Archive for Stuff I Like

Curse of the CMOS Battery (part 2): Desperate Measures!

cmos-battery

More tales of a vintage laptop collector/hobbyist and a lifelong devotee of WordPerfect for DOS…

(Go to Part 1)

CMOS stands for Complementary Metal–Oxide–Semiconductor. (I had to look that up.) Basically, your computer’s CMOS battery (and desktop computers have them, too) is the watch or hearing aid button battery which backs up your computer’s date and time settings when its power is shut off; in many computers made after the shift to 286-class processors in 1984 or so, the CMOS batteries also back up system settings, such as boot sequence, hard drive specifications, display settings, and power management settings (although newer machines often have these BIOS settings saved in nonvolatile flash memory, with only the date and time backed up by the CMOS battery). According to Wikipedia, CMOS batteries, such as the commonly used CR2032 button cell, typically last anywhere from two to ten years inside a computer before sputtering out, depending on the computer’s usage cycle.

Well, since I’d purchased two of my three Amitys as “new old stock,” I had the manuals to refer to, didn’t I? Surely I’d find instructions on how to replace the CMOS battery like my laptop was cajoling me to do.

I dug out the manuals. They were written in Japanese. Uh, oh. My “new old stock” had originally been intended for the home Japanese market. I can’t read Japanese. It’s, y’know, “Greek” to me.

More digging through my boxes and boxes of computer stuff. I ended up finding a dog-eared photocopy of the English version of the Amity CN manual, which had been mailed to me along with the used Amity I had bought. Great! English, that I can read. Unfortunately, the manuals said nothing at all about replacing the CMOS battery. They didn’t even mention the CMOS battery.

So off I went to search the Net. Again, snake-eyes. Amazingly, there was not one site on the Net which gave any guidance to replacing an Amity’s CMOS battery, or which even alluded to the possibility of doing so.

This was not looking promising. I went back to my stricken machine. Maybe if I reset the BIOS information using the Setup program, I could at least get the machine to boot and copy my most recent files? Maybe it would kinda-sorta work for me, and I’d just have to put up with the bother of resetting the time and date and basic BIOS settings each time I turned it on?

Not happening. Yes, the error message led me to the Setup menu, which I could access and change all hunky-dory. But then the machine would attempt to boot. And when it attempted to boot, it would lose the BIOS settings I had just reset, because there was no working CMOS battery. And I ended up at the error message again, which led me back to the Setup menu, which led me to a boot attempt, which led to…

Okay. There was no way around replacing that CMOS battery. I just had to find it, right? More Internet research led me to sites which mentioned two different sizes of CMOS batteries which might (or might not) be associated with the Amity. I went out to a couple of battery stores and bought both kinds, just in case. Then, trepidation levels at eleven, I got out my mini screwdriver set and began trying to take the case of the Amity apart. I figured, if I was lucky, I’d spot the CMOS battery sitting in a little cradle on the motherboard, I’d be able to pop the dead battery out of its clasps and replace it with a fresh one (and I’d have the right one on hand, since I’m being lucky), then I’d screw the laptop back together, run the Setup program, save my BIOS settings, and happily get back to work on my final edits to Fat White Vampire Otaku.

Did I mention this was the week of Friday the Thirteenth?

I couldn’t get the machine fully apart. I got to a point where I was able to pry the bottom case partially open and peer inside (dreading the whole while that I was going to hear a horrible crack, which would’ve meant I’d broken my case in half and permanently ruined my laptop). I didn’t see anything which resembled either of the CMOS batteries I’d purchased.

So I called in Michael, my family’s young handyman and friend. Michael had just taken a job with the Geek Squad. Michael was an old hand at taking apart laptops. I asked him to bring his soldering iron, just in case (oh, I hoped it wouldn’t be the case) the elusive CMOS battery had been soldered to the motherboard.

Michael managed to get the Amity’s case open without too much trouble, despite his lack of a service manual. We both looked anxiously for anything which might appear to be a CMOS battery. I’d been expecting something either the size of a nickel or the size of a quarter. The only possible candidate we found, however, was the size of an aspirin, and it was (of course) soldered to the motherboard. Michael was able to pry it loose without reducing the bits of solder surrounding it to crumbs. But he found that the bottom of the button battery contained tiny mounting brackets which had been soldered to the battery.

Michael looked at me with eyes that said, You aren’t going to want to hear this. “You realize,” he said sadly, “the only way to replace this CMOS battery in any reliable way is to order a whole new motherboard.”

I shook my head, thinking a whole litany of nasty thoughts at those engineers at Mitsubishi who designed a $1,500 device completely dependent upon a $1.50 component which had a stated lifetime of two to ten years… and which could not be replaced, short of replacing the entire motherboard.

“I mean, I can try a few things,” Michael continued. “You’ve got two other computers that are almost identical to this one. I could snip out the CMOS battery from one of them and try soldering it onto this one’s motherboard.”

“That sounds like a whole lot of trouble,” I said. “Also, if the CMOS battery on this one just died, and those other two machines are about the same age, who’s to say their batteries are still any good? Wouldn’t it be easier to take the hard drive from this machine, which we know is good, and transplant it into one of the other machines? One of the others has a bad hard drive, and the third one has a bad screen or a bad graphics driver. With the latter one, you could transplant both the hard drive and the screen.”

laptop interior

We decided upon the latter path, since the spare machine with the bad screen and/or graphics driver was an exact match to my current machine and should (if we could get the screen working) accept the hard drive without a hiccup. So Michael removed the screen and its ribbon cables from my current machine, along with the hard drive, and transplanted them both into the other Amity CN1.

No go. The screen remained black. The culprit was the graphics driver.

Michael must’ve been eager to try his skills with his soldering iron, because he insisted our next avenue be to take the possibly still-good CMOS battery from the Amity CN1 #2 and try to solder it to the motherboard of the machine which had recently died. So back went the screen and the hard drive to their original home. Michael said soldering the CMOS battery would take a few minutes. It was already past my 10 PM bedtime (I get up early enough to catch a 5:51 AM train into Washington), so I went to lie down on the sofa with my dog, Romeo, and get some rest.

Romeo and I were both startled awake by a stream of explicatives from one level down. I rushed down the steps to the computer room. Michael had burned himself with the soldering iron. “Forgot to turn the darned thing off,” he said sheepishly. “Accidentally brushed my arm against it.”

“Do you need some burn cream? I think we’ve got a tube somewhere upstairs.”

“It can wait. Let’s see if the transplanted CMOS battery does the trick.”

We rebooted the Amity. I was relieved to see that, even after all the futzing we had done with its guts, it still turned on. I waited with trepidation to see whether the new/newish “pacemaker” we had transplanted onto its motherboard would be accepted or rejected.

The same darned error message popped up, instructing me to replace the CMOS battery. If you really want me to replace your CMOS battery, computer, why didn’t your creators make that remotely POSSIBLE????

Few exertions, though, produce less in the way of results than screaming at a dead laptop. So, at 11 PM at night, way past my bedtime (and Michael’s, too, I suspect, especially given that he had a long ride home ahead of him), we decided upon the last of our possible solutions, short of my buying an entire new motherboard (assuming I could find one). I talked Michael into putting the hard drive from my recently dead machine, a CN1, into the machine with a fried hard drive, a CN2, the upgraded Amity.

“I really kinda doubt this is gonna work,” Michael warned me. “I mean, everything I’ve read has told me that when you transplant a hard drive from one machine into another, unless the two machines are exactly alike, you’re going to need to reload the operating system, and that means you’ll lose all those files you wanted to rescue.”

“Yes, but while these two laptops aren’t precisely alike, they’re still awfully similar, aren’t they? I mean, the physical layout of the machines is identical—“

“Not really. The CN2 has a bigger screen…”

“But it still fits in the same footprint. I’ll bet their motherboards are just about the same,” I insisted (wanting to get at least something out of the sixty or seventy bucks I planned to pay Michael, and not just three dead machines).

“Well, I suppose we can try. The worst that can happen is that the system will demand that you reload an operating system, and you’ll lose your files.”

“Go for it.”

We must have just escaped the bad luck penumbra of Friday the Thirteenth at that very moment. Because, wouldn’t you know it? The venerable copy of Windows 95 loaded on the transplanted hard drive booted right up, noticed that it now inhabited a different and more advanced laptop than before, and began its task of updating its hardware settings.

I was able to rescue the few recent files I hadn’t backed up. I had not sacrificed two precious hours of sleep for nothing! The evening was a partial success!

Only a partial success, though. Because, just like Victor Frankenstein and Igor in the 1931 Frankenstein, we had transplanted a defective brain into the skull of our creation. Although Windows 95 had managed to update most of the necessary settings, the laptop’s power management features had been lost in the translation. And I could not get my precious WordPerfect 5.1 to load. No matter how many times I tried changing the DOS setting to include FILES=30, WordPerfect still gave me the error message, “Unable to start program; inadequate files specified; must specify at minimum FILES=30.” Not only that, but Michael and I had managed, while opening up the machine’s case and replacing the hard drive, to misplace one of the tiny springs which underlay the machine’s mouse buttons for the built-in pointing device. So doing anything in Windows required me to apply approximately enough pressure on the mouse button to shove my thumb through four stacked bars of hard toffee.

But I had managed to save my files! The question now was… WHICH machine in my somewhat vast collection of vintage laptops would I put them on NEXT?

(The story continues on Friday!)

Curse of the CMOS Battery (part 1)

Mitsubishi_Amity_CN

More tales of a vintage laptop collector/hobbyist and a lifelong devotee of WordPerfect for DOS…

Alas, I recently had to bid a sad adieu to my last of three Mitsubishi Amity CN mini-laptops. These machines (two were the original CN1 Pentium MMX 133 MHz models, and the third was the upgraded CN2 Pentium MMX 166 MHz unit, with a bigger screen and removable battery) dated back to the Windows 95 era. The original model was introduced in November, 1997, weighed 2.4 pounds, and typically sold for $1,499 retail (versus about $399 retail for most machines in the last generation of netbooks, the most recent equivalents to the Amity; computer tech, unlike most other major purchases, has gotten considerably cheaper over time). The upgraded model came out in June, 1998, weighed slightly more, at 2.6 pounds, and sold for $1,999.

I bought one of these units used from an eBay seller back around 2002 or so, then bought the other two when a different eBay retailer offered them as “old new stock,” i.e.: items that had been sitting in a warehouse for years and had finally been surplused to liquidators. At the time, I was doing all of my writing on a Poqet PC, the one-pound wonder machine from 1989 that ran DOS programs and was powered by a pair of AA batteries. The Poqet would run WordPerfect 4.2 very well, or WordPerfect 5.1 less well (even when I made use of the made-for-Poqet WordPerfect 5.1 SRAM card). It was terrific for writing first drafts, but considerably less terrific for performing edits, search-and-replace, spell check, etc. So I was looking for something at least one performance class up to do my post-first draft tasks. But I didn’t want anything too much bigger and heavier, as I did all my writing outside the home, typically in coffeehouses or wherever I found myself with a spare half-hour to fill.

The Gateway Handbook line, a little younger than the Poqets, would have fit the bill, and I actually had several of them in my then-burgeoning laptop collection, both HB-286 models and the more desirable HB-486 models. The only problem with the Handbooks was that the batteries I had on hand were all dead or close to dead, and replacement batteries were very expensive; more expensive, in fact, than buying a used Handbook on eBay.

As an aficionado of vintage, classic laptops and palmtops, I’ve long been aware that acquiring new batteries to keep the older machines functional can oftentimes be more expensive, sometimes considerably so, than acquiring the laptops themselves. There seems to be a “sweet spot” for buying replacement laptop batteries, which is generally two to five years after the laptops are discontinued. Third party vendors manufacture replacement batteries for the most popular laptop lines, which tend to be on the expensive side while the laptops are still current. But as soon as a particular model is superseded by the “latest and greatest,” the corresponding replacement batteries get dumped into the hands of the liquidators and can then be had for a song. This happy situation lasts until the original stock of replacement batteries is exhausted, at which point the batteries are only available from specialty manufacturers, who charge prices equivalent to the prices of the batteries when the laptops were current; or they can be purchased used and then sent to a battery remanufacturing shop, which replaces the cells inside the battery shell; or they cannot be found at all. In which case, yipes.

