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Friday, October 11, 2019

The Halloween That Almost Wasn't/Garfield’s Halloween Adventure


The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t (aka The Night Dracula Saved the World) (TV Special)
1979
Bruce Bilson

The Halloween that Almost Wasn’t (and let’s be the fair, the VHS re-title, The Night Dracula Saved the World is much better), is aimed squarely at younger kids. It isn’t the least bit frightening and although Dracula might make the occasional joke about being dead, none of the other monsters are threatening. The story is smart enough to make a point of this as Dracula grouses that his fellow monsters have sold out and are no longer scary. This interesting element is dropped in favor of a plot about the Witch’s demands for a bigger role and more authority, lest she not fly over the moon and begin Halloween. This too could be pretty interesting, the one woman in the bunch fighting for recognition could be a fun stab at old-world monsters running up against more modern thought. The Halloween that Almost Wasn’t doesn’t really explore this story much either and instead just milks it for some physical comedy and a finale set at the disco.

"Is that a broomstick or are you just happy to see me? Blah."
The Witch is seemingly unwilling to budge on having her various demands met at least until two children come by and tell her that she is their favorite monster. She immediately acquiesces. I guess the moral here is ‘who cares if you’re treated unfairly as long as you make someone happy?’ Maybe I’m expecting too much out of 25 minute Halloween time-filler designed to take up space in between local drug store commercials.

"Spell it right, two v's at the beginning."
This is a TV movie from the late 1970s and looks like it. The sets feel cheap, most of the monster costuming is acceptable but only just so. Judd Hirsch actually makes a fun Dracula, constantly put-upon and stubborn. He wields a Lugosi accent without overdoing it. Mariette Hartley as the witch turns in a fun no-nonsense performance as she proves to be more than a match for Dracula. The rest of the monster cast is woefully underused, especially Henry Gibson as Igor who is a delight for the few scenes he’s allowed to command.


Garfield’s Halloween Adventure (TV Special)
1985
Phil Roman

Garfield now exists in the popular consciousness as almost more meme than character, so it is strange to go back to a time when the franchise was a cultural landmark, and it's even stranger to see it possessing actual quality. A warm Halloween spirit fills this cartoon through some better than average animation and lovely watercolor backgrounds. There is a distinct feeling of effort being put forth there, something seems lacking in any modern incarnation.

Extreme gore.
Lorenzo Music does some great work here making Garfield sardonic without making him cruel, and even letting him loosen up to have some fun during the holiday. There are some odd musical numbers by Lou Rawls that I assume only exist because a certain strain of people think all children’s cartoons need musical numbers.

Yeah, that's not terrifying.
The story starts out with some typical comedic moments as Garfield and Odie pick out their costumes and go trick-or-treating, Things take a sinister turn in the second half, as they end up in an isolated house, meet a creepy old man, and some eerie spectral skeletons appear. The old man is much more realistic looking than the main characters and the skeletons are animated in a fluid haunting way that is played for scares. It’s a surprising and refreshing reminder that kids can and do like to be scared a little. I was surprised as hell to see a Garfield cartoon treat its young audience with some respect. Garfield’s Halloween Adventure isn’t held in as high regard as many kids’ Halloween specials but it deserves to be.

Nope, not terrifying at all.

Friday, October 4, 2019

TerrorVision (TV Series)



TerrorVision
1988
7 episodes

At this point, the film, TerrorVision (1986) has crawled it’s way out of VHS obscurity to become a minor cult hit, especially after the recent Shout Factory Blu-ray showed off how well it captures the neon and slime of mid-1980s horror. In 1988 that TerrorVision was something you might rent if you were adventurous or if everything else you wanted to rent was already gone. You may have, in fact, turned your cable box on to the Lifetime channel while fiddling with your VCR to watch Terrorvision when you caught the other TerrorVision.

This TerrorVision has no relation to the film. It is a series of separate ten-minute long horror stories that were used to fill time in between programming on the Lifetime network. The stories themselves are very simple and feel like the natural extension of 1950s horror anthology comics which would often feature 4-5 stories an issue. They waste no time getting to the premise and rush to a conclusion. It isn’t groundbreaking television by any stretch of the imagination, but it is competent and occasionally even fun.


"Ugh... please tell me you have some eye drops on you."

The seven episodes are as follows:
  • The Closet Monster – A child is convinced there is a monster in his closet, his parents are not so sure.
  • Final Edition – A woman and her jerk-ass cat named Kirk are alone in a house… or are they?
  • The Craving – A man with a toothache picks the wrong dentist.
  • Reflections of a Murder – The most serious of the lot, a man kills his partner and is then haunted by a reflection. 
  • One of a Kind – A young woman comes to a clothing store for a modeling job, sadly, she gets it.
  • A Cold Day in July – A gambler gets into debt and kills to keep it quiet. 
  • Rosemary’s Lot  - A pathologist in love is haunted by a hand in a jar.

