Friday, July 3, 2020

Mr. Freedom

William Klein

Mr. Freedom (John Abbey) is an All-American superhero sent to France to battle Moujik Man and Red Dragon Man, two agents of the insidious threat of communism. Thanks to his predilection for all-out violence, Mr. Freedom isn’t very popular in France but that’s probably just the communist rays being beamed at his brain. Perhaps killing dozens of more people will fix everything.

Mr. Freedom doesn’t have an ounce of subtlety to it, but when it comes to critiquing how American foreign policy impacts the world, that is a feature and not a bug. This acidic satire might be a little too on the nose at times, but it is impossible to deny the anger underneath all the absurdity. When viewing Mr. Freedom in 2020 the saddest part is realizing that nothing has really changed and the violently cartoonish buffoon that is Mr. Freedom is just as accurate a caricature now as it was in 1968.

"Would you like some Freedom Fries with that?"

Mr. Freedom is sent to France by a company called American Freedom Inc., another faceless corporation in building filled with them. He's not sent to actually liberate anything, he’s there to establish cultural dominance. In his civilian guise, Mr. Freedom wears a cowboy hat and bolo tie. He’s unrepentantly cruel, sexist, and racist. His superhero gear is a weaponized sports equipment, a merger of the two most iconic American costumes, and his only response to any threat is complete and utter murder of everyone around him.

As brutal as the comedy of Mr. Freedom can be, it comes across as one-note. This is a single joke stretched out to feature-length, and although it is a joke that needs to be told, it becomes exhausting and numbing by the finale where even seeing Mr. Freedom getting a comeuppance of sorts offers no catharsis. This maybe be entirely by design, the joke of America’s violent boorishness visited on the world isn’t funny at its core, but by failing to offer anything human in the film to for the viewer to connect with, the point becomes easy to miss.

"I'm so American I poop bald eagles!"

The look of Mr. Freedom is garish and bright. It mimics the look of the 1960s Batman television series. The screen is often filled with silly background jokes making the whole thing feel like a Mad Magazine parody albeit with significantly more bloodletting and sex. There is an artificial look to everything, exaggerated costuming and exaggerated sets that match the broadly played characters. 

Mr. Freedom isn’t the easiest of films to sit through but the fact that it is still such a relevant piece of satire makes it just as vicious as it was in 1968. I wish I could say that was a good thing. Definitely worth a view for the modern era even if it takes a little work.

Friday, June 26, 2020

King Dinosaur

Bert I. Gordon

Dr. Ralph Martin (William Bryant), Dr. Patricia Bennett (Wanda Curtis), Dr. Richard Gordon (Douglas Henderson), and Nora Pierce (Patti Gallagher) are four space travelers chosen to explore the newly discovered planet, Nova. Soon after landing, they find abundant (and familiar) wildlife and a strange dark island in the distance. 

There’s a weird sub-sub-genre of 1950s SF films, almost all identical in structure. Start with a team of explorers, often a mix of men and women to generate a romance subplot. Make sure the team is made up of various stereotypes and inevitably led by some square-jawed white guy. After copious amounts of stock footage, these adventurers take a rocket to a far off planet, wander around in improbable spacesuits, deal with some more stock footage and return to Earth (often minus a few crew members). Among this particular brand of films are such entries as Missile to the Moon (1958), Angry Red Planet (1959), Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956), Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962), Rocketship X-M (1950), and probably the worst of them, King Dinosaur.

As terrible as King Dinosaur is, I have to admire the ambition in creating a film with nothing but four actors, some stock footage, a kinkajou, and a Jerusalem cricket. This is the first film of Bert I. Gordon who would later go on to direct the much better Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Earth vs. The Spider (1958). There is no real plot to speak of, it’s just four people wandering around some trees, sort of interacting with footage from One Million B.C. (1940). The mysterious planet Nova seems to contain the same animals as Earth, but this is met with only mild curiosity from our heroes. They seem much more interested in taking naps.

