Tag Archive for movies

My High Hopes for the New Godzilla Movie: Fat Green Dinosaur Blues


It’s now May, 2014, which (in my household, at least) is officially “Godzilla Month,” due to the upcoming release of the Legendary Pictures reboot of the venerable Toho Studio franchise.

As a longtime Godzilla fan (I saw my first Godzilla movie, Destroy All Monsters, at the age of three in the back of my parent’s convertible at a drive-in movie in Miami), here are my hopes for the new movie:

• I’d like Godzilla to look like GODZILLA, not some mutated iguana or monitor lizard (like in the 1998 American version, which was a sort-of-decent giant monster movie, but a lousy Godzilla movie). From the pics I’ve seen, I think this one is covered.

• I don’t want Godzilla to move/run/fight at the speed of a scalded cockroach (like he did in the 1998 version). He is much more impressive as a somewhat slow but unstoppable force of nature (as he was in the original Godzilla, King of the Monsters).

• Would it be too much trouble to ask for Godzilla to have a smidgeon of a personality, apart from perpetually-pissed-off dinosaur? I’m not saying he needs to get all cuddly, like he was in Son of Godzilla or any of the monster team-up movies like Godzilla vs. Gigan. But maybe some facial expressions? Maybe some distinctive moves? Legendary Pictures did a good job of giving their giant Jaiger robots in Pacific Rim some personality, but all their monsters have had the personality of a salamander, thus far.

• I was pretty impressed with the script for Pacific Rim. Will the new Godzilla have some genuine human interest, or will it just be a trio of monsters bashing each other in San Francisco? (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

Oh, and here’s a somewhat hilarious article from the International Digital Times, entitled “Is Godzilla Too Fat? Japanese Fans Outraged Over ‘Godzilla’ 2014 Portrayal As A Chubby Kaiju.”

“OK, so it’s a little hard to miss the fact that Godzilla is a little chubbier than usual in the latest Godzilla 2014 trailer, but we would never fat shame the tubby behemoth. Fat shaming Godzilla is exactly what fans are doing… Japanese fans are calling the new Godzilla ‘out of shape Godzilla,’ ‘Metabozilla’ and ‘pudgy and cute.’ Some of the more hilarious insults being hurled at the new monster are that ‘his neck looks like an American football athlete’s,’ ‘he got beefed up from the radiation at Fukushima’ and ‘that’s what happened when all your do is eat and lay around.’”

Hey, maybe Legendary Pictures will ask me to do the novelization of their latest film. I’ve got the perfect title – Fat Green Dinosaur Blues

Burnt Turkey Review: Free Birds

Free Birds

Free Birds (2013)
Voice performances of Woody Harrelson, George Takei, and Owen Wilson
Directed by Jimmy Hayward
Released by Relativity Media

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 18% Fresh
My Rating: ONE of Four Stars

My kids had been pestering me to take them to see the Thanksgiving-themed animated comedy Free Birds since its first coming attractions aired back in October. When it came out, I was not impressed by the initial reviews and so did not rush to take them to see it. However, this week it showed up at our nearby discount theater, University Mall Theater, which has just switched over to digital projection. (A couple of notes about digital projection: the picture and sound are galaxies superior to the old, worn-out, third-run 35 millimeter prints this theater used to show; but the conversion required the theater to dump their nostalgic, 1970’s-era featurettes, such as “Let’s All Go to the Lobby, Let’s All Go to the Lobby, Let’s All Go to the Lobby — and Buy Ourselves Some Snacks! Delicious treats to eat… etc.” This was a little disappointing.)

I figured I could handle a PG animated comedy. I didn’t expect it to raise my anxiety levels by much at all; most PG animated films are pleasantly sedating for me right now. Warning: many spoilers ahead, so please stop reading if you plan to see Free Birds and want to be surprised.

I’ll admit that I adored the first fifteen minutes of the film. It was loaded with terrific jokes, and lots of people in the audience (yours truly included) laughed heartily and frequently. I started doubting my critical judgement; I was enjoying this as much as I did the better parts of Turbo, an earlier animated comedy which had also received mixed reviews. I began to wonder whether my doctor-prescribed regimen of psychotropic drugs had sedated my critical sensibility. How could the reviews for Free Birds have been so bad if I was enjoying it so much? What a way to doubt oneself! But within a few minutes, my critical reaction to the movie began lining up with the 18% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes.

The film began going downhill when Jake, the character voiced by Woody Harrelson, appeared. The Owen Wilson turkey was animated to look somewhat like a real turkey; Jake, however, looked like an eagle with some turkey characteristics. This continued to be a major distraction throughout the rest of the film; some of the turkeys looked like turkey vultures, others looked like eagles, and one even looked like Foghorn Leghorn from Looney Tunes. Some of the turkeys had red faces, and others had blue faces. This was very distracting.

But the film truly began going to hell once the two main characters went back in time in an experimental time machine to two days before the first Thanksgiving. I began to realize that Free Birds was the worst family-oriented holiday movie since the first Home Alone, which introduced the concept of sadistic behavior by children as a source of humor (in a Christmas movie, yet). If Free Birds were a Christmas movie, rather than a Thanksgiving movie, it would have portrayed Santa Claus as a home invading child molester. This movie was written and produced to make children hate and despise the holiday of Thanksgiving. There is no other way to put it. It is nothing more than ultra-liberal propaganda against meat eaters. Other films have hinted at this in a much more humane fashion, such as the classic Charlotte’s Web, with its heroic pig, Wilber, whose spider friend Charlotte saves him from becoming a pork roast. However, animated films which feature non-human carnivores, such as the lions in The Lion King and my blog namesake Fantastic Mr. Fox, do not give the audience a guilt trip over the heroes’ consumption of meat. In Free Birds, the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving is desecrated and lied about. The Pilgrims are presented as entirely venial and without any redeeming qualities, entirely selfish and savage. Their leader, Miles Standish, is portrayed as an even more psychotic version of Clint Eastwood’s character William Mumy from Unforgiven. Even worse, the film lies about history by making it appear that the pre-first Thanksgiving turkeys were never hunted for food by the American Indians, whom the film falsely portrays as noble vegetarians.

Here’s a critic’s admission: I eat Tofurkey for Thanksgiving, because I keep kosher. My house is most usually entirely vegetarian. So I don’t have any animus against vegetarians. But I DO have an animus against propaganda and false history.

The most disgusting (and this takes some doing!) part of the movie is the shameless product placement of Chucky Cheese’s pizza. Another critic’s admission: I recently fed my son Judah a Chucky Cheese’s pizza and happen to be fond of the joint. But Free Birds utilized hoary old time travel paradox cliches to advocate that consumption of turkey on Thanksgiving be replaced by consumption of Chucky Cheese’s pizza! By the time this part of the film arrived, ten minutes prior to the end, I was ready to jump out of my seat and tear this turkey’s wishbone into five pieces.

Another note: I watched this movie with Asher, Judah, and their friend Matthew. Judah typically sits quietly through PG-13 superhero movies and does not flinch at the violent action. Yet during the final third of this PG-rated supposed “family comedy,” little Judah was jerking about in his seat, obviously agitated and upset. The film’s propaganda was getting to him on a subliminal level, instructing him to absolutely HATE the holiday of Thanksgiving. This is absolutely REPREHENSIBLE. All I can say is, SHAME on the makers of this film, the writers and director most especially. This is liberal, anti-meat consumption propaganda at its most raw (pun intended!). The only saving grace after the first fifteen minutes was the voice of George Takei as the time machine. He was soothing and sane, although surrounded by insane, anti-child, anti-family, and anti-American propaganda.

