Saturday, 11 September 2021

Baffled! (Philip Leacock, 1973)

A while back I scribbled a piece for the rater wonderful website We Are Cult detailing the various projects that Star Trek's Big Bird Dog of the Galaxy Gene Roddenberry worked on in the 1970s lacuna coil between the demise of TOS ('69, dudes!) and the Trek franchise's silver screen resurrection in the form of Robert Wise's Motion Picture which emerged - just like I did - in 1979. Whilst mulling over mean Gene's assorted abortive efforts such as Planet Earth, Spectre and The Questor Tapes I chanced upon a non-Roddenberry project that I'd never heard of before, but which starred Mr I Am Not Spock himself Leonard Nimoy. This sweet little obscurity carried the delightfully exclamation pointed title of Baffled! (and anything's better if it ends with a bang), and I made a note to track it down sometime. It may have taken over a year to get round to it, but once I set my mind to something I usually do it. Just not anything resembling immediately or ever soon, on occasion. Look, 2020 was weird for all of us and, frankly, I've had a heap of faeces on my plate since about 2016 so it's been a queer old quinquennial. Don't cry for me, I'm already dead.
Made, like the others, as a pilot film for a subsequent series that never materialised Baffled! managed to intrigue me when I made a quick scan of its plot details: a man is involved in a car crash and subsequently finds himself subject to psychic visions which draw him into a supernatural web of crime, mayhem and intrigue? My immediate thought was to wonder a young Stephen King might have caught this airing on television and - consciously or not - filed it away in his brain to come back down the line in the form of The Dead Zone. Superficial sounding similarities aside, however, the adventures of Tom Kovack are very different to the trevails of the troubled Johnny Smith (whether one is imagining Walken-flavoured or of the Hall variety).
Opening with a racecar (palindrome alert!) derby, supposedly taking place in Pennsylvania but shot like the rest of the film in benighted Blighty with standard resident North American actors like Shane Rimmer to add a bit of verisimilitude, we meet racing driver Tom Kovack (Nimoy) hoping to add another win to his current medal-winning lucky streak when strange sounds ("It's Wyndham in Devon, dear" says a woman's voice) and visions(a gravel road leading to a large manor house, a screaming woman) assail his brain and cause him to veer off the track. Surviving the crash miraculously unscathed, Kovack good-naturedly speaks of his psychic experience during a post-race television interview and attracts the attention of watching extra-sensory perception expert Michele Brent (the radiant Susan Hampshire, who had just played the second imcarnation of Elsa the Lioness' mum in Living Free) who immediately gets in touch with him with a view to harnessing his nascent abilities. Demurring at first, Kovack soon has a change of mind that evening when the view from his apartment window suddenly switches from a panorama of nighttime New York City to a daylight perspective of the same Wyndham House in that there Devonshire. After hooking up with the perky Ms Brent, the paranormal pair make their way to ye jolly olde England and book rooms at Wynham House whose owner Mrs Farraday (Rachel Roberts, whose career spanned Karel Reisz' 1960 Saturday Night and Sunday Morning to Fred Walton's seminal '79 thriller When a Stranger Calls before her tragic suicide by self-poisoning a year later) lets rooms at the stately home to summering holidaymakers.
Also staying there are a motley assemblage including Hollywood actress Andrea Glenn (Psycho's sleuthing sister Vera Miles) and her teenage daughter Jennifer (Jewel Blanch) who are perplexed at the non-arrival of absent husband and father Mr Duncan Sanford, blustering Italian Mr Verelli (Christopher Benjamin, and if you exclaimed "It's Henry Gordon Jago!" you don't get a prize, but if you said "Potter!" you do) and furtive honeymooning couple George and Peggy Tracewell (Ray Brooks - the boy with The Knack - and OG Demelza Angharad Rees). Also on hand nearby is suspiciously friendly wheelchar-bound pensioner Mrs Louise Sanford (Valerie Taylor, seemingly having a ball giving a dotty and eccentric yet menace-tinged final performance) and a man (Mike Murray) who hangs around the property at twilight having furtive meetings with young Jennifer and claiming to be the father she's never met, furnishing her with a mysterious wolf's-headed amulet which he instructs her to wear secretly without telling her mother of his presence. Soon the occult begins to occur, with young Jenny's behaviour changing from sweet young girl to teen hellion whilst the dowdy Mrs Farraday seems to become younger, more vital and more MILFy cougar keen to get her claws into Kovack with each passing day. When Andrea is poisoned, our dynamic duo find themselves drawn into a kind of cabbalistic Cluedo in a big country house populateed with secretive oddballs with agendas as a truly diabolical scheme unfurls, masterminded by Jenny's fake father - in reality ex-actor, master of disguise and full-time diabolist John Parrish, in a Satanic scheme to transfer life energy and bump of a starlet for her bank balance.
Energetically directed by Philip Leacock, whose career seems to have mainly been in television on both sides of the Atlantic after a flurry of Forties and Fifties films (including 1956's The Spanish Gardener), Baffled! is an interesting artefact of a programme that never was, though it's easy to imagine Nimoy (clad in his very '70s turtleneck sweater and jacket combo a la In Search Of) and Hampshire embarking on a series of paranormal escapades and spooky whodunnits for at least a season. Certainly a diverting and enjoyable ninety minutes of genre-flavoured fun that bears investigation.

