thrust and Hazel, yet there are other visual flourishes as well. For instance, when the group is defeated by the dinosaur and their polar borer taken away (a castration for Thrust?), the film cuts to an impressive (and slow...) pull-back that lets the reality of their entrapment (and alienation from their environment) settle in.

Slow-motion photography is utilized during the climax, to squeeze out the suspense. And even though the titular dinosaur is clearly but a man in a rubbery suit, the film doesn't make the same mistake as many monster movies do. It remembers to often shoot the beast from an extreme low angle (rather than eye level...) to forge a sense of power and menace. I've ribbed the antiquated special effects here quite a bit, but I must state this too: some of the composites between live actors and (admittedly-fake looking dinosaur) are absolutely exceptional. The composites hold up gloriously, even if the monster costumes don't. 

I could have written this review entirely about The Last Dinosaur's consistent literary allusions to Melville's Moby Dick had I wanted to, but I felt that the battle of the sexes angle was much more trenchant to an understanding of the film's heart. 

The Last Dinosaur, for all the hammy performances, creaky zooms, cheesy effects, and portentous dialogue, serves as a relatively unique social commentary about the end of a roiling era; about the twilight of the macho white man's cultural dominance. As this film points out, he was rapidly becoming an endangered species who -- in the 1970s (and before Reagan, anyway...) -- was finding himself more and more out-of-step with modern Western culture (where sensitive Alan Alda would soon be held up as a paragon of type). 

But make no mistake, the film doesn't glorify Maston Thrust. He's not a role model. The film exiles him to pre-history because he can't change; because he can't grow. Still, as Thrust himself seems to realize, he'd rather rule in Hell than serve (or be caged...) in 20th century heaven.

So hell yeah, The Last Dinosaur is an old fashioned, retro monster movie, but in playing on more than one thematic level (and with a modicum of good film style) it certainly fits my definition of B movie (low budget) classic. This is an effort that -- though undeniably dated and passe -- nonetheless has some red meat on those dinosaur bones.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Logan's Run 40th Anniversary Blogging: The Series: "Pilot" (September 16, 1977)

"Two hundred years have passed since the nuclear war raged to an end and the computers took over what was left of the world, sealed it off from the outside, and made it perfect. Now, in the domed city of this year, 2319, living is unending joy. Every wish is granted. Every sensual dream is realized. And all the world is young, for in this perfect society, nobody is allowed to live past thirty..."

That's the opening narration (or rather a chunk of it,) that starts off the CBS series from 1977-1978, Logan's Run

The series was an adaptation of William F. Nolan's highly successful (and literate) novel about a future society wherein citizens lived in bliss, but only got twenty-one years to do it.

The television series arrived after the movie, which meant that many of the modifications of the 1976 feature film starring Michael York and Jenny Agutter were also translated to the weekly show.

For instance, the original book did not feature "Carousel," the public ritual in which denizens of the City of Domes watched their brethren "renew" (or not...) in a blaze of energy. But the TV series retained that concept. In fact, the costumes, props and much stock footage from the popular film were all recycled into the TV series. 

So the Logan's Run series felt twice removed from the Nolan novel, in a sense.

The idea for a Logan's Run TV series came while Nolan was on the set of the film, developing a 40-page treatment for a sequel with writer Saul David, Mr. Nolan told me during an interview a decade-and-a-half ago.

His preference was actually to produce a trilogy of films, but CBS wanted a TV series and paid nine million dollars for the rights to one. Nolan was offered the position of story editor, but wasn't thrilled with the series' concept. 

"Their idea," he told me for the Cinescape piece, "was to run Logan around in a car every week and encounter new societies underground. After solving their problems, he would return to the surface, get in his car and drive away. I felt that wasn't the way to handle the concept." (John K. Muir, Cinescape: "The Running Man," 2000, page 63.)