I hated four-fifths of this film with all my heart. And those are not my psychotropic drugs speaking, either.

Horrified by Obamacare? Take a Prescription from These 13 Evil Doctors and Nurses

Today is Halloween, America’s horror holiday. Health care is all over the news, with millions of Americans HORRIFIED by cancelled health insurance policies, skyrocketing insurance rates, and a government-run website which devours one’s hours and exposes one’s personal info to all the world’s Internet scammers. We could all use a distraction. So what could be a better prescription for Halloween distraction than a Top Thirteen List of Pop Culture’s Most Evil Doctors and Nurses?

Notice – this is a list of the most evil, not the most famous. So I’m not including the most famous mad doctor of them all, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (or, in the movie version, Dr. Henry Frankenstein). I’m leaving out the good Dr. Frankenstein because he really is the good Dr. Frankenstein – he embarks upon his experiments with the purest of intentions, wanting only to further the cause of Science and advance mankind’s knowledge. He doesn’t intend to unleash a homicidal monster on the world. (Unlike, perhaps, the drafters of the 1100 page Obamacare law.)

So here’s my list of a baker’s dozen Evil Doctors and Nurses, going from Least Evil to Most Evil.

(13) Zombie Nurse from Dawn of the Dead (1978)
zombie nurse Dawn of the Dead

Okay, technically, Zombie Nurse isn’t really evil… she’s just misguided, and really, really hungry. But she’s one of the bit players from George A. Romero’s horror classic who never fades from your mind. Because isn’t the notion of a nurse who wants to devour your flesh just a wee bit disturbing?

(12) Dr. Genessier from Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Eyes Without a Face

Climbing the evil scale just a bit, we come to Dr. Genessier, protagonist of Georges Franju’s atmospheric Franco-Italian co-production. Yes, he’s a murderer, but he has the best interests of his daughter, Christiane, at heart. Don’t take that at face value, however; Dr. Genessier’s game is to acquire a fresh face for Christiane, who has been horribly disfigured in a fire. His pursuit of Christiane’s happiness involves multiple heterograft surgeries, the removals of entire faces from healthy young women. Unfortunately, Christiane’s body rejects them, one after one. What’s a daddy to do, when his daughter is so unpleasable?

(11) Dr. Bill Cortner from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1959)
Brain That Wouldn't Die

Dr. Cortner faces a similar dilemma to that of Dr. Genessier. In this case, it’s his fiancée, Jan, who desperately requires his medical skills. Poor Jan was decapitated in a car wreck, but clever Dr. Cortner finds a way to keep her head alive… sort of. Of course, being mounted on a liquid-filled tray isn’t much of a life, so the good doctor goes in search of a donor of a body from the neck down. Not too many of those get advertised on Craig’s List, unfortunately…

(10) Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Nurse Ratched may be the most subtle evil practitioner of medicine on this list. She doesn’t do anything overtly bad to any of the patients at the Oregon State Hospital; any accrediting auditor who would follow her around to observe quality of care would probably give her high marks for professionalism. Still, she drives one patient to suicide, maneuvers another into a lobotomy, and destroys the self-esteem of the whole lot. A career-making (and career-destroying) performance by Louise Fletcher, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress and became so associated with Nurse Ratched that she was never offered another role a tenth as good.

(9) Master George Sims from Bedlam (1946)

I had to get Boris Karloff on this list somehow. He played an entire platoon of mad doctors over his lengthy career, including a descendant of Dr. Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein 1970. But I do believe the most evil doctor he portrayed was Master George Sims, who was based upon the real-life Dr. John Monro, chief physician of the infamous Bethlem Royal Hospital. Sims takes a sadistic delight in showing off the the peculiarities of his mental patients to any curious observers, and he is more than willing to abuse his legal powers and commit any critics of his practices to his asylum. Perhaps Nurse Ratched is a descendant?

(8) Dr. Caligari from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

In this masterpiece of German Expressionist cinema, Dr. Caligari cruelly exploits a zombie-like somnambulist, Cesare, both to earn him an income as a carnival attraction and to murder the doctor’s enemies. The film’s twist ending (one of cinema’s first) deflates Caligari’s evil considerably; but for the first nine-tenths of the film, Werner Krauss’s mad hypnotist provides a lurid archetype for all the hundreds of mad doctors to follow.

(7) Dr. Robert Suzuki from The Manster (1959)

This Japanese-American co-production, an early example of tokusatsu (Japanese film or TV which relies heavily on special effects), probably shows up on nobody’s list of horror classics. But its mad doctor, Dr. Robert Suzuki, appears on this list at #7 because he is such a conniving manipulator and sneak. He pulls an awful stunt on American news correspondent Larry Stanford, who only means to do the doctor a favor by writing a puff piece on him; Dr. Suzuki slips him a mickey, knocks him out, and injects him in the neck with an experimental serum meant to chemically induce evolutionary change. Oh, but that isn’t all – once poor Larry wakes up, completely unaware his veins are full of monster-making juice, Dr. Suzuki butters him up, convincing him to stay in Japan longer than he’d planned (so the good doctor can observe the results of his work). He hooks Larry up with a voluptuous assistant, Tara, and wines and dines him after taking him to some swanky nightclubs and massage baths. Meanwhile, Larry is growing a second head on the side of his neck. Hope the sushi was worth it, Larry!

(6) Dr. Innes and Dr. Morris from Seconds (1966)

Talk about your bait-and-switch (and how appropriate, since we’re also talking Obamacare). All middle-aged sad-sack Arthur Hamilton wants is a chance at a new life. The doctor-entrepreneurs of The Company offer him just that: a brand-new life as Rock Hudson, following a few days’ worth of plastic surgery. What the poor shmuck doesn’t realize is how badly he’ll come to miss his old life. But once he’s signed on the dotted line, there’s no going back. As soon as he voices his displeasure too strongly, the docs and their orderlies put the hurt on him and disassemble him into fresh parts for new clients. Old Arthur didn’t read the small print at the bottom of that HIPAA release form…

(5) Dr. Christian Szell from Marathon Man (1976)
Marathon Man

We need at least one Nazi dentist on this list, and Dr. Szell is it. Nobody who sees this movie will ever forget what Laurence Olivier’s Nazi war criminal dentist does inside Dustin Hoffman’s mouth. This film has probably been responsible for more dental care procrastination than any other movie in the history of cinema.

(4) Dr. William Michaels from The M.D.: A Horror Story (1992)
The MD A Horror Story

This horror novel by the extraordinarily gifted writer Thomas M. Disch hasn’t yet been adapted into a film, but it should be. Dr. Michaels is the possessor of a magical caduceus, a talisman he has owned since childhood. The caduceus is capable of miraculous feats of healing. But in order to do so, it must first be “charged” with the energies stemming from monstrous acts of evil. Dr. Michaels learns he enjoys using the caduceus for evil every bit as much as he does using it for healing. Perhaps even more…

(3) Dr. Moreau from Island of Lost Souls (1932)

In this first film adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), Charles Laughton’s Dr. Moreau has no redeeming qualities. Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, he does not seek to aid mankind. Unlike Doctors Genessier and Cortner, he isn’t trying to do a solid for a daughter or fiancée. His goal, it seems, is to bring more human beings into the world; but any twelve-year-old who has gone through a sex education class could tell him there are easier ways to do this than to vivisect hundreds of innocent, helpless animals. This is a man who would gladly cut up Bambi and Rin-Tin-Tin. That’s just evil.

