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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Starship Invasions

Hal Roach Studios created an ambitious flying saucer film that was, unfortunately, released between Star Wars and Close Encounters. As such, Starship Invasions (SI) was eclipsed into obscurity. By the standards set by those two seminal films, SI was anachronistic when brand new. SI starred some well-known actors among the cast. Robert Vaughn plays the hero scientist, Allan Duncan. Christopher Lee plays the evil alien, Captain Rameses. This film went by a few titles, such as Alien Encounter (which is bland) and War of the Aliens (which is accurate enough). The UK release of this film was re-titled Project Genicide.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A old farmer is stopped in his field by a flying saucer. He is abducted inside and subjected to high-tech tests by aliens in black hooded monotards. Next, he is come onto by a naked alien woman hottie and sex is presumed. No one believes the farmer’s story, so he contacts Professor Allan Duncan, an astronomer who does talk shows, discussing UFOs. Allan believes Rudi’s story. A family is also abducted and subjected to tests. The mom knows they plan to kill them. Sure enough, the next morning the motel maid finds them all slashed. Captain Rameses has his crew seek shelter from earth discovery, by hiding in a secret undersea base staffed by the League of Races — a sort of galactic UN. Rameses is from the planet Alpha, whose sun will nova soon. The Alphans need a new home and Rameses thinks Earth will do nicely. He must eliminate the League presence (so they can’t stop him) and then eliminate all humans. Phase One involves sabotaging a League saucer so it is visible and has no force field. It gets shot down by vaguely military men. While many League folk are out investigating, Rameses and his crew kill off the remaining League personnel in the secret pyramid base. His men also pitch all the “android” robots down a stairwell. Meanwhile, a pair of Rameses saucers are pursing the recon saucer that got away. The recon saucer vaporizes one of them, but this damages their computer. They can’t fix it, so figure some smart earthlings can help. They contact Allan. He suggests they also abduct his friend Malcolm who is a computer expert. They steal some 1970s earth computer parts to fix the alien computer. This works for awhile, but while trying to evade the second of Rameses’ saucers, they fry the patch job. The next plan is to use brain links between Allan (the astronomy expert) and Malcolm, the math wiz) to form an organic computer. With this set-up and Malcolm’s fast fingers on a Texas Instruments calculator, the recon saucer avoids hitting any planets and eludes their pursuers. Nevermind, says Rameses, return to Earth. He launches his evil Alphan saucers against a fleet of League saucers. Meanwhile, Rameses has set up a suicide ray in earth orbit. People either kill each other, and/or kill themselves. This was Phase Two in action. Allan’s wife Betty succumbs to the ray and slashes her wrists. The space battle is going poorly for Leauge, because Rameses is using the pyramid base’s computer to give his ships a tactical edge. One of the robots ‘wakes up’, receives instructions to stop the use of the base computer. It staggers slowly up all those stairs and chokes the lone Alphan. With a few button pushes, the robot programs all the Alphan ships to crash into each other. Rameses has lost. He finds out that Alpha’s sun went nova. While he’s all sad and mournful, he doesn’t notice that his ship is headed directly towards earth’s moon. Crash! The League ship lands in Allan’s backyard. The aliens revive Betty and reunite Malcolm with his wife too. Everyone is happy and smiling as the League ship sails off into the starry night. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
When viewed from nearly 30 years after its release, SI has an unintentionally campy quality. This is only heightened when everyone in the production is taking it all so seriously. Robert Vaughn is his usual Man From U.N.C.L.E self. Christopher Lee is his usual evil character self.

