Saturday, March 18, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Land of the Lost: "Downstream"

How many Saturday morning TV shows in the 1970s had episodes written by the great science fiction author, Larry Niven? Or saw their dramatis personae face death week-in and week-out? Or made knowing jokes about mushrooms with hallucinogenic properties? Or pondered such ideas as a "closed universe" - a so-called "locked room in space?"

Well, the Star Trek animated series was pretty impressive, but I was thinking of another show, actually. These are just a few of the reasons, I believe, why Land of the Lost has continued to impress and convert new fans for thirty-two years. Sure, it's a kid's show with 1970s special effects, but there's something convincing, even adult, about the show's consistent approach to drama and science fiction.

Take the fourth episode of the first season, this week's installment, "Downstream." It's authored by Larry Niven, and finds the Marshall family seeking to escape the Land of the Lost by building a raft and heading downstream. The plan is to take the swamp to the river and - sooner or later - reach the ocean. The family flees on its make-shift raft, says its goodbyes to Grumpy and Dopey, and heads off, only to find a waterfall ahead. The family barely manages to escape to a subterranean cavern before their raft is destroyed.

There, in the cavern, the Marshalls discover Jefferson Davis Colley III (Walker Edmiston), a Civil War soldier, from the Confederate Army. He (and his cannon) have been prospecting a jeweled cavern. Thus this is the episode that introduces the Land of the Lost's power source: those colored crystals that power the matrix tables in upcoming episodes and can provide a light source or explosive, depending on how they are used in combination. The discovery of this natural resource is an element of Land of the Lost's ongoing and recurring environmental theme. This closed universe, a microcosm for Earth, possesses everything it needs for its denizens, if only the resources are allocated wisely. The Marshalls will become the stewards of the land in upcoming episodes, maintaining balance and keeping the land harmonious, but the hardest thing about this task is dealing with other people (Paku and Sleestak, respectively), those who have a different philosophy about how the resources should be shared and allocated.

Anyway, Jefferson keeps the Marshalls hostage for a time, and Rick points out to him the error of his ways. "You fought a war because you didn't want other people telling you what to do," he reminds the Confederate, pointing out his hypocrisy. And that's the sermon for the day.

"Downstream" also features some great, under the surface humor that no doubt went over the heads of many youngsters. Colley takes one look at the Marshalls and says "There are some mighty strange folk in California," a joke about the West Coast and the Entertainment Industry. There's also a joke about television. Will complains while prospecting that he hasn't seen a TV show in a long time and Marshall quips that it doesn't seem to have done him any harm. And later, Marshall makes a funny reference to drugs. "Some mushrooms have funny chemicals," he informs Will and Holly. Indeed, Rick Marshall. Indeed.

The best element of this episode is the ending, which finds the Marshalls discovering precisely where the river ends: where it started. There is no escape from the Land of the Lost. It's a pocket universe with no end and no beginning. There's no way out. Again, this seems like a fairly advanced concept for a time bloc in which marketers were selling Cocoa-Puffs. But that's why I like Land of the Lost. It's easy to dismiss the show as kid's stuff, but there's more going on in this series than in many adult series from the same era.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Guess the Movie # 8

I don't know. I'm starting to have doubts about my ability to stump the movie-savvy readership here. I admit it, you're all very, very good. Last week, for instance, Robert H. correctly recognized that the #7 "guess the movie" still came from The Final Conflict: Omen III starring Sam Neill, a 1981 film.

So this week, I'm digging deep into my treasure trove of archive photos. Let's see who can guess this one...

Thursday, March 16, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 34: Captain Kirk

Would you think any less of me if I admitted that I worship...idols? Well, one idol in particular. You know his name.

Say it now with me: James. Tiberius. Kirk. Captain of the starship Enterprise. Hero of the classic TV series, Star Trek.

I've written on this blog before about my man-sized hetero-love for William Shatner - a paragon of a man, a God among actors, and a fellow who's changed the world (at least according to the History Channel). But truth be told, it's Captain Kirk that I really and truly admire, deep down.

