Saturday, December 09, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Far Out Space Nuts: "The Tower of Tagot" (October 2, 1975)

In “The Tower of Tagot,” the evil alien named Tagot (Paul Wexler) utilizes his “future machine” to determine that he will, within 24 hours, clash with alien visitors: Barney (Chuck McCann) and Junior (Bob Denver). Tagot then sends an alien ship that resembles a giant spider to prevent this encounter from occurring.

Meanwhile, in space, Junior is reading a comic book that seems to predict their next adventure, while Barney pilots the lunar lander between planets.

The space nuts soon run afoul of the spider space ship and crash on a planet. There, they learn from the alien Zarlam (Robert Quarry) that the beautiful Princess Pulma (Barbara Rhoades) has been captured in the tower of Tagot and must be freed so she can reclaim her throne.

Junior uses a space sword (which can erase any flesh or object it strikes…) to battle Tagot, and Pulma soon falls in love with him.

“The Tower of Tagot” is the weirdest, most stream-of-consciousness episode -- so far -- of Sid and Marty Krofft’s live-action series Far Out Space Nuts (1975).

Do I write that sentence every Saturday? It certainly seems like it.

Basically, a villain, Tagot, can see the future using an alien machine. But this miraculous device is countered by Junior’s comic-book, which can also see the future of the space nuts.  So good guys and bad guys are evenly matched, I suppose.

The big news here is the guest appearance by Robert Quarry -- Count Yorga himself -- as an alien who resembles Brain Guy from Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999). 

Otherwise, the story about Barney, Honk, and Junior returning a female ruler to her rightful throne is a repeat of an earlier story, one involving Queen Lantana (“The Robots of Pod.”) 

The difference here is that Junior falls in love with Pulma, and wants to remain with her on the planet. This is how he feels, until the future machine shows him how hideous the queen looks when she isn’t wearing make-up on her face.

The highlight of the episode is the sprawling, ridiculous pre-Star Wars (1977) light-saber duel between Junior and Tagot.  Ambitious use is made of chroma-key effects as Barney and Junior dangle from a tower during the final battle.  The battle ends when Junior accidentally hits a switch that collapses the tower.

Next week: “The Three Spacekateers.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Challenge of the Super Friends: "Secret Origins of the Super Friends" (October 28, 1978)

In “Secret Origins of the Super Friends,” Lex Luthor hatches a new plan to stop the Super Friends. He will use a time machine, and travel back in time to undo the creation of Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Superman, three of the most powerful super friends.

First, the Legion of Doom travels to Paradise Island of 1941, and Cheetah defeats Diana Prince in an Amazon tournament, thus becoming Wonder Woman herself.

Next, Lex Luthor replaces Hal Jordan when he is visited by the Green Lantern Corps., and Abin Sur, on Earth.

Lastly, the Legion travels back to Krypton of the past, and diverts young Kal-El’s rocket away from Earth, to a different planet with a red sun. There, the boy grows up as just another citizen, unaware of his destiny as the man of steel.

With these powerful Super Friends out of the way, the Legion of the Doom captures the other members of the Hall of Justice, and makes them fight one another using a “Hypnotic Anger Ray.”

Fortunately, while in captivity, Batman and the other heroes learn from the Legion of Doom memory banks that there are missing Super Friends, ones whom they have no memory of at all, because of the altered timeline.

Batman, Robin, and the others launch an attempt to bring Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern back into existence.

Although “Secret Origins of the Super Friends” features many of the same lapses of logic and dramatic consistency that frequently plague this 1977’s Hanna-Barbera series, it nonetheless must count as one of the better episodes of Challenge of the Super Friends.

The reason is simple. For the first time, we get some background info on members of the Super Friends, and the way they came to be superheroes. The origins of Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Superman are all explored in depth here, and the audience even gets to see the great Jor-El, as he argues about the impending destruction of his home world.

These sequences are fascinating for how they depict the beginnings of these heroes, and, in dramatic fashion, showcase how the Legion of Doom undercuts and subverts them.  It is terrible, in particular, seeing deceitful Cheetah adopt the Wonder Woman mantle, defeating Diana.  It is bracing, and alarming, as well, to see Lex Luthor in the uniform of Green Lantern.

The mechanics of the altered time lines are kind of dodgy here, but it hardly matters, as Batman restores his friends to the timeline and corrects the universe in the process. However, I couldn’t help but think, while watching this installment, that the most powerful origin to undercut in the story would have been Batman’s.

Imagine if Bruce Wayne’s parents hadn’t been murdered. Batman would have never come into creation, and Bruce would have grown up happy, with both parents alive and well. This fact would have created a real bind for the other Super Friends. Could they alter time if it meant killing Bruce’s parents, and taking away the boy’s happiness? What a fascinating that story would have made!

Next week: “Revenge of Gorilla City.”

Friday, December 08, 2017

Happy Horror-Days: Krampus (2015)

For horror movie lovers, Michael Dougherty’s Krampus (2015) is a holiday present wrapped up with a bow. 

