Halloween Havoc!: THE BLOB (Paramount 1958)

Teenagers save the world from the outer space menace known as THE BLOB in this 1958 indie-made sci-fi classic. The stars are a 28-year-old Steve McQueen (billed here as ‘Steven’), channeling his inner James Dean and cool as ever, and THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW’s  future Miss Helen, lovely Aneta Corsault. The cheaply made BLOB became a huge hit, and remains one of the best-loved sci-fi flicks of the 50’s.

After the peppy title tune “Beware the Blob!” (written by Burt Bacharach and Mack David), we find teens Steve (McQueen) and Jane (Corsault) out parking, as 50’s teens do, when a mysterious flying object crash lands in the distance. The curious kids investigate and come across an old man (veteran Olin Howland ) in the road, his hand covered with a purple gelatinous goo. The  geezer’s in obvious pain, so our young couple take him to Doc Hallen, who’s baffled as the goo creeps up the geezer’s arm.

Steve and Jane go back to where they found said geezer to look for clues, but The Blob engulfs the geezer, a nurse, and the doc, which Steve witnesses in horror. The kids go straight to the cops, who naturally are skeptical. They all head for Doc’s house, finding it in disarray  but with no bodies. The cops think Steve and Jane are pulling a prank, and no one believes he saw “a monster!”. Meanwhile, The Blob oozes its way around town, eating whatever’s in its path, until Steve recruits his hot-rodding buddies to warn the town there’s a Blob on the loose!

The malleable monster is among the coolest of cool 50’s aliens, a living blob of protoplasm that slimes through the streets gobbling up earthlings like Goobers and Raisinets at a drive-in show. This Incredible Bulk was really nothing more than a ball of silicone, made to look massive thanks to the genius of SPFX man Bart Sloane and DP Thomas Spaulding. They replicated some of the films’ locations in miniature and plopped the silicone into the picture, tilting the table it sat on back and forth to give the impression of movement. Red dyes were used to make Blobby seem blood-gorged as it grew larger. Simple and primitive yes, but effective as hell!

Those locations I mentioned were mainly in the small town of Phoenixville, PA, which now holds an annual “Blobfest” every July commemorating the movie. The scene of scared patrons running out of the Colonial Theater is reenacted, Chef’s Diner (where McQueen and company were trapped by Blobby) is open for business, there’s a BLOB screening along with other sci-fi shockers of the era, and special genre guests appear. Sounds like a good time to me, and Pennsylvania’s not THAT far of a drive from Massachusetts! Maybe next year…

Speaking of that iconic Colonial Theater scene, the marquee heralds a ‘Midnight Spook Show’ featuring DAUGHTER OF HORROR and BELA LUGOSI!! The former was a 1955 low budget item producer Jack Harris owned the distribution rights to, a surrealistic little number with no dialog narrated by (of all people) Ed McMahon! Lugosi’s name is up in lights because Harris also owned OLD MOTHER RILEY MEETS THE VAMPIRE, a 1952 British production teaming the Hungarian legend with cross-dressing comedian Arthur Lucan. The movie was known variously under the titles VAMPIRE OVER LONDON, MY SON THE VAMPIRE, and here as THE VAMPIRE AND THE ROBOT. Since there was no poster for it available, Harris simply had the title plastered onto a poster of FORBIDDEN PLANET ! Again, simple but effective.

THE BLOB was made in a simpler era, where teens and cops got along, small town life was cut and dried, and citizens rallied together to confront any enemies… even giant gelatinous aliens! Many have tried to read a bit too much into THE BLOB, but to me it’s just an entertaining drive-in flick, made in a can-do DIY spirit. Enjoy it for what it is, folks, good, clean American low-budget fun!

 

 

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Halloween Havoc!: REPTILICUS (AIP 1962)

Are you ready for some Danish horror? Well, don’t get too excited; REPTILICUS is a giant monster flick that doesn’t really deliver the goods. The monster itself is on a par with THE GIANT CLAW , the film’s stuffed with stock footage and needless padding, the acting and dialog are way below average. Yet I’ve always liked this loopy movie; it has an endearing charm of its own, and is entertaining in spite of its limitations.