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Freddy's Nightmares: No More Mr Nice Guy (Tobe Hooper, 1988)

Confessional time: "Father, forgive me, but I never got round to watching Freddy vs Jason. Blesphemy, of course, especially coming from someone such as myself who grew up excitedly renting each instalment of those respective frachises as they hit the video shop shelves (although actually, it would have been my parents doing the renting. Intensely chillaxed about the age certifications the guy in our local shop could be, I think even he would have balked at renting out Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master to an exciteable and bloodthirsty nine year old. Maybe).
Is there a reason I didn't bother with Freddy vs Jason either at the time or in the subsequent intervening years? Well, disillusionment and apathy with both series I suppose. Having found 1994's Wes Craven's New Nightmare interesting but hugely flawed and both previous Voorhees instalments (the 1993 Jason Goes to Hell and 2002's Jason X) shockingly dire I wasn't really in the mood in 2003 - just a year after the spaceborne antics of Jason (wait... Jason Space Bourne?!?) the wounds were too raw for me to contemplate it. And y'know, I was in my early twenties and doing stuff that seemed more interesting at the time. Looking back though, it seems a shame: little kid me would have jumped for joy at the prospect of a meeting between these two titans of terror - like a Bropnze Age version of the Golden Age's Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man or the Silver Age's King Kong vs Godzilla. So I thought maybe it was time. Also, Katherine Isabelle's in it, which is a good if prurient reason for watching. But I thought I may as well make a thing of it. Why not do a rewatch of both franchises to lead up to finally seeing the team up movie? It's been many a year since I've seen quite a few of 'em, and 2021 is sucking enough balls to encourage ignoring it and jumping into some '80s nostalgia. So let's lacquer our hair up big and hit 88 miles per hour to get back in time! And so we begin not with a movie, but with a televisial prequel to the Nightmare series courtesy of the opening episode of the short lived Freddy's Nightmares syndicated anthology show wherein the cackling Mr Krueger would act as the Crypt Keeper style horror host introducing each week's tale. This opening prequel instalment showing the secret origin of Freddy Krueger may have a bit of horror cache by dint of being directed by Tobe Hooper, but we're definitely more in the area of The Mangler Tobe Hooper than Texas Chainsaw (or 'Salem's Lot or Poltergeist or Lifeforce) Tobe Hooper. Shot on shiteo (the late '80s US NTSC TV video is crap enough, made worse by the copy I'd obtained by... uh... scrying glass), we blurrily see the pre-trial hearing and subsequent release on a technicality of Springwood's premier paedophile child slayer Mr Fred Krueger and the mandatory "Is this justice?" outraged parent lynch mob - Mrs Lovejoy would be proud: oh, won't somebody think of the children?!? - as they mete out some good ol' fashioned private justice. Obviously, we don't have John Saxon here, so as a stand in we have police Lt. Tim Blocker (Ian Patrick Williams) who moved out of New York to escape the muggers and the rape and the C.H.U.D.s to take his family to the white picket fences and PTA meetings of Springwood only to have his twin daughters Lisa and Merit (the strangely named Gry and Hili Park) almost becoming the latest victims of Freddy.
Feeling culpable for Freddy's release having not correctly read the villain his rights during his arrest, Blocker at first attempts to talk down the torch-bearing mob of villagers before eventually joining them and taking the lead in dousing Krueger with petrol and burning him alive, as Freddy gleefully laughs and declares that he's "rather burn than fade away!" Obviously, death doesn't quite take and the Springwood slasher soon returns to haunt Blocker in his dreams before driving him to a death via toothache and a dentist's drill-tipped variation on his famous razor glove. Englund's charisma pretty much single-handedly carries this otherwise pretty insipid instalment, which not only drags under the usual demerits of a prequel (having to hew to a pre-laid out road map and therefore somewhat lacking in surprise) but also the strictures of TV and sluggish direction (barring maybe one pretty effective kill scene). Is it canon? The lack of Saxon's Lt Thompson kind of says no. Maybe we can look on it as a sort of 'What If...?' / 'Elseworlds' sort of semi-sequel. A sidequel. Christ, I'm overthinking this.