He's been my hero since I was old enough to hold my head up and gaze at the TV. Sometimes, my wife is baffled by my admiration for Kirk, since he can be pissy ("The Man Trap"), arrogant ("The Trouble with Tribbles") and irritating too. She doesn't get the hero worship, and actually, I do think that Kirk is more appealing to men as a role model, than to women in real life (though on the TV show, he has no problem with women...).

Maybe it's something about being in his presence instead of seeing him on TV. When my wife and I saw Shatner at a con here in Charlotte in 1994, she practically drooled. She won't admit it, but she did. I know. I saw, Kathryn. I saw...

Let's look at Captain Kirk for a minute. He's a brilliant leader who inspires his crew; he has the coolest friends in the galaxy (Spock and Bones) and has earned their unfailing, unswerving loyalty; he also commands a starship and is an experienced explorer, soldier and diplomat. Even more to the point, Kirk is a man of reason, sensitivity and great fairness. He's also good in a fight.

How can you not love Kirk? To me he's everything a renaissance man should be; my ideal role model. More so than Picard, who who can occasionally be dull, and, frankly, doesn't have the combat chops that Kirk does. I like to make this contrast between the two characters:

In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Kirk has "appropriated" the Enterprise, which is manned by a skeleton crew. He has no reason to outright suspect foul play in the Genesis sector, but the U.S.S. Grissom isn't responding to hails, and his antennae are up. A distortion in space is noted by Sulu, and Kirk makes the (correct) assumption that the distortion is a cloaked Klingon vessel. When by all rights the Klingons seem to have the advantage, Kirk fires photon torpedoes and gets the first strike in on the Bird of Prey while it's still decloaking. It's amazing.

Now, Picard in Generations commands the Federation flagship manned by a full crew. An unknown assailant has attacked an array, a Federation facility in space, so this captain should be ready for combat. A Klingon Bird of Prey de-cloaks (notice Picard didn't detect it like Kirk did before hand...) and Picard's baffled, ineffective reaction is simply one word, after Worf reports the enemy's presence. "What?" Come on! That sucks.

Kirk rules.

Anyway, this is a toy flashback, not just a blatant fan appreciation, so this week I'm highlighting all the Captain Kirk action figures I've owned over the years. Playing with these guys, you just gotta hope some of that Shatner magic rubs off. You'll find in my collection the Mego Kirk from the 1970s, from the Original Series days (Kirk's heyday). Also, I have the Knickerbocker plush Kirk toy. As much as I love and admire Jim Kirk, I've never felt like I want to cuddle him, however.

Then, I also have this rare Galoob Captain Kirk figure from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. I know a lot of people hate this movie, but to me, Kirk's in fine form here, leading an assault on Paradise City, wrestling with cat women, and then asking the Almighty Himself: "What does God need with a starship?" Only the greatest hero in the Alpha Quadrant would ask the Almighty for his I.D.

Playmates released a number of Captain Kirk specialty action figures over the 1990s, including one wherein the good captain is wearing casual 1930s clothes (from the episode "City on the Edge of Forever.") The company also released a version of Captain Kirk in a space suit; from a scene that was cut from Generations (1994).

If you ask me, the biggest mistake the Star Trek franchise ever made was killing of Captain Kirk at the end of Generations. He died saving billions of innocent people (whom we never met...) on a planet which we never saw...), which was a noble way to take a bow, but just look at Shatner today on Boston Legal. He's tanned, rested and ready to take the center seat. Just think, we could have had ten more years of Captain Kirk on Star Trek, had Paramount done things a little differently.

I think the best way to continue Star Trek now is to return Captain Kirk to active duty. I want to see him in action again.

How about you?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Collectible of the Week # 2: Alien Board Game!

As if a sign from above, this morning, one of my displays fell from a high shelf, and the Kenner board game from the 1979 Ridley Scott movie Alien crashed with a thud on my desktop (in the process, scuttling my Buck Rogers in the 25th Century Star Fighter model...).

I decided this unfortunate event was an omen, and figured I should write about the game today, even though I usually blog about toys on Thursday.