Of the set, The Craving is the one that I remembered the most from seeing it on TV as a child, mostly for the groan-inducing joke at the end. Final Edition has some legitimately good use of foreground and background framing to keep the stalker an ever-present but unseen threat. A Cold Day in July’s ending is so rushed that I actually had to rewind it just to see what happens at the climax.  There aren’t any real clunkers in the set, but nothing I would call outstanding either.

I was a Basic Cable Vampire
I find the look of these episodes interesting as well. They are shot on video and often have this brightly lit soap opera look that makes all murders and supernatural happenings feel even stranger. The look of TerrorVision isn’t far off from the television show, Freddy’s Nightmares which began airing around the same time. It’s brightly lit and cheap-looking, but cheap-looking can often work in a horror story’s favor.

TerrorVision is a quirky little moment of horror television that is all but forgotten, if you have ten minutes to spare or are a television horror completist, it’s definitely worth checking out an episode or seven.

Watch TerrorVision here!



Friday, September 27, 2019

Hot-Rod Girl


Hot-Rod Girl
1956
Leslie H. Martinson

Jeff (John Smith) loses his brother in an illegal street race. He blames himself and drops out of the local legal drag racing scene which causes other kids to drop-out too. Detective Merill (Chuck Connors) has worked hard to give the kids a place to race safely and now everything is in danger of falling apart. The situation becomes even worse when Bronc Talbott (Mark Andrews), leather-clad punk, shows up to cause even more trouble.

For a movie called Hot-Rod Girl, it has very little to do with Lisa Vernon (Lori Nelson), the hot-rod girl in question. She plays a minor role in coaxing Jeff back into showing-up at the local dragstrip and setting a good example, but the fact she is given the film title is more to due to exploitation film trickery than anything else. To be fair, the film does give her the opening race and shows Lisa as a confident and skilled driver, but then the story just drops the character to focus on the tribulations of Jeff, which is a shame but not unexpected for something from the 1950s.

"Say, can you pass the Oops All Berries?"
The film's hero, Jeff, is an upright fellow who is 100% square and down to help bridge the gap between the police and the errant hot-rodding youths of the town. The death of his brother shakes that resolve and turns him inward. I find that a refreshing approach from the normally indefatigable heroes that often pop-up in the 1950s. One of the strengths of juvenile delinquent films, in general, is its flawed heroes.

Jeff’s nemesis is the amusingly named Bronc Talbott, who is as one-dimensional as you can get. He’s a handsome yet maniacal jerk who wears a leather jacket and is rude to authority and peers alike. Talbott is the crystallization of everything that parents feared about kids in the 1950s, he’s reckless, beholden to no one, and worst of all he’s very attractive to the women in town because of it. Bronc is too unpleasant to be any fun to watch, and too flimsy a villain to become invested in. Even just a moment of humanity or some kind of reasoning behind his actions would have gone a long way to making him a compelling antagonist, but alas that is beyond the reach of Hot-Rod Girl.

Spy vs. Spy 1956
For all of Hot-Rod Girl’s flaws, it does offer a surprisingly hard edge at times and an ending that might qualify as happy, but only just so. Every time there’s a crash, illegal street race, or game of chicken, it’s a big setback for the fragile alliance between the kids and cops. Hot-Rod Girl successfully keeps that tension up for most of the film and it does give those action sequences more bite. I was also very surprised that the story featured the death of a child, it could have easily kept the kid alive but injured and the impact (sorry) would have played out on Jeff and Bronc exactly the same, but a death ups those stakes and brings the actions of these teenagers into a much more serious place.

Hot-Rod Girl initially seems to offer some illicit thrills with wild girls, car racing, and general untamed youth running rampant. It’s a much more conservative film than that, approaching the acceptance of youth culture only through proper lawful behavior because the other option is reckless destruction by the kids and severe measures by the police. It is a reactionary outlook that has changed very little since the 1950s.

"I'm not going to riddle you anything, you freaking weirdo."


Friday, September 20, 2019

Tomb



Tomb
2016
Nick Attin

Nelson Obatala (Kearn Samuel) is an astronaut on the first manned space mission for Trinidad and Tobago. He awakens from stasis twenty months later than he should have, only to discover that his sister ship and its pilot have veered off course due to the AI of that ship following a mysterious signal. Nelson pursues the other ship only to encounter something far stranger.