Cultural Connection
Grand Unified Conspiracy Theories — In 50s sci-fi, it was often the government (agents or the military) that rescued Earth from alien doom. This reverent trust in government was eroding during the 60s, what with Vietnam and counterculture and all. The Watergate Scandal seemed to have removed the last shred of the old Government Protects Us mantle. With that last control-rod removed, the reactor of paranoid imagination was free to run wild. Fascination with UFO reports and abductions resurfaced with new vigor. The Roswell incident, dormant for 30 years, would be fanned back into popularity. The logic of the day was: The government said UFOs don’t exist, AND the government cannot be trusted, therefore, that PROVES that UFOs DO exist in all the ways people imagined. The logic was flawed, but it was popular. Various abduction stories, sightings, the Roswell incident and von Daniken’s “ancient astronauts” theorizing were coalescing into a more-or-less unified UFO/aliens narrative in the culture. Even those who did not believe that narrative, still knew it. SI interweaves many of the popular narrative tropes: abductions, tests, hidden bases, even alien sex, into one "epic" tale.

Notes
Old Fashioned Aliens — An amusing feature of SI is how the aliens are essentially humans (this, somehow, explained away as that the aliens were descended from humans). They dress in solid colored monotards. The evil Alphans wear solid black, with a big logo of a winged snake emblazoned on their chest. The good League aliens wear solid white or light blue. This was how aliens were depicted in the good old days of the early 50s. The Catwomen of the Moon (’51) wore all black monotards. The aliens in Radar Men from the Moon and Killers From Space (’53) wore hooded monotards. After Star Wars gave audiences a wide variety of really weird aliens, plain humans in hooded monotards just looked super cheap.

Egypto-Nauts — Part of the fertile lore of UFO conspiracy theories in the mid-70s, was that aliens had visited Earth for thousands of years. Erich von Daniken’s 1968 book, “Chariots of the God,” popularized the notion, though he did not invent it. The set designers in SI created a pyramid base, and festooned costumes and props with pyramid shapes. The evil alien is named Rameses too! When Allan asks the big-head girl alien (named Phi, btw) about their culture, Phi says he won’t understand. “When you can explain the pyramids, perhaps then you will understand.” She said they built the pyramids thousands of years ago. We knew it! The late 70s TV series “Battlestar Galactica” would blend the new Star Wars look with the old egyptonauts trope. “Stargate SG1” would be a 21st century refresh of this old trope.

Alien Sex — Rameses’ only female crew member, Sagnac, who looks totally human, (no big head like Phi) had sex with the happily willing abducted farmer. This was, it would seem, how Rameses’ scientists got their sample of earthling sperm. (They had no other way?) Later, inside the League pyramid base, Rameses comes upon a room full of space hookers with very 70s big hair. They come on to him with ‘hey baby’ eyes and looks (since they communicate telepathically). One of them, Gazeth, stands before Rameses and poses a bit. Then they leave together to an Earth monitoring room. Was that alien sex? That was fast. Since they communicate telepathically, do they do things telepathically too? That burning question remains unanswered, but preserves the PG rating.

Before It “Happened” — The induced mass suicide trope in SI seriously predates M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening by a good 25 years. SI had it as an evil alien plot. M.Night spun his version as eco-revenge by the Earth’s plants.

Bottom line? SI is an ambitious effort that had a fair budget. It would have been better received when first released, given its zeitgeist. Audiences in ’77 were still abuzz over flying saucers and all the lore that had glommed onto that snowball. It might have been one of the two big sci-fi films of 1977, had not Star Wars and Close Encounters been released then too. However, they were and they made SI instantly look outdated and cheap. For fans of the old-school style of sci-fi (flying saucers and human-aliens in hooded monotards), SI can be nostalgic fun. For people expecting anything approaching Star Wars or Close Encounters, SI will feel tragically campy and liable to be seen as a “worst movie ever.” SI isn’t all that bad. It’s just very old-school for the late 70s.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Killdozer

This little film lies just outside of the study’s stated boundaries, being a television release only, and more of a horror/thriller than sci-fi. However, requests from readers tapped it back in bounds — even if just barely. Since it had no theatrical release, the book cover from the original novella is shown at left. Killdozer is often cited as one of those “so bad they’re good” movies, and a member of that small sub-genre of vehicles running amok. It certainly has a cult fan base. Clint Walker (famous as Sheriff Cheyenne Bodie on the TV series Cheyenne (’55-62) stars as the stalwart construction crew chief. His crew includes Carl Betz as Dennis, Neville Brand as Chub and James Wainwright as Dutch. A very young Robert Urich (pre-Spencer For Hire) is an early expendable, as is James A. Watson Jr. as Al.

