Saturday, April 22, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Lidsville: "Take Me to Your Rabbit."

As Mark (Butch Patrick) attempts to build and launch a rocket to escape Lidsville once and for all, Hoo-Doo (Charles Nelson Reilly) and Raunchy Rabbit are in an accident -- a lightning strike – that scrambles Hoo Doo’s “zap” powers.

Now Raunchy Rabbit gets that power, and the incompetent bunny lets the power go to his head. Desperate to regain his powers, Hoo-Doo tries to steal back his powers by pretending to be a lovely female bunny…

Meanwhile, Mark and Weenie, realizing that Raunchy Rabbit is not as evil as Hoo-Doo is, decides to through the lepus an inauguration party to get on his good side…

Okay. Where to start?

This is one weird episode of the 1970’s Sid and Marty Krofft series, Lidsville.  

No more than a “sap without a zap,” Hoo-Doo loses everything, and most regain his position of power. He uses a tried-and-true technique (for Bugs Bunny, anyway…) dressing up like a female rabbit and attempting to draw Raunchy Rabbit’s attention.

The last portion of the episode involves Hoo-Doo in drag, flirting (successfully) with a clearly stimulated Raunchy Rabbit. It’s all a little creepy and perverse.

Once again, too, Mark makes an attempt to leave Lidsville only to be stymied. He builds a rocket to escape the world, but when Hoo-Doo gets his mojo back, the villain blows it up.  So first of all, Mark apparently has the know-how to build a rocket, and all the equipment and supplies necessary.  

Secondly, why doesn’t he try, after this adventure is over, to build a second one?

Intriguingly, politics are still a factor in the “underneath” social commentary of this live-action series.  Consider that the denizens of Lidsville take a look at their choices for “leader:” Hoo-Doo or Raunchy, and decide to get behind Raunchy.  

What have they done here?

Well, in the time-honored tradition of many U.S. Presidential elections, they have selected the lesser of two evils!

Next Week: “Have I Got a Girl for Hoo-Doo

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Ghost Busters: "The Vampire's Apprentice" (November 8, 1975)

In this episode, “The Vampire’s Apprentice,” the Ghost Buster triumvirate -- Spenser (Larry Storch), Tracy (Bob Burns) and Kong (Forrest Tucker) -- challenges Countess Dracula (Dena Dietrich) and Count Dracula (Billy Holmes).  

In this case, Dracula is portrayed as a senile old bat.  At one point in the episode, his fangs even get corked. Also, his sonar-like hearing is apparently really bad.  And when he goes to bed in his coffin, Dracula can't go to sleep because he's "afraid of the light," and needs to be told a story.

This evil duo masquerades as the Count and Countess of Luxembourg, but the Ghost Busters see through the façade, and confront them at their castle, which -- as always -- is conveniently located next to a creepy (cardboard) grave yard.

The humor in this episode of The Ghost Busters, also as in all episodes, feels as antique as Old Dracula himself.

This story labors on the obvious, like “stake (as in wooden…) vs. “steak” (as in to eat) misunderstandings.  At one point, the Countess of Dracula (Dena Deitrich) quips “be subtle.” Unfortunately, that’s advice the episode and the series never take.

One of the story oddities featured in this episode:

One bite by a vampire makes you undead. A second bite, however, returns you to a human state.  

That’s confusing, even to vampires, no?  Now let me see, did I bite you three times or four?

Next week: "Jekyll and Hyde: Together For the First Time."

Friday, April 21, 2017

Cult-Movie Review: Night of the Lepus (1972)

The horror cinema of the 1970s is filled with tales depicting Earth’s imminent destruction at the hands (or paws...) of…animals.   

But make no mistake: while Mother Nature may launch her animal armies against us, it is mankind himself that is to blame for her righteous vengeance  By polluting natural environments, by dumping toxic wastes, and by using pesticide, he has only brought upon his own destruction.

Message: it is not nice to fool with Mother Nature.

The Revenge of Nature Cycle may have started as the “when animals attack” genre, a movement exemplified by films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), or Willard (1972).  

But by the mid-point of the decade, filmmakers were almost constantly coupling vicious animal behavior with man’s massive and on-going mistreatment of the environment.

Accordingly, polluting man battles amphibians in Frogs (1972).  

Pesticide-spraying man battles spiders in Kingdom of the Spiders (1977).  

Toxic-waste dumping man faces insect rebellion in Empire of the Ants (1977).  

Other films of the same ilk including The Bug (1975), Squirm (1976), Day of the Animals (1977), and perhaps the most infamous revenge of nature movie of all: Night of the Lepus.

In Night of the Lepus -- a film derived from the satirical novel, The Year of the Angry Rabbit (1964) by Russell Braddon -- the careless mistake of two scientists results in the spread of a dangerous hormone that can cause “genetic deformity.” It becomes unloosed on the out-of-control giant rabbit population of Arizona. 

Before long, the ranchers and law enforcement officials near Ajo are waging a war against giant carnivorous bunnies with teeth the size of “saber tooth tigers.”

The guiding principle behind the movie, and indeed, behind the Revenge of Nature cycle is sound, and not entirely new in the 1970s.  Just as the original Godzilla (1954) is about a monster that represents out-of-control atomic power -- the opening of Pandora's Box, so-to-speak, the bunnies represent out-of-control science and irresponsible man tampering in God's domain, in Night of the Lepus.  

The big problem with the film is that as avatars of fear, rabbits are rather un-intimidating creatures.  Even with red paint splattered on their whiskery mouths. 

Ants, spiders, worms, and even frogs seem more appropriately terrifying.  And Night of the Lepus does itself no favors by showing the “enlarged” rabbits on screen constantly with tiresomely repeat or stock footage. 