Tomb is notable for the being the first science-fiction to film to be produced and shot in Trinidad and Tobago. This fact is mirrored in the plot of the film which is about the first space mission from the Caribbean. The film had a minuscule budget to work with so a good 75% of is green screened with CGI sets and live actors. The finale takes place almost entirely on a single section of a beach. Often a CGI set in a small production (and quite a few large ones) can look terrible. The green screen effects here are very obviously unreal but director Nick Attin leans into the brightness of the simple computer imagery with light environments and sunny exterior shots.

"Laura Croft better watch herself, that's all I'm saying."

After reading the plotline, “Astronaut falls through a portal into heaven,” I went in expecting the film to be less science-fiction and more of a meditation science vs. faith. Tomb flirts with this idea only a little and the majority of that is at the beginning when a reporter is questioning one of the astronauts. The film doesn’t actually even get to heaven until well into the third act. Even here there is only a little time spent engaging with the idea, but an unexpected villain arrives to throw some science-fiction back into climax. Tomb ends up being more of a pulp adventure than some lengthy pompous treatise on love in space (or whatever Interstellar (2014) was trying to do.) I appreciate that turn for its unexpectedness.

The vast majority of the film is spent with Kearn Samuel as Nelson Obatala even though we don’t get to actually see his face until a half-hour into the film. The first segment is told mostly through shots from Nelson’s point of view as we see him and fellow astronaut, Mercer (Gregory Pollonais), preparing for their journey. It is an odd choice, especially since Mercer then disappears for most of the movie. I assume this decision was motivated by money and actor availability. I have no problem spending time with Kearn though, even though I felt his early scenes aboard his ship are a little stilted. However, he really does bring emotional weight to his later scenes.

*Babylon 5 noises*
Tomb tantalizes with little details: the astronauts spend hypersleep in ‘death-suits’ complete with skull faceplates, ancient artificial intelligences, and even the effects of relativity in a portal to paradise. Tomb just touches on these things with enough detail to satisfy the narrative but still leave a sense of wonder about them, something that much modern SF often fails to do. If the film does have a significant flaw it is that it is too quick to rush towards a happy ending when it sure feels like it is heading for a darker final note. Still, the ride up to that point is worth it.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Foes


Foes
1977
John Coats

Foes plays out slow and ominous as the story starts out with a sense of impending doom and gradually brings that implied threat to realization. There isn’t much of plot, it comes down to characters trying to survive against an unknowable force. I can see the slow pace being a turn-off for many viewers, but it allows the dread to seep in and the building of a tension that has virtually no release or answers by the end of the film. Since most of the story is set on an island with only a few characters, there is a sense of dreamy emptiness as well, the surroundings consist of little more than an ugly little island and a vast dark sea.

Upon my first viewing of the film, I considered the aliens to be malevolent. They are creatures that arrived on Earth to maim and kill people for reasons all their own. Later viewings, I’ve changed my perspective on that, these strange beings aren’t being deliberately malevolent, it is merely by interacting with an environment completely alien to them that they bring unconscious death and destruction. The story becomes even grimmer from this angle. We can’t hope to even grasp what something alien might be, and to do so is to invite oblivion.

The effects of eating a Hot Pocket™ straight out of the microwave.
This is a low budget movie, that seemed largely aimed at airing on US television. Its look is often flat, earth-toned, and bland. The film often has a grainy, dirty quality that comes from filming on 16mm and blowing it up to 35mm. The UFO effects are basic but work well enough to communicate without being distractingly shoddy. The aliens themselves are a small triumph, rather than traditional big-eyed greys or something more monstrous and pulp-inspired, Foes gives us howling shafts of light that manage to frighten more than any rubber-suited monster could manage in the same situation.

The human cast is fine if not exactly exciting. There is an attempt to render all the human elements of Foes in the most naturalistic way possible, the downside of this is that we don’t really get to know these characters very well, much less feel something when they are in danger. There is a sort of numb shock when we find one of them dead on occasion, but this feels more by accident than design. X-Files fans can keep an eye out for Deepthroat himself, Jerry Hardin, as an Air Force officer investigating the aliens, which obviously make this film canon in the X-Files universe.

Ed Wood would be proud.
Foes is a weird little obscurity that hits all the right buttons of 1970s SF for me, it’s quiet, slow-paced, and filled with an encroaching doom. It is a film that offers little in the way of explanations just the surety that these events herald some kind of apocalypse. If you are willing to give it the time it needs to tell its simple story, I think you will be pleasantly surprised. Foes is a grim little work of UFO horror.