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Constantine: City of Demons - The Movie (Doug Murphy, 2018)

As an avid comic book reader between the ages of around six and sixteen (after that, oh what a falling off was there... I guess I just drifted away from the whole scene in the mid to late '90s; There was a lot of crap around at the time), one of the best things - in my humble opinion o' course - was the DC Vertigo imprint and it's late '80s precursors. Comics such as Swamp Thing, The Demon ("Etrigaaaan!"), Blue Devil, Neil Gaiman's feted The Sandman, Shade: The Changing Man and others piled up upon my adolescent-to-teen self's shelves alongside other favourites like Web of Spider-Man, Ghost Rider and The Incredible Hulk - but one of the firm faves in the firmament of Vertigo's vertiginous variations was Hellblazer. Created by comic book/graphic novel (delete as per snobbishness) doyen (I was going to attempt a "doyen of comics"/doyenne du comice joke, but I think i've been found guilty of more than enough misfiring gags over the years, so we'll leave that particular partridge in a pear tree alone) and full-time maniac Alan Moore during his legendary run on Swamp Thing, the character of John Constantine soon span-off into his own title: a daemonic noir saga of the trenchcoat-clad investigator transplanted to the rainswept concrete mise en scene of Thatcher's late Nineteen-Haties Britain and tackling less the standard gumshoe tropes of marital intrigue and petty murder and more the extrusions into our dimension of primal evil forces from the Outer realms. Which is pretty cool work if you can get it. With a litany of writers over the years including, but not limited to: Moore, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman and artists numbering among them John Ridgway, Simon Bisley and Dave McKean, Hellblazer was a spellbinding and spell-casting monthly addiction for young me and quite possibly shaped my tastes/warped my fragile young mind (again, delete as per opinion). The character of Constantine - cool, shifty, and dangerous to know - was visually modelled upon Gordon Sumner aka Sting (of not very good songs and Dune's "I WILL KILL YOU!" fame) and his iconic spiked hair and long trenchcoat possibly contributed to my squee-ing when David Tennant was unveiled as the new Doctor Who in late 2005 and had opted to portray another fantasy hero of mine with spiked hair and a long trenchcoat. Shame that he opted to play it with an Estuary accent. If he had to forsake his native Paisley, why not a Scouse twang? It didn't go wrong for Paul McGann. Still, we have Matt Ryan these days, so all is right with the world. (No, of course Keanu Reeves doesn't count. Tilda Swinton ws the only thing even remotely of interest in that non-canon abortion of a film [which is almost exactly what I thought about the Suspiria remake, to a slightly less vehement and venomous extent. At least that film had the grace to do something interesting with its source material]). Oh, on a slight Doctor Who note: as a child it irritated me to look up the titles of previous Who stories and note that there were two stories titled 'The Seeds of Death' and 'The Seeds of Doom' respectively. The similar-but-different dissonance betwixt the twain irked me. Similarly, the redolence of the titles of Hellblazer and Clive Barker's horror franchise Hellraiser got on my nerves, especially when Marvel's Epic imprint began a series of Hellraiser comics that could be found right next to Hellblazer on the alphabetically-arranged shelves of comic stores. If anyone was ever in the Newcastle branch of Forbidden Planet circa 1992 and saw a twelve or thirteen year old boy standing with a comic book in each hand and a scowl upon his face, consider the conundrum of a couple of decades confirmed. Apologies: I can't help having always been an anal fan. By which I mean both a fan who is anal, and also a fan of... Anyway. Let's get on with the review, shall we?