Quick Plot Synopsis
After an explosion in space, a blue meteor tumbles towards earth, landing on a small island. On a remote island 200 miles off the coast of Africa, a crew of six men is left, with their construction equipment, with orders to construct a base camp for an oil company. After a mild bit of character development (tensions, backstories and the like). The young bulldozer operator, Mack, hits a rock that won’t move. His boss, Kelly, shows him how to deal with it by ramming the rock with the big D9 Cat. The rock glows blue and hums. The glow enters the D9’s blade and Mack is zapped with excess energy. The D9 then starts moving on its own until Kelly cuts its fuel line. Mack dies awhile later of what looks like radiation sickness. Tensions mount in the group. Al takes the checked-out and fixed up D9 out to do some work, but it gets a mind of its own. He jumps off, but can’t crawl backwards with his mouth open faster than a D9. He hides in a culvert pipe. (bad move) The D9 crushes him. More group tensions. The D9 roars in and trashes their camp. The four men flee in two jeeps and a truck, headed for the hills. They plan an ambush, thinking to use fire to stop it. En route to their ambush site, the D9 ambushes them. The jeeps get away, but Chub in his 1964 F-150 is caught by the blade, crushed and blows up. The three remaining men retreat to the hills again. Dutch does a bit too much drinking and decides to go to the beach for a swim. The D9 is there waiting for him. The jeep engine stalls. Dutch keeps trying to start it, then resigns himself to being crushed. He is. Dennis and Kelly try to fight machine with machine using a big Northwest 80D cable shovel excavator. After a protracted battle, the shovel finally snaps some cables. Kelly and Dennis run away, then hatch a plan to electrocute the dozer. They hook up a portable generator to some big steel perf plates (such as those used in temporary runways). Kelly tries to bait the dozer, but it doesn’t comply until Kelly breaks one of its headlights. Then, in bulldozer rage, it rumbles onto the plates and is electrocuted. After much sparking, smoke and flames, the dozer’s blade glows blue, then fades out. The thing is dead. Dennis and Kelly both know that no one will believe them, but are happy to be alive. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The absurdity of the premise makes the film easy for mockers to mock, but it actually a fairly tightly done made-for-TV thriller. The actors turn in reasonable performances, given the material. The battle between D9 and Excavator is fascinating for the audacity of it.

Cultural Connection
Lexical Legs — Despite the relative obscurity of an ABC Movie of the Week, Killdozer managed to enter the cultural lexicon with enough “legs” to still be a relevant and understood term 30-plus years later. In 2004, a disgruntled business owner in Colorado armored up a bulldozer and went on a rampage, damaging several civic buildings and business. He eventually committed suicide when the dozer got stuck, though may have intended to do so anyhow. His armored bulldozer quickly got the media nickname of Killdozer. YouTube videos of the 1974 movie still garner thousands of hits. A punk rock band named themselves after the film. An obscure form of homage.

Notes
Sci-Fi Origins — Even though the 1974 screenplay is not particularly sci-fi, the original story, penned by Theodore Sturgeon in 1944 was more so. In the original story, the alien entity was leftover from an ancient battle between aliens and their sentient machines that involved the lost continent of Atlantis. The construction crew disturb the resting place of the alien entity, which then resumes its warlike function — killing. Sturgeon had a hand in the screenplay, though to what extent is unknown. Sturgeon also wrote screenplays for two Star Trek (TOS) episodes: Amok Time and Shore Leave.

Book - Movie Comparisons — The book was set in WWII. The men were constructing an air strip on a remote Pacific Island, not an oil company base camp off the coast of Africa. Hints of the original story show up in the film, however, with the Quanset hut that they find, left over from WWII and the big metal plates they have on hand, which were used for making temporary airstrips. The book kills off the demon dozer with aerial bombardment, not electrocution. Both end, however, with the survivors admitting that no one will ever believe them.

