Sunday, March 26, 2017

Advert Artwork: A View to a Kill (Michelin Edition)

John and Jim's Excellent Journey: Episode 1

The great James McLean -- one of my favorite scholars and friends in the world -- and I are now co-hosting an (irregular) cult-TV podcast called John and Jim's Excellent Journey. The podcast is devoted to classic, cult-TV, and our first episode is now available! 

This entry looks at classic TV and, in particular, the TV shows of the late Glen Larson (1937-2014). We discuss Knight Rider, Battlestar Galactica, and Manimal, among other things.  

But we are also a bit -- let's say undisciplined -- in our cult-TV ramblings.

Let me know if you like the podcast, and what other subjects you would like to see Jim and I cover!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Lidsville: "Fly Now, Vacuum Later"

In “Fly Now, Vacuum Later,” Weenie the Genie (Billie Hayes) conjures a magic/flying carpet to transport Mark (Butch Patrick) home.

Hoo Doo (Charles Nelson Reilly) attempts to stop his escape by summoning, in response, a giant flying vacuum cleaner. It intercepts the carpet in flight and captures Mark.

Mark is forced to walk a plank atop Hoo Doo’s top hat HQ, and Weenie must arrange a rescue, using the flying carpet.

Well, just as I feared, Lidsville (1971 -1973) possesses no short term memory. Even though last week a map promised an escape (via a golden ladder), that escape possibility is not brought up in this, the very next episode. 

Instead, the new plan is to use a flying carpet to escape.

Irritatingly, by the end of the episode, the flying carpet isn’t even used for an escape attempt, once Mark is rescued.  Who wants to bet that it too is forgotten, as an escape option, in next week’s episode?

The problem, of course, is that each episode of the series seems to exist in its own standalone universe. There’s no learning from show to show, no development from episode-to-episode.  Before anyone states that programs didn’t develop like that in the 1970s, I would only point out that Sid and Marty Krofft’s Land of the Lost (1974-1977) did feature a consistent universe, with consistent rules, and “set points” (like pylons, or the Sleestak city) that were remembered by the Marshalls. Lidsville, so far, isn’t in the same league.

This episode is memorable mainly for the Charles Nelson Reilly Hoo Doo scenes.  Here, he gets a musical number and sings “It’s So Much Fun Being Rotten.”  Also, the actor breaks the fourth wall and makes eye contact with the camera on at least two occasions.  His performance is certainly over-the-top, but it has the virtue of recognizing just how over the top it actually is.  He’s in on the joke.

This episode, like last week’s, ends with Hoo Doo’s ritual humiliation.  This doesn’t do much for his power to menace.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: "The Dummy's Revenge" (October 11, 1975)

In “The Dummy’s Revenge,” a ventriloquist called “The Phantom of Vaudeville” (Tim Herbert) and his dummy, Elmo (Brian Berlin), materialize in the graveyard on the outskirts of town, near the castle where they once lived.  They have returned to the land of the living to inflect revenge on the act that replaced them on stage, in audience affection.

Spenser (Larry Storch), Kong (Forrest Tucker) and Tracy (Bob Burns) are assigned by Zero the task of stopping these ghosts.  When they announce themselves as ghost busters, however, the Phantom and his dummy turn their wrath on them…so they pretend to be vaudeville stars.

During the ensuing confrontation, the de-materializer doesn’t work and that the phantom can only be destroyed by unmasking him…

God help me, I’m starting to enjoy the goofy and sophomoric charms of The Ghost Busters (1975), a cheap-jack Filmation live action series. This episode isn’t any better than any of the others, and yet somehow, I am learning to tolerate the goofy shtick better.

Here, we get the usual jokes: the self-destruct joke (of the mission tape), the file cabinet joke, and the mistaken identity joke too.  In this case, the Ghost Busters are mistaken first for Vaudevillians, and then they wish to prove they are actually vaudevillians, when the Phantom targets them as ghost hunters.  The vaudeville act performed by Spenser, Kong, and Tracy -- under duress -- in the ubiquitous haunted castle, isn’t half bad.

