Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Changeling

Note: this post is one of a series of STAR TREK episode reviews originally written for the alt.tv.startrek.tos newsgroup. For more information, please read this post.

Episode 32 of 80
September 29, 1967
Writer: John Meredyth Lucas
Director: Marc Daniels

A good episode with a sympathetic “villain,” plenty of action, and strong work by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. The Enterprise beams aboard a space probe originally launched from Earth 200 years earlier. Because the probe, which calls itself Nomad, identifies its mission as one to destroy imperfection, it has left a long trail of annihilated planets in its wake. Because Nomad mistakenly believes Captain James Kirk is its creator, Jackson Roykirk, the Captain is able to temporarily postpone Nomad’s mission. But just temporarily…

Of course, the plot was recycled for STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (without credit for writer John Meredyth Lucas), but it’s an interesting one that warns of the dangers of technology and what happens when said technology grows faster than humanity’s ability to control it.

Once again Captain Kirk gets a computer to blow itself up by talking it to death. Not only does this make for tremendous drama, but writers were probably drawn to this method of resolving their plots because of Shatner's unique acting style. Even though Kirk screws up big time by letting it slip to Nomad that he is a biological unit, he's able to save the day once again using the impeccable logic that he must have picked up from his Science Officer over the years.

Nomad itself is one of STAR TREK’s most believable machines. Unlike many of the show's supercomputers, this one actually looks like it's made of metal, and its cylindrical shape, lights, and antennae make it pleasing to the eye as well. The effects team can also boast of some excellent wire work. Often on television, when an object appears to be floating, there is a bit of "wigwagging" going on, but, in the case of Nomad, the scenes in which wires were used seem to be very steady indeed.

For the second straight episode, Scotty (James Doohan) gets zapped by the antagonist. When is he going to learn to keep his fat yap shut? Doohan's stunt double does an excellent job leaping backwards over the bridge railing and crashing into a heap against the wall.

Our man Lt. Leslie (Eddie Paskey) returns, but he's wearing a gold shirt this time, so he would match earlier stock footage shot on the bridge. Is this the first time he's been caught on duty without a red shirt?

John Meredyth Lucas was one of the show's better writers, and actually served as one of STAR TREK’s producers for a brief period. He was also a director, and worked on a number of good shows including THE INVADERS, THE FUGITIVE, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, NIGHT GALLERY, THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO, and TREK’s Desilu neighbors MANNIX and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. His teleplay for “The Changeling” is suspenseful, intelligent, and filled with the type of social commentary and literary allusions that made TREK famous.

Nice tag. I know many fans don't appreciate the humorous endings to episodes, but I think, in many cases, when our Enterprise crew has emerged victorious, it's nice to send the show off with a light moment. And it makes the more sober exceptions, such as “City on the Edge of Forever” or “Requiem for Methuselah,” more powerful.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Not The Same Old Bull

From time to time, I plan to use this space to repurpose film reviews I wrote for several local independent newspapers during the previous decade:

THE OCTOPUS: 1999-2000
THE PAPER: 2003-2004
THE HUB: 2005-2006

During my tenure as a professional (re: paid) film critic, I wrote about both new releases and cult classics. The date provided below is the date the newspaper issue containing the review hit the streets.

This review has been slightly edited from the original published piece.

3 Stars
Rated PG
Running Time 1:28
First published July 7, 2000

First, the news you’ve been waiting for: THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE, Universal’s live-action remake of the classic ‘60s cartoon series ROCKY AND HIS FRIENDS and its spinoff THE BULLWINKLE SHOW, wisely captures the spirit of the original incarnations, spinning satirical political references, good-hearted adventure, and miles and miles of verbal wit into a reasonably likable facsimile which works best when the title characters are onscreen.

Although the film is severely hampered by an unconvincing performance by the beguilingly monikered Piper Perabo, whose future probably lies in Tic-Tac commercials rather than feature films, as the cartoon critters’ human pal and too many distracting and unfunny cameos by some high-priced Hollywood stars, such as Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, it works well enough to charm those who are already fans of the late Jay Ward’s creation, and, hopefully, inspire less-exposed audience members to seek out the inceptive episodes in reruns.

Since their show was canceled by NBC in 1964, our heroes Rocket J. Squirrel (voiced by 80-year-old June Foray, who still has Rocky’s throaty patter down pat after all these years) and Bullwinkle J. Moose (Keith Scott, who also does double duty as the narrator in place of the late William Conrad) haven’t been doing too well. Their hometown of Frostbite Falls, Minnesota has become a ghost town, their paltry residual checks have dwindled to almost nothing, and a dejected Rocky has even forgotten how to fly.

Meanwhile, those dastardly villains Boris Badenov (Jason Alexander), Natasha Fatale (Rene Russo), and their fearless leader Fearless Leader (Robert DeNiro) have tunneled to Hollywood following the crash of the Iron Curtain, which, of course, drops literally right on their heads. In La-La-Land, they convince a dullwitted studio executive (aren’t they all?), played by Janeane Garafolo, to buy the rights to their story, and, in the process, they are sucked out of the television world and into ours as flesh-and-blood humans.

Once here, Fearless Leader plans to rule by launching a new cable network in New York called RBTV—Really Bad Television—and using its mindnumbingly awful programming to brainwash us into electing him to the presidency. Knowing that this Ghastly Trio can only be stopped by their archrivals, overly perky FBI agent Karen Sympathy (Perabo) hauls Moose and Squirrel into our world, where, strangely, they become three-dimensional CGI creations, rather than live-action figures. They set off cross-country from California to New York to prevent Fearless Leader’s nationwide broadcast, while dodging attempts on their lives by a bumbling Boris and Natasha.

I mostly had a good time watching a pair of my favorite cartoon characters interacting with real actors, but I couldn’t help asking myself, “Why?” Why go to the trouble and expense to bring Rocky and Bullwinkle into the real world, when a brand new animated feature would have been much cheaper and probably much better? Director Des McAnuff, scripter Kenneth Lonergan, and producers DeNiro and Jane Rosenthal are obviously fans of the original ‘toons, and have shown in this feature that they “get it.” There are so many gags and groaning puns in Lonergan’s screenplay that lie flat when spoken by actors that would undoubtedly be improved coming out of the mouths of animated characters. Although Alexander and Russo look and sound perfect, and DeNiro is ripely entertaining in a broad performance that makes Werner Klemperer look like Gregory Peck, there really isn’t anything to be gained by a live-action Bullwinkle movie that probably couldn’t have been better accomplished as a cartoon.

Still, there’s no question that the movie works on a nostalgic level, and it’s glorious to note that Universal has resisted the temptation to dumb down the material to make it more palatable for kids. Parents will enjoy the witty wordplay, while their little ones laugh at the slapstick hijinks. I certainly did, and, as I sat in the theater with a smile on my face as plucky Rocky regained his ability to fly in just the nick of time to save his friend from mortal danger, all I could think was, “Hokey smoke!”

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Men From Mobius, Part Deux

Back by popular demand! The Men from Mobius, last seen discussing genre films at By John Charles, have moved their discussion over here to Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot. Joining me in a wide-ranging discussion involving DEMONWARP, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, our collections of movie posters, Pam Grier, and the ultimate clash of sci-fi nerds—STAR TREK vs STAR WARS—are my Mobius Home Video Forum colleagues Mark Tinta, William Wilson, and John Charles.

MGM: I want to start our latest roundtable with a question I've always wanted to ask, but have rarely had the opportunity to. And that has to do with how your friends and family perceive your tastes in film. What do they think of your choice to watch a Nick Millard or Larry Buchanan movie instead of renting AVATAR again, and how do you explain your passion to someone whose film tastes extend no further than what's on the eighteen screens down the street?

