Friday, March 27, 2020

Shatner Week: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

One of the most oft-requested reviews on this blog, -- before my original post back in the day -- was Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), which is widely-regarded as the worst Star Trek film to feature the original cast.

I strongly suspect this particular review was often requested in the hope that somehow, in some way, this poorly-reviewed William Shatner film might be rehabilitated in popular imagination. 

For instance, requests for a review of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier spiked after my positive review of The Motion Picture

My supposition thus leads me to believe that a lot of Star Trek fans must -- secretly? -- enjoy the oft-derided fifth film, and are seeking valid, well-enunciated arguments in support of it.

 I can relate to that.  Big time.

After all, I am a Star Trek fan, and can see the silver-lining in every Star Trek movie. So I am happy to enumerate the aspects I appreciate and admire about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
However, for the record, it is also necessary for me to note where and when things go dramatically wrong with the movie. So -- to quote Joss Whedon -- this review isn't going to be all "hugs and puppies."

That fact established there are indeed many components of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier worth lauding and I will explain in detail below why I feel that way.

Let's start, however, with a brief re-cap of the plot. The fifth Star Trek picks up with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew on vacation on Earth -- in the paradise-like setting of Yosemite -- when a dangerous hostage situation unfolds in the Neutral Zone. There, on Nimbus III -- on the "planet of Galactic Peace" -- a Vulcan renegade named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) has taken hostage the Romulan, Klingon and Federation counsels. He has done so with an army of devout "believers." Sybok's gambit is to capture a starship so he can set a course for the center of the Galaxy and find the mythical planet Sha Ka Ree (named after Sean Connery), where he believes "God" awaits.

An unprepared U.S.S. Enterprise, with only a skeleton crew aboard, is assigned to rescue the hostages. The attempt fails, and Sybok commandeers the Enterprise using his particular brand of Vulcan brainwashing to persuade the crew to follow him. In particular, he frees each man he encounters of his "secret pain." Kirk soon learns that Sybok is Spock's (Leonard Nimoy) half-brother, a heretic who rejected Vulcan dogma and came to believe that emotion, not logic, is the key to enlightenment.

With a Klingon bird of prey in hot pursuit, the Enterprise passes through the Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy and encounters a mysterious planet. There, on the surface, awaits a creature who claims to be "God." Kirk questions the Being, and soon a vision of Heaven goes to Hell.

Because It's There: The Search for the Ultimate Knowledge; The Search for a Film's Noble Intentions
From Captain Kirk's effort to climb El Capitan at Yosemite National Park in the film's first scene to Sybok's probe through the foreboding and mysterious Great Barrier, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier concerns, in large part, a typically-Star Trek conceit: the human quest to reach a higher summit and to find at that apex a new or deeper truth about our existence.

When Mr. Spock asks Kirk why he would involve himself in an endeavor as dangerous as climbing a mountain, Kirk answers simply, "because it's there." That's a simplistic but apt shorthand to describe one of our basic human drives. What our eyes detect, we want to explore, to experience. Enlightenment, for us, is often attained on the next plateau.

Sybok terms his search for "God" the search for the "ultimate knowledge" and he too seeks to climb a mountain after a fashion: penetrating the Great Barrier which protects a secret at the center of our galaxy. The means by which Sybok conducts his quest are not entirely kosher, however (kidnapping diplomats and hijacking a starship). But his quest, though coupled with his vanity, is sincere. An outcast among his Vulcan brethren, Sybok believes that if he can "locate" God, his beliefs will be validated, and thus perhaps re-examined by those who made him a pariah.

At one point late in the film, Kirk seems to suddenly realize that Sybok and he share a similar drive; that he has stubbornly refused Sybok the same liberty he affords himself, not merely to "go climb a rock," but to see, literally, what awaits at the mountain-top. Upon this realization, Kirk gazes knowingly at an old-fashioned captains' wheel in the Enterprise's observation deck. His hand brushes across a bronze plaque engraved with the legend "Where No Man Has Gone Before," a re-iteration of the franchise's "bold," trademark phrase.  In a world where so many sci-fi movies depend on black-and-white portrayals of "good" and "evil," it's quite bold that The Final Frontier actually establishes a connection --- and one involving the meaning of life itself -- between protagonist and antagonist.