The villains are also actually a bit creepy this time, although victims of the same quirk.  It’s not just a ventriloquist and his dummy to fight here, but the ghost of a ventriloquist and the ghost of a ventriloquist’s dummy.  That’s just so incredibly awkward, but a necessity, I suppose if the de-materializer is in the picture. This week, however, the de-materializer doesn’t even work.  I guess the powers that be felt these ghost busters had to be constantly fighting ghosts, not other monsters of the week, hence the fact that every monster -- whether mummy, vampire, Frankenstein monster or ventriloquist’s dummy --  had to be a ghost.

Next week: “A Worthless Gauze”

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Films of 2009: Pandorum

Important note to architects of the future: the space ark or "sleeper ark" is a very problematic vehicle. At least, that is, if we are to believe the examples of science fiction novels, TV series, and films focusing on the topic.

I’ve been thinking about this matter recently, after watching 2016’s Passengers, which concerns a crisis on just such a sleeper ship, the Avalon.

But way back in 1941, author Robert Heinlein first demonstrated some of the pitfalls of the colossal, space ark in two stories that would eventually form the novel Orphans of the Sky (1963). In that tale, the vast vessel Vanguard, bound for Proxima Centauri became pilot-less en route; and the passengers and flight crew aboard her separated over time into distinct classes or sects (like the mutants or "muties.") They even forgot they were aboard a ship.

After Heinlein, sci-fi television soon took the lead in terms of huge space ark dramas. Cordwainer Bird (a.k.a. Harlan Ellison) created the Canadian program The Starlost (1973), which concerned three Quakers learning that they were living not on a planet surface, but rather in a dome that was part of a much larger vessel, an ark.

Led by a man named Devon (Keir Dullea), these unlikely explorers discovered that the ark was actually on a collision course with a star, and that it -- like the Vanguard -- was essentially pilot-less. They spent the series visiting different domes (and different cultures) and trying to control their ark.

In Johnny Byrne's "Mission of the Darians," an episode of Space: 1999 from 1975, the errant Alphans came across the space ark of an alien race called the Darians. There had been a nuclear disaster aboard the vast ark, transforming some crew into mutants while leaving the remainder of the crew physically intact. Across the centuries, the "pure" Darians resorted to cannibalism and transplant surgery from the ranks of the mutants to stay alive; so they could reach a "new Daria." The Darians rationalized this exploitation of the lower caste for one reason. Carried about the ark was the DNA gene bank of the entire Darian race. Theoretically, this gene bank would ensure that, by landfall, the Darian race could re-constitute itself.

In Doctor Who's "The Ark in Space" (also in 1975), another twist on the space ark format was developed. Man's future generations -- the crew of a space station in this case -- was being devoured while asleep in their cryo-tubes by a predatory race of alien insectoids called The Wirrn.

There are other examples of this narrative, both literary and video, including David Gerrold's Star Trek novel The Galactic Whirlpool (1980). And there’s also an example I like very much, director Christian Alvart's harrowing horror film, Pandorum (2009), a recent permutation of the formula.

In Pandorum, the generational space ark Elysium departs from Earth in 2174, bound for the only habitable planet ever discovered: distant Tanis. Early on the Space Ark's journey, however, the crew receives a frightening message from Mission Control on Earth. "You're all that's left. Good luck and god speed."

And then, mysteriously, Earth blinks out of existence. Perhaps -- as one crew member suggests -- the planetary disaster was "nuclear" in origin. Or perhaps the demise of our world was caused by an asteroid collision. Regardless, the 60,000 human colonists on Elysium are all that remains of the human race...the seeds of our future. The seeds of our hope.

The film then jumps to an undisclosed time in the future. A likable technician, Bower (Ben Foster) awakens from extended hyper-sleep in a state of disorientation, and suffering from temporary amnesia. The ship itself is a wreck: no one is at the helm, and the bridge is locked and sealed.

Bower awakens another crew member on the flight team, Lt. Payton (Dennis Quaid), and together these two men learn that the ship's reactor is going critical in a matter of hours. The ark -- and the human passengers -- will be destroyed if the reactor can't be fixed. (And yes, this is also the problem in Passengers!) While Payton attempts to gain access to the bridge, Bower heads down into the ship's bowels, bound for the reactor core. So, metaphorically speaking, his is an Orphean journey into the Underworld.