Bad Machines — Killdozer is perhaps the more famous of the machines-gone-bad sub-genre. These include Duel (’71) (even though it was clearly the driver, not the tanker truck that was bad), The Car (’77), Christine (’83), Maximum Overdrive (’86) and Trucks (’97). The genre as a whole, has the credibility hurdle of things big, slow, and not especially scary being jazzed up to seem scary.

Untimely Deaths? — One of the endearing (or exasperating) features of Killdozer is how something so big, loud and slow, could ever catch a victim. In this, Killdozer share the puzzlement with the carpet monster in Creeping Terror (’64) and other such films. In those films, the victims help the monster by standing in one place and screaming “No no, don’t eat me” long enough for the slow monster to get up to them and eat them. In Killdozer, actually only two of the deaths were of this sort of easily avoidable doom. Mack died of radiation. No running would have helped there. Chub died when his truck was ambushed and rolled over. Not much running there. Al, however, is one of the lame deaths, as he obligingly crawled around slower than a D9, then hid in a flimsy metal pipe. Dutch did the classic waiting-too-long to try and restart his engine. When the D9 was upon him, he just sat there at accepted his fate. Perhaps being drunk does that. So, yes, some of the deaths are lame. But half of them weren’t.

Good Ol’ Electrocution — Using electricity to kill the monster is a very old, and somewhat hackneyed plot device. It was, of course, how The Thing was stopped in 1951. It destroys the Indestructible Man in ’56. It toasts the giant energy robot in Kronos (’57). and the Crab Monsters in ’57, Colossal Beast in '58 too, and numerous monsters after that. Such a tried and true monster solution.

Marvelous Echo — Marvel Comics put out an issue of Worlds Unknown in 1974, based only loosely on the film and drawing from the original short story for yet a third variant to Killdozer. The cover was wildly sensationalized and not germane to any of the three story variations (there was no woman character, and the dozer did not have a toothed blade or angry eyebrows). But, in this, the cover is in keeping with sci-fi movie posters tradition: which must feature a menaced babe of ample proportions and something with jagged teeth and/or angry eyes.

Bottom line? Killdozer is a cultural cult icon. For that reason alone, it deserves to be experienced. As a sci-fi film, it’s pretty darned thin. As popcorn entertainment, it fares pretty well. The actors do a fair job and the director, Jerry London, does a good job keeping the pace brisk and the exposition short. High art, its not, but it’s still fun and has thousands of fans.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The End of the World

The old 70s paradigm of doom and malaise lives on in this low-budget indie apocalyptic movie, The End of the World (EotW). The producers managed to recruit some well known, or better known actors such as Christopher Lee, Dean Jagger, Lew Ayres and Madonald Carey. All but Lee get scant screen time. Kirk Scott and Sue Lyon, both second-tier actors, garnered the lion’s share of the camera. Charles Band produced the film before he got better at producing. John Hayes directed, though is forte had been trashy horror or trashy soft porn. The resulting tale of alien-duplication and intrigue to destroy the world unfolds very very slowly.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A cook in a remote diner whiles away the empty hours of night until a Catholic priest walks in asking if he can call the police. Before he can, the pay phone blows up, as does the juke box and coffee machine. The latter scalds the cook such that he runs through a window and kills himself. A stunned Father Pergado (Lee) staggers up to a convent to be greeted by his evil twin. Cut to a “high-tech” computer lab where Andrew works. He picks up some strange signals from space. He has a ‘feeling’ about them. Andrew and his lovely wife, Sylvia (Lyon) investigate where the signals are coming from, but only find a peaceful convent. Andrew brushes off some professional obligations in order to pursue his obsession with the signals. They check out a second site, only to discover that it was a secret government eaves-dropping base. (at least there was a transmitter that time.) They are released. With no other leads, they revisit the convent. The second visit still revealed nothing, so they sneak back in a third time. The nuns capture them and take them down to a basement full of alien technology. The fake Father Pergado is actually an alien named Zindar. He and his “nuns” have taken human form to complete their mission. Unfortunately, their tampering with Earth messed up their matter transporters, so they’re stuck on Earth. Zindar holds Sylvia hostage to force Andrew to steal some special rare isotope crystal which will fix their transporter device. Andrew does so, reluctantly, but successfully. The transporter is fixed. Zindar exposits that they came to destroy the Earth because it spews ‘disease’ into the universe. He tells Andrew and Sylvia that, as aliens, they’re not such bad folks so Andrew and Sylvia are welcome to come to their planet instead of staying on the earth (which is about to blow up). Zindar briefly changes from Christopher Lee to an alien puppet head (seen in the poster), then beams away. Andrew and Sylvia decide life on an alien world is better than blowing up, so they transport away. The Earth blows up. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Christopher Lee is clearly the primary value in EotW. Despite the extra-lame script and career-killing production, he performs as an A-level professional. Sue Lyon is easy on the eyes.