Taking this into account, I realized, back in 2002, that I should be looking for small laptops which came out between 1995 and 2000. The smallest IBM (not yet Lenovo) ThinkPads and the enticing Toshiba Librettos of that period were still out of my price range (I limited myself to spending no more than $80 per laptop). The Mitsubishi Amity CN was touted as a direct competitor of the Libretto line of what were called “subnotebooks;” Mitsubishi was considered somewhat of an “off brand,” so I figured I might have some success picking up one (or three) comparatively cheaply on eBay. These were Pentium-class small laptops, with a good bit more horsepower than I needed to run DOS WordPerfect; but I figured I wouldn’t mind lightning-fast WordPerfect (who can argue with lightning-fast WordPerfect?). (Important note: for twenty-five years, ever since my first exposure to the software at my first post-college job at Sagamore Children’s Psychiatric Center in 1987, I’ve been an avid fan of WordPerfect’s DOS-based word processors. They’ll have to pry my WordPerfect from my cold, dead typing fingers. No Microsoft Word for me, no siree, Bob!)

The Amity CNs’ base batteries were criticized in the computer press as being pipsqueaks, having only 1.5 to 1.8 hours rated life between charges. However – and for me, this was a big however – a couple of liquidators were offering extended life external batteries for the Amity for less than $20 apiece. I realized these had been sitting on a shelf for five or six years, gradually losing charging capacity. But since they had originally been rated for six hours of power, even if they had lost fifty percent of their charging capacity, they were still a genuine bargain. Whoopie!

VRE1

I originally used one of the Amity CNs as an editing and revisions machine, a partner to my Poqet PCs, on which I continued doing my first drafts. Upon my move to Northern Virginia, however, I shifted from writing in coffeehouses to writing on the commuter train. On the train, the Poqet’s extreme smallness and lightness worked against it; I had to actually place the machine on my lap, or on a laptop case or lap desk which I placed on my lap, and the train’s rocking and deceleration at each stop threatened to slide the Poqet right off its precarious perch. I needed something a bit more anchored to type on. Ironically, the additional ballast provided by the Amity’s sizable external battery (which screwed into the back of the machine as an extra lump and added an extra 1.5 lbs weight) was a boon on the train, wedging the laptop firmly against the seatback in front of me, leaving just enough space for me to touch type comfortably with my wrists and elbows in a non-contorted angle. Also, light quality and brightness could be extremely variable on the train (in winter months, I’d be doing most of my traveling in the absence of natural light), and the Amity CNs had backlit screens, unlike the Poqet (which had a so-called “supertwist” reflective screen, with teeny-tiny little letters that my middle-aged eyes had increasing difficulties reading).

So I spent the next four years writing and editing my novels on the train, using one or another of my Amity CNs. I revised Fire on Iron and The Bad Luck Spirits’ Social Aid and Pleasure Club. I wrote the majority of Ghostlands, which I had started when my family and I still lived in New Orleans. I wrote The End of Daze, No Direction Home, and three middle grade horror-adventure books, The Runaways of Mount MonstraCity, The Monster Trucks of Mount MonstraCity, and The Battling Bigs of Mount MonstraCity. The last project I wrote on one of the Amity CNs was the long-awaited third book in the Jules Duchon/Fat White Vampire series, Fat White Vampire Otaku.

The Amity CNs, both models, had a trio of features which especially endeared them to me as a writing tool. The keyboard felt pretty much “just right;” typing effort was not too hard but also not too light, and the keys were spaced just far enough apart to make touch-typing a pleasure, not a chore. The power-saving settings were versatile and reliable, with the laptop going into suspend mode upon closing the screen, then resuming where I’d left it as much as weeks later (assuming I’d kept the batteries at least partially charged in the meantime). I loved being able to suspend my work just by shutting the screen, since my train stops oftentimes “snuck up on me,” and I’d find myself having to gather my stuff in a near-panic for fear of getting trapped on the train and missing my stop. The third feature I really appreciated was the wide range of brightness settings I could apply to the screen. Depending on what time of day I was traveling, the season, and the train’s direction, I often had to cope with pretty fierce sun glare, and the Amity’s screen did its best to accommodate me.

But life was not all marshmallows and purple posies in Amity Land. These were, after all, fifteen-year-old laptops. The first one I used, one of the CN1s, died when its screen connector and/or graphics processor gave up the ghost. The hard drive remained good, though, because I was able to copy and transfer files to a second Amity working “blind,” not being able to see what I was typing but having the machine recognize my commands. I moved up to the “big daddy” of my little fleet, the 166 MHz CN2. Was very pleased with it and its larger screen, until its hard drive died on me. Then I moved on to my last Amity, the other CN1. I’m pretty sure it lasted longer than either of its two brothers. But laptops seem to have about the same working lifespan as medium-sized dogs do.

The week of Friday the Thirteenth, which fell in September this year, I schlepped myself onto my usual 5:51 AM Manassas train to DC, had a few sips of coffee, quickly checked my work emails on my government-issued phone, and then turned on my Amity, expecting to continue with my last few edits to Fat White Vampire Otaku.

No dice.

My dyspeptic subnotebook flashed me the following message: “CMOS battery has failed. All system information has been lost. Please replace the CMOS battery and run the Setup Program to reset system information.”

Uh, oh.

(Go to part 2)

Snapshot of the Revolution in Book Retailing, Circa 1978

Upheaval in the bookselling trade is not a purely 21st century phenomenon. The introduction of cheap paperbacks during the decade following World War Two turned the bookselling trade upside down, pushing the locus of the trade away from small shops located in big city downtowns to newsstands and drugstores, with their ubiquitous spinner racks. Cheap paperbacks helped (along with the introduction of TV into nearly all households) to kill off the formerly lucrative niche of pulp fiction magazine publishing; many of the specialty pulps disappeared altogether (nurse pulps, airwar pulps, and western pulps, to name a few), and the science fiction and mystery pulps shrank back to a handful of titles, the survivors soon reducing their format to the smaller (and cheaper to manufacture and distribute) digest size.

More recently, in the middle to late 1970s, the bookselling trade was transformed yet again, this time by the rapid spread of shopping mall-based national and regional bookstore chains which concentrated on carrying large selections of paperbacks and discounted hardbacks, most of the latter being “remainders,” unsold books which had been returned by stores and then offered by their publishers for resale at steeply discounted prices.

I came across this Time Magazine article from 1978, entitled “Rambunctious Revival of Books,” which gives a sepia-toned portrait of the bookselling trade thirty-five years ago, before the rise of the superstores, when mall-based chains such as Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Booksellers were the Amazon.coms/800-pound gorillas of their day. (Note: This article is brought to you by the Internet Archive Way-Back Machine, so it may take an extra few seconds to load.)

“Once upon a time book retailing was about as exciting as watching haircuts. Hardcover books were often sold in musty downtown stores by fussy bibliophiles, and many readers turned to paperback racks in the more informal atmosphere of supermarkets or drugstores. Today the bookstore business is in the midst of a rambunctious revival. … Largely as a result of their merchandising razzle-dazzle, the chains are inducing people to buy more books than ever. … Helped by the chains’ expansion, stores are springing up, increasing from about 7,300 less than two years ago to almost 9,000 now.

“In the forefront of the merchandising blitz are such chains as Waldenbooks, the nation’s largest book retailer, owned by Carter Hawley Hale Stores. Begun in 1962, the Walden chain now has 498 shops dotted around the country, mostly in suburban shopping malls. In recent years it has been opening a store a week. B. Dalton, a subsidiary of Dayton Hudson Corp., the department store conglomerate, is the second largest bookseller. Dalton too has been growing at a feverish rate in recent years and has 339 stores in 40 states. Other chains include Doubleday stores, an affiliate of the publishing house, and Brentano’s, an affiliate of Macmillan. The chains account for up to half of all hardcover retail sales, and their share of the market grows every month.

“These big companies operate with a cold efficiency that astounds the oldtime booksellers, who often take a warm proprietary interest in their wares. Highly computerized Dalton, which carries about 30,000 titles in each shop, assigns every book a number; when the book is sold the number is entered through the cash register into a computer, which produces a weekly report on what every store in the chain has sold. Slow-moving titles are quickly culled. Most chains concentrate almost exclusively on bestsellers—novels, selfhelp, biographies and the like. …

“Kroch’s, which has a reputation as a quality bookseller with an interest in the literary field, continues to operate in the old tradition; its sales people, for instance, often phone customers to alert them to new books that they might like. Against this, Dalton offers a plethora of autograph parties featuring such guests as Charlton Heston and former Treasury Secretary William Simon, and some selective discounting. Like many independents, Carl Kroch, the chain’s president, insists there will always be a place for the old, full-price shop. Says he: ‘You can’t provide our kind of services on such a large scale. Besides, there’s room for everyone. The public is still underexposed to books.’”

The modern reader has to stifle a laugh at the article’s swooning description of “highly computerized Dalton … (which) assigns every book a number.” Wow! What a wonder of the modern world! But the words of Carl Kroch sound much less dated – because they echo virtually every press release sent out by Leonard Riggio, Barnes and Noble’s chairman, whose firm, the only surviving national superstore chain in America, now finds itself in precisely the same market position as Kroch’s Books was in back in 1978.

Still, this article inspired a lot of nostalgia for me. I was thirteen years old in 1978, what Isaac Asimov has called “the Golden Age of science fiction.” It certainly was for me. I had just discovered Anne McCaffrey, Robert Silverberg, and Ursula K. LeGuin. I began building my science fiction reference library at my local Waldenbooks, tucked away inside the 163rd Street Shopping Center in North Miami Beach, spending my weekly allowance and bar-mitzvah gift money on such tomes as The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and David Kyle’s wonderful pair of beautifully illustrated, large-format histories, A Pictorial History of Science Fiction and The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas and Dreams (still own all three of them and have been sharing them with my oldest son). That particular Waldenbooks, by the way, was where I met the first, great (unrequited) love of my life, a cultured young lady seven years my senior who was working as a bookstore clerk to pay her way through college. The nearest B. Dalton Bookseller was downtown, at the Miami Omni Mall; due to their well-stocked history section, that was my go-to source for big, thick, photo-choked histories of warships and armored vehicles. Four years later, when I went to New Orleans to attend Loyola University, I discovered a Brentano’s Books at the Shops at Canal Place mall, located downtown near the Mississippi River; it was a charming spot at which to enjoy a cappuccino and page through an imported art book.

I imagine that come 2048, thirty-five years from now, some other commentator will come across an article in the Internet Archive Way-Back Machine (or its future equivalent) from Forbes or The Wall Street Journal or Wired, describing the disruptive impact of Amazon on the bookselling trade and the death-throes of the physical superstores. I wonder whether that middle-aged commentator will look back on his or her teen book-buying years and remember the experience of shopping on Amazon with the warm glow of nostalgia?

A The Frisky Article Which Should Appeal to a Certain Plus-Sized Vampire

Perusing the Internets, I came across a link to an evocatively entitled article, “Girl Talk: How Having Sex With a Fat Guy Changed Me.” Before you all go scurrying off to follow the link yourselves, let me warn you that (as with many articles I’ve encountered at this site) the title promises a pay-off way, way beyond what the article itself delivers. I believe this is called “link bait.” (Hey, it works; I’m linking.)

Anyway, the couple of minutes I spent reading this rather disappointingly limp article got me thinking of great “link bait” titles for other articles in this vein, titles the editors of The Frisky might come up with after a few nights spent in bed with copies of Fat White Vampire Blues and Bride of the Fat White Vampire. Here are a few suggestions:

How Watching a Fat Man Transform Himself into 180 Plump White Rats Changed My Feelings About Rodents

How Being Fed Three Quarters of the Menu at Ralph’s Po-Boys Emporium by a Nosferatu of Size Changed My Opinions of Moderately Priced New Orleans Restaurants

How Being Forced to Imagine a Fat, Starving Vampire Change Himself into a Wolf, Scarf Down Three Bags of Stolen Dog Chow, and Then Have Unintentional Doggy-Style Sex with a Stray Mutt Changed My Inclination to Donate to the SPCA’s Spaying and Neutering Fund

How Reading the Tales of a Washed-Up, 450-Pound Vampire Bragging About His Glory Days as a Masked Superhero During World War Two Changed My Willingness to Tolerate Cross-Genre Experiments by First-Time Novelists

Are you listening, Frisky editors? Link bait like this doesn’t come along every day, y’know.

Karen Black Dies Too Soon to Play Jules Duchon’s Mother in Fat White Vampire Blues Movie

Fly that 747, Karen! From AIRPORT 1975

Yesterday, August, 8, 2013, Hollywood lost one of its most versatile and memorably quirky character actresses, Karen Black. Ms. Black passed away at the age of 74 following a two-year battle against cancer.
She originally earned a name for herself playing unforgettable supporting parts in prominent Hollywood films such as Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Great Gatsby (1974), and Nashville (1975). She was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Jack Nicholson’s sleazy girlfriend in Five Easy Pieces. She also did live theater, performing in both Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, including the drama Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean in 1982, which was directed by her Nashville director, Robert Altman.

