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Friday, July 12, 2019

The Twonky


The Twonky
1953
Arch Obler

Kerry West (Hans Conried) is a college professor home alone while his wife, Carolyn (Janet Warren) is off visiting her sister. His new television has been delivered, but it’s not actually a television at all. It is a robot from the future (or at least that is what a drunken football coach, Trout (William H. Lynn), would have us believe.

On the surface, The Twonky is extremely frivolous and silly in a 1950s cornball style that will probably grate the nerves unless you have a taste for it. The jokes tend to be slapstick or ‘amusing’ drunken behavior. There is the slightest hint of risqué humor but this 1953 we are talking about so it is going to remain an undertone at best. The writing and look of the film feel less like a motion picture and more the like the pilot of a television show that was never picked up for a series. The Twonky was  barely screened and probably never going to be a hit or gain much of an audience in its initial run, which is a shame, because it has become eerily prescient.

"Send...more...cops..."
Beneath the jokes and generally lighthearted tone of The Twonky, there is a darker undercurrent. The Twonky is a device that serves as both a distraction and a monitor for poor beleaguered Kerry. It is happy to light as many cigarettes as he’d like, but it refuses to allow him to research philosophy, instead of forcing a smutty ‘Passion through the Ages’ book on him. When Kerry wants to listen to some jazz, Twonky smashes his records and makes him listen to blaring marching band music. The Twonky, much like the devices of the 21st century is designed to watch just as much as they are designed to be watched. The Twonky modifies its target’s behavior more directly that social media might today, but not by much.

The Twonky itself serves as a visual representation of this surface comedy and subliminal darkness. It looks like a quaint boxy television set on four curved legs. That’s all well and good until you see it galloping about. There is something deeply unnerving about the way it walks. It is a blank-faced presence throughout the film and often is shown just waiting and watching while comedy antics happen around it. Coach Trout shares his idea that Twonky is, in fact, a machine from the future that has fallen through time and has disguised itself as a television, he even plays up the horror of this notion by noting that he doesn’t know what it could possibly look like like but that it might have synthetic muscles and artificial blood. Not exactly a statement you’d hear in a screwball comedy.

"I'll tell you what, Twonky got an ass that just won't quit."

The human characters of The Twonky range from irritating to slightly less irritating. Couch Trout is the stereotypical comedy drunk. Kerry West is bad with money, bad with people, and altogether not the nicest person. Our hero even makes an attempt to trick the Twonky into killing a bill collector who will not leave his house. The audience is left wondering if he succeeded only to be let off the hook by a single line of dialog later.

The Twonky is a weird comedy that hides some comments about the state of our entertainment and devices that is even more relevant today than it was when it fell through time.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Tobor the Great


Tobor the Great
1954
Lee Sholem

Dr.s Nordstrom (Taylor Holmes) and Dr. Ralph Harrison (Charles Drake) team up with solving the problem of putting human danger in space travel. The solution is a giant silver robot that goes by the name Tobor. Not only can Tobor receive telepathic direction, but it can also learn on its own. Gadget (Billy Chapin) or “Gadge” to his friends makes an emotional connection to Tobor. This comes in handy as secret agents from another country plot to steal the secrets of Tobor.

Tobor virtually checks off every list of 1950s SF elements, it has a robot (of course), absent-minded scientists, dirty rotten Commies, and precocious kid, and promise of atomic power taking us to the stars. There is a lighted-hearted adventure story that gets just a little dark as it nears the climax but in a way that gives the whole thing a little more gravitas than it would have otherwise. Tobor wears it’s a gee-whiz attitude on its sleeve and is all the better for it.

"Grandpa certainly has a lot of leatherbound copies of Butt Frenzy.
 If your movie is called Tobor the Great, your robot better be pretty great. Thankfully Tobor is a fun looking and is an impressive work of costuming and design. The clunky metal giant is surprisingly mobile and it is a delight to see Tobor stomp into action and toss around enemy agents. Tobor itself isn’t exactly brimming with personality but makes an interesting parallel to Robby the Robot who would come a few years later in Forbidden Planet (1956) and star in film that is very similar to Tobor the Great in The Invisible Boy (1957). Both have young kids palling around with potentially lethal machines. While Robby is largely friendly looking ends up being a real threat, Tobor looks threatening but ends up being a big ‘ol softy.

“Gadge” is the overly-smart kid that ends up befriending Tobor. Often young smarty-pants little kids are incredibly irritating. I understand that this is largely a children’s movie, so ideally kids would want to see someone they identify with, but I’m going to let the adults in on a little secret. Kids don’t really identify with other kids so much as they identify with a giant silver robot who smashes through walls. Gadge doesn’t grate as much as most but we’re here for Tobor.

