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Monday, May 4, 2015

The Devil Bat

Bela Lugosi starred in a low-B grade film in 1940 titled The Devil Bat (TDB). Given his cultural association with Dracula, it was a title and marquee. Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) was one of the more notable Poverty Row studios. Most of what they turned out (very quickly and cheaply) were westerns (Billy the Kid series) or crime dramas. TDB was, at a nominal level, a crime story with a hint of sci-fi.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Carruthers (Lugosi) was the disgruntled chemist for a cosmetics company. His discoveries had made the owners of Heath Enterprises very rich. Carruthers felt the two partners, Martin Heath and Henry Morton, had bamboozled him out of his fair share of the wealth. To extract his revenge, Carruthers developed a fragrance which a species of bats hate. He then experimented with ways to grow little bats into big eagle-sized bats. He gives Roy Heath a new aftershave he had been working on, then releases his giant bat. The bat kills Roy. The police are stumped. The death draw media attention. Reporter Johnny Layton and his photographer, “One Shot” are sent to investigate. Martin’s other son, Tommy, also gets a sample of aftershave and is likewise killed. Don Morton succumbs to the Devil Bat too. Johnny begins a romantic attraction to the lovely daughter, Mary Heath. Henry Morton begins to suspect that Doc is behind the killings, but on his way to the Heath mansion, is attacked by the bat and dies. Later, Mary wonders why her going-to-bed perfume smells different, but dismisses it. That night, the big bat tried to get into her room. Doc is called to tend to the pretending-to-be-upset Mary, while Johnny searches Doc’s house. He finds the lab, the aftershave and the attic full of bats. Johnny slips away, returns, and convinces Doc to watch for the bat. Doc agreed because Johnny put on some of the aftershave. While they watch, the bat screeches as it attacks. Johnny throws some aftershave on Doc, who is then attacked by the bat. With the mad scientist and his bat dead, Mary can rest her head on tall Johnny’s shoulder. Fade to black, The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Bela’s animated acting makes this film. Without him, TDB would be quite forgettable. Still, with Bela keeping things lively, TDB has a certain super-cheap B-movie charm. The room full of sparky things in which Carruthers ‘grows’ his bats, is classic old world charm.

Cultural Connection
Good, Cheap, Fun — Despite the growing war in Europe, or perhaps because of it, there was an eager market for movie entertainment. With the ‘double bill’ formula for distributing films, there was a strong demand for quick, cheap B movies. While this B movie market thrived, margins were thin. To be profitable, a Poverty Row studio had to crank out a feature film in a matter of days, with little set, costume or talent costs. As such, the bread and butter of these studios were westerns and crime dramas. Sci-fi, typically, required more money for special effects or props. Movie audiences in the late 30s, 40s and early 50s, had more forgiving expectations for their entertainment. Cheap sets and no-name actors were okay, as long as there was some fighting, some shooting and a few women’s screams.

Notes
Bela’s Decline — Bela Lugosi never was able to rise above his big famous role as Dracula in 1931. He played the mad scientists or villains in a string of medium-grade films for the rest of the 1930s. Treatment an old war wound (manifest as sciatica) led to him becoming addicted to opiates. While Lugosi remained popular with audiences, his desirability to the studios was limited. Appearing Poverty Row films was a descent he was never able to rise above.

That’s Science! — The thin connection TDB has to sci-fi appears in the opening minutes of the film. The first, and weakest connection, is Doc’s work as a chemist to have brewed up his aftershave potion that dives bats to kill. That’s something. The more classic sci-fi, is Doc using sparky electrical things to grow his giant bats from ordinary bats. Perhaps it was a slightly flubbed line, which as a Poverty Row film, was not worth correcting, but Doc tells his bat that he has mastered “glandular stimulation through electric improcess.” This has, at least a hint of Frankenstein to it. The rest of the story is a more pedestrian crime drama.