It should be noted here, perhaps, that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is not out on some wacky limb, franchise-wise, in exploring the existence of "God," or a planet from which life sprang. On the former front, the Enterprise encountered the Greek God Apollo in the second-season episode "Who Mourns for Adonis" and on the latter front, discovered the planet "Eden" in the third season adventure "The Way to Eden."  In a very real way, The Final Frontier feels like a development of this oft-seen Trek theme, as much as The Motion Picture was a development of themes featured in episodes such as "The Changeling" and "The Doomsday Machine."

What remains laudable about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, however, is that screenwriter David Loughery, with director Shatner and producer Harve Bennett, carry their central metaphor  -- discovery of the ultimate knowledge -- to the hearts of the beloved franchise characters. Star Trek V very much concerns not just the external quest for the divine, but a personal and human desire to understand the meaning of life. 

Or, at the very least, the path to understanding the meaning of life.

What that desire comes down to here is one lengthy scene set in the Enterprise observation deck. There are no phasers, transporters, starships, Klingons, or special effects  to be found. Instead, the scene involves Kirk, Spock, Bones and Sybok grappling with their personal beliefs, with their sense of personal identity and history, even. Sybok attempts to convert Spock and McCoy to his agenda by using his hypnotic powers of the mind. "Each man hides a secret pain. Share yours with me and gain strength from the sharing," he offers. One at a time, Kirk's allies crumble under the mesmeric influence. Then Sybok comes to Kirk, and the good captain steadfastly refuses Sybok's brand of personal enlightenment.

In refusing to share his pain, Kirk notes to Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) that "you know that pain and guilt can't be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don't want my pain taken away! I need my pain!"

This specific back-and-forth is the heart of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The Kirk/Sybok confrontation embodies the difference between Catholic Guilt (as represented by Kirk), and New Age "release" (as represented by Sybok). In terms of a short explanation, Catholic guilt is essentially a melancholy or world-weariness brought about by an examined life. It's the constant questioning and re-parsing of decisions and history (some call it Scrupulosity). And if you know Star Trek, you understand that this sense of melancholy is, for lack of a better word, very Kirk-ian.

As a starship captain, James Kirk has sent men and women to their deaths and made tough calls that changed the direction of the galaxy, literally. But he has never been one to do so blindly, or without consideration of the consequences. "My God, Bones, what have I done?" He asks after destroying the Enterprise in The Search for Spock, and that's just one, quick example of his reflective nature. In short, Kirk belabors his decisions, so much so that McCoy once had to tell him (in "Balance of Terror") not to obsess; not to "destroy the one called Kirk."

What Captain Kirk believes - and what is crucial to his success as a starship captain -- is that he must carry and remember the guilt associated with his tough decisions. He must re-hash those choices and constantly relive them, or else, during the next crisis, he will fail. His decisions are part of him; he is the cumulative result of those choices, and to lose them would be -- in his very words here -- "to lose himself."  Pain, anguish, regret...these are all crucial elements of Kirk's being, and of the human equation.

By contrast, Sybok promises an escape from melancholy. His abilities permit him to "erase" the presence of pain all-together. This a kind of touchy-feely, New Age balm in which a person lets go of pain (via, for example, ACT: Active Release Technique) and then, once freed, suddenly sees the light.

Sybok's approach arises from the counter-culture movement of the 1960s (the era of the Original Series), and might be described -- albeit in glib fashion -- as "Do what feels right" (a turn-of-phrase Spock himself uses in the 2009 Star Trek). But Sybok is a master of semantics. He doesn't "control minds," he says, he "frees" them. Left unexamined by Sybok is Kirk's interrogative: once freed from pain, what does a person have left?  What remains when a person's core is removed?  An empty vessel? 

Isn't pain, borne by experience a part of our core psychological make-up? The New Age depiction of Sybok in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier led critic David Denby to term this entry "the most Californian" of the Star Trek films (New York, June 19,1989, page 68).