 In fact, these giant rabbits hop around -- or rather “stampede” -- across miniature sets in slow-motion, in full view of the camera for long, dull stretches of the running time, and the result is underwhelming to say the least.

“Mommy, what’s a control group?”

A newscaster on TV hosts a special report about the “imbalance in the animal world,” and a “plague of rabbits” infesting Australia.  He then describes how the same situation is bedeviling the residents of Arizona.

There, rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) is seeing his land overrun by ever-multiplying rabbits.  One day, his favorite steed trips on a rabbit hole, breaks its leg, and must be put down, and that’s the last straw. Cole asks a friend, Elgin Clark (De Forest Kelley), to help him solve the crisis.

Elgin contacts two scientists who work with animals, Roy (Stuart Whitman) and Gerry Bennett (Janet Leigh).  With their daughter Amanda (Melanie Fullerton) alongside them, the scientists examine the problem and begin to experiment with hormones in an attempt to suppress the mating drive of the rabbits.  The experiment doesn't work, and the scientists mix up a new concoction with results they can't predict, as they readily admit.

Unfortunately, Amanda accidentally frees an affected rabbit, Romeo, from captivity, and the new hormone it carries causes a mutant strain of giant rabbit to rapidly develop.

The Bennetts, Elgin and Cole attempt to stop the onslaught of the rabbits, even blowing up a mine-shaft where they have made their home.  

But a herd of giant carnivorous rabbits escape from this trap, and make a run for Ajo, where they have the capacity to do major damage in terms of life and property value.

“There’s a herd of killer rabbit headed this way!”

You may not realize it, but if you have watched The Matrix (1999), you have seen, at least momentarily, imagery from Night of the Lepus.  

The movie plays on-screen during the scene in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) visits the Oracle, and sees children bending spoons.  The subtle suggestion is that a movie like Night of the Lepus -- about a “herd of killer rabbit” -- could only exist in a weird facsimile of reality.

That’s a good point, because Night of the Lepus is surely one of the most unintentionally hilarious horror movies of its day, particularly with Amanda, the Bennett’s little girl, asking exposition-heavy questions such as “Mommy, what’s a control group?” or speaking for the audience and noting “I like rabbits!"

Even the humorless narrator of the “Rabbit War” news report at the film’s beginning adds to the film's unintentional sense of humor by noting that these “cuddly pets” could become a terrible “menace.” 

As a general rule, it’s a good idea not to refer to your monster as “cuddly,” because an adjective like that undercuts the sense of horror. In a movie about slobbering, jumping, man-eating rabbits, the word cuddly should simply never be spoken at all.

Another moment of funny dialogue comes from Whitman who worries “Heaven help us if any of them [rabbits] get away before we know the effects of this serum.”

Guess what happens in the very next scene?

If you said that one of the affected rabbits gets loose, you are absolutely right. Amanda switches rabbits without her parents realizing it, and then the infected rabbit gets loose after Amanda keeps it as a pet for a time.  The Bennets are not merely lousy scientists, they are lousy parents too, for taking Amanda to work with them and not paying attention to her actions. It's clear they recognize what dangers could await if a rabbit escapes.

Even Janet Leigh, the great star of Psycho (1960) seems diminished by the film’s ridiculous dialogue. When she comforts Amanda after a lepus attack she soothes her.  It’s gone,” she assures her daughter.  “The rabbit is gone.”

Yes dear, the cuddly pet rabbit is gone now, and you have nothing to fear.  

Again, this is a fear that should not be named, specifically.  Even the very word, "rabbit," doesn't promote scares.

Let's be clear: Night of the Lepus features a monster that would be difficult to make scary under the absolute best of circumstances, but the movie doesn’t create or promote the best of circumstances. Director William Claxton allows for the rabbit scenes to linger on-creen -- in slow motion -- for long spells, and any illusion that they are giant, or dangerous, is lost because of their familiarity.  In fact, you get to the point where you start to recognize the rabbits.  There's the black one, the orange one, and so forth.  

And as the friendly-seeming rabbits hop across miniature sets it is painfully obvious that they are not gargantuan. The sound effects that accompany their runs  may “sound like a cattle stampede” to bystanders, but that too is kind of funny.

I should be clear, it’s not just that the shots linger beyond reason, in agonizing slow-motion, it’s that they repeat.  A scene with rabbits leaping a chasm is seen at least twice, and many scenes of the rabbits traversing a highway seem to repeat as well. Either that or are the roads are so similar as to be visually indistinguishable.

Director William Claxton -- a talent who directed several outstanding episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959 -1965) including the sensitive “I Sing the Body Electric” --  seems to approach this horror film as more of a Western, right down to Hill’s motivation for fighting the rabbits (the death of a horse), and some attractive, even picturesque landscape shots.  The rabbits are treated more as a stampede of out-of-control animals than as a threat resulting from science-run-amok, and nature’s reprisal.

Now, on one hand, treating the film’s threat as fairly realistic could be a good thing…if the monsters inspired fear. 

But on the other hand, Claxton goes way over-the-top in terms of fake-looking gore, a step which moves the film out of the zone of realism. The scene vacillates between deadly dull conversations and over-the-top moments of ridiculous violence, and the approach is not pleasing.

As one might expect from this approach, critics weren’t terribly impressed with the results of Claxton’s efforts.  

Roger Greenspun, writing in The New York Times, noted the “technical laziness,” “stupid story” and “dumb direction,” a kind of trifecta of utter terrible-ness. 

Alan Frank, in 1982, treated the film more gently, though drew the same conclusion, noting that the “enlarged rabbits” don’t “really carry a genuine monstrous charge.