"Must... crush small child... I mean save..."
The villains of Tobor are a group of spies and enemy agents that we are never expressly told are communists, but there’s no need to do so for a film from this era. The bad guys are just as mean and sneaky as you would hope, even going to so far as to smack Gadge around a little bit. It is interesting to see that this group is humanized just slightly as they express some resignation at the dirty work they have to do. Even giving this much humanity to some cartoonish villains as the Red Scare was still in full swing is surprising.

Tobor is light and fun little SF romp that never really pushes the envelope in terms of storytelling or visuals, but it is a competent kid’s adventure film with a memorable central robot character. It clocks in at a breezy 77 minutes and is perfect Saturday afternoon matinee viewing.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Cthulhu


Cthulhu
2007
Daniel Gildark

In a world on the brink of ecological collapse. Russ Marsh (Jason Cottle) is informed that his mother has died. He heads back to his seaside hometown for her funeral and the reading of her will. It just so happens that his estranged father (Ian Geohegan) is the leader of the local cult. Russ reconnects with his ex-boyfriend and uncovers a conspiracy the involves him and the end of the world. Russ slowly realizes that his fate is inevitable.

"I can't eat all of this, I don't want to be...wait for it....wait for it... shellfish!"
As H.P. Lovecraft has moved from cult literary figure to the genre mainstream, his mark on horror has become indelible. His flaws as a writer and a person have become more difficult to ignore, but at the same time, they are integral to his creation. What is the core of cosmic horror, but his anxiety and xenophobia taken to the extreme? Lovecraft recanted some of his viewers later in his life, perhaps his writing and contact with other writers allowed him to grow. Still, the horror of his work is found in the unknown and the other, so it is not only subversive but logical to extend that fear into the 21st century by mapping it to the experience of being gay in small-town America.

Although Cthulhu does have one foot in the meta textual discussion of sexuality and how it is perceived, it also a true-to-form Lovecraftian tale. The stakes are cosmic in their implications. There is body horror, madness, and an abhorrence of family lineage. The monstrous things are unseen or only half-glimpsed. Interestingly enough for all its restraint in horror, the human interactions are melodramatic bordering on being campy. I can see this being viewed as a flaw, but I also feel like the few moments of over-the-top villainy and levity keep the film from being a dour slog towards the finale. Yes, this lessens the impact of the horror, but there is plenty of doom and horror to go around by the third act and the silly parts don’t undermine that completely.

The ocean hates you.
Cthulhu is filled with images of the decaying sea town, interestingly, on the west coast as opposed to Lovecraft’s usual stomping grounds in the east. The effect is the same, a strange isolated community where things look normal until you focus on the slightest detail, like the octopus image on the manhole covers, or the fact there is church called the Esoteric Order of Dagon. The film also captures the beauty and horror of the ocean as Russ feels this longing for walking out into the ocean, the place where monsters spawn and seemingly return.

Cthulhu isn’t a perfect movie, but it does show ways to take the core of what drove Lovecraft’s creations and make them accessible to modern storytelling without sacrificing the cosmic horror of it all. It is a brave and curious film, one that inverts our expectations of a Lovecraft movie but still holds true to its ethos as the stars are right and unknowable doom closes in.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Glen or Glenda


Glen or Glenda
1953
Edward D. Wood Jr.

Here it is, the legendary Ed Wood’s big feature-length debut. Wood takes on cross-dressing, a topic very personal to himself, and presents it with an earnestness and a call for sympathy that could have been revelatory in the post-World War II rise of stringent gender roles. Alas, the film was shoveled out along with a flood of cheap productions for the teen market and went largely ignored for decades. Compounding the problem is that whatever good Ed Wood was looking to accomplish is lost under a mass of stock footage, a montage of kinky imagery inserted by another director, and a whole last minute second story-line meant to include gender confirmation surgery.

Wood’s goals are muddled, but this mess does have the added benefit of creating an unhinged fever dream of a movie that begins as a  pseudo-documentary look at how Glen (Ed Wood) copes with his desire to appear feminine. This is interrupted by a series of vignettes featuring Bela Lugosi, the Devil, and some S&M before swerving back just into time to not only close out Glen’s story but introduce Alan, an intersex person who pursues surgery. If Glen or Glenda had just ended up being a dry yet honest attempt to discuss gender non-conformity, it would probably just be regarded as a minor curiosity, but circumstances conspired to transform it into a proto-camp classic.