In countenancing the false god of Sha Ka Ree, these belief systems collide. Sybok -- freed of pain and self-reflection -- is unaware of his own tragic flaws. Eventually he sees them, terming them "arrogance" and "vanity." But Kirk, who has always carried his choices with him, is able to face the malevolent alien with a sense of composure and entirely appropriate suspicion. Kirk is able, essentially, to ask "the Almighty for his I.D." because he has maintained his Catholic sense of guilt. He's been around the block too many times to be cowed by an alien who wants to appropriate his ship.

The lengthy scene in the observation deck, during which Sybok attempts to shatter the powerful triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy is probably the best in the film. Shatner shoots it well too, with Sybok intersecting the perimeters of this famous character "triangle" (of id, ego, and super-ego) and then, visually, scattering its points to the corners of the room when doubt is sewn.

And then, after Kirk's powerful argument and re-assertion of Catholic Guilt, the triangle (depicted visually, with the three characters as "points") is re-constructed. Sybok is both literally and symbolically forced out of their unified "space."

In point of fact, Shatner uses this triangular, three-person blocking pattern a lot in the film. Variety did not like the movie, but noted the power of this particular sequence in its original review: "Shatner, rises to the occasion," the magazine wrote, "in directing a dramatic sequence of the mystical Luckinbill teaching Nimoy and DeForest Kelley to re-experience their long-buried traumas. The re-creations of Spock's rejection by his father after his birth and Kelley's euthanasia of his own father are moving highlights."

While discussing Shatner, I should also add -- no doubt controversially -- that Shatner boasts a fine eye for visual composition. The opening scene on the cracked, arid plain of Nimbus III, and the follow-up scene set at Yosemite reveal that he has an eye not just for capturing natural beauty, but for utilizing the full breadth of the frame. As a director, Shatner came out of television (helming episodes of T.J. Hooker), but his visual approach doesn't suggest a TV mentality. On the contrary, I would argue that there are moments in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier that are the most inherently cinematic of the film series, after Wise's Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Abrams' big-budget reboot of 2009.

What Does God Need With a Starship? Pinpointing the Divine inside The Human Heart and in the Natural World

I've noted above how Star Trek V: The Final Frontier involves the search for the ultimate knowledge, and uses two distinctive viewpoints (Catholic Guilt embodied by Kirk and New Age philosophy embodied by Sybok) to get at that knowledge.

What's important, after that "quest" is the film's conclusion about the specific "ultimate knowledge" gleaned from the journey.

In short order, in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the angry Old Testament-styled God-Alien reveals his true colors and demonstrates a capricious, violent-side. After Kirk asks "what does God need with a starship," "God" is wrathful and violent. And this is what the site Common Sense Atheism suggested was really being asked by our secular, humanist hero.

"One might ask, "What does God need with animal sacrifice? With a human sacrifice? With a catastrophic flood? With billions of galaxies and trillions of stars and millions of unstoppably destructive black holes? What does God need with congenital diseases and a planet made of shifting plates that cause earthquakes and tsunamis? Isn't the whole point of omnipotence that God could make a good world without all these needlessly silly or harmful phenomena?" 

Moreover, why should humans obey the commands of someone as capricious, jealous, petty, and violent as the God of the Jewish scriptures?

This critical line of thought reminds me of my experience seeing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier in the theater with my girlfriend at the time, a devout Jew.

Afterwards, she was utterly convinced that Kirk and company had indeed encountered the Biblical, Old Testament God. And that they had, in fact, destroyed Him. Her reasoning for this belief was that "God" as depicted in the film actually looked and acted in the very fashion of the Old-Testament God.

On the former, front (God's appearance), The Journal of Religion and Film, in a piece "Any Gods Out There?" by John S. Schultes, opined: "This being appears in the stereotypical Westernized figure of the "Father God" as depicted in art. He has a giant head, disembodied, depicting an older man with a kind face, flowing white hair and booming voice."