I was just turned ten years old in December of 1979, when Alien was released nationwide in theaters, and though my ten-year old best friend and next door neighbor went to go see it, the movie was R-rated and my parents wouldn't take me. I think they were right, by the way -- I was too young.

Anyhow, my buddy came back from a showing of the film around Christmas and then went on and on telling me all kinds of cool things about the movie I couldn't see. Making it worse, one of my aunts also saw the movie and regaled me with tales about how it was the scariest movie she had ever seen.

Hoping to be a part of the club, I collected the trading cards. I even read the Alan Dean Foster novelization. But I didn't actually get to see Alien for myself till it came out on videotape, years later (1983? 1984?).

Still, by 1980, I did get to play the board game, which you see here before you.

The first thing you may notice is that the alien depicted on the box cover (the photo with the blue background) is not an image or still from the Scott film, but a photograph of the Kenner Alien toy! Why? Because the alien depicted in the film was simply too scary to put on a kid's toy box cover! Even funnier, this action figure toy also scared a bunch of kids my age, and was very quickly pulled from toy store shelves when outraged parents protested. I guess that's what happens when you make toy merchandise for an R-rated, balls-to-the-walls horror flick...

The Alien Game (for two to four players; ages 7 and up) is billed as "an exciting game of elimination and escape." The contents of the game include 16 playing tokens, an instruction sheet, a gameboard and dice. And the objective (as you maybe can read in the photo, if the image is clear enough) is to "be the first player to guide one of your crew members through the mother ship to the safety of the escape pod, Narcissus."

The game also urges players to "recreate the suspenseful terror of the new Space Thriller, ALIEN! Use luck and strategy to defend your astronauts from deadly ALIEN forces."

I've always collected board games, but this one was one I actually played. I remember sitting with friends, gazing at the game board and dreaming of one day seeing that scary movie. You know, by the time I saw Alien, I had imagined and fantasized so much - so many awful, disgusting things - that I wasn't even really that scared of it...

Before long, I did move on from the Alien board game to another one. A fifth-grade friend had the board game of Escape from New York (1981), and it was way cool too...because you got to land a glider on the top of the World Trade Center, and recuse the President of the United States. Ah, fickle youth...

CATNAP #35: Printer Attack

The cats love my printer.

Any cat who possesses the printer is the king of the hill. Not only is the device conveniently located next to my desk, it looks out on the window and the street beyond, and offers the kittys a view of the world. So - of course - they mob it.

Also, the printer occasionally comes to life and starts spouting paper - and the felines love that. Every time the printer activates, three cats race to it and begin pawing at each new sheet.

This is why I've gone through three printers in two years...

Monday, March 13, 2006

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

I saw the Alexandre Aja remake of The Hills Have Eyes yesterday and liked it a great deal. The relatively faithful (but much embellished...) remake got me thinking again about the landmark, original film, which is a personal favorite.

For those of you who don't remember that venture from the disco decade, it's the story of a terrible clash in the desert between an extended "civilized" family, the Carters, and a group of in-bred savages. The two families are twisted reflections of one another, and only one can survive in the inhospitable, scorching terrain.

In the 1977 version, the Carters (a so-called "whitebread" family) were represented by a bigot named Big Bob, his long-suffering wife, young siblings Brenda and Bobby, older daughter Lynn and her diffident husband Doug. They also brought along their baby, Katherine, and the family's two dogs: Beauty and the Beast. The bad guys were represented by psychotic madmen with names like Papa Jupiter, Pluto and Mercury. The Jupiter clan - though undeniably deranged - was well organized and disciplined in its attack on the Carters, who had become stranded in the desert following an accident on the road with their trailer.

The film didn't get great reviews when it was released, and yet to horror fans, it's a classic of the savage cinema. One of the most famous sequences involves one of the madmen twisting the head off the Carters' parakeet like its a beer can tab, and then drinking the bird's blood from its open throat. There's also a crucifixion/burning, a rape, and several point-blank gun shot wounds. The movie is harrowing, brutally unsentimental...and deeply relevant to modern America.

