One Hit Wonders #9: “In the Year 2525” by Zager & Evans (RCA 1969)

A futuristic ballad about the danger of technological advancement and dehumanization spent 6 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts in 1969. Properly titled “In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)”, this was the first and only hit for folk-rock duo Denny Zager and Rick Evans:

1969 had been a banner year for science fiction themes, with the films PLANET OF THE APES and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY becoming box office hits a year earlier, popular novels from Kurt Vonnegut (SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE), Michael Crichton (THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN), and Ursula K. LeGuin (LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS) being published, and a young Brit named David Bowie releasing his LP “Space Oddity”. Of course, that was also the year Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, and the possibilities for space exploration seemed endless. But some doomsayers warned of the impending takeover by machines, where mankind would become a slave to its own inventions.

“In the Year 2525” was actually written in 1964 by Rick Evans. It became a regional hit in the Midwest for Evans and his musical partner Denny Zager, and RCA picked it up and released it nationwide five years later, scoring a huge success. Zager & Evans failed to capitalize on it, and have pretty much faded into obscurity. The song’s bleak outlook for the future of mankind seem somewhat prophetic in this age of people relying on their various devices, the proliferation of more and more technology isolating us all from each other, staring at our collective screens. Yesterday we all gorged on those Thanksgiving feasts, so maybe today would be a good time to step away from the laptops, go outside, stretch our legs, breathe in some fresh air, and talk to some real live humans… before the robots take over completely, and we all turn into nothing more than amorphous blobs of protoplasm!

 

Halloween Havoc!: THEM! (Warner Brothers 1954)

The iconic, bloodcurdling scream of little Sandy Descher heralds the arrival of THEM!, the first and best of the 50’s “Big Bug” atomic thrillers. Warner Brothers had one of their biggest hits of 1954 with this sci-fi shocker, putting it up there with Cukor’s A STAR IS BORN, Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER, and Wellman’s THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY as their highest-grossing films of the year. Not bad company for director Gordon Douglas , previously known for his work with Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy! THEM! was also Oscar nominated that year for its special effects (and should’ve been for Bronislaw Kaper’s terrific score).

The movie begins with the look and feel of a noir mystery courtesy of DP Sidney Hickox’s (DARK PASSAGE, THE BIG SLEEP  , WHITE HEAT) brooding shadows and sandstorm-battered landscape. New Mexico policemen Ben Peterson and Ed Blackburn come across a little girl wandering the desert highway near Alamogordo, a eyes locked in a blank, faraway stare. Further investigation takes the pair to a trailer that’s been trashed, sugar cubes scattered around, and some mysterious paw prints like those of a wild animal. Peterson finds a piece of her doll’s head and a tear from her robe, indicating this is where she was before becoming catatonic. While being loaded in an ambulance, an eerie, high-pitched noise wakes her, her eyes widening with fright, unnoticed by the cop and the medic.

Ben and Ed stop at Gramps’ General Store to find a similar scene – the place has been violently ransacked, sugar cubes strewn about. This time they find a body, the old man with a look of sheer horror on his face. Peterson leaves the scene, Blackburn staying behind to secure it, when he hears that eerie, high-pitched noise. He goes outside, gun drawn, as the noise grows louder. Offscreen we hear gunshots, followed by the cop’s death throes.

Cut to police headquarters, as Peterson is being consoled for the loss of his partner. The cops believe a homicidal maniac may be on the loose, and FBI agent Robert Graham has called in. It seems the little girl’s dad was an agent on vacation. The coroner’s report states Gramps’ mutilated body contained “enough formic acid to kill twenty men”. The Department of Agriculture sends eminent myrmecologists (ant experts) Dr. Medord and his daughter Pat, and when the elder scientist gives the girl a whiff of formic acid, she wakens in terror, screaming, “THEM! THEM! THEM!”.

Back in the desert, Medford finds a footprint despite the raging sandstorm, estimating it’s owner must be “over eight feet”, yet not ready to tell Ben or Bob what exactly his theory is. They soon find out as Pat is menaced by a giant ant, and both lawmen shoot in vain until Medford instructs them to aim for the creature’s antennae, stopping the big bug in its tracks. Medford’s suspicions have now been confirmed, the ant was “probably created by lingering radiation from the first atomic bomb”, tested right there in the Alamogordo desert!

Ben, Bob, and the Medfords take to the skies to look for more, and find a huge anthill the size of a mesa! There’s an entire colony of the mutated bugs down there, and a plan is devised to blast the opening with bazooka fire at high noon, then drop cyanide down the hole to destroy the beasts. When the smoke and gas clear, Ben, Bob, and Pat explore the strange underground chambers, littered with the carcasses of giant dead ants. A few survivors are blasted with flame throwers, and the trio continue to the queen’s chamber. They torch all the eggs, yet discover two have hatched already, two winged queens who’ve left the colony and taken flight…

Unlike subsequent “Big Bug” epics, THEM! boasts a talented cast of actors that make the audience buy into the outlandish premise. James Whitmore lends his blue-collar believability to the part of cop Ben Peterson, risking both life and limb in the name of service. Big James Arness , former alien in THE THING and future Marshal Dillon of TV’s GUNSMOKE, is the brawny FBI agent. Joan Weldon plays Pat, Arness’s love interest (oh, those 50’s lady scientists!).  Oscar winner Edmund Gwenn is perfectly cast as the somewhat scatterbrained but knowledgable scientist Medford. Rounding out the cast are a plethora of Familiar Faces in smaller roles: John Beradino, Willis Bouchey, Richard Deacon, Ann Doran, Olin Howlin, Sean McClory, Jan Merlin, Leonard Nimoy, Fess Parker, William Schallert, Onslow Stevens, Dub Taylor, Dick Wessel, Harry Wilson, and Dick York.