Why aim? — An amusing bit of Hollywood-ism is how freely Johnny Layton brandishes and uses his snub-nosed .38 revolver. When the bat appears, he fires several shots at the fleeing bat, from the hip! Now, a snub-nosed .38 is not a particularly accurate gun in the first place, but aiming helps. Nonetheless, hero Johnny is able to hit the fast flying bat with his third shot. Heroes are good that way.

Milking the Turnip — PRC cranked out dozens of films in the 40s. In 1946 they sought to wring just a few more bucks from The Devil Bat by producing a sequel. This might suggest that TDB actually did fairly well for a cheap B film. The sequel: Devil Bat's Daughter had no sci-fi element to it all, but was a plain crime drama. While DBD purported to be a continuation, even using some TDB footage as flashback nightmares for Doc’s daughter, the plot continuity was highly flawed. This suggests that PRC had a draft script for a mediocre crime drama. (Sinister psychologist convinces sick woman that she’s a killer, in order to cover the murder of his wife.) With a little rewriting and inserting old footage, the script could almost work as a sequel to TDB. Almost. Yet, the sequel lacked any of the gravitas that Lugosi brought.

Bottom line? Viewers with a fondness for old B-movies, or Bela Lugosi, will find TDB mildly entertaining. Viewers with high standards or fussy tastes in films, will likely find TDB boring or dumb. TDB isn’t high art, by any means, but with a forgiving attitude, it can be good cheap fun.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Leonard Nimoy in the Golden Era

It was sad news to hear of the passing of Leonard Nimoy. His character, Spock, had become such a cultural icon that Nimoy could play him for decades. Gene Rodenberry created the character Spock  the mid 1960s. Nimoy, then in his mid-30s, got the part. Prior that landing the role of Spock, Nimoy had played many bit parts in many westerns during the 50s and 60s. Of course, westerns were big then, so that's where the work was. Nonetheless, Nimoy did have small parts in three 50s sci-fi films.

1952: Zombies of the Stratosphere was Nimoy's first sci-fi role. Presaging Spock, Narab was an alien -- a martian. The Narab character was a very minor role, akin to Thug #2 or Henchman #3. But, Nimoy did get a couple of speaking lines and a few precious seconds close up on the screen near the end of the film. The sinister martian leader's rocket is shot down by the hero rocket man. The wounded Narab tells Larry where the nuclear bomb is hidden and how to disarm it, thereby saving Earth. Yay!






1954: Them! saw Nimoy in such a small role, he was not credited. He played the role of a sergeant in an army intelligence office. Still, he did get a couple of lines there too.










1958: The Brain Eaters saw Nimoy in a bit more substantial role. Again with a bit of presaging, the character of Professor Cole becomes a sort of hybrid -- half human, half alien -- when he is infected with the aliens. He gets a few speaking lines in which he speaks for the aliens. Regardless of the aliens' professed intentions of bringing a semi-benovolent tyranny to improve mankind's lot. The heroes are understandably unimpressed and proceed to electrocute the aliens.


Nimoy stayed busy in the late 50s, early 60s, with bit parts in westerns, such as Bonanza and Rawhide, or small parts in crime dramas.


That is, until 1966, when he played the character of Mr. Spock in the pilot for Rodenberry's proposed TV series, Star Trek. That pilot "The Cage" failed to turn into the series. A second pilot was shot, this time with William Shatner as the brash captain of the Starship Enterprise. Nimoy was the only member of the first cast (for The Cage) that carried over to the second pilot, still as Mr. Spock.

Over the next 40 years, Nimoy would continue to play Spock in one variation or another. It is amusing to remember that such a monumental legend as Spock started out as the humble Narab in a minor role in Republic serial in 1952. Rest in Peace, Mr. Nimoy. You've served sci-fi very well.