Logan's Run: The TV Series thus became a "civilization of the week"-style sci-fi TV series, partly inspired by the concept of Star Trek (exploring a different culture on a different planet every week) and partly by the post-apocalyptic film and TV craze of the mid-1970s, which included the Canadian Starlost, the popular Planet of the Apes films and the short-lived 1974 Apes series. 

Where the Apes films and TV series dealt with the concept of race and racism translated to a future universe, Logan's Run primarily concerned overpopulation, the idea of an unquestioning and easily-controlled populace, and an over-reliance on technology. 

The proverb "never trust anybody over 30" -- so popular in the 1960s and early 1970s -- was made literal in Logan's universe. In the City of Domes, you were either young, or you were dead, and the result was a callow population, unconcerned with anything but its own pleasure (enhanced by drugs and lots and lots of sex). 

One also senses in this theme an understanding about the "youth culture" dominating Hollywood and the film industry, an age-ism that is even more prevalent today. Hollywood's motto now seems to be "never cast anybody over 30."

"Logan's Run was dropped in our laps because there was a big problem about how to make this into a TV series," said executive producer Ben Roberts in a Starlog interview back in the seventies. (David Houston, "Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts, Executive Producers of Logan's Run," Starlog # 9, October 1977, page 42.) 

"When you're faced with Star Wars, or even Logan's Run as a movie, you're talking about nine to ten-million dollar projects. Here we're dealing only with hundreds of thousands of dollars..."

The ninety-minute Logan's Run pilot aired on September 16, 1977, with a teleplay by William Nolan, Saul David and producer Leonard Katzman. 

The effort was directed by Robert Day, and like the movie, opens in the City of Domes as a young Sandman (police officer) in the City of Domes named Logan (Gregory Harrison) watches citizens "renew" at Carousel, the mandatory ritual undergone by all citizens at age 30. 

Although Sandmen are taught not to question, Logan wonders about Carousel and asks his partner, Francis 7 (Randy Powell) if he has ever actually seen anybody renew. After this conversation, Logan and Francis are called back to duty to terminate a "runner," a citizen who has shunned Carousel and is attempting to escape the closed city for a promised land called "Sanctuary."

Logan meets Jessica (Heather Menzies), a revolutionary who is helping runners escape the city, and after Francis murders the runner in cold blood, Logan knocks him unconscious and teams up with Jessica to flee the City of Domes for Sanctuary...somewhere outside, on the surface that Logan had once believed to be barren and poisonous. 

Francis is summoned to the Domed City's "White Quadrant One," where he meets a Council of Elders...the real power behind the metropolis. All the Council Members are old men -- well beyond thirty -- and Francis is shocked to learn of their existence. 

"You're looking at old age," one of the Council Members (Morgan Woodward) informs him, and then offers Francis a position at his side if -- and only if -- he can capture Logan and Jessica and return them to the city to renounce their heretical beliefs about Sanctuary. So Francis heads off after his former friend.  Basically -- to use 2016 lingo -- Francis (Randy Powell) is co-opted by his city's elite, learning the truth about a "rigged" system.

Meanwhile -- outside -- Logan and Jessica find a bomb shelter in the grown-over remains of "Greater" Washington D.C. (more stock footage from the MGM movie...). They locate a solar-power hovercraft and use it to begin their quest for Sanctuary. 

The first society they encounter is one where pacifists hide underground from malevolent, tyrannical "Riders" on horseback who use them as slaves. Logan and Jessica teach the sheep-like under-dwellers that some things are worth fighting for, and subsequently defeat the Riders and free the slaves.

Next up, Logan and Jessica run across the Mountain City, a paradise run by robots Siri (Lina Raymond) and Draco (Keene Curtis). 

Their only wish is to serve Logan and Jessica...permanently, since their Masters are dead. Logan and Jessica realize they have stumbled into a gilded cage, and with the help of the city's advanced android repairman, REM (Donald Moffatt), escape in the hover craft for greener pastures, and hopefully, Sanctuary...