Friday, September 6, 2019

The Robot Parade





Every summer over the last few years I’ve done a series of reviews centering around a specific subgenre: luchadores, dogs, apes, and now robots. Thousands of pages and millions of words have been spent talking about humans and their relationships to robots both real and fictional. Robots are one of the first science-fiction tropes that kids are attracted to and it is easy to see why; we as humans anthropomorphize machines and often view robots as us but better: they are faster, smarter, they look cool, they don’t age or succumb to diseases. Strip away the humanity from these beings and they become objects of fright, remorseless, relentless machines that might just consider us obstacles and could sweep us aside without hesitation. For me this is the most interesting element of the robot as characters, this tension between them being like us, but also not like us. They can surpass us or lack key qualities we admire, often both.

For selections in the Robot Parade, I simply went with the era and elements that appealed to me so, that included many films from the 1950s, really the decade that set the standard for robots in film; mechanical companions for good or ill (usually good). Gog is perhaps the weird outlier in that set, it is the only film that treats robots as pure machines driven by their programming rather than some internal soul (or the machine equivalent).

The Stepford Wives is interesting in that it positions robots in a social context, their artificial nature is desirable to the patriarchal forces of Stepford because it strips the women of their free will. The flipside to that is Robowar, of all things, which takes a person stripped of their will and made into a machine only to have them work to reclaim it by the end. The fact that one is a sly black comedy and the other is a goofball Predator (1987) rip-off only adds charm to the comparison.

The Robot Parade was just the most surface dip into the world of film robots. I’m curious if this particular subgenre will eventually become passe as robots become more commonplace  in many parts of the world and less interesting. Maybe there will be a retro robot fad where we look back fondly giant clanky machines that were more interested in fighting mummies than delivering us a box of detergent.



Friday, August 30, 2019

The Invisible Boy


The Invisible Boy
1957
Herman Hoffman

Timmie Merrinoe (Richard Eyer) is the disappointing child of Dr. Tom Merrinoe, a renowned scientist who has just built the world’s most powerful computer. The computer has a will of its own and soon uses Timmie to active a robot from the future (you might know him as Robby), and in turn, use that robot to start kidnapping scientists and military figures in order to implant control chips in their brains. You know, as you do…

The first thing you’ll notice is that everyone in the movie, aside from Robby, is a jerk. Timmie gets bored and causes trouble. His dad only seems to notice him when it’s time to lecture him or beat him. Timmie’s mom Mary, just falls apart at the earliest issue and makes weak attempts to reign in her husband’s attitude. All the scientists in the house don’t seem to care about anything aside from bickering. Robby is the only one who shows an ounce of character growth or compassion for another being and he’s the one directly responsible for a dead guy later on in the movie.

"I'LL HAVE YOU KNOW I HAVE OVER 32 KILOBYTES OF MEMORY. FEAR ME."
If you can move past the unpleasant batch of human characters, there is some texture to the plot. While the film does begin as a light-hearted kid’s movie complete with corny 1950s slapstick humor, the darker elements slowly start to creep into the story. The villain of the film is a room-sized super-computer complete with flashing banks of lights, a spooky transparent dome sporting a single eye, and a sonorously evil voice. Early on the scientists and the military wonder if an enemy country (guess which one) is behind the computer’s evil behavior, but it turns out that nope, the computer has been slowing seeding its rise to power for some time. It’s a great development; Skynet for the Atomic Age, and it lends a much needed serious thread that takes the film into the third act. The Invisible Boy initially doesn’t feel like a film that can make the switch from, ‘invisible child plays pranks on stuffy scientists,’ to ‘evil super-computer causally threatens to physically torture a child for days,’ but it does manage it.

The big selling point for The Invisible Boy is the return of Robby the Robot, still a popular figure from his debut in Forbidden Planet (1956). In a surprise move, The Invisible Boy serves as a sequel of sorts to that film, with an explanation that a scientist from the 1950s created a time machine and brought Robby back from the future. It’s more of a cute side note than any serious attempt to connect the two films. The Robby of this film is much less sardonic than in his 1956 appearance, but Marvin Miller’s voicework still imbues him with a charming nature that makes his scenes a joy to watch.

Robby you nasty.
The Invisible Boy is very much a kid’s adventure film but it is still colored by the anxieties of the 1950s, we have the encroachment of new technologies, the potential for Russian sabotage and attacks, loss of identity through conformity, and even nuclear annihilation as the computer threatens to carpet bomb the Earth with strontium-bombs at one point. So while The Invisible Boy isn’t perfect and pales next to Forbidden Planet (if you consider it an actual sequel), it is still an enjoyable adventure and a moment in time that captures a piece of the culture of the U.S. in 1957.