WSW: I'm like a serial killer, and I keep all that bad movie viewing hidden from the real world. Seriously, I think most of my friends get it because they are movie buffs as well. I've only had one person accuse me of liking something "just because it isn't mainstream" (or the opposite "hating it because it’s popular") in all my years. My family is probably used to it since I grew up a movie-hound. As for the folks whose film tastes only extend to what is playing at the multiplex, I sum it up easily by saying I'm on a mission from God to find the worst film ever made, and I'm still looking.

JC: I've basically given up trying to explain why I like what I do when it comes to movies. My family and local friends will never get it, so I don't force it on them. I think they just accept it as one of my eccentricities. As far as others go, once I learn more about what unusual films they have liked in the past, then I will make some recommendations and say why, based on what I have seen, they might dig these other movies as well.

MGM: Do you ever sit down with them and make them watch KILL SQUAD or STUNT ROCK?

JC: No, not those particular ones. I had friends back in my high school and university days who were game for anything. Still have a friend from junior high that I see a few times a year who will watch whatever I throw at him as long as a) he's drunk and b) there is a high percentage of naked women in it. Even so, I would never inflict Andy Milligan or Larry Buchanan on anyone whose sensibilities are in any way normal.

WSW: Ha! Well, I wouldn't go that far with most of my friends. If I had to screen them, I'm sure I could make a valid case as to why it is entertaining, but I just don't think it is fair to them. I mean, it is like someone grabbing me and saying, "Hey, watch this GLEE marathon."

I know this will sound sad, but Hulk Hogan once gave a great quote regarding professional wrestling fandom. He said something like, "Those that get it, need no explanation. Those that don't get it could never get it with all the explanation in the world." I think that applies to my cult movie watching. And, yes, I seriously quoted the Hulkster.

MT: At this point, I basically don't explain it. In fact, starting my blog was probably the most open I've ever been about it with my friends and family. The Mobius gang and most cult movie message board folks all speak that language, so I've never felt "weird" in that context. I learned at a young age that I liked weird cult movies, as well as a lot of mainstream box-office hits (not so much with the hits anymore, just because they generally aren't as good as they used to be), and it didn't take long for me to figure out that most people weren't going for it. So I didn't keep it under wraps (I mean, we're not talking bestiality porn or anything), but I didn't exactly publicize it either. One of my co-workers recently said, "Mark writes about a bunch of movies nobody's heard of." I'm used to that. And as far as my blog goes, I'm not writing it for them. I'm not really writing it for anybody. I just enjoy writing about film.

The last "big" group outing I went to for a movie was the second PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. Went out with a bunch of co-workers, and it was a great evening. Had dinner, went to the movie. And I was the only one who hated the movie. But I kept my mouth shut, because everybody else loved it and I didn't want to be an asshole. And it's not like I thought the night was a waste, or that I silently frowned upon them for liking it because my tastes were so "weird" or that I was some highbrow movie guy, because I'm not. I thought the first POTC was alright, and had no reservations about seeing the second one. But it was just terrible! I don't think less of people whose interests only extend to what's at the multiplex. Everyone has their interests, hobbies, obsessions, etc. Movies are more important to me than they are to most of my friends and acquaintances. Maybe they get to the theater two or three times a year. I don't judge.

Like most people, I've had different groups of friends at different points in my life, and while they're all good friends, there's some friends for whom I wouldn't suggest "Hey, let's watch PIECES," or "Hey, let's watch YOR," but others I would, and they've loved it. I've found that people who like MST3K are generally receptive to an Al Adamson or a Larry Buchanan flick, but those are almost examples of movies that are too bad to even enjoy, largely because none of us are as funny as the MST3K guys.

But I can't really see a circumstance where I'd say "Hey, how about a little EMANUELLE AND THE WHITE SLAVE TRADE?" to any of my friends. I've introduced some friends to Fulci's golden era recently (ZOMBIE to THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, give or take a couple) and it went over well. So it really depends on the people.

MGM: I've discovered that my friends actually get a big kick out of some of these movies once they're exposed to them. For about ten years, I've held regular Trashy Movie Nights at my house. We eat, drink, and sit down to a double feature. Now, there is an art to programming these nights that I think I'm pretty good at. I would never, for instance, foist Jess Franco or Andy Milligan or Al Adamson on this crowd. But STUNT ROCK was a huge hit. THE STABILIZER, STARCRASH, ROCK N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. The first one I ever did was ENTER THE NINJA and REVENGE OF THE NINJA. My friends were highly skeptical when they arrived, but became hooked on these Cannon films' mixture of violence and oddball charm.

WSW: Agreed. Really lousy directors like Franco and Adamson are solitary ventures for me, as if I feel some weird need to punish myself. The funny thing is I will write up a truly terrible movie and someone will say, "You make it sound great. I totally want to see it now." And my reply is always, "Oh no, you don't want to actually see it."

JC: Back in the '80s, after much study, some friends and I determined that the best movies to watch stoned were THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2, THE BEACH GIRLS and DEATHSTALKER. I haven't had a joint in years, so I don't know if that is still true.

WSW: Would you believe that everything I've watched has been while I've been sober?

MGM: Me too. I'm a teetotaler, but I can affirm that DEATHSTALKER and THE BEACH GIRLS are extreme crowdpleasers. One of my friends even bought a BEACH GIRLS one-sheet for his wall!

I’m curious about your film collections. How many films do you own, and how and where do you store them? Also, do you still own a VCR?

MT: I don't have a number. I've got several 200-capacity shelving units in my living room, alphabetized by title. I don't lump directors or actors or brands together. Just a straight alpha by title, and if it's a 2-3 film set (like the Corman/Shout Factory releases), I go by the first title on the spine. If it's a director box set, I go by last name. If it's a theme box (Anchor Bay's GIALLO COLLECTION or Blue Underground's BLIND DEAD coffin packaging), I go by the first word in the collection's title (G or B in that case). Some of those titles are box sets, and a good number are $3 Big Lots acquisitions. I've probably got 100 Blu-rays at this point. I have a VCR, but it's not even plugged in right now, and it's with an old TV in my bedroom that I never watch. It's there if I need it, but I haven't needed it.

MGM: Sounds a bit like me. I don't know how many DVDs I own, but I know about how many films I own on DVD: 4169. I keep Excel spreadsheets of my DVD and VHS collections. I'd say I have at least 2000 DVDs, Blu-rays, and DVD-Rs, and they're spread all over the house. I have some of them on shelves in my living room, some stacked on a DVD rack in the corner, about thirty file boxes of DVD-Rs stored in different rooms, three plastic tubs of discs I may never watch again (but haven't gotten rid of), and three medium cardboard boxes of VHS tapes. I also organize alphabetically. I have a VCR unplugged and in storage, in case I ever need it, and I have an old Panasonic DVD recorder with VHS capability and an internal hard drive that I use to burn programs from my DirecTV HD DVR. I'd say I still have over 100 tapes. Used to be a helluva lot more before I got that DVD recorder and started saving the tapes to DVD-R.

WSW: At last count, I had just less than 2000. I'm sure it is more than that now. About half of those are VHS and I keep them stored in boxes (which makes it a pain to get them out). The rest are DVDs or DVD-Rs. I keep the real DVDs in boxes as well and the DVD-Rs on spindles. I still have two working VCRs (one is in a DVD/VCR combo).

MGM: I think I'm the only one here who owns a house. It's difficult for me to find space in this three-bedroom house, so how do you apartment dwellers manage to keep from looking like a crazed hoarder?