And what Bower encounters throughout the gigantic ship is terrifying indeed. A species of sub-human monsters has turned the passenger section -- the cryo-chamber rooms -- into their hunting and feeding grounds (like the Wirrn on Doctor Who.) These beasts were once "sleepers" and colonists themselves, but the synthetic accelerator that was pumped into their cryo-chambers (to help them adapt to life on Tanis) has instead adapted them to life aboard the ruined, out-of-control. Elysium. 

These monsters -- who physically resemble John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars and Joss Whedon's Reavers -- have set nasty booby-traps for flight crew members throughout the ark, often using live human beings as bait.

There are some normal human survivors left too, but they seem to possess no knowledge that they are even on board a ship (The Starlost!). Eventually, Bower encounters a woman -- a scientist -- named Nadia who takes him to a laboratory where all of Earth's biological heritage and legacy is stored; Pandorum's equivalent of "Mission of the Darians'" gene bank.

This biological legacy must be protected or Earth is really and truly lost.

An unexpected twist in the familiar space ark format arises from the film's unusual title: "Pandorum."

Pandorum is a feared disease of the mind that sometimes afflicts astronauts in deep space. The illness begins with quivering, shaking hands and then culminates with hysteria, paranoia and violence. For a comparison, recall Michael Biehn suffering from the High Pressure Nervous Syndreom in Cameron's The Abyss (1989). Pandorum is the space-borne equivalent.

There's an oddly beautiful -- if utterly horrifying sequence -- regarding Pandorum early in the film's first act. Payton recounts the tale -- and we see it unfold in flashback -- as a crew member on another space mission goes irrevocably mad, and ejects all his crew into space, in their separate sleep chambers (which, let's face it, are the equivalent of space-bound coffins).

The film cuts to a spectacular long shot from deep space as the troubled ship literally ejects hundreds of these tiny flowering, technological spores. Then, at closer range, we detect a screaming human inside one of these tubes and quickly realize he is headed into oblivion...alive and conscious of his fate.

Simply stated, Pandorum is pandemonium.

And that quality is both the film's greatest strength and the film's most troubling weakness.

The movie opens with total chaos and we -- like Bower himself -- have no idea what the hell is happening aboard Elysium. We experience the horrors of the ark alongside Bower, and it's a scarifying descent into a man-made, technological Hell. Then there's some wild action and jolts that really get the blood rolling. But before long, alas, the story starts to feel repetitive, and there are some plot points that I would have preferred to see explored with deeper insight. I don't exaggerate when I say that this movie is madness, violence, madness, more violence, and more madness, until you feel whiplash. It's all a bit exhausting.

Pandorum is also, perhaps, stuffed with one narrative u-turn too many (particularly the schizoid psyche of one character), though I understand why he's present. This schizoid crew man reflects the schizoid personality of the ship, as well as the new cultures that have sprung up aboard her. I only wish this character's back story felt more organic and less like a de rigueur third act "twist." By film's end, Pandorum is already ramped-up to insanity; it doesn't need more of it.

However, I have always enjoyed stories like the one dramatized here: stories of lost and imperiled space arks bound for disaster. I love the intriguing concept of cultural identity, heritage and history forgotten; and the accidental birth of a new social order, one based on the environment at hand. Pandorum encompasses all that (and indeed, will seem very familiar to fans of Space: 1999, The Starlost and Dr. Who).

Outside the space ark template, Pandorum also borrows from The Abyss, as I mentioned above, and even, to some extent, The Poseidon Adventure, since much of the film involves traveling from one end of a damaged, dangerous vessel to the other, facing all kinds of hazards on the trip.

An authentic horror film, Pandorum also lingers on some extreme violence and gore. In particular, there's one scene here that will definitely cause nightmares: an innocent crew member awakes from cryo-sleep only to be viciously set upon and devoured by the cannibals. Grotesque stuff, but vivid and memorable.

Pandorum may not be a great movie, but it is a good one; a hectic one that captures the essential elements of the space ark tale. The lead character, Bower, is drawn well enough that he anchors most of the crazy least until the over-the-top climax, which relies on a surprise you'll probably see coming a mile away.

