Saturday, January 14, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle: "Tarzan's Rival" (November 13, 1976)

In “Tarzan’s Rival,” an evil scientist wishing to acquire the valuable jewels of Opar creates a robot duplicate of Tarzan to alienate his animal friends in the jungle, including Nakima. Tarzan returns from an expedition to find that all his friends are treating him as an enemy.

Realizing that there is “something evil in the jungle,” Tarzan sets out to discover what has caused him to be viewed as a monster.  He soon confronts his own evil duplicate, a twin with “the heart of a jackal.”

The old “evil twin” trope gets pulled out of mothballs for this episode of Filmation’s 1976 Saturday morning series. Here, Tarzan confronts a perfect duplicate of himself, one who is identical in appearance, but not in behavior or “soul.”  

One does have to wonder however, considering that the animals are fooled so readily: does this Tarzan rival also smell like the original model?  And if so, how did the evil scientist, Santi, manage to duplicate Tarzan’s “scent” as well as his appearance?

I could understand the scientist using personal observation (and perhaps early photography) to make a relatively convincing Tarzan in appearance, but I don’t think animals would be fooled by the doppelganger unless he also carried the same scent as their friend.

Also, how is it that a scientist in the early years of the 20th century creates a perfect robot replica?

After Tarzan rebuilds the trust of his friends in this episode, he must confront the duplicate, stop the evil scientist, and protect the treasures of Opar.  After doing so, he has time -- in perfect 1970s fashion -- to impart a lesson in wisdom.  “If enough energy was spent to build worthwhile things, the world would be a better place.”

In other words, the mad scientist wasted a lot of money, effort and time creating something that was evil; that could not benefit humanity. This is a quality that Tarzan sees in other men of his world. They dedicate themselves to war, or destruction, or weapons, rather than helping one another.  So that’s the sermon of the day (and week).  It's a good message.  A mind so brilliant that it can create a robot like the "rival" shouldn't be brought down by hatred and avarice.

I enjoyed this episode quite a bit, because the idea of Tarzan battling a robot version of himself is fun, if ridiculous.  This episode does feature on intriguing visual problem, which I haven’t noticed in other installment. In particular, Tarzan’s skin color seems to change from frame to frame, between white and brown.

Next Week: “Tarzan and the City of Sorcery”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam: "The Contest" (September 11, 1976)

In “The Contest,” the Elders contact Billy (Michael Gray) after he’s accidentally burned Mentor’s lunch. They tell Billy that sometimes a “winner loses more than he gains.”  

Billy soon learns what this means when he meets Glen (Mark Montgomery), a boy want to win a motorcycle in a contest at a local shop. Glen’s friend works with a man named Fred (Dennis Olivieri), who wants him to cheat in exchange for a favor. Glen agrees, but the favor is terrible. Fred wants the keys to the van where Glen works, at Alva Space Products.

Fred uses the keys to steal the van, and also a solar powered gyroscope for a space satellite. Captain Marvel (John Davey) comes to the rescue when the thief gets caught on an out-of-control motor boat.  Glen, meanwhile, learns his lesson and returns to the motorcycle.

“The Contest” is probably one of the most unnecessarily complex (and therefore) bizarre episodes of Filmation’s live-action series, Shazam (1974-1976). The episode jams in about twice as much narrative as usual, shoehorning together the “criminal plot” and “teenager learns valuable moral lesson” ideas/tropes into one fast-moving but convoluted installment.

Here, bizarrely, a story about a teenager wanting to win a motorcycle becomes a far ranging criminal plot about stolen space equipment, and ends with a chase on the water. The important gyroscope, meanwhile, gets tossed into the air by Captain Marvel and explodes.

All’s well that ends well, I guess…

“The Contest” also features a couple of notable guest-stars. William Campbell of Star Trek (1966-1969) fame -- the actor behind Trelane and Captain Koloth -- has a small role as a local police officer. And Walker Edmiston -- Land of the Lost’s (1974-1977) Enik, is Bob Rose, the owner of the motorcycle shop.