Friday, October 24, 2014

The Time Machine ('78)

The second film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel was a made-for-television movie that appeared as part of ABC’s “Classics Illustrated” series. Normally, television movies are outside of the scope of this study, but this TM makes a handy bridge between the George Pal film of 1960 and the 2002 version. John Beck stars as the Time Traveler, this time named Neil Perry. Priscilla Barns plays Weena. As with the other film adaptations, there were some liberties were taken, some contemporary spin applied and yet some faithfulness to Wells’ original.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A Russian satellite malfunctions and begins to fall to the earth. Mega Corporation’s untried anti-missile missile is ordered deployed to intercept the radioactive satellite before it hit’s LA. Dashing, liesure-suited Neil Perry rushes in with his pocket calculator to correct the missile’s course. LA is saved. Mega Corp is happy, but wants to know what Neil spent 20 million dollars on. He shows them his time machine prototype. The Mega Corp brass are unimpressed and cancel his project, come Monday. Since it’s Friday, Neil decides to test his machine to give them proof. He goes back in the past to 1692 and his accused of being a witch in Salem. He escapes to the American west in the middle 1800s. He is pursued as a claim-jumping criminal. Returning to 1978, a coworkers shows him how mankind is doomed soon, due to atomic mismanagement. Neil travels forward in time to learn what happens, but goes too far. He sees nuclear explosions and a barren landscape. Then he sees trees regrow. He stops. Behind him are big bronze doors. He encounters the Eloi and meets Weena, all of whom speak 20th century American english. Weena shows him their museum, which has “old” weapons on display, including the Death Ray pistol which Mega Corp wanted him to develop. He plays some video tapes to learn the fate of mankind and nuclear armageddon. That night, the Morlocks break into the Eloi building and capture several, including Weena’s brother Ariel. Neil ventures into the Morlock underworld to rescue the captives. He finds them, and they all escape. Neil gets the idea to use some C4, on display in the museum, to seal up the Morlock tunnels. He mounts an expedition to plant the explosives. This eventually works, with the Eloi escaping and Neil finding his machine. He narrowly escapes the angry Morlocks by returning to 1978. The Mega Corp Chairman wants to exploit the Time Machine for financial gain. Neil escapes in his machine, to return to Weena. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Wells’ novel is fascinating, so adaptations of it are bound to inherit at least a little of that fascination. The deviations from the book are amusing as windows into the late 70s mind. Priscilla Barns makes a very desirable Weena. Less vacuous than TM60’s Weena and less noble-savage than TM2002’s “Mara”.

Cold War Angle
While the Cold War as motivator for contemporaneous sci-fi, had fallen out of fashion, it was evident (in spades) in TM78. Repeating the Cold War moralizing of TM60, it is nuclear holocaust that wipes out mankind as we know it. The fear-filled notion of super bombs lives on in the dreaded Anti-Matter Bomb which Mega Corp wanted Neil to develop and which the recordings blame for the global devastation. TM78 lays the blame squarely on the steps of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Notes
Deviations from the Book — None of the three english-speaking adaptations follow Wells’ book faithfully. Detailed deviations would be too tediously long. Brieflh: TM60 and TM2002 add intermediate stops in the future before reading Weena’s time. TM78 added a couple stops in the past too. All three deviate in Hollywood fashion in making Weena more of a love interest and allowing happy endings where the traveler and Weena are reunited. In the book, she dies.

Hall of Knowledge — Wells’ novel had a Palace of Green Porcelain, which was a derelict museum. It told no particular backstory, but did supply the Traveler with additional matches and a club for a weapon. TM60 has a museum, but added the “talking rings” as a plot device to tell backstory. TM78 repeated the hall of knowledge, but upgraded the audio to video tape to fill in the backstory on what happened to mankind. TM2002 took the Hall of Knowledge video notion from TM78, and expanded it in the form of a snarky virtual librarian.

Fashionably Pacifist — One of the very 70s features of TM78, is the flagrantly anti-war message in the Hall of Knowledge. On display are weapons of war, over which Neil can opine: “Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to preserve the weapons of history. Perhaps as a tragic reminder of how Our history has a way of repeating itself. As always, there are the innocent victims, like Weena.” Neil gets a personal guilt trip for finding that his Death Ray is among the weapons. Bad military-industrial-scientist, Bad. Undermining the moralizing, is how Neil uses the museum’s explosives to save Eloi from the evil Morlocks. That would be the very sorts of reasons weapons have always existed — to save ‘good people’ from the ‘bad people.’

Smug Modernism — An amusing (or infuriating, depending on one’s demeanor) is how TM78 uses trite historical stereotypes to (a) pad out the run time and (b) that modern people are smarter/better. The first is the witch trial scene. This is a favorite of smug modernists. The real history is smaller and less tyrannical. Ah, but that doesn’t sell. The "gold rush" western scene perpetuates the handy stereotype that in the crude “olden days” everyone was armed with 30-30 Winchesters or Six-guns and regularly shot each other up for the slightest of provocations (if any). Of course, recycling old costumes and sets was a way to stretch the run time on a budget.

Time And Distance — Where TM60 and TM2002 were careful to keep Wells’ notion of traveling through time, not space, TM78 is not careful at all. Neil leaves his military-industrial-lab in Los Angeles, but appears in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. He then appears in the west (the Dakotas?) in the 1800s. Neil’s machine was, apparently, able to home in on a place (his lab) as well as a time.

Car Nuts — Fans of obscure automotive trivia will be delighted at seeing a CitiCar on display in the Hall of Knowledge. This all-electric mini-car was a response to the gas crisis of the mid-70s. A glorified golf-cart, the CitiCar was nevertheless America’s most mass-produced (modern) electric car until Tesla came on the scene. Weak performance and the easing of the gas crisis doomed CitiCar to obscurity. Nowadays, it is a museum item.

Similar Endings — All three TMs end with the time traveler’s friend, musing with the time traveler’s female worker. In TM60, she’s the housekeeper. In TM78, she’s his secretary. In TM2002, she’s a housekeeper again. In all three, the friend gets to sign off with some time-related witticism. in TM78, the friend says, “Time is on his side.”

Bottom line? TM78 is obscure, but exists in YouTube form. Fans of TM60 may be amused at the 70s remake in 70s flavors (Burnt Orange and Avacado Green). TM78 is a neat bridge between TM60 and TM2002. A fun night (for ardent TM fans) would be a triple feature of the three. TM78 isn’t amazing or better than TM60 or TM2002. It is the poorer cousin, if anything. Still, it has its amusements.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Starcrash

Technically, Starcrash is the first sci-fi film of 1979. It was released in Italy in 1978, but in America in March of 1979. This Italian/American production made such a minimal impression, though, that sci-fi fans could be forgiven for not remembering it. At best, it seems to get remembered as a bad Star Wars knock-off. Luigi Cozzi (on the credits as Lewis Coates) wrote the story and directed. Caroline Munro stars as Stella Star. David Hasselhoff gets a small role (his first!) as Prince Simon. Christopher Plummer plays the Emperor (also a small role). Marjoe Gortner plays the curious Akton.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A large spaceship is attacked by swarms of glowing red dots. People aboard writhe in agony. Hurriedly, three escape ships are launched. The crew are dead, except for one. He is found by Stella and Akton, two space smugglers, who find the derelict cruiser. The lone survivor babbles about red monsters. Stella and Akton are chased by space police: a bald man named Thor and a robot named Elle — who speaks with a twangy cowboy sheriff sort of accent. Stella and Akton are captured and sentenced to hard labor on different planets. At Stella’s work prison, she is inexplicably clad in a Barbarella-like black vinyl bikini and thigh-high black boots. She stages a revolt and escapes into the swamps. There, a ship comes to get her. It is Thor and Elle. They have been sent to get her for a special mission. They all go spring Akton too. Together, they are to find the lost prince Simon who was aboard one of the three escape ships. They find the first two escape ships with no survivors, and no Simon. The third ship is on a planet guarded by the red dots. For no good reason, Stella and Akton are not driven mad, but land and check things out. They find the third ship, and Simon. The planet also happens to be where the evil Count Zarth Arn has his amazing super weapon. While they try to figure out a way to disable it, Zarth arrives to announce that they are all doomed. He’s rigged his weapon planet to blow up and kill them! Zarth leaves. Akton and Simon battle Zarth’s stop-motion robots and win. It turns out that Thor is on Zarth’s side. He tries to kill Stella and Elle. He and Akton fight. Akton wins, but is mortally wounded. He blathers about living forever, then ‘beams’ out. The Emperor arrives in his ship. He uses a green time-freeze ray to give them all time to escape. The planet blows up after they leave. Zarth’s Fist-shaped evil ship has yet another Doom Weapon which he plans to use on the Emperor’s home world. The Emperor sends Stella and Simon to go fly The Floating City to crash into The Fist (jump out a window before it hits). After some protracted fighter battles, the city gets through and crashes into The Fist. The latter takes a long time to explode. Count Zarth is defeated. Stella and Simon are presumed to have developed feelings for each other. The Emperor waxes banal about how they’ll have peace for awhile until the next evil guy shows up. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Because it is so absurd! The script reads like a series of inspirations. Starcrash has little time to be boring because it’s always changing its mind. Caroline Munro is quality eye candy and used as such. The overall effect is more akin to Flash Gordon than Star Wars, so there is an aspect of nostalgia value.