MT: Well, it's a tight fit, but I keep the shelves cleaned and organized. I still have room in the living room for three chairs (I don't have a couch, believe it or not), a coffee table, and end table, a large bookcase, a smaller bookcase, and a 40-inch TV with accompanying glass stand. If I had a wife or roommate, it would probably be too cramped for comfort (and, more to the point, if I had a wife, I wouldn't have all this shit in the living room, and that goes as well for the Venezuelan one-sheet for—all same-sized lettering—1990 LOS GUERREROS DEL BRONX CON VIC MORROW), but for one person, I have no space issues at all...at least in the living room. I've got CDs on shelves in the bedroom and into the hallway by the bathroom. That's a little more cramped than I'd prefer things to be, but I live with it.

JC: I don't honestly know how many movies I have. I'd estimate in the neighborhood of 5000. I'm in a two-bedroom apartment, and space is at a premium, but I was able to make things much easier when I bit the bullet a few years back and disposed of almost all VHS tapes and most DVD cases, putting the discs in paper sleeves in cabinets or in storage cases. I have two unplugged VCRs that will likely never be used again, as I no longer hunt for tapes and, frankly, am glad to see that format dead and buried.

If I could hijack this for a minute—Mark's mention of his BRONX WARRIORS poster intrigued me. What posters do you currently have up? In my living room, I have HK theatrical posters for THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR, HARD BOILED, THE HEROIC TRIO, and EXECUTIONERS. In my bedroom/office, there is COFFY and SUGAR HILL, the HK poster for THE FIVE VENOMS (aka THE 5 DEADLY VENOMS) and the Japanese poster for the Taiwanese 3-D kung fu film DYNASTY.

MGM: Ha! I was going to ask you guys about memorabilia anyway, whether you were collectors or not. I don't collect as much as I used to when I was younger. A lot of the toys and so forth I used to have are boxed up. I do pick up posters here and there, but only inexpensively. If I can find a cool one-sheet for under $10, particularly if it's for an obscure film, I might pick it up. At least half of the posters I own I bought for just $1.

I rotate posters a couple of times a year, but right now, on display in the living room, I have framed one-sheets of FRIDAY FOSTER (which Pam Grier autographed for me at Chicago Comic Con last summer), a Sabu B-picture called JAGUAR (autographed by Mike Connors!), and THE RETURN OF MR. MOTO. I have STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, and SILENT RAGE in the hallway, BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY in the guest bedroom, a half-sheet for THE WITCHMAKER in the dining room, and a mini-poster for NEVER SLEEP AGAIN, autographed by Heather Langenkamp. I have a few lobby cards and autographed photos hanging too (Linda Blair and Richard Anderson are in the bathroom!).

Amazingly, a couple of years ago I bought a bunch of old, obscure one-sheets on eBay for a buck apiece. Most of them were autographed--two by Mike Connors, THE SECRET INVASION by Edd Byrnes and William Campbell, a couple of others. I have no idea how I got them for $1. I had SLAVERS autographed by Cameron Mitchell, but I gifted it to our friend Paul Talbot, who wrote the book MONDO MANDINGO.

MT: I'm not really big on memorabilia, though I used to be as a teenager. I've got five framed one-sheets in the living room: the Venezuelan BRONX WARRIORS; a "Coming This Summer" pre-release THE SHINING; and the U.S. one-sheets for DEEP RED, SUSPIRIA, and Lenzi's ALMOST HUMAN (the Joseph Brenner one that makes it look like a horror movie). I've also got a smaller frame for the ZOMBI 2 foldout replica that came in Shriek Show's DVD packaging.

I also have a framed photo by my front door of Enzo G. Castellari and Franco Nero on the set of either HIGH CRIME or STREET LAW, which Enzo sent me years ago when I got his e-mail address from a UK writer and sent him some questions for an interview. We never did get around to doing the interview (this was years before his DVD renaissance in the US), but Enzo did e-mail me to say, "My wife and I are having dinner with Franco Nero this weekend. Would you like me to have Franco sign a shot of the two of us?" or something to that effect. Would I like that?! About ten days later, I got a flat, oversized, sturdy envelope from Rome, and there it was, signed by Nero and Enzo. So yeah, that's in a frame and prominently displayed. Because it's awesome. So, even though Enzo never found the time to do the interview, he's a total class act nevertheless.

MGM: "Eh. No, don't worry about it, Enzo, that's cool..."

I have a few autographs. Honestly, I'm not real big on autographs, and if I met a celebrity out on the street, I would never ask for an autograph. I might introduce myself and say hello, but I wouldn't get an autograph. I have interviewed a couple of filmmakers, but I thought it would be uncool to ask someone I was interviewing for an autograph, so I didn't.

The autographs I have mainly came from stars I met at conventions or were procured by someone else. For instance, I have autographed autobiographies of Jewel Shepard, Don Knotts, and Deacon Jones, but a friend gifted them to me. He also met Danny Trejo at the SIX DAYS SEVEN NIGHTS premiere and had him autograph a program for me. Actually, I guess I have a lot of autographs around here, come to think of it.

JC: I'm not a paper guy. Always been more interested in the movies themselves, though I have a few posters that I've collected over the years. Like Marty, I don't believe in bothering celebrities, though I certainly appreciate the Brigitte Lin autograph a friend got for me. Also got H.G. Lewis to sign my ancient Beta pre-record of BLOOD FEAST. That was so long ago (1991), convention guests had not even started charging for autographs.

WSW: I'm not too big on memorabilia. I currently have one framed poster, which is a Thai poster for George Romero's MARTIN. I have maybe about five other posters folded up in my closet. Perhaps my biggest prize possessions are an original prop cup from THE STUFF signed by Larry Cohen and the novelization of MARTIN signed by George Romero. Only other autographs I've gotten in my life are from Tim Thomerson, William Lustig, and John Inman (really!).

MGM: Let's talk about some specific films. Give me a movie that you love that everyone else hates and another movie that you despise, but is beloved by everyone else. And then the rest of us will tell you why you're wrong. Go!

MT: I hate ADAPTATION and everyone else loves it. You could also put every Wes Anderson movie except THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS in that category. I don't know if "everyone" hates it, but enough people do that I don't understand the dislike for DOOMSDAY, which I think is an absolute blast. Same with SUCKER PUNCH, though that seems to be acquiring a cult following. But maybe I'd go with BLINDNESS there.

MGM: I can't wait to hear why you hate ADAPTATION. I'm not a Wes Anderson fan either, though I would say THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU where you said THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS.

I've never understood the love for FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF. The supporting cast is excellent (and Mia Sara perfectly cast as a high school dream girl), but Broderick's Ferris Bueller is one of the most obnoxious leading men in cinema history. Not once did I buy that he was the Big Man On Campus. Indeed, at my high school, he would have been the kid getting snapped with towels in the locker room and thumped in the head with seniors' class rings. Ferris Bueller is an awful person and stunningly cruel to his friends, which might have worked had the movie not been convinced that he was beloved by everyone. What's there to love about this guy? Jeffrey Jones and Edie McClurg are really funny in the movie though.

MT: Yeah, I don't like FERRIS BUELLER either. I'm kinda cold on a lot of John Hughes/Brat Pack stuff now that I'm older. THE BREAKFAST CLUB doesn't hold up for me. I still like SIXTEEN CANDLES and WEIRD SCIENCE. Of course, his masterpiece is PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES.

It's been ten years since I saw ADAPTATION. I'd be willing to give it another shot, but it just didn't register with me at all, other than that admittedly stunning car crash. But I do remember being the ONLY person I knew who didn't think it was "brilliant." For me, Charlie Kaufman has always been on a fine line between clever and annoying, and ADAPTATION annoyed the hell out of me. Maybe I was just in a shitty mood that night.

Wes Anderson just strikes me as insufferably precious and smug. THE DARJEELING LIMITED is unwatchable.

WSW: Hmmmm, a movie that I love and everyone hates? Maybe something like DEMON WIND or DEMONWARP. A movie that I despise but is loved by everyone else? THE MATRIX. I saw that on opening day and absolutely hated it. Cheap pseudo-philosophy, cheesy CGI, overblown action and terrible, fake looking fights. I have practically been lynched for saying that. What amused me is when the two sequels came out and everyone was down on them. Their reasons? Cheap pseudo-philosophy, cheesy CGI, overblown action and terrible, fake looking fights.