I’ve deliberately left out any ending spoilers for those among you who haven’t seen this sci-fi/horror classic. Suffice it to say, there’s lots more to the story, and if I’ve gained you’re interest I urge you to add THEM! to your Halloween watch list. The rest of you have, like me, probably enjoyed the film more than once, and you already know it’s worth watching again!

Halloween Havoc!: ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN (Allied Artists 1958)

“HAAARRRY!!!”

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It’s hard not to like ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN. Sure the premise is ridiculous, the script’s way over-the-top, the acting’s hammy, the direction’s practically non-existent, and the special effects flat-out stink. Yet the movie has an endearing, ragged charm in its unintentionally funny way that, like PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE  , sucks the viewer right into its bizzaro world. Plus, it’s got two of the 1950’s hottest sci-fi/horror babes, Allison Hayes and Yvette Vickers!

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A giant space ball lands smack in the middle of Route 66 in the California desert. Heiress Nancy Archer swerves to avoid it, and next thing you know a giant hand grabs her! Meanwhile at Tony’s Bar & Grill, her louse of a husband Harry is living it up with local floozie Honey Parker. No one believes Nancy’s wild tale, as she’s known for being a boozer and has spent time in a sanitarium. Sheriff Dubbitt and his dopey deputy Charlie go with Nancy to the scene of the giant groping. They   find no evidence, pissing Nancy off even more than usual.

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Harry doesn’t believe her either, and tries to calm her nerves by slowly undressing her onscreen and giving her some sleeping pills. Then the shit grabs her Star of India diamond (“the most famous diamond in the world”) and hightails it back to Tony’s so he can suck face with Honey some more. Dr. Cushing (no relation to Peter) is called in the next day and states Nancy’s on the verge of her 19th nervous breakdown. His prognosis is for her to get plenty of rest, but restless Nancy trods downstairs to hit the bottle. When she watches the local TV newsman mocking her story, she reacts by whipping the bottle at the TV screen. Good thing she’s filthy rich!

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Tired of everyone’s crap, Nancy drives with Harry back out to Route 66 to look for the space ball, and finds it once again! “It’s real!” I’m not crazy!”, she gloats, just as the giant paws at her again, grabbing her and the Star of India. Harry shoots at the damn thing with no success, so like any good hubby he skedaddles back home, packs a bag (after fighting Nancy’s loyal butler Jess), and makes a beeline to Honey’s hotel room. The lovers are stopped by Deputy Dopey and brought to HQ, where they discover Nancy’s been found… on the roof of her pool house!

Dr. Cushing and Dr. Lee, I mean Dr. Von Loeb, suspect Nancy may be contaminated with space radiation, and to keep her sedated load her up with morphine. Sleazy Honey thinks this is a good way to get rid of Nancy, and talks Harry into giving her an overdose. When the creep creeps back inside, he’s in for a shock, because Nancy’s grown to gigantic proportions! The Sheriff and Jess invade the giant space ball, discovering a room filled with jewels, which obviously are used to fuel the UFO. They’re attacked by the giant alien, in a medieval costume straight of out Hollywood’s Western Costuming  Company, and get their asses kicked and car totaled for their troubles.

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Nancy wakes up chained to the bed and begins screaming for “HAARRY!” She busts loose and tears the roof off her home, determined to find her miserable wretch of a husband. “I know where he is”, she bellows, “He’s with that woman! I’ll find him!” Like any irate wife, she heads to Tony’s Bar & Grill (must be the only joint in town), and tears the roof off it, grabbing for Harry. Honey’s killed under a pile of debris and Nancy clutches Harry (or rather a doll substituting for Harry) to her ample bosoms. The Sheriff blasts some electrical wires with an assault weapon, causing Nancy to go down in a heap. “She finally got Harry all to herself”, intones Dr. Cushing as our saga comes to an end.

Producer Bernard Woolner (and his brothers )  were famous (or is it infamous) for low-budget schlock like this. They ran a string of drive-ins across the South to play their fare in, and financed a few of Roger Corman’s early efforts. Director Nathan Hertz was better known by his nom de cinema Nathan Juran, winning an Oscar for art direction on John Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (bet you didn’t think Ford’s name would pop up in this post, did you!). His directing credits are uneven to say the least, with some good genre flicks (20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) and some clunkers (THE DEADLY MANTIS, BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS) among them.