On the latter front -- behavior -- there are also important commonalities. The Old Testament God was cruel, self-righteous, unjust, demanding, and acting according to a closely-held personal agenda (moving in a mysterious way?) without thought of courtesy or explanation to humans. Consider that the Old Testament God destroyed whole cities (like those of Sodom and Gomorrah), and that it's his plan to kill us by the billion-fold in the End Times, if we don't believe in him. The Old Testament God is indeed one of violence and punishment.

And this is precisely how Star Trek V: The Final Frontier depicts this creature. He wants to deliver his power -- his violence and judgment -- to "every corner of creation." Naturally, Kirk can't allow this brand of subjugation...even it comes from God.

Over the years, I have come to agree more and more with my former-girlfriend's assessment. The alien portrayed in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier may indeed be the Old Testament God of our legends. Just as Apollo was indeed, Apollo of Greek Myth in "Who Mourns for Adonis."

And, in fact, Captain Kirk kills God here. (Or rather, it's a cooperative venture with the Klingons...). In doing so, Kirk frees humanity (and the universe itself) from the oppression of superstition, judgment and tyranny.  Ask yourself, keeping in mind Gene Roddenberry's visions of humanity and religion (expressed candidly in the TNG episode "Who Watches the Watchers"): is that Star Trek V’s ultimate message?

The ultimate knowledge, according to this Trek movie is that God only exists "right here; the human heart," as Kirk notes near the film's conclusion. Accordingly, The Journal of Religion and Society explains that this conclusion represents a narrative wrinkle true to "the collective history of Classic Star Trek," a re-assertion of Roddenberry-esque, secular principles. In his essay, "From Captain Stormfield to Captain Kirk, Two 20th Century Representations of Heaven, scholar Michel Clasquin concludes:

"In "Final Frontier", Heaven turns out to be Hell: the optimism is deferred until the heroes have returned to the man-made heaven of the United Federation of Planets. The film ends where it began: with Spock, Kirk and McCoy on furlough in a thoroughly tamed Earth wilderness. This, the film tells us, is the true Heaven, the secular New Jerusalem that humans, Vulcans and a smattering of other species will build for themselves in the 24th century, a world in which the outward heavenly conditions reflect the true Heaven that resides in the human heart."

Clasquin's point here absolutely demands a re-evaluation of the book-end Yosemite camping scenes of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Many critics complained that the film takes a long time to get started, since the crew must "laboriously" be re-gathered from vacation. 

However, if Star Trek V: The Final Frontier's point is that "God" resides in man's heart (and is, in fact, man himself) and that the Garden of Eden, or Heaven itself is "a tamed Earth wilderness," -- a finely-developed sense of responsible environmentalism, in fact -- then these two sequences of "nature" prove absolutely necessary in terms of the narrative. Heaven on Earth is within our grasp, the movie seems to note. We don't have to die to get there. We merely must act responsibly as stewards of our planet (or in Star Trek's universe, planets, plural). The human heart, and the Beautiful Earth: these are Star Trek V: The Final Frontier's (atheist) optimistic views of where, ultimately, Divinity resides.  If you desire a Star Trek movie with some pretty deep philosophical underpinnings, look no further than William Shatner's The Final Frontier.

"All I Can Say is, They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To: A Movie Shattered (not Shatnered...) by Poor Execution"

William Shatner handles many of the visual aspects of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier with flair and distinction. His impressive efforts are badly undercut, however, by three catastrophic weaknesses. The first such weakness involves studio interference in the very story he wanted to tell. The second involves inferior special effects, and the third involves slipshod editing.

On the first front, William Shatner sought initially to make a serious, even bloody movie concerning fanatical religious cults and God imagery. His plan was shit-canned in large part, by Paramount Studios.  Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) had just proven a major success, and the Powers That Be judged this was so because the movie evidenced a terrific sense of humor, particularly fish-out-of-water humor. The edict came down that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier had to include the same level of humor.

Frankly, this edict was the kiss of death. The humor in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home grew organically out of the situation: advanced people of the 23rd century being forced to deal with people and activities of the "primitive" year 1986.  The scenario there called for fish-out-of-water humor, and no characters were sacrificed on the altar of laughs.

