Saturday, January 28, 2017
I woke up to the news, this morning that the world has lost another brilliant and beloved talent. The press is reporting the devastating death of John Hurt (1940 - 2017) a great actor, and one instantly recognizable, globe-wide, for his unforgettable roles, and distinct, gravelly voice.
Mr. Hurt is responsible for some of the best remembered film-performances of the 1970s and 1980s. Famously, he starred as Kane in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), and gave the world what is, arguably, the most memorable death scene in over a hundred years of cinema.
Hurt repeated that touchstone chest-burster death scene, to great comedic effect, in Mel Brooks' Spaceballs (1987).
In 1980, Hurt portrayed the tragic John Merrick in David Lynch's classic film, The Elephant Man. An to great impact, he also portrayed George Orwell's protagonist, Winston Smith, in an adaptation of the novel 1984, in 1984.
In the age of modern blockbusters, John Hurt proved a dependable, solid, frequently seen presence in franchises such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Indiana Jones. He also graced the science fiction film in Contact (1997), based on the novel by Carl Sagan.
John Hurt was also a notable presence on genre TV.
The first time I ever saw him, for example, was in SPECTRE (1977), an unsold, supernatural pilot from Gene Roddenberry. Later, he acted as the narrator on Jim Henson's anthology, The StoryTeller (1988).
Most recently, science fiction TV fans had the chance to rejoice when John Hurt appeared in the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who (2005 - ) as a forgotten incarnation of the beloved Time Lord, The War Doctor.
Although Mr. Hurt succumbed to illness at age 77, his performances on the silver and small screen will remain immortal. Rest in Peace, John Hurt.
Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle: "Tarzan at the Earth's Core" (November 27, 1976)
In “Tarzan at the Earth’s Core,” Tarzan rescues a boy from a lion, but the young man is captured by enemy guards, who take him underground, to the “Dark World.”
The boy is a prince, and his father rules a kingdom in conflict with the Dark World.
Tarzan grapples with dinosaurs and other monsters to see to it that peace comes to the two kingdoms.
Well, color me disappointed!
I believed, when seeing the title -- “Tarzan at the Earth’s Core” -- that this episode of Filmation’s Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle (1976) would see the great hero traveling to Pellucidar, the setting for Burroughs’ 1914 novel, At The Earth’s Core. That was also the plot of the 1930 Tarzan novel, Tarzan at the Earth's Core, from which this episode takes its name.
But the name Pellucidar never comes in this story, and we don't get a great Burroughs crossover.
Instead, Tarzan just visits another lost kingdom accessible from his jungle, this one subterranean. But never actually sees Pellucidar, or the Earth’s core for that matter.
The title is misleading in a big way, unfortunately.
Also, I must point out that the opening act, which involves Tarzan saving a boy from a lion, is a repeat of an identical plot device from last week’s entry. Not very creative. Two weeks in a row, Tarzan discovers a new adventure by saving a child from a dangerous animal.
Still, the episode is a prehistoric-palooza, pitting the lord of the jungle against dinosaurs like Sabor, a T-Rex. There’s also a scene with a pterodactyl and a dimetrodon.
The message of the week is not expected. Tarzan is saddened that “people cannot learn to live together.” Indeed, he reminds us, “we all have strengths we can share.”
Perhaps because the title led me to have high hopes, I can say that "Tarzan at the Earth's Core" doesn't convey a lot of strengths, especially in a series, overall, that is quite good.
Next week: Tarzan and the Ice Creature.”
In “Ripcord,” Billy Batson (Michael Gray) is contacted by the Elders and told that he will encounter a person who has not learned the lesson that one must know how to crawl before he can walk.
Specifically, Billy will meet someone who is contending with “the impatience of youth.”
This person is Bill (James Daughton), younger sibling to a skydiver, Bill (Patrick Laborteaux). Both Bill and his girlfriend, Dorothy (Susan Pratt) know how to dive and pack their own chutes. Larry decides that he can do the same thing, and -- without telling anybody --- packs Bill’s chute for his next jump. Unfortunately, he has packed a malfunctioning suit.