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Allison Hayes was a gorgeous woman who projected an icy presence onscreen, but adds some pepper here as Big Nancy. Horror fans fondly remember her for ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU, THE UNEARTHLY,  THE UNDEAD, THE DISEMBODIED, and THE HYPONOTIC EYE. Yvette Vickers plays  the slutty Honey, as she played the slutty Liz Baby in ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES. Blonde Miss Vickers also lit up the screen in the classic teensploitation REFORM SCHOOL GIRLS, and was a Playmate of the Month in a pictorial by none other than Russ Meyer. Later in life she became a favorite on the horror convention circuit. In 2011, her body was found in her Hollywood home, and it’s said she’d been dead a year before anyone knew it. Yvette Vickers, fantasy of many an adolescent horror fan, died old and alone at age 81.

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Despite all its flaws, and there are many, ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN is thoroughly enjoyable. It was remade in 1993 as an HBO movie directed by Christopher Guest, played mainly for laughs. The laughs in the original are completely unintentional, but I really believe it was made with a wink and a nod by all concerned parties. They just had to know the whole thing was goofy, yet played it totally straight. It’s a perfect movie to watch with a bowl of popcorn and some snarky, like-minded friends this Halloween season.

Steampunk Disney: 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (Walt Disney Productions 1954)

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When TCM aired this movie last week, I just had to watch. It was one of my favorites as a kid, and I was curious to see how well it held up with the passage of time. To my delight, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA is even more enjoyable in adulthood, a joyous sci-fi adventure film thanks to the fine cast and the genius of Walt Disney.

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Based on the Jules Verne novel, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA takes us back to 1868, where rumors of a sea monster attacking ships are running rampant. Eminent scientist Professor Aronnax and his protégé’ Counseil are invited to join a voyage to investigate the matter, along with the free-spirited harpoonist Ned Land. They encounter the beast and are shipwrecked, only to discover the monster is actually a fantastic, futuristic submarine, The Nautilus. The sub is commanded by Captain Nemo, who picks up Aronnax, Counseil, and Ned and makes them his prisoners. The Nautilus takes the trio on a fantastic journey to the undersea kingdom, where they encounter everything from cannibalistic headhunters on an unchartered island to a giant squid that attacks the submarine during a gale-force storm.

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The four leads are in top form, especially Kirk Douglas as the rowdy Ned Land. Kirk has a ball playing the rambunctious sailor, and even gets to sing a song, “A Whale of a Tale”. Paul Lukas (Oscar winner for WATCH ON THE RHINE) adds dignity to the part of Professor Aronnax and Peter Lorre is sarcastically funny as his sidekick Counseil. James Mason cuts a fine figure as Nemo, the anti-war warrior. Nemo’s a conflicted character; abhorring violence and wishing only to live in peace beneath the sea, yet attacking ships and sending their crews to a watery grave. Of all the screen versions of Verne’s Nemo (Herbert Lom, Robert Ryan, Omar Sharif et al) Mason is by far the best. And let’s not forget Esmerelda, Nemo’s trained seal who bonds with the boisterous Ned.

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This was Disney’s fifth live-action film (the first was 1950’s TREASURE ISLAND) and first under the Buena Vista Distribution banner. To direct, Disney hired Richard Fleischer , son of his former animation rival Max Fleischer (POPEYE THE SAILOR, BETTY BOOP, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS). The younger Fleischer handles the material well, from a script by Earl Fenton. He had directed several highly regarded noirs (ARMORED CAR ROBBERY, THE NARROW MARGIN) before taking on this big-budget adventure, and split the remainder of his career between crime dramas (COMPULSION, THE BOSTON STRANGLER, MR. MAJESTYK) and fantasies (FANTASTIC VOYAGE, DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, SOYLENT GREEN, CONAN THE DESTROYER, RED SONJA).

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20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA won Academy Awards for Art Direction and Special Effects. The breathtaking underwater sequences were shot mostly off the coast of Nassau, and involved over 30 crew members to film. The giant squid scene features a larger than life animatronic monster, and still looks better than any CGI- created creature today (don’t get me started!). Walt Disney put together a masterpiece of sci-fi cinema that has indeed stood the test of time, as enjoyable now as when it was first released in Technicolor and CinemaScope. One of the all-time classic adventures of the screen, 20,00 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA belongs in every film fanatic’s collection.

 

Shakespeare in Space: FORBIDDEN PLANET (MGM 1956)

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Well, not quite. FORBIDDEN PLANET is very loosely based on The Bard’s THE TEMPEST, drawing on some of its themes and characters, and putting them in an outer space setting. But the film is much more than that. It’s full of screen firsts, and one of the most influential science fiction movies ever. While watching I was more than reminded of STAR TREK, and wasn’t surprised while doing research that Gene Roddenberry cited it as “one of his inspirations”.

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Today no one thinks twice about movies being set completely in outer space, but FORBIDDEN PLANET did it first. The art and set direction by MGM vets Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Lonergan are wonders to behold, shot in beautiful CinemaScope and Eastmancolor by George J. Folsey. The cinematographer began in silent pictures, and carved a niche with big, splashy musicals like MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, THE ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME, and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, earning 13 Oscar nominations in the process. Folsey’s camerawork, along with a battalion of special effects technicians (including Disney animator Joshua Meador), help make Altair-IV a believable world without any CGI (most of you know how I feel about CGI by now!)