(2) Dr. Elliot Mantle/Dr. Beverly Mantle from Dead Ringers (1988)
Dead Ringers

I am not easily creeped out by a movie. But this David Cronenberg flick about twin brother gynecologists did it for me. I nearly crawled out of my skin watching this. Couldn’t make it through to the end. They might not be the most evil doctors on this list, but the Doctors Mantle, with their eager application of medieval torture device gynecological instruments to Genevieve Bujold’s mutant lady-parts, are certainly the most unsettling of the bunch.

(1) Dr. Josef Mengele from The Boys from Brazil (1978)

And coming in at #1 is history’s most nefarious and infamous evil doctor, utilized by best-selling author Ira Levin as the villain of his 1976 science fiction thriller, made into a popular film two years later. In book and movie, Dr. Mengele wants to recreate his beloved Fuhrer through cloning, certainly evil enough to get him to the top of this list. My only misgiving about Mengele’s depiction here is the very odd casting of Gregory Peck. I mean, come on, who can believe that Atticus Finch is history’s greatest monster doctor? Laurence Olivier was in this one, too, but as a Nazi-hunter, this time. Maybe after his star-turn as evil dentist Dr. Szell two years earlier, he figured he’d done his quota of Nazi roles. Too bad.

So, there’s our list! Keep an eye out for these particular doctors and nurses. Obamacare promises to vastly increase the demand for medical care, but does nothing to increase the supply. So these thirteen paragons of mercy and healing may be called out of retirement… to staff an Obamacare clinic near you!

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.

Pacific Rim: Building the Modern Kaiju

I took my three boys to see director Guillermo del Toro’s giant monsters vs. giant robots thriller, Pacific Rim, earlier this week. We all left our neighborhood theater very impressed. I was convinced I’d just seen the most beautifully filmed giant monster sci-fi extravaganza in the history of giant monster sci-fi extravaganzas. In fact, despite an urgent, and I mean urgent need to visit the men’s room which arose about half way through the film’s two and a quarter hours running time, I glued myself to my seat, not wanting to miss even a moment of the spectacle.

This is worth noting, because I’m an old-school giant monster/dinosaur sort of guy; you couldn’t trade me two dozen Jurassic Parks and their CGI ilk for a single Ray Harryhausen-created stop-motion The Valley of Gwangi. I tend to think science fiction and fantasy films which rely upon large amounts of CGI effects (as nearly all do) tend to look monotonously alike and provide very little in the way of visceral, visual thrills. But the CGI artisans of Industrial Light and Magic managed to really wow me with their work on Pacific Rim. The early scenes off the coast of Alaska were particularly striking, as were scenes set in Hong Kong’s Bone Town (itself an effective evocation of Blade Runner’s dystopian Los Angeles) and the climactic scenes of the giant mecha Gipsy Danger’s descent into the Breach, leading into the watery alien dimension from which the giant sea monsters have been emerging.

In an interview from 2012, del Toro stated that he instructed his designers to avoid direct visual quotes from the classic Japanese kaiju and mecha films and TV shows of decades past, even though he meant Pacific Rim to be a loving homage to those childhood delights. Instead, he wanted to aim for “operatic grandeur” and “epic beauty,” and he listed a Francisco de Goya painting, El coloso (The Colossus), as a primary inspiration for the visual take he wished to apply to Travis Beacham’s screenplay. I think del Toro hit his mark. I felt much the same sense of awe and majesty watching the film’s giant robots as I do when looking at Goya’s painting or when reading J. G. Ballard’s classic short story “The Drowned Giant.”

But what made Pacific Rim such a rewarding movie experience for me was that it backed up its evocative, breathtaking CGI effects with a decent script and a set of characters worth caring about. The makers of too many SF and fantasy blockbusters and would-be blockbusters of the post Jurassic Park era have thrown the great bulk of their efforts and budgets into the best CGI money can buy, assuming that “wow-‘em” special effects are all an audience for this type of film require. All too often, story and characters are treated as afterthoughts, appendages to the array of special effects. This may have worked (in terms of ticket sales, if not artistic value) back when CGI effects remained a novelty. But just as the same audiences who were terrified by the approaching locomotive in the 1895 film short The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station required an actual story to be entertained a few years later, in 1902, when they went to see A Trip to the Moon, so do we SF and fantasy buffs require more than a really kewwwl spaceship, alien, dragon, or giant monster on screen in order to have an engaging film-going experience.

Central to the film’s plot is the conceit that single pilots lack the brainpower necessary to guide the kaiju-killing giant robots, or Jaegers; in order to prevent mental burnout and brain damage, a minimum of two pilots are necessary, and those two pilots must “drift” together, or establish a neural linkage, in order to make one of the gigantic mechas do its monster-killing thing. This conceit sets up both the protagonist’s tragic backstory (the death of his brother while the two men were linked, fighting a kaiju) and the film’s central love story, and it provides the hinge upon which the film’s climax swings (a supporting character uses the “drift” tech to link into the kaiju’s hive-mind and discover a way inside the enemy aliens’ dimension). This is clever and effective; as a creator of SF and fantasy plots, myself, I can appreciate the storytelling economy which results when a single McGuffin is used for multiple plot purposes.

The set design is especially noteworthy. I don’t believe set design has played this major a role in elevating the quality of a SF film since Blade Runner and the first two Alien movies. Nearly all the film’s settings are in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, so rust is a major element of the movie’s aesthetic. Everything is rusty; if some of the cast members would’ve sat still for more than thirty seconds, I’m sure they would’ve sprouted a patina of rust, too. The scenes depicting the building of the great barrier wall, stretching from Vancouver down to San Diego, have great visual impact, as do the scenes set in the Bonetown neighborhood of Hong Kong, locus for the processing and sales of bits of dead kaiju, which all take place in the shadows of a towering skeleton of one of the dead creatures.

Although the performance of the lead actor, Charlie Hunnam, is merely passable, several of the main and supporting performances rise above the merely pedestrian. Idris Elba has great screen magnetism as the doomed leader of the soon-to-be decommissioned Jaeger force, and Rinko Kikuchi is very appealing as the tough yet vulnerable heroine and love interest, equally adept at kinetic fight scenes and more intimate, emotional tableaus. The film benefits from a trio of comic relief characters who are not complete embarrassments (as such figures often are in SF and fantasy pictures) and who are actually engaging in their own right: Ron Perlman as the leader of the kaiju part selling ring, and Newton Geiszler and Hermann Gottlieb as a pair of socially maladroit scientists who study the kaiju and try to predict their attacks for the Jaeger force.

The movie supplies some wonderful “Easter egg” moments for long-time fans of the giant monsters and mecha genres. When fighting one of the kaiju, pilot Raleigh Becket activates Gipsy Danger‘s “rocket punch” feature, which supercharges the robot’s punch and nearly takes the giant sea beast’s head off; that was a wonderful moment for me, turning me back into a kid watching Johnny Socko and his Giant Robot in Voyage into Space. And at the close of the credits, when I saw that the movie was dedicated to the memories of Ishiro Honda and Ray Harryhausen (the latter of whom we lost just earlier this year), I stood up and applauded.

All that said, the movie is not without its flaws. The screenplay, in particular, suffers from several unforced errors, holes in logic which aren’t necessary for the plot to advance. About fifteen minutes into the film, we learn that the Jaeger program is being abandoned in favor of the building of gigantic walls separating coastal metropolises from the Pacific Ocean, from whence all of the giant monsters have emerged. As costly as building a Jaeger robot must be, surely building a three-hundred-foot-high steel and concrete wall along thousands of miles of coastline is infinitely more costly. Also, the entire history of twentieth century warfare demonstrates the superiority of a mobile defense (such as the Jaegers) over a static defense (such as the barrier wall, or its predecessor, the French Maginot Line). Not only that, but the history of the kaiju attacks demonstrates a steady progression in the size and power of the attacking monsters, so that monsters to come are certain to be able to breach the wall (which ends up happening). In battles between the kaiju and the Jaegers, about half the giant robots end up destroyed by the monsters, but the other half succeed in killing the creatures. The Jaeger program is terminated and the robots decommissioned because of a lack of skilled pilots, which has led to the diminishment of the Jaeger fleet. But surely an intensive program to identify and train promising pilots is much more cost-effective than building a barrier wall which is assured to eventually fail.

An even worse unforced error in the script is the chatter amongst a couple of the scientist characters that the present invasion of kaiju is a follow-up to a much earlier invasion from the alien dimension, the invasion which infested our planet with dinosaurs, who were actually advance forces from the alien world. The scientists state that the dinosaur invasion failed because environmental conditions – carbon density in the air, the acidity of the oceans, and global temperatures – weren’t optimal for the invaders eons ago; but since then, mankind has unknowingly “terraformed” Earth into a status much more congenial to the aliens (through our carbon pollution, acid rain, and subsequent global warming). This attempt on the part of the screenwriters to inject some contemporary PC “relevance” into the script is stupid and just plain wrong. First of all, both the carbon content of the atmosphere and global temperatures were MUCH higher in the era of the dinosaurs than now. Secondly, oceans covered a far larger percentage of the Earth’s surface during the Jurassic and Cretaceous Eras than today; the aliens are all water-based creatures, so they should’ve been much happier with Earth eighty million years ago than now. Thirdly, the dinosaurs were Earth’s dominant life forms for over a hundred million years. Yet this is considered an unsuccessful invasion? I call this script stupidity an unforced error because not including it in the dialogue would not have altered the movie’s logic one bit – discarding it would have improved the internal logic of the film’s backstory, in fact.

Another, equally glaring unforced error in the script is Jaeger Force commander Stacker Pentacost’s statement to hero Raleigh Becket that he has a plan to stop the kaiju invasion once and for all; this is how he tempts Raleigh out of his five-year retirement from piloting Jaegers, following the death of Raleigh’s brother. Pentacost’s plan? To have a Jaeger enter the top of the Breach in the mid-Pacific Ocean and drop a nuclear bomb down the throat of the narrow gateway between universes and collapse it. Glaring script problem/unforced error? Raleigh tells his new partner, Mako, that the Jaeger force has tried that exact same plan before and it failed. So why do any of them expect it to work a second time? And why risk the last Jaegers remaining on the planet to carry out a plan which has already been a botch? Later in the movie, Newton Geiszler, the scientist who successfully drifted with the remnants of a kaiju brain, uses his new expertise to discover a way around what made the nuke-dropping plan fail the first time, just in time to prevent the pilots of Gipsy Danger from making the same mistake all over again. This plot twist would have still worked had there not been any earlier attempt to drop a nuke into the Breach. Getting rid of this earlier attempt would mean Pentacost, Raleigh, Mako, and the rest of the Jaeger Force wouldn’t look like clueless doofuses for risking everything on a plan that had already failed due to unknown causes.

Although I list the film’s design team as one of its major strengths, I have to admit that it fell down for me in one key area – creature design. Too many of the movie’s numerous kaiju look and act too similarly to one another; with a few exceptions, it as though we are seeing the same creature attack again and again (the only one which stands out in my head is the one with wings). None of the creatures is given any personality whatsoever, beyond a “Hulk smash!” sort of destructive mania. Also (but this is a criticism I could hurl at most CGI creature movies), the monsters move about so quickly, in such a confusing whirl of motion, that we viewers never get a really good look at any of them. This is in contrast with the long, lingering views of the giant robots we are treated to.

All in all, despite my mostly script-related disappointments listed above, I hugely enjoyed watching this movie, and it is one of the very few creature films of recent years that I am eager to see again (if for nothing else, just to immerse myself in the rich visual spectacle again). An interesting question to ponder is whether Pacific Rim renders the next big kaiju project from Legendary Pictures, the 2014 American remake of Godzilla, entirely superfluous. What will the new Godzilla be able to bring to the screen which hasn’t already been surpassed by Pacific Rim?

Yes, Godzilla has a rich, sixty-year history, a tremendous supporting cast of fellow kaiju, and, in some of his incarnations, at least, a comparatively complex personality (compared to your typical dinosaur, that is) – Godzilla has been a parent, an ally to fellow kaiju and giant mecha, a determined foe of invading aliens, and a sometimes friend, sometimes enemy to humanity. However, judging from interviews with Frank Darabont, screenwriter of the Godzilla reboot, it sounds as if all those unique elements of the Godzilla mythos listed above will be tossed out the window. Darabont, acting as though he has never seen any of the dozen or so films of the Heisei or Millennium Series Godzilla movies, explains that he wants to return Godzilla to his 1954 roots as a terrifying force of nature. He heaps considerable scorn on the later films of the Showa Series, wherein Godzilla mellowed somewhat and actually displayed a sense of humor.

But if Godzilla in 2014 is to be a terrifying force of nature, and that is all, what will separate him from the kaiju of Pacific Rim? What will set the reboot above the earlier film for audiences who have already viewed Pacific Rim? The 2013 film featured at least ten rampaging giant monsters. Doesn’t that trump just one? Pacific Rim succeeded on the strength of its story, its characters and character interactions, and its gorgeous design sense. The new Godzilla, with only one giant monster (I assume) and no giant robots, will need to be amazingly strong in the story and characters/performances departments to just equal, much less surpass, Pacific Rim.

Given that getting a good, solid script down on paper seems to pose a far stiffer challenge to today’s producers of movie blockbusters than nailing the special effects, I fear that Legendary Films may end up disappointing those fans of Pacific Rim who hope to be even more wowed by the reboot of Godzilla next year. I hope they will manage to pleasantly surprise me.

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…

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.

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!

Battleship: Big, Dumb Summer Action Flick Jumps, Licks My Face

People are divided in their reactions to Irish setters.

Some folks don’t mind when those big, enthusiastic, galumphing canines dance all around their legs and jump up and deliver a tongue bath to the face. They find it endearing and sweet, a nice change of pace that any creature should find them so enticing and exciting that it goes to such efforts.

Other folks think those dogs are a nuisance. Setters slobber on you. They get their fur all over your clothes. They don’t take no for an answer. They aren’t polite or introspective or quietly charming. They won’t hold still in your lap (or fit comfortably in your lap). They won’t sit nobly at your feet while you play a game of chess (being much more likely to turn the board over).

My reaction to Irish setters? It depends on my mood and what I’m wearing. If I’m in a hurry and dressed in a suit, I don’t want an Irish setter within ten feet of me. But generally, I put up with them with a slightly arch affection, at worst. Most of the time, I like them just fine.

I must’ve been in the right mood for Universal’s and Hasbro’s summer action blockbuster Battleship last night. It won me over. It helped that I had my kids with me; I’m generally more predisposed to like this sort of film if my main purpose is to entertain my kids, and the film does that (without being inappropriate). Honestly, I probably gave the picture at least one additional star just based on the fact that Judah was dancing on my lap with excitement and Levi and Asher were oohing and aahing next to me. On the other hand, I have previously blogged as a strong skeptic of major motion pictures based on toy and game properties. So there’s that. I could’ve gone either way in my reaction.

Oh, I’m not going to make a case for Battleship being a well-thought out extrapolation of alien invasion and/or the U.S. military’s response to said incursion. On that front, the 2012 film represents a definite slide backwards from prior Saturday matinee fodder such as 1956’s Earth Versus the Flying Saucers, which portrayed both the aliens and the U.S. military in a more intelligent light. I’m not going to bother pointing out the internal inconsistencies and implausibilities that pepper this movie (chief among them being that the U.S.S. Missouri could be transitioned from being a museum ship to an active combatant in the space of three hours or so). Plenty of other reviewers have carried out that task. And besides, doing so is no more sporting than shooting fish in a barrel (or toy battleships in a bathtub).

No, what won me over wasn’t the film’s logic. It was the film’s Irish setter-like enthusiasm and good naturedness. In Battleship, everyone gets their turn to be awesome. Bad-boy rebel hero? Awesome! Stick-in-the-mud, by-the-book older brother? Awesome! Tomboy woman sailor? Awesome! Japanese naval officers visiting for war games? Awesome! Paraplegic, African-American retired Army soldier who used to be a championship boxer? Awesome! Cowardly science nerd who the paraplegic retired soldier convinces to be a hero? Awesome! Old World War Two battleship dragged out of mothballs in record time to confront the aliens’ version of the I.J.N. Yamato? Awesome! A gaggle of eighty-five-year-old Navy veterans who volunteer to show the young ‘uns how to operate a sixty-eight-year-old battleship? Awesome! The fuddy-duddy admiral dad of the girlfriend of the bad-boy rebel hero? In the end, you guessed it – he’s AWESOME!

After a half-hour or so, a viewer (unless he or she is predisposed to harbor negative feelings about members of the U.S. military) is simply worn down by all of this awesome!ness. The repeated licks to the face force smiles in a Pavlovian fashion, particularly from a viewer (like myself) who waxes nostalgic for old-style 1940s war movies like Destination Tokyo, Action in the North Atlantic, and Wake Island. No ambiguity, no moral relativism, just plenty of action, action, action! And a dash of heartfelt patriotism, too. Even patriotism for the Japanese Navy — and this in a movie that prominently features the U.S.S. Missouri, site of Japan’s WW2 surrender!

Oh, and the SFX shots of the Missouri going into action are very good, as are the scenes of three guided missile destroyers being blown up and sunk.

The movie makes its sole stab at subtlety in its gossamer-thin connection to the Hasbro board game of the title. The aliens’ force field shuts down the U.S. Navy’s and Japanese Navy’s advanced radar systems, so a Japanese officer comes up with the notion of utilizing NOAA water depression readings as a substitute measure for tracking the locations of the attacking alien warships… and the resulting screen images look just like – you guessed it! – graphics from the board game. This Easter egg alone, the film’s “Rosebud,” may cause critics of the future to rank Battleship as the Citizen Kane of toy-and-game movie adaptations.

I predict that this film will do much better in the home video market than it did in the theaters (where it has been one of the year’s more notable box office bombs). It is the sort of picture kids (and many dads) will enjoy watching over and over again (maybe fast-forwarding to the things-go-BOOM! scenes).

My family’s rankings?

One ”This is the most AWESOME movie I’ve ever seen in my whole LIFE!” (Judah)
Two ”Pretty awesome”s (Levi and Asher)
One ”More entertaining than I’d expected it would be” (that would be me)

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.

Worst Giant Ape Film of All Time? Konga vs. The Mighty Peking Man

Since I started writing this blog back in July, 2011, my youngest son, Judah, has become a giant monster fanatic (a chip off the old block; I adored all the same stuff at his age). My first “favorite movie” was King Kong Vs. Godzilla, which even at the age of six was a guilty pleasure for me, because I had seen the original King Kong and knew in my heart-of-hearts that Toho’s man in a gorilla suit could not compare to Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animated Kong. Still, hokey as that guy in a gorilla suit seemed, I couldn’t resist the sheer fun of seeing Japan’s biggest, baddest radioactive dinosaur rumble with King Kong (who gained kind-of-cool electrical powers in the film, a bit of an equalizer to Godzilla’s radioactive breath).

Judah loves all the Godzilla films, from the classics and near-classics (Godzilla, King of the Monsters and Godzilla Vs. the Thing, a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Mothra) to the really “awful” ones (Godzilla’s Revenge, thought by many to be the worst Godzilla film of all, but one which Judah and I both appreciate). He also really digs other giant monster films, favorites including The Deadly Mantis, Tarantula, the Gamera movies of the 1960s and 1970s, and South Korea’s only foray into the genre, Yongary, Monster From the Deep. He has even sat through the Mystery Theater 3000 version of The Giant Gila Monster, although the point of the snarking robots at the bottom of the screen escaped him.

Being five, he will happily watch his favorites over and over again (and I’ll generally comply with his pleas to watch with him, since many of those films never get old for me), but I do my best to “broaden his horizons” and introduce him to films he hasn’t seen before. Netflix is a great help with this parental mission. I saw that Konga, a 1961 collaboration between a British studio, Anglo Amalgamated, and an American studio, American International Pictures, was available for instant streaming. I hadn’t seen Konga since I was a kid, and my memories of the film were somewhat hazy. Still, it had a giant ape in it, rampaging through London, so I figured, what’s not to like?

Plenty, as it turned out. Interestingly, the big ape, Konga, was by far the worst thing about the film. The rest of the movie deserved a better monster. Somewhat unusually for a 1960s giant monster flick, the human performances are quite good, making the very lame FX and ape acting seem all the more limp by comparison. Michael Gough is very memorable as the increasingly deranged Professor Charles Decker, the scientist who mutates a friendly little chimpanzee, Konga, into a massive brute by injecting him with several doses of growth serum. Margo Johns is equally as good as Margaret, Decker’s lab assistant, who, in love with her boss, blackmails him into marrying her by agreeing to go along with his dangerous experiments and utilization of Konga to murder his academic and scientific rivals. The scenes between them crackle with dramatic tension, especially after Barbara learns of Decker’s horndog yearnings for Sandra (Claire Gordon), his young, pretty student.

"If you hadn't injected me with this damn growth formula, I could have stayed a lively little chimp, instead of a comatose giant gorilla!"

Where the film completely falls flat on its face is whenever the ape shows up. Oh, Konga is perfectly acceptable so long as he remains a chimp, portrayed by an actual chimpanzee. But once he is mutated into a full-grown gorilla, he is a black hole on the screen, sucking all of the film’s verisimilitude and audience involvement out and depositing them in some nether region on the far side of the galaxy. Simply put, aside (maybe) from some gorilla portrayals in Republic Pictures or Monogram Studios serials of the 1930s and 1940s, uncredited actor Paul Stockman delivers the most lackadaisical, unconvincing portrayal of a gorilla by a man in a gorilla suit on film. (Stockman has thirteen film and TV credits, none of the others being apes; his only named characters are Inspector Dales in two 1967 episodes of the TV series Adventures of the Seaspray and Steve Parker in Dr. Blood’s Coffin, made the same year as Konga, 1961.) George Barrows rented his gorilla suit to the makers of Konga; the suit had previously appeared in such cinema “classics” as Gorilla at Large and Robot Monster. They would have done as well to stuff a mannequin inside the gorilla suit as put Paul Stockman in there. Stockman makes no effort whatsoever to portray a gorilla. He simply walks around inside the suit, with all the verve and dynamism of a man trying to wipe a wad of chewing gum off the bottom of his shoe onto a patch of grass. Before being turned gigantic by Barbara’s final injection of the growth serum, Konga is directed by Decker to murder three of his rivals. None of the strangulation murders are filmed with any suspense, interesting camera angles, or cinematic energy at all. Stockman as Konga goes through the motions, as though Decker had sent him out to the local pharmacy for some antacid tablets.

Perhaps the film’s biggest surprise is that Konga, who grows to more than a hundred feet tall, doesn’t destroy anything, beyond his initial big growth spurt wherein he shoots through the roof of Decker’s house and stumbles through his greenhouse filled with carnivorous plants. He shambles through the outskirts and then the heart of London and somehow manages to avoid wrecking so much as a single building, smooshing a single civilian (apart from Barbara, whom he tosses to the carnivorous plants, and Decker, whom he flings to the soldiers as though he were discarding a candy wrapper), or trampling a single infantryman. I picture a little two-way radio inside the mask of Stockman’s gorilla suit, with the director constantly warning him, “Mind the budget, you! We can’t afford even a single mangled model car!”

The British Army's marksmanship has sadly declined since the glory days of El Alamein

Accordingly, none of the several dozen extras hired to run away from the giant ape appear to be in much of a hurry or evince much in the way of terror. “Big ponce won’t spend the effort to step on me,” seems to be the general attitude. When the British Army arrives on the scene, they don’t bother moving the crowds back, as though they are unconcerned by the possibility that a few dozen folks might get trampled or have their heads removed by a stray bullet. Speaking of stray bullets, the Nazi Propaganda Ministry of WWII couldn’t have done a more effective job of denigrating the deadliness of Britain’s armed forces than the makers of Konga. As Konga – over a hundred feet tall, mind you, not a small target – poses immobile next to London’s Big Ben, the assembled infantrymen fire several hundred rounds of tracer bullets and rockets at the giant gorilla, from a range of perhaps fifty yards. Every single tracer shell sails harmlessly over the ape’s head or shoulders. Finally, once the filmmakers have apparently grown tired of this incredible display of ineffectuality, and with Stockman in the gorilla suit just standing there and waving an improperly scaled doll of Professor Decker limply through the air, the Army men correct their aim and bring the big gorilla down. The closing shot, the big climax? Through the magic of a blur filter being placed in front of the camera lens, the giant gorilla shrinks back to his original form – which turns out to be a stuffed toy chimp bought from the local toy store. They couldn’t have sedated an actual live monkey for the shot, or at least used a miniature that doesn’t look like it belongs in an infant’s nursery? Supposedly the special effects, among the first giant monster effects to be filmed in color (although Ray Harryhausen had done it to immeasurably greater effect three years earlier with his The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), took eighteen months to complete. What did they do in all that time? Obviously not build miniatures capable of fooling even a three-year-old.

FX horror or horrible FX? Willis O'Brien rolls over in his grave

The most cringe-inducing FX shot comes right after Barbara gives Konga his super-sized injection of growth serum. We get that blur filter again, and Konga shoots up to about twelve feet tall, tall enough to fill much of Decker’s laboratory. He picks up Barbara in his expanded paw – and she is obviously a two-foot-tall doll, of the kind little girls get for Christmas so they can practice styling its hair with miniature plastic brushes. This shot doesn’t last a half-second, which might have ameliorated its awfulness, but a full four or five seconds, which can’t help but make the most casual viewer wonder if the filmmakers were even trying. The worst traveling matte effect would have been an improvement over this travesty – Ed Wood-level filmmaking, but without Ed Wood’s unintentional humor.

Beauty and the beast, Hong Kong-style

After Konga (thankfully) came to an inglorious end, Netflix, as it is wont to do, suggested a handful of similar films I might enjoy. One of them was a giant ape-man movie I had never heard of, a 1977 Hong Kong production called The Mighty Peking Man. Oh, what fun! I told my son and my wife. This sounds even worse than Konga! We can have a competition to decide the worst giant ape movie of all time! And so we settled in for the second entry in our inadvertent double feature.

I went into The Mighty Peking Man with no preconceptions whatsoever – aside from an expectation that it would be cheesy and generally awful, judging solely from its awkward title and the year of its filming (1977 was simply not a golden year for pop culture). This turned out to be a delightful way to watch this movie, as virtually every five minutes brought a fresh surprise and gasp of appreciation for the momentous heights of fantabulous cheesiness scaled by this film. A little history is in order. The Shaw Brothers Studio in Hong Kong rushed The Mighty Peking Man into production to capitalize on the worldwide giant gorilla craze sparked by Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 remake of King Kong, which introduced moviegoers to Jessica Lange. The picture, starring Danny Lee as an archeologist/adventurer and blonde bombshell Evelyn Kraft as a female Tarzan named Samantha, wasn’t released in the U.S. market until 1980, under the title Goliathon. However, nineteen years later, in 1999, this obscure film got a second release in the U.S. market, this time under its original name, thanks to the efforts of Quentin Tarantino, who worked with Miramax to rerelease it through his Rolling Thunder Pictures distribution company. At which point it earned a grand total of $17,368.00 in the theaters before being swept away into the Blockbuster bins. I can only assume it has performed somewhat better on home video and cable TV. It certainly deserves to be seen.

Mighty Peking Man, unlike Konga, delivers the goods

From beginning to end, this movie is a hoot to watch, without a dull moment. It displays, in spades, all the cinematic energy which the “horror” scenes of Konga so miserably lack. All the atmospherics work in its favor – its disco-era costuming and soundtrack, as well as its performers’ extroverted acting styles, give it the feel of a Blaxploitation film without Black people (which I’m sure helped to endear it to Quentin Tarantino, that famed fanboy of Blaxploitation). Plus, the filmmakers take the hint of flirtatiousness between Jessica Lange’s Dwan and Rick Baker’s Kong from the hit movie of the prior year and dial it up to eleven, going where no giant ape movie had gone before. Kuang Ni, the scriptwriter, combines the stories of King Kong and Tarzan. Rather than the Great White Hunter/Filmmaker bringing his Blonde Goddess to the Giant Gorilla’s lair, in this instance, a Great Asian Archeologist discovers a Blonde Tarzanna already comfortably ensconced with the giant ape-man in the Himalayan wilderness. Samantha’s parents had perished in a small plane crash near the home of the Mighty Peking Man, and the giant ape-man rescued the tiny child from the wreck and raised her, somehow providing her with a skin-tight animal-skin bikini to wear. Samantha has the ability to communicate with all the large animals in her domain, including leopards and tigers, and she is quite… uh, familiar with the Mighty Peking Man, who she calls Utam. There are a couple of scenes wherein she climbs into Utam’s giant paw and sinuously rubs her pneumatic body up and down his big index finger, as tall as she is, up and down, up and down, those big breasts, barely contained by that animal-skin bikini top, giving Utam a voluptuous manicure… well, I’m sure you get the idea. Sailed right over Judah’s little head, but not my wife’s head. Or my head. Jesus, I need a cold shower after typing that…

Mighty Peking Man's miniatures put those of Konga to shame

Alas, things do not end well for Samantha and her Utam. Archeologist Johnny, doing his best Carl Denham imitation, drags them away from their jungle paradise across the South China Sea so that Utam can be put on public display in Hong Kong. Utam puts up with this in amiable fashion until one of the film’s heavies takes a rude interest in comely Samantha and attempts to rape her – in a hotel room with an open window that just happens to be overlooking the stadium where Utam, in chains, is watching. Utam, to put it mildly, does not take this lying down. Sadamasa Arikawa and Koichi Kawakita, the special effects directors, then put on a hell of a good show. Their miniatures of downtown Hong Kong rival the best 1950s and 1960s work of Toho Studios and are superior to the model work deployed by Daiei Motion Picture Company in their 1960s Gamera movies. The Mighty Peking Man costume is very ugly, reminiscent of the green gargantua costume used in Toho’s 1966 War of the Gargantuas, but the effects men manage to make the mask express a wide range of emotions, and the actor in the suit uses his body language about as effectively and expressively as Haruo Nakajima does as Kong in King Kong Escapes or as Shoichi Hirose does as Kong in King Kong vs. Godzilla — all three giant ape performances being head and shoulders above Paul Stockman’s shameless sleepwalking through Konga. In a revealing parallel with the English-American coproduction, Utam throws his tormentor, Samantha’s would-be rapist, to the ground, just as Konga tosses Decker to the street – only the vastly more energetic Mighty Peking Man then crushes his victim with his giant foot.

Once the closing credits rolled, my supposed contest for the worst giant ape movie of all time ended up as no contest at all. The Hong Kong production is far and away the better movie (Judah and Asher both agreed). Are there any other giant ape movies out there that can rival Konga for wretchedness? I’ve already mentioned the Toho trio of giant ape movies, War of the Gargantuas and the two Kong flicks. I would place them all above Konga due to the quality of their miniature work, the expressive suit performances delivered by their gorilla actors, and their never-boring, endearingly goofy antics and plot turns. I would be tempted to pit Dino De Laurentiss’ King Kong against Konga for the title, since I truly disliked that film, even as a kid, but the high quality of Rick Baker’s performance as Kong uplifts his film and gives it the edge (had De Laurentiss been able to stick with his original plan to solely utilize his life-size King Kong robot for the Kong performance, then we would have a real contest on our hands).

QUEEN KONG, which is also in the running for Least Convincing Portrayal of a Dinosaur on Film

I’ve never seen Queen Kong, a 1976 British comedy which got embroiled in a lawsuit with Dino De Laurentiss and never received a general theatrical release, appearing only in limited release in Germany and Italy. Apparently the film has a cult following in Japan, where it has received entirely new Japanese dialogue, done in the spirit of Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lilly?. Sadly, neither version of Queen Kong is available on Netflix. The photos and screen grabs I’ve been able to view online look truly dreadful, so this one might be credible competition for Konga.

A*P*E, South Korea's entry in the Worst Giant Ape Movie of All Time competition

I also hear that a South Korean production, A*P*E (1976), made, like The Mighty Peking Man, to gobble up some of the box office crumbs left over from the De Laurentiss King Kong, is epically bad. Judge for yourself from the pair of “special” FX photos I’ve so kindly provided.

An adaptation much superior to the original

Konga did not sleepwalk in vain, however. This wretched film spawned a far superior offspring in a different medium – Charlton Comics’ 1960-66 comic book series Konga, illustrated by Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man. In Konga, Ditko found a character perfectly suited to his unique style of illustration (I would argue that Konga is a better fit for Ditko’s style than even Spider-Man). He took a character virtually devoid of expressive qualities (see my comments above concerning Paul Stockman’s “performance” as Konga) and made him, by turns, whimsical, affectionate, lovelorn, lonely, playful, affronted, and vengeful.

Yes, the comics version had 500% more personality than the movie original

The series was popular enough to last twenty-four issues (the final issue was retitled Fantastic Giants), and it spawned a spinoff miniseries and two companion monster series at Charlton, Gorgo and Reptilicus, both also illustrated by Steve Ditko. Highlights of the series have recently been reprinted in the black and white collection, The Lonely One, which offers terrific reproductions of Ditko’s line art without the distraction of the inferior, crude coloring common to comic books of the 1960s. The stories are absolutely charming and are gorgeous to look at. I highly recommend hunting down either the original comics or the reprint collection.

Even though the final issue of Konga (actually Fantastic Giants) came out when I was a year old, I ended up with a copy as a young boy. My dad worked in a cardboard box factory, and the boxes were made from recycled paper. Knowing how much I loved comic books, he gave instructions to the workers on the factory floor that if they ever saw a comic heading for the shredding machine, they should pull it out and bring it to him. That’s how I ended up with a coverless copy of Fantastic Giants #24, which reprinted the origin stories of Konga and Gorgo, plus two new giant monster stories by Steve Ditko. How I loved that big, fat, 64-page comic! I virtually read it to pieces. I loved it so much that I drew my own cover for it to replace the cover it had lost. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, the real cover of Fantastic Giants #24 is reproduced below:

Oodles of fantastic Steve Ditko art for only a quarter!

For those of you who are big fans of Charlton’s monster movie comics of the 1960s, here’s a link to the mother of all reference articles on the subject, a treasure trove of arcane trivia. Enjoy!

Harmonic Convergence of Leisure-Time Pursuits

Seeing things from the point of view of a jaded photographer in BLOW-UP (1966)

Every now and then, one snaps to the realization that several of one’s pursuits or activities, due to no conscious design, fit together like the gears of a nice pocket watch. It happened to me this past weekend – a sort of “satori for geeks.”

Ever since this past summer, when I was finally able to divorce myself from my habit (of five year’s duration) of easing my three boys into sleep by lying down in bed with them (often falling asleep myself), and thus reclaimed some nightly reading time, I’ve been pursuing the project of reading much of the notable classic science fiction that I somehow missed out on during my personal Golden Age of Science Fiction (my teen years). Two of the writers whose vintage paperbacks have been falling into my acquisitive fingers with increasing frequency have been Philip Jose Farmer and Michael Moorcock. As a teen, I’m pretty sure all I read of Farmer was his collection Strange Relations, and my familiarity with Moorcock was limited to his novel-length version of Behold the Man (I wasn’t into sword and sorcery, so I avoided his then-omnipresent Elric books, and his Jerry Cornelius books weren’t widely available when I would’ve been apt to pick them up in the late 1970s or early 1980s).

I’ve been collecting the “frisky Farmer” books, his early forays into exploring human-alien sex and the like. So far, I’ve found copies of The Lovers (the 1961 novelization of his 1953 short story), Dare, and Flesh, plus several of his Tarzan pastiches, which I’m sure have various forms of sex or sex-play in them. When it comes to old paperbacks, I prefer to find them in my local used bookstores or at conventions, but I think I may break down and utilize the Internets to get my hands on his two “pornographic” SF novels of the 1960s, Image of the Beast and Blown (which have been published by at least two publishers as a combined edition).

Michael Moorcock has also been popping up on my radar screen. I chanced into a nice vintage hardback copy of the second of his Jerry Cornelius novels from the late 1960s, A Cure for Cancer. I already had his collection of Jerry Cornelius short fiction, The Life and Times of Jerry Cornelius, sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, and, being a completest (and also having this blog to somehow fill each week), I have set off on a quest (also likely to be cut short by a visit to the Internets) for the other three Jerry Cornelius novels (which have been published both as stand-alones and as omnibus editions).

I also bought books two and four of his Jherek Carnelian/Dancers at the End of Time series, The Hollow Lands and The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming, which means, of course, that my next order of business must be acquiring books one and three, An Alien Heat and The End of All Songs (which, like the Cornelius books, are available in several different handy omnibus editions). Jerry Cornelius and Jherek Carnelian are both avatars of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, Cornelius being the 1960s embodiment (along with Elric, of course) and Carnelian being the 1970s embodiment (or one of them, Moorcock having been incredibly prolific throughout the 1960s and 1970s, sometimes writing books at a rate of 15,000 words per day, cranking them out in three or four days apiece!).