MGM: Whaaaaaat? Who hates DEMONWARP? Killer apes, zombies, Satanic space aliens, human sacrifices, Bronson Canyon, gore, topless Michelle Bauer, and George Kennedy in the world's funniest hat. Who's not down with that?

THE MATRIX is a terrible movie. I held off on it for years, but there was a young guy I worked with who hounded me every day to watch it. He even lent me his DVD, and every day at work he was, "Did you watch THE MATRIX yet?" Finally, I did just to get him off my back. Then I was forced to watch the first sequel at the theater as part of a Christmastime work outing. I would say it was even worse than the original, but it did have Anthony Zerbe in it and THE MATRIX didn't.

WSW: Yeah, I guess DEMONWARP isn't a good example, as I do know people who love it. I just think the average person wouldn't enjoy it.

MGM: I suspect the average person would like a lot of these movies that we do, if they only gave them a shot. At least, in my bubble, I don't see how anybody could not laugh their asses off watching DEMONWARP.

JC: I definitely agree with FERRIS BUELLER and THE MATRIX, and would add SPIDER-MAN, PRETTY WOMAN, THE BOONDOCK SAINTS, THE BLIND SIDE, THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK, and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE off the top of my head. If more than four decades of life has taught me anything, it's that no one loves Terry Gilliam's THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN as much as I do.

MT: I'm a huge fan of MUNCHAUSEN!

MGM: Pam Grier or Tamara Dobson?

MT: Pam Grier. Although she couldn't have played Tamara Dobson's part in CHAINED HEAT.

MGM: Why not?

MT: I don't think she would've been as deliriously over-the-top as Dobson was. I'm sure she could have played it, but I just like Dobson too much in that role. Other than that, I'm Pam Grier all the way.

WSW: Gotta go with Grier too.

JC: Definitely Pam Grier. Dobson was impressively imposing because of her size, but even taking that into consideration, she never dominated the screen the way Grier does.

MGM: Would you agree that Pam is America's only honest-to-goodness female action star? My reasoning is that she's the only actress to become a movie star exclusively through action roles.

JC: Yeah. Cynthia Rothrock never attained what could be termed movie star fame, and I don't think she has the acting chops for anything beyond the sort of picture she did.

MGM: Fast zombies or slow zombies?

WSW: Oh man, I am so torn on this subject. Normally I say slow, but my favorite zombie film of all time (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) featured fast zombies. I guess I will settle with slow though. Growing up, nothing was more terrifying to me than being that last guy in basement in DAWN OF THE DEAD where they are coming up the stairs. So scary.

JC: Slow. How can dead, decaying people run when they are falling apart?

Am I overthinking this?

WSW: No, because you didn't start with "how can dead people rise from the grave?"

JC: Well, movies are due a certain amount of poetic license...

MT: Slow. Fast is fine if they're just radioactive or contaminated, like NIGHTMARE CITY. But I like slow, wheezing zombies, like Guthrie in THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE.

MGM: Let me get your expert opinions on a very important matter I've been arguing with a friend for years. Is it possible to avoid being bitten by a zombie if you disguise yourself as one?

JC: Well, worked for a while in SHAUN OF THE DEAD...

But, no. You would get sniffed out.

MGM: Well, that would be part of your disguise, wouldn't it? You'd rub dead flesh over your body, so you'd smell like a zombie.

WSW: No. THE WALKING DEAD tried to do this and it was ridiculous. Zombies are drawn to smell of living human flesh like a dog is drawn to the smell of a steak. They could tell from a person's breath.

MGM: Considering I've yet to find a zombie expert who agrees with me, I may have to reluctantly give up the ghost on this argument.

Favorite slasher movie? And why?

JC: I guess I'd go with the original HALLOWEEN. BLACK CHRISTMAS more or less laid the groundwork, but Carpenter really established the rules and as a film, it holds up nicely.

MT: A toss-up between BLACK CHRISTMAS, HALLOWEEN, and the original FRIDAY THE 13TH. I don't think FRIDAY is as good as the other two, but it's a pretty huge and influential watershed moment in the slasher genre, and it still holds up nicely.

Favorite bad slasher is, of course, PIECES.

WSW: From a historical standpoint, obviously HALLOWEEN. I think it still holds up today. From an entertainment standpoint, I love me some HELL NIGHT and SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT.

MGM: Little doubt that HALLOWEEN is the best and FRIDAY THE 13TH the most influential (ironic, in that it was intended as a HALLOWEEN ripoff, more or less), but my favorite is HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME.

First, it has a totally wonky premise that climaxes in one of the craziest WTF endings in horror film history. Then, you add slumming performers like Melissa Sue Anderson, then sweet Mary on LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, Canadian mainstay Lawrence Dane, Sharon Acker, and what-the-hell-is-he-doing-here Glenn Flippin' Ford leading the call sheet. J. Lee Thompson, who made THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, directed. It has a heavy body count, creative kills, an excellent score, a professional look, and an absorbing if ultimately ludicrous mystery. What's there not to love?

I can't argue Mark's point about PIECES, but I think SLEEPAWAY CAMP might actually deliver a steadier stream of constant laughter. Plus. That. Ending.

WSW: Since Mark brought up PIECES, I'd also mention Romano Scavolini's NIGHTMARE. That is one of the few slasher films where I felt dirty after watching it as a kid. The ‘80s were pretty incredible for that subgenre. Even something as standard as THE MUTILATOR still holds my interest nowadays. Can't say that for post-modern slashers (or most horror stuff coming out today).

JC: NIGHTMARE is still a dirty movie all these years later. In the newest of the Code Red transfers (why did we need three versions?), the frame has been re-positioned during one scene to reveal an almost-XXX bit of sex not previously visible. It's difficult to imagine a movie like this playing in early multiplexes and shopping malls, but it apparently did.

MGM: 35mm or digital? Besides saving the studios money, is there any real advantage to shooting with digital cameras and sending the final result to theaters digitally over rolling 35mm film and shipping physical prints?

WSW: But is digital saving the studios money? Last I checked, the remake of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO cost a laughable $100 million to make and the STAR WARS prequels were insane. Having grown up watching film more, I am still partial to that format. Digital almost looks too clean to me and, while they are getting close, the focus depth just can't replace film.

MGM: Well, studios just find other ways of wasting money. There's no question that digital distribution is way cheaper than making 4000 35mm prints and shipping them to theaters around the world.

As for why it costs so much money to make movies, I doubt I'll ever understand. Union regulations and slippery studio overhead fees have a lot to do with it. With the persnickety Fincher shooting every scene 57 times, maybe his DRAGON TATTOO crews built up a lot of overtime. Realistically, there's no reason his film couldn't have been done for half its budget or less.

JC: I'm torn. I despise digital when it looks digital. But in 158 minutes of Fincher's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, there was only one shot that didn't look like film to my eye. Under those circumstances, I'm fine with digital video as a photographic medium.

As for digital presentation, I don't demand everything be spotless, but I don't subscribe to the "the scratches and breaks mean the print has been well loved" cry either. I'd rather watch a clean copy of a movie, no matter how crappy it might be, and digital at least ensures that I can see something five or six weeks in and not have to deal with a lot of damage.

MGM: Fincher is a special case, though. I hate CGI as a general rule because it almost always looks false and pulls me out of the story, but Fincher is a master craftsman. His use of CGI in ZODIAC is probably the best I've ever seen. So, of course, when he shoots digital, it looks damn good.

The problem is that most filmmakers don't have Fincher's technical prowess, and studios don't really give a damn if their movies look good or not. Strangely, CGI has made movies look worse and cost more. Nice going, Hollywood!