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The film follows the adventures of the crew of United Planets ship C57-D, on a mission to find the long-lost Bellerophon expedition on Altair-IV. Commander Adams and his crew are warned not to land by Dr. Morbius, one of the expedition’s scientists. But Adams has his orders, and they arrive to meet Morbius and his beautiful daughter Altaira, along with their servant Robby the Robot (we’ll talk more about him later!) Morbius tells Adams and company the other members of the party were killed, “torn limb from limb”, by some strange, unknown creature. He’s spent the last twenty years studying the ancient knowledge of the Krell, a race of highly intelligent beings who trod Altair-IV nearly 2000 centuries ago. The Krell’s sophisticated scientific advances have given Morbius a superior IQ through their machinery. But something strange is happening again on Altair-IV, as the C57-D’s crew members begin getting picked off by an invisible monster.

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Adams and his men try to combat the thing, but their weaponry is useless against the monster. When Adams and Doc return to Morbius’s lair, Doc tries the IQ machine on himself. It’s power kills him, but before he dies, he uncovers the truth about the monster. It’s a manifestation of Morbius’s own subconscious, a monster from the Id that must be stopped or the crew of the C57-D will be destroyed by it!

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The cast of FORBIDDEN PLANET is terrific, with veteran star Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Morbius leading the pack. Pidgeon made seven films with Greer Garson, including the wartime drama MRS. MINIVER, and was a well-respected actor on the MGM lot. Adams is played by Leslie Nielsen, another serious dramatic actor, that is until 1980’s AIRPLANE! discovered his untapped comic talents. Beautiful Anne Francis (Altaira) starred in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK and THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE before being cast in the mid-60s Private Eye cult series HONEY WEST. Warren Stevens (Doc) is remembered best for his many guest shots in episodic TV, while Adams’ second in command Lt. Farman was Jack Kelly, later one of the MAVERICK brothers. Earl Holliman (Cookie) is well known for his Western appearances, and his stint as Angie Dickinson’s boss on POLICE WOMAN. Other crew members include George Wallace (Commando Cody in the Republic serial RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON), Richard Anderson (Oscar Goldman on THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN), James Drury (TV’s THE VIRGINIAN), James Best (DUKES OF HAZZARD’s Rosco P. Coltrane), and William Boyette (ADAM-12). Director Fred McLeod Wilcox handles the ensemble well, though he’s better known for directing another MGM star in several films, Lassie!

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Then there’s Robby the Robot. The now-iconic Robby made his debut here, and unlike robots before him, he has a personality and character all his own. Robby’s a servant in name only, he’s more like one of the family to Morbius and Altaira. The erudite robot was voiced by Marvin Miller,  long-time radio actor and film narrator who gained success in the TV series THE MILLIONAIRE. Inside Robby was former juvenile lead Frankie Darro. The diminutive (5’3″) Darro manipulated the controls in the robot costume, uncredited until it was revealed in 2000. Darro starred in a series of Monogram comedy mysteries in the early 40s with black actor Mantan Moreland, a rarity in that Moreland was portrayed onscreen as Darro’s pal rather than the stereotyped subservient role. Robby itself went on to costar in THE INVISIBLE BOY before a slew of TV guest shots in THE ADDAMS FAMILY, MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., MORK AND MINDY, and LOST IN SPACE, where he was teamed with the Robinson’s own iconic Robot.

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The score for FORBIDDEN PLANET was another screen first. Bebe and Louis Barron were pioneers in the electronic music world, and the film was the first to feature an all-electronic score. Most filmgoers had never heard such sounds, and the movie’s weird music adds to the feeling of being on a distant planet. Probably the most well thought out science-fiction film of the 50s, certainly the most expensive, FORBIDDEN PLANET stands out among its peers as the greatest space opera of its era. It’s a film that should be seen by not only sci-fi buffs, but by everyone that has an interest in movie history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paranoia Strikes Deep: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (Allied Artists 1956; United Artists 1978)

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These two versions of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS have much in common. Both are visions of the paranoia of their times disguised in the veneer of science fiction. But while the 1956 film is an allegoric warning of the dangers of Communism, its 1978 remake focuses on conspiracy theory paranoia in the post-Watergate era. The films are equally good reflections of the times they were made, and the differences lie mainly in the visions of directors Don Siegel (’56) and Philip Kaufman (’78).

Siegel’s roots were planted firmly in the old studio system. He began his career at Warners, then RKO before moving onto to independent productions in the mid-50s. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was made for Allied Artists (formerly known as Monogram, home of The Bowery Boys and Bela Lugosi quickies.) Siegel was well versed in working within budgetary constraints. Early films like PRIVATE HELL 36 and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 were low-budget but effective noirs notable for their toughness. Siegel’s version of the story has that noirish  feel to it, with the protagonist caught in an ever-downward spiral towards an inescapable fate.