Here's my review (of the original):

Wes Craven's 1977 feature, The Hills Have Eyes is a dedicated re-working of the siege film, a genre in which a group of characters are isolated in a remote location and attacked from all corners by enemies. In horror, the "siege" has been vetted well by George Romero in Night of the Living Dead (1968) and by John Carpenter in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).

Many critics have suggest that The Hills Have Eyes boasts roots going further back in film history even than those notable examples, in Westerns such as The Alamo. Not surprisingly, then, the Craven film can easily be fit into the Western film mold with a few contemporary modifications. To wit, a group of pioneers (here vacationers...) head west in a wagon train (here a recreational vehicle; a trailer), only to be savagely assaulted by a group of primitives (not American Indians as in the cowboy tradition, but in-bred cannibals). However, to gaze upon The Hills Have Eyes as merely another entry in the siege genre does this horror a disservice. Wes Craven is famous for imbuing his films with sub-text and social commentary, and this film is no exception.

The heart of The Hills Have Eyes is actually the duel between two families, one from "civilization" and one from the wild. The battle for supremacy takes place not on neutral territory, however, but in the home court of the savage clan, in this case, the barren, rocky landscape of the Yucca Desert. The landscape plays a critical role in the film and Craven defines a chaotic terrain of danger that is as much nemesis to the Carter family as is Jupiter's killer clan.

The Carters - named after then-President Carter, perhaps? - stumble upon a vast world of inhospitable hills and rock. It is a world where their enemies can come and go as they please and yet remain hidden, because of their camouflage. The Carters bear no such protection, and the hard right angles of their trailer stand out like a beacon against the random outcroppings of the terrain. The Carters are just they (aptly) describe themselves in the film's finale: sitting ducks.
The desert turns even more dangerous by night. The darkness provides a natural shroud, - yet another brand of camouflage - for the activities of the marauding cannibals. Again, the Carters are out of their element. Even in the darkness of night, they constantly have a campfire burnng outside their trailer, and all the lights on inside of it. They possess the only illumination in the entire desert, and it too serves as a sort of beacon, drawing their opponents ever closer like moths to the flame.

Because they are the products of contemporary urban life, the Carters are instantly uncomfortable once trapped in Craven's forbidding landscape. Brenda repeatedly asserts that dwelling outside gives her "the creeps." The others naively insist clean air is "good" for them, but they do not respect the land. Instead of adapting to their new surroundings, they attempt to tame it and control the land . Almost immediately, they set up a dinner table outside the trailer....and begin to picnic. It is a ridiculous scene as the Carters rotely fold their napkins and set out their silverware in orderly fashion...amidst a vast wasteland. From this scene alone, it is clear that they are truly out of touch with their location and have no notion of the dangers it boasts, or how to cope with them. This is the first blow against them in their deadly war with Papa Jupiter.

The Carters are woefully out of their element in another fashion too. Although they're on unfamiliar ground, they continue to rely on technology that has failed. Their car breaks down, stranding them and making them susceptible to attack in the first place. Then the trailer's battery goes dead and they are plunged into darkness. Next, the members of the family depend on modern weaponry that they have never used before. At one point, Bobby has a clear shot at Mars with his pistol and misses three times. Brenda is just as lost, asking at one point, "How do you use this thing anyway?" Even Big Bob Carter - who should know better given his years on a police force - cannot effectively harness his "howitzer" pistol.

Other technology proves equally troubling. The CB Radio - which should help contact rescuers - ends up as a tool with which they hand over critical defensive information to the enemy. Their car "betrays" them again when the gas is siphoned by Pluto and used to set the captured Big Bob aflame. Even the chain leash with which the family tethers the Beast breaks. The result is that the dog runs off when the family needs him most. If Beast were present during the attack by Pluto and Mars, Mrs. Carter and Lynn might not have been killed.