Bill jumps from the plan with the faulty suit, but Captain Marvel is there to catch him, and help Larry learn his lesson.
For the second (or perhaps third time…) on Shazam (1974-1976), Vasquez Rocks makes a guest appearance as a setting. Here, at the start of the episode, Bill, Larry, Dorothy and the dog Geronimo, climb to the summit of the rocks.
Of course, Vasquez Rocks is the sight of the famous Gorn fight on Star Trek’s (1966-1969) “Arena” and a location well-used -- or over-used? -- by many productions from the sixties to the present. It appeared, earlier on Shazam, in "The Treasure."
In terms of later-era Shazam episodes, “Ripcord” is the first segent of the third season not to feature both a criminal enterprise plot and the didactic teenager learns a lesson story. As a result, it seems a bit more coherent and focused than the previous episodes.
Next week: "Finders Keepers."
Friday, January 27, 2017
Gazing back upon 1983’s TV-movie, Starflight One: The Plane that Couldn’t Land, the most significant question it raises involves timing.
How -- years after the theatrical releases of spoofs such as Airplane (1980) and Airplane II: The Sequel (1982) -- did filmmakers believe they could produce a serious version of the same tired premise that had informed films such as Airport (1970), Airport’ 75 (1975), Airport ’77 (1977) and Concorde: Airport ’79 (1979)?
You remember that premise of the Airport (and Airplane) franchise right? A group of diverse passengers and a stalwart plane crew, including a heroic pilot, are jeopardized mid-flight, by some kind of disaster, whether a terrorist bomb, a design flaw, or a ground attack.
Worse, by 1983, the year of Starflight One's premiere, the disaster film in general had pretty much run its course thanks to theatrical misfires such as Irwin Allen’s The Swarm (1978). Airport ’79 had also proven a giant flop at the box office, failing to earn back, even, its production budget.
Unfortunately, Starflight One: The Plane that Couldn’t Land slavishly resurrects all the tired old character clichés of the Airport films (which were based on the 1968 best seller by Arthur Hailey).
There’s a love-affair going on between a pilot and a passenger (here Lee Majors and Lauren Hutton); there’s an elderly woman on her first plane flight (though not Helen Hayes), and an untrustworthy passenger whose actions jeopardize the survival of the plane (Terry Kiser).
Meanwhile, resourceful personnel on the ground and in the air (here including Hal Linden -- in both places!) struggle to pull a rabbit out of a hat and save the imperiled plane from fiery disaster.
Such roles, through their sheer repetition in the disaster genre, are largely thankless here, and the cast can't do much to make them memorable.
So, who thought Starflight One could have been a good idea, coming along in 1983, at the end of the
Airport and disaster film cycle?
Well, historically speaking, the TV-movie’s premiere in February of 1983 on ABC followed-up on another ABC event of great importance.
Nine months earlier -- in May of 1982 -- ABC had broadcast an extended, three-hour version of Concorde: Airport 79 for sweeps, and it earned big ratings, regardless of its earlier failure at the box office. It ranked in tenth place the week of its airing.
So, to accountants at ABC no doubt, Starflight One seemed like it could plausibly repeat the same magic in the Nielsen ratings.
Add to the mix the special effects creations of Star Wars (1977) guru, John Dykstra, and Starflight One must have seemed like a slam dunk right?
Well, not exactly. The movie finished second in its time-slot, but it was victorious, at least over one of its prime-time competitors: Cocaine: One Man's Seduction (1983).
And artistically? How does Starflight One rank?
Well, to my surprise, there are indeed aspects of this film -- about an hour or so in -- that succeed far better than I expected they would have.
There are, for example two extremely creative and tense “rescue” scenes set in space during the TV-movie's second act. These moments in Starflight One are far more effective than they should be, especially given that so much of the film seems to run on auto-pilot and on tired, stock situations and characters.
These scenes succeed, and more than that, actually qualify as nail-biting. It’s just a shame that the rest of the movie can’t sustain the pace and interest of these inventive sequences.
Instead, one leaves a viewing of Starflight One considering how much, truly, the filmmakers get wrong, particularly about the workings and capabilities of the space shuttle Columbia.
“The eyes of the world will be on Starflight One.”