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Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is being held in the mental ward at a hospital. He’s hysterical, screaming about an impending doomsday. Psychiatrist Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) is called in, and Bennell recounts the story of what’s been happening in his sleepy little suburb of Santa Mira, California. Bennell had just returned from a vacation when he’s told about a strange phenomenon occurring in town. People have been reporting their loved ones aren’t really their loved ones…they’re imposters. A young boy claims his mom is not his mom. Bennell’s girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter) has a cousin who insists Uncle Ira is not Uncle Ira. Psychiatrist friend Dr. Kauffman thinks it’s mass hysteria caused by “what’s going on in the world”. But Bennell has nagging doubts about that diagnosis, doubts that are confirmed when he goes to Jack and Teddy Belicec’s (King Donovan, Carolyn Jones) home to discover a body on their pool table. An unformed body, approximately the same height and weight as Jack!

Things go steadily downhill as Bennell and Becky and the Belicecs find weird seed pods in the greenhouse. The pods bubble and ooze, popping out newly minted body doubles of the quartet. They burn the pods, and soon find out most of Santa Mira has been taken over by the pod people. Bennell and Becky are now hunted by the pod people, who are intent on making the couple one of them. The key is to stay awake, for only while humans sleep can the pod people take over their bodies. Bennell and Becky finally escape through an old tunnel, hearing music when they get to the other side. Bennell investigates, thinking there must be other humans, but is shocked to find the music’s coming from a pod farm! He goes back to Becky and kisses her, and to his horror realizes she fell asleep, and is now one of them! Bennell is chased to the highway, frantically trying to flag down drivers, yelling, ” Listen to me! Listen to me! They’re here! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next!” The drivers pass him by, thinking he’s just drunk or some kind of nut.

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Dr. Hill listens, but dismisses Bennell’s tale as the rantings of a deranged man. He leaves the room just as an accident victim is being brought into the hospital. It seems his truck was broadsided, and he was trapped by the weight of its load… filled with pods! Hill immediately realizes Bennell’s telling the truth, and calls the authorities. This INVASION ends on a positive note, with hope for mankind’s future. The message is quite clear, to remain aware and act when necessary. 50s worries about Communist infiltration (whether real or imagined) were at their peak during this era, and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS offers a chilling warning to its audience. All the best science fiction includes some underlying message, and Siegel’s movie delivers without hitting the viewer over the head,  his film noir touch only adding to the frightening mood.

Philip Kaufman is rooted in another film school altogether, that of the director as auteur. Kaufman’s works are a product of the individualistic cinema of the 1970s, when visionaries like Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola were creating genre-bending films based on traditional themes like THE LONG GOODBYE and THE CONVERSATION. His influences were French New Wave directors like Goddard and Truffaut, and independent American mavericks like John Cassavettes and, to a lesser extent, Don Siegel. Kaufman’s version of INVASION ratchets up the paranoia, giving the viewer a much bleaker perspective of a world where it may indeed be far too late for hope.

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Kaufman’s protagonist is now Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), and his occupation has been changed to Public Health inspector. A bigger change is in moving the setting from quiet suburbia to bustling San Francisco. This widens the scope of the horror, as we see even large cities aren’t safe from the vast conspiracy. It’s not just happening in some small, out-of-the-way burg, it’s right here in Big City America. Bennell’s colleague, microbiologist Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), believes her once-affectionate husband Geoffrey (Art Hindle) “is not Geoffrey” anymore. He’s now aloof, meeting with strange people, and always away from home. Bennell brings Elizabeth to see his friend, pop psychologist Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy in a brilliant piece of casting).   Kibner has heard this complaint recently from others, and spouts some platitudes about a “hallucinatory flu” going around, caused mainly by people just not listening to each other anymore.

Bonnell’s friends Jack and Nancy Belicec (Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright) run a trendy Mud Bath health spa, and a cocoon-like body is found there. Bennell sees it, and begins to believe Elizabeth’s story. Bennell rushes to her and spies her doppelgänger in the greenhouse growing while she sleeps. He grabs her and returns to the Bellicec’s. Kibner is called in, but the body is nowhere to be found. Kibner’s still skeptical, and suggests they all get a good night’s sleep. It’s only when the camera follows him outside that we learn the truth… Kibner is one of THEM!

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Bennell’s stymied at every turn by government bureaucracy, passing him from one department to the next, some not taking his calls at all. The exhausted quartet finally fall asleep, and the pods try to overtake them, nearly encompassing Bennell until Elizabeth’s screams wake him up. They run but they can’t hide, and the rest of the film generally follows the original’s path except for a completely different ending that I won’t spoil here.

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Kaufman pays homage to the first film with cameos by Kevin McCarthy (virtually recreating his iconic highway scene) and director Siegel (as a cab driver who’s not what he seems). The newer INVASION utilizes sound editing to build up the terror, something the quieter original didn’t capitalize on. And the larger budget means better special effects, including a bit where a street singer’s head is transposed on his dog’s body. Kaufman’s version is closer to horror than noir, and it also has a sense of humor not found in the 1956 INVASION.  I like both versions, but enjoyed the Kaufman version just a bit more. Growing up in the 70s, I’m well aware that governments cannot be trusted. Young people today share these sentiments with me, at least some of them do. The story’s been retold twice since 1978, in BODY SNATCHER (1993) directed by Abel Ferrara, and 2007’s THE INVASION, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Neither has had the impact the first two films did, both of which can hold their own in the horror/science fiction pantheon. I suppose as long as people are worried about conspiracies and the dehumanization of mankind, the story will be retold again. It’s only when we STOP worrying about what’s really going on behind the curtain that we as a species will truly be in trouble.