However, to her bemused dismay (as expressed in this interview with the Chicago Tribune), she suspected the role she would be best remembered for would be that of Amelia in the third segment of the classic made-for-TV horror anthology movie, Trilogy of Terror (1975). In one of the most indelible TV performances of the 1970s, Ms. Black played a single apartment dweller who unwisely brings a Zuni fetish doll home as a tchotke, only to discover that it has a disturbing tendency to become ambulatory and hunt… most savagely.

My, what nice TEETH you have, Karen… From her never-to-be-forgotten TRILOGY OF TERROR

Following her triple performance in Trilogy of Terror, she continued working very steadily, but the mix of her movies tended more and more towards horror and the macabre. Over the next three decades, she would carve out a reputation as one of Hollywood’s premiere low-budget scream queens. She starred in a score of horror and science fiction pictures from the mid-1970s to the first decade of the new millennium, oftentimes, as she grew older, playing the eccentric mother of the movie’s protagonist. Here’s a list of Karen Black movies which would appeal to the Midnight Movie set:

Burnt Offerings (1976) – a big-budget haunted house film starring Bette Davis (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?), Oliver Reed (Curse of the Werewolf), and Burgess Meredith (Rocky)

The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (1977) – made for TV horror pic

Capricorn One (1978) – conspiracy-minded thriller about the government falsification of a manned journey to Mars (starring O.J. Simpson)

Killer Fish (1979) – an Italian rip-off of Jaws, featuring Lee Majors (The Six Million Dollar Man) versus piranhas

The Blue Man (1985) – a.k.a. Eternal Evil, a supernatural thriller about astral projection

Cut and Run (1985) – Italian “cannibals in the jungle” thriller

It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1986) – the cannibal baby returns (again with the cannibals?)

Invaders From Mars (1986) – Tobe Hooper’s remake of the 1953 low-budget cult SF film

The Invisible Kid (1988) – a comedy about, well, an invisible kid

Out of the Dark (1989) – an “erotic comedy horror film” and Divine’s last role before his/her death (sounds right up my alley!)

Mirror, Mirror (1990) – a horror film also starring Yvonne De Carlo of The Munsters fame

Evil Spirits (1990) – Karen runs a boarding house for misfits; kills them off and collects their government checks; woo-hoo!

Zapped Again! (1990) – a high school kid with psychokinetic powers versus the Key Club; direct-to-video (are you surprised?)

Children of the Night (1991) – vampire thriller

Haunting Fear (1991) – supernatural thriller about a woman with a phobia of being buried alive

Plan 10 from Outer Space (1994) – apparently has no connection, plot-wise or otherwise, with Ed Wood’s Plan Nine from Outer Space; instead, a science fictional spoof of Mormonism(!)

Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996) – the first installment in the series to go straight-to-video

Teknolust (2002) – a SF thriller about a scientist (played by Tilda Swinton, so memorable in Orlando) who clones herself and spreads viruses throughout both the computer and male populations

Curse of the Forty-Niner (2003) – a.k.a. Miner’s Massacre (between the two titles, kinda self-explanatory)

House of 1000 Corpses (2003) – homage to the splatter films of the 1970s; Rob Zombie’s directorial debut

Suffering Man’s Charity (2007) – a.k.a. Ghost Writer, a comedy horror film about a would-be writer who kills a real writer so he can lay claim to the dead man’s script (what an incredibly lousy initial title)

Mind you, the films I’ve listed above form only a portion of Ms. Black’s workload during those decades. Along with all the horror dreck, she continued to perform in slice-of-life dramas and off-beat independent films.

In her 2008 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Ms. Black reflected back on the “horror-ble” turn her career took following her performance in Trilogy of Terror:

“Q: You’ve done all types of films, from Five Easy Pieces to horror films such as House of 1,000 Corpses. But why do you think horror directors have been drawn to you?

“A: Scary movies I’ve done — there have been about 14 out of 175. They are not dominant in any way, shape or form. I can tell you what happened, but it was sort of like a mistake. It’s like I went on a bad path and couldn’t find my way back. Being remembered for it is only interesting when you measure it against the few films I’ve done of the genre. When I did Trilogy of Terror, with that [demon] doll, I filled the role very well. It was very real to people, and they just fell in love with it. And that got to be incredibly popular. With my last name being Black… so it got to be kind of an unconscious thing, [my association with horror movies]. But I’m not interested in blood.

“If this latest film I’m in, The Blue Tooth Virgin, were seen all across the country rather than Rob Zombie’s movies, I’d be remembered differently. It’s chance. It’s too bad. But frankly, I’m not that bothered by it because of the plays and movies I’m doing now.”

Well, Karen, it’s better to be remembered than not to be remembered, I suppose. I’ll always remember you for your roles in Five Easy Pieces and Trilogy of Terror.

Oh, what a Dorothy Edna Duchon you would’ve made, Karen!

But why, oh why couldn’t you have hung in there just a few years longer? Someday, somebody’s going to make a movie version of Fat White Vampire Blues. And you, Karen Black, could have played Dorothy Edna Duchon, obese vampire Jules Duchon’s mother, like no other scream queen alive or dead.

Rebooting the Classic Kaiju Characters: Godzilla vs. Gamera

With little-known director Gareth Edwards currently working on an American reboot of Godzilla, scheduled for release during the Big G’s sixtieth anniversary in 2014, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at the last time movie-makers gave rebooting classic kaiju characters a shot. The most recent two efforts were Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) and Gamera the Brave (2006). I recently had an opportunity to view the two films almost back to back, in order to best compare and contrast their differing approaches to renewing the appeal of long-lived kaiju stars.

Godzilla: Final Wars represented Toho Studio’s fiftieth anniversary celebration of their most famous creation. It was their 28th Godzilla film and the sixth in the Millennium series (the character’s earlier two series are known as the Showa series and the Heisei series). They clearly meant to “pull out all the stops” with this film, stuffing it full of monsters from earlier movies (many of which had not been seen on the big screen in twenty-five or thirty years), cameo appearances from veteran Godzilla actors, and many hat tips to plot elements from earlier films (the alien Xilians have a good bit in common with the aliens from Planet X in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero). In many ways, it can be seen as a remake of Toho’s fondly remembered Destroy All Monsters (1968), which featured eleven of Toho’s kaiju stable.

One of the oddest elements of the film is how little of it is dedicated to its supposed star, Godzilla. In common with nearly all the films of the Heisei and Millennium series, Godzilla is portrayed with minimal personality, little more than a very bad-ass radioactive dinosaur with a great big chip on its shoulder. Thus, the screenwriters felt compelled to fill up the majority of the movie with plot elements centering on the human (or mutant) characters. The first half of the movie comes off as a Japanese version of the X-Men film series. It focuses almost entirely on two rival mutant soldiers in the Earth Defense Force’s M-Unit. The two mutants, Shinichi and Katsunori, are both friends and rivals, and they vie for the affections of a molecular biologist, Miyuki, who is recruited by the United Nations to study a mummified space monster (which turns out to be Gigan). Another standout character is Douglas Gordon (portrayed by American mixed martial artist and professional wrestler Don Frye), the captain of the EDF’s attack submarine, the Gotengo (itself a retread of the submarine from 1963’s Atragon). The Gotengo, with Gordon aboard as a young cadet, had trapped Godzilla in Antarctic ice forty years prior to the future in which Final Wars is set. In a weird costuming choice (which somehow works for me), Gordon, who is presumably an American working for the United Nations, dresses like a World War Two-era Russian commissar.

No one can complain that they skimped on the monsters!

The biggest draw of the film is the huge number of giant monsters from earlier Godzilla movies which it drew out of retirement. Final Wars tops Destroy All Monsters’ tally by featuring fourteen kaiju (or twenty-one, if you include seven kaiju who make brief appearances via stock footage). The all-star line-up includes Godzilla (last seen in 2003’s Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.), Manda (most recently seen in Destroy All Monsters back in 1968), Minilla (this version of the Son of Godzilla hadn’t been on screen since 1969’s Godzilla’s Revenge), Rodan (as Radon, he’d last appeared in 1993’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2), Anguirus (most recently seen in 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla), King Caesar (his only prior appearance was in the 1974 Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla), Mothra (most recently seen in 2003’s Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.), Monster X/Keizer Ghidorah (Ghidorah, a Toho staple, had last appeared in Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack in 2001), Gigan (not seen since 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan), Hedorah (his only star turn had come in 1971’s Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster), Ebirah (last seen, in stock footage taken from 1967’s Gozilla vs. the Sea Monster, in Godzilla’s Revenge in 1969), Zilla (the American Godzilla, whose only appearance came in 1998’s Godzilla), Kumonga and Kamacuras (both previously seen in Godzilla’s Revenge). Other classic kaiju also make brief appearances via stock footage, including Varan (last seen in Destroy All Monsters after starring in Varan the Unbelievable in 1958), Baragon (most recently seen in 2001 in Giant Monsters All-Out Attack), Gezora (Space Amoeba, 1970), Gaira (The War of the Gargantuas, 1966), Mechagodzilla (most recently seen in Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. in 2003), Megaguirus (Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, 2000), and Titanosaurus (Terror of Mechagodzilla, 1975).

What do you get when you cross a kaiju with a Swiss Army Knife?

Unfortunately, having to divide screen time between so many monsters leaves precious little time for any individual monster to shine, especially given that much of the first half of the movie is given over to interactions between the human, mutant, and space alien characters. For example, I would’ve loved to see more of a rematch between Hedorah, the Smog Monster, and Godzilla, but their battle takes up less than ten seconds on screen, Godzilla batting him aside as though he were a tomato can. (By way of contrast, in their first encounter, back in 1971’s Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, retroactively written out of existence in the Millennium series, the Big G took an entire movie to figure out how to put Hedorah down for the count; the Smog Monster was one of those horrors who got “killed” multiple times but kept rising from apparent defeat.)

Part of the conceit of the films of the Millennium series is that none of them follow the earlier movies in the series; the only precursor each film has is the original 1954 Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Thus, each Millennium movie represents a reboot of almost everything that came before it. However, over his then fifty-year history in films, Godzilla had enjoyed long, even complex relationships with a number of other kaiju. Ghidorah was the George Foreman to Godzilla’s Mohammed Ali, having fought Godzilla nearly ten times before. Godzilla also boasted some allies of long-standing. Rodan had assisted him in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and Destroy All Monsters before battling him (as Radon or Fire Rodan) in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2. Anguiras started out as a foe in the very first Godzilla sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, and then became one of Godzilla’s most indefatigable allies in Destroy All Monsters and the original Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. Godzilla’s most interesting long-term relationship could be said to be the one he shared with Mothra. They had started off as antagonists (in 1964’s Godzilla vs. Mothra), gone on to be allies in multiple adventures (in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, and Destroy All Monsters), become enemies again (in Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack), and finally allies once more (in Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. and Godzilla: Final Wars. Yet because of the set-up of Final Wars and all the earlier films in the Millennium series, the screenwriters had to pretend that the clashes in Final Wars (all the other monsters, with the exceptions of Manda and Mothra, were under the mental control of the Xilians) represented the very first time that Godzilla was encountering his fellow kaiju.

I think this represented a major lost opportunity for the makers of Final Wars. For me, at least, a good bit of the attraction and charm of the later films in the original Showa series, from Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster through Terror of Mechagodzilla, comes from the interactions between Godzilla and his fellow monsters. In the Showa series, the last film in which Godzilla is a pure heavy is Godzilla vs. Mothra; beyond that film, Godzilla generally serves as a protector of Japan or at least a somewhat benevolent force, allied to an extent with the human heroes. Although his antics could sometimes be silly (such as his flying stunts in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and Godzilla vs. Gigan), they could just as often be wry and charming. Ever since Godzilla 1985, though, the first film in the Heisei series, filmmakers have been loathe to incorporate any of those elements of Godzilla’s earlier personality. In each of the subsequent movies (with the notable exception of Godzilla’s “origin story,” Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, when the proto-Godzilla shows empathy for a group of trapped Japanese soldiers in World War Two), the Big G is portrayed as an angry dinosaur of very little brain, a virtually mindless engine of destruction (and thus a reflection of his persona in his very first appearance on the big screen).