The world's first hypersonic plane -- Thornwell’s Starflight One -- is scheduled for its historic maiden flight from the U.S. to Australia, with pilot Cody Briggs (Lee Majors) at the controls.
Also aboard for the flight are the plane’s designer, Josh Gilliam (Hal Linden), who would prefer the flight be delayed while he irons out some final details, and Brody’s mistress, Erica Hansen (Lauren Hutton).
Other passengers include a man, Freddie Barrett (Terry Kiser), who is attempting to get a new satellite into orbit, and rushing the rocket launch in Australia.
Once Starflight One is in the air, Barrett’s rocket explodes, and debris from it strikes the hypersonic plane. A rocket engine on Starflight One continues to burn, out-of-control -- its instrumentation short-circuited -- and it ascends to orbit…to space itself.
Now, Josh Gilliam must find a way to get the craft back down to Earth.
The problem is that the hypersonic plane possesses no heat shields, and will burn up in re-entry. The shuttle Columbia joins Starflight One in space and makes a handful of dedicated attempts to transfer passengers from the damaged craft to the shuttle.
Meanwhile, Starflight One’s orbit is decaying, and the clock is ticking down towards death and destruction...
“They’re talking. But they’re not saying much.”
Starflight One is mostly slow and rote, with sleepy performances from the likes of Lee Majors and Hal Linden. But in its superior second act, the TV-movie unexpectedly turns riveting for about a half-hour.
Here’s the situation: NASA needs Josh Gilliam (Linden) -- the hypersonic plane’s architect -- on the ground. But he is aboard the plane and must be transferred to the shuttle. Fortunately, the plane is carrying the body of a recently-deceased Australian ambassador in its cargo hold. The bright idea is struck upon that the shuttle astronauts can transfer Gilliam from the plane to the shuttle in the ambassador’s coffin!
As Josh settles into the casket, it is checked for any signs of air leaks and then closed…with him inside.
We see a view of the nervous Josh, inside the sealed coffin, as the transfer across several hundred meters -- in orbit -- is broached. Josh’s fear and discomfort are palpable, and the special effects, which have often been criticized by critics as sub-par, do a good job of revealing the risky and vulnerable nature of this transfer.
Suspense ratchets up to a high-point when Josh detects an air-leak in the coffin, his mode of transport, and realizes that unless he does something soon, he will run out of air before the transfer is complete.
There's a commendable if ghoulish kind of gallows humor about this sequence, especially since it follows another involving the death of a co-pilot in the airlock. One realizes that Josh's transport, his coffin, is an appropriate final resting place, should the mission fail.
The second suspenseful scene in the film is even more disturbing.
With Josh safely on the ground, the decision is made to transfer twenty of the stranded passengers from the hypersonic plane to the space shuttle.
A thin, wobbly “air tube” is connected between the vessels’ airlocks, and five passengers traverse the long, unsteady tunnel at a time. The film shows the audience every step of that long, arduous trip, as the first five passengers make their way successfully across the passageway. Their progress is recorded with a torturous, methodical camera. Again, the desired effect of suspense is achieved.
Then, the second five passengers -- including Kiser’s character and the kindly old lady -- begin making their transfer.
The sparking, damaged hull of Starflight One, however, impacts with the travel tube, and fiery, horrible disaster ensues.
Again, I can give the film no higher compliment than to suggest that it has reached a Poseidon Adventure (1972) threshold of suspense and horror at this juncture. Had I caught this film on TV in '83, when I was thirteen, I would have no doubt been riveted, and the space scenes (and death scenes set in that venue) are not only imaginative, but the stuff of nightmares.
Alas, the last act of Starflight One, including the climactic re-entry scene, fails entirely to live up to the early moments of nail-biting drama and suspense. And, knowing what we do of the space shuttle’s capabilities, the film loses much of its sense of plausibility in the last hour too.
In Starflight One, for instance, the space shuttle launches, meets the hypersonic plane in flight, and brings Josh back to terra firma. Within a 17 hour window, it then re-launches, vets the aforementioned passenger tube debacle, and lands with its five rescued passengers. Then, in the same window of time, it launches a third time, picks-up all remaining passengers inside an empty fuel container, and lands again.