When NBC commissioned the sadly short-lived (only thirteen episodes, we hardly got to know and love thee: though thirteen's a good occult number I suppose) Constantine TV series in 2014 starring Matt Ryan as the eldritch sleuth things seemed to be looking up only to be foiled by network cancellation. Our hero, however, transcended the axe of death and appeared in the CW's Arrow before becoming a fixture in the Arrowverse as a permanent crewmember of the Waverider in the delightfully unhinged Legends of Tomorrow, as well as transferring to animated form (still voiced by Ryan) firstly in Justice League Dark and then in the web series City of Demons, later re-edited into a full length feature. When Constantine is contacted by his old cab-driving pal Chas Chandler (Damien O'Hare taking on voicing duties of the character named after the bass player of Newcastle's own The Animals - my ma was asked out on a date by the real Chas, she reckons. That's my rock 'n' roll claim to fame) after many years with the news that his young daughter Trish has suddenly lapsed into an inexplicable coma - driving his marriage with wife Renee (Emily O'Brien) onto the rocks - John feels the need, weighted mostly by guilt, to try to help. Attending the hospital bedside of the insensate child he summons the aid ("I'm calling in a specialist") of the Nightmare Nurse Asa the Healer (Laura Bailey) - a demon who takes on the rather fetching form of an alluring fetish nurse replete with PVC uniform. Which is nice. (I now have Genesis' 'Here Comes the Supernatural Anaesthetist' stuck in my head for reasons unknown - which is slightly less nice)
With their only lead being the address of '1247 Enstrom, L.A.' Johny and Chas leave Trish and Renee in the hands of Asa who vows to guard the soulless Trish from any malevolent spirits or demons who might try to inhabit her shell, and take the night flight to sunny California where they spot news headlines of a 'coma plague' spreading through Los Angeles as more and more people are being mysteriously stricken. Making their way to the address, they find a mansion wherat they are greeted at the door by a pig butler (I've always wanted a monkey butler myself) who quotes Dracula's "Enter freely of your own will" before amusedly chuntering "I've always wanted to say that". Entering the enchanted edifice, Constantine meets the demon Beroul (Jim Meskimen) - a hellspawn crossbreed of Sydney Greenstreet and Zero the Hutt who admits to being responsible for the wave of comas and taking the souls of its victims inclusing Trish, and seeks to make a deal with our Scouser warlock in exchange for the child's essence. Leaving Beroul's ghoulish pool - a literal swimming pool filled with dismembered body parts - they make their way through the house to the ballroom wherein the demon has arranged a musical soiree: humans being tortured and their essences torn from them to the sound of music played by a band straight from Pandaemonium itself. Some call it witchcore. Agreeing to the terms of the demon who he unflatteringly but accurately refers to as 'Mr Blobby' - that is, to eliminate five demons Beroul sees as rivals to his scheme of reaping the souls of the city - Constantine informs Chas that Trish and the other comatose patients' "souls are fuelling the engine of Beroul's magic, like batteries" and that the deal must be fulfilled quickly. This arrangement is, however, like many a devil's bargain not all as it seems: for 'Beroul' is but a skin suit ("a convenient mask") for the high demon Nergal - Constantine's nemesis who was summoned fifteen years prior in a Satanic ritual in the basement of Newcastle upon Tyne's Casanova Club. This Luciferian liturgy 'neath a Geardie goth den resulted in the young child Astra Logue being taken into the bowels of hell by the beasts of Nergal, an event which sent Constantine to an asylum in Ravenscar and set him on his path of magical warfare against the darkness. After being mysteriously guided to Guadalupe's Bar, John makes an intimate encounter with a seductive being named 'Angela' (Rachel Kimsey), the self-titled Queen of Angels and living embodiment of the psyche of the city itself who asks for his help against Nergal but has in fact made a pact with him and is willing to allow his schemes so long as the five competitor demons are slain. Constantine finds himself having to summon the aid of Mictlantecuhtli (Rick D. Wasserman), the Aztec death god, as part of a stratagem to wipe out the daemonic quintet before having to make a huge sacrifice in order to free Trish's soul from Nergal's clutches. I don't want to go too in depth with spoilers or anything - I highly recommend that anyone interested in the character and/or subject matter check it out themselves. For a comic company who've spent years floundering behind Marvel on the live action big screen, DC have been working absolute wonders in the animated medium. This is another good 'un. In summation - much better and far less disappointing than Penny Dreadful: City of Angels as far as franchise revisits go.