Ten years after Toho relaunched their Godzilla character with Godzilla 1985, the first film of the Heisei series, rival studio Daiei relaunched their own popular kaiju star, Gamera, in his own Heisei series with Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995). (Gamera, of course, had been a late response to Godzilla’s success of the 1950s and 1960s, first appearing in 1965, after Godzilla had already starred in five films.) Two more Gamera films followed. Then, in 2006, filmmakers decided to reboot Gamera’s continuity yet again in Gamera the Brave. This film begins with the original Gamera sacrificing himself in 1973 to destroy several Gyaos monsters to save Earth. Thirty-three years later, a young boy discovers a glowing egg on an island, which hatches into a seemingly normal tortoise, but one which is actually the son of Gamera.

A Boy and His Turtle 1

The little tortoise soon alerts his owner, young Toru, that he is no ordinary turtle by levitating in the air. Soon thereafter, he begins a tremendous growth spurt, and the two friends are separated after the flying turtle, named Toto, outgrows Toru’s bedroom and Toru tries to find an outdoor home for his unusual pet. Later, Toru and Toto are reunited when a new, aggressive kaiju, Zedus, attacks Toru’s city. Toto’s initial effort to battle Zedus is unsuccessful, but Toru and the newly gigantic Toto team up to ultimately defeat the rampaging Zedus, and Toto takes up the full power set and mantle of his parent, Gamera.

A Boy and His Turtle 2

I’ll admit that Gamera the Brave ended up being a much more impressive and satisfying movie than I’d expected it to be. In large part, this is due to the strong performances given by the movie’s child actors (in stark contrast to the insufferable, grating, oftentimes almost unwatchable performances of child actors in the movies of the original Showa series; maybe it was the poor quality dubbing that made those performances seem so awful, but I can’t imagine the performances come off much better in the original Japanese). In comparing Gamera the Brave to Godzilla: Final Wars, I think the former film does a better job of encapsulating, modernizing, and strengthening the key element that gave the Showa films their appeal. The Gamera reboot tells the story of a powerful friendship between a child and a giant monster; beyond the original Gamera the Invincible (1965), all of the Showa series movies centered around Gamera’s efforts to befriend and protect the children of Japan. In contrast, Godzilla: Final Wars, while reintroducing a small army of Godzilla’s former allies and foes, ignores the relationships between the kaiju that provided so much of the appeal of the latter Showa series Godzilla films.

Unfortunately, Frank Darabont, screenwriter for the upcoming American Godzilla reboot, sounds determined to continue in the footsteps of his predecessor screenwriters of the Heisei and Millennium series Godzilla films, explaining in an interview that he wants his Godzilla to be perceived as a terrifying force of nature. He dismisses the later films of the Showa series:

“And then he became Clifford the Big Red Dog in the subsequent films. He became the mascot of Japan, he became the protector of Japan. Another big ugly monster would show up and he would fight that monster to protect Japan. Which I never really quite understood, the shift. What we’re trying to do with the new movie is not have it camp, not have it be campy. We’re kind of taking a cool new look at it.”

So Darabont seems to believe that the most recent Godzilla movie that Toho released was 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla. He acts as though the Heisei and Millennium films never existed, because what he describes is exactly how the makers of those films reconceptualized Godzilla, returning him to his original persona.

I don’t think this bodes well for an ongoing series of American Godzilla pictures. The last several Millennium series movies were disappointments at the box office (which is why Toho has taken a ten-year break from making any new Godzilla movies and has now licensed that responsibility to Legendary Pictures). It’s hard to sustain a series focused on a brainless “terrifying force of nature.”

At long last, the Big G gets his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

But even if the newest Godzilla does a colossal belly flop in the theaters in 2014, at least the Big G can rest easy that he has his official star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, a gift from Hollywood on his fiftieth birthday…

Friday Fun Links: the Weird, Wonderful Worlds of Mark Cline

The ruins of the Enchanted Castle attraction (1986-2001)

Who says the mega theme parks, the Disneyworlds and Sea Worlds and Six Flags, have killed off America’s traditional roadside attractions? Those durable, lovable staples of summer road trips may be ailing, but they aren’t quite dead yet. And if “the poor man’s Walt Disney,” Mark Cline, has any say in the matter, the old-fashioned roadside attraction will never die.

Over this past Memorial Day Weekend, my family and I took a road trip to Natural Bridge, Virginia. Our goals were to see the Virginia Safari Park (very much worth seeing, by the way) and the famous Natural Bridge monument and park, one of the natural wonders of North America. While driving on U.S. Highway 11 toward the center of the town of Natural Bridge, we passed several signs advertising a free attraction called Foamhenge. This sounded like something very much up our alley (aside from being free, which sounded good after the $$ we’d dropped at the safari park). So we put Foamhenge on our agenda for the afternoon, following our visit to the Natural Bridge monument and park.

The ticket takers at the Natural Bridge Park told us Foamhenge was definitely worth seeing, and that the man who had created Foamhenge had also operated a family attraction next to the park called the Haunted Monster Museum, which had burned down the year before (this unfortunate news greatly disappointed the boys and me). Foamhenge, a short drive away, turned out to be fabulous, in a tacky sort of way, a full-sized, accurate reproduction in Styrofoam of the world-famous Stonehenge in England. Reading the signs that adorned the little site, I discovered that the creator of Foamhenge, Mark Cline, had a wonderfully wicked sense of humor. He also appeared to be a talented maker of fiberglass figurines, judging from the impressive Druid priest who “guarded” the installation.

Entrance to Mark Cline’s Enchanted Castle Studio

Also along U.S. Highway 11, we spotted a ramshackle compound called the Enchanted Castle Studio. A wooden wall surrounded most of the compound, but we could see the tops of numerous enticing dinosaur figures inside, as well as the tops of various mythological creatures and heroes rendered in fiberglass. Off to the side of the walled part of the compound lay an abandoned castle-type building and several very weird giant figures, including a massive blue and yellow insect that we took pictures next to.

On the drive home, I promised myself to learn more about this Mark Cline fellow. Little did I know then that I had already seen numerous examples of his work, at Dinosaur Land in White Post, Virginia, and in the parking lot of the Pink Cadillac Diner just outside the entrance to Virginia Safari Park. Nor could I suspect how fascinating the story of his career would be… the story of one of America’s great roadside attraction impresarios. Beset by adversities and setbacks which would have stopped most other entrepreneurs’ careers cold, Mark Cline has gone on and on and on, never ceasing his search for that pot of gold at the end of a fiberglass rainbow.

Mark Cline, born in 1961 (three years older me), and I lived almost parallel childhoods. We both spent our youths filming our own monster movies and building miniature monsters and dinosaurs. The major difference is that Cline ended up going a whole lot farther with his artistic pursuits than I ever did (I got sidetracked into acting, first, and later writing). During his teen years in Waynesboro, Virginia in the 1970s, Cline made his own Super-8 horror movies and helped build sets and props for a local monster movie show. His latex monster creations won awards in local art competitions. He learned the art of sculpting in fiberglass during a job at Red Mill Manufacturing in Lyndhurst, outside Waynesboro, a company which manufactured small resin figurines, including Minutemen and turtles, for souvenir and novelties stores. His mentor at the company showed Cline how to make a mold of his own hand, then sent him home one night with a five gallon bucket of resin to experiment with. In 1982, hoping to achieve his childhood ambition, he attempted to start up his own horror-themed roadside attraction in Virginia Beach, but, without any business expertise or experience, he failed miserably.

However, on his drive home, he ran out of gas in Natural Bridge, Virginia, a small town whose major claim to fame is the privately-owned Natural Bridge monument and park, then surrounded by several downscale roadside attractions. He decided to make a second attempt to start his own business. Later that year, he opened his first version of the Haunted Monster Museum in Natural Bridge, but his attraction was shunned by the operators of the nearby Natural Bridge park, and it closed after three years. He reopened it shortly thereafter, retooled as the Enchanted Castle, and began a more collaborative relationship with the owners of the Natural Bridge park, who began selling tickets to his new attraction at their own well-attended facility. The Enchanted Castle featured a bungee-jumping pig, leprechauns, fairies, a giant-sized Jack-in-the-Beanstalk, plus weirder creations, such as a tremendous tick, a “Holy Cow” (cow with wings), and a 15-foot-tall devil’s face guarding the park’s entrance. In retrospect, given what was to happen a few years later at his small park, perhaps he would have been prudent to skip the devil’s face, which apparently did not sit well with the more religiously minded among his neighbors.

On the grounds of the Enchanted Castle, Cline founded his Enchanted Castle Studio, where he created new fantastical fiberglass creations, not only for his own attraction, but for other businesses, as well. A fortuitous chance meeting with either William Hanna or Joseph Barbera (Kline can’t recall which of the men he talked with) at a trade show resulted in Kline winning a contract to supply ten-foot-tall fiberglass Yogi Bear statues to all 75 of the country’s Jellystone Park Campgrounds. In 1987, Joann Leight, the daughter of the original owner of Dinosaur Land (opened in 1963), hired Cline to create a new group of more up-to-date, dynamic dinosaurs for her roadside attraction near Winchester, Virginia. Mark had visited Dinosaur Land as a boy, and that visit had been one of the primary inspirations for the direction his life’s career would later take.

“‘My father and I were traveling, coming back from Baltimore, and Dinosaur Land [in White Post, Virginia] was closed, but I asked my dad to stop there—I’d been there before—and he said, “OK.” I was probably about 12 years old. We stood there together looking through the fence at these huge dinosaur figures, and I said, “I’m going to make these when I grow up, dad.” And he just said these 11 words to me: “If that’s what you want to do, nothing can stop you.”’”

Cline, in addition to being a businessman and artist, has always been a trickster. April Fools’ Day is one of his favorite holidays. However, one of his theatrical holiday pranks, intended to amuse his neighbors and drum up additional business for his Enchanted Castle attraction in 2001, resulted in a major setback, an apparent arson which nearly ended his career as a roadside impresario.

The boys and I posing with the giant, bloated tick on the grounds of the Enchanted Castle

“A couple of weeks before the blaze, Cline played a prank on the neighborhood by scattering a handful of ‘flying saucers’ and ‘aliens’ along Route 11, the main drag through Rockbridge County. In the spirit of the neighborhood, the saucers were crafted from discarded satellite dishes. In the spirit of a true entrepreneur, they were subtle lures to his ill-fated tourist attraction.

“On April 1, 2001, the stunt and its maestro were revealed (as if there were some doubt) in a story with color photos on the front page of the Roanoke Times. The blaze occurred eight days after the story was published. … Since the October before the fire, Cline says, he had been finding religious tracts tucked under the wiper blades of his pickup truck … On the night of the fire … he went out to his mailbox to find a more ominous tract.

“‘We have prayed for you,’ read the hand-written letter, which also accused Cline of ‘darkness’ and ‘beastly madness.’ The writer warned that ‘the wrath of God is very fierce.’ Included was a burnt-around-the-edges copy of Cline’s photo clipped from the Roanoke paper.

“‘Fire represents God’s judgment,’ the letter closed. ‘Behold, the judge is standing at the door.’

“‘I read this as I was watching the castle burn,’ says Cline. … Cline, who received an insurance settlement for his buildings but not for the contents, readily concedes that he was a suspect. He says that before the flames were fully extinguished, he and his wife were separated and interrogated.

“‘I know who left me the messages,’ says Cline. ‘But there’s no proof they actually set the fire. It could have been oily rags or lightning– I believe in coincidences too.’”

Not a man to be deterred by adversity, a year later, in 2002, when the owners of Natural Bridge park offered Cline a lease on a rundown Victorian mansion on their property, Cline decided to begin anew, and he turned the old mansion into his Haunted Monster Museum & Dark Maze.

The following year, seeking to expand his empire of southwestern Virginia roadside attractions, Cline decided to go bigger. He turned the faded boomtown of Glasgow, Virginia, six miles from Natural Bridge, into “The Town that Time Forgot.” Cline made agreements with the owners of a dozen or so Glasgow merchants to allow him to put one of his life-sized fiberglass dinosaurs on their property, either on their lawn, in their parking lot, or even atop their building. Then he convinced the town government to pay for 50,000 copies of a promotional brochure he had created. The town fathers, initially convinced that Cline’s creations would help put them back on the map, gave a green light to the plan. So on April Fools’ Day, 2003, Glasgow became the dinosaur capitol of southwestern Virginia. However, Cline’s dinos didn’t pull in as many visitors as the Glasgow authorities had hoped for, so a year later, they pulled the plug on Cline’s scheme.

Not to be deterred (and suddenly having a dozen or so life-sized fiberglass dinosaurs that he needed to so something with), Cline moved his dinosaurs to a forested tract of land adjacent to his Professor Cline’s Haunted Monster Museum & Dark Maze, giving visitors two attractions for one admission price. But he went much further than just plopping a bunch of recreated dinosaurs under the trees and behind the bushes. He imagined a whole alternate history scenario for his creations to romp in, combining his love of dinosaurs, his fondness for the old Ray Harryhausen movie The Valley of Gwangi (also a childhood favorite of mine; my best friends and I stayed up late to watch it during my eighth birthday party), and the regional fascination with the Civil War. He called his new attraction Dinosaur Kingdom.

“(V)isitors are asked to imagine themselves in 1863. A family of Virginia paleontologists has accidentally dug a mine shaft into a hidden valley of living dinosaurs. Unfortunately, the Union Army has tagged along, hoping to kidnap the big lizards and use them as ‘weapons of mass destruction’ against the South. What you see along the path of Dinosaur Kingdom is a series of tableaus depicting the aftermath of this ill-advised military strategy. As you enter, a lunging, bellowing T-Rex head lets you know that the dinosaurs are mad — and they only get madder. A big snake has eaten one Yankee, and is about to eat another. An Allosaurus grabs a bluecoat off of his rearing horse while a second soldier futilely tries to lasso the big lizard. Another Yankee crawls up a tree with a stolen egg while the mom dinosaur batters it down.”

The boys and I on our “pilgrimage” to Foamhenge

Perhaps Cline’s most famous, or infamous, creation arrived the following year, landing on the Natural Bridge landscape overnight, once more on Cline’s favorite day of the year, April Fools’ Day. “‘About 15 years ago I walked into a place called Insulated Business Systems where they make these huge 16-foot-tall blocks (of Styrofoam),’ Mark tells us. ‘As soon as I saw them I immediately thought of the idea: “Foamhenge.” It took a while for the opportunity to present itself, of course.’ … It is, Mark points out, the only American Stonehenge that really is an exact replica of the time-worn original. ‘I went to great pains to shape each “stone” to its original shape,’ he tells us, fact-checking his designs and measurements with the man who gives tours of Stonehenge in England. Mark has even consulted a local ‘psychic detective’ named Tom who has advised him on how to position Foamhenge so that it is astronomically correct.”

Cline’s creations have spread beyond the immediate vicinity of the Natural Bridge monument and park. A few miles to the north, near the access road to another local attraction, the Virginia Safari Park, Cline installed a 14 foot-tall statue of King Kong in the parking lot of the Pink Cadillac Diner. He explains this was actually a protest against the local government’s having forced him to take down one of his signs: “I placed it there three years ago after the county made me take down one of my signs that they said was illegal… Since it’s too much of a challenge to regulate ‘art,’ they left King Kong alone. Now many of the supervisors wished they had left my sign alone.”

Cline’s unfortunate history with fire nearly repeated itself shortly before September 11, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack. A businessman in Waynesboro, Virginia, who had been a high school classmate of Cline’s, arranged for Cline to create a fiberglass memorial to the Twin Towers. However, while the memorial was being installed, a support cable touched a live power line, creating a shower of sparks and a major power outage in Waynesboro. Cline’s creation almost burning down before it was unveiled.

Far worse was yet to come, however. 2012 began auspiciously for Cline; the struggling Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia decided to host an exhibition of Cline’s weirdest figures in February, advertising it as a major retrospective of American folk art. The event was featured in an article in the Wall Street Journal. Investors flew him on a private jet to New Jersey to have him consult on a big job; other art museums contacted him, as well as the producers of a reality TV show. However, just two months later, the centerpieces of his entertainment empire, his Haunted Monster Museum and Dinosaur Kingdom, suffered a devastating fire eerily similar to the fire which had destroyed the Enchanted Castle eleven years earlier.

“A mid-April blaze demolished the Victorian-era mansion that served as the Haunted Monster Museum as well as the centerpiece of a bizzaro place called Dinosaur World where dinos would gobble Union soldiers and where brave visitors could also hunt Bigfoot with a ‘redneck.’ … Although the fiberglass dinos in the woods outside were saved, the Monster Museum was incinerated. The mechanical rats, the ‘Elvis-stein’ monster, and the mighty fiberglass python that seemed to slither in and out of the second-story gable windows all went up in flames late on the afternoon of April 16. … Like the rest of us, Cline says he’s now trying to face the prospect of a summer without his Monster Museum. He’s seen an uptick in contract work, like the 13 men’s room sinks he recently built for the Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. A couple of reality show producers have made inquiries about following him around. Cline veers between ‘pissed off’ anger at an unknown arsonist and the peace of knowing that nobody was killed or injured in the fire.”

Cline’s website, Monstersanddinosaurs.com, has announced plans to reopen the Haunted Monster Museum and/or Dinosaur Kingdom “sometime in 2013.” Until that happy day arrives, fans of Cline’s work can still visit Foamhenge, accompany Mark and his wife Sherry on Lexington, Virginia’s Ghost Tour, or see the artist at work at his Enchanted Castle Studio on the grounds of his former attraction, the Enchanted Castle, the remnants of which can still be viewed from U.S. Highway 11. Cline’s work is also on prominent display along the main commercial drag of Virginia Beach, where his creations are a large part of the appeal of such tourist draws as Nightmare Mansion, the 3-D Fun House and Mirror Maze, and Cap’n Cline’s Pirate Ghost Ride (which replaced a long-running funhouse attraction called Professor Cline’s Time Machine).

And, of course, Mark Cline’s dinosaurs can still be enjoyed at the very place where all of his dreams got their start, White Post, Virginia’s Dinosaur Land (I did a three-part post on my family’s trip to Dinosaur Land, chock full of terrific photos of Cline’s dinos).

Richard Matheson: He is Legend Now

Author and screenwriter Richard Matheson passed away at the age of 87 on June 23, 2013. Locus Online and Variety are two of hundreds of publications which have or soon will publish obituaries and tributes to one of the titans of twentieth century horror and science fiction.

I would struggle to add anything new to the commentary regarding Matheson’s literary and film output and its significance to the broad American culture. But what astonishes me personally is the realization of what a huge impact Richard Matheson had on my own childhood. The man was simply all over the map of early 1970s popular culture. When I was a kid in my most formative proto-geek years (the years between the ages of 6 and 11, which would be from 1971 or so to 1976 or so), hardly a month went by when I wasn’t exposed to another product of Matheson’s prolific pen. Exposed to it and imprinted by it. He was every bit as ubiquitous throughout the media of the early Seventies as his disciple Stephen King was in the Eighties.

Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane here…

I’m almost certain my first dose of Richard Matheson must’ve been repeated viewings on TV (either Saturday afternoon movies or Saturday night Creature Features) of The Incredible Shrinking Man. The 1957 film, whose Matheson-penned script was based on the author’s 1956 novel, The Shrinking Man, is probably best remembered for its iconic images of its tiny protagonist battling a spider with a pin or inhabiting a doll house. But when I was a kid, the elements which burrowed their way most deeply into my consciousness were the film’s quieter, more subtle moments. The opening scene, for example, when the hero, aboard his boat, is enveloped by a cloud of radioactive particles or toxic pollutants, is supremely creepy. Subtly horrifying are the first indications that the hero is shrinking… his clothes no longer fitting, his wife noticing that she is now taller than her husband, and, the real gut-punch, when his wedding ring falls off his shrunken finger. The film ends in a way vastly different from any other movie I had ever seen to that point (and different from most films I’ve seen since). The hero neither dies nor triumphs. He is left in a state of ambiguous hope, free at last from the cellar which had imprisoned him and in which he had nearly died several times, but now faced with the potentially greater hazards, all of them unknown, to be found in his own, continent-sized backyard. That ending gave me shivers of wonderment, and it still manages to do so.

Much of Matheson’s earlier work in TV and film played in frequent syndication on the limited television channels of my youth. At least a couple of times a year, my local CBS affiliate would schedule an “Edgar Allan Poe Week” for its afternoon movies slots, meaning I could enjoy Roger Corman thrillers such as House of User (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963) with my mother after I came home from school, before I had to start my homework. All featured screenplays by Richard Matheson. The last picture on this list, The Raven, was actually a comedy about the magical escapades of rival sorcerers, played by Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre; its connection to Poe’s poem “The Raven” was extremely tenuous. Still, it remains a fun and lively piece of work (unlike Matheson’s follow-up horror comedy, 1963’s The Comedy of Terrors, whose leaden, utterly unfunny script wastes the talents of Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and Vincent Price; I saw it recently on Netflix and think the script is the worst Matheson ever put to paper, by far; he wanted to write a sequel, but The Comedy of Terrors was a relative flop, so the sequel never saw the light of day, to the benefit, I’m sure, of Matheson’s reputation).

Then, of course, there was The Twilight Zone, whose syndicated reruns formed another staple of my youthful media diet. Matheson’s involvement with the series began in its first season, when Rod Serling adapted two of Matheson’s short stories into episodes: “And When the Sky was Opened” and “Third from the Sun.” Matheson wrote an additional fourteen Twilight Zone scripts himself, including some of the series’ most famous and well-regarded episodes, “The Invaders,” “Steel,” and William Shatner’s star turn in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” One of my favorites of Matheson’s scripts was for another episode starring William Shatner, the low-key but paranoia-wracked “Nick of Time,” set entirely in the booth of a diner. Other Matheson scripts included “The Last Flight,” “A World of Difference,” “A World of His Own,” “Once Upon a Time,” “Little Girl Lost,” “Young Man’s Fancy,” “Mute,” “Death Ship,” “Night Call,” and “Spur of the Moment.”

That was the old stuff. But the first half of the Seventies was crammed full of Richard Matheson projects, most of them on television, where I could catch their original broadcasts and the reruns (which I would assiduously scan my weekly issue of TV Guide looking for; my mother had a subscription, as I suspect most mothers of the time did).

1971 brought us Duel, an ABC “Movie of the Week” that was Steven Spielberg’s first directorial triumph. Matheson wrote the script based on his 1971 short story of the same name, published in Playboy. What a suspenser! Who can forget the horrific vehicular bullying suffered by poor Everyman Dennis Weaver at the hands/eighteen wheels of an anonymously malevolent truck driver, whose face we never see? What an impact that movie had on me as a kid!

1971 was also the year in which the second film adaptation of Matheson’s classic vampire novel, I Am Legend (1954), The Omega Man, hit the theaters. This film I didn’t see until a few years later, when it showed up on TV. But it was the first film that genuinely made my skin crawl; even Scream, Blacula, Scream! and The Return of Count Yorga hadn’t managed that. Those albino plague victims (even though they weren’t portrayed as vampires, unlike in the source novel), really freaked me out. I’d watched The Omega Man at least a dozen times before I ever saw the first film adaptation of I Am Legend, 1964’s low-budget The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price and released by American International Pictures. Matheson, who did not have a hand in the script for The Omega Man, did work on the script for The Last Man on Earth, but he ended up very dissatisfied with the result, the product of four different writers; in order to retain his residuals, he allowed himself to be credited as “Logan Swanson.”

Undoubtedly, the best exposure to I Am Legend is to read the original novel itself. It is a short book, easily finished in the space of a single evening. One of my top recommendations for anyone who wishes to scare themselves silly is to read I Am Legend alone, at night, in a mostly darkened house. It was the first application of the techniques of science fiction to the subject of vampirism, and, as such, is a lodestone for all the vampire fiction that followed. Not only that, but the book grants Matheson a kind of grandfatherly paternity for the whole subgenre of zombie fiction, TV, and films. George Romero has said that the slow-moving, shuffling vampire hordes of The Last Man on Earth were a primary inspiration for his flesh-eating zombies in Night of the Living Dead. So, arguably, had there been no I Am Legend, there would be no The Walking Dead on AMC today.

Night Gallery was Rod Serling’s follow-on to his cult classic series The Twilight Zone (although Serling ended up with far less creative control over this series than he had with his seminal earlier one). Despite the myriad ways in which Night Gallery can be said to fall short of The Twilight Zone, the series featured a number of memorable episodes based on classic stories by writers such as H. P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber. Serling also called upon his old collaborator Richard Matheson to work with him again; Matheson provided scripts for the 1971 episode “Big Surprise,” based on his 1959 short story, and for the 1972 episode “The Funeral,” based on his 1955 short story. I have fond memories of Night Gallery (and I really should take another look at the best episodes on Netflix). Also in 1972, Matheson provided the script for the one-hour pilot episode of Ghost Story, NBC’s effort to compete with Night Gallery. Despite being hosted by a creepy Sebastian Cabot (and yes, Sebastian Cabot could be very creepy when he wished to be; see the end of The Twilight Zone episode, “A Nice Place to Visit,” for what I mean), Ghost Story didn’t do as well in the ratings as Night Gallery, and a mid-season renaming of the series to Circle of Fear failed to save it from cancelation. But while it was on the air, I watched it every week.

In early 1972 I was hypnotized by one of Matheson’s best projects ever, his script for the ABC made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker. This film was, of course, the source material for the well-loved (and much syndicated) TV series Kolchak: the Night Stalker, which ran on ABC during the 1974-75 season and which starred Darren McGavin, reprising his role as reporter Carl Kolchak. Matheson didn’t write any of the scripts for the series (which remains a great favorite of mine), but his script for the original movie won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. A year after the first movie’s broadcast in January, 1972, ABC aired a sequel, The Night Strangler, which also featured a script by Richard Matheson. Although not as well remembered as the original film (with its savage vampire), the sequel has its own merits, particularly its eerie setting in the Seattle Underground (which impressed me enormously as a kid; I finally got to see the place myself as a 39 year-old, on my second honeymoon).

How does an author help to ensure that a film adaptation of one of his books or stories is up to snuff? Adapt it himself! Richard Matheson followed this advice as frequently as possible. Not always with favorable results — see my notes above on his reaction to the script for The Last Man on Earth. However, he enjoyed a much better experience (and made a far superior film) with The Legend of Hell House, his 1973 script based on his 1971 novel Hell House. This is another film from the early Seventies that I caught on TV a few years later. I consider it one of the best haunted house films ever made, ranking up there with the original adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting. Roddy McDowell (fresh from his star turns in the Planet of the Apes series, including Battle for the Planet of the Apes, released the same month as The Legend of Hell House) is splendid as a paranormal investigator, and the film’s ghostly villain, Emeric Belascoe, is one of the most memorable menaces in the genre. This movie had almost as big an impact on me as a kid as The Omega Man.

Rounding out his Murderers Row of early Seventies projects was the classic Trilogy of Terror, a 1975 ABC made-for-TV movie which was based on three of Matheson’s short stories. Everybody who has seen it remembers the segment called “Amelia,” based on the short story, “Prey” (this was the only one of the three segments for which Matheson wrote the script; the other two were adapted by William F. Nolan from Matheson’s stories). Karen Black stars in all three segments; in “Amelia,” she plays a woman who lives alone and unwisely brings a cursed Zuni fetish doll into her apartment as a decoration. This is the movie that type-cast Karen Black and relegated the rest of her career to roles in B-movie horror pictures; the former A-list actress (nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role in the 1970 film Five Easy Pieces) later said in an interview, “I think this little movie took my life and put it on a path that it didn’t even belong in.” But many fans of the horror genre would agree that Karen Black’s loss was our gain; few actresses are more closely associated with the horror genre of the Seventies, and much of that association is due to the indelible impression she made in Trilogy of Terror.

Wow! What a list of memory-makers from my childhood! And all from the pen/typewriter of one man, Richard Matheson. Mr. Matheson, thank you for the unforgettable images, in prose and on film, you have left for those of us “Born of Man and Woman” on this planet “Third from the Sun;” your “Disappearing Act” has left behind A Stir of Echoes which will never fade. May you find peaceful repose somewhere on The Shores of Space.

12-Step Support Group for Obsolete Technologies

Every once in a while I come across a blog post I wish with all my heart and soul I had written. Well, author and blogger Joe Konrath simply hits it out of the park with his most recent post, which gives us a peek inside an Alcoholics Anonymous-style support group for obsolete technologies… featuring the self-deluding apologetics of the group’s newest member, The Print Industry. Here’s a taste:

Moderator: Welcome to Obsolete Anonymous! I’ve gathered you all here to welcome our latest member, the Print Industry.

Print Industry: Hello, everyone. But there’s been a mistake. I don’t belong here.

(chuckles all around)

Print Industry: I’m serious. I’m not obsolete. I’m relevant. Print books have been around for hundreds of years. They’re never going to be replaced.

VHS Tapes: Yeah, we all thought like that once.

LP Records: It’s called denial. It’s tough to deal with at first.

VHS tapes: Easy for you to say, LP. You’ve still got a niche collector market. They can’t even give me away on eBay.

Antique Stores: Can we please not mention eBay? I used to have stores all over. But more and more keep closing thanks to that good-for-nothing website.”

And it just gets better and better. When you get to the bottom, you learn that this is actually a re-post of an entry Joe first put up on his blog three years ago. Prescient, and hilarious!

Damn, I wish I’d come up with it first!

Giant Monster B-Movies Round-Up (part 2): More of Toho’s Second String

Continuing my series of mini-reviews of recently viewed giant monster B-movies, this time I’ll serve up another pair of Toho Studios’ lesser-known kaiju and science fiction pictures: Frankenstein vs. Baragon/Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) and The Mysterians (1957).

Netflix made a boo-boo when they sent me Frankenstein Conquers the World; they shipped the disk containing the Japanese language version with English subtitles. Judah, my youngest, had been very anxious to see this film, what with it containing the first appearance of Baragon, one of his favorite Japanese monsters (he has a Baragon stuffed toy that he loves). I was afraid he would refuse to watch it if it had subtitles, since he had told me, very firmly, that he would NOT watch our VHS copy of Godzilla vs. Hedorah/Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, due to it being in Japanese with English subtitles. However, the little guy surprised me by acquiescing to Frankenstein Conquers the World with subtitles. My oldest boy, Levi, said he wanted to split the task of reading the subtitles aloud with me. A family activity!

As things turned out, I doubt we would have enjoyed the movie any more had it been dubbed; it’s possible our viewing experience was even enhanced by watching it in its original Japanese. In any case, much of the dialogue was inessential; the pictures told the story. And, oh, what a story!

I’m pretty sure kaiju Frankenstein has the most convoluted origin story of any of the Japanese monsters (with the possible exception of King Ghidorah in the second series of Godzilla movies). The film begins in Germany during the final months of World War Two, inside the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein (or some other scientist who has taken over Dr. Frankenstein’s work… hard for me to tell with all the confusion surrounding the speed-reading of subtitles to my kids). Nazi soldiers show up to confiscate what is apparently the last remaining piece of the Frankenstein monster — his still-beating heart, floating in a glass jar. They store this in a crate and ship it out to Japan aboard a U-boat, apparently so that Imperial Japan can continue Nazi Germany’s quest for an invincible super-soldier (the thought being that the monster’s indestructible heart might provide a serum or compound which would allow soldiers to regrow body parts lost in battle). The U-boat rendezvouses with a Japanese Navy submarine in the Sea of Japan, and the Germans transfer their strange cargo. But before the two subs can submerge, an American sub-hunting sea plane attacks and sinks the U-boat. The Japanese sub escapes and delivers the monster heart to a research institute located in the center of Hiroshima. Yes, that Hiroshima. The research institute is near ground zero of the atomic bomb explosion. We are then led to believe that the heart survived the explosion and absorbed enough radiation to cause it to grow into an entire person — a new, childlike Frankenstein’s monster, whom postwar residents of Hiroshima assume to be a war orphan.

(I’ve read that an early version of the movie, possibly released to theaters in Japan, actually had a war orphan eat the heart and then mutate into a Frankenstein’s monster-like creature. But in this version, scientists explain that the heart itself grew into the creature.)

Look at that punim!

One of the most amusing aspects of the movie is the multiple instances in which Japanese scientists or reporters insist that one of the curious anomalies about the weird, growing child is that “he is clearly of Caucasian ancestry” (this being necessary because the original Frankenstein’s monster was put together from pieces of dead Central Europeans). However, take a look at that punim — he is clearly NOT of “Caucasian ancestry!” So, the movie scientists seem to be saying, who’re you going to believe – me or your lying eyes?

Also rather amusing was watching and listening to American actor Nick Adams (who also stars in Monster Zero) dubbed into Japanese. The Japanese voice actor’s bass pitch is much lower than Adams’ natural, rather high-pitched voice, so he almost seems to be talking in slow-motion.

But the really fun parts of the movie are the monster fights between Frankenstein and Baragon. Since the actor portraying Frankenstein is unencumbered by a massive rubber suit, he is able to move and fight much more fluidly than your typical kaiju. Just to ensure that Baragon would not seem overmatched, the producers gave the subterranean dinosaur the ability to leap great distances. So the extended fight scenes are very involving, more like the fights in Hong Kong kung-fu flicks than the typical lumbering shoving matches featured in kaiju movies. Also, the Frankenstein creature is portrayed in a sympathetic light and has more of a relatable personality than a typical kaiju. A semi-sequel was made the following year in 1966 — The War of the Gargantuas. I say “semi-sequel” because, although elements of the earlier movie’s story are clearly referenced in Gargantuas, and the Brown Gargantua’s personality and motivations carry over from those of the Frankenstein creature, the two monster’s designs are very different; Brown Gargantua looks much more like a Bigfoot monster than a Frankenstein’s monster.

Apparently this DVD edition of Frankenstein Conquers the World was released in conjunction with fresh home editions of The Mysterians, Mantango/Attack of the Mushroom People, Dagora, the Space Monster and Atragon (the Frankenstein disk includes promos/theatrical trailers for each of these Toho films). Judah told me he wanted to see all of them. Unfortunately, the copy of The Mysterians I had available to show him was an old VHS copy I had picked up used at a science fiction convention. Picture quality was pretty sub-standard, even for VHS; and given that the colorful, extravagant production design of The Mysterians is its major calling card, that was a bit of a shame. (I may have to hunt up a DVD of this film and see if improved picture quality makes me think more highly of it.)

The film’s story (to be echoed in many later Toho films that featured aliens and kaiju) cannot be accused of being overly ambitious or creative – an alien race from a dying world wants to take over Earth; they initially pretend to be Earth people’s benefactors, or at least not overtly hostile; when their falsehoods need to be abandoned, they then use what seems to be superior technology to overcome Earth’s defenses. However, the plot and screenplay are full of holes big enough to pilot a spacecraft through. We are led to believe that the alien incursion is of fairly recent vintage; they have been secretly building an underground fortress in Japan, but they haven’t quite finished it when the film begins, and the film’s climax features a race between the aliens completing their fortress and making it impregnable and the United Nations of Earth developing and fielding their own super-weapons. However… the aliens’ initial attack on Japan comes courtesy of a gigantic robot (called Mogera) which emerges from inside a mountain. Japan is one of the most densely populated nations on Earth – how did the aliens manage to dig out the inside of a mountain and place a fricking hundred-foot-tall robot inside it without anyone noticing? For that matter, where have they been getting all their building supplies to create their giant underground fortress? From a Japanese branch of Home Depot? If they brought the supplies in from their home planet, the landings of that many tremendous cargo rockets would’ve attracted a bit of attention, too, no? The United Nations manages to field two huge rocket battlecraft to engage the Mysterians’ fortress. The Mysterians blow up one of the battlecraft with a ray blast, but fifteen minutes later in the film, the same ray blast strikes the second, seemingly identical U.N. battlecraft with no effect whatsoever.

The Mysterians (1957) can be thought of as a Japanese reply to This Island Earth (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and Forbidden Planet (1956), three hit American science fiction films from the two prior years. What it lacks in script sophistication (a highlight of Forbidden Planet, which, after all, was loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest), it makes up for with the sheer exuberance of its production design – costumes, miniatures, and sets. The aliens’ costumes are delightful, a cross between the couture of Pop Art bikers and gay vampires (right after the film, Judah immediately assembled his own version of a Mysterian uniform, which he wore continuously for the next three days). The giant robot Mogera is very memorable — sort of the Michelin Tire Man with the head of a tin anteater. Best of all are the ships and weaponry, all pieces from a ten-year-old’s fantasy space war play set. Toho’s artisans fashioned miniatures which would serve them well in many kaiju epics to come, particularly the mobile electro-ray projectors mounted on military flatbed trucks. And those hovering U.N. battle rockets look mighty cool, too.

The American film that The Mysterians most closely models is Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion alien extravaganza, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. It’s a little dumber, perhaps, than Harryhausen’s picture (which, for once, did not have the American military acting like a bunch of bellicose idiots), but it has the advantage of being far more colorful — Toho’s first movie to be filmed in beautiful Tohovision! That, and those funky alien uniforms (so much more fabulous than the aliens’ suits of armor in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), certainly counts for something, I think…

Giant Monster B-Movies Round-Up (part 1): Toho’s Second String

As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog before, one of the great pleasures of raising children is getting to enjoy many of one’s childhood enthusiasms all over again, this time experiencing the “doubled vision” of seeing them through one’s own, matured eyes and the less jaded eyes of one’s kids.

With this in mind, I’ve been having a grand ol’ time renting vintage monster and kaiju movies from Netflix and watching them with my boys. Judah, my youngest, is my most enthusiastic co-conspirator, but both Asher and Levi will usually plop down on the bed with the two of us to watch whatever “monstrous” piece of celluloid Dad has selected for the evening. A bonus of this is that I’m actually getting to see lots of films that I only read about as a kid – a number of Japanese horror films, for example, had only limited exposure in the U.S. and weren’t part of the popular TV movie packages, shown by independent TV stations, that I relied upon during my childhood viewings. I don’t recall ever seeing Atragon, The Mysterians, Frankenstein Conquers the World/Frankenstein vs. Baragon, Dagora, the Space Monster, Gappa, the Triphibian Monster, Yongary, Monster from the Deep, or Varan the Unbelievable as a kid. However, now, thanks to the ubiquity of DVD players and the hunger of services such as Netflix for product, all of these movies are currently available, and I’ve either recently watched them with my boys or have stuck them in my order queue.

(Special bonus for you Toho Studios fans – here’s a marvelously informative year-by-year listing of all the films Toho has made, from their founding in 1935 to 2012.)

Over the next few days, I’ll be writing a bit about giant monster movies I’ve recently shared with my kids, listing them in descending order of quality and entertainment value (mind you, these two aspects do NOT necessarily track in parallel, as any fan of 1950s monster movies and Japanese kaiju films will attest).

At the top of my list are several of what must be considered Toho’s B-list of horror and science fiction films (their A-list, or most popular and best-remembered horror and SF movies, are the Godzilla series and their most closely-related offshoots, Mothra and Rodan). Toho was a very prolific company in the middle decades of the twentieth century, producing films in a wide variety of genres – gangster pictures; war films; romance movies; and classics of world cinema such as Seven Samurai (1954) and The Throne of Blood (1957).

Beginning with Godzilla, King of the Monsters in 1954, the studio delved into the realms of science fiction and horror, producing at least one movie per year in these genres over the following decade and a half:
Godzilla Raids Again and Half Human in 1955;
Rodan (in color!) in 1956;
The Mysterians (also in color) in 1957;
Varan the Unbelievable and The H-Man in 1958;
Battle in Outer Space in 1959;
The Human Vapor in 1960;
Mothra in 1961;
King Kong vs. Godzilla and Gorath in 1962;
Atragon and Matango/Attack of the Mushroom People in 1963;
Mothra vs. Godzilla/Godzilla vs. The Thing, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, and Dagora, the Space Monster in 1964;
Invasion of the Astro-Monster/Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and Frankenstein vs. Baragon/Frankenstein Conquers the World in 1965;
Ebirah, Horror of the Deep/Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and The War of the Gargantuas in 1966;
Son of Godzilla and King Kong Escapes in 1967;
Destroy All Monsters in 1968, arguably the pinnacle of the original Toho kaiju cycle, starring, as it did, virtually all the monsters they had fielded in the prior decade;
and All Monsters Attack/Godzilla’s Revenge in 1969, to many fans, the nadir of the original kaiju cycle, making heavy use of footage already seen in Son of Godzilla and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and centering the story on a young boy’s wish fulfillment daydreams (which works better for young viewers than it does for kaiju fans in their twenties or thirties or, Lord help me, forties).

The studio continued pumping out at least one monster picture each year, until they took a break following 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla. With the exception of 1977’s The War in Space, which was released direct-to-VHS in the U.S., Toho did not return to the horror or science fiction genres until 1984’s The Return of Godzilla (released the following year in the U.S. as Godzilla 1985, which I recall dragging my then-girlfriend Leslie to a cheapie theater in New Orleans to see).

The best (or the most entertaining) of Toho’s B-list that I recently watched was – surprise, surprise! — King Kong Escapes. I say “surprising” because I was more than a little amazed by just how much I enjoyed this film. I’ve gone through three stages, it seems, regarding Toho’s two King Kong films. King Kong vs. Godzilla was one of the very first kaiju pictures I ever saw; my parents let me stay up “late” as a five-year-old to watch it on TV. For years thereafter, I claimed it as my favorite movie of all time. However, when I entered junior high school, I began doing some serious study of stop-motion animation, with the hope of learning to become an animator myself; I studied the work of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, and Jim Danforth and even wrote a thesis paper in eighth grade on the history of stop-motion animation, following up the next year with an attempt to make my own stop-motion fantasy film. You might say I became a “stop-motion snob,” staring down my nose at all inferior forms of special effects, particularly the use of lizards with glued-on horns and fins to portray dinosaurs, and men in suits to portray various giant monsters – including King Kong. Thus, I had to disavow my earlier, “childish” enthusiasm for King Kong vs. Godzilla (and admittedly, the King Kong outfit used in that film was not one of Toho’s better designs). Until just recently, I never had the opportunity to see Toho’s follow-up, their second and last King Kong effort, King Kong Escapes, but I tarred it with the same brush, assuming it was another attempt to profit off Willis O’Brien’s legacy while dishonoring his technical and artistic accomplishments.

Hey, one’s perspective changes as one gets older (particularly after one has kids). Now I’m able to look at these Toho second stringers with the eyes of a little boy again, and in that light, King Kong Escapes is fantastically entertaining. It helps that Toho did a much better job with the Kong suit the second time around; it looks much more gorilla-like than the suit used in King Kong vs. Godzilla (the arms are longer and the legs are proportionately shorter), and it even bears a passable resemblance to the original, 1933 King Kong in design. Also, just as there is splendid stop-motion animation (Mighty Joe Young) and barely passable stop-motion animation (Flesh Gordon), so are there gradations in quality of monster suit acting, from very effective (Godzilla vs. the Thing) to absolutely abysmal (Konga — see my review here). I thought the monster suit acting in King Kong Escapes was quite good (Haruo Nakajima plays Kong, and Yu Sekida plays dual roles as Mechani-Kong and Gorosaurus, who later reappears in Destroy All Monsters). All three kaiju have distinctive personalities, entirely portrayed through the actors’ movements.

But what really makes the movie so much fun are the villains. Eisei Amomoto as Dr. Hu (sometimes spelled Dr. Who) and Mie Hama as Madame Piranha enthusiastically chew the scenery, and they manage to make it look like it tastes delicious. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (oftentimes, the plots of Toho’s monster and science fiction movies are either slender as sheets of paper or lose much in the translation to English). Dr. Hu wants to excavate a large quantity of a radioactive miracle metal from deep beneath the Arctic ice so he can sell it to the leadership of a rogue nation, represented by Madame Piranha. To get at the metal, he builds a gigantic robot gorilla(?), but unfortunately for his plans, its mechanical innards are set out of whack by radioactivity. Not allowing this little setback to stop him, he then arranges for the kidnapping and brainwashing of King Kong from Kong’s island, intending to use a real giant gorilla to dig out the precious metal where the robot giant gorilla had failed. However, King Kong escapes, the villain’s plans go awry, real Kong fights robot Kong, yada, yada, yada… Along the way, Dr. Hu twirls his mustache and Madame Piranha seduces the hero and we all have a great time. The Dr. Hu/Madame Piranha pair rate up there with my favorite of the Toho horror/SF villains – the Controller of Planet X (Yoshio Tsuchiya) from Invasion of the Astro-Monster, who combines a really cool alien uniform with some of the niftiest pinky choreography ever seen on film (only rivaled, perhaps, by Marlee Matlin’s sign language in Children of a Lesser God).

Next up on our list of very enjoyable Toho B-movies is Atragon from 1963. Atragon barely qualifies as a kaiju film; the only giant monster present is Manda, the dragon/serpent god of the subterranean Mu people. Manda plays a fairly minor role in the movie, but he does come back to appear again in Destroy All Monsters and puts in a cameo appearance in Godzilla’s Revenge. His main purpose in Atragon is to provide opposition for the movie’s titular super-submarine (which manages to subdue the giant dragon/serpent without much fuss, via a “freezing ray” which, in strange contradiction of the laws of thermodynamics, can be used underwater without freezing any seawater but which nonetheless manages to freeze Manda in ice!).

Manda is not the main attraction of Atragon, by any means. The film’s star turns are provided by veteran Toho actor Jun Tazaki, who portrays Captain Hachiro Jinguji, last active officer of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and by Eiji Tsuburaya and Takeo Kita, respectively the film’s Visual Effects Director and Production Designer. Jun Tazaki brings massive screen presence to any role and will be familiar to any fan of kaiju movies from his turns in such films as Gorath, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla, Dagora, the Space Monster, Frankenstein vs. Baragon, Invasion of the Astro-Monster, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, The War of the Gargantuas, and Destroy All Monsters. (His final film role prior to his death in 1985 was in Akira Kurosawa’s epic retelling of the story of King Lear, Ran, set in feudal Japan.) Tazaki was given an unusually meaty character to play in Atragon (unusually meaty for a kaiju picture, that is, which typically features underdeveloped human characters) – Captain Hachiro Jinguji of the Imperial Japanese Navy, who escaped capture at the end of the Second World War and never accepted Japan’s defeat. He stole away with his advanced submarine and crew and, after losing his sub to raiders from the Mu people, settled on an isolated atoll, created an underground factory, and spent the next eighteen years building a new, super-advanced submarine with which to win back Japan’s martial honor. After the Mu people attack Japan and threaten to conquer the entire surface world, Captain Jinguji’s daughter, whom he had not seen since the last days of the war, when she’d been a little girl, finds him and begs him to use his super-sub against the Mu, as it is the only weapon the Mu have reason to fear. The fiercely patriotic Jinguji balks at first, refusing to use the Atragon for any purpose other than revenging Japan upon America. But he is eventually won over and proceeds to deliver a spectacular ass-whupping to the Mu, destroying their best submarines, demolishing their power source, defeating their giant serpent god, and even capturing their queen, who opts, at the very end, to share the fiery demise of her people.

Just as good as Jun Tazaki’s performance is the design of the super-sub, Atragon. What’s not to love about a giant flying submarine? My youngest, Judah, was entranced. As well he should be – the Atragon is every young boy’s dream come true, with its sleek design, its gun turrets, its eye-catching color scheme, and its freeze-ray in the nose. Judah spent the week following seeing this movie drawing picture after picture of flying submarines. Of course, he has been begging me for a toy Atragon. And, yes, such a thing is available!

Next: More of Toho’s Second String!
Frankenstein Conquers the World/Frankenstein vs. Baragon
The Mysterians
Dagora, the Space Monster

So Long, Marty Mermaid Man

I can’t honestly say that there are that many performers out there whose passing makes me feel a pang of loneliness and regret. Ernest Borgnine, who died yesterday at the age of 95, was one of them.

I liked the man. It’s as simple as that. He was someone I was always happy to invite into my home via my TV set and spend a couple of hours or a brief thirty minutes with. I especially liked the fact that, late in his career, he decided to insinuate himself into my children’s lives through one of their favorite cartoon programs. He was never less than watchable, whether in his earliest, pre-Marty roles or in his very last projects.

My earliest memory of Borgnine was most likely seeing him in Willard, a 1971 a horror movie. He played Al Martin, the cruel boss of a shy young man, Willard Stiles; Willard achieves his revenge by setting his pack of trained rats on Martin. This role was a throwback to some of Borgnine’s earliest film roles, in which he’d played memorable heavies in such films as From Here to Eternity (1953) (in which he beat Frank Sinatra to death) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) (in which he bedeviled heroic, one-armed Spencer Tracey).

But my most memorable impression of Borgnine came, as it did for so many of his fans, from his Academy Award-winning portrayal of lovable Bronx loser Marty in the 1955 film version of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1953 teleplay, which had starred Rod Steiger. I’ve watched both versions, and to my mind, Borgnine is the definitive Marty. You felt sorry for Steiger as Marty, but you fell in love with Borgnine’s Marty.

In later years, I was always pleasantly surprised whenever I’d see Borgnine show up in movies such as The Wild Bunch, The Dirty Dozen, The Poseidon Adventure, The Black Hole, and Escape From New York. But he remained on the periphery of my consciousness until 2009, when my family and I moved to Northern Virginia, to an area where reception of broadcast TV was sketchy, and we signed up for satellite TV. From that point on, my three young sons became enormous fans of SpongeBob SquarePants.

I’d heard some pretty negative things about SpongeBob from some fellow parents, who considered it way too irreverent for the kiddies. But, out of curiosity, I sat down with my boys and watched a few episodes. And really, really liked them. Not too long thereafter, I watched an episode from the show’s 1999 first season, “Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy,” which portrayed SpongeBob’s and Patrick’s first visit to the Shady Shoals Rest Home, refuge for two elderly, retired costumed crimefighters, Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy, obvious stand-ins for DC’s Silver Age Aquaman and Aqualad. As soon as the semi-senile Mermaid Man uttered a word, I shouted to my wife, “Hey, that’s Ernest Borgnine! That’s brilliant! They got Ernest Borgnine to play a senile superhero!”

I soon learned that Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy (voiced by veteran movie and TV comedian Tim Conway, who’d been one of Borgnine’s costars in the TV series McHale’s Navy [1962-66]) had become two of the most popular “guest characters” on the show and that they had reappeared in many subsequent episodes. I bought my kids a DVD compilation of the best of the SpongeBob episodes guest-starring Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy. Having been a superhero comics fan ever since I’d been my boys’ ages, I “got” all the jokes, even more so because my favorite DC stories had been the Silver Age Justice Society “return from retirement” stories (whose narrator, usually Gardner Fox, regularly referred to the Earth-Two Superman as “the gray-haired guardian” and had Hour-Man and the Atom kvetching to each other about how rusty their fighting skills had become during their rescinded retirements, and artist Mike Sekowsky generally drew the Golden Age Wonder Woman as a grandmotherly matron who looked a good bit older than her Justice Society teammates, which even as a kid I thought was horribly unfair). Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy could also be thought to be paying a “tip of the hat” to Frank Miller’s reconceptualization of Batman as an embittered senior citizen in The Dark Knight Returns; but their whimsical portrayals of superheroic decrepitude owe a lot more in tone to the fond, semi-humorous portrayals of DC’s Golden Age heroes in their frequent team-ups with their younger Earth-One counterparts, the Justice League, in the 1960s and early 1970s. I could certainly picture Gardner Fox’s and Mike Sekowski’s Hour-Man doing Earth-Two TV commercials touting an arthritis relief pill that provides full relief from pain in “much less than an hour!”

The high quality of the show’s writing aside, Ernest Borgnine’s vocal characterization was simply spot-on. I can’t imagine any other actor doing the voice of Mermaid Man. I’m afraid the creators of SpongeBob SquarePants will have to retire the old superhero for good. Either that, or they can take a leaf from DC’s book and have younger protégé Barnacle Boy step into the saggy old uniform of Mermaid Man and take up the role. Were he still alive, Tim Conway’s old costar from The Carol Burnett Show, Harvey Corman, could become the new Barnacle Boy. But how about Carol Burnett as a new Barnacle Girl? She’s done some fun animation voice-over work recently (notably in The Secret World of Arrietty [2012]).

Here’s a parting quote from Borgnine, concerning his several-weeks marriage to singer Ethel Merman (and note the eerie similarity of her surname to the title of one of his greatest characters):

“Biggest mistake of my life. I thought I was marrying Rosemary Clooney.”

That’s the spirit!

Happy Fathers’ Day to All My Dad Readers!

A look of love between Dr. Frankenstein and son

I’d like to wish all my readers a very wonderful Fathers’ Day. All of us have had the pleasure of being a son or a daughter, and the luckiest of us all (at least to my way of thinking) have also gotten to experience being a father or a mother. Being a father is a role one gradually grows into; I don’t think it is possible to fully anticipate what that role will entail until one has already found oneself fully wrapped in fatherly robes. By the time my first son Levi came along in 2003, I had known for quite some time that I wanted children very badly. But it wasn’t until Levi had progressed through crawling and walking and feeding himself, and then been joined by his younger brother Asher, giving me two little men to keep track of, that I felt like fatherhood wasn’t just a Halloween costume that I had awkwardly dressed myself in — it was ME.

Godzilla and Minya

Daddy and son bonding

Luckiest of all fathers are those dads who are able to take advantage of opportunities to teach whatever they know best to their sons or daughters. Godzilla was a pretty fortunate dad, at least in his first series of movies (in his second series, he is more a a tragic dad, not unlike his colleague, King Kong, who never gets to enjoy his offspring). Imprisoned on Monster Island, he was able to take ample time off from his day job of mashing Tokyo into dust and spend long, lingering afternoons teaching Minya how to fight bully monsters and how to turn his radioactive smoke rings into blasts of fire. Watching him in Son of Godzilla and Godzilla’s Revenge, we see that he is patient and loving, but stern when he needs to be — when Minya simply does not get the whole “shoot radioactive fire” thing, Godzilla does not hesitate to stomp on his tail to push him onto the right track.

Kong and son, together only in manga

Not all fathers and sons or daughters are so fortunate. Some are like King Kong and Son of Kong, who never got to know each other. The elder Kong was kidnapped, stolen from his family home of Skull Island, and then cut down in an alien city half a world away from the only home he’d ever known. His little white-furred son was left to fend on his own (we never learned what had happened to Mom). But their genetic link proved to be strong, as little Kong ended up showing all the nobility and bravery that his bigger and stronger Pop had displayed in his struggles with Tyrannosaurus, Pterodon, and the U.S. Army Air Force. As Carl Denhem said of little Kong with a mixture of guilt-laced regret and pride, “Wow! What a scrapper! Just like his old man!”

A different type of father-son relationship; Ray Harryhausen and Mighty Joe Young

And then there is a different sort of father-son relationship: the mentoring relationship, which may be shared by two individuals who do not have any formal family ties at all. Such was the relationship between stop-motion animation pioneer Willis O’Brien and his great protege, Ray Harryhausen. And looking at the photograph above of Ray and his favorite model of Mighty Joe Young, one of his first professional animation assignments, who can deny that a father-son relationship does not develop between a man and his artistic creation? Ray devoted almost two years of his early career to granting life and a very robust personality to Mighty Joe Young, the wonderful evidence of which can been seen by anyone who possesses a television set and a DVD player (or Netflix account). Isn’t this this essence of fatherhood?

Me and my three little monster offspring

Just this past week, I finished my first middle grades novel, The Runaways of Mount MonstraCity, the first novel I wrote with the interests and preferences of my three sons in mind. I’ll blog more about this book this coming week. It has been a special pleasure to combine two types of fatherhood in this way, shaping one type of offspring (my word-based offspring) based on feedback from my flesh-and-blood offspring.

I hope all you other fathers out there in Internet Land are able to take as much pleasure in your offspring as I am blessed to take in mine.

Happy 9th Anniversary to My Wonderful Wife!

Dara and Priscilla

Nine years ago today, Dara Lorn Levinson and I stood under the chupa together at Congregation Shir Chadash in Metairie, Louisiana. And what a nine years we’ve had together since! It’s been a real adventure. We’ve had three marvelous boys together, with all that has entailed – worrying about their health, taking them to the hospital (not too often, thank God), doing our best to help with their speech delays (now none of them ever stay quiet), encouraging them in their interests, trying to ensure they attend good schools, and getting them to go to sleep each night at a somewhat reasonable hour (more often than not sharing a bed with at least one of them, if not all three). We’ve seen our daughter Natalie through her roller coaster ups and downs and have been so very proud of her as she has made a brave adjustment to life on her own. We’ve gone through Hurricane Katrina and being “exiled” from home for two months, had our nerves frayed by the loss of Dara’s job and my chore of having to find new ones, and made the big jump from New Orleans to Northern Virginia when circumstances told us we had to. We’ve adopted a few cats (sometimes inadvertently) and buried a few others. We’ve enjoyed the seasons when I had books published and endured the seasons when I’ve been frustrated by a lack of publishing. We’ve suffered through stomach flus and head colds and high blood pressure and bouts of carpel tunnel syndrome together, doing our best to keep each other cheerful.

Nearly twelve years ago, we “met cute” on the Internet – I was fed up with JDate.com, frustrated by a lack of responses, and had decided to let my paid membership lapse; Dara had just joined. On my final day of eligibility, I decided to do one last search, just for the heck of it. I came across Dara’s self-description, so new that she hadn’t yet had time to upload a photo of herself. It wasn’t a glowing self-description, I remember. It was honest and down-to-earth and pretty funny. Something about it really appealed to me, so, hours before my membership would expire, I fired off a JDate invitation to her, asking her to look at my profile and email me. She didn’t take long at all to get back to me. We had our first date the night before Halloween at Kim Son Vietnamese Restaurant in Gretna, Louisiana. Dara later told me she knew from the start that she wanted to hang onto me. Having been through a shattering divorce just three years earlier, I was extremely cautious. But she persevered, never losing faith that I would come around to seeing things her way, sooner or later.

Honey, you were right! Thank you so much for never giving up. You are the heart of our family. The boys and I would be lost at sea without you; we’d be Gilligan and Skipper and the Professor and the Millionaire without Ginger or Mary Ann. These past nine years have been the best I’ve ever had.

swimming pool at Memphis' Heartbreak Hotel, site of our first trip together

Sad Prediction: They’re Going to Ruin On the Road

It’s generally not a good practice, I’ll admit, to slam a movie before you’ve seen it. It’s unfair to the filmmakers, and it’s typically a lazy response on the part of the “reviewer.” However, I’m making an exception in this one case. And I promise to revisit this post and my opinion once I have actually seen the film (although I’ll probably wait to get it on Netflix).

The film in question is Brazilian director Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’ve been waiting a quarter century for this book to finally hit the screen. Lots and lots of folks have been waiting a good deal longer than that. So I was a happy lad indeed this morning when I read this headline on Google News:

Kerouac’s On the Road Hits Screen in Cannes Debut

I grew progressively unhappier as I read through the article, though. Walter Salles is best known for an earlier “road movie” he directed, The Motorcycle Diaries. Generally well received by critics for its acting and cinematography, this was a hagiographic portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s youthful, pre-revolutionary days. Okay… given that this film was pretty much a Valentine to the cult of a charismatic man who went on to help establish an oppressive dictatorship and police state, I figured that Salles is a man of the hard left; not an unusual status for a film maker. His cinematic chops appeared to be in order, however, particularly for a story such as On the Road‘s, which calls for a deft hand with montage. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, to hope that he would accurately reflect the novel’s spirit and would not trowel on an overlay, utterly alien to the novel and to Kerouac’s outlook, of anti-American propaganda.

Well, my optimism lasted all of about fifteen seconds. Until I reached these quotes in the article:

“‘It’s about the loss of innocence, it’s about the search for that last frontier they’ll never find,’ Salles told reporters in Cannes. ‘It’s about also discovering that this is the end of the road and the end of the American dream.'”

May I congratulate you, Mr. Salles, on your spectacularly inaccurate take on your source material? “The end of the road?” “The end of the American dream?” What book did you read, sir? On the Road is about nothing of this sort. What makes Kerouac’s novel so enduring and memorable, more than just a period-piece curiosity or icon of Beat Generation kitsch (as some of its contemporary critics attempted to tar it), is its author’s genuine, ecstatic, and often grandly (or humorously) poetic love for America, for the country’s vastness and richness and strangeness, for the dignity and energy and humor of even its poorest outcasts and hoboes. Kerouac and his novel are in love with jazz and the common man’s automobile, and in love with the country that gave birth to both of those phenomena.

On the Road is not Howl. Kerouac’s novel and Allen Ginsberg’s poem should be seen as the yin and yang of the Beat outlook. Howl, of course, provides an outlook more convivial to the worldview of a film maker such as Mr. Salles. In On the Road, Kerouac portrays his friend Ginsberg as Carlo Marx. From what I can read into another snippet from the article, it appears Mr. Salles has likely upgraded Carlo Marx’s significance in the story:

“Salles’ camera captures America’s vastness – and the promise of something new around the corner – from the lights of New York to the hills of San Francisco and the long expanse of flat road and endless sky in between.

“But as the sun fades on the brief and bright explosion of the characters’ lives, age and responsibility intrude.

“‘This high we’re on is a mirage,’ character Carlo Marx tells Paradise and Moriarty.”

And that one line of dialogue, right there, gives the game away. It is not a line of dialogue from the book. Mr. Salles has added it; I can only presume in order to reinforce his adaptation’s ideological overlay. I fully expect Carlo Marx to end up being the true “hero” of the film, saying many pithy things about the hidden, rotten core of America (pithy statements which will have been creations of the screenwriter’s, not of Jack Kerouac’s).

Those familiar with Jack Kerouac’s biography know that he and Allen Ginsberg suffered a painful falling out during the 1960s, when Kerouac found himself unable to stomach Ginsberg’s high-profile association with elements of the anti-American left. Ginsberg’s political views, to put it mildly, were not those of Jack Kerouac. They are, however, those of Walter Salles.

If Mr. Salles had wished to make a movie with the sort of message he prefers, he should have found a way to adapt Howl, not On the Road. That would have been much more honest.

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