In real life, it would take a shuttle a minimum of two weeks between launches. Here, it makes three journeys in less than a day’s time.
Then, at the end of the film, and quite miraculously, a second shuttle (also bafflingly named Columbia) -- the XU-5 -- appears, already in orbit, and guides Starflight One through safe re-entry.
Basically this second shuttle, of which the audience had no prior knowledge, acts as the heat shield that brings the hypersonic flight home.
Okay, I will buy all that.
But, all the going back and forth with Columbia (on the ground and in space) -- not to mention the death of five passengers and one crew-member -- could have been prevented since the XU-5 was already in orbit.
And since it was already in orbit, why not come up with this safe re-entry gambit right out the gate, five hours earlier?
Many lives (and much rocket fuel...) would have been spared.
Poetic license, I suppose.
Yet when Starflight One was over, I felt that it had all been for nothing. The moments that hooked me were powerful and well-vetted, but buried and suffocated by many routine elements.
Which brings me back to my original point.
It’s really, really difficult to tell this particular story in a serious way, after the likes of Airplane or Airplane II: The Sequel.
Those films are so perfect, so relentless in their chiseling away at the tropes of the disaster/Airport formula, that it’s nearly impossible to take the idea seriously again in their aftermath.
The saddest thing about Starflight One, however, is that, in the moments I described in my review above, the TV-movie actually comes close to climbing that seemingly insurmountable mountain.
In the final analysis, however Starflight One: The Plane that Couldn’t Land is the movie that just couldn’t stick its landing.
Thursday, January 26, 2017
"If there's one thing I don't pretend to understand, it's the human mind," declares our friendly neighborhood android, REM (Donald Moffat) in this, the fourth episode of the short-lived CBS Logan's Run TV series from 1977.
It's a fun line from an interesting character, and our Metallic Mr. Spock has fast become the series' most valuable player. Logan and Jessica remain rather un-charismatic and bland -- but REM? He's cool, and certainly one of Lt. Commander Data's inspirations/antecedents.
"The Innocent" finds our intrepid heroes seeking to escape Francis (Randy Powell), who is pursuing Logan and Jessica's solar craft with a Sandman ground car. Why the City of Domes -- a hermetically-sealed metropolis shunning outsiders and steadfastly ignoring the existence of "outside" all together -- would need to produce ground cars in the first place is a question we probably shouldn't ask.
Anyway, Logan drives the solar craft into an "energy mine" field and discovers a heavily guarded bunker behind a force field. Upon investigation, Logan, Jessica and REM find the facility (a pre-nuclear war test center for people with psychokinetic powers...) run by two servile robots, Nanny and Friend (Gene Tyburn).
These two machines care for a lonely adolescent girl named Lisa (Lisa Eilbacher). She's lived there in that underground bunker all her life, and following the death of her father, has been all alone. But now she's an adolescent and suffering from pangs of love for the handsome Logan.
She quickly determines that Jessica is an impediment and -- like Anthony in The Twilight Zone's "It's a Good Life" -- wishes Jessica away to a kind of limbo.
Logan must convince Lisa that learning to love others is something that takes time, and can't be rushed. She is not persuaded at first, and delivers Logan to Francis, before having second thoughts...
Looking across the 1960s and 1970s, it is fair to state that this story recurs quite a bit. There is an element, indeed, of "It's a Good Life," but Lisa is not a sociopath like Anthony is.
And, similarly, this was the era of Carrie (1976), the Brian De Palma film about a lonely, shy girl gifted with rare and terrifying psychokinetic abilities.
This isn't a terrible Logan's Run episode, but nor is it a high point, either. he story appears contrived in a lot of ways. For instance, there is no convincing reason why Lisa would not go with Logan and Jessica, if just for a while, once peace has been made.
She could hitch a ride until she reaches the next settlement, civilization, or outpost, certainly. It's going to be hard for Lisa to make new friends and reach out to others, as Logan suggests, considering that she and her robot friends don't appear to own a vehicle. I guess they'll go on foot (which gives new meaning to the term "pedestrian" sci-fi.)
Also, another problem is this odd counsel of Logan and Jessica. They encourage Lisa in "The Innocent" to get out there in the world, and meet new people, so she will no longer be alone. At this point, it seems that the writers believe they are working on Star Trek, or in some other universe of multi-cultural understanding and utopian civilizations.
On the contrary, this is Logan's Run, a dystopic, post-apocalyptic series. The world is in ruin. Warlords and tyrants and failed states abound (judging just from what we have seen so far). So is it really wise for Logan and Jessica to tell Lisa to leave her own personal sanctuary and go out and meet people?
It doesn't make much sense. Sure it seems heartwarming to us, here, in this time. It is not advice, however, that I would take for me or my family after the fall of civilization. It seems to me Logan and Jessica are just endangering Lisa, even considering her psychic abilities.
Another problem I have with Logan's Run (the TV series) is simply that it is accomplished so cheaply...and that this cheapness seems to limit the imagination of the series writers. Obviously, the creators of this TV program couldn't afford to create believable societies for Logan, Jessica and REM to encounter each week, so instead, the plan seemed to involve having them accidentally happen upon laboratories, hospitals ("Fear Factor"), dream clinics ("Futurepast") and other unlikely mini-settlements.
This keeps costs down, but also raises questions. For instance, how do post-apocalyptic hunters have a fully-powered house ("Capture?") Where do they get power? How do they sustain it? After the fall of civilization you just can't assume the electrical grid is up and running.
Fortunately, "The Innocent" provides a nice easy answer to these questions: Lisa powers the whole facility with her psionic abilities.
To look at a positive aspect of "The Innocent," the scenes with the sandman Jeremy and the others cast into limbo are effective, and a little disturbing. Also, it's nice that Lisa -- well-played by Lisa Eilbacher -- is not a traditional villain, but someone who can be reasoned with.
Next week: Noah Ward's (David Gerrold's) "Man Out of Time."
In The Stranger Within -- a TV movie that first aired on ABC in 1974 -- a painter and housewife, Annie (Barbara Eden) learns that she is pregnant.
Delight soon turns to mystery and paranoia, however. Annie's husband, David (George Grizzard) has had a vasectomy, which means that he cannot possibly be the father of the child she is carrying.
Annie insists she has never been unfaithful to David, but there is no other way to account for her unusual and fast-developing pregnancy.
David wants Annie to get an abortion, but on both occasions to have the procedure, Annie is felled by debilitating abdominal pains. After the second such attack, she declares that she intends to keep the baby. David is upset and worried. Three years earlier, Annie had a dangerous and unsuccessful pregnancy; one that nearly killed her.
The pregnancy unfolds in a sinister and unusual way. Annie begins eating plates of raw meat, and loads of salt. In her sleep, she speaks in some unknown, inhuman language. And she develops the capacity to speed read whole books in minutes. She soon comes to believe in the special nature of her child, and fiercely defensive of him.
Meanwhile, David grows more and more concerned about his wife. A hypnotist (David Doyle) learns from Annie the truth about her pregnancy.
She was impregnated, ostensibly against her will and without her knowledge, by an alien life form…
The Stranger Within (1974) is a unique spin on Rosemary’s Baby (1968). As you recall, that Roman Polanski film, based on Ira Levin’s novel, concerned an American housewife impregnated by Satan. The Stranger Within concerns an American housewife impregnated by aliens.
Fortunately, the great Richard Matheson is the writer behind this story, and he is able to create a tale that is more than mere knock-off.
Of course, there are some elements in common.
Both tales track an abnormal pregnancy, and the manner in which that pregnancy sows distrust and estrangement between a husband and wife. Doctors are involved in both stories two, though in the case of The Stranger Within, there is no conspiracy on the part of members of the medical community.
What may prove most interesting about The Stranger Within is the turn it takes after the second hypnosis.
Annie’s husband, David, asks why this is has happened to his wife, why she is “the only one” to endure this alien gestation. The hypnotist looks at him -- and quite chillingly -- responds that there is no evidence to suggest that she is the only one dealing with alien impregnation.
Those words actually inform the climax of the telefilm. After delivering her alien child, Annie emerges in a field in the hills, with roughly twenty other human women. They are all carrying their hybrid progeny, and are then “taken” by the aliens, whisked away from Earth, presumably never to be see again.
Indeed, she was not the only one.
My only problem with this surprise is that it isn’t entirely motivated in terms of Annie’s story. She went to her doctor (played by Nehemiah Persoff) many times throughout her dangerous pregnancy. He even shared her unusual test results -- the baby has two hearts! -- with his colleagues.
If other women -- over a dozen other women -- are undergoing the same experience, it stands to reason that they too would visit doctors, and that they too would get a lot of attention from the medical community. These women all live in the same geographic area, we must presume.
Twenty cases like Annie’s would be hard to keep secret in any one town, or even city.
The Stranger Within was released not long after Roe vs. Wade was decided by the Supreme court, and abortion was made legal in the United States. I suppose one possible reading of the film is as a kind of under-the-surface pro-life tract.
All the women involved in these apparently immaculate conceptions don’t choose to abort their children. Their husbands -- if they are at all like David -- all counsel abortion. They can't love children they don't see as their own. They want them terminated.
In the film’s last scene, the women and their children are assumed into Heaven, essentially, with their children, never to be seen again here. On Earth, their husbands suffer, alone and confused, never again to have a wife, or a child, for that matter.
Again, that’s just one possible reading.
More important to me, however, is the fact that this ultra-cheap TV movie from the 1970s creates a pretty effective ending, considering the paltry budget at its disposal.
We see the women enter the clearing, and through a double exposure, they vanish from this Earth with their children. It doesn’t seem like a violent taking away (which gives rise, in part, to my interpretation, above).
This image is cross-cut with David at home alone, as he gazes at Annie’s painting of the alien environment.
The evidence of alien involvement burns up before his eyes, smoldering and smoking. He runs to the window, apparently realizing what is happening, and we see him -- symbolically trapped within the outline of a window frame -- gazing up at the Heavens. He is fully aware that his wife has been taken, body and soul, from him.
The camera zooms in on the sun -- our avatar for the aliens (or the Holy Ghost, if this is a pro-life tract) -- and we understand that David is being punished, his “normal” life now no more than ashes, like Annie’s painting.
Basically, this ending makes splendid use of (cheap!) film grammar, when certainly, today, we would get (expensive) CGI effects instead.
We’d see the women beamed up to a UFO, for example, instead of simply the double exposure disappearance, and focus on the sun as a figure of mystery in the sky. I maintain that The Stranger Within’s approach -- open to interpretation -- is far scarier.
There's something genuinely terrifying about the film's last shot. The painting just burns and burns, as end credits roll.
There are aspects of The Stranger Within that are a bit comical, for instance Annie getting drunk on coffee, or over-salting her food constantly. And yet Barbara Eden commits to the material, and the film succeeds, like so many TV movies of the 1970s, in being highly unsettling. The ambiguity is frightening, and we are left with no answers. What will happen to these women? Their children? Will they ever be returned? Where are they headed?
Rosemary’s Baby is a great film, but The Stranger Within is a cheap-jack -- if unique and memorable -- variation on a theme, and one that ends on a high (if diabolical and upsetting…) note.
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
The press is now reporting the death of Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017), a television icon, a trailblazer, and a true humanitarian.
Mary Tyler Moore, dead at 80 years old, had a remarkable and long-lasting career in Hollywood.
She is most well-remembered for her two TV series roles, first in the sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), as housewife Laura Petrie.
And secondly as a working, single woman, Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (1970-1977), a trend-setting program in terms of the women's movement, and the cultural shifts of the 1970s.
Mary Tyler Moore also starred alongside Elvis Presley in A Change of Habit (1969), and played against type -- as a prickly, cold suburban mom -- in Ordinary People (1980).
Mary Tyler Moore helped set the direction of television drama for a generation with her performances on TV, and will be sorely missed. She also acted, for decades, as a powerful voice for those struggling with diabetes.
As I mourn the loss of Mary Tyler Moore, I think of her charm, and grace, and essential goodness.
Sometimes it feels like such qualities are in short supply in our modern world.