If there is one element that almost works, it is the mysterious island in the distance. There is something foreboding about it and the mention that it looks much different than the surrounding land heightens this idea that there is something wrong about. The notion that something really alien lurks in this relatively familiar environment has the potential to fire the imagination. It is extra crushing when this mysterious island only offers the same alligator vs. iguana fight, we’ve seen in several other films. Here we get the height of comedy as King Dinosaur tries to convince us that an iguana is a Tyrannosaurus Rex. This is the 1950s so of course, the only solution to finding an island full of dinosaurs on an alien planet is exploding an atomic bomb while escaping. This leads to perhaps the only thoughtful moment in the whole affair where Dr. Martin wistfully says that they’ve brought civilization to the planet. 

King Dinosaur was shot in seven days with borrowed equipment and deferred payments for the cast and it shows. Its paper-thin plot, beyond cheap special effects, and general shoddiness are impossible to hide, yet there is something oddly compelling about its final sequence. Bert I. Gordon’s start isn’t a strong one but proved he has nowhere to go but up from here.

Friday, June 19, 2020

The McPherson Tape

Dean Alioto

Found footage films are often vilified largely because of the sheer number of them. The entry bar for a found footage movie is that you own something that can record video and that’s it. This is even more minimal than the other common entry-point for horror, zombie movies, which at least requires some torn up clothing and maybe a little make-up as well. When a found footage movie doesn’t work, it is often a boring amateurish slog filled with ugly images and terrible acting. When a found footage movie comes together the result is electrifying. This style of film can summon a powerful verisimilitude. 

The Blair Witch Project (1999) is undoubtedly the first found footage film most people saw and it was a success based on a viral market campaign that existed before viral marketing campaigns were even a thing. Prior to this was The Last Broadcast (1998), a tale of the Jersey Devil, told in a documentary style. There are smatterings of proto-found footage movies prior to the but The McPherson Tape lays out the blueprint for the modern found footage horror movie.

In the 80s every party was an ugly sweater party.

It’s interesting to see how much of the structure of The McPherson Tape is duplicated in The Blair Witch Project. The structure of found footage horror has not changed much at all. There is a lengthy set-up while we establish a normal, almost dull existence that feels like anyone could have shot on film, and then in the background, the horror element begins to take hold. There is often a sense of breathless chaos as our characters are dropped into a situation that they have no hope of escaping before succumbing in the final moments and leaving only a camera to be found later.

"Are you taping over my Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes!?"

At barely over an hour-long, The McPherson Tape goes from a family birthday party to a mysterious power outage and finally to a close encounter with some grey aliens. The first half of the film is paced well, with the slowly building tension as we know something unearthly is lurking outside but we are helpless to watch this family blunder into it. The second half starts to drag-on as all the running around in the dark grows less interesting. Then the family decides to ignore everything and play cards(?) I understand that this is the panicky reaction of a group of people thrown into something they have no capacity to deal with but it feels very off and worse it kills the momentum. Thankfully, the film pays off with a quiet and understated final moment.

The McPherson Tape is the blueprint for so much found footage horror that comes later and it is worth checking out simply for that, but it also offers some genuine tension and a final scene that is effectively chilling. If you love lo-fi horror this is not a bad way to spend an hour.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Mutiny in Outer Space

Hugo Grimaldi, Arthur C. Pierce

Major Gordon Towers (William Leslie) and Captain. Dan Webber (Carl Crow) arrive at Space Station X-7 with a sample collection of rocks from an ice cave found on the moon. Webber falls ill with a strange growth on his leg which turns out to be a lethal and fast-growing fungus. To complicate matters, X-7’s commander Col. Frank Cromwell (Richard Garland) has succumbed to ‘space raptures’ and threatens to destroy the station and everyone on it. 

Mutiny in Outer Space shares some interesting similarities with The Green Slime (1968) both involve a space station overrun with rapidly growing monsters that were spurred on by the station's own environmental protections. Both films also feature a station commander and visiting captain at odds over dealing with the situation. While The Green Slime goes wild with both its visuals and graphic violence, Mutiny in Outer Space is much more reserved, it preserves a traditional 1950s approach to SF film while The Green Slime wanders into more modern territory.

That can't be American, I don't see any Truck Nutz on it.

This modestly budgeted film is not visually memorable. Most of it takes place on non-descript space station sets. The invading moon fungus is decently realized and the model work with the space station is competent but only just barely. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t have to rely completely on its visuals thanks to some better than expected writing and a fleshed-out background for what we seeing.