Monday, 21 September 2020

King of the Rocket Men, Chapters Ten to Twelve (Fred C. Brannon, 1949)

 Chapter Ten: The Deadly Fog

...and we get another turn by our old friend the reprise reprieve, as the recap shows us that as Rocket Man shuttles into Durken's decimator death trap, he regains his consciousness and footing enough to leap to safety between Durken taking a dive and the bomb-clock striking ten and taking the truck to bits.  I know it's a trope I need to deal with and get over, but grrrr.

Shrugging off his umpteenth near death experience, Jeff abandons pursuit of the three fugitives (say, that would make a good name for a movie!) and junior birdmans his way back to the cave lab, whereupon he's surprised mid-unmaking by Burt; the wary PR guru making a very gee-whiz "So you were the Rocket Man all the time!" exclamation upon discovering confirmation of the totally bleeding obvious.  Jeff decides to fill Winslow in, prompting a clip show flashback montage from previous chapters of the serial.  This is very much 'The One With The Backstory Of Rocket Man' in Friends parlance, King providing brief bits of narration over the older footage and prompting variations of "So that's what happened!" from Burt as he's gradually brought up to speed.  Practical and probably necessary as a glimpsed once to probably never be seen again part of a thirteen-week run in the pre-video age, but not the best episode to sit through when watching the serial in quicker succession.

The duo do though come to the conclusion that Dr Vulcan is definitely a choice between Professor Bryant (I. Stanford Jolley) and Dr Graffner (Marshall Bradford), and that the villain has been seated at their conference table alongside them the whole time, being part of all their top secret discussions and planning.  Realising that either of their eminent suspects is more than capable of shielding the thromium waves of the decimator and therefore making it impossible to track, they know that time is of the essence in capturing the real Vulcan before he can utilise the device.  Meanwhile, the sinister Vulcan plots in the shadows and informs Durken that he plans to deal with Jeff King once and for all and has to this end arranged for King to take a trip into town on a decoy rendezvous.  As King takes a taxi for his appointment at the Oasis Hotel with Professor Moore on"a matter of vital importance" the cab driver henchman leaps from the moving vehicle, leaving King locked inside as Vulcan taunts him via the radio speaker that he is guiding the car via remote control - as the car fills with clouds of gas - on Jeff's "last ride" and that "even the Rocket Man cannot help you now"...