Watching the film again for the first time since I wrote Horror Films of the 1970's I felt a little bad for the out-dated wonders of Night of the Lepus. The movie features a lot of likable performers in it -- it’s great to see De Forest Kelley again, for instance -- and it surely capitalizes on the eco-terror Zeitgeist of its moment.  

And yet beyond that, this is a horror film unable to enunciate even a single moment of authentic horror.

Almost funnier than the movie itself is the trailer, which discusses a “night of total terror” and a “devil creature.”  It asks “what happened the night science made its greatest mistake?”

Well, what happens when the horror film makes a great mistake?  

Movie Trailer: Night of the Lepus (1972)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Planet of the Apes TV Series Blogging: "Escape from Tomorrow" (September 13, 1974)

In the fall of 1974, the Planet of the Apes film franchise moved to CBS network television for fourteen hour long episodes.  Considering that a new film in the series, War on the Planet of the Apes (2017) is coming in a few short months, I thought it might be nice to revisit the series now.

Planet of the Apes - the series - featured the continuing adventures of human astronauts Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Pete Burke (Jim Naughton), in the far-flung year of 3085 (starting March 21, 3085, if we're to believe the spaceship chronometer...) on a world run by intelligent, talking simians.

In "Escape from Tomorrow," the introductory episode written by Art Wallace and directed by Don Weis, we begin with an old man (in a bad wig) being pursued by a child chimpanzee and his pet dog in a rural setting.

My first thought watching this sequence was that it was an apparent canon violation since Conquest of the Planet of the Apes had established that a space plague had arrived on Earth in the late 20th century and killed off all the cats and dogs. It was the death of "beloved pets," in fact, that led humans to enslave apes...which would then lead to the uprising of the gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans.

This fact seems like something that the producers of the series should have taken care to remember, since it is a lynch pin of apes continuity.  On the other hand, this sequence occurs a thousand years after the plague, so I suppose it is possible that "life has found a way," (to quote the Jurassic Park films), and dogs have re-entered the chain of life on Earth.

Putting aside this sloppy faux pas, the story continues as the old man hears a strange aircraft overhead and then finds the crash site of a spaceship in a nearby field.

He rescues two astronauts (Virdon and Burke), but the third (Jones) is dead. When the shaken, disoriented astronauts awaken, the old man explains to the humans that apes rule this planet and that humans (who still have the power of speech here) are inferior underlings.

Alan immediately wants to find a way to return home to his family (a wife and son). He recounts how the ship experienced radioactive turbulence near Alpha Centauri and he ordered Jones to activate the homing beacon. Burke is more defeatist. "This is home now, and you know it," he says. His words, however, carry a double meaning even he is not aware of.

After the Old Man presents the astronauts with a book of pictures from New York City in the year 2505 (another troublesome continuity point that contradicts the movies...), the astronauts realize that they have returned home indeed; that the planet of the Earth.

As the episode progresses, Alan and Pete meet Galen (Roddy McDowall) a friendly chimpanzee and member of the ape aristocracy who possesses many misconceptions about human beings, never having gotten to really know any.

Worse, the astronauts face off with Urko (Mark Lenard), the chief security officer in Ape City who wants them dead. Now. Chief Counselor Zaius (Booth Colman) is willing to keep the astronauts alive, if only to learn of their technology and find a way to keep them from influencing the primitive humans of his world. Zaius is worried that the astronauts' love of freedom and independence will transfer to the indigenous humans and foster an uprising.

In this episode's scenes with Zaius and Urko, the writers accomplish something interesting and forward-thinking for episodic television in 1974. They began to develop - from this first episode - series mysteries that presumably would have been solved had the series lasted more than half-a-season.

For instance, during a confidential tete-a-tete, Zaius asks Galen "did you ever have a recurring nightmare?" He then launches into a discussion of the fact that other human astronauts have arrived on the planet before (and again, it can't be the characters [like Taylor or Brent] we saw in the original films, because those events occurred in 3978...almost a thousand years after the events of the TV series).

"Another ship, Zaius," states Urko, "it's hard to believe."

One can imagine that had the series lasted, viewers would have heard much more about these other astronauts and their (apparently-not-very-pleasant...) adventures on the planet of the apes. If that had been the case, the series would have been all the stronger for it.

"Escape from Tomorrow" ends with Virdon, Burke and Galen allied and on the run, while Ape forces destroy their spacecraft.

Fortunately for the humans, Virdon has recovered a small magnetic computer disk from the ship which -- if they can find a computer in this post apocalyptic topsy-turvy world -- might help them find a way back to their time.

Future episodes involve the triumvirate traveling from one human province to another, in search of technology that can help them return to the Earth of the past.

In the episode "The Legacy," the humans find working computers and a hologram of a 'future' human in a nearly destroyed 20th century city, but still aren't able to glean the information they require for a trip home.

The original Planet of the Apes films serve as brilliant social commentary on the turbulent late 1960's and early 1970's. They concern (among other things): nuclear war, man's self-destructive nature, and the pitfalls and total hypocrisy of religious zealotry.

By contrast, the television series limits its commentary to one fascinating subject: the issue of race relations, of a class society separated by race and species.

This is an important point, considering this was the era after the Watts Riots and the Camden Riots (1971). The Civil Rights Movement was coming to an end for all intents and purposes, and suddenly here's a sci-fi TV show about "species" stereotypes and irrational, implacable biases.

"Escape from Tomorrow" is illuminating in the language it utilizes to describe humans, here deemed the "lesser" or "inferior" class. Both humans themselves and the ruling apes make pervasive derogatory comments in "Escape from Tomorrow" that we -- living today -- would certainly understand as bigoted or as examples of stereotypes.

"Humans know their place," one chimpanzee prefect notes, "that musn't change. They'd begin to think they're as good as we are..."