It is only when the Carters forsake the tools of 20th century man that they begin to successfully defend themselves. They only defeat Jupiter once they stop viewing their trailer as a shelter, a mobile representation of their suburban safety, and instead use it as a weapon and blow it to smithereens. Similarly, they kill Papa Jupe once they have forsaken Brenda's ridiculous car axle gimmick for a handy hatchet (it might as well be a tomahawk...). As for Doug, he only beats Mars when he embraces a knife instead of the surplus supplies he has brought back from the abandoned PX base. It is only by resorting to basics that the Carter family can compete in a world where their technology is meaningless

It is not just the landscape and untrustworthy technology that imperils the Carters, it is the now meaningless family conventions they cling to as well. Early in the film, the family gathers together and prays. No one wants to do it, and the prayer accordingly has a rote, mechanical feel. Yet still the family gathers together like Zombies and prays for the Lord to look over them. In the very next shot, - a long view lensed from at least half-a-mile away - their total isolation is revealed. They are in the middle of nowhere, so prayer is not a practical solution.

Worse, their wishes to be taken care of by an invisible deity are undercut by the fact that they are already being watched over. Not by God, but by Pluto, the evil brother and a kind of God of the desert. The Carters cannot grasp the danger of their predicament and so apply pat societal remedies as prayer to a world where neither civilization nor religion hold sway. To defeat the cannibal clan, the Carters must give up societal constructs (like prayer) and fight brutally. They do, even harnessing the bodies of their dead as a decoy.

Only when the Carters go "native" and fight force with blunt, brutal force, are they able to preserve what's left of their family. The final freeze frame of The Hills Have Eyes reveals Doug hovering viciously over Mars' corpse. It is a shot which suggests the lesson has been learned. Man has violent tendencies just beneath the surface, instincts he can tap even with hundreds of year of civilization behind him. When the frame then turns blood-red, the indication is that man is a creature awash in blood and that there is no real difference between civilized people who supposedly have law and morality, and wild sociopaths who roam the hills. Both will fight and kill to protect their families. Civilized people just take a little pushing...

Many have read very deep Vietnam War allegories into The Hills Have Eyes, because they see a primitive enemy defeating a technologically superior force. And indeed, the destruction of the trailer brings to mind the Vietnam-era adage "to save a village, you must destroy it." Still, I propose the film is much more closely related to situations inside America than to any foreign war. Our real enemy resides not in a faraway land, but right here, under the auspices of a failed social safety net. Whole classes of people have remained down-trodden for so long while a middle class has flourished. Accordingly, some people become desperate as health care, medicine, gasoline and even food fall out of economic reach. In situations without law (not unlike the aftermath of Katrina...) some of these "have nots" act desperately - even viciously - to survive a terrible situation.

This movie represents a battle between the haves and those have nots. The film opens with a pan across a barren highway, and it is immediately apparent that this region is a wasteland. Young Ruby, one of the savage family, begs for food and establishes that her family is starving. The Jupiter clan is thus desperate to survive, on the edge of extinction - and though this no way justifies their evil - it does make their actions at least comprehensible. Like the Carters, they must fight for survival in a world without resources. Jupe's clan does not have the benefits of refrigerators, vehicles, air conditioning, or even artificial light, for that matter. The battle between the cannibals and the Carters in The Hills Have Eyes is thus not symbolic of the Viet Cong versus the U.S., but rather representative of a single house divided: the poor of America versus the the one place where the poor can fight back: on a leveled playing field. No tax cuts for the rich are going to help the Carter family in the desert.

Craven weaves all of these themes into a 90-minute motion picture of escalating terror, brilliantly staging the siege on the Carters in increasingly fear-provoking waves. First a spider invades the trailer, signifying what is to come, a kind of invasion vanguard. Then the first dog is killed. Then Big Bob is killed in what today we'd euphemistically term "a decapitation strike." Then the RV is totally overtaken, and so on. Incident builds upon incident until the viewer is overwhelmed, and fully half the Carter family is already dead. The film maintains this startling pace throughout, and leaves audiences in shock. The Hills Have Eyes packs a visceral punch, and this film doesn't play favorites with characters. It's a raw, unsentimental and horrific glimpse of class warfare; of the disenfranchised striking back.

And it's a great horror movie. The new film has a different spin. But more on that later.