Pandorum ends with the legend "Tanis, Year One." And instead of seeing Elysium's journey end right there, I wanted more...which probably indicates the movie is better than I'm giving it credit for in this review. But Pandorum made no money at the box office and critics hated it, so we'll probably never see "Tanis, Year Two."

To tell you the truth, that makes me sad. This largely-effective, technologically updated re-telling of the classic space ark adventure would make the perfect prologue to an updated "colonizing a new planet at the edge of the galaxy" story. (I may just have to wait for Alien: Covenant [2016] for that tale).

Besides, there are lots of episodes of Dr. Who, Space: 1999 and The Starlost left to mine for inspiration. Pandorum may ultimately be a derivative riff on a familiar, oft-told science-fiction tale, but at least it isn't a remake, a re-boot or a re-imagination. And in my book, that's what passes as "original" in Hollywood these days.

It’s sort of intriguing to put Pandorum and Passengers side-by-side, and assess similarities, and differences.

Movie Trailer: Pandorum (2009)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Logan's Run 40th Anniversary Blogging: "Carousel" (January 16, 1978)

“Carousel” is another better-than-average episode of Logan’s Run (1977). I suspect this is so because the writers/producers must have realized that viewers who like the 1976 film are especially intrigued by the City of Domes, and its hedonistic lifestyle. The world of the Sandmen, Runners, and Carousel itself is re-visited here, taking audiences in effect, right back to the beginning of the whole franchise.

Certainly, I speak for myself in this regard. The most intriguing aspect, of Logan’s Run, I find, is city life of the 23rd century. It is decadent, strictly policed, highly-sexualized, “futuristic,” and nicely dystopian.  People live in bliss, but it is an unknowing bliss. They are lambs led to the slaughter.  But before the slaughter, they live out their dreams.

Those the qualities that draw me repeatedly, to the ’76 film, and are less frequently seen in the series, which mostly occurs outside the domes. When I think of the film, I think of Last Day, Carousel, Nursery, New You, the Love Shop, and the mall-like environs. When I think of the series, by contrast, I usually think of a solar craft buzzing about dusty, natural locations.

So it is a relief to see an episode that takes Logan (Gregory Harrison) and Jessica (Heather Menzies) back to the place that they ran away from in the first place.  The use of another mall location is actually quite smart, and it blends in seamlessly with the oft-seen stock footage from the movie.

The set-up for the episode is a bit weird, to be certain, but it is just the trick to get our characters back to the domain of Francis, Carousel, and the Council of Elders.

In a freak mishap, Logan gets shot with "memory warp" dart and forgets the entire last year of his life.  This is a weapon used by an advanced race of human beings, who seek to prevent contact with outsiders. Victims forget they ever encountered this civilization, or individuals from it.

Realizing that his old buddy is now an amnesiac and doesn't recall his act of treason back at the Domed City, Sandman Francis (Randy Powell) brings Logan back to the City to renounce runners and Sanctuary. Meanwhile, Jessica and REM (Donald Moffat) must negotiate their freedom from the weird locals who shot Logan with the memory warp dart in the first place, return to the City of Domes, and rescue their confused ally before he dies in an attempt to “renew.”

In the City of Domes, our amnesiac Logan undergoes a "truth" scan and immediately picks up his old life as a swinging single. In particular, there's a young denizen named "Sheila" (played by Melody Anderson, Flash Gordon's Dale Arden) who would like to pick up precisely where they left off a year ago.

Realizing (with REM's help) that the way to get to Logan -- and spur his memory -- is to seduce him, Jessica slicks back her hair, dresses up as a temptress, "Jerri 4" and pays a slinky visit to Logan's bachelor pad. But before anything too much fun can happen, Jessica wimps out and reveals to Logan who she really is.

Logan, who was already figuring out, has his memory restored. He and his friends escape the city, and continue their search for Sanctuary…

The mechanism by which Logan loses his memory in “Carousel,” is really awkward.  We are asked to believe that survivors of the holocaust have mastered the equivalent of matter transporters, able to move people back and forth through different dimensions, apparently. Again, this idea fits in a Trek-like universe, where the technology is widespread (think: The Alpha Quadrant). 

But matter/energy conversion/transportation does not seem at all like a logical or realistic development in a world recovering from a nuclear holocaust.  Once more, the careful viewer must wonder how and where the technology for this -- or memory warp darts, for that matter -- came about. What powers the transporters?