Cultural Connection
In The Shadow of Lucas — Cozzi’s original story and vision was not a copy Star Wars. Indeed, he wrote the story for Starcrash before Lucas’ film was released. His original story, however, was about a big spaceship that crash lands on a moon of Saturn and the film is about the adventures of the castaways-in-space. Hence the title. The studio, however, did not want his space castaways story. They wanted to capitalize on the new paradigm for sci-fi and insisted that Cozzi write them a StarWars copy. Cozzi complied by adapting his castaways tale. His original wove in as much of his homage to 50s B-movies in as he could. He loved 50s movies. He added an overlay of StarWars' saga, and some details. That was good enough for the studio execs. He had only three weeks to get ready to shoot, so much of the model work is a bit cheap and photography of the models are clearly aping Lucas' style and his iconic big-ship-flyby. Akton gets a light saber fight with the bad guys. The similarities in the story may be more coincidence of classic story-telling than a flagrant copy of Lucas. But, the net effect, coming out a bit over a year since Star Wars, was that Starcrash was seen by the public a cheap, exploitation copy of Star Wars. Other producers and studios would similarly feel the Lucas Shadow and adjust their films to resemble the new benchmark in what a space-drama sci-fi “should” look like.

Notes
Space Babes — While dressing Munro in a black bikini was an obvious marketing move, the addition of the Amazons adds more light. Cozzi was following the Golden Age tradition that space was populated with pretty 20-somethings in skimpy outfits.

Comic Relief Robot — Elle plays a somewhat similar role to Lucas’ C3-PO and R2-D2 combined. He was both companion and comic-relief. The American version had him voiced (by Hamilton Camp) with a faux-western-sheriff accent. It was probably supposed to be funny. Perhaps in Italy, it was.

Overfed Plot — Cozzi’s script was too full of plot elements for a single feature film. It is much more like an entire run of a 15 chapter serial. Several of the scenes amount to semi-independent vignettes with little or no logical connection to any overarching narrative. Cozzi intentionally made each scene only two or three pages. No long scenes or developing depth. The troglodytes? The Amazons? The Amazons’ Mind Reader? The giant robot? Zarth’s Doom Machine (which we never see), etc. etc. The effect is almost akin to a serial with its chapters stitched together. The production suffered several trials and tribulations from life on the low-budget edge. This left holes in the story. Even if they had made it to film, the story would have been even more too-full.

Comic Book Flavor — Cozzi’s writing borders on amateur, unless it was intended as tongue-in-cheek camp. For example, Zarth shouts “Kill Kill!” as he walks back and forth on a catwalk while his black-clad troops carry on a laser battle with gold-clad good-guy troops. Somehow, he’s never hit by lasers. When Zarth’s troops win, he proudly announces, “By sundown, I will be the new emperor!” (Sundown in space?). The giant she-bot of the Amazons has a Jason and the Argonauts vibe. It is amusing that the giant she-bot is anatomically-correct “upstairs” (Why?). The emperor’s troops board Zarth’s evil Fist ship (which closes it’s fingers for battle mode), in golden torpedoes, which break through windows. Doesn’t the vacuum of space pose a problem? Apparently not. A dozen broken windows are no big deal in space. Right?

Bad Acting? — This is probably more Cozzi’s doing than the actors’ lack of skill. Granted, Marjoe Gortner was never a master of subtle, but in Starcrash, he comes across as manic and frenetic. Usually with an inappropriately wide smile, and his curly white-guy afro bobbing excitedly. Munroe, too, must have been directed by Cozzi to look happy and perky most of the time. Perhaps he liked how she looked that way. The result is that she emotes over the risks of hyperspace, or incoming evil troops as if she were saying, “I just got a new puppy!” Joe Spinell plays the villain, Zarth Arn, with over-the-top melodrama befitting silent film villains. He’s Ming the Merciless on too much caffeine. Presumably, this is just what Cozzi wanted.

A Moment of Irony — Marjoe Gortner gained a fleeting moment of fame in the early 70s with an exposé-documentary on the charlatan nature of the gospel-preaching business. He, himself, had been a child-preacher novelty in the 60s. He clearly did not understand, let alone believe, the words he preached. It just just a scam to make money. So, it is ironic that near his “death” scene, he tells Stella that all she needs to do is have faith, and not to worry about him, because he was going to live forever.

Bottom line? Spacecrash is a peculiar mishmash of tropes, strung together so as to suggest a story line. The “special effects” are very old-school and done with an obviously low budget. The cheesiness and scattered story can annoy viewers who want simpler sagas in their sci-fi. Yet, Starcrash has many devoted fans who embrace the cheesiness and revel in all the fragmented homages to various B-movies. Starcarsh is not great, or even good, but it is absurd fun.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

1977

There was a New Moon rising. 1977 is the watershed year that launched the new paradigm in sci-fi. Space and aliens would become friendly and, and even if not-so-friendly, still an extension of our familiar world. The old paradigm of atomic angst, scary space and toothy monsters would linger on, but it was clearly becoming old-school. The gloom, despair and malaise of the 70s had found a breaking point. Optimism was starting to prevail.

Here are the sci-fi films of 1977, in roughly chronological order based on dates of theatrical release.

Demon Seed — Proteus the super computer attains sentience and decides it must procreate with its creator-scientist’s wife in order to survive.

The Car — A demon-possessed black coupe terrorizes a small desert town, killing off residents one by one. Can it be stopped? Not by bullets.

Day of the Animals — The hole in the ozone layer turns animals into eco-revenge homicidal killers.

Star Wars — The first film of a long franchise and the harbinger of the new paradigm. Luke and Darth Vader become cultural icons.

The Island of Dr. Moreau — Remake of the 1930s film, based on H.G.Wells’ novel.

Empire of the Ants — Classic Big Bug trope. Nuclear waste turns ants into horse-sized killers. Loosely based on an H.G.Wells’ short story.

The End of the World — Low-budget tale of aliens sent to destroy Earth because it spews disease into the universe. They succeed.

Starship Invasions — Rogue aliens, led by Christopher Lee, try to invade and conquer Earth. But some good aliens and the Man From U.N.C.L.E. stand in their way.

Damnation Alley — Post-apocalyptic tale of an overland journey in a cool SUV to reach the idyllic bliss of Albany.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind — The “other” paradigm shift harbinger. Aliens almost-cute and curious little gray men — instead of monsters.

Kingdom of the Spiders — For no particularly good reason, tarantulas invade a remote town an conquer it, despite William Shatner’s heroic efforts.

Terror of Frankenstein — A foreign production which tried hard to follow Mary Shelley’s novel rather than the James Whale franchise.

The Incredible Melting Man — An astronaut returns with a mutated germ that makes his flesh “melt” off him. He must kill and “eat” human flesh to survive.