“High above the Arctic Circle”, copper miner drilling into the Earth’s crust hit flesh and bone. Scientists are called in, and sample’s are sent to the Copenhagen Aquarium. A piece of tail is kept in a refrigeration unit, until a sleepy scientist forgets to lock the door tight. The tail begins to rapidly regenerate, and turns into a giant prehistoric lizard dubbed Reptilicus. The giant lizard gets loose and begins to wreak the usual giant lizard havoc! How can the military stop Reptilicus without blowing it to bits and creating a shit-ton more giant monsters??

Two versions of REPTILICUS were made, one for Denmark and one for America. Producer/director Sid Pink, the man behind such classics as THE TWONKY and the 3-D BWANA DEVIL (both written and directed by Arch Obler), the Spaghetti Western THE CHRISTMAS KID (with Jeffrey Hunter ), and the sexy spy comedy THE MAN FROM O.R.G.Y, turned in a version that AIP honchos Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson absolutely hated. They turned to the film’s screenwriter Ib Melchior to make major changes. Melchior was a science-fiction writer who once claimed Irwin Allen ripped off his unproduced script SPACE FAMILY ROBINSON for the TV show LOST IN SPACE (which is probably true). The writer did the best he could do to turn REPTILICUS into something watchable, but I can just imagine how bad it originally was if this is “the best he could do”!! Anyway, Melchior had better luck writing and directing THE ANGRY RED PLANET, and providing the screenplays for ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS and Mario Bava’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. His short story “The Racer” was later turned into the cult classic DEATH RACE 2000.

Unless you’re familiar with Danish cinema (which I’m not), you won’t recognize any Familiar Faces here. I’m pretty sure the actors are grateful for that! The guy playing the American General overacts, and so does the guy who dubbed his voice! The handyman Petersen is just a total doofus, characters seem to appear having no bearing on the plot (what there is of one), and the women are just there for window dressing, basically Danish pastry to droop over. There are some nice touristy shots of Copenhagen in the early 60’s however, and an interlude in a nightclub where we get to hear the jazzy bossa-nova number “Tivoli Night”:

…which again has nothing to do with the plot. It’s just padding! REPTILICUS is slow going at first, and… what am I saying? It’s slow going all the way, except for the all-too brief appearances of the giant lizard.

Somebody over at Charlton Comics must’ve like the movie though, because they made a comic book version of REPTILICUS that lasted two issues, until their copyright ran out. They then changed the title’s name to REPTISAURUS, which continued another six issues. The latest incarnation of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 300 featured REPTILICUS as their debut episode, and it’s easy to understand why. There’s loads of unintentionally funny stuff going on in this flick, and you can have a ReptSILLYcus good time watching it all unfold.

Halloween Havoc!: THE AMAZING TRANPARENT MAN (MCP 1960)

Director Edgar G. Ulmer made some astounding contributions to the horror/sci-fi genres: THE BLACK CAT, BLUEBEARD, THE MAN FROM PLANET X . Unfortunately, THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN isn’t among them. The below-low budget movie (shot on location in Dallas simultaneously with BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER) tries to throw too many things at the wall, and nothing really sticks, thanks to a weak script and short 57 minutes running time.

Ulmer does show flourishes of his brilliance in the opening scene, where safecracker Joe Faust breaks out of prison, is chased by hounds through the woods, and is met by a woman who drives him to a deserted looking, isolated farmhouse. But by this time, he had been beaten down from years of Poverty Row work with little to no recognition, and you can tell Ulmer just took the money and ran with this one.

 

The woman is Laura Matson, one of a nest of spies led by ex-Army Major Kremmer. Faust is told “eminent nuclear scientist” Dr. Ulof is experimenting with “fissionable materials” in order to create an “invisible army” and take over the good ol’ USA! Kremmer needs Faust’s expertise to steal the volatile atomic X-13 element. Faust performs the dirty deed, then decides to go into business for himself, and with Laura as his accomplice robs a bank… then suddenly rematerializes in mid-heist!