WSW: Yeah, I remember when TERMINATOR 2 and JURASSIC PARK came out that everyone was saying computer technology would make making films a lot easier and cheaper. Neither of those happened. I remember Schwarzenegger saying of his dream project something like, "We can't possibly make CRUSADES for less than $200 million." What!?! Thankfully, we do have folks showing what can be done with small budgets within the studio system (the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY series, for example). However, I don't expect things to change.

JC: I'd like more medium budget films to play theatres instead of just going to Video On Demand. Seems like it's either mega-budget franchise picture or no-budget crap like THE DEVIL INSIDE.

WSW: It's also struck the low-budget world too. Compare something like HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP to what passes for B-movie fodder today. It is just embarrassing.

MGM: Visual effects in low-budget films are worse than they were in the 1950s. The reason is that producers used to know their monetary limitations and work inside them. Today, they try to make their $2 million flick look like a $200 million blockbuster. Script calls for a giant octopus to eat the coast of California? Sure, we'll just get those guys on their Macs to draw one. I know Ray Harryhausen was a genius, but he was making movies fifty years ago, and there really should be no reason his visual effects in something like IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA should be so much richer and more entertaining than, say, SHARKTOPUS.

WSW: Ha, I almost said SHARKTOPUS as my counter example for HUMANOIDS.

JC: Yeah. Anybody can make a movie nowadays—not a good thing!

MT: I'm not really torn on digital vs. film. I realize the cost-effectiveness of it, and, yes, Fincher does do digital better than anybody (one of the many great things about ZODIAC). What bothers me more is repertory houses showing movies and just screening a DVD. Like, you go in and you can see the menu on the screen. If I see an older movie in a theater, I'm not going to see a projected DVD.

MGM: I agree. That is a bullshit move, and it’s happened to me more than once. At least my local arthouse announces in its ads whether it’s showing a film print or digital print or DVD, which is kosher.

Let's do a couple more quickies before wrapping up this edition of The Men from Mobius. What's your favorite title? It doesn't matter what you think of the movie. Just the title.


JC: There's so many...I'll go with FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! because it suggests about ten different movies at once.

WSW: I've always loved the title OH DAD, POOR DAD, MAMMA’S HUNG YOU IN THE CLOSET AND I'M FEELIN' SO SAD. When a friend first mentioned that to me, I thought he had made it up on the spot. I've never even seen the movie. I've also really loved the title TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE.

MGM: Wilson, I'm upset you didn't say SH! THE OCTOPUS.

If you could own any prop from a movie, what would you choose?

WSW: Can I count Linnea Quigley from SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT as a prop? Seriously, it would be cool to have one of canisters from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD sitting in my place.

JC: Robby the Robot. You can have your hi-tech modern automatons, Robby will be mine someday.

MT: I've never really thought about props. How about the awesome "DO NOT ENTRY" sign from THE BEYOND?

MGM: I often wonder what happens to props after a film is completed. Like that hilarious painting of James Brolin prominently seen in THE CAR. Where the hell did that go? The studio can't use it again, unless it's for another movie with James Brolin. Did they give it to the actor? Is it sitting in a prop house somewhere? Fred Olen Ray found a 20-year-old painting of Richard Chamberlain from THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK and used it in one of his erotic thrillers. Anyway, I love silly props.

That said, I'd have to pick the original captain's chair from STAR TREK.

Speaking of, STAR TREK or STAR WARS?

JC: STAR TREK. But really just the original series and (most of) the various movies. I watched NEXT GENERATION, DEEP SPACE NINE and ENTERPRISE more out of habit than genuine devotion.

MT: The correct answer is STARCRASH.

But probably STAR TREK. I enjoy the STAR WARS movies, especially the first three, but I don't have an emotional attachment to them. Well, I guess I have enough of one that the changes Lucas has made have certainly bothered me and I have no interest in owning the Blu-rays or seeing the 3D conversions. But I enjoy most of the STAR TREK movies a lot more, particularly II-thru-IV, which are just classics.

WSW: Nowadays, I would definitely say STAR TREK. As a kid, it was all about STAR WARS for me as it was lots of action. Having grown up (I think), I find the STAR TREK films to have much more depth to them.

MT: "More depth" demands Don Dohler's #1 fan!

MGM: Thanks, Men from Mobius. And continued good luck with your blogs: By John Charles, Video Junkie Strikes Back, and Good Efficient Butchery.

We're definitely looking forward to the next edition of The Men from Mobius. Do you have any questions for us? Anything you'd like to know about our tastes, our likes and dislikes? Leave it in the comments section below.

Case Of The Whispering Corpse

Universal wrapped up its INNER SANCTUM series of B-mysteries with one of the most laughable titles of all time. PILLOW OF DEATH sounds like something that would air on Count Floyd’s MONSTER HORROR CHILLER THEATER (in 3D, natch).

Although it reteams Lon Chaney Jr. and Brenda Joyce from STRANGE CONFESSION, it plays differently than earlier INNER SANCTUMs. It dropped actor David Hoffman’s usual introduction as an ominous floating head inside a crystal ball, and the climax will come as a surprise to those familiar with Chaney’s sad-sack characters in the first five INNER SANCTUM programmers.

Attorney Wayne Fletcher (Chaney), who’s having an affair with his secretary Donna Kincaid (Joyce, who later played Jane in two Lex Barker Tarzans), is arrested for the suffocation murder of his wife Vivian. McCracken (Wilton Graff), the detective in charge of the investigation, lets Fletcher go on account of a lack of evidence, but Donna’s spinster aunt Belle (Clara Blandick) is convinced he’s the killer. Belle invites Vivian’s spiritualist, the flamboyant Julian Julian (J. Edward Bromberg), to perform a séance, where Vivian’s voice accuses her husband of murder.

Wayne remains haunted by Vivian, whose disembodied pleas to visit her at the family crypt results in the discovery of her empty casket. More asphyxiation murders occur (off-camera), presumably victims of the titular pillow being placed over their faces, and McCracken’s policy of “arrest first, ask questions later” results in Julian also being locked up temporarily and released.

Despite its campy title, PILLOW OF DEATH delivers a few innocent chills. The mystery element is interesting and allows writers Dwight V. Babcock (DEAD MAN’S EYES) and George Bricker (SH! THE OCTOPUS) to introduce a handful of colorful red herrings. Of course, as each potential killer is him- or herself killed, the mystery becomes easier to solve (the cast of characters is quite small). Director Wallace Fox handles the shoot efficiently, but without the visual flair Reginald LeBorg provided the first three INNER SANCTUM mysteries.

Though the series was successful for Universal, thanks to the low budgets producer Ben Pivar had to work with, PILLOW OF DEATH was the final INNER SANCTUM mystery. It began shooting just two weeks after Chaney and Joyce wrapped STRANGE CONFESSION and ended fourteen days late. The INNER SANCTUM radio program continued until 1952.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Radio Demo 2000

I don't remember ever mentioning it here, but in an earlier lifetime, I spent nearly fifteen years in the broadcasting industry, mainly as a disc jockey on various commercial music stations. As a result, I have a box full of old cassette tapes containing interviews, airchecks, demos, commercials, and other ephemera I recorded or picked up over the years. Slowly but surely, I've been converting them to mp3 and storing them on my hard drive. As the tape in the 25-year-old cassettes crumbles, the contents--for better or for worse--live on.

Unsurprisingly, most of it sounds pretty rough to my ears all these many years later, but it was all great fun at the time. From time to time, I may put some of it online, if only to giggle at.

This is the last resume tape I did, though I don't think I ever sent it anywhere. It wasn't long after this that I decided to leave the radio industry forever. Produced in 2000, it's about two-and-a-half minutes of on-air work at WKIO-FM in Champaign, Illinois, an Oldies station that no longer exists.