It’s a delightful, caustic, emotionally-resonant horror movie that feels like a throwback to a bygone era. It’s a (most welcome…) relic from age when audiences more easily or readily allowed fantasy and humor to inform the genre.

Of course, the great arc of movie history involves a push away from the theatrical and artificial towards the naturalistic and realistic.

I don’t waste too much thought mourning this shift in my favorite genre, and I enjoy many modern horror movies tremendously. And yet, at the same time I cannot help but note that so many are, well, humorless, or lacking real imagination.   The genre I grew up with took fantasy and imagination as the starting point.

Today, too many new horror films feel that they must justify their realism, instead of entertaining us with fantasy, laughs, and screams too.

Not so with Krampus.

The film feels very much like a throwback to the era of Gremlins (1984), for example, with its commentary on Christmas, and its quasi-comedic monsters.  The demonic helpers in this film -- who count ambulatory gingerbread men among their number -- straddle the line between terror and comedy quite adroitly.

For about ninety percent of the film, Krampus is also delightfully cutthroat and vicious, in much the same way that one would apply that descriptor to Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971).  

Bad children and bad adults get punished for their nasty behavior, and there’s no looking back or second guessing their grim fates.  One mean-spirited kid who guzzles soda from the bottle at a holiday dinner table gets lured up the chimney by a gingerbread cookie, and then dragged off to the underworld in chains.

It’s true that Krampus’s conclusion backs away from this delightfully mean-spirited approach a little bit, but then, delightfully, the film reconsiders the walk-back in favor of an ambiguous ending that could be read in a number of ways.

I suppose what impressed me most about Krampus was its perpetual sense of imagination. A central scene in the film is a spectacularly shot-and-edited but unconventional flashback.  This scene plays like a Christmas TV special from the 1960s, and yet is spooky and fun at the same time.

On a cerebral level, Krampus also clearly boasts a point or purpose. The film’s opening montage and characters remind us that we often live, today, in an ugly, materialistic culture. And yet, by film’s end, Krampus’s protagonists are all putting their differences and material desires aside for the things that are important -- like family -- and I liked the optimism and heart of that statement.

A visit from Krampus could clearly spoil any holiday season, but this cinematic version of the scary myth is an absolute cause of celebration and revelry if one is an aficionado of the horror film.

“It’s Christmas. Nothing bad is going to happen on Christmas.”

The Engel family prepares for another harried, exhausted Christmas holiday at home.  

Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah’s (Toni Collette) son, Max (Emjay Anthony), has been in a fight, and Sarah’s sister, Linda (Alison Tolman) is visiting with her obnoxious husband, Howie (David Koecher) and their four children.  Meanwhile, Tom and Linda’s daughter, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) is obsessed with her boyfriend, Derek.

Linda’s family arrives, and with a surprise additional visitor to boot: surly Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell). A family dinner goes awry when Linda’s kids steal Max’s letter to Santa Claus and mock him for it.

Fed up, Max rips up the letter to Santa, unwittingly summoning St. Nick’s dark, ancient reflection, a demon called Krampus.

The next morning, Krampus has trapped the family and its house in a grim winter wonderland, replete with creepy snowmen.  

Then, the evil being lays siege to the house with his monstrous minions. Among them are fanged teddy bears, murderous toy robots, cackling gingerbread men, and even a hungry jack-in-the-box.

Omi (Krista Stadler), Tom’s mother, has her own unique history with Krampus, and is able to warn the family of the dangers it now faces.  

She recounts a story from her youth, one in which a lack of the Christmas Spirit brought Kramus to her village, and resulted in her entire family being dragged to the underworld.

“He and his helpers did no come to give, but to take.”

Krampus’s critique of a 21st century Christmas begins right out the gate, with the opening montage. 

We watch as zombie-like crowds pour into a store -- Mucho Mart -- and begin fighting each other over the best deals.  There is rioting in the aisles, the constant passing of paper currency (in close-up) and views of children fighting in the store. The faces of the consumers are horrific, seen in close-up, and in slow-motion photography.  

The impression is clearly that Christmas has, in this age, become a crass and ugly season about the pursuit of material wants.

What makes this montage all the more caustic and effective is that it is scored with a nostalgic holiday tune: Meredith Wilson’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” sung by Perry Como.  

The song hammers home the scene's point. It makes the scene drip with droll and wicked irony.

Today, this is exactly what Christmas does look like to too many people.  It’s about having things; about getting things, about owning things.  

It’s not about, in the words of Omi, “sacrificing,” or giving to others. 

Not long after this montage, we see talking heads on TV debating the “War on Christmas,” another divisive aspect of the modern holiday.  The spirit of the holiday -- about giving and love -- is absent not just in terms of the violence and material desire the film showcases, but regarding the hostility with which we view those who are different from us.  We're all Americans, and yet we seem to hate one another. We can't even tolerate that someone might celebrate the holiday in a different way than we do.

That’s actually a key point of the film.  

The two sisters in Krampus, Sarah and Linda, come from opposite political views. Howie and Linda are Republicans who want to talk gun ownership at the dinner table, deny global warming, and who, when faced with “free gifts,” say that the recipients must be for “Democrats.”  