The scenes where Faust becomes invisible are shot from his POV, and finds the other actors flailing about as if they’re being punched. It’s pretty silly looking, trust me. The transformation special effects by Roger George aren’t half bad as these sort of things go, but the grand finale, with Faust and Kremmer battling in the lab, ends with stock footage of an A-bomb explosion! So is the movie sci-fi, crime, or a thinly disguised anti-nuke screed? Like I said, nothing really sticks.

Character actor Douglas Kennedy (Faust) snarls and growls and basically chews the scenery. Marguerite Chapman (Laura) is best known for the 40’s serial SPY SMASHER. James Griffith (Kremmer) pops up frequently in movie and TV Westerns as a bad guy. Ivan Triesault (Ulof) appeared in CRY OF THE WEREWOLF and THE MUMMY’S GHOST. Pat Cranshaw, who most of you know as the sheriff in the AIR BUD movies and countless sitcom roles as an old codger, makes his debut as a security guard. Veteran Universal make-up genius Jack Pierce gets a credit, but he doesn’t create anything memorable. Like Ulmer, he probably just took the money and ran.

The dialog in Jack Lewis’s script features exchanges like this: Ulof: “Why do you ask these questions?” Faust: “Because I want answers!” Literary gold, this is not! It’s all a mishmash of ideas that never really gels. Ulmer went on to make two more films (1961’s JOURNEY BENEATH THE DESERT and 1964’s THE CAVERN) before his death in 1972. His filmography (especially his noir masterpiece DETOUR ) deserves to be reexamined, but unless you’re a completest, cross THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN off your list.

Halloween Havoc!: RETURN OF THE FLY (20th Century-Fox 1959)

Last year’s “Halloween Havoc” took a bug-eyed look at THE FLY , so this year we’ll buzz in on it’s sequel. RETURN OF THE FLY was done on a much lower budget and trades in the original’s Technicolor for black and white, but it’s got a lot going for it. A creepy atmosphere and a strong performance from Vincent Price help lift the movie above it’s admittedly ‘B’ status, and while not wholly successful, it is fun for “Bug-Eyed Monster” fans.

The film opens at the rain-soaked graveyard burial of Helene Delambre, widow of Andre and mother to young Philippe, who’s now all grown up. Uncle Francois (Price) finally relates the truth about Andre’s mad experiments with matter disintegration/reintegration to Philippe, and the brooding youngster now wants to resume his father’s work and vindicate his legacy. Together with his fellow scientist Alan Hines, Philippe begins to reassemble his father’s machinery, moving the lab to his late grandfather’s secluded country estate, where he’s in a relationship with the housekeeper’s daughter Cecile.

Francois cautions Philippe not to mess with things beyond the realm of man, but reluctantly agrees to finance his work. What neither man knows is that Alan is actually Ronald Holmes, a wanted British industrial spy who plans on stealing Philippe’s plans and selling them to the highest bidder to shady fence Max (operating out of a funeral parlor!). Alan/Ronald sneaks into the lab late one night and begins to take microfilm pics of the blueprints when he’s surprised by a British detective assigned to hunt him down. He conks the cop on the noggin, places him in the disintegration machine, and poof! he’s gone.

Philippe hears a commotion in the lab and goes downstairs, where Alan/Ronald gives him a lame explanation about attempting to bring back a rat they’d disintegrated earlier. Philippe leaves, and the spy brings back the cop’s body… who’s atoms have meshed with the rat’s, and their hands have switched! Alan/Ronald squishes the human handed rat underfoot and calls Max to help dispose of the body. Returning to the lab to finish his dirty deed, Alan/Ronald is confronted by Philippe, and a fight ensues. Alan/Ronald overpowers Philippe and puts him in the machine, tossing a fly in for spite (“I’ve always hated them”, Philippe says earlier in a bit of foreshadowing).

He turns some dials and flips some switches, the machinery whirs and hums to life, and… well, you know what happens next! Philippe is now Philippe/Fly, and after Alan/Ronald shoots Francois and steals his car, Philippe/Fly seeks revenge! Hunted by the police, Philippe/Fly dashes through the woods (his large headpiece almost falling off at one point!), and tracks down Alan/Ronald and Max, killing his former friend in a gruesome scene at the funeral parlor (you can hear Alan/Ronald’s neck go “crunch”), then nonchalauntly putting him in an empty coffin and flipping the lid shut.

This is writer/director Edward Bernds’ best feature film, which isn’t saying much. I’ve covered his work before (see QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE and HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS ), so I won’t rehash his career; suffice it to say the former Three Stooges/Bowery Boys director made an eerie little flick with the budget he was given to work with. Bernds even recreates the original’s famous “Help me!” scene to good effect. Brooding young Brett Halsey (later a star of Spaghetti Westerns under the nom de screen Montgomery Wood) does well in the role, Price is always good in these things, and John Sutton (BULLDOG DRUMMOND’s Inspector Tredennis) replaces Herbert Marshall’s Inspector Charros as Inspector Beacham. Dan Seymour, the poor man’s Sydney Greenstreet, adds some fine villainy as the crooked Max. All in all, RETURN OF THE FLY is a few notches below it’s predecessor, but enjoyable enough on a “Saturday afternoon at the Monster Movies” level for some Halloween fun.

Creature Double Feature 4: RODAN (Toho 1957) and MOTHRA (Toho 1961)

Let’s begin “Halloween Havoc!” season a day early by taking a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun for a pair of kaiju eiga films from Japan’s Toho Studios. Both were directed by GODZILLA’s Godfather Ishiro Honda, have special effects from Eiji Tsuurya, and feature the late Haru Nakajima donning the rubber monster suits. But the similarities end there, for while RODAN is a genuinely scary piece of giant monster terror, MOTHRA is a delightfully bizarre change-of-pace fantasy that began Toho’s turn toward more kid-friendly fare.

RODAN was filmed in 1956, and released in America a year later by DCA (the folks who brought you PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE! ) under the aegis of The King Brothers . There’s more A-Bomb testing in the South Pacific, as Americanized stock footage tells us before the movie proper begins. Miners digging deep into the Earth’s crust are trapped by flooding, and a dead man looking like he’s been “slaughtered like an animal”, his face frozen in horror, has been discovered. Officials are baffled until the appearance of… a GIANT PREHISTORIC BUG! The bug is tracked down into the mineshaft, where security finds a whole mess of the nasty creatures. Their bullets can’t stop them (of course not!), when suddenly an earthquake causes a cave-in.

Reports of a UFO spotted around the East puzzle authorities, too, until we learn this earthquake has led to the hatching of Rodan , a giant pterodactyl. Scientists determine Rodan is a 20 million year old flying reptile weighing 100 tons, with a wingspan of 500 feet! Rodan’s great wings cause hurricane-like destruction, toppling buildings and wrecking trains, and panic in the streets. Not only that, turns out there’s two of the massive monsters, and Japan’s military might proves once again ineffective against the fearsome monstrosities. After scenes of the deadly duo’s rampaging carnage, the military comes up with a bold but dangerous plan – bombard the beasts in their volcano hideaway and let nature take its course.

The local citizens are evacuated and the military unleashes its biggest weapons, erupting the volcano and ending in fiery doom for the Rodans. The movie is a blast (pun intended), and Honda keeps things taut and terrifying throughout. Among the dubbed voices you’ll immediately recognize Paul Frees in a couple roles and veteran Keye Luke doing some narration. Allegedly, STAR TREK’s George Takei also did some dubbing. RODAN is one of Toho’s scariest, definitely not for kids. Our next feature is a different story.

MOTHRA (in Toho-Scope!) is pure adventure-fantasy, which seems to have “borrowed” heavily from KING KONG. I watched the original (subtitled) Japanese version, and it was a revelation, a charming take on the genre complete with comedy and musical interludes between the destruction. A typhoon causes a Japanese ship to sink, and some survivors are found on Infant Island, used for atomic testing by the Rolisican government. Don’t worry of you’ve never heard of Rolisica; it’s entirely fictional! Anyway, those survivors show no signs of radiation poisoning, and a joint expedition by Japan and Rolisica is formed, including Rolisican explorer Nelson, Japanese linguist Chinjo, and others… but no reporters allowed! This doesn’t stop intrepid newshawk Zen “Bulldog” Fukuda (played by comedian Frankie Sakai) from stowing away onboard disguised as a cabin boy!

The expedition discovers a lush green jungle valley, and the curious Chinjo stumbles upon a clearing filled with colorful flora straight out of ALICE IN WONDERLAND. He also stumbles upon The Fairies, twin foot-high girls played by Japanese singing sensations The Peanuts (Emi and Yumi Ito). Meanie Nelson tries to snatch them, when the expedition is surrounded by menacing island natives, forcing him to reconsider. But later, when the expedition is finished, Nelson and his thugs return to Infant Island, kill the natives, and kidnap the girls, exploiting them as the main attraction at a Tokyo theater a la KONG’s Carl Denham.

But the twins have the power of telepathy, and use their singing talents to summon the great god Mothra to rescue them. Mothra hatches from her big blue egg (yes, Mothra’s a she), and the immense caterpillar swims her way to Japan. Nelson refuses to give up his miniature meal tickets, and the relentless Mothra crumbles everything in her path before building a cocoon around the Tokyo Tower. Japan and Rolisica team to blast said cocoon with atomic heat rays, which results in the creeping caterpillar emerging as a full-grown giant (and very colorful!) moth! Mothra makes a beeline (or is it mothline) for Rolisica’s capitol, New Kirk City to free the twins, which in turn leads to a strange and wonderful happy ending for all. Except Nelson, of course.

Honda’s direction here is much lighter in tone, and I enjoyed Sakai’s performance as the reporter Fukuda. The Ito Twins also appear in this film’s sequel, GODZILLA VS. THE THING, in which “The Thing” is none other than mighty Mothra! Their singing is a delight (though I didn’t understand a word of it, not being fluent in Japanese), and the score by composer Yuji Koseki is my all-time Toho favorite. RODAN and MOTHRA would make a perfect ‘Creature Double Feature’ for your upcoming ‘Halloween Havoc!’ party.

Speaking of ‘Halloween Havoc!’, it officially kicks off tomorrow with a titanic trio of classic horror stars sending up Edgar Allan Poe! In the meantime, enjoy these links to other posts in the ‘Creature Double Feature’ series:

Creature Double Feature 3: THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (UA 1957) & THE GIANT CLAW (Columbia 1957)

Welcome to another exciting edition of Creature Double Feature, a fond look back at the type of weird and wonderful monster movies that used to be broadcast Saturday afternoons on Boston’s WLVI-TV 56. Today we’ve got twin terrors from 1957, one beneath the sea, the other above the skies. Let’s dive right in with THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD, a soggy saga starring former cowboy star Tim Holt and a monstrous giant sea slug!

An earthquake has released the beast in California’s Salton Sea, and when a Navy parachutist and a rescue crew goes missing, Commander “Twill” Twillinger (Holt) investigates. A mysterious, sticky white goo is found on board (no “money shot” cracks, please!), and a sample is taken to the lab of Dr. Rogers (Hans Conreid). Rogers analyzes the substance, a “simple marine secretion” (again, no wisecracks!), later discovered to be radioactive.

Rogers’ secretary Gail (Audrey Dalton) and Twill get off on the wrong foot, so you know their destined to fall in love. That’s just the way it goes in these films. Anyway, Twill and the local sheriff (Gordon Jones, THE ABBOTT & COSTELLO SHOW’s Mike the Cop) pay a visit to the coroner, who tells them the bodies have been “drained of blood and water”, then offers them a sandwich from his cold-storage unit (they politely decline!). Meanwhile, the beaches have been temporarily closed, but some foolish young lovers decide to take a swim, and of course become the monster’s next victims.

Twill decides to “investigate the bottom of the sea”, and some fine underwater photography finds the divers discovering some giant six-foot eggs! One large egg is hauled up by net, pissing Mama Monster off, and she goes on the offensive. Dr. Rogers does his analyzation thing, and proclaims the giant slug is a descendant of none other than the legendary Kraken! A local historian named Lewis Clark Dobbs, played by marvelous Milton Parsons , finds a map of underground waterways, and the Navy blows up the nest. But that egg in the lab hatches thanks to Gail’s daughter Sandy, and terrorizes the girls until Twill arrives, brandishing a fire extinguisher and a steam hose to subdue the menacing mollusk long enough for the forces of good to shoot it down in a hail of bullets.

Holt had been off the screen five years before this film, and he’s looking a little paunchy, but still makes a believable hero. The actor was typecast as a ‘B’ cowboy, rarely getting his chance to show his acting chops (except in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE). The rest of the cast is fine, and I enjoyed the bit by horror vet Parsons (is his character’s name an homage to TREASURE’S Fred C. Dobbs? Only screenwriter Pat Fielder knows for sure!). The monster itself is more cute and cuddly rather than creepy, but on the whole the movie’s an okay if by-the-book entry in the giant monster sweepstakes. Director Arnold Laven and producers Arthur Gardner and Jules Levy later had greater success as the team behind TV’s THE RIFLEMAN and THE BIG VALLEY.

Now it’s on to THE GIANT CLAW, a much-maligned film from the King of Schlock Sam Katzman ! This one features one of the most laughable-looking monsters in genre history, a puppet resembling a giant prehistoric turkey! Shades of BLOOD FREAK ! The film follows the formula closely, with sci-fi stalwarts Jeff Morrow (THIS ISLAND EARTH, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US), Mara Corday (TARANTULA, THE BLACK SCORPION), Morris Ankrum (INVADERS FROM MARS, EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS ), and Robert Shayne (THE NEANDERTHAL MAN , TV’s ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN) all on board for a quick, enjoyable romp loaded with unintentional laughs.

Aeronautical engineer Mitch McAfee (Morrow) spots what he thinks is a UFO while flying the wild blue yonder in the Arctic. Mathematician Sally (Corday) scoffs, and the two are quickly at odds. You already know they hook up, right? While on reconnaissance, their plane crash lands, and they’re rescued by an actor with a terrible French-Canadian accent going by the original moniker of Pierre. McAfee and Sally recuperate at the bad-accented guy’s farm, when he hears trouble outside. Pierre is horrified by a sighting of what he thinks is La Carcagne, a mythical beast with “the face of a wolf and the body of a woman… with wings!”.

It’s really a giant turkey from outer space. The bird that is, not the movie! McAfee discovers the bird is flying in a concentric circular pattern, and Big Army Brass (sorry, wrong movie!) gives the order to shoot it down. But planes can’t stop it, “machine guns, cannons, rockets” don’t faze it. “It’s just a bird!”, screams Gen. Buskirk (Shayne), who keeps repeating “guns, cannons, rockets” like he’s shell-shocked! Scientists determine the bird is from “an anti-matter galaxy billions of light years from Earth. No other explanation is possible” because of course there’s not.

The “feathered nightmare on wings” is spotted around the globe, and Earth is in panic mode. A nest is discovered on Pierre’s farm, and McAfee and Sally shoot the egg, naturally pissing the bird off (just like our previous crustacean creature). Pierre becomes bird food, as do some dumb local teenage joyriders. There’s some scientific double-talk about “masic atoms” leading to the creation of a weapon powerful enough to breach the bird’s anti-matter shield. Meanwhile, our giant turkey monster is wreaking havoc in the Big Apple, attacking the UN building and the Empire State Building. That tremor you just felt was KING KONG rolling over in his grave! McAfee and the team commandeer an Air Force jet equipped with the new weapon, and pierce through the bird’s force field, enabling them to destroy the turkey with conventional rockets. Yay, team!

Ray Harryhausen was originally scheduled to handle the special effects, but when his price was deemed too high, the ever-frugal Katzman contracted the work to a Mexican outfit that created the silly looking bird puppet. Despite the fact that the monster is so ludicrous, I really enjoyed THE GIANT CLAW. It’s fast-moving and fun, with nary a wasted minute thanks to El Cheapo Katzman. The likable cast play their roles earnestly, and a good time is had by all. Except for the bird, of course!

Tune in next time for more madness on CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE!

And check out previous entries in the series:

  1. THE BLACK SCORPION & THE KILLER SHREWS 
  2. IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA & 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH

 

Strange Days Indeed: Woody Allen’s SLEEPER (United Artists 1973)

(I’m posting a bit earlier than usual so I can head up to the Mecca of baseball, Fenway Park! Go Red Sox!!)

Full disclosure: I lost interest in Woody Allen around the time he decided to become a “serious” filmmaker beginning with INTERIORS. Sure, I thought ZELIG and PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO were funny, and A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHTS SEX COMEDY had its moments. But for me, the years 1969-1977 were Woody’s most creative period, spanning from the absurd TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN to the Oscar-winning ANNIE HALL. Landing right about midway in that timeline stands his brilliant sci-fi satire SLEEPER, which owes more to Chaplin and Keaton than Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

The fun begins when Miles Monroe (Allen) is woken from his cryogenic sleep in the year 2173. Two hundred years earlier, Miles had been the proprietor of the Happy Carrot Health Food store, and went in for minor surgery on his peptic ulcer. Somehow he was cryogenically frozen, and is now a stranger in a strange land. The premise just serves as an excuse for Allen to indulge in some of the wackiest schtick and sight gags he’s ever done. Some of the funniest involve him disguised as the robot servant of wacky poet Luna (Diane Keaton, Woody’s significant other at the time). Ersatz robot Woody gets into a battle with a bowl of pudding that grows to Blob-like proportions, gets wrecked on the Orb (a futuristic drug that’s passed around at a party), and is brought in by Keaton to have a head change, where he engages in a sped-up slapstick fight that’s reminiscent of the great silent comedies.

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Allen and Keaton have a wonderful comic chemistry, a sort of 70’s neurotic version of Tracy and Hepburn. Keaton’s Luna is a ditzy bubblehead who comes into her own when she joins the underground movement against the oppressive totalitarian regime, and the two of them sparkle as they infiltrate government headquarters masquerading as doctors and kidnap The Leader, or rather what’s left of him… seems the rebels have blown him up and all that remains is his nose, which is about to be cloned! This scene features a send-up of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY complete with the voice of HAL (Douglas Rain) as a medical computer. A hysterical scene in the rebel camp has Allen and Keaton parodying A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, with Woody as Vivien Leigh’s Blanche and Diane imitating Brando’s Stanley Kowalski!

A Woody Allen film isn’t complete without his trademark one-liners in the grand tradition of his heroes Groucho Marx and Bob Hope (1), and SLEEPER is packed with some gems. Asked to become a spy by the underground, Allen quips, “I’m not the heroic type, I’ve been beaten up by Quakers!”. Keaton asks, “What’s it like to be dead for 2,000 years”, to which Allen replies, “It’s like spending a weekend in Beverly Hills”. When she inquires nonchalantly if he wants to “perform sex”, he rakishly answers, “I’m not up to performing, but I’ll rehearse with you”. Nervous about infiltrating the government, Allen remarks, “I’m 237 years old, I should be collecting Social Security”. Allen’s political philosophy comes into play when he states to Keaton, “Political solutions don’t work, I told you, it doesn’t matter who’s up there, they’re all terrible”. The movie’s last line, with Keaton asking him since he doesn’t believe in God, science, or politics just what does he believe in, is a classic: “Sex and death, two things that come once in my lifetime. But at least after death, you’re not nauseous”.

The jokes and gags come fast and furious, from escaping the stormtroopers via The Hydraulic Suit, to the Yiddish robot tailors voiced by comedians Jackie Mason and Myron Cohen, to Woody discovering the wonders of The Orgasmitron, all set to an incongruous Dixieland Jazz score by Allen and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. SLEEPER is silly and ridiculous and loads of fun, though some of the jokes are a bit dated (spoofing Howard Cosell, for example). Nevertheless, it’s one of Woody’s best efforts, and as a whole it holds up nicely. Woody Allen is still making films today, one of the last of a dying breed of 70’s filmmakers who helped change the course of cinema. He’s a genius of the cinema of the absurd, and SLEEPER is one you won’t want to miss!

(1) according to Conversations with Woody Allen (2007) by Eric Lax (New York City; Knopf), SLEEPER is dedicated to Marx & Hope.