And, examining the memory warp darts even more closely, wouldn't affected enemies find it strange when they can’t remember the last year of their lives, especially since the effect is temporary (as we see with Logan)? Eventually, he recalls everything of his previous year’s adventures with Jessica and REM.  

So wouldn’t an enemy get over the effect of the drug (even after a year), and get angry…seeking out those who robbed him or her of his memory?

Watching this episode, I also felt sorry once more for Francis (actor Randy Powell), our hapless pursuer. He could have killed Logan in this episode and been done with the whole mission, but he doesn't do that. You get the sense that he just wants Logan to come back to the City and be his best friend again. And that's really sort of sad/pathetic.  Francis can't seem to get over the past, and joining up with Logan isn't, apparently, an option he considers.  Still, Francis's "humanity" if you can call that, makes him an interesting character, if not a strong villain.

I remember I interviewed Dorothy Fontana once, and she said that had Logan Run continued as a TV series, Logan and Jessica would have converted Francis to their side, and all three of them would have returned to the City of Domes to wage a war of insurrection against the Council of Elders.

Too bad that never happened.

A plot like that would have better served Francis, a character who is constantly made to look either foolish or just plain incompetent. It also sounds like a cool way to continue the show, especially since the "civilization of the week" thing wasn't exactly going so well.  

Going back to my original thesis in this review, I believe Logan’s Run was popular initially, in particular, because of the City of Domes, and the exploration of life there.  I don’t believe that a quest to find “Sanctuary” was ever quite as compelling as City of Domes technology (like the flame guns), rituals (such as Carousel) or social developments (constant casual sex as a pastime.)

Speaking of casual sex, it's a shame that this episode doesn't really allow Logan or Jessica to express their sexual sides. Jessica is just tricking Logan, all along. And Logan doesn't seem terribly interested.  There should be some sparks flying here, in "Carousel," but there aren't.

Interestingly, at one point during "Carousel" Logan declares that Sanctuary (his longtime goal...) is just a place "invented by runners to encourage other runners." 

After seeing this many episodes of Logan's Run and watching the characters visit dream clinics ("Futurepast"), psych wards ("Fear Factor"), alien spaceships ("The Collectors") and the private estate of a hunter ("The Capture"), you know, I think he's actually telling the truth. Sanctuary isn’t a place, it’s an idea.

Does Logan know or realize that he's telling the truth in this moment? Is Logan aware he's on a wild goose chase? 

That's one of those questions that never gets answered on this series.  I would love it, at some point, if Logan and Jessica could stop running, and realize, the City of Domes could be sanctuary, if only they make the change they wish to see there.

Next week, we’re into the series' final slide into incredibly weak episodes, beginning with (the dreadful) “Night Visitors.”

Cult-TV Movie Review: Baffled! (January 30, 1973)

The TV-movies of the 1970’s were veritably obsessed with matters of the occult, and with psychic powers too. I reviewed Sweet, Sweet Rachel (1971) not long ago, and now here’s another movie with similar themes and structure: Baffled! (1973).

Like Sweet, Sweet Rachel before it, Baffled! concerns a person from our Modern Age of Reason and Technology (The 20th and 21st century) who becomes unexpectedly engulfed in a psychic “mystery” and must solve a crime related to it.  These films are as much detective stories (or film noirs, I suppose you could argue) as they are horror pictures. They involve murder, robbery, and other criminal activity.

And also like that earlier film, Baffled! is a bit slow-paced and over-long. The pacing seems off at points, and some action beats don’t succeed, either because of inadequate staging (bad rear projection) or a lack of suspense.

Finally, Baffled! too was designed to be the pilot for an ongoing TV series.  Sweet, Sweet Rachel went on to become The Sixth Sense (1972), a series that starred Garry Collins and lasted two seasons.

Baffled! never went on to series format, even though the movie boasts some promise

What, exactly is that promise?

It’s in the performances, specifically. Leonard Nimoy and Susan Hampshire star as the duo investigating the unusual supernatural events, and there’s some good, interesting chemistry between the performers. For those of you who are familiar with Nimoy primarily as the unemotional Spock on Star Trek (1966-1969), Baffled! is a remarkable counterpoint. He’s charming, laidback, and quite funny in the telefilm. Susan Hampshire, playing an occult expert, is surprisingly sweet and innocent in the role, which is an interesting twist too.  Where Alex Dreier and Gary Collins both performed their “psychic” support roles with utter solemnity and seriousness, Hampshire plays it all sincerely, but gently. 

In all, Baffled! is intriguing, but not great.

“Evil forces do exist. Always have…”

During a competitive car race at the Pennsylvania Run, ace driver Tom Kovack (Nimoy) runs off the road when he experiences a psychic vision of a woman in trouble, in a manor house in England.  An expert in psychic phenomena and student of the occult, Michelle Brent (Hampshire) meets with him later, and suggests to him that his vision was true; that he possesses a “rare and mysterious insight.”

At first, Kovack dismisses this possibility out-of-hand, but soon experiences a second and a third vision.  In one such vision, he falls from the manor house -- which Michelle has identified real place, Wyndham House in Devon -- into s turbulent ocean over the cliff-side.  After the startling vision, Kovack discovers that he is actually soaked.

Realizing he needs help to understand better what is happening to him, Kovack teams up with Michelle, and they had to England together, to stay at Wyndham House and investigate.
There is another guest staying there too, a famous movie star, Andrea Glenn (Vera Miles). She is waiting for her estranged husband, and has brought their twelve-year old daughter, Jennifer (Jewel Blanch) to the house as well. 

After Jennifer receives a necklace with a wolf-head pendant from her mysterious, absent father, the girl seems to age dramatically in a day, acting like a fifteen-year old, surly teenager.

Mrs. Farraday (Rachel Roberts), who runs the house, however, starts to appear much younger.

Tom becomes convinced that Andrea was the woman in danger in his first vision, and that some dark force has taken control of her daughter, Jennifer, and is plotting against her.

Baffled! is one of those cases in which a movie’s set-up is more intriguing, finally, than the actual plot or resolution of the plot. After all is said and done, the psychic plot is just a gimmick and the real motive here is for someone to acquire Andrea Glenn’s fortune.

The best part of this telefilm is the first half-hour, wherein Tom Kovack experiences his first psychic visions, and encounters Michelle, who encourages him to pursue them.  The writing is strong, the performances a good, and there’s even a bit of a cinematic feel to the production.

Once the film has settled down in the British manor house, by contrast, the movie loses some of its interest, and comes to a near stand-still in terms of pacing. Unlike Sweet, Sweet Rachel and its follow-up, The Sixth Sense, the visuals in Baffled! aren’t even particularly stylish. Stylish, colorful murder sequences enlivened both earlier productions, and yet are absent here.

The movie’s real virtue is, frankly, Leonard Nimoy, who is so un-Spock-like here it is astounding.  Tom Kovack is a mellow seventies bachelor (and race car driver), trying to make time with the ladies and commenting ironically on everything that happens to him. I wouldn’t say that Nimoy is Shatner-esque in the film, but he seems is downright effusive compared to his buttoned down, controlled performances as the half-Vulcan.

The mystery itself is a bit odd, and uninspiring, and director Philip Leacock fails to wring substantial suspense from the action, even when Kovack and Michelle become trapped in the bottom of the elevator shaft in Wyndham House. The film’s ending -- and restoration of order -- can be seen coming a mile away, and reflects the laws of the occult established as far back as The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).

Baffled! also ends with a plug for a series that would never come. After the mystery is solved at Wyndham House, Kovack and Michelle decide to go their separate ways. But then -- just as he is getting in his car – Tom conveniently experiences another vision that shows someone (strangers) in danger. He summons Michelle, she jumps into his car, and they’re off to solve another psychic case.
So, they’re a team!

There’s a part of me that is sorry that Baffled didn’t make it to series so we could see that team solve more intriguing mysteries. I would have loved to see Nimoy and Hampshire work together again, and feel that if the episodes were an hour instead of 90 minute, there would be less chance for the tediousness that impacts some moments here.

Today, Baffled! is more of a curiosity than an artistically satisfying endeavor, and I can’t help but wonder how history would have been different if the concept had become a hit, and Nimoy became well-known not just for Star Trek, but for playing a groovy, 1970s psychic investigator.