New Heights Of Horror

Universal’s fifth INNER SANCTUM programmer is a remake of its THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD, which, despite its awesome title, is not a horror film. Neither is STRANGE CONFESSION, though it was later re-released as THE MISSING HEAD!

Lon Chaney Jr., who starred in all six INNER SANCTUM films, is a wimp scientist named Jeff Carter, whose brilliant discoveries have made a mint for his boss at the pharmaceutical company, Roger Graham (J. Carrol Naish, returning from CALLING DR. DEATH). Though Jeff is regularly berated by his wife Mary (Brenda Joyce) and his friend Dave (Lloyd Bridges!) for not standing up for himself and allowing Graham to make the profit and take the credit for his work, he cares more about bettering humanity than his own bank account.

Ever the sneak, Graham plots with his assistant Stevens (Milburn Stone, returning from THE FROZEN GHOST) to send Jeff and Dave to South America to find an obscure mold Jeff needs for his latest experiment. While Jeff’s out of the country, Graham steals an early discarded version of Jeff’s formula and puts the moves on Mary. He then mass-produces the formula, which doesn’t work, to take advantage of an outbreak sweeping the area.

Jeff, who doesn’t know about any of this, later sends the successful formula to Graham, who refuses to take the unproven version off the market and lose sales. Because it doesn’t work, Jeff and Mary’s son dies of influenza. Graham, a real rat, is castigated in the press and his company damaged, which doesn’t stop him from inviting Mary to his house to seduce her.

All this is told through flashback, as a rattled Jeff appears at the home of a prominent attorney while carrying something hideous in a satchel. That’s the only element of mystery or suspense in M. Coates Webster’s loose adaptation of Jean Bart’s play, and it will be of little surprise to modern audiences what Chaney is toting around in that bag. The script is fine, and the direction by first-timer John Hoffman (THE LONE WOLF AND HIS LADY) is adequate, but STRANGE CONFESSION is little more than a time-waster.

Chaney is decent too, but it’s hard to see Jeff Carter as anything more than a chump, and you give up rooting for him once he’s shipped off to South America. Bridges (SEA HUNT) is very good as the film’s amiable comic relief. STRANGE CONFESSION was made back-to-back, more or less, with PILLOW OF DEATH, which turned out to be the final INNER SANCTUM feature. STRANGE CONFESSION also marks the final appearance of David Hoffman as the spooky/silly head that introduces the films from inside a crystal ball. I suspect Hoffman’s scenes were filmed simultaneously without knowing which films they would be cut into or even what they would be about.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Death Has Never Been Closer

FINAL DESTINATION 5 is…a FINAL DESTINATION movie, so you already know what to expect. Pretty young people survive an elaborate disaster that should have killed them, but one of them had a premonition that allowed them to escape. Death, however, needs to balance the scales, so each of the survivors is eventually claimed anyway via an oddball accident of Rube Goldbergian proportions.

Okay, so the premise is nothing new, and the screenplay by Eric Heisserer, who penned remakes of THE THING and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, doesn’t rise above the formula. However, in the hands of director Steven Quale, a James Cameron protégé who directed AVATAR’s second unit, FINAL DESTINATION 5 offers a surprisingly clever blend of suspense and creative visuals. Kicking the movie off with a remarkable main title sequence of objects smashing through the camera lens (FD5 was filmed and released in 3D), Quale brings his A-game to the first-reel disaster: a superbly staged suspension bridge collapse that causes the death of most of the cast.

Or it would have, had aspiring chef Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto) not seen it a few minutes early and pulled several of his companions off the bus headed to a weekend company retreat. As he has in previous FINAL DESTINATIONs, creepy undertaker Tony Todd (CANDYMAN) drops by to whisper cryptic warnings, and suspicious FBI agent Courtney B. Vance (LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT) wanders about trying to prove that Sam somehow caused the accident.

Much credit goes to Quale for making FD5 a superior horror sequel. Saddled with a mostly nondescript cast and a formulaic screenplay, Quale handles the setpieces with aplomb, toying with audience expectations and ratcheting suspense with expert timing. Composer Brian Tyler (THE EXPENDABLES) amplifies the dread with an ominous score that reflects the plot’s dark humor. One misstep is the witty twist ending, however, which should have been played more subtly for better effect.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Hypnotic Eyes Crawling With Madness

Universal’s fourth INNER SANCTUM mystery was supposed to be its second, but script problems held up production of THE FROZEN GHOST. After shooting wrapped July 1, 1944, it took Universal 364 days to release it—an eternity for a B-picture back then. The screenplay passed through the hands of five different writers (though HORROR ISLAND’s Maurice Tombragel didn’t get screen credit), but the finished film holds together well enough for quick entertainment.

Few actors trafficked in self-pity as often and as successfully as Lon Chaney Jr. did, and he pulls out all stops as stage mesmerist Gregor the Great. While performing on a radio show with his assistant and fiancé Maura (contract player Evelyn Ankers), Gregor handles a heckling drunk while silently wishing him dead. The man (played awkwardly by Arthur Hohl) keels over dead, and Gregor falls into a guilty funk, believing that he somehow killed the man with his mental powers.

Nobody, including his business partner George Keene (Milburn Stone, later Doc Adams for twenty years on GUNSMOKE) and homicide detective Brandt (Douglass Dumbrille), holds him responsible—the victim died of a natural heart attack—but that doesn’t ease Gregor’s mind. He breaks off his engagement to Maura, retires from the stage, and takes a job at a wax museum, where more mysterious deaths occur. Is Gregor really to blame?

The INNER SANCTUM movies have taken guff for their casting of palooka Chaney as a babe magnet. In addition to Maura, wax museum owner Valerie Monet (Tala Birell) and her niece Nina (Elena Verdugo) ache for Lon. Not everyone loves Gregor, however. Eccentric sculptor Rudy (Martin Kosleck) certainly doesn’t, and it’s questionable whether all of Gregor’s friends do.

THE FROZEN GHOST is one of the series’ best-looking films, thanks to the evocative sets built to represent the wax museum and the sometimes-creepy dummies that inhabit them. Director Harold Young (THE JUNGLE CAPTIVE, with which THE FROZEN GHOST was released on a double bill), the first man not named Reginald LeBorg to helm an INNER SANCTUM, handles the material pretty well, shooting the opening with Dutch angles and draping the spooky scenes in shadow. He also squeezes a terrific performance out of Dumbrille as a cop who spouts Shakespeare and the perpetually sinister Kosleck.

The ending, however, is a quick and disappointing wrap-up involving supernatural mumbo-jumbo that had not previously been part of the story. And there are no ghosts in THE FROZEN GHOST, frozen or otherwise. It is an improvement over the previous INNER SANCTUM, though, and the best since CALLING DR. DEATH. As always, David Hoffman’s head appears in a crystal ball to recite mystic warnings before the opening titles. He’s the Criswell of the Inner Sanctum.

Monday, February 13, 2012


I love it when movies and television shows are unafraid to think outside the box. Most writers and producers are afraid to. For one thing, they don’t want to be laughed at should their reach exceed their grasp. And it’s also harder to think outside the box.

But I love it, particularly in plotting. The crazier, the better. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is one of my favorite television series. For 171 hour-long episodes, the M:I gang ran the Big Con on dictators, gangsters, megalomaniacs, killers, thieves, and despots all over the world. Occasionally, particularly in later seasons when the show was running out of fresh ideas, the cons got way out there.

The farthest out they ever got was in “Encore,” which was the first episode produced and the second aired of the sixth season. Written by Harold Livingston (STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE), who penned several way-out MISSIONs, and directed by the visually creative Paul Krasny, “Encore” asks you to not only check your suspension of disbelief at the door, but to give it cab fare and send it home for the evening.