Both of these are nothing roles, but still, it’s more casting fire power than one sees in the typical Shazam episode.

Next week: “Bitter Herbs.”

Friday, January 13, 2017

Friday the 13th: A Curious Goods Manifest

Cursed Object
Series Episode
“The Inheritance”
Quill Pen
“The Poison Pen”
Cupid Statue
“Cupid’s Quiver”
Tea Cup
“A Cup of Time”
Magician’s Cabinet
“The Great Montarro”
Surgeon’s Scalpel
“Doctor Jack”
Boxing  Gloves
“Shadow Boxer”
Garden Mulcher
“The Root of All Evil”
Comic Book
“Tales of the Undead”
Make-up Compact
“Vanity’s Mirror”
Tattoo Needles
Electric Chair
“The Electrocutioner”
“Brain Drain”
“The Quilt of Hathor”
“Double Exposure”
“The Pirates Promise”
Sheriff’s Badge
“Badge of Honor”
“Pipe Dream”
“What a Mother Wouldn’t Do”
Egyptian Urn
“Bottle of Dreams”
Voodoo Mask
“The Voodoo Mambo”
“Symphony in B#”
Make-up Box
“Master of Disguise”
Wax Figures
“Wax Magic”
Ventriloquist’s Dummy
“Read My Lips”
Pocket Watch
“13 O’Clock”
Key Chain
“Night Hunger”
“The Sweetest Sting”
“The Playhouse”
“Eye of Death”
“Better off Dead”
Movie Camera
“Scarlet Cinema”
“The Mephisto Ring”
“Mesmer’s Bauble”
Crystal Ball
“Wedding in Black”
Snow Shoes
“Wedding Bell Blues”
Victorian Symphonia
“The Maestro”
Ceremonial Rattle
“The Shaman’s Apprentice”
“The Prisoner”
Witch’s Ladder
“Coven of Darkness”
Demon Worship Knife
“Demon Hunter”
“Crippled Inside”
Hearing Aid
“Stick It In Your Ear”
“Bad Penny”
Car Radio
“Hate on Your Dial”
“Night Prey”
Fountain Pen
“Mightier Than the Sword”
Monkey Statues
“Year of the Monkey”
“Epitaph for a Lonely Soul”
Cameo locket
Yin/Yang Charm
“The Long Road Home”
Dog Collar
“My Wife as a Dog”
Television Set
“Spirit of Television”
Celtic Statue
“The Tree of Life”
“The Charnel Pit”

Friday the 13th: The Series: "Tales of the Undead"

“Tales of the Undead,” a first season installment of Friday the 13th: The Series, is likely my favorite episode of the entire series. 

In part, this is so because the episode -- while being a crackling good horror tale – also speaks a lot of hard truths about the worlds of comic-books and science fiction fandom.  Specifically, those talents who create characters and stories that millions love aren’t always rewarded financially in the way they should be, and spend their final years in poverty and desperation.  It’s a sad fact of life.

In “Tales of the Undead,” a determined comic-book fan who loves the classic character “Ferrus the Invincible” (think Rom: The Space-knight), steals the ultra-rare first issue of the comic-book, which would sell at auction for twenty-five thousand dollars.  During this act of theft, the young man grabs the comic-book issue and suddenly transforms into Ferrus, a malevolent, indestructible robot.  In that form, he kills the comic-book store owner, a kind of live-action version of The Simpsons character, though this character probably precedes him by a year or so.

Ryan witnesses the violent act and traces the cursed comic-book back to Ferrus’s creator, Jay Star (Ray Walston), who has fallen on hard times and has become a bitter recluse since he first created the character in 1947. 

After the character Ferrus built the empire of Peerless Comics, Jay was shoved aside by corporate politics and his beloved creation was taken away from him.  When Star learns that the cursed comic-book can turn anyone who holds it into the indestructible Ferrus, he realizes he must possess it, himself.  This is especially so because he is succumbing to arthritis and a heart condition, and can no longer afford medication.  By becoming his own indestructible creation, he gets a second chance at life.

Micki (Robey) and Ryan (John D. Le May) attempt to retrieve the cursed comic-book issue, but realize that they must find a rare, legendary (unpublished) manuscript featuring the death of Ferrus to learn how to kill the robot once and for all…

Although the technique used is not expensive, I love how “Tales of the Undead” depicts the transformation from mortal man to monstrous machine.  The screen transforms into comic-book frames as the transformation occurs, and we watch the entire sequence in illustrated form.  The murders are also depicted as excerpts from a comic-book, and thus this episode gives once the chance to visualize Micki and Ryan in that form.

Some of the visual compositions in this episode -- in both illustration and video form – strongly echo familiar comic motifs.  My favorite image finds the colossal Ferrus emerging from an elevator, a slain enemy at his feet.

Beyond the non-conventional visualizations of the action, “Tales of the Undead” works remarkably well as a human story, and in fact, one of the most “human” stories of the canon.  A budding illustrator himself, fanboy Ryan holds Jay Star up as a hero, only to learn that he has clay feet.  His hero worship turns to sympathy and pity when he learns that Star has become weak and bitter with age and because of desperate conditions.  There’s something very powerful about this particular relationship, and Ryan’s slow realization that Jay Star, though incredibly talented, is as human and fragile as he is.

I mentioned above how the episode lingers on the idea of an artist dwelling in a kind of financial and creative exile.  We have seen this happen again and again in Hollywood, and in the comic-book world too. 

Inevitably, it seems that one partner in a beloved collaboration ends up with the lion’s share of the credit, or with the fame, while the other slowly disappears from sight.  Great works of art have also been taken out of their creator’s hands frequently by business interests, and of course, “Tales of the Undead” explores that truth as too.  In all, it’s a much more nuanced approach than the “cursed antique of the week” premise may suggest.

Finally, the episode is enhanced greatly by Ray Walston (1914 – 2011) one of cult-tv history’s greatest treasures.  Walston starred in My Favorite Martian (1963 – 1966), and The Magician (1973), and made the cult-tv rounds as a guest star on programs as diverse as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The Evil Touch, and The Incredible Hulk. 

Walston makes the interesting acting choice in “Tales of the Undead” not to play Jay Star up for sympathy or pity.  Instead, he ramps up all the darker emotions, namely rage and bitterness.  And yet, in part because of Walston’s frail physicality partly because of his incredible, raspy voice, the character nonetheless gains our sympathy.  He wants what we all want: more life.

“Tales of the Undead” came early in the Friday the 13th: The Series run but it stands out as one of the very best episodes of all.

Friday the 13th: The Series ""Hellowe'en"

Although Friday the 13th: The Series features plenty of good episodes, the best of them invariably feature the late, great R.G. Armstrong as Lewis Vendredi, original owner of Curious Goods.  Armstrong could really portray a great villain, as one can detect from his performances in movies such as Race with the Devil (1975).  And on Friday the 13th, he made for a very malevolent, if recurring presence.

“Hallowe’en” (original airdate, October 26, 1987) is another early first season episode of this syndicated series, and the first one to feature the return of Vendredi.  In this story written by William Taub and directed by Timothy Bond, Ryan (John D. Le May) and Micki (Robey) host a Halloween costume party at Curious Goods in an attempt to allay the fears of the (rightfully…) concerned neighbors.  The basement vault where all the cursed items are locked away is marked as “off-limits” by Ryan for the occasion, but two partiers ignore the warning and conjure up a spirit in a glowing crystal ball: the spirit of Vendredi, himself.

While Jack (Chris Wiggins) is mysteriously led away from the party (and Micki and Ryan) by a lost little trick-or-treater, Greta (Adrienne Pocock), Vendredi appears as a ghost in Curious Goods and begs Micki and Ryan for their help with an act of mercy.  He claims to desire only to save the soul of his long-suffering, deceased wife, Grace.  He even takes them to her corpse…which happens to be in a secret room in the store.

But in truth, Vendredi seeks only a powerful relic called the Amulet of Zohar so he can make himself flesh for a few hours…until daylight.  Misled by their uncle, Micki and Ryan give Vendredi what he needs to save Grace, and then learn they have been deceived, and that he has roughly three hours on Halloween night to find an undamaged corpse where he can permanently house his soul.

Unfortunately for Micki, Ryan and Jack, they must also contend with a demon dwarf, Greta (Victoria Deslaurier) who has come from Hell to do Vendredi’s diabolical bidding…

“Hellowe’en” proves a rather bizarre episode in the canon, in part because of the aforementioned demon dwarf (described in the teleplay and episode as a “midget,”), Greta.  At first she appears as a cute-as-a-button little girl, but then she literally becomes a hell spawn, with the power to levitate and hypnotize victims.  

The episode’s climax descends into something like high camp as Ryan and Micki attempt to escape from Greta in a mortuary, and she tears the place up, pulps coffins and attempts to keep them away from Vendredi as he conducts his all-important ritual.  Greta as a soldier villain from hell -- small in size; big in stature -- adds an unusual wrinkle to the story, for certain.

Otherwise, you have to wonder about a plot-line that sees Micki and Ryan hosting a Halloween party just one floor above a repository for hundreds of cursed antiques.  That’s just asking for trouble, certainly, and probably not the brightest move, wary neighbors or not.  On the other hand, one of the welcome character touches on Friday the 13th: The Series (at least starting out) is that Micki and Ryan are naïve and inexperienced, and they make mistakes.  They aren’t professionals, and they clearly have a lot to learn about battling ghosts and demons..  If they pulled this stunt in the second season, it would seem a lot dumber, but since “Hallowe’en” is the fifth episode of the first season, perhaps the narrative isn’t so far-fetched.

After “Hellowe’en,” R.G. Armstrong returned in four additional Friday the 13th: The Series episodes including “What A Mother Wouldn’t Do” (about a cradle from the Titanic), “Bottle of Dreams,” the second season premiere “Doorway to Hell,” and “Night Hunger.”  

Friday the 13th: The Series "The Inheritance"

Last Halloween, I blogged a few episodes from the Laurel horror anthology Tales from the Darkside (1983 – 1988), and this year I’ve decided to reach back to the mid-eighties once more to blog some memorable episodes of the syndicated venture, Friday the 13th: The Series.

Friday the 13th: The Series ran for three seasons and seventy-one hour-long episodes.  In broad terms, the series involves two unlucky souls, Micki (Robey) and Ryan (John D. Le May), who inherit their dead uncle’s antique shop. 

They are unlucky because Uncle Lewis Vendredi (R.G. Armstrong) made a pact with the Devil to become immortal, but then attempted to back out on his end of the bargain.  Dragged down to Hell, Vendredi leaves behind on Earth hundreds of cursed antiques in his shop.  Each one is imbued with a murderous, monstrous spirit.   

Alas, many of these cursed items are soon sold during a going-out-of-business sale held by Vendredi’s niece and nephew, meaning it is their responsibility -- with the help of occult expert Jack Marshak (Chris Wiggins) -- to retrieve them. 

For the buyers, it is literally a matter of life and death.

The Curious Goods Team

Thus, in most of the seventy or so episodes of the series, the action involves the team from “Curious Goods” attempting to recover an evil relic, collectible, or antique.  During the run of the series, these objects came in all shapes and sizes, from an evil tea cup (“A Cup of Time”) and cursed make-up compact (“Vanity’s Mirror”) to sinister comic-books (“Tales of the Undead”) and even a diabolical weed-mulcher (“The Root of All Evil.”)

If this format sounds a little bit familiar, it may be because it echoes the details of an Amicus horror anthology film from the 1970s directed by Kevin Connor, From Beyond the Grave (1973).  There, Peter Cushing was the antique shop owner selling dangerous goods.

Friday the 13th: The Series received mixed reviews during its original run, but has nonetheless become a cult treasure to horror aficionados today.  Writing in 1987, Variety opined that the series was “a successful terror tease blissfully devoid of blood and full of the supernatural and imagination.” 

Meanwhile, Time Magazine’s Richard Zoglin concluded that “Friday the 13th’s worst sin “is an obsession with clunky, over-explanatory dialogue…but the show delivers a stronger dose of pure horror than anything else on TV.” (November 6, 1989).

“The Inheritance” is Friday the 13th’s premiere episode, and it first aired the week of October 3, 1987.  Written by William Taub and directed by William Fruet, “The Inheritance” quickly sets up the premise of the series by first introducing viewers to mean old Uncle Lewis, and then to his niece and nephew/odd couple, Micki Foster and Ryan Dallian. 

Micki is engaged to a wealthy (and snooty…) attorney, and sees Curious Goods as a detour from her appointed destiny.  Ryan, meanwhile, is one of cult-television’s early “geeks,” a comic-book collector and science fiction fan.

The first order of business for Ryan and Micki is the recovery of an evil doll, named Vita, who has fallen into the possession of a little girl, Mary, played by a very young Sarah Polley (Dawn of the Dead [2004]).  Before, Ryan and Micki can recover the doll, it murders her cruel stepmother.

Sarah Polley plays Mary in "The Inheritance."
While Ryan and Micki attempt to recover the doll (and place it safely in a locked vault in Curious Goods’ basement…), they must also countenance Jack Marshak’s belief that we are all surrounded by a “world of spirits, of a netherworld,” and that Vendredi tapped into that world to dabble in deviltry.  For Micki and Ryan, this means a rude awakening about the nature of reality itself…

Looking back today, Friday the 13th and its series premise seem to comment deliberately on avaricious and materialistic nature of the late 1980s.  For instance, Lewis Vendredi is described as a man who is passionate about two things: wealth, and eternal life.   

If you consider the “wealth” part of that equation as the era’s obsession with upward mobility and the “not growing old” part a comment on the pervasive 1980s aerobics/fitness craze, you see how the problems faced here stem from two central pillars of the yuppie movement.  Micki herself seems a bit like a callow yuppie, though over the course of the series she grows and matures, and eventually leaves her judgmental and elitist beliefs behind.  In some sense, the events of the series teach her how to care about other people, and not just herself.

There have been a plenty of evil dolls in cult-television history, and Vita makes a fine heir to The Twilight Zone’s Talking Tina.  There is a truly horrifying quality to her porcelain white face – especially as it looms in the blackness -- and “The Inheritance” also imbues the monster with a horrible, raspy voice.  During the course of the episode, the malevolent doll rips out a man’s throat, suffocates Mary’s stepmother, and pushes a heavy piece of furniture over on an elderly neighbor, proving herself a real menace.  

Evil Doll.

Many folks who remember Friday the 13th: The Series remember this scary doll well, and thus this particular episode.  That seems about right given Vita’s monstrous nature.  In terms of writing, acting and direction, however, “The Inheritance” seems somewhat primitive today, in some ways even more dated than older horror series such as Ghost Story/Circle of Fear (1972 – 1973) or Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974).

In part this may be so because the DVD prints are muddy and cheap-looking.  A re-mastering would certainly seem to be in order. 

But contrarily (and we’ll see more of this quality in “Hellowe’en…”), Friday the 13th: The Series in some moments feels like a gonzo low-budget horror movie.  That means that it sometimes takes detours into weird horror that feel far afield from homogenized television standards.  I remember watching the series late at night when I was senior in high school, for example, and feeling that anything was possible, and that -- at any moment -- something truly horrible might happen.

Taken on a whole, “The Inheritance” is a solid start for Friday the 13th: The Series, and the presence of Vita as the cursed object of the week helps it rank a cut-above some of the other first season installments.  Also, the late R.G. Armstrong remains a delight in this series.

R.G. Armstrong as Uncle Lewis Vendredi.