Chapter Eleven: Secret of Dr Vulcan

...and the reprise reprieve strikes yet again, as we are shown this time how after Jeff had turned down an offer from Glenda and Burt to drive him to his destination Ms Thomas had glanced back to see the cab driver's dive and the pair raced back to their car to take off in hot pursuit of the hackney cab of death.  As the fumes consume Jeff to his doom, Glenda pulls her car alongside the taxi long enough for burly Burt to take the leap between moving vehicles, gain access to the driver's seat and pull over.  As the gasping and coughing King is pulled from the "gas chamber on wheels" as Glenda so colourfully puts it, the consternated Vulcan and Durken watch on as Jeff asserts that their cunning opponent may have finally overplayed his hand - he recognised the smell of the gas as Fuminol: a rocket fuel that will lead them to whomever placed an order for the substance and thus trace Dr Vulcan.  Durken is duly dispatched by his dire director to the Hunter Chemicals factory in order to get there before the heroic trio and destroy all records of the Fuminol purchase order.

As Jeff, Glenda and Burt arrive at the Hunter plant, they are just in the nick of time to catch Durken and a confederate about to leave - leading to the regulation two-fisted punch up that quickly becomes a gunfight.  In the yards of a chemical plant, firing bullets from behind and towards various crates and canisters.  man, these guys really are harbouring a wish for self-immolation.  Good thing Glenda decided to stay in the safety of her car.

Realising that they can't make it back to their own getaway car, Durken and his henchdude decide to hijack the nearest truck and make a break for it with an uninvited passenger as Burt makes his second heroic traffic leap of the day and boards the back of the lorry as the villains pull away and leaving Jeff and Glenda to resort to a vehicular pursuit.  As they race to catch up, though, Burt is swiftly overpowered and Durken lights the incriminating purchase papers on fire before untrussing the canvas roof of the truck so that it flies off in the window and blows onto the windscreen of Glenda's car - blinding her and King and causing the car to veer over the side of the road and into the river below...

...and just when I'm about to sigh and moan about yet another cliffhanger followed by a "but you didn't see this!" resolution, that isn't the end of the episode, and we see King and Ms Thomas swimming to the surface and safety.  Elsewhere, Vulcan receives the glad tidings that the papers have been disposed of, but also the news that his lackeys have Burt Winslow captive.  Spurning the request that Burt be dispatched, Vulcan seems delighted and remarks that he could be of great use as live bait for King, and contacts Jeff with the offer of a meeting if he values his friend's life.  Placing the hog-tied and gagged Burt in a room, the door of which his been rigged with machinery to deliver a massive volt shocking surprise to anyone who enters via that portal, Vulcan and his goons await King's arrival.  But Jeff has donned the rocket suit in order to jet to the assignation early, and enters in through the window (intruder window!) to be confronted by the villain face to face.  As Bryant gloats that he took the name of Vulcan to symbolise his dreams of conquest through "the power of steel" he forces our hero at gunpoint back towards the electrified entrance... 

Last Chapter: Wave of Disaster

...and just as he is about to step between the electrical arc machines, Burt manages to use his freed feet to kick the unnamed (his shirt may even be red for the all the monochrome film tells me) co-henchmen straight past him into the sparks of death, allowing him to leap to safety.  Untying Burt as Vulcan and Durken flee the scene, Jeff determines to alert the authorities as to Bryant's identity and get them to put out a dragnet (Dunn-de-dun-dun - just the facts, ma'am) and Burt informs him that he overheard their plans to utilise the decimator in some fantastical supervillain extortion plot involving the city of New York.  Ransacking the place, they find a receipt for a plane ticket bought by Bryant direct to the city that never sleeps and fear that they may already be too late.