Cultural Connection
Chronic Gloom —The 50s were rife with worries about nuclear doom, but despite that, almost all 50s apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies were essentially optimistic. Mankind somehow found a way to avert disaster. By the 70s, however, people seemed to give up that vestige of hope. With all the new plagues of doom the 70s wallowed in — pollution, overpopulation, starvation — it was easy to think there would be no light at the end of the tunnel. No way to avert doom. EotW is a blunt (if clumsy) statement of that sentiment. Nothing mattered. The Earth was just going to blow up.

Notes
Dark Klaatu — Klaatu came to Earth in The Day The Earth Stood Still (’51) to deliver a warning. Mankind had better mind its Ps and Qs or the galactic powers would have to destroy the Earth to preserve all those other planets out there. Zindar comes in a similar sort of messenger role but with bad news. “The planet earth has emitted an overabundance of diseases. You are contaminating the universe. All the planets, lightyears away from here will suffer, unless it is destroyed. We have received our orders.” There is no reprieve. Mankind did not mind its Ps and Qs.

Evil Twin — For no particularly expressed reason, the real Father Pergado is kept alive and allowed to keep praying at the altar. Why the duplicated nuns were not kept on, was never explained. The real Pergado (also played by Lee) is “artistically” differentiated by being dressed in all white. Whereas Zindar, the fake Pergado is in all black (with cape!). The fake nuns come to escort the real Pergado down to test out the matter transporter. They get him just as he finishes reciting the Lord’s Prayer, ending on the line, “…and deliver us from evil.” The transporter is still broken, so the real Pergado dies. Perhaps this is what happened to the real nuns. They were sent in as human guinea pigs to test the unit. Not a very advanced-technology way of testing equipment.

Wasted Talent — Perhaps, due to his father Albert’s reputation (as a second-tier actor, director and producer), Charles Band seems to have been able to sign up some known actors for his very obscure indie film. It is said that Christopher Lee only agreed to take the job because he had been told that the other known actors, such as Dean Jagger, Lew Ayers, etc. were in the film. These other actors, however, were wasted in bit parts with very little screen time. Jagger was Andrew’s cranky boss with only two small scenes. Lew Ayers appears only once as the manager of the eavesdropping base. Macdonald Carey plays a security guard. Instead of having the better talent play major roles, the lead characters were played by middling television actors (Scott and Lyon).

Catholi-phobia? — Screenwriter Frank Ray Perilli must have had a personal fear of nuns and things Catholic. He seemed to expect that the mere sight of a convent and closeups of frowning nun faces would creep out the audience. Maybe for some, they do. For most, however, the dots do not connect. Whatever ‘horror” Perilli was hoping for never materializes. Nuns just are not scary, unless one is already afraid of nuns.