Above, I described the thematic principles of Star Trek Vseeking the ultimate summit both externally and internally, and discovering that the Divine is inside us -- or is, actually, the Human Heart. So how exactly, does Scotty knocking himself out on a ceiling beam, or Uhura performing a fan dance, or Chekov rehashing his "wessel" shtick fit that conceit?

The short answer is that it doesn't. Such humor had to be grafted on here, and it shows. It's forced, awkward, and entirely unnecessary. The inclusion of so much humor actually runs counter to the grandeur and seriousness of the story Shatner hoped to tell.

And then -- in a typical bout of bean-counter nonsense -- what does Paramount do next? Well, it advertises and markets Star Trek V: The Final Frontier with the ad-line "why are they putting seat belts in theaters this summer?" suggesting that the movie is an action-packed roller-coaster ride! This is after they demanded the movie be a comedy! Talk about assuring audience dissatisfaction. Tell audiences that the movie they are about to see is super-exciting and action-packed, and then give them Vulcan nerve-pinches on horses, Uhura and Scotty flirting with each other, and crewmen singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."  Quite simply, The Final Frontier's marketing campaign didn't do a good job of managing audience expectations.

The second aspect of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier that damages it so egregiously involves the special visual effects. A movie like this -- about the search for God, no less -- must feature absolutely inspiring and immaculate, awesome visuals. We must believe in the universe that includes Sha Ka Ree, and the God Creature. 

Originally, Shatner envisioned Sha Ka Ree turning into a kind of Bosch-ean Hell, featuring demons and rivers of fire. But what we get instead is a glowing Santa Claus-head in a beam of light, and...a much too familiar desert planet.

What's worse is that many visuals don't match-up. When Kirk's shuttle flies over the God planet initially, the surface of the world looks like a microscopic landscape (a sort of God's Eye view of the head-of-a-pin, as it were). But when the shuttle lands the planet just looks like a terrestrial desert. This is Heaven?

Perhaps Star Trek V could have surmounted this problem, since the TV series was never about special effects anyway, but about ideas. But the special effects in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier fail to even adequately render believable and "real" such commonplace Star Trek things as starships in motion or photon torpedo blasts. Watching Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a little bit like watching Golan and Globus's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1986): the cheapness of the effects make you wince, and stands in stark contrast to a franchise's glory days.

And the editing! Oh my, to quote Mr. Sulu. 

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is edited -- in polite terms -- in disastrous fashion. During Kirk, Spock and McCoy's escape on rocket boots through an Enterprise turbo shaft, the same deck numbers repeat, in plain view. 

When Kirk falls from his perch high on El Capitan the movie cuts to a lengthy shot of Shatner -- in front of a phony rear-projection background -- flapping his arms. 

And just take a look at how Kirk's weight, make-up, hair-cut, and disposition shift back-and-forth in his final scene with General Koord and General Klaa aboard the Klingon Bird of Prey. This mismatch was due to post-production re-shoots when the original ending was deemed unacceptable.

Forget the script (which might have worked without the studio-demanded humor). Forget the acting (which is pure Star Trek ham bone -- and, in my estimation, perfect for a futuristic passion play), it's the editing that scuttles this film. Whether it's allowing us the time to notice that Sybok's haircut and outfit change on Sha Ka Ree, or permitting us to linger too long on visible wires in two fight scenes, Star Trek V's cutting is just not up to par.

There's a Star Trek fan out there on the Net who has taken it upon himself to re-edit Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and you know something? It's a worthy enterprise. Preferably, Shatner should do a director's cut, and trim his misbegotten film down to a mean, lean eighty-five minutes. The worst editing, effects, and jokey moments would be excised, and audiences would be surprised, perhaps, how visually adroit, how dynamic, how meaningful and even spiritual this Final Frontier could be sans the theatrical release's considerable problems.

Let's face it, modern criticism often thrives on hyperbole, so it's fun and dramatic to declare that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is one of the ten worst science fiction films EVER! The only problem is, it's not necessarily true. 