A nearby village, Chollo, is described (by a human...) as "the village where humans are supposed to live," in other words, a ghetto.

Galen describes humans as "laborers, farmers and servants" -- migrant workers, essentially -- and was always taught to believe that they are an inferior breed. To suggest otherwise is heresy and treason on this world. But Galen is inquisitive and smart and looks beyond the stereotypes, finally.

His experience with Alan and Burke makes him realize that human beings have feelings and dreams and hopes too. He asks Zaius's human serf what it is "like to be human" and then confronts Zaius after he learns that human beings have a history of technical and scientific achievement. "Why Zaius?" He asks. "Why should truth be against the law?"

Galen also suggests that "maybe the world would be better if no creature" were deemed superior to another. This point-of-view makes him a strong ally for the fugitive astronauts, but his objective, inquisitive nature also makes him a radical and fugitive among his own people. 

Another element of the Planet of the Apes series also seems to derive from another 1970's real life source: Watergate.

Namely, Zaius and Urko engage in a secret cover-up to destroy the spaceship and keep knowledge of the astronauts a secret from the general populace. In other words, the ape ruling class is working against its people (both human and simian).

The apes live in a rigidly conservative or traditional society here, one where the status quo must remain intact at all costs, and the aristocracy lives in mortal dread of losing control, of seeing their imposed "natural" order change. "Heresy" and "treason" are common accusations for those who reject ape dogma. The idea of a cover-up and an authoritarian government (it's legal if the president says its legal...) surely reflect the era of Nixon's imperial presidency. All of that was coming to a head in 1974 America as this series aired.

Yet too often on the Planet of the Apes TV series, the story lines and plot details felt uninspired and repetitive. It all usually came down to one of the three heroes captured by the apes and then rescued by the other two cohorts before the hour was up.

And yet, I remember this series with tremendous fondness and affection because it possesses a great deal of value in terms of depicting a society separated by class and race. By putting white humans in the inferior position, the series makes quite a few trenchant points.

Ultimately, that's the purpose of good science fiction, to comment on society, and here the set-up is nearly Swiftian. On top of these elements, the series features good actors and a modestly well-drawn future world, thanks in part to the costumes left over from the feature films and the occasional use of stock footage (for Ape City exteriors, for instance).

I suppose to enjoy the Planet of the Apes series to its fullest, you must forgive the repetitive, action-oriented storytelling a bit and be willing to look for the underlying points, the subtext.

These factors are present in most episodes (especially "The Trap," one that finds a gorilla and a human -- Urko and Burke -- trapped in an underground subway system together...), but also just a tiny resonance in quite a few programs.  If this series had lasted more than half-a-season, perhaps we would have seen the underlying social commentary rise to the surface more frequently.

I hope you'll join me as I blog the entire series. Next week: "The Gladiators."

Cult-TV Movie Review: She Waits (1972)

A very private man, Mark Wilson (David McCallum) returns to his childhood home with his new wife, Laura (Patty Duke).  Upon his return, however, his sick old mother, Sarah (Dorothy McGuire) insists that he and his new bride leave the premises at once.

Mark’s mother believes that the spirit of Mark’s first, dead wife, Elaine, still dwells in the house, and wants to torment Laura and Mark.  The house-keeper, Miss Medina (Beulah Bondi), however, believes that Sarah is sick, and getting worse.

Mark dismisses all these concerns, even as he introduces Laura to his old friend, David Brody (James Callahan), who also knew Elaine. 

Soon, however, Laura begins to grow uncomfortable in the house. She hears strange noises, and voices, for instance.

Eventually, Mrs. Wilson realizes that she has miscalculated Elaine’s dark plan.  The roving, vengeful spirit now plans to possess Laura, and murder Mark, whom she blames for her own death.

“Maybe when you move closer to death, death moves closer to you.”

She Wait…and she isn’t the only one. 

Watching this TV movie (which originally aired on CBS, on January 28, 1972), the audience waits -- and waits interminably -- for anything exciting or intriguing to occur.

But the wait is largely in vain.

A story of spirit possession, She Waits (1972) is one of the most long-winded and dull of the early 1970’s made-for-TV horror films. Basically, the movie sets down in the Wilson family house, and rarely leaves that setting.  Although it is possible that a feeling of claustrophobia was what director Delbert Mann and writer Art Wallace were seeking here, the result is nonetheless disappointing. At 74 minutes, She Waits feel practically endless.

Basically, She Waits features no real action, no real explanation for the survival of Elaine’s spirit in the house, and no real horror, either. Despite a fine, competent cast that includes McCallum and Duke, the characters here are exceptionally dull-witted, failing to put two-and-two together for a long time. McCallum’s Mark keeps talking to Elaine, his first wife, as if she is still Laura, his second wife, even after she has told him differently.  And this happens despite the fact Laura -- to all external signs -- is a completely changed person.  If he doesn’t hear her words, Mark doesn’t seem to notice the extreme changes in Laura’s demeanor and tone.

Even the resolution of the story is disappointing as well. Basically, the evil spirit, Elaine, is “talked” out of existence, so that Laura may re-possess her own body.

Excessively talky and slow, She Waits plays like a much less-interesting version of “The Bride Possessed,” the pilot episode of One Step Beyond (1959), but at least that tale featured more action and characterization. Here, Laura begins to realize that she is being manipulated and taunted by a dead woman, but the possession takes forever, and there are red herrings, like an apparently-haunted music box.

Weirdly, the story doesn’t make much sense, either. For example, even the dead woman doesn’t seem to understand her own back-story (or death, for that matter).  

As the film eventually reveals, Mark didn’t kill his first wife -- as even his mother suspects -- but rather she died at the hands of David Brody, who was having an affair with his best friend’s wife.  The spirit of Elaine doesn’t recognize this secret until the final act, and so she has waited years -- existing beyond the grave -- to wreak revenge on a man who didn’t even deserve it.
She Waits boasts some interest for two reasons, primarily. 