But first, some background on the series. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE debuted on CBS on September 17, 1966. Steven Hill (later District Attorney Adam Schiff on LAW & ORDER) starred as Dan Briggs, the leader of the Impossible Missions Force, a secret government agency assigned to battle evil where traditional law enforcement either could not or would not interfere. Their missions were so sensitive, if any of them were caught, the U.S. would “disavow any knowledge of your actions,” Briggs was told each week in a taped message describing the mission.

Backing up Briggs were master of disguise Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), sexy Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), electronics whiz Barney Collier (Greg Morris), and strongman Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus). Gadgetry, split-second timing, nerves of steel, gutsy acting choices by the characters (who usually posed as someone else), and a firm demeanor of professionalism led to the IMF getting their man, often through elaborate poses and capers.

By the time Season Six started, the cast had turned over several times, and now starred white-haired Peter Graves as IMF leader Jim Phelps and beautiful blonde Lynda Day George as disguise expert Casey, along with Morris and Lupus. And if fans thought the cast had pulled off some whoppers in the past, well, “Encore” proved they hadn’t seen nothin’.

Thomas Kroll (William Shatner) and Frank Stevens (Michael Baseleon) are New York City mobsters in their sixties. The “old” makeup on the forty-year-old actors isn’t great, particularly Baseleon’s leonine beard, but it’s acceptable. Kroll and Stevens have been arrested many times, but never convicted of anything. Phelps figures the best way to get them is for a murder they committed 34 years earlier in 1937. However, there’s no evidence, because the body was never found.

What to do? Force Kroll to commit the same murder again. While getting his daily shave at the neighborhood barbershop, Kroll is drugged by the IMF and transported to a movie studio on Long Island, where Kroll’s neighborhood has been elaborately (and expensively) recreated to look exactly as it did in 1937. And I mean exactly—right down to a fabrication of a power bill shoved beneath the door to Kroll’s “apartment” (Casey interviewed Kroll’s old housekeeper to get the details!). Extras wander the two-square-block area in period clothing, and the local bijou shows appropriate fare.

But Kroll is an old man, right? Not with the wizardry of IMF doctor Doug Robert, played for the last time by Sam Elliott (THE BIG LEBOWSKI), who joined the cast on a part-time basis the season before, but didn’t work out. Doug shoots paraffin under Kroll’s skin to de-age him thirty years, dyes his hair, and even temporarily removes his limp, for Chrissake. However, this will last only six hours, after which time “his face will melt like a candle.”

When Kroll finally wakes up, he’s back in the same barber chair, but everything around him is 1937. This is where Shatner has to do some heavy lifting. What would you do if you suddenly awoke and it was thirty years ago? It’s impossible to believe the last three decades were just a dream, but then again, Kroll’s surroundings are so painstakingly accurate (obviously, implausibly so) that what else could you believe? Shatner does an excellent job selling Livingston’s absurd premise. Even if you can’t fully buy into it, at least Krasny and the actors make it a fun ride.

From there, it’s just a matter of getting Kroll where they need him to be. Casey, posing as the 1937 victim’s girlfriend, and IMF agent Bill Fisher (Paul Mantee), wearing a mask to resemble Stevens (and mostly played by Baseleon), walk Kroll through the day until it comes time for Kroll and Stevens to commit the murder (Doug, using a mask and a blood capsule, plays the victim).

Kroll’s idea to dispose of the corpse is to hide it behind a hidden wall in the basement of the bar, where bootleg liquor was stored during Prohibition. While Kroll frantically pokes and prods the cellar’s stone wall, looking for the secret catch, Barney and Willy are at the real bar, digging out the corpse that will lead to Kroll’s and Stevens’ downfall.

Often, a highlight of a MISSION was the end, when the bad guy slowly began to realize he had been had. While the IMF was seen driving away stoically, another job well done, the heavy stood dumbly with an “oh shit” look on his face. “Encore” ends with Shatner dashing desperately through the empty streets of “New York,” only to find himself suddenly on the dirt road of a Western set (Krasny spoils the New York illusion with a shot of an L.A. mountain range looming over the Paramount backlot, but it’s an effective shot anyway) with his wax face dripping on his suit and his gray hairs straggling.

As long as you don’t stop to think about the ridiculous amount of research, footwork, construction, and expense that went into convicting a pair of elderly killers, “Encore” is a swift and cheeky caper with—most importantly—believable performances to sell the illusion. Whether the episode works for you will depend on how far you’re willing to let it out of the box.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Keep Your Enemies Close

If you’ve seen the Kevin Costner thriller NO WAY OUT—and probably even if you haven’t—you’ll guess the not-so-stunning twist early in the screenplay by 3:10 TO YUMA and 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS’ Michael Brandt and Derek Haas.

To be fair, they expect you to guess it (hell, the trailer gives it away), which is why they reveal it in the first half-hour and then pull a new one out of their asses at the end. Sloppy scripting and the miscasting of sitcom actor Topher Grace (THAT ‘70S SHOW) as a rookie FBI agent help make THE DOUBLE no more than a steady espionage thriller of little resonance. Perhaps that's why it only slipped onto 45 theater screens in the fall of 2011.

And the storytelling is indeed clunky. Debuting director Brandt not only expects us to believe nobody will chase a Russian assassin who escapes from a hospital room, but that he can be killed fifty yards from the door, and no one will find the body until the next day. Richard Gere, looking as sleek as ever, does his best to charm his way through the adventure, starring as Paul Shepherdson, a former agent called out of retirement by CIA director Highland (Martin Sheen).

In the 1980s, Shepherdson was instrumental in chasing the Cassius 7: a group of Russian hitmen trained by the mysterious Cassius. All but Cassius were captured or killed, and because the leader hasn’t been heard from in more than twenty years, Shepherdson believes him to be dead. Until someone using Cassius’ M.O. murders a U.S. senator. Highland assigns the reluctant Shepherdson to work with young Ben Geary (Grace), who wrote his Harvard thesis on Cassius and knows the faceless killer better than anyone else. Except Shepherdson, of course.

Although THE DOUBLE is narratively shaky, Brandt shows promise as a director. The action is framed nicely, and the complicated story isn’t difficult to follow. Grace isn’t believable, but he isn’t laughable either, and all the performances are competent. Brandt even stages a decent car chase, as these things go in the 21st century, and caps it with a very nice stunt. He also manages to make Michigan look like Washington, D.C. and photograph his locations well. With a better script at his disposal, Brandt could very well become an assured journeyman behind the camera.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

His Eyes Lived To Condemn His Killer

Prolific horror star Lon Chaney Jr., who saw seven of his films released in 1944, played an artist in DEAD MAN'S EYES, his third INNER SANCTUM mystery for Universal. Reginald LeBorg also returns for his third INNER SANCTUM, directing Chaney through more whispering narration and another sad-sack performance.

Writer Dwight Babcock’s (THE BRUTE MAN) great premise finds painter David Stuart (Chaney) accidentally pouring acid instead of eye wash into his peepers. Oops. While his fiancé Heather (Jean Parker) and his model Tanya (Acquanetta) passive-aggressively fight over who gets to take care of the simpering David in the first few days of his blindness, Heather’s wealthy father (Edward Fielding) offers to donate his eyes for a transplant, but only after he dies. Guess who becomes Homicide cop Drury’s (Thomas Gomez) prime suspect when Fielding is murdered?

Running just over an hour, this 12-day wonder is decent entertainment, though not especially original. In fact, the climax and revelation of the killer’s identity plays out almost identically to the way LeBorg did it in CALLING DR. DEATH, the first INNER SANCTUM movie, just a few months earlier. The director doesn’t bring anything fresh to the material, however, and is unable to work through the film’s worst pickles, such as Acquanetta’s pitiful performance and the laughable idea that David’s painting of Tanya, which would look perfect hanging on someone’s particle-board basement wall, is brilliant enough to push him to the top of the artist world.