I don't even know that The Final Frontier is actually the worst Star Trek film, to be blunt, especially after watching Generations and Nemesis recently.   Star Trek V: The Final Frontier conforms to Muir's Snowball Rule of Movie Viewing. Allow me to explain. Because Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is perceived by the majority of critics and Star Trek fans as "bad," everything about the film gets criticized, when -- in point of fact -- many other Star Trek movies feature many of the same goofy errors. For instance, I have read some Star Trek fans complain vociferously about the fact that the Enterprise travels to the center of the galaxy here in a matter of hours.

The fact that in First Contact, the Enterprise gets from the Romulan Neutral Zone to Earth in time to join a battle against the Borg, already in progress, goes unnoticed or at least uncommented upon. So, the starship got there in like, you know, a few minutes, I guess. But because First Contact is beloved and generally evaluated as good, it generally doesn't garner the same level of negative attention or scrutiny. When it fails in a spot here or there, it gets a pass.

Whereas, by contrast, the details in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier definitely draw heavier scrutiny. The "bad movie" snowball, once rolling down a hill, just grows larger and larger. We forgive less and less.  Every aspect of the film is nitpicked and called into question, deservedly or not.  It becomes harder, then, to register and recognize the good.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is an ambitious failure. But ambitious may be the operative word here. The movie certainly aimed high, and hoped to chart some fascinating spiritual and philosophical ground that feels abundantly true to the Star Trek line and heritage. 

But plainly, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Again, I renew my call for a Shatner-guided 85 minute version.  One closer to his original vision, with improved special effects, and better editing.  A new official release, re-modulated as I suggest, may be the only way for opinion-hardened Star Trek fans to see the good points of this admittedly problematic entry in the film canon.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Shatner Week: Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

Okay. So perhaps this movie is a guilty pleasure.

Or perhaps I simply harbor deep-seated feelings of nostalgia for this "revenge of nature" flick from the year 1977.

Whatever the reasons, I love Kingdom of the Spiders. With irrational exuberance. 

Listen, I've seen how bad spider invasion movies can turn out (The Giant Spider Invasion [1975.] A
nd I've also seen how big-budget, mainstreamed spider movies turn out (Eight Legged Freaks [2003]). So I can declare with some confidence that Kingdom of the Spiders remains the best of the eight-legged arac-pack.

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) stars William Shatner (yes!) as veterinarian Rack Hansen, a cowboy doctor who lives in peaceful but poor Verde Valley in Arizona. Rack's brother John died his second day in 'Nam, and now Rack takes care of his brother's widow, Terry (Marcy Lafferty) and little daughter, Linda (Natasha Ryan) during his off-hours.

One day -- while out in the desert lasso-ing cattle and sister-in-law, Rack receives an emergency call from a local, Colby (the great Woody Strode!), whose prized cow has been felled by what appears to be a mysterious illness. The cow dies, and Rack sends blood samples to a lab in Flagstaff to help find answers.

Those answers arrive in town with the fetching Dr. Diane Ashley (a yowza Tiffany Bolling). She's an expert in venomous animals and concludes that Colby's cow died from dozens of extremely poisonous spider bites. A closer investigation reveals a giant tarantula hill on Colby's property. This is an unusual development because the spiders are working together in harmony, not attacking each other.

"Why would spiders suddenly turn aggressive?" Rack asks.

Diane's answer -- in the tried-and-true tradition of environmental/when-animal-attack/1970s revenge-of-nature movies like Frogs (1972), Night of the Lepus (1972), Empire of the Ants (1977) and others -- is a chilling one: human interference.

Specifically, "through excessive use of pesticide" man has killed off all the local insects -- the spiders' primary "source of food." Now desperate, the spiders are turning on livestock and casting hungry eyes towards mankind, particularly the souls populating scenic Camp Verde.

Spiders gotta eat!