 

Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30: LOGAN’S RUN (MGM 1976)

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When George Clayton Johnson died on Christmas Day 2015, the science fiction world lost one of its giants. The free-spirited Johnson was a mainly a short story and teleplay writer associated with greats like Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson in a loose knit collective known as The Southern California School of Writers. He wrote many story ideas and scripts for THE TWILIGHT ZONE, including the classic episodes “A Game of Pool” (starring Jack Klugman and Jonathan Winters) and “Kick the Can” (redone by Stephen Spielberg in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE). Johnson wrote the first aired STAR TREK episode (“The Man Trap”), the story for OCEAN’S 11, and was a driving force behind the creation of the San Diego Comic Con.  Perhaps his best known work was a novel he did in collaboration with William F. Nolan in 1967, LOGAN’S RUN, made into a big-budget movie by MGM in 1976. David Zelag Goodman adapted the screenplay, allegedly changing some key elements to make it more cinematic. I’ve never read the book, but I can tell you LOGAN’S RUN is eye-poppingly stunning, a visual feast of colors and state-of-the-art (at the time) special effects. It’s amazing what could be done pre-CGI, and the story is greatly enhanced by the film’s look and feel.

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In the post-apocalyptic world of 2274 AD, a huge domed city run by computers is populated by hedonistic youths who live only for pleasure. When they reach the age of thirty, they’re taken to a ritualistic “time of renewal” called Carousel. A crowd gathers to watch as the participants are beamed upwards and float toward a shining ball of light, and when they reach a certain point are disintegrated in a shower of sparks, supposedly renewed into new bodies. The crowd oohs and aahs as if they’re watching a fireworks display, but it’s more like a backyard bug zapper with humans as the insects.

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Logan and his buddy Francis are two ‘Sandmen’, whose job is to track down and  terminate Runners, those who try to escape their fate at Carousel. Sandmen are well-respected in the dome, doing the dirty work for their computer masters. Logan meets Jessica via “The Circuit”, a sort of hologram dating service, and jauntily says, “Let’s have sex!” But the girl turns him down, fearing the Sandman after friend was terminated by one. Jessica’s wearing an Ankh, and Logan is soon summoned to a debriefing room where the computer tells him its the symbol of  a rebel band who help runners escape to Sanctuary in the outside world. Logan discovers “Renewal” is a scam, and 1056 runners have gone unaccounted for. The ‘Life-Clock’ embedded in his hand is reprogrammed to approach ‘Last Day’ and become a runner himself, giving him the task of escaping to the outside and destroying Sanctuary. Unfortunately for Logan, this means he loses the remaining four years of his life. Now the hunter becomes the hunted and enlists Jessica’s aid to reach Sanctuary, with former friend Francis in dogged pursuit.

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There’s action and thrills along the way, as Logan and Jessica encounter thieving  feral children, a murderous face-changing doctor, flooding tunnels, and an ice cavern guarded by a robot named Box, Francis always at their heels. When they finally make it to the outside world, they find the ruins of Washington, DC! The pair stumbles upon a sight they’ve never beheld before…an Old Man living in the former Senate chambers. The Old Man has only cats as his companions, and welcomes the couple with quotes from T.S. Eliot. Logan and Jessica are convinced Sanctuary doesn’t exist and decide to stay, but their reverie is interrupted by an unwanted intruder…Francis!logan5

I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen the movie yet. Suffice it to say there’s a few more surprises in store before the conclusion. Michael York is perfect in the role of Logan, even if he was a baby-faced 34 at the time of filming. York has appeared in some major productions, including THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, Zeffirelli’s ROMEO AND JULIET, CABARET, Richard Lester’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS and its sequel THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, JESUS OF NAZARETH, and the Austin Powers spy spoofs. The latest issue of Shock Cinema magazine has a great article/interview with the British star, for those of you who still read magazines (I know I do, and the quarterly Shock Cinema is a personal favorite!)Jenny Agutter (Jessica) first came to prominence in Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 WALKABOUT, and won an Emmy that same year for THE SNOW GOOSE. Agutter most recently appeared in Marvel’s THE AVENGERS and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. Richard Jordan (Francis) acted with Burt Lancaster in VALDEZ IS COMING, Robert Mitchum in THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, and Charles Bronson in CHATO’S LAND, but is best remembered as the star of the TV mini-series CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS. The voice of Box was Roscoe Lee Browne, whose credits include Alfred Hitchcock’s TOPAZ, THE COWBOYS (with John Wayne), and THE LIBERATION OF L.B. JONES (director William Wyler’s last film). And the Old Man is played by the great Peter Ustinov, a two-time Oscar winner (SPARTACUS, TOPKAPI), three-time Emmy winner, Grammy and Golden Globe winner. Ustinov was an actor, playwright, director, star of Disney comedies and dramatic films, and all-around humanitarian.