Mutiny in Outer Space engages in more world-building than many SF films of this era. Often SF films of the era feel like the future is just the 1950s and 60s but in space. Mutiny in Outer Space feels more lived in, there is mention of World War III, the banning of cigarettes, the banning of guns, we see women working along with the men with no issue, and prolonged time in space carries with it a host of medical issues. I see this world-building as a reaction to the real-life space race and the assumption by many that space travel would be very commonplace in the future. The whizbang SF of the 1940s and 1950s was developing into something that would reach its apex in the working-class feel of the ship and crew from Alien (1979).

"Dude, we are going to get so baked."

The real threat to the space station is less the fungus that is overtaking it and more the actions of Col. Cromwell, who is in the throes of the ‘space raptures’ a condition that causes mental instability due to prolonged time in low gravity. This adds an interesting complication that our protagonists can’t simple brute force their way through, they do value human life. This glimpse of humanity in the characters saves the story from being just another space monster vs. square-jawed white guy (although don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of that too).

If you are a fan of the 1950s/1960s style of SF films Mutiny in Outer Space is a pleasant surprise, it doesn’t seem to be talked about much in regards to other films of its time but it is a pleasantly competent little movie

Friday, June 5, 2020

The Beast with a 1,000,000 Eyes

The Beast with a 1,000,000 Eyes
David Kramarsky, Lou Place, Roger Corman (uncredited)

Allan Kelley (Paul Birch) is the father of a small family that runs a failing ranch. A high-pitched whine fills the air one day and soon after animals and people begin to act strange and aggressive. It doesn’t take long for the Kelley family to begin to realize that something invisible is lurking out in the desert and it is using living beings as its pawns. Allan must find the lair of the thing before he and his entire family are driven mad just like the wildlife around them.

Despite its impoverished production, The Beast with a 1,000,000 Eyes works far better than you would expect. The plot hangs on a simple premise, the horror of being watched by something alien. The film never explicitly makes a Lovecraftian connection, but the underlying threat is something so distant from human understanding that any living things it encounters become changed. The actual alien of the film is never seen, it is something that inhabits other beings. We do get a monster to look at near the end, but this creature is also just an unwitting pawn of the thing controlling it.

"You'd never abandon me, porn magazines."

There is a sense of alienation evident from the opening moments of the film with its long stretches of empty desert. We are introduced to characters who are already feeling distanced from their lives and the lives of those around them. Our main protagonist, Allan Kelley is running a failing ranch in a dying landscape. His family and ranch hand all struggle with lives that are slowly slipping away from what they wanted, this dissociation is pulled into even sharper contrast as an outside intelligence takes over those around them.

This is a tiny production that leans heavily on its atmosphere rather than special effects. The first time I watched this film I was disappointed that the monster gets so little screen time and is just jammed into the final moments. Now that I have had more time to go back and take in more of its drama and atmosphere, I don’t mind so much. The Beast with a 1,000,000 Eyes feels like an early run for Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World (1956) which also leans heavily on atmosphere and mystery until its final moments. In that movie’s case, the monster is so ludicrous it threatens to undo all the work that went beforehand. Perhaps it is a blessing that time with Beast’s monster has such a limited screen time.

"Hi, I'm the thing you waited 70 minutes to see... I'm sorry."

The Beast with a 1,000,000 Eyes doesn’t look like it has much going on from a surface viewing but with a little patience, it reveals itself to be an effective little horror film that takes its human drama and enhances with the quiet yet forceful intrusion of something outside of our experience. Don’t let the rubber monster at the end fool you, this is a smart film and worthy of more eyeballs on it.

Friday, May 29, 2020


John Guillermin

Janet is the daughter of two geologists who die in the field while researching the healing properties of the land of a tribe called the Zambouli. She is adopted by the tribe and soon learns to control animals with her mind and becomes their defender. She is now called Sheena (Tanya Roberts). Meanwhile, a coup is unfolding in the nation of Tigora and reporter Vic Casey (Ted Wass), and his cameraman Fletch Agronsky (Donovan Scott) are caught in the middle. Soon enough Vic meets Sheena and falls instantly in love.

Ultimately Sheena’s far too languid pace is what kills it. What should be a rip-roaring jungle adventure tempered with more modern (well, for 1984) sensibilities, instead turns into a dull slog that is not interested in action, metacommentary, or even good old-fashioned lewdness. Sheena never becomes anything but two hours long. To its credit, it never becomes as racist as jungle adventures of the past, although we are still reduced to watching two white people being the biggest heroes in a fictional African.

An empty morass of nothing, I feel like this is a metaphor for something.

The action of Sheena contains some of the most poorly framed and realized scenes I’ve witnessed in a major motion picture. There is never any punch to them, the camera is just placed somewhere static and the scene happens. Vic Casey’s first face to face encounter with Sheena is shot through a windshield as she gracelessly plops down from a vine and we are treated to a shot of her knees. Not the most heroic of entrances. There are a few animal stunts in Sheena, none of them exciting, some of them perplexing. We get to see a chimp electrocute a man to death and later we are treated to stagehands whacking actors with live flamingos inside an obviously fake airplane set.

Boring insult to boring injury comes in the form of the film’s score. An adventure film benefits greatly from an electrifying score, instead, Sheena offers an almost ambient synth theme that plays every time she does anything, from attacking a prison with an elephant to taking a bath in a stream. There’s nothing exciting about it and combined with dull action, any momentum the film starts to build is immediately destroyed. It’s a death knell for a production like this, there’s not much of a plot to get invested in, and the film doesn’t seem willing to really utilize its star or its environment. In the end there just isn’t anything to keep a viewer engaged.

"Good lord, I am hung over..."
Perhaps the oddest part is that acting is all-around decent, serious enough to not reduce things to farce, but just campy enough to keep an element of fun in the air. It is just too bad the rest of Sheena couldn't pull off this balancing act.

Sheena commits the most heinous of movie sins, it wastes a potentially fun premise by turning it dull. Jungle adventure movies would stay the purview of the Indiana Jones movies at least until Predator (1987) came around a few years later with a whole new twist.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Flyin' Ryan

Flyin’ Ryan
Linda Shayne

Ryan Maguire (Andy Weiss) is a twelve-year-old kid. He and his mom move in with Aunt Rita (Connor Snyder), an odd woman with some sinister habits. The local skateboard gang starts picking on Ryan because he is new in town, or has red hair, the movie is unclear on this aspect. Soon, Ryan comes into possession of some shoes with magical reflectors on them that allow him to fly. This helps him save a dog or something… I don’t know...

"I don't know what's going either."
The plot of Flyin' Ryan is all over the place. It begins as a fish out of water story as we have a dorky kid forced into awkward situations, in this case, a new home, and local bullies. We are also introduced to some supernatural undertones as his house may be haunted. This goes a step further when a cowboy ghost shows in the wild west town on the outskirts of the city that is totally real and not some tourist trap place that sells you t-shirts. It is from this unholy specter that Ryan receives the magical reflectors that make his shoes fly.

Why would reflectors make shoes fly? Why would an old-timey ghost have reflectors? With all this investment into the flying shoes as a plot device, they are all but forgotten during the middle of the film. Instead we deal with a local skateboard gang and a dog that is introduced very late into the movie. The whole thing turns into a 'rescue the stolen dog story' that is completely bereft of anything supernatural.

Visual masterpiece.
There are many disjointed story elements that never amount to anything, a random karate stunt, a belly dancing scene that comes out of nowhere, a bit of drama as Aunt Rita is hospitalized. This disjointedness is really the most notable thing about what is an otherwise formulaic kid’s movie. Ryan’s shoes help do things he can’t normally do and they always work. I defy you to come up with a message behind this film other than, “We got some money to promote Heelys and made a movie around it.”

Ryan’s magical shoes are Heelys, the shoes with wheels that kids used to love, Here they are provided by the company for some free product placement. I don’t understand the connection with flying, it seems like a better promotion for your wheeled shoes would be, well, skating. There is even a natural set-up here as Ryan runs afoul of the local skateboard gang. This could have been the Gleaming the Cube (1989) of wheeled shoe movies, but instead, it’s a worse Skateboard Kid (1993).

Does his shirt say TERRACE BOOB?
Flyin’ Ryan is shot on digital video and every interior looks cheap and flat while the exterior shots look rather nice with their natural lighting. Knowing that this was a low budget kids movie, I figured that the flying effects would be unimpressive, they are not good but also not remarkably terrible.

This seems to be a good summation of the Flyin' Ryan itself: Not good, but not remarkably terrible.