Rack and Diane recommend a quarantine to destroy the aggressive spiders. Unfortunately for the denizens of Camp Verde, however, Kingdom of the Spiders was produced post-Watergate (and post-Jaws [1975]), which means that the town mayor is a craven politician who steadfastly refuses to take effective action against the enemy in their midst. See there's a big town fair scheduled in two weeks with a lot of money at stake. So the beaches have to stay open, if you get my drift. The result? Carnage candy. Spiders rampage through Verde, cocooning their prey in webs and causing all manner of chaos.

Rack, Diane, Linda and a dopey tourist couple -- the Johnsons-- hold up at Emma Washburn's remote lodge, but the spiders lay siege.

And when I write "lay siege," I'm not kidding. Spiders drop out of ceiling air vents like mad sky divers, crack open windows, jump down chimneys into open fireplaces, short out the power box in the basement, and generally go blood simple. The film's protagonists retaliate with murderous force, and I can tell you without doubt...real spiders were harmed during the making of this film. Yep. They were stomped, crushed, rolled over by cars, pelted with chemical fire-extinguisher spray and burned.

Ah, the good old days before digital technology.

Really, you must see this movie to believe it. There's no CGI trickery or phoniness, and the actors -- not stuntmen for the most part -- wage real, intense close-quarters battle with thousands of crawling, skittering tarantulas. In one harrowing sequence, William Shatner crawls up a basement staircase with probably two-dozen spiders on his torso, legs, head and even his famous toupee. The Shat obligingly points his flashlight at his own face during the scene so we can get the full impact of the stunt in the dim light.

Tiffany Bolling is pretty damn courageous too, casually (and expertly..) plucking up spiders and petting them like she really loves them. The only giveaway: in the tighter shots you can see her hands shake.

I can't blame her.

This movie's final half hour is so intense, so non-stop spidery that a lot more than your hands will shake. It's a Night of the Living Dead-style siege on a single, remote location, but think of spiders pressing at the boarded-up doors and windows instead of zombies. There's a great moment wherein little Natasha Ryan is endangered...standing trapped and surrounded on a bed filled with a good dozen or so live spiders. Shatner bursts into the room to save her, admonishing the child to jump over the spiders on the bed sheets into his ready arms. He's about five or six feet away. Well, without hesitation this kid leaps blindly for him -- over the teeming beasties and - shit! - your adrenalin races.

What makes all this action hang together, however, is the fact that Kingdom of the Spiders has devoted the time and energy to develop its characters in more than rudimentary fashion. Old Emma Washburn still loves the town sheriff even though their romance died years ago; Rack and Diane share a fun romantic rivalry (though by film's end, the "liberated" Bolling character is subserviently fetching Shatner his beer...), and -- as surprised as you may be how they get under your skin -- you actually come to care about what happens to these people.

It's a lesson that today's horror spectaculars could stand to learn: you can't drive at 100 miles an hour for 90 minutes, and expect viewers to remain involved, much less scared. If you're always driving're never driving fast; there's no opportunity to breathe, relax...or let your guard down. Sometimes, for the big moments to pay off, they have to arrive after slow ones; after quiet character moments. For all its inherent silliness, Kingdom of the Spiders understands that fact. Sure, It owes a lot of its gonzo life blood from Hitchcock's The Birds and from Spielberg's Jaws yet it consistently pleases because it is consistently and thoroughly scary.

Not to mention absolutely brilliantly-staged at points. There's a plane crash stunt at about the one-hour mark that is achieved so deftly, so realistically, you actually believe the film's actors (including Shatner and Bolling) are in real danger. There's a sustained spider attack on the town of Verde that cuts no corners and pulls no punches, depicting citizens running in panic, and even young children overcome by spiders. It's gruesome, nasty and entirely effective. And I love how sound is used in one sequence preceding a scare, when all the crickets mysteriously go quiet.

John "Bud" Cardos direction and John Morrill's cinematography are also much finer, much more clever than you might expect of such a low budget effort. The camera in Kingdom of the Spiders has a funny but confident way of tilting down from a scene in progress, then gliding away from the action to pinpoint a crawling spider somewhere on the floor. And how can you not love the opening "stealth" attack on a grazing cow? One that features the spider's point of view (through tall grass...) and ends with a freeze-frame of the beleaguered cow's shocked eyeball (while the soundtrack plays a cow "mooing" in anxiety and pain)?