Repairing to Science Associates' administration building, the pair along with Glenda discover that the diabolical duo took off in a small plane heading for the Big Apple, and determine that the authorities there must be warned, and that they might just make it there ahead of the villains using an airliner.  Soaring into NYC, they convince the chairman of the civil defence committee to heed their dire warnings about a weapon that can reduce mountains of stone into running rivers of molten lava just as Dr Vulcan's ransom demand over the city for one beellion dollars (honestly, post-Austin Powers, is there any other way to be able to hear a line like that?) arrives.  Refusing to give in to the blackmail demands of a madman, the councilman determines to wield the entire police force to discover Vulcan's lair.

Landing on his secret hideaway on Fisherman's Island, 300 miles out from New York harbour, Bryant/Vulcan trains the decimator upon the undersea geological faultline between the island and the city, ready to unleash the molten fury of the ocean bed if his demand is not met by 2 P.M.  As time ticks, the police sweep of the city has failed to find any trace and - his ransom unpaid - Vulcan fires the device.  As the resultant underwater earthquake sends a tsunami rolling inland, the panicking authorities order an emergency evacuation of the city, directing the fleeing inhabitants to head to the Westchester hills.  As the incoming wave of destruction causes first the shoreline and then the city's mighty skyscrapers to buckle and fall in an impressive model effects sequence*, Jeff determines Vulcan's likely location upon the island and dons the rocket pack to jet there ahead of the fleet of bomber planes dispatched in a last-ditch attempt to destroy the decimating device.  Taking out first the villains and then the machine (with his trusty ray gun), King takes off again just in time as Vulcan's lair is blown to smithereens and flies from the exploding wreckage back towards the major city whose shoreline and skyline has, like the sky that Ben E. King looked upon, crumbled and fallen into the sea.  Which is a bit bleak, really. 

*A note on the NYC destruction sequences: this was footage originally filmed back in 1933 for the Pre-Code RKO disaster film Deluge.  Republic had purchased the footage (not the entire movie, just the model effects sequences) for use in their own works, and the scenes were incorporated into the self-explanatory 1939 movie S.O.S. Tidal Wave as well as the 1941 serial Dick Tracy vs Crime Inc and eventually this serial.  Not many years later, Deluge was considered a lost film and these effects sequences were all that remained.  Happily though for those of us who mourn the very existence of the concept of lost films, an Italian-dubbed print of the picture was discovered in the 1980s in the basement of a house belonging to Italian exploitation film director Luigi Cozzi.  The subsequent subtitled re-release would have been marvel enough, but as recently as 2016 a nitrate negative of the film with its original English language soundtrack was located in France and the movie was fully restored and released the following year.  Now there's a happy ending. 

Sunday, 30 August 2020

The Fantastic Four (Oley Sassone, 1994)

Marty Langford's Doomed!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four is a fascinating documentary that gives a glimpse into the behind the scenes shenanigans and Machiavellian escapades that can bury a motion picture - much to the understandable chagrin of all the people (both cast and crew) who put the hard work and time into creating a film that would be sabotaged by higher-ups sucking on the schlong of Mammon.
When German producer Bernd Eichinger, head of New Constantin Films, acquired the rights from marvel Comics to make a movie of The Fantastic Four, he had until the end of 1992 to begin physical production before his option on the property lapsed.  Hurriedly shopping the project around some of the cheaper/lower-end studios such as Lloyd Kaufman's Troma (Kaufman ultimately balking at the thought of the fan uproar at anything they'd be able to put out for the stipulated co-production budget of $1 million) before reaching a deal with the legendarily able to put out a film with a weekend and some spare change Roger Corman of Concorde/New Horizons.  A similar situation was simultaneously unfurling across the pond, where Peter Litten and George Dugdale were frantically trying to get production started on their long-gestating Doctor Who film (their production house going through various name changes from Coast-to-Coast to Green Light to God knows what between 1988 and 1994) before the rights reverted to the BBC.  Unlike Litten & Dugdale, who were unable to make the prescribed start of filming date, Corman's low budget powerhouse managed to get a draft script written, undertake a frantic casting process and assemble a crew by cut-off point of December 1992; the main shoot would be over before the end of January 1993 with only a very brief break for Christmas.