"I'm  huge! I'm Bela LuGROWsi, get it? Huh? Do you get it?"
This is the first time I’ve rewatched the film since I, myself, came out as non-binary gendered and I found myself surprised at how hard the opening scene actually affected me. In it, the police arrive to find a person named Patrick/Patricia dead from completing suicide. They have left behind a note asking to be buried in the clothes they weren’t allowed to wear in public. It’s a harrowing reminder of the high rate of suicide among transgender people and one people were aware of even in 1953.

There are some big missteps (aside from the stilted acting and general production you get in an Ed Wood production), the film takes great pains to separate crossdressing from homosexual behavior, which makes sense since one does not necessarily equate the other, but in doing so it paints homosexual men as aggressive creeps. The second problem comes at the end when Glen is told he can cure his desires by transferring his “female character of Glenda” to his wife, it is a load of nonsense and it feels mandated by the producers. Even Ed Wood doesn’t believe its real and basically says so in the scene.

"How's Annie?"
Glen or Glenda is a big earnest hot mess of a film, and it is all the better for it. We not only get an attempt to broach a subject beyond the pale in 1953 (heck still controversial now in some places), but we also get to peek into an artist who reveals a lot about himself despite interference from producers. If you have any doubts go back and watch the scene were Glen reveals the truth to his wife, Barbara (Delores Fuller), it’s a touching moment that is simultaneously deftly handled and filled with delightfully loopy moments which make Ed Wood Jr. the cult icon he is today.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Liquid Sky



Liquid Sky
1982
Slava Tsukerman

Margaret (Anne Carlisle) is a drug-addicted model who finds a rival in Jimmy (also Anne Carlise). Some aliens in a small flying saucer land on a nearby building to observe Margaret. They have the nasty habit of killing anyone she has sex with in order to harvest their endorphins.

Liquid Sky is a great antidote to the saturation of retro 1980s imagery. It has sound and imagery that would become more commercialized in the coming years, but here the synth sounds are sharp and angular, the looks are tribal and aggressively androgynous. This isn’t the user-friendly nostalgic 1980s, this is something much more raw. It’s easy in the twenty-first century to look at the early 1980s, New Wave, and the fashions of this era and wonder how this was ever edgy or daring, but Liquid Sky shows you exactly how that could be true.

SAUCERS SEEN OVER NEW YORK (looking for drugs.)
At nearly two hours long, it can seem like a slog if you are expecting a traditionally structured film. This is not a plot-driven movie, it is an exploration of people who are alien to themselves being observed by beings human and otherwise. It occupies the space between a genre film and an art film. The science-fiction elements mostly occur at the edges of the narrative until they provide the means for a psychedelic finale. The real draw of Liquid Sky is in its uneasy and often sinister atmosphere, this is a film where you don’t just watch, you also bathe in its radiation.

Anne Carlisle is amazing in her dual role as Margaret and Jimmy, two characters who loathe one another yet seem unable to escape each other’s orbit. It is through this dual role that the film also explores some distinctly queer territory with bisexuality and androgyny. Bob Brady as Owen the sketchy drama teacher and Otto von Wernherr as the scientist Johann Hoffman both provide some interesting moments as characters who exist outside the drug/art circle of Margret and treat it like some alien biosphere. There is a recursion of outside observers here Margaret > Aliens > Hoffman > The Audience. Once Margaret becomes aware of her position, she and the film cease to exist. The nihilism at the core of Liquid Sky is exposed.

Artists Only
A major element of Liquid Sky is its sound. The music alternates between a raw analog synthesizer and carefully laid atonal drones. The end result is a sound that drives home the strange plastic existence of these characters, it underscores their distance from themselves and each other, but at the same time, there is something angry underneath trying to burst through the heroin and cynicism.

Liquid Sky is a stunning work of art/cult/SF film and I think it is essential viewing for not only grasping the alienation taking hold in popular culture during the 1980s but also as a solid piece of midnight cinema. There is nothing quite like it, and although it is hackneyed to say something is an ‘experience’, Liquid Sky is just that, a unique experience worth having.

Friday, June 7, 2019

She-Man: A Story of Fixation


She-Man: A Story of Fixation
1967
Bob Clark

Lt. Albert Rose (Leslie Marlowe) finds himself being blackmailed by the mysterious Dominita (Dorian Wayne). If he doesn’t live for a year as Rose Albert and be Dominita’s personal servant, she will release damning evidence that could ruin Albert’s life. “Reluctantly” Albert agrees, he’s shaved, dressed, and given a handful of pills. Before long Rose Albert finds herself not only enjoying her new life but she finds love as well in the form of Ruth (Wendy Roberts).