Bottom line? EotW is an almost painfully slow film. At nearly 90 minutes long, it could easily have been cut to run less than an hour. It would still be lame, but faster. Far too much of it is shot at night, with insufficient lighting, which only makes the long padded sneaking-through-the-night scenes feel even longer. Lee is okay acting-wise. Others were wasted efforts (see above). Scott is bland as a hero. Lyon is pretty in a mid-70s (pre-Farrah) sort of way and looks good in a towel (twice!), but she adds little. Charles Band would go on to produce better films, but EotW is not among them. Unless one is a big Christopher Lee fan, there is little reason to sit through this film.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Terror is a Man

To augment the reviews of films based on H.G.Wells’ “Island of Dr. Moreau” we must digress back to 1958 for Terror Is A Man (TiaM). The screenplay was written by Paul Harber, with no acknowledgement to Wells, but Harber’s story is clearly derived from Wells’ Moreau. This sci-fi / horror hybrid has undertones of Frankenstein as well. Where the 1932 adaptation had inserted a "panther woman", this version features a "panther man." Richard Derr stars in the role of shipwrecked sailor who stumbles on the doctor’s island. Greta Thyseen plays the curvaceous and lonely wife of the doctor. It was filmed in the Philippines. This film was re-released in 1964 with the title Blood Creature, perhaps to appeal to the drive-in horror market. It was given the odd marketing gimmick of a ringing bell (more like an old phone ring) to alert viewers when something shocking was about to come, so viewers could close their eyes.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Shipwrecked William Fitzgerald washes up on a remote island. He is nursed back to health by a Dr. Girard. A strange creature kills a couple of island natives, so the rest of the village flee in their canoes. Girard and his assistant, Walter, capture the beast, which is Girard’s project-in-progress. The doctor’s wife, Frances (Thyssen) is afraid of her husband’s work, and lonely. William takes a shine to her and offers to help her get off the island. Girard does not hide his work, but puts in some long exposition, telling William the back story of the making of CatMan from a panther via surgery. Using glandular hormones, Girard says he can grow Catman’s brain to be human. Why? Girard does not think humankind can evolve to betterment, being held back by ‘complexes’ etc. So, he wants to start afresh with his new man — the start of a new perfect race. William agrees to help the doctor with his work. Unseen by others, Walter beats the gurney-bound Catman with a board. Later, when everyone is down in the lab, Walter comes in and the Catman goes into a rage, breaking free. Girard tries to talk soothing. Walter gets a torch and lights Catman’s bandages on fire. Catman passes out and is sedated again. Walter, William and Frances talk of escaping the island, but Walter wants to kill the creature first. When he comes down to the lab with a gun, Catman breaks free and kills Walter. Thus escaped, Catman kills the servant girl, Selena and runs out into the jungle. Girard and William go looking for him, but he has doubled back to the house. He corners Frances and she swoons. Catman carries her away. Girard and William follow. Catman carries Frances up to the sea cliffs. Girard convinces Catman to put Frances down, but he then claws the doctor’s face, then throws him over the cliff. William shoots Catman in the stomach, causing him to fumble down the cliff to the beach. There, Catman encounters the servant boy, who gives him the small boat in which to escape. Frances muses that she thought the Catman only wanted to help her. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The paraphrase of Wells’ Moreau story gives the script some interest. The production is spartan, which gives the story a more intimate feel. Thyssen is marvelously out of place (statuesque platinum blonde in tight skirts and pumps — on a rustic jungle island).

Cultural Connection
Evolution into the Master Race — During Dr. Girard’s long exposition about his work, he posits that organisms evolve into better and better species. Girard felt that present mankind was too flawed to ever evolve into the superior beings he envisioned, so he undertook to shortcut the process. His goal was rather Nazi, to create a superior race of super men.

Notes
Based on the Book — Even though Wells is not credited as the source material, it is clearly drawn from his “Island of Dr. Moreau.” Paul Harber, who wrote the script, was more experienced as a third-tier actor than a writer. Reworking Wells was easier than creating a whole new story. Of course, the addition of a Marilyn Monroe clone was pure Hollywood and not Wellsian. To his credit, Harber kept vivisection as the doctor’s method, not the tepid “genetics” used by later retellings.

Hint of Frankenstein — Mixed in amid the strong Wellsian story are elements of the classic Frankenstein story. Instead of a whole village of beast-folk, Girard has only one — his “monster”. It has stitched up scars too, per the classic monster. Walter beats Catman, much like Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant tormented the monster.