Because the INNER SANCTUM pictures were so inexpensive, they made enough money for Universal to continue the series. However, it had to do so without LeBorg, who was paid a mere $1500 for DEAD MAN’S EYES and was tired of churning out the company’s programmers.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Random TV Title: Paris

CBS got only thirteen episodes of his critically acclaimed crime drama. In retrospect, it's difficult to understand why PARIS didn't go, even though it was lodged in a tough Saturday timeslot against HART TO HART.

PARIS starred the great James Earl Jones as a Los Angeles police detective in charge of a bunch of rookie detectives. Woody Paris also moonlighted as a criminology professor at a local college and had a loving wife played by Lee Chamberlin. PARIS was created by Steven Bochco, who had recently worked on DELVECCHIO, COLUMBO, RICHIE BROCKELMAN, PRIVATE EYE, and other cop shows, but had not quite yet become "Steven Bochco."

So why didn't PARIS work? Hard to say. It worked out well for Jones, of course, who not only moved on to other stage, film, and television work, but also married his co-star Cecilia Hart! Another regular, Michael Warren, worked on Bochco's next television series, HILL STREET BLUES (which turned him into "Steven Bochco"), playing Officer Bobby Hill.

PARIS' only Emmy nomination was for Fred Karlin's scoring of the episode "Decisions." Karlin also composed the PARIS theme, which you will hear in this main title sequence for the episode "Pawn," directed by Georg Stanford Brown and penned by Edward DiBlasio.

Consider the Bill Bixby cameo a bonus!

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

An International Blast-Out


That's the sound of the Butcher's Walther, and you hear it often in FIRE BOMB, written by James Dockery using the name Stuart Jason. Dockery wrote the first nine Butcher novels, but had started using the Jason pseudonym as early as 1969 on a series of novels set on a Southern plantation.

FIRE BOMB, published by Pinnacle in 1973, sends the Butcher to Baghdad to discover and destroy a pipeline of dope making its way to the United States. Traveling with Anna Helm, a Las Vegas casino cashier in a bad way after clashing with her mobster boss, the Butcher does finally find the drugs' source, but stumbles upon a crisis even more important. A mysterious masked Arab calling himself Ibn Wahid has stolen five U-2s and plans to use them to drop atomic bombs on Russia, thus starting World War III.

Dockery does a nice job keeping the body count high, even if his final twist is a tad farfetched. Like the best writers, he's able to describe the Iraqi setting quickly and clearly to let the reader picture it, while not getting bogged down in extraneous details.

FIRE BOMB also continues the Butcher tradition of pitting the hero against a never-ending series of grotesque hitmen with ridiculous monikers (how does Rum Dum LaGoona grab ya?) out to nab the $250,000 bounty on his head.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Daughter Of Death!

Universal’s INNER SANCTUM series of B-movies never adapted any of the INNER SANCTUM radio plays or pulp stories, but screenwriters Brenda Weisberg (THE MUMMY’S GHOST) and Scott Darling (MR. WONG IN CHINATOWN) based the second movie on Fritz Leiber’s noted fantasy novel CONJURE WIFE. Norman Reed is a professor of ethnology at Monroe College, where the girls swoon over his dynamic personality. Reed is played by lumpy Lon Chaney Jr., so you’ll just have to take the movie’s word for Reed’s status as a charmer of ladies.

On a South Seas trip, the practical Reed meets Paula (Anne Gwynne, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN), a white woman reared by the high priestess of a jungle tribe. She believes in voodoo, witchcraft, death chants, and other primitive superstitions, but in the immortal words of Paula Abdul, opposites attract, and Paula and Norman are married. Reed’s old flame Ilona (Evelyn Ankers, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN), jealous of his marriage, starts trouble by calling Paula a witch and pushing eager young student Margaret (lovely Lois Collier, COBRA WOMAN) into seducing him.

Reed exacerbates his problems by forcing Paula to give up her superstitious beliefs and destroying all her magic trinkets. Without Paula’s circle of immunity to protect Norman, his life really starts falling apart, including an accidental shooting of Margaret’s boyfriend David (Phil Brown, who would later be STAR WARS’ Uncle Owen) that leaves him on the hook for a manslaughter charge.

Gwynne and Ankers, who were good friends in real life, starred in many Universal horror and suspense pictures of the 1940s, but WEIRD WOMAN is surprisingly the only one in which they appeared together. Both are quite good, particularly Ankers, who rarely played bad girls. Unfortunately, the static screenplay gives them and everyone else very little to do but talk. Director Reginald LeBorg, who tried to spice up CALLING DR. DEATH’s chatty plot, has less to work with here, though his use of floating heads to illustrate an Ankers nightmare is inventive. DEAD MAN’S EYES, with Chaney and LeBorg again participating, was next in the INNER SANCTUM series. CONJURE WIFE was done more successfully as BURN, WITCH, BURN in 1962.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Terror Strikes As A Madman Rules!

Beginning in 1943, Universal and producer Ben Pivar made six B-pictures based on the INNER SANCTUM paperback and radio series. Actually, “based” is the wrong word. Pivar used only the INNER SANCTUM title as an umbrella for barely-an-hour mystery films with (very) slight horror elements. None of the six films adapted the books or radio episodes or used the show’s famous gimmick of opening with a creaking door. Universal’s popular horror star Lon Chaney Jr. (THE WOLF MAN) starred in all six, and most of them began with actor David Hoffman’s head floating inside a crystal ball and warning us of the sheer terror that lie ahead of us.

The first INNER SANCTUM picture, CALLING DR. DEATH, was directed by Reginald LeBorg (who also worked with Chaney on THE MUMMY’S GHOST and four other movies) in twenty days from an original screenplay by Edward Dein (CAT PEOPLE). Dr. Mark Steele (Chaney), a wealthy neurologist whose thoughts we strangely hear as whispering, knows his wife Maria (Ramsay Ames, a beautiful but laughably bad actress) is cheating on him. Someone murders Maria over the weekend by throwing acid in her face and bashing her head in.

Police inspector Gregg (J. Carrol Naish) thinks Steele did it, but he arrests Maria’s lover, David Bruce as Robert Duval (!), anyway and stands by as Duval is sentenced to die in the electric chair. It isn’t until Duval awaits his execution that Gregg starts popping in to Steele’s home, demanding he confess. But here’s the thing—Steele blacked out the entire weekend of Maria’s death and doesn’t know whether he killed her or not.

The first INNER SANCTUM mystery is silly, but enjoyably so, mostly for reasons of camp. Naish’s wicked scene-stealing and Chaney’s goofy whispering make you believe the plot is moving faster than it is. You wonder, because Duval was convicted with circumstantial evidence, and there’s no evidence linking Mark to the murder, why Gregg keeps hounding Steele to confess. Morison (HITLER’S MADMAN) is stiff as Steele’s sympathetic nurse, but provides eye candy.

LeBorg’s direction is mostly static, but he ups his game in the third act. He likes to suggest violence through shadows. A scene between Chaney and Morison plays with the camera Dutched and low to the ground. He does a great job with a dream sequence, including a bit where two brick buildings seem to tip and trap a character between them. One thing that looks odd to contemporary eyes: Steele uses a letter opener to slit the pages of a book he’s reading as he turns them. Did hardcover books use to come from the factory with the edges of the pages uncut?

Chaney and LeBorg reunited about a month after CALLING DR. DEATH finished shooting to begin their next INNER SANCTUM feature: WEIRD WOMAN. Also with Holmes Herbert, Fay Helm, Rex Lease, Paul Phillips, and Mary Hale. Brian was a late replacement for George Dolenz (THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO), while Morison substituted for Gale Sondergaard, who, like Chaney, was originally planned to star in all the INNER SANCTUMs.