Accompanying my book-buying binges are occasional jazz CD buying binges. My most recent purchase was a meaty, satisfying compilation from Blue Note Records, Artist Selects: Lou Donaldson, in which the alto saxophonist picked out thirteen of his favorite tracks from his more than two decades of putting out albums on the Blue Note label. The earliest selections on the CD date from the early 1950s, when Lou sat in on a number of hard bop sessions with drummer/band leader Art Blakey and introduced pianist Horace Silver and trumpeter Clifford Brown to the Blue Note stable. Most of the second half of the cuts on the CD come from Lou’s “soul jazz” period, which began with his classic album Blues Walk in 1958. One of the keys to the Lou Donaldson quintet’s unique sound was the inclusion of conga drummer Ray Barretto, which made his numbers danceable, and which secured him placement in jukeboxes around the country. Not long after Blues Walk, Lou settled on a standard format for his soul jazz records, groups that included electric organ and guitar players (he liked having an organist accompany him because an electric organ was easy to transport, and many of the small clubs Lou’s groups played didn’t own a piano). This remained his preferred format throughout the 1960s. His most popular album of that time was Alligator Boogaloo, recorded in 1967, featuring Melvin Lastie on cornet, Lonnie Smith on organ, George Benson (before he became a singing star) on guitar, and the talented New Orleanian Leo Morris on drums. The title cut originated as a throwaway piece, an elaboration on a vamping groove that Lou conjured up at the last minute to fill four empty minutes on the record, but it ended up being the most commercially successful piece he ever recorded.

What brought these disparate works of pop culture together for me in flash of “geek satori?” It was watching Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up on Turner Classic Movies. The Italian director’s first film in English (he made two more, Zabriskie Point and The Passenger, the latter starring Jack Nicholson), it was set in the Swinging London of the mid-1960s and featured a protagonist loosely based on a real-life British fashion photographer of the period. This movie, just like the only other Antonioni film I’ve seen, the earlier The Red Desert, is a visual feast, with stunning, unforgettable cinematography. It’s also a marvelous period piece, capturing the mod Swinging London of the Sixties like a fly trapped in shimmering celluloid amber. David Hemmings, who plays the unnamed photographer, lives in a sprawling photographer’s commune in an industrial part of London and drives an enormous Bentley convertible with blaise abandon, weaving it through streets meant for cars half its size. His days are filled with sexually provocative fashion shoots and the would-be groupies his notoriety attracts, and his evenings are filled with parties he experiences through a haze of drugs and alcohol. The City of London is rife with protesters against nuclear war and racism, as well as an “action squad” of mimes who drive about in an Army-surplus truck, looking for an audience.

The film’s plot (such as it is) hinges on a chance encounter between the photographer and two lovers in a neighborhood park. The photographer shoots a series of photos of the couple from long range, before being spotted by the woman (Vanessa Redgrave), who is considerably younger than her apparent paramour. She tracks the photographer back to his studio/commune and demands that he turn over his negatives. Intrigued by her reactions, he gives her a roll of film, but substitutes a different set of photos. Later, when he develops the photos of the couple, he sees, hidden in the bushes behind them, what might be a man with a gun and a dead body. He blows the images up in an attempt to figure out if what he thinks he sees was actually there. That evening, he returns to the park and finds the dead body. However, he has forgotten to bring his camera along. He goes to a party where he knows his agent will be present, intending to recruit him to return with him to the park to view the body. But he gets sidetracked by all of the drugs and sex available at the gathering. When he awakens the next morning and returns home, he discovers that, in his absence, all of the photos of the couple, plus his negatives, have been removed from his studio, which has been thoroughly ransacked. That evening, he spots the character portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave outside a theater. He follows her inside, only to get sidetracked once again by the wild scene inside, a raucous concert given by the Yardbirds. He loses her. The film ends the following morning, when he returns to the park and finds the body gone, no evidence left behind of it ever having been there. When he walks out of the park, the mime “action squad” spots him and their truck pulls over. The mimes spill out of the truck and rush to the park’s tennis court, where two of them mime a tennis match while the rest of them watch the “game.” The photographer watches, too. One of the mimes pretends to hit the “ball” over the fence, then signals for the photographer to fetch it. He pretends to toss it back to them. In the film’s final shot, he begins hearing the sounds of a tennis match from the mimed game.

My take on the film is that it was a subtle but telling broadside against the excesses of its age. The photographer is bored and filled with ennui due to the emptiness of his life and his fixation upon vapid surfaces. When something real and important — a possible murder — intrudes upon his existence, he is drawn to it, yet he is unable to extract himself from the morass of his over-stimulated milieu to do anything about it, either alert the authorities or solve the mystery of the killing himself. When we last see him, he is ascribing reality — the sounds of a ball being struck by a tennis racket — to phenomena which do not exist, to a mimed fantasy.

How do my other current leisure-time obsessions fit in with Blow-Up? Part of the film’s affect of alienation is achieved by the lack, for much of the film, of a musical soundtrack. The only times music is heard in the film is when one of the characters turns on a radio or a phonograph player or attends a concert. One of the only occasions on which David Hemmings’ character expresses any enthusiasm is when he plays a jazz record for the Vanessa Redgrave character. Although all of the movie’s instrumental music was composed by jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, this bit of jazz sounds exactly like Lou Donaldson’s quintet from Alligator Boogaloo. Soul jazz was very popular in the Swinging London of the mid-1960s, particularly electric organ groups. Herbie Hancock played on a number of Blue Note albums with Lou Donaldson, so he was very familiar with that sound. The photographer’s ultra-alpha male persona with women, his easy domination of his models and groupies, so easy that he becomes bored with the ease of it, reminded me very strongly of the protagonist of Philip Jose Farmer’s 1960 novel Flesh, an astronaut who returns to Earth after an absence of eight hundred years, only to be turned into the Sunhero, a living sex totem surgically enhanced with “the pure sex power of fifty bulls” (to quote from the back cover copy from a late 1960s reprint edition). But most of all, watching Blow-Up made me eager to dive into Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels and stories. Cornelius sprang from the exact same milieu that produced the photographer of Blow-Up. Moorcock and his good friend J. G. Ballard were an integral part of the Swinging London scene, one of the few times when the worlds of science fiction and the art world’s avant garde intersected (the only other time I can think of would be the Weimar Germany of the 1920s, when science fiction films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis showcased German Expressionism).

What can I say about my having the experience of watching one of the key cinematic portraits of Swinging London enhanced by my serendipitous choices in reading and listening material?

Absolutely fab.

Eclectic Taste in Films

As a member of the Loyola University English Department’s Advisory Board, I receive many news announcements from my alma mater. I was sad to see this announcement of Professor Peggy McCormack’s untimely passing. I never had the pleasure of taking one of Professor McCormack’s classes, but I was an avid attendee of the Loyola Film Buffs Institute’s film screening series. I got my first exposure to such classics as Rashamon, The Seventh Seal, and Nights of Cambiria in the little auditorium on the third floor of Bobet Hall.

Usually, notices of memorial events don’t generate a smile or a laugh. This one did. See if you agree.

Tribute to Professor Peggy McCormack

Peggy McCormack, Ph.D., Loyola University Professor of English

Dear Loyola Community,

Professor McCormack who was a vivacious contributor to Loyola’s campus life for several decades passed away unexpectedly on Mardi Gras day 2012.

As a senior professor in the Department of English and a longtime director of Loyola University’s Film Buffs Program, she left a deep and cherished imprint on the lives of many students. She will be dearly missed.

To celebrate her legacy and to commemorate the inspiring friendships that she shared with many of her students, Film Buffs will show two of her all-time favorite films on March 9: Sunset Boulevard and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

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