Director Michael Anderson helmed the 1956 Best Picture winning AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, and a wide range of films from ALL THE FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS to ORCA. His son Michael Anderson Jr. appears as the doctor here. He can also be seen in THE SUNDOWNERS, THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER, and Sam Peckinpah’s MAJOR DUNDEE. Anderson Jr. costarred with Barbara Hershey in the 1960’s youth-oriented TV Western THE MONROES.

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Farrah Fawcett has a small part as the doctor’s receptionist. This was around the time she was just starting to hit it big on CHARLIE’S ANGELS. Her iconic 70s poster was on the walls of lusting teenage boys all across America. This has nothing to do with LOGAN’S RUN, I just wanted an excuse to put the poster in here!

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Those state-of-the-art special effects I mentioned earlier won an Academy Award for L.B. Abbott. He’d previously won for DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, TORA! TORA! TORA!, and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. The Art Direction and Set Designs by Dale Hennesy were nominated, but lost to ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, of all things! Hennesy had won for 1966’s FANTASTIC VOYAGE, and his work can be seen in Woody Allen’s SLEEPER, Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and the 1976 remake of KING KONG. Jerry Goldsmith’s score enhances the film’s different moods, using electronic sounds for the domed city and a full orchestration in the outside world scenes.

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The film LOGAN’S RUN was so popular a TV series and Marvel comic were based upon it. Neither of them lasted very long, probably because STAR WARS came along in 1977 to completely dominate science fiction fandom. LOGAN’S RUN is a dazzling piece of science fiction entertainment, one I really enjoyed watching. I think you will, too.

 

 

 

The Farce Awakens: PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (DCA 1959)

 

Plan_9_Alternative_posterI have a confession to make: I’m not a big STAR WARS buff. I enjoyed the original for what it was, an homage to campy serials like FLASH GORDON and BUCK ROGERS. I never expected it to take off as it did and become a pop culture phenomenon, though. I also like the two sequels, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI. If the entire saga ended right there, I would have been happy. I did not run out to go see the three “prequel” movies, which according to what I’ve read aren’t all that good (I’ve still never watched them, myself). And I definitely won’t be running out to fight the crowds for THE FORCE AWAKENS. No interest whatsoever. If you’re like me, and couldn’t care less about the whole STAR WARS mythos thing, but are still in the mood for some cornball sci-fi this weekend, may I suggest you make some popcorn and watch PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE?

“What?”, you’re thinking, “Is he daffy?? Has the Cracked Rear Viewer completely cracked? PLAN 9? The-worst-movie-of-all-time??” Well, first of all, it’s not nearly as bad as THE CREEPING TERROR or BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS (Or Eraserhead,  for that matter). Second, though it is pretty nonsensical, and cheaply made to boot, PLAN 9 is fun to watch, especially if you’ve seen it over and over again (like me). I know what’s coming, and wait for it, then laugh my ass off! I’m sure that’s not what low-budget auteur Ed Wood had in mind when he made it, but the film’s got it’s following and is still loved by many for the sheer lunacy of it all.

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We begin with that prestigious prognosticator and old Hollywood fraud Criswell, seated at a table reading Wood’s incoherent prologue. “We are all interested in the future”, he intones, “for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives”.  No shit, Sherlock! “We are bringing you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony of the miserable souls that survived this terrible ordeal… My friends, can your heart stand the shocking truth about… Grave Robbers from Outer Space!?!?”

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From there, we enter into the mad, mad world of Edward D. Wood, Jr. There are some gravediggers who run in fear of the zombie-like Vampira (though I think she looks pretty hot!), followed by silent footage of Bela Lugosi as an old man who gets hit by a car (offscreen). The great Lugosi had died three years earlier, but Wood had some unused footage and incorporated it into PLAN 9. The dead Hungarian still manages to walk away with the film’s best acting honors!

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The police are called in to investigate the eerie goings-on, and Inspector Clay arrives…wait, IT’S TOR JOHNSON! The hulking ex-wrestler has a speaking role here, and he should’ve stayed mute, tripping over lines like “mellical examiner”. Clay wanders in the cemetery to look things over when he’s attacked by Lugosi. Wait, that’s not Lugosi. It’s Wood’s wife’s chiropractor Dr. Tom Mason, standing in for dearly departed Bela. He hides his face behind his cape, but from the eyes up…he looks NOTHING like Lugosi, not to mention he’s a lot taller. Anyways, the cops find their boss’s body, and in a brilliant deduction state, “Inspector Clay’s dead…murdered…and SOMEBODY’S responsible!”

Let’s switch over to the wild blue yonder, where we meet pilot Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott) and his crew of two. While co-pilot Danny and stewardess Edith banter about “balling it up in Albuquerque”, the plane is swooshed by a mysterious object, bathing the cockpit in white light. It can only be one thing: a flying saucer! “You mean the kind from up there?”, asks Edith. “Yeah”, replies Jeff, “or it’s counterpart!” Jeff returns home to his lovely wife Paula (Mona McKinnon) complaining about being “muzzled by big Army brass”. Something about the way Walcott says “big Army brass” causes me to go into fits of hysterical laughter every time!