Taking a note from Glen or Glenda (1953), She-Man opens with an appeal for compassion from an authoritative figure. In this case, it is supposed to be a medical doctor of some sort. Whether this is a legitimate call from the film or just a way for setting up the audience to fall for the ultra-ridiculous plot, I can’t say for sure. Director Bob Clarke, better known for Black Christmas (1974), and A Christmas Story (1983) (and around these parts, Karate Dog (2004)) is a clever person and more likely than not he understood that the real draw for this film wasn’t the thin revenge plot but the crossdressing and kink.

"That Tribble you ordered finally came in."
It is a stretch to call She-Man progressive, it is an exploitation film through and through but interestingly enough, Albert Rose/Rose Albert is never really an object of ridicule. Yes, he’s forced into servitude and living life as Rose Albert, but the film makes a point to show that this side of Rose was there before these events occurred. Rose even falls in love with Ruth who is a lesbian and it pains her that Ruth is having trouble reciprocating. A mainstream film wouldn’t touch any of these topics and it the strength of small exploitation films like this that they can address these things more openly. It is also interesting to see that Dominita enjoys coercing people to present as more feminine or masculine, it is a power move that is never commented on but becomes a notable element by the end of the movie.

Dominita feels like a proto-Dr. Frankenfurter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), she’s a cruel dominatrix who lashes out at her lackeys. There is a cool elegance about her, but she is never as well developed a character as Rose. Her reasons for forcing Rose into being a servant make a kind of sense but her methodology goes unexplored. I’m not so foolish as to call out for real character depth in a movie like this but it would have been interesting to see that they shared the core need to express themselves as feminine.

"I am going to be the Queen of Posture if it kills me."
While it lacks the bizarre energy of Glen or Glenda, She-Man should be viewed as a very minor stepping stone on the road to trans representation in film. It has plenty of faults (estrogen doesn’t instantly turn you into mind-zonked slave for example), aside from Dorian Wayne, the acting is, at best, unremarkable, the sets are cheap and the pace too languid. Still, I can’t totally write-off She-Man as complete trash, because it does attempt to retain just a small amount of sympathy and understanding for its put-upon main character.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe


Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe
1990
Damian Lee

Abraxas (Jesse Ventura) is a Finder, a millennia-old being who has been tasked with protecting the universe. Abaraxas is hunting down his former partner Secundus (Sven-Ole Thorsen) who has escaped to Earth and impregnated (via putting his hand on her tummy) a woman named Sonia (Marjorie Bransfield) with a hybrid child. This child is the Culmator, a being capable of solving ‘The Anti-Life Equation’ and bringing Secundus ultimate power.

Abraxas is a shameless steal from Terminator (1984), just with 10,000-year-old middle-aged looking space cops. They chase each other around, shoot guns, crash cars, and get into the occasional lamp stabbing battle. The fact that this all takes place in a small Canadian town only adds to the ludicrous nature of everything going on. Not only does Abraxas steal from Terminator but it also lifts quite a bit from Jack Kirby’s New Gods comics, substituting Answer Boxes for Mother Boxes, and just straight-up ripping off the Anti-Life Equation. Writer/Director/Producer Damian Lee makes sure to heap on a lot of unexplained technobabble to try and keep all this thievery from looking too obvious but it doesn’t work. Science-fiction elements appear randomly only to serve lazy plot developments like removing our hero's weapons or why one Finder can withstand a machine gun blast while the other nearly gets put down from a minor stab wound.

Once you look into the dreamy bedroom eyes of Jesse Ventura you're never the same again.
Abraxas is a film defined by its quirks and one of its quirkiest elements is its use of music. This is a science-fiction action film that is scored with the remnants from a New Age CD bargain bin. You can watch dismayed as two giant men pummel each other while soft haunting synth choruses play. The final showdown between Abraxas and Secundus is set to a strange melancholy pop number that undercuts the action but not in an ironic way which would probably be the case were it produced today.

It is strange to see Jesse Ventura playing the stoic lead. Ventura’s entire career has been based on his bombastic personality, so to have him underplaying a character and given moments that (at least on paper) are supposed to be tender just come across as very odd. This is in no way Ventura’s fault, he really seems to dig as deep as can to try and bring some compassion across on the screen, but this is not the script nor the director to make that a possibility. Sven-Ole’s Secundus, on the other hand, gets all the best over the top scenes and lines, from threatening school children to eating the bill from a large breakfast.

See?
Surprisingly there is a lot of intentional humor in Abraxas that actually works. Jim Belushi cameos as a principal who never realized he could ask kids to stop bullying one another. Abraxas explains to the cops that he has VD (Vibration Detection.) Secundus’ search for ‘birthing members of this species’ leads him to a strip club. Combining this with the unintentional moments and a breakneck pace creates a film that is never exactly ‘good’ but remains delightfully entertaining for its entire running time.