The first is that the movie seems like a modern-day, supernatural variation on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847).  Here, as is the case in the novel, a naïve young woman comes into the established home of a mysterious man.  And the dark force in that family home is actually his first wife. 

The primary difference between tales involves not just period details, but the nature of the first wife.  Here, Elaine is a spirit, not a living (mad) woman.

Secondly, She Waits seems to feature a sub-textual comment on the state of marriage in the 1970’s. This was the decade, lest we forget, when divorce became a much more normalized phenomenon in the American family.  This meant that, psychically-speaking, second husbands and second wives had to deal more frequently with the metaphorical “ghosts” of spouses past. 

She Waits is certainly a literal-reading of this concept, with Laura feeling competitive towards Mark’s first wife, Elaine, and Mark proving tight-lipped and evasive about his earlier marriage. The movie’s resolution point is the line of dialogue “Don’t the past come between us,” but that’s almost precisely what happens. Laura becomes possessed (and obsessed too…) with Mark’s previous romantic relationship. In the absence of direct communication from Mark, Laura is overpowered by the memory/spirit of Elaine, which still haunts the Wilson house.

There’s more than one kind of possession,” Dr. Carpenter (Lew Ayres) reports, and what he refers to here is the way that jealousy can consume someone, especially a second wife or husband. It’s just a shame that She Waits never finds a clever way to dramatize or resolve this story-line.

There are so many great supernatural TV-movies of the early 1970’s (see, for example, 1972’s Something Evil, directed by a young Steven Spielberg), but She Waits feels like a relic from the age of radio. Every piece of information is spoken, reiterated, and chewed over, and there are no compelling visuals exist side-by-side the talky script.

Although She Waits got a VHS release in the 1980’s courtesy of Prism Entertainment, it is one of the rare TV-films of its era that is not really worth seeking out.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "And the Children Shall Lead" (October 11, 1968)

Stardate 5029.5

The U.S.S. Enterprise responds to a distress call on the planet Triacus, where several scientists, led by Professor Starnes (James Wellman) have recently settled.

After beaming down to the planet to investigate, Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) find all the adults at the settlement dead, apparently via some form of poisoning. Dr. McCoy concludes the deaths were a “mass suicide.”

The only survivors of the tragedy are several children, who seem to possess no awareness -- or grief -- over the deaths of their parents. 

The children -- Tommy (Craig Hundley), Mary (Pamelyn Ferdin), Steve (Caesar Belli), Don (Mark Robert Brown) and Ray (Brian Tochi) -- are brought back to the Enterprise, where Kirk hopes to question them.

Unfortunately, McCoy reports that the children are suffering from “Lacunar Amnesia,” meaning that they can’t recall the traumatic deaths of their parents.

Secretly, the children are actually being controlled by a malevolent alien being, Gorgon (Melvin Belli), a life-form who has been hidden on Triacus for generations until recently unearthed in a cave.

Gorgon now hopes to take the children to a colony planet, Marcos XII, where more young ones can join his cause. He dreams of a universe to “rule,” while the children have a universe to “play in.”

When Kirk attempts to stop Gorgon, the children use a strange ability to stop him. They tap into the deepest fears of the crew, thus immobilizing them, and allowing the evil to spread, unabated.

“And the Children Shall Lead” is my candidate for worst overall episode of Star Trek (1966-1969). 

The performances here are terrible, or at the very least, not well-calibrated, and the story’s primary crisis rests on the Enterprise crew once more facing its innermost insecurities/fears, a well-worn theme on the series (see: “The Naked Time.”)  Additionally, the episode is unforgivably sloppy in a lot of ways, making “And the Children Shall Lead” the proverbial hot mess.

In terms of performances, “And the Children Shall Lead” features what may be the single worst guest performance on the entire series.

Melvin Belli, a famous attorney, plays Gorgon, the 23rd century equivalent of a cosmic child predator. Belli reads his lines in an excessively wooden, declarative manner, and fails to convey either charm or menace.  Since his character “seduces” children into doing evil, the former is certainly a necessity for this role. Gorgon should be soothing, smooth, cajoling and encouraging to the children.  Instead, he is cold and patronizing, and those are the qualities, of course, that the children are trying to escape from in regards to their parents.

Why would these kids -- lonely and estranged from their families -- want someone else to boss them around?

Once more -- as we also saw in “Spock’s Brain” -- Shatner and Kelley don’t fare well in the lesser episodes.  I proposed in my review of that episode that the worse the material, the more Shatner “commits,” giving the material far too much.  We see the same problem in play here.  Captain Kirk’s moment of “anxiety” in the cave is strange and over-the-top, but the scenes the character shares with Dr. McCoy are some of the worst in the episode.

Kirk and McCoy seem mad at each other over something, though they are not, technically at odds.  

Their scenes all feature a strange and unnecessary combative-ness. Kelley, like Shatner, seems to tend towards expressing anger or irritability when contending with weak material. The scenes between Kirk and McCoy in “And the Children Shall Lead” thus consist, basically of beloved characters yelling at each other, with no real underlying motivation.

“And the Children Shall Lead” boasts some promise, though that potential vanishes quickly.  The opening, high-angle shot, which finds Kirk and the other landing party members coming across the “mass suicide” of the Starnes party is bracing, for instance. 

And the idea of the young and innocent being “seduced” by evil is an incredibly powerful and timely concept.  In some ways, Star Trek was truly ahead of its time contending with this particular issue. What the series perceived here as the ultimate terror -- “the alien among us…the enemy from within” -- predicts perfectly (and unnervingly…) the downside of the 1970’s.

Consider: the episode concerns madness or darkness in our very families, ensconced at the center of our emotional, personal, and professional lives.  We saw such terror in real life with Charles Manson and his “family” in the notorious murders of 1969 (well-after this episode had aired…).

Basically in both cases, we see a figure (Gorgon/Manson) with a dark past (prison conviction/entrapment in the cave) now loose and free to inspire “followers,” who conduct evil in his name, according to his plan.  Kirk gets it exactly right here, in his musings about evil.  It cannot possibly succeed -- or spread -- without followers; without those who listen.

Although it is unsettling to realize it, the events on Triacus -- a mass suicide by poison ingestion -- also forecast another family community and its grim fate: Jonestown, in Guyana, in 1978. There, people willingly ingested poison, because they believed in their leader, and could not see the evil that he represented.  “And the Children Shall Lead” depicts the mass-suicide of another family community; one overcome by anxiety and distrust.

It is easy to dismiss or mock “And the Children Shall Lead” as a poorly-done episode of Star Trek, but the great tragedy here is that its faulty, shabby execution cloaks the fact that the episode eerily predicts some of the darker turns in the culture in the disco decade.  “The Way to Eden” is a second meditation on that idea, and likely a superior episode.

But instead of focusing, for instance, on the Generation Gap -- Starnes vs. Starnes -- in a way that might have illuminated the dark side of the counter-culture movement at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, “And the Children Shall Lead” leaves behind its disturbing subject matter to focus instead on the psychological foibles of the Enterprise crew.

Kirk fears losing command. Uhura fears aging. Scotty fears that his perfect engines will lapse into imperfection and so-forth.  Sulu fears piloting through space swords…

To put this another way, a story about how evil might bloom in our homes and hearths becomes instead a story about taking back command of a hijacked starship.

As I hope you can detect, that’s the wrong focus for this story. “And the Children Shall Lead” should have been one of the bleakest, most darkly prophetic of all Star Trek tales, instead of the formulaic “junk” show that it is now widely remembered as.

What else is wrong here, besides the poorly-calibrated performances and off-the-mark narrative? 

Well, the episode is unforgivably sloppy.

The planet is named Triacus, but is pronounced in different ways throughout the episode by William Shatner, and other cast members.

Uhura’s console -- for the first time in series history -- houses a mirror where a blinky-light computer panel should be -- just in time, conveniently, for her to view herself old and infirm.  

And then there’s the matter of Gorgon’s name, which Captain Kirk is inexplicably aware of before he should be. 

The UFP flag, finally, looks unforgivably cheap -- like a Dollar Store yard decoration -- and thus its very presence deflates the solemnity of the Starnes funeral.

And again, the Starnes funeral should be a heart-in-throat show-stopper. Again, even the shots are there to suggest it could have been: A camera moves, in close-up, gravestone to gravestone, allowing the audience to read the names of the dead. But the darkness of this premise -- in which a “happy ending” is represented by children “processing” their grief in tears and cries -- is again undercut by weirdness, like the choice for Gorgon’s wardrobe. 

So, the ultimate alien evil has a preference for…feathers?

On a nuts-and-bolts level, the story is poorly constructed too, and I suppose that’s why, ultimately, I feel it is the worst of the series. 

For instance, Spock concludes, at one point that the murder of the scientists was "induced by an outside force” but he provides no proof, evidence, or logic for this remarkable and surprising conclusion.  The character of Spock is used, simply, to carry the plot forward, even though Spock, at this juncture, should have no such firm suspicions.  The whole scene reminds me of how, in Lost in Space’s later episodes, the Robot would suddenly possess miraculous knowledge of alien planets and life-forms, despite having hailed from Earth at the same time as the Robinsons. He was a convenient voice for the writers, and Spock serves the same function here.

Star Trek is usually clever enough to avoid such clumsy plotting and exposition.

“And the Children Shall Lead” leads Star Trek’s “worst of” catalog because it is sloppy, over-the-top, and obvious. 

But I suppose I truly like it so little because I can see that the episode could have been something quite remarkable: a study of the souring of the Hippie Age as the sixties became the seventies. 

That’s an episode of Star Trek that could have been one of its ten best, not one of its most disappointing.

Next Week: “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”

Goldfinger (1964): The Model Bond

Unlike many film critics, I do not count Goldfinger (1964) as the absolute “best” James Bond film of all-time. You can check out my rankings of the 007 movies here, but I actually list Goldfinger in the second position, right behind From Russia with Love (1963).

However, there is one fact about the excellent Goldfinger that is indisputable. Even if one doesn’t count it as the greatest James Bond film ever made, it is undeniably the “model” 007 film.

What do I mean by that term?

Well, a model might be defined as “a thing, system, or object utilized as an example for purposes of following, or imitating.”

That definition describes the Guy Hamilton film perfectly. It is Goldfinger -- not From Russia with Love, or even the first Bond film, Dr. No (1962) -- that serves as the model that most Bond films follow (with a few exceptions, of course). 

Why do other 007 movies follow the formula that Goldfinger pioneered more than fifty years ago?

Well, as its title suggests, Goldfinger remains the gold standard. It perfects the Bond formula -- across the board -- and today I’ll write about some of the pieces or ingredients of that formula and how other 007 films have attempted to recreate the same magic.

Before I move into a discussion of the elements of the formula perfected by Goldfinger, I should begin with a note about Bond himself.

Goldfinger represents, perhaps, a high point for actor Sean Connery. He appears more confident and relaxed in Goldfinger than he does in the first two films in the series. Also, he is not yet bored with the role, as he appears during some of his later performances.  Here, Connery is at his most suave and charming, as well as, perhaps, his most athletic or physically fit.  In this sense, certainly the third Bond film is the charm.

Finally, Goldfinger represents the franchise’s transition to a more fantastic template. From Russia with Love, except for a few outliers, exists in a “real” Cold War world. Goldfinger inhabits a different, more fantastic world, with lasers, ejector seats and the like.

Now, let’s begin to survey elements of this Bond movie model. Specifically, we’ll gaze at the way that Goldfinger spear-headed or perfected these ingredients, and other films in the franchise imitated them.

“I Have A Slight Inferiority Complex” - The Pre-Title Sequence

Before Goldfinger’s production, the pre-title sequence in the Bond films feature some important (if tangentially-related) aspect of the film’s overall plot or narrative. 

In Dr. No, for example, the pre-title sequence diagrams the assassination of a British station chief in Jamaica. This is the precipitating event to pull Bond into the action after the credits.

Likewise, the pre-title sequence for From Russia with Love features a man masquerading as Bond, hunted by an agent for SPECTRE, Red Grant (Robert Shaw) in a training simulation. It sets up a conflict between the two men that we see played out in the movie proper.

By contrast, Goldfinger’s pre-title sequence does not connect meaningfully to the actual plot of the film (the hunt to discover how Auric Goldfinger is smuggling his gold overseas). Instead, it serves as a re-introduction of the iconic 007 character, but while is on a separate and individual mission. 

In particular, Bond -- with a bird decoy on his hat -- surfaces in the water, and sets out to destroy an enemy headquarters. He plants explosives, but then removes his commando gear to reveal a white dinner jacket and a bow tie. Waiting for the boom, literally, Bond goes for a smoke break, as the enemy HQ explodes. 

Then Bond meets with a lovely woman, and finally, 007 must defeat one last bad guy. He does so, and before the fade-out to the credits, delivers a pun. After electrocuting an enemy in a tub, Bond says “Shocking…positively shocking.”

This sequence -- instead of setting up important details of the plot -- features all elements of the Bond mystique: the danger, the women, the action, and even the gallows humor. So we actually get from Goldfinger’s pre-title sequence, a mini and self-contained 007 adventure.

Can you think of a better way to re-acquaint us with Ian Fleming’s agent and his universe.

Following Goldfinger, the pre-title sequence is often utilized in a similar fashion. Throughout the franchise, it is divorced from the central plot-line in examples such as For Your Eyes Only (1981), and Octopussy (1983).

But except in the rare-one off example (such as Live and Let Die [1973]), every follow-up pre-title sequence in the film series features Bond, and functions, essentially, as a mini-adventure with just the right combination of extravagance and spectacular stunts. The purpose, to reintroduce the character into the pop culture. The secondary purpose, to one-up the climax of the previous movie, and raise the bar to an “all-time high,” at least until the next film.

Also note, the joke about the bird decoy on Bond’s head that accompanies the character’s introduction. Bond goes from being hidden in the water (beneath the decoy), to making a show of his good-looks and wardrobe, in the dinner jacket and bow tie. 

A similar joke, involving a crocodile, gets play in Octopussy.

“This is not a personal vendetta” - The Sacrificial Lamb and the Avenging Angel

I believe that the great author John Brosnan (1947-2005 gave this Bond character-type a name.

Basically, the blood of an ally is spilled in the film, thus re-focusing Bond’s determination to destroy a particularly brutal enemy. 

There are two factors to consider here, both the nature of the death (which reflects the villain’s sadism), and the nature of the victim him or herself, which creates audience sympathy.

The greatest sacrificial lamb in Bond history (until Vesper, perhaps) is likely Jill Masterson in Goldfinger, a lovely young woman who unwittingly becomes involved with Bond and Goldfinger’s pissing match, and pays the fatal price.  She dies nude…painted gold. 

This act establishes Goldinger’s sadism (and ties into his love of gold), but also reveals Bond’s vulnerability.  He takes Jill’s death very personally, and wants revenge.

Later Bond films also utilize the sacrificial lamb as a kind of turning point. Aki’s death serves this purpose in You Only Live Twice. Vijay’s death serves the same purpose in Octopussy (1983).  As recently as 2008, the sacrificial lamb appeared in a Bond film. In Quantum of Solace -- in a scene directly inspired by Goldfinger -- an agent, Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton) is murdered, asphyxiated in oil after choosing to help Bond. Her nudity, her positioning on the bed, and her function in the story are all call-backs to the model Bond film: Goldfinger.

Intriguingly, Goldfnger features two sacrificial lambs. The second is Jill’s sister, Tilly Masterson (Tania Mallett), who actually serves two purposes.

She is both a second sacrificial lamb, and an avenging angel. In the Bond canon, Tilly is not the last female character to dedicate her life to vengeance over the death of a loved one or loved ones. Consider Melina Havelock, and her function as an “avenging angel” in For Your Eyes Only (1981).  

Both characters are associated with weapons (whether a rifle or a cross-bow), and thus represent a kind of toughness that Bond finds appealing.

“The Customary Byplay” - Reintroducing the Supporting Cast, but giving them an opinion of 007.

After the pre-titles sequence and a (deadly) excursion in Miami, Bond returns to London in Goldfinger, and meets with several familiar supporting players: M, Q, and Moneypenny.

All three characters appear in From Russia with Love, but once more, Goldfinger is the first film, perhaps, that models the right tone for all three character.  Here, M and Q show extreme annoyance (possibly jealousy) with 007.  They clearly find him insufferable (M) and glib (Q). M has to reign in Bond, reminding him that he is supposed to be cool and calculating, not headed.  And Q must remind Bond not to be so hard on his gadgets, which clearly, Q loves.

This personal touch to the characters enhances the film’s humor quotient.  Bond isn’t simply receiving a mission briefing, he’s interacting with supporting cast members who have distinguishable relationships with him. They are irritated with him (M, Q), or attracted to him (Moneypenny).  Again, it’s not that the earlier films didn’t feature M or Q, or even Moneypenny, it’s that Goldfinger “cements” the relationships Bond has with each, and accordingly some level of this “customary byplay” is repeated in every movie thereafter (at least through the beginning of Dalton Era).

“Choose your next witticism carefully, Mr. Bond, it may be your last” - General Villain and Soldier Villain

Although From Russia with Love features a general villain, Rosa Klebb, and a soldier villain, Red Grant, the model is perfected in Goldfinger, with Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) and Odd Job (Harold Sakata).

To put it simply, Goldfinger is the brains, Odd Job the brawn.

In many cases, the soldier villain in a Bond film possesses some sort of physical difference that makes him unique, or distinctive. Odd Job is mute, and throws a steel-rimmed hat. In The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Jaws (Richard Kiel) has a mouth filled with steel-teeth, and similarly doesn’t speak, except once, if memory serves. He serves two general villains: Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me, and Drax in Moonraker (1979).

The same dynamic plays out with Mr. Big and Tee-Hee in Live and Let Die, Scaramanga and Nick Nack in Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Kamal Khan and Gobinda in Octopussy, and on-and-on.
It’s an intriguing idea to split the characteristics of one “complete” villain between two characters. Goldfinger is a brilliant and egomaniacal criminal, but he has no physical prowess or strength. Those qualities go to Odd Job. Bond, on the other hand, has both the wit/intelligence, and the physical capabilities of both villain types. He is a complete person in the way that the villains never are, which may explain why he is always successful.

In this dramatic set-up, Bond can trade witticisms with one type of villain (the general), and trade punches with the other (the soldier).  We see this in Goldfinger during the laser table sequence. Bond asks if Goldfinger expects him to talk.  Goldfinger replies, delightfully, “No Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.”

But later, of course, Bond fights Odd Job over an atomic bomb, in Fort Knox.

“I Never Joke about My Work, 007” – The Car

In Goldfinger, Q Branch gifts James Bond with a new car, an Aston Martin DB-5, which comes equipped with machine guns, rotating license plates, smoke screen, oil slick, and, most memorably, an ejector seat. This is the first Bond film that gives 007 a ride like this, one that is the center of its own action sequence, and which deploys a number of (destructive) gadgets. The most elaborate gadget, previous to Goldfinger, is the exploding brief-case in From Russia with Love.

So, we’re on a whole different, fantasy-esque level here.

Again, this model scene -- Bond driving a car with a “few optional extras” installed -- has been played out, over and over again, in later Bonds, with 007 getting a new car (often another model Aston Martin, but not always), from his weapon master.  We have come to expect, since Goldfinger, that Bond will drive the slickest, meanest, most heavily-armed car on the road. The gimmicks (or gadgets) have changed, of course.

Roger Moore drives a car that becomes a submarine (The Spy Who Loved Me). Timothy Dalton drives one with a rocket engine and skis (The Living Daylights [1987]), and Pierce Brosnan drives a car that can turn invisible in Die Another Day (2002), to name just a few of the variations.

This is one ingredient that Goldfinger truly spearheaded, as the first film to feature a “Bond” car.

“Man has climbed Mount Everest…He’s fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor except crime.” – The Criminal Scheme and the Double-Cross

In Goldfinger, Auric plans, from his headquarters, the ultimate criminal scheme. Teamed with a criminal syndicate (whose funds he solicits), he plots to irradiate all the gold in Fort Knox, de-stabilizing the West and increasing the value of his own gold.  The plot is laid out, in the film, in every detail, with a scale model.

After demonstrating the plan with the model, Goldfinger kills his audience, double-crossing them. One wonder why he went to all the trouble of explaining, when he could have just take their money, and killed them.

However, the scene serves two purposes. It demonstrates the ultimate plan to the audience (cue Basil Exposition) and also reveals again, the villain’s untrustworthy nature.  He even kills his allies.

A View to a Kill (1985) is the Bond film that most closely parallels the model example above. Zorin (Christopher Walken) demonstrates his Operation, not Grand Slam, but Main Strike, using a scale model of Silicon Valley.  He then kills a prospective ally, who wants out.  Later, in a mine-shaft, Zorin takes an Uzi to his people, killing all the witnesses.  So what we get are, as in Goldfinger, the plot details, and the double cross.

To some extent, this idea also recurs in Octopussy (1983), with Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) double-crossing Octopussy (Maude Adams) and The Living Daylights, involving a drugs for guns scenario.

There are other elements too, that Goldfinger perfects: the sting-in-the-tail, for instance, though this one goes back to From Russia with Love and Rosa Klebb.  

Finally, we have the presence of a female lead -- Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore -- who first distrusts Bond, but then comes to legitimately care for him, and become an ally.  Finally, Goldfinger features a scene in which Bond out-cheats a cheater.  Specifically, he beats Goldfinger on the golf course.  This scene, of Bond out-cheating or out-maneuvering an untrustworthy villain occurs in later entries including Octopussy (using Backgammon) and Moonraker (pheasant hunting).

To describe all this another way, Goldfinger took the established pattern of the early 007 pictures, and perfected it, making the action bigger, the villains larger-than-life, and the even the gallows humor more acute. 

In moving Bond’s world from an approximation of reality to a more fantastic one, the filmmakers established a formula that has been modeled ever since.

In my book, many of the best Bond films are actually the ones that break, stretch, or pre-date the Goldfinger model, titles such as From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Licence to Kill (1989) or Casino Royale (2006). 

But Goldfinger remains the paragon, the prototype for the Bond film universe. If we're talking about formula, nobody does it better.