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Meanwhile in Washington, the big Army brass is having a debriefing. Well, two of them anyway, General Roberts (down on his luck character actor Lyle Talbot) and Colonel Edwards (former cowboy star Tom Keene). Stock footage of military might is juxtaposed with cheesy model flying saucers on strings, and the cheesy models are winning! Edwards is sent out to search for the truth, while in space, aliens Eros and Tana (Dudley Manlove, Joanna Lee) are meeting with their superior, The Ruler (John ‘Bunny’ Breckinridge). Manlove’s pompous, over the top performance is one of PLAN 9’s highlights, while the flamboyantly gay Breckinridge is a hoot! (Miss Lee is apparently just there for window dressing.) The aliens, in what looks like costumes left over from a “Knights of the Round Table” flick, discuss putting Plan 9 into action- the rising of the dead!

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Lugosi comes out of his tomb dressed in full Dracula regalia, and he and Vampira chase Paula though the cemetery. Poor Tor visibly struggles to rise from his  grave, looking like he’s had one too many Swedish meatballs. The zombie trio are brought up to the Ruler, and Tor almost runs amok (or walks amok). Intrepid heroes Jeff, Edwards, and Lt. Moore (Duke Moore) find the saucer (how could anyone miss it?) and encounter Eros and Tanna. Eros gives a clumbsily written but cool speech about how mankind will destroy themselves and take the rest of the galaxy with them, because they’re bound to discover “the solarminite bomb”, which apparently no one but Eros can pronounce correctly. Eros taunts the good guys with “You see! You see! Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!”, which gets him a sock on the jaw from Jeff. An epic battle then occurs (well, not so epic), with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes foiling the alien scheme, setting their spaceship afire, which is shown as the flying saucer model on a string set on fire, finally blowing up to high heavens. Then it’s back to Criswell for the final words: “Can you prove it didn’t happen?…God help us in the future!”

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It may seem like I’m ripping this movie apart, but I really love PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. Despite the flowery dialogue and miniscule budget, Ed Wood put together an entertaining film. Maybe if he had a co-writer to reign in his propensity for long winded speeches that don’t always make sense, and had more money to work with, his films would be looked at in a different light today. Wood had some good ideas, but didn’t have the means to execute them properly. But you have to admit, he did his best with what he had to work with, and isn’t that all you can ask from anyone? I’d rewatch this, or Ed’s other masterpieces like BRIDE OF THE MONSTER and GLEN OR GLENDA? before paying big bucks to see a bloated, overhyped film like THE FORCE AWAKENS any day.  That may sound like heresy to you true blue STAR WARS fanatics, but that’s just one of the reasons I love movies so much. Everyone’s got their own personal favorites and different tastes. For those of you who’re crazy about STAR WARS, by all means have a good time this weekend. Me, I’ll be in the recliner, bowl of popcorn in my lap, grinning from ear to ear at PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. Happy viewing, all!

 

Before the Force: George Lucas’ THX-1138 (Warner Brothers 1971)

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George Lucas was a 23 year old film student at USC when he made the short ELECTRIC LABYRINTH: THX 1138 4EB. This 15 minute highly stylized film won first prize at the National Student Film Festival, and Lucas was given an apprenticeship at Warner Brothers. With the help of his friend and USC alumni Francis Ford Coppola, Lucas expanded his short into the feature film THX-1138.

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In the future, the masses are controlled by drugs that keep them in a state of sedation. No emotions allowed, especially sexual feelings. Everyone conforms to standard, with shaved heads and asexual jumpsuits. THX (Robert Duvall) works in a robot factory making android police, while his roommate LUH-3417 (Maggie McOmie) is a surveillance expert alongside SEN-5241 (Donald Pleasence). LUH begins switching THX’s meds, and the two discover the joy of sex. They’re found out and separated, and SEN tries to move in with THX, who reports him. Both men are sent to rehabilitation, and THX tries to find LUH and escape from his conformist life.

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I saw THX-1138 when it first came out (I was a young teen) and found it boring. Upon rewatching, I feel the same way. It just doesn’t grab me emotionally or draw me into its world at all. The film is technically brilliant, with Walter Murch’s sound work playing an important part, and the great Donald Pleasence is engaging as SEN, but as a whole I just don’t enjoy it. Don’t expect to see any Jedi Knights or cute whirring androids here; it’s not that kind of sci-fi. The closest it comes to STAR WARS is the opening sequence featuring clips of the 30s serial BUCK ROGERS, and the scrolling credits. For me, the film needed more Buck Rogers and less pretentious talk.

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THX-1138 didn’t do well at the box office, but it did show George Lucas as a filmmaker with a future. It’s too cold to be anything but a curio of Lucas’ early work, but his next film would show a different side of Lucas, one with more heart. Next time I’ll be looking at the smash 1973 hit AMERICAN GRAFFITI.

Meanwhile, for all you Lucasphiles out there, here’s the original 1967 short ELECTRIC LABYRINTH: THX 1138 4EB: