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Friday, October 25, 2013

Where have all the people gone?

This is yet another made-for-TV movie that begs inclusion in this study. Where Have All The People Gone? (WHAPG) is low-budget, as fitting its television production, but it mirrors so many classic 50s films as to granted a pass. Peter Graves stars as Steven Anders, father of a family that finds itself more or less all alone after some mysterious event has wiped out almost all the rest of humanity. Lewis John Carlino wrote the story and the screenplay. John Moxey directs. (he had directed episodes of "Mission Impossible," and "Mannix" and after WHAPG, episodes of "Magnum P.I.")

Quick Plot Synopsis
The Anders family is hunting for fossils while on a camping vacation in the California hills. Mom has to leave early, to return to L.A. for work. While dad, college student son David, and teen daughter Deborah are looking for fossils in a cave, a massive solar flare erupts, followed by a mild earthquake. When they come out, their local guide/friend, Clancy is feeling ill. They suspect the cause was a nuclear blast and radiation sickness. By evening, he is in bad shape. Dad decides they need to take him down to town. Before they get far, Clancy dies. Before they can bury him, his body has turned to white powder inside his clothes. Dad, Dave and Deb continue down to, finding many abandoned cars and other powder people, no power, no radio, no phones. They fix up Clancy's Blazer with a new battery (all other cars have fried generators) and continue on to LA in search of mom. While refueling, they discover a woman in shock and take her with them. Later, it comes out that Jenny's husband got sick and turned to powder, then crazed dogs killed her children. En route to LA, they stop to help a stranded motorist, but he steals their working car at gun point so he can get to his family in Phoenix. They come across a farm with the farmer and wife shot dead by car thieves. They find their orphan son, Billy and take him with them. They proceed on foot, coming to a shopping center. They come across another survivor who has taken up farming. Dad declines to join him, as he wants to get to LA and find his wife. When they do get to LA, and home, they find mom's bathrobe and white powder. Dad, despondent at his loss talks gloom and despair. Jenny, still mourning her own losses, decides to walk into the sea and kill herself. Everyone rushes out to stop her. Everyone decides that they must go on surviving. Mom left notes describing how the solar flares knocked out all power and power generation, but also created a mutated virus that killed people in hours. Some people with a particular gene were immune. Since the home in LA had no fresh water or farm land, the group of five don backpacks for a hike to northern California to go live off the land. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The theme of post-apocalyptic survivors is an old familiar one from the Golden Era of sci-fi. The pace is good and the sense of mystery well played -- especially for a low-budget television movie.

Cultural Connection
As stated before on other recently reviewed movies, the 70s was a time of much anxiety about epidemics, pollution and overpopulation.

Survivors' Tale -- The band-of-survivors stories have a long history and aren't necessarily sci-fi or nuclear. Recall "Robinson Crusoe" (1719) or a later group-based variant, "Swiss Family Robinson." (1812) and the whole "robinsonade" sub genre. The Atomic Angst era embraced that old theme, but with nuclear detonations or nuclear effects substituting for shipwrecks. An early example, which has many parallel's was Arch Obelor's Five from 1951. Target Earth ('54) had a random collection of survivors of an alien robot invasion. WHAPG flirted with the customary nuclear causes and anxieties.

Double Whammy -- By the mid-70s, atomic angst had cooled significantly. It wasn't gone, per se, but had lost most of its terror in the movie-watching market. The new terrors on the block, for the 70s were highly anxious about environmental issues (pollution, overpopulation, etc.) and unstoppable epidemics (think: Andromeda Strain). WHAPG combined both angsts d'jour for a double whammy. Why be spooked by just one crisis when you can have two? Prescient Angst -- In the 21st century, in fact, ever since the Y2K hysteria went mainstream, many people of the prepare persuasion worry about EMPs (Electro-Magnetic Pulses) frying everything electronic and casting civilization back into the 19th century. Nowadays, the EMP Angst is divided between worries that a rogue terrorist (or terrorist nation) will create a man-made EMP by exploding a nuclear bomb (or bombs) high in the air, OR that there will be a massive coronal event along the lines of 1859's "Carrington" event. EMP-Angst would really not "catch on" in the public imagination until the 2000s. 1974 was a bit too early.

Plot Holes or Leaps -- For the most part, the plot is solid and progresses logically. There are, however, a couple of quirks. One is that the EMP is presented as strong enough to fry automotive generators, yet did not fry the Anders' AM Radio or CB radio. As a side note, 21st century folk who worry about EMPs like to assume that pre-1978 automobiles will remain usable because they lack delicate electronics. WHAPG had the EMP frying all the old cars -- if they were running. A second plot leap was the idea that the burst of "gamma radiation" would mutate some common benign virus in the exact same way, all across the country (and world?) Since the conventional wisdom is that radiation causes random mutations, how likely is that?

Powder People -- The low-budget "special effect" of having the victim's bodies turn to white powder was effective. This effect may have been borrowed from the Star Trek episode, "The Omega Glory" from TOS's second season. In it, some strange germ from the planet in the Omega system causes earth-humans' bodies to lose all water. Only the scant trace minerals remained as white granular powder amid the left-behind clothing of the victims. A somewhat similar, but different effect appeared in the 1963 film When Mars Invaded Earth. There, the martian copy-people eliminated their human originals with a heat beam that left behind white ash in the shape of a person.

Peter's Previous Power Outage -- Actor Peter Graves starred in another movie about a mysterious collapse of the power grid. The earlier movie was It Conquered the World in 1956. In that film, it was a sinister being from Venus that was jamming the world's power sources selectively. Graves also starred in the 1953 film, Killers From Space, in which he was abducted by aliens. These prior roles lend WHAPG a bit more of a sci-fi feel.

The Optimism of CityFolk -- As the movie progresses, it is clear that the power grid, and much of earth's establish civilization has been taken down. Not only is there no power grid to support modern life, there are few people left to man all the technology that did survive. Amid all that, the writers exude the naive optimism of city folks who imagine that if they had to, they would just move out into the country, become farmers and raise their own food. One character even says this. "I guess eventually the store food will run out, and we'll have to learn how to farm. I"m a cost accountant. Born and raised in the city." Growing crops and raising livestock are not that easy -- let alone how to handle the raw products if properly raised. The Anders family truck off into the northern country, each equipped with a "bug out bag" with that hubris of city folk, that they're going to walk into the hills and live off the land. Amusing.

Bottom line? WHAPG is well worth the watch. It is available on YouTube. The acting is passible, but not great. Peter Graves does not grieve very convincingly. He did rugged heroics much better. The pacing is pretty good and the writers don't try to sew up all the loose ends, leaving viewers to ponder over story lines hinted at, but not pursued.

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