Sarah, by contrast is a somewhat holier-than-thou liberal, and one who can’t really tolerate the fact that others boast different traditions (in terms of food and behavior)

All the details of our red state/blue state divides are on display in Krampus, but I love the movie’s process of (murderous) attrition, because it galvanizes the attention of both families.  

Before long, the conservatives and liberals are working together to survive.  

The inescapable point? It doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican, Krampus notes, because both types of Americans love their families, and want to protect their children. Part of “rediscovering” the Christmas spirit involves loving those who don’t believe exactly what you believe, and yet, finally, are your blood.

There’s nothing to focus one’s attention on the important thing like a giant, horned demon with a Santa beard and penetrating, deep-set eyes. 

I love and admire the film’s depiction of Krampus too. There’s a fantastic shot, set during a blizzard, wherein Beth runs for her life in the foreground of the frame while Krampus -- this huge hulking thing -- shadows her moves in the background, leaping from rooftop to rooftop.  

And when Krampus makes his entrance at the Engel hearth, he cracks the fireplace, and emerges hunched over. When he rears up and extends to full height, it’s a terrifying moment. Krampus is one scary dude.

I respect, as well, the way that Krampus attempts to defy convention by engineering awful demises for the film’s children and family members. 

A jack in the box swallows a child whole (sneakers last…).  

The aforementioned soda guzzler gets yanked up a dark chimney.  

Aunt Dorothy encounters a pack of gruesome, masked elves and is forcibly ejected from the family living room..  The film and filmmakers have terrific fun with the twisted Christmas imagery, and the deeply disturbing winter wonderland background too.

Some will see the film’s resolution -- set over the pit of Hell -- as a cop-out.  I admit that was my first thought, as well.  

But the film’s final imagery suggest a not-so happy or clear-cut ending.  

Either the family is now a Christmas decoration in Hell, or at the very least, Krampus will be watching the Engels to make certain they remain true to the spirit of Christmas, and don’t relapse into their conspicuous consumption or participation in the partisan divide.

I prefer the second alternative there, because it honors Max’s choice in the last act. 

Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the lad acts according to the best “spirit” of Christmas, showcasing self-sacrifice and personal responsibility for his actions.  He doesn’t blame others for his unhappiness, or love things more than he loves the people in his family.  To adopt a cliche, he comes to understand the real meaning of Christmas.

When I look back at a film like Gremlins (1984), I think of the humor, the scares, and the heart embodied in its text.  

Krampus possesses all the same virtues.  

The scenes with the attacking Gingerbread Men boast the same wicked ingenuity you might expect to find in the works of a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi. I’m glad the film doesn’t strive too much to be “real,” and makes room for such silly boogeymen.

For me, Krampus is the whole, twisted horror package, and I loved every sharp-edged, fantastic minute of it.

Movie Trailer: Krampus (2015)

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Cult-TV Blogging: Star Maidens: "Creatures of the Mind" (1976)

In “Creatures of the Mind,” we return to Medusa for a hard sci-fi story. In particular, a Medusan officer working in the Archive of the Department of Historical Records, is confronted with an old computer that has developed sentience, and wishes to feed on the energy of living beings.

Octavia (Christiane Kruger) assigns Liz (Lisa Harrow) to continue the job in the Archives when the officer descends into catatonia. Liz asks Rudy (Christian Quadflieg) to help, and together they confront the strange living machine.

The dangerous computers nearly take control of Liz, but Rudy saves the day, and actually gets a compliment from Octavia about his performance during the crisis.

Although this is a good, creepy, genre tale, “Creatures of the Mind” doesn’t exactly feel tailor-made for Star Maidens (1976), a series about the war between the sexes.  Instead, it feels very much aligned with many Star Trek (1966-1969) or Space: 1999 (1975-1977) stories involving sentient, mad, tyrannical computers. 

Here the Museum of Medusan History houses just such a danger.

It’s true that Octavia and Rudy must put their differences aside to defeat the danger, making this an example of the “My Enemy, My Ally” story, as well as one about the sexes getting along.  

Still, this story on Medusa doesn’t reveal much about the culture (as “End of Time” did) or expose some flaw in the way the society works (as was the case in “What Have They Done to the Rain?”)  Instead, the story just features a sci-fi standard: the evil, advanced computer.

What the story lacks in customization, perhaps, it makes up for in style. The prologue, with creepy female voices taunting a security officer, is quite unnerving.  The Archive is dark, foreboding, and dangerous, and there is the feel of this as some kind of demonic possession horror story. Only in this case, it is a computer, not a devil that wishes to possess the living.

The budgetary limits of the series are apparent, at least in one regard in “Creatures of the Mind.” Octavia is the Chief of Security for the entire planet, and yet she and Rudy work to save Liz...just the two of them. You’d think she had more scientists and soldiers she could rally to the cause.

Of course, the presence of additional characters would not only be expensive, it would take away from the particularly intimate nature of this horror: creepy computer voices in the dark, promising friendship, but delivering something malevolent and monstrous.

Next week, the final episode of Star Maidens: “The Enemy.”