Sure, some of the dialogue here is really, really funny. I particularly enjoyed Altovise Davis's reading of the line "This is our home and no damn spiders are going to run us out." She doesn't do it badly; don't get me wrong. On the contrary, the actress commits to it so sincerely, so fully, so guilelessly, it takes practically your breath away. The gung-ho, go-for-broke style of performances is really affecting. No one's playing anything for laughs or for camp.

And Shatner? 

My God, the man upstages 5,000 spiders. He doesn't just lasso cattle in this film, he lassos the spotlight. Say what you will about the Shat, but the man's got presence, and more pertinently, the right presence for this movie. His trademark quirks and idiosyncrasies as a performer keep us firmly anchored in the "human" sub-plots and so the movie never descends to level of simple geek show.

Yes, yes, yes, Kingdom of the Spiders is an old, cheap B-movie, but it's a wondrous, terrifying, and wholly charming one. The film's coda (featuring an atrocious matte-painting) packs a gut-punch wallop too, despite the weak visual presentation because -- again -- you've honestly come to care about Rack and the others.

I know it's probably just me, but I cannot help but to fall in love (and stay in love...) with a horror movie about killer spiders that has the audacity to open with a yearning country ballad called "Peaceful Verde Valley." Composed and performed by Dorsey Burnette, this song asks us (in the lyrics) "What will tomorrow bring?" and then provides a multiple choice answer.

A.) Will it (tomorrow) "bring the love we need to last forever more?"


B.) Will it bring "the unknown that we've never seen before?"

Since this is a horror movie, you'd be tempted to choose "B," of course.

But the amazing thing about Kingdom of the Spiders is that because it focuses so much on its characters and their humanity in a crisis, the right answer is actually: C.) this movie brings the love and the unknown.

How unexpected, and how wonderful is that?

Shatner Week: Galactic Pitch Man

One of my articles from 2014 (at Flashbak) remembers the pitch-man history of Captain Kirk, himself, Bill Shatner.

Here's a snippet (and url: )

"As the captain of a starship, William Shatner has but few peers. Another prodigious talent of the Shat, however, involves his ability to expertly hawk a product. 

We remember Mr. Shatner today from all the amusing Priceline commercials, but that series was only the latest in a long line of appearances as a product spokesman.

Over the years, Mr. Shatner has sought to sell us food products, computers, kerosene heaters, cars, and even grocery store shopping experience."

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Shatner Week: Commodore VIC-20

At Flashbak in 2015,  I remembered the Commodore VIC-202, the so-called "wonder computer" of the 1980s'.

"The first home computer to sell a million units was the Commodore VIC-20, an 8-bit unit hawked by Star Trek star William Shatner and released on the market in 1981.

Sold at a very reasonable $299.99, the Commodore VIC-20 was the best-selling computer of the 1982, and described as “revolutionary.”  

Or, as the ads trumpeted: “a computer like this would have been science fiction a few years ago. Now it’s reality.”

Shatner’s TV commercials were effective, in part because the marketing technique involved positioning the VIC-20 against Atari 2600 and Intellivision game systems.  

“Why buy just a video game?” Shatner queried, when “the whole family can learn to compute!” A key selling point was, accordingly, that this machine had a keyboard, not just joysticks."

Shatner Week: The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)

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

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

Well, I’m going to buck conventional wisdom a bit and give the telefilm a little much-needed love today.  And, of course, Shatner is great, as always, in this film.

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

And it does so the old fashioned way. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The air feels funny tonight.”

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

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

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

Once in flight, strange things begin to occur. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That argument would look like this:

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

Been there, done that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would say Shatner pulls this moment off with great success.

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

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

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

Then, they give the doll to the dark force.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return to the Planet of the Apes: (1975) "River of Flames"

In “River of Flames,” Jeff and Bill see a hologram of Judy, who asks them to meet with the Under Dweller leader, Krador.   When they do so, ...