This pilot episode of Logan's Run hits some interesting and successful notes. The three part structure (Domed City/Riders/Mountain City) keeps the story moving at a clip, and there are some moments of thematic depth here. 

One of my favorite scenes occurs after the escape from the Domed City when Logan and Jessica settle down for the night in a bomb shelter from a time before "the Great War." They're cold and they use bundles and bundles of American dollars (as well as top secret "classified" Defense papers") to stoke their fire. The money and the government documents are totally worthless in this culture, a relic of the past, and Logan and Jessica neither recognize these items as important, nor pay them any mind. 

This is almost a throwaway moment, but I found it one of Logan Run's most powerful: the idea that a nuclear war would render our currency, our secrets, our very way of life absolutely meaningless. Unlike some other points, this idea isn't transmitted in heavy-handed fashion, in a big preachy moment. It just happens, and the characters don't even comment on it.

I also feel that the pilot covers the idea of an uninformed, distracted populace rather well. An unquestioning people is a lot easier for a government to control -- and lie to -- isn't it? 

"Don't question the order of things" is a theme that keeps re-appearing in the early portion of the episode, and I found it particularly noteworthy. I didn't remember this much social subtext was present in the TV show until I re-watched it. 

I know that many people and fans don't like the inclusion of a "Council of Elders" here (and the City of Domes was run by Computer in the movie and novels...), but again, it works. A group of corrupt men, a "cabal" if you will, making damning, corrupt policy for the rest of an in-the-dark population is a powerful real life idea. The Elders may have been a corruption of Logan's original concept, but oddly enough, I think it works in terms of "human nature."

Some other aspects of the first show are not so welcome, however. The interlude involving the Riders, for instance, is the weakest element of the pilot. Why? Well, as always, TV has a way of making pacifism equate to cowardice. 

Here, Logan and Jessica teach the peaceful denizens of a bomb shelter to fight back against their overlords, rather than cling to their beliefs about not spilling blood. "Look what bloodshed has brought to this world!," one pacifist decries...and he's absolutely right. But when he finally fights, he quickly changes his mind and tells Logan that he "feels like a man again."

American cowboy values dictate, apparently, that TV shows always hold strong to the belief that there are some things worth fighting the bitter, bloody, apocalyptic end. I wonder if that wasn't the cause of the Nuclear War in Logan's Run...a stubborn, insular belief that our values are always unquestionably the correct ones and we must defend them with violence and destruction.

I found it particularly distasteful that this portion of the pilot concludes with Logan victorious for the simple reason that he wields a more powerful weapon (the Sandman 'flare' gun...) than the Riders possess. Brute force beats brute force. This is a mixed message, given the rest of Logan's anti-war message (and the visual of the burned cash on the fire...unrecognized and unimportant).

Getting to the characters: Logan and Jessica are fine in terms of conception and depiction; though Jessica is a little insipid somehow. Logan is a nice guy, a more conscientious citizen of the City of Domes than many, though one wonders how he came to be more introspective since he went through the same training regimen (since birth!) that Francis did. 

I do miss the sexual component of the movie -- where Jessica and Logan were casual lovers -- and hate to see generic, homogenized "family values" creep into the series here. Logan and Jessica hardly make eyes at one another in the pilot and instead are defined simply as "good friends." Kinda like brother and sister. I would have preferred an adult, romantic relationship.

And then there's REM. Donald Moffatt is a splendid actor, and he's Logan's Run version of Mr. Spock. Instead of remarking that plot developments are "illogical," he notes that they "do not compute." 

Almost every science fiction TV show in the 1970s had its own version of the inquisitive, peaceful half-Vulcan Spock, the resident outsider -- not always an alien -- who could comment on humanity and its confusing ways from a super-advanced or at least highly-intelligent viewpoint. 