Misplaced Babe — The Frances character, played by former Miss Denmark 1951, Greta Thyssen, is almost surreally out of place. Where almost everything on the set and costumes is dark, she is always dressed in whites to go with her platinum blonde hair. She is always clean, tidy and wearing the classic pointy-peaks undergarments of the 50s idiom of beauty. She does some sultry glamor posing on the beach — for no good reason. Amid all the ‘horror’ and drama, her part was to look unapproachably glamorous.

Radio Pheromones — Apparently the lonely and lovely doctor’s wife was giving off “help me” pheromones. Total stranger William falls in love with her very quickly and promises to help her get off the island. Fat, sweaty Walter picks up her pheromone transmission, but thinks to finagle a bit of booty as part of helping her. Even the beast, Catman, is implied to have picked up Frances’s pheromones and carried her off as his version of “help me.” She believed, in the end, that Catman was just trying to help her.

Intelligent Design — Harber’s exposition tosses around the usual old presumptions about Evolution. Changes happen slowly and incrementally over a long time. William points out that what Girard is doing is not sped up evolution, but intelligent design. A deliberate intelligence was manipulating things to make the new creature. It was not random mutations over eons.

Sequel Hint? — Viewers will note that the “monster”, Catman, does not die at the end. Instead, he escapes in a boat. The writer and/or producers were leaving room for Catman to return, rather like the Creature from the Black Lagoon did, or like Frankenstein’s monster did. Unfortunately, Catman did not return. Subsequent “Blood Island” films followed all new and unrelated story arcs.

Bottom line? TiaM is not a great old sci-fi, but it’s not too bad for nostalgic entertainment. The paraphrase of Wells is interesting. The heavy-handed dubbed audio gets a bit annoying at times. Those who like old black and white horror/sci-fi hybrid B films, will find TiaM to be a sturdy example.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Empire of the Ants

The old-school style of sci-fi movie did not simply vanish after Star Wars rewrote the paradigm. Indeed, Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American International already had a few old-paradigm projects in production when the New Age began. Empire of the Ants (EoA) follows quickly on the heels of another Arkoff production based on an H.G.Wells story, Island of Dr. Moreau. Unlike Island, EoA is a much looser adaptation, but clearly trying to cash in on Wells’ name recognition. Bert I. Gordon provides his usual “magic” as special effects expert and director. Joan Collins stars as Marilyn, the shrew-ish and shifty real estate developer. Robert Lansing stars as the heroic and taciturn boat captain. The rest of the cast are lesser lights and television actors. Of note, though, Christine is played by Jack Palance’s daughter, Brooke.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Under the credits, we are shown a boat dumping 55 gallon drums of nuclear waste. We know this because it says so on the drums in big red letter. One drum washes ashore and starts leaking. Ants swarm over the silvery ooze. Meanwhile, Marilyn welcomes aboard captain Dan’s boat, a group of would-be buyers for parcels in her Dreamland Shores development in a remote area of Florida and right where the ants are eating the ooze. The group of prospects is the usual social sampling for group-survives-ordeal stories. There is a retired couple, a middle aged couple, a younger couple. There is a middle-aged single woman, a curvaceous blonde and a liesure-suit single guy. Much of the early part of the movie is devoted to character development and drama. Christine and Larry, the younger couple have a weak marriage because he’s a total jerk. Larry tries to maul Coreen, the blonde, but gets kneed for it. The middle-aged single woman has a sad back story and takes a shine to single captain Dan. Liesure suit Joe has a sad back story too, and Coreen takes a shine to him. While touring the parcels, the middle aged couple discover that the development is a scam. They are, however, attacked and killed by giant ants. The ants then attack the rest of the group, who flee. A thunderstorm douses their protective camp fire, so they must flee again. The retired couple hide in a shed and get eaten later. Christine trips but Larry is too big of a wuss to save her. She is killed. The rest make it to a row boat and row up the river. Eventually, the ants jump on them, killing Larry. The rest are herded by the ants towards a small town with a sugar factory. The people in the town act strange and thwart the group’s efforts to leave. It turns out that the queen ant has set up shop in the factory and gasses the residents to bend their wills to hers. Thus, her army of human slaves feed her ants the sugar. The survivors resist indoctrination. Captain Dan uses road flares to set fire to the queen. In the pandemonium, the survivors escape. Heroic Joe opens the valve on a gasoline tanker truck and drives it all around the factory. He jumps from the moving truck, which crashes and explodes into flame, obligingly. The factory and (presumably) all the ants burn. The survivors escape in an outboard motor boat. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Some may enjoy EoA as one of those so-bad-they’re-good sorts of movies. Much of the fun is nostalgic. EoA is, at it’s heart, a mid-50s big bug movie, dressed up in leisure suits and bellbottoms. If shot in black and white, and the fashions adjusted, EoA would fit right into the 50s. Joan is her usual saucy self. Pamela Shoop (as Coreen) is easy on the eyes. Brooke Palance adds an understated pretty too.