Space:1999 (Year Two) had Maya. Planet of the Apes had Galen. The Fantastic Journey had Varian (a man from the future), and Land of the Lost had the Altrusian, Enik. I guess it's just par for the course, and as far as Spock-copies go, REM is a pretty good one. I notice that Star Trek returned the favor by featuring an intelligent, pacifist Android in its next incarnation, one not named REM, but rather Data.

In all, I enjoyed this hour-and-a-half introduction to the world of Logan's Run. I'm a sucker for post-apocalyptic stories of new societies starting over from the ruins of an old culture.. I'm always fascinated by the idea of an "old" civilization leaving behind its artifacts and religions and technology...only to have them subverted and misunderstood by those who come next. 

Growing up, I was fascinated by Mad Max, Planet of the Apes and, yes, Logan's Run. Perhaps because during my adolescence the specter of nuclear war seemed very real. In some senses, these programs (and programs like Genesis II and Planet Earth and Strange New World) offered a strange sense of hope. Yes, mankind destroyed himself, but he got a second chance. And this time...this time, things could be different. We could fix the mistakes that plague our overpopulated, war-weary world.

Logan's Run is a particularly intriguing example of post-apocalyptic entertainment because Logan and Jessica come from a flawed society themselves. They are innocents who don't live in a utopia (like the characters of Star Trek), so it will be interesting to see how they confront other cultures that are misguided. 

They can't lead by being examples of a "shining city" on a hill, and as I watch the series again, I hope the creators remembers that fact, as I delve into blogging the remainder of the short-lived series.

Next week: "The Collectors."

Cult-TV Movie Review: Are You in The House Alone? (1978)

A teenage babysitter and high school student, Gail Osborne (Kathleen Beller) is stalked by an unknown assailant as she begins to date Steve (Scott Columby), and they go on double dates with her best friend Allison (Robin Mattson) and jock, Phil Lawver (Dennis Quaid).

Before long, Gail finds threatening notes in her school locker, and receives strange, threatening phone calls at home, at odd hours.

The stalking grows worse, even after Gail reports the events to the high school principal, and one night she is assaulted and raped in her house.

After recovering, Gail sets out to use her passion -- photography -- to trap the assailant and prevent him from committing rape a second time.

Are You in the House Alone? first aired on American television, in prime time, on September 20, 1978, and is notable, in part, because it adopts many of the same tactics employed by more well-known, theatrical slasher films, Halloween (1978) and When A Stranger Calls (1979).

Specifically, Are You in the House Alone? adopts the subjective perspective, or the “stalk” P.O.V. shot that has long been associated with the slasher sub-genre, and efforts such as Friday the 13th (1980), or Carpenter’s seminal film. 

These first person subjective shots are remarkably effective in building tension and anticipation in the film, and Are You in the House Alone? veritably comes to life whenever this visual conceit is utilized by director Walter Grauman.  At another juncture, the camera, while in third-person mode, goes hand-held, and in the process creates a kind of immediacy or urgency. This moment occurs at the moment of greatest suspense, as Gail runs to lock the doors and bolt the windows, before a killer can enter the house.

Also -- and significantly -- the landline telephone is a key vehicle for terror here, as it is in Carpenter’s TV-movie Someone’s Watching Me (1978), Black Christmas (1974), and also the aforementioned When a Stranger Calls.  

In fact, Halloween also uses the telephone to horrific effect, though in a different way: Michael Myers uses it as a weapon for strangulation, and at one point, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) thinks a caller is taunting her, when it is really just her friend, Annie, on the other end of the line.

Given that the telephone proved so important to slasher films and telefilms of the mid-to-late 1970s, it’s probably fair to state that all these efforts were playing on -- or tapping into -- a key societal fear; that a vehicle for communication was actually a vehicle for horror, or evil to enter the family house

A stalker can’t easily get inside a suburban house through a locked door or window, but the telephone is a portal, at least of sorts, for terrorizing prey. It is a form of entering the home in an oblique kind of way.

Forecasting both Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), the killer in this made-for-TV film utilizes both hand-written notes (which say things like “I am watching you!”) and the telephone to destabilize his prey. The overall effect is that the psychological assault seems to come from all directions.

What may prove most shocking about Are You in the House Alone? is that the predator or stalker “gets” the final girl, a victory telegraphed in the film’s first scene. The rest of the movie plays as flashback of the stalking events, until Gail sets out to go after the boy who raped her.  Usually in films of this type, final girls manage to survive the attack, and kill their enemies. Here, Gail has to go back to the school with the sociopath (Dennis Quaid), and determine a way to prevent him from committing rape again.

She does so  -- and in a plot conceit that mirrors Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) -- uses a modern technology to do so, in this case, the camera. 

So, intriguingly, Are You in The House Alone? sees technology as a two-edged sword. It can be used to terrorize (the telephone), or mete justice (the camera).

Another strange connection to horror films of the 1970s which merits a mention: Both I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and this TV-movie concern rape, it’s true, but more notably,  both productions view “art” as the channel which can help one overcome a violation of this horrible type. 

In I Spit on Your Grave, the rape victim, Jennifer, tapes back together the ripped pages of her manuscript.   Jennifer is beaten, bruised and hurt in that film, and the arduous process of picking herself up and putting herself back together begins with something apparently small: the stitching together (with that scotch tape) of a single page.  

Part of Jennifer’s difficult re-creation of self involves her returning to and nurturing the personal vision of herself as a writer and artist.  The rapists can rip apart her work, but she is still, finally, a creator…something which they will never be.  They can’t take her sense of artistic expression away from her. It is part of Jennifer, and it is in that place of “self” that Jennifer first re-asserts her identity. 

In Are You in the House Alone? Gail recovers from the rape, and resumes her dedication to photography, r-epurposing that passion and artistry towards the saving the life of another young woman, so they will not endure what she has endured. Once more identity is re-asserted by returning to the pursuit of art.

Some horror fans have suggested that Are You in the House Alone? is actually less a horror film than an Afterschool Special, considering that it involves some tiresome soap opera aspects. In particular, there is a (boring) subplot here about Gail’s parents and their travails. Her father has lost his job, and her mother (Blythe Danner) is harried, attempting to work a real estate job over her husband’s objections.

These moments feel off point, and yet Are You in the House Alone? features so many qualities of the slasher film of the 1970s and 1980s, as I’ve noted above, including the red herring, the character who appears to be the stalker, at various points. 

Here there are at least two red herrings to conisder. The first is Gail’s ex-boyfriend, who grew angry when she wouldn’t sleep with him.  And the second is her high school photography teacher, Chris Eldon (Alan Fudge) who instructs his student to take photos of herself that make her look “sexy.”  He would get fired for that comment, in 2016.  Later, the teacher shows up in his car while Gail is walking home from a babysitting gig, and offers her a ride.  There is definitely something menacing and creepy and wrong about his presence.  But he isn't the stalker, either.

Both of these characters throw the audience off the trail of the real stalker: Phil, a jock/jerk from a rich family. Phil, played by Quaid, suffers from the very modern condition known as “affluenza.”  He is rich, and feels he is entitled to do anything he wants. “I don’t have to account to anyone for anything I do,” he insists, and the movie proves his point.  Rather than facing prison, Phil (apparently) simply transfers to a private school in New Hampshire.  There, presumably, his activities will begin anew.

So where most slasher films use their final act and denouement to suggest that the killer may strike again, or even be supernatural in origin/power, this TV movie suggests that the society is the true monster, and that final girls like Gail will have to fight this “monster” again and again, because the system itself favors monsters, rather than the victims of crimes.  

That's a scary note to go out on, and even with its soap opera plotting, there are moments of pure terror in Are You in the House Alone?.

TV Trailer: Are You in the House Alone? (1978)

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Super Friends Wrapping Paper

The Super Friends Pencil Sharpeners

Comic Book of the Week: The Super Friends (DC)

The Super Friends Snorkel Set (Swim Mask an Snorkel)

The Super Friends Bed Sheets

Coloring Book of the Week: The Super Friends (Whitman)

Lunch Box of the Week: The Super Friends

Theme Song of the Week The Super Friends (1973-1985)

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Gamesters of Triskelion (January 5, 1968)

Stardate: 3211.7

While preparing to transport down to Gamma II to inspect equipment there, Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and Mr. Chekov (Walter Koenig) are unexpectedly whisked to the distant world of Triskelion.

There, they are trained as gladiators by Master Thrall Galt (Joseph Ruskin). 

After such training, they will spar at the pleasure of their new masters, the unseen Providers.  Kirk is also trained by Shahna (Angelique Pettyjohn), a beautiful green-haired human who has never known anything but slavery and servitude.

Kirk soon learns that the Providers are actually disembodied brains who like to gamble on the results of the gladiatorial contests.

He proposes a risky gamble: his life -- and the lives of the Enterprise crew -- if he loses in combat.

But if Kirk wins his gladiator match, the Providers will free all the thralls from captivity and train them to be self-governing.

“The Gamesters of Triskelion,” by Margaret Armen features colorful aliens, colorful fight scenes, and even colorful alien brains too. 

It is one of those perfectly entertaining Star Trek episodes that adroitly mixes action with romance, philosophy, and didactic morality (the concept that slavery is wrong, and evil). 

Here, Kirk essentially plays Spartacus to lead a slave revolt on a distant planet.

Like some other episodes of the original series, “The Gamesters of Triskelion” is “perfectly entertaining” without being particularly creative, or innovative. In short, nothing really new or surprising happens in the story, except that Lt. Uhura is nearly raped by her drill thrall, and Kirk, in protest, mispronounces her name.

But seriously, below a surface level, this is a story of clichés we have seen many, many times on Star Trek before (and will see again).  

There are a number of “fighting” or gladiator episodes in the canon, actually, from Pike’s Rigel fantasy in “The Menagerei,” to the more central personal combats of “Arena,” “Amok Time” and “Bread and Circuses.”

Another example of creative idling: the “B” story here is totally predictable.  From the Enterprise’s bridge, Mr. Spock attempts to locate his missing captain while Dr. McCoy (and even Mr. Scotty) snipe at him to work faster, or give up, or admit he was wrong, whathaveyou. 

The odds of finding Kirk are not good, yet find the captain Spock does. 

He always does. 

And McCoy always second-guesses him.

In this case, their banter and bickering is just there to eat up time. Certainly, McCoy would know Spock well enough by this time not to press him so hard, especially with Jim's life at stake.

Meanwhile, Kirk has a planet-bound romance with a beautiful alien woman, and teaches her the meaning and value of such words as “love” and “kiss.”  Then, he out-talks aliens, takes a big risk (the lives of his crew for the freedom of the thralls), and wins big too.

In other words, he is lover, a fighter, a leader and cocky as hell.

By this point, it all seems rather....mechanical. "The Gamesters of Triskelion" is a smooth running machine, but mechanical in concept and execution nonetheless. The episode succeeds in part, I would suggest, because it has a comforting feeling of Star Trek-kiness because of the sheer number of series clichés reshuffled.

And it is entertaining.  I enjoyed seeing it again. 

But deep analysis is not warranted.

If one looks too deep, Kirk seems reckless for risking his crew.  What if he tripped and broke a leg during combat? He'd be delivering 431 people into a life of slavery (and maybe even generation of slavery).  

If one looks too deep, Kirk seems cruel, too, for so clearly manipulating Shahna.  He makes her think he loves her.  He may have affection for her, but she is never as important to him as returning to the Enterprise is.  Her freedom and his desire to escape just happen to coincide for a time.

So I suppose it’s my opinion that one shouldn’t look too deeply at this episode's implications, and enjoy it simply as a really colorful “adventure.’

Like many episodes of the original Trek, “The Gamesters of Triskelion” is a pop-culture touchstone, and has been referenced on The Simpsons and South Park among other programs.  It is remembered by so many, I propose, not because it is great, but because, as I've noted, it regurgitates so many key “parts” of the original series and therefore feels emblematic of the series "vibe" or "aura."

Really, the series is a lot “brainier” than this particular episode suggests.

Next week: "A Piece of the Action."

The Films of 2016: Tell Me How I Die

[Watch out for Spoilers.]

Some months ago, I happened to catch a trailer for an upcoming horror movie called Tell Me How I Die (2016). I felt the movie looked promising, and made a note to catch it when it became available.

Well, I screened Tell Me How I Die this week, and I can now state, unfortunately, that the movie squanders most of its remarkable promise.

First off, Tell Me How I Die features a great central idea. The movie is about an experimental drug called A9913 that can cause premonitions in those who take it.   The film’s setting is also strong and memorable: a high-tech dormitory where human trials for the drug are occurring. Beyond the high-tech building, a wintry storm rages.

On top of this, Tell Me How I Die also boasts some genuinely disturbing imagery and gore.  There are two death scenes here that will make you wriggle uncomfortably, as characters head unknowingly towards messy demises.

And finally, the movie even features a nice sense of “homage” to the oeuvre of Stephen King. The question on this front, however, is: does it mean anything?  Is the homage purposeful? Or is it just cute, an Easter egg for horror fans who have watched the same movies and read the same books?

Alas, the values I just enumerated are largely undercut by the movie’s excessively poor execution.

Tell Me How I Die is poorly acted for the most part, features terrible dialogue, and ends on a completely lackluster and underwhelming note. The movie goes on and on, and just gets worse and worse, until it ends not with a bang, but with a whimper.

I’m very disappointed with the final shape and form of Tell Me How I Die, and yet I still feel there’s a great horror film trapped somewhere in the ingredients, locked away in the footage, perhaps, just a step beyond our perception of “linear time,” to quote the movie.

“There is no sensation that the mind cannot experience as real.”

Former bartender, Anna (Virginia Gardner) -- in need of cash -- decides to join a human trial for a new “limbic stimulator,” A9913, designed to enhance human memory.  During a winter blizzard, Anna and other test members stay locked up in high-tech science building, under the watchful eye of the drug designer, twitchy Dr. Jerrem (William Mapother).

Anna soon becomes friends with the other human guinea pigs, some of whom have been given a placebo instead of the actual drug.  Among those taking the test: handsome, stalwart Den (Nathan Kress), illicit drug connoisseur Scratch (Ryan Higa), temperamental pool shark Marcus (Mark Furz), and Kristin (Kirby Bliss Blanton).

Soon after taking the drug, however, side-effects are noticed. In particular, percipients experience flash-forwards to future events. Unfortunately for Anna, she has a premonition in which she sees the other guinea pigs die, apparently from poison gas.  Anna also sees visions in which her friends die in terrible ways.

As Dr. Jerrem reveals, this is not the first clinical test for A9913. Another patient, from a previous trial, had a psychotic break, and his mind stopped experiencing time as linear. Now, that patient -- Pascal -- is back, able to anticipate everybody’s move (because of his future vision). Worse, he is leading Anna and her cohorts to violent deaths.

“I don’t know when ‘now’ is.”

One of the most intriguing – if not successful -- aspects of Tell Me How I Die involves the allusions to Stephen King’s The Shining.

Both stories take place in isolated locations during blizzards, for instance. And both also contend with a “sense” beyond normal human mental processes.  The connections are not merely broad ones, either, but specific too.

For example, Dr. Jerrem’s office is number 237, which was the room of evil in The Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980). 

Also, the name of the big pharmaceutical company testing A9913 is Hallorann. Halloran, of course, is a character gifted with “the shining” in King’s narrative.

There’s also a helicopter shot gazing down at Anna’s car as it approaches the pharma building, much like the shot Kubrick utilized to show the progress of the Torrances in their car as it approached the Overlook.

Another character in Tell Me How I Die is named Pascal, which may or may not be an allusion to Pascow in Pet Sematary (1989).

The point of homage is to draw attention back to material audiences recognize and love. But a really good homage is also transformative, and colors the new narrative in a way that deepens our understanding of it. I’m not sure that Tell Me How I Die succeeds on the latter front. I definitely recognized The Shining references, but they didn’t add anything to my understanding of the characters or their situation.

If the makers of the film don’t manage to make these allusions meaningful, they do certainly, put some imaginative thought into the nefarious, brutal murders orchestrated by the killer, Pascal, who perceives life outside the confines of linear time.

One scene finds a security guard crawl, face first, into a buried-in-the-snow bear trap. We see what is in his path, but he doesn’t.

The other death scene of note sees a girl drop into a laundry chute. She rockets down the channel, only to find it blocked at one juncture with coiled, barbed wire. She manages to stop herself -- briefly -- before it tears her to ribbons.

In both gory death sequences, director D.J. Viola meticulously sets up the traps, and makes viewers (painfully) aware of the damage the various devices (bear traps and wire) will do to the victims.  The key to staging a good death scene in a horror movie is to create and enhance an audience’s sense of awareness and dread about what is going to happen, sometimes before the character does. In these cases, Viola achieves that goal. In short, Viola creates suspense.

Unfortunately, Tell Me How I Die drags, and finally lasts about ten-to-fifteen minutes too long. The actors are called upon to play characters puzzling out the mystery, and some aren’t up to the task in some later scenes, and lack believability.

The survivors, in the last act, realize that Pascal can see the future, and since Anna has seen how they will die, they have to somehow change the future. If Anna sees it, then it will happen (because Pascal has seen it too and will orchestrate it).

One character suggests killing Anna outright, so that she can’t see her deaths.  But then the characters don’t stumble upon the smartest, easiest answer. Why don’t they blindfold Anna, so she can’t see anything?  If she can’t see anything, then there’s no danger.  Pascal can’t see what she hasn’t witnessed.

Or, if that’s too byzantine, remember that these folks are in a medical facility.  Couldn’t they just tranquilize Anna and render her unconscious, again precluding her from “seeing” (and thus setting up…) their deaths?

The movie lasts so long that you start to actually outsmart the characters as they labor to come up with a way to survive the night.  But the movie, at this point, tries to be desperately clever, using an approach something like “Is it live or is it Memorex?”  Something dreadful happens, or something heroic, and then we find out it was only a vision, and now it has to happen again, but it does so in an unexpected way.

So all this creativity goes into the last act as the filmmakers try to play the audience like a piano, but the attempt fails.  The characters are cardboard. The situation is muddled.  And the suspense is minimal (except for the occasions I outlined above).  And then the movie just ends suddenly, with absolutely nothing resolved. It’s like the writer (James Hibberd) worked so hard on third act twists that he had nothing left for the denouement.  This is frustrating, considering your time investment in the film. It could have at least ended definitively (either happily, or sadly).

Instead, Tell Me How I Die just stops.

Most of the dialogue in the film is really dreadful, too. Scratch’s is probably the lamest. He is able to explain quantum reality and non-linear time, for instance, because he watches “a lot of Doctor Who.” The line, like virtually all the character’s jokes, falls painfully flat.

Some moments here even threaten to become camp, such as the moment that the young hero spontaneously sheds his shirt to face Pascal, so we can all ogle his buff, toned arms.  

Tell Me How I Die? 

Well, if this movie is an indication, it could be of boredom, or finally, derision.