Cultural Connection
Old Bogey Men — The roots of Gordon’s screenplay ring the old alarm bells about nuclear radiation. By the mid-70s, audiences had grown accustomed (weary) to pronouncements of ecological doom. The old bogey man of the dangers of nuclear radiation must have seemed almost quaint to audiences in 1977. As per the old magic, the radioactive waste manages to make the ants grow huge — which radiation was imagined to have the power to do — and it also made them more intelligent.

Notes
Based on the Book — Actually, a short story. H.G.Wells wrote “Empire of the Ants” in 1905 as a multi-chapter short story. James Turley and Bert I. Gordon’s screen adaptation is very loose, but does draw some elements from Wells’ original. In Wells’ story, a Brazillian gunboat is sent up the Amazon to investigate stories of ant infestations. He thinks he’s just being dissed by his superiors, but hears rumors and encounters a derelict boat with dead men aboard. The boarding party are killed by largish (a couple inches) ants which behave oddly organized. The captain burns the derelict. The gunboat comes to a deserted town near a sugar factory. Seeing more ant activity and no human survivors, the captain leaves. The narrator thinks it’s just a matter of years before the ants’ empire reaches civilization and there’s nothing anyone can do. Knowing the original story, various scenes seem less like non sequiturs. The burning boat. The trip up the river, the ant-controlled town. The sugar factory. Wells, however, did not have nuclear waste as his bogey man.

Ant Fest & Body Snatchers — Turley and Gordon’s story is a hybrid of Them! (’54) which has raditation-enlarged ants, and Phase IV which had intelligent ants (though not large) that work at controlling humans. Throw in a dose of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with the mind-controlled townsfolk just for fun.

Bad Bugs -- Director Gordon tried to disguise the modest nature of his "giant" ant puppets by (a) not showing them very much and (b) making sure the camera is wiggling crazily whenever there is an ant attack close up. The technique is a bit overdone, almost to the point of inducing motion sickness in sensitive souls. But, what's a director to do with a low budget?

Touch of Noir — There is a hint of film noir in Turley’s characters. None are “clean”. Marilyn is a catty scam artist. Her helper, Charlie is her resentful “kept man”. Dan is a grumpy misanthrope. Coreen was a gold digger who got dumped. Joe was an out-of work divorcee. Thomas trusted no one. Mary was a nag. Larry was a loser AND a jerk. His wife Christine was milk toast and burdened with daddy's money. The old couple just mooch on tours like that one, for the free vacation angle. Margaret was the lonely, bitter spinster. Unlike classic noir, the misfit toys find future mates and leave the island. Dan and Margaret warm to each other. Coreen gets feelings for Joe. Presumably, things get better for the two couples.

Bottom line? EoA is clearly an old-school low-B grade film. After the high polish of Star Wars, EoA looks especially dowdy and cheap. The acting can be amusing for it’s weakness — such as victim #2, Mary, standing still and screaming a LOT, while the ants slowly crawl up to her. EoA is low quality entertainment, but not entirely a waste. It would make a fun tripe-feature Ant Fest with Them! and Phase IV.