Director Oley Sassone had previously shot music videos for acts such as Bruce Hornsby and the Range, Juice Newton, Wang Chung and Mr Mister (including the classic [sic] 'Broken Wings') before helming his debut feature with 1992's Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight starring kickboxing champ Don 'The Dragon' Wilson and Shaft himself Richard Roundtree.

Starring Alex Hyde-White (the time travelling star of the 1986 classic Biggles: Adventures in Time) as Reed Richards, Rebecca Staab (who has a long list of credits, but who I best know as the ill-fated Daphne Collins in the early '90s re-version of Dan Curtis' goth opera Dark Shadows [on the subject of which: RIP Barnabas Mk II Ben Cross; you were also great as Other Sarek in the 2009 Star Trek and Other Running Bloke in Chariots of Fire) as Susan Storm, Jay Underwood (the titular Boy Who Could Fly from the '80s) as Johnny "Flame On!" Storm and Michael Bailey Smith (who would inherit the role of the cannibalistic Pluto from pop-eyed icon Michael Berryman for the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes) as Ben Grimm, the film charts the youthful university-set exploits of science boffin Richards and his best frenemy and rival Victor von Doom (Joseph Culp, son of veteran thesp Robert Culp) as they strive to capture and harness the energy of a spacial phenomenon known as Colossus ("A radioactive comet-like energy source travelling in ten-year orbits", as their professor played by George Gaynes - Police Academy's Commandant Lassard himself - puts it).

When the attempt goes haywire causing Victor to absorb a ..uh... colossal amount of mysterious space radiation that also burns him into a human cinder and his 'remains' go missing from the hospital morgue - spirited away by his Latverian henchmen and rebuilt inside a metallic armoured suit as the throne-dwelling supervillain Doctor Doom - Reed devotes the next decade to re-enacting the experiment and getting it right in the name of the friend he believes to have perished.  Deciding this time to go to Colossus rather than trying to siphon its energies Earthward, Richards takes his three-man, one-woman crew on a shuttle ride into orbit where all four of them find themselves bathed in the strange radiation.  Reed becomes the super-elasticated Mr Fantastic, Sue the Invisible Woman with the abilities to vanish and generate unseen force fields, Johnny the pyrokinetic propensity to become a twisted firestarter and turn into an anthropomorphic flame named the Human Torch, and Ben is transformed into the monstrous craggy rock hominid the Thing (Carl Ciarfalio in an animatronic suit that's not half bad for the era and budget - it's features are certainly expressive and it's actually a physical presence rather than today's CGI).

Using their new-found powers, the team must stay together in order to battle not only the megalomaniac plots of Doom (Culp giving a splendidly melodramatic performance that projects to the back row through the inexpressive metal mask) but also the mole man-like Jeweler (Ian Trigger, like a stunted cross betwixt Leprechaun and Freddy Krueger) and his abduction designs upon Ben's blind sculptress girlfriend Alicia Masters (Kat Green).  Let's say it all together: "IT'S CLOBBERIN' TIME!"


The hard work was to be undone by Marvel movie honcho Avi Arad and executive producer Bernd Eichinger, who made a deal over the heads of the production team to cease and desist all publicity and bury the flick in favour of doing multi-million bucks business with Twentieth Century Fox and Chris Columbus.  The cast, led by Hyde-White, had been doing rounds of publicity on the convention circuits on their own dime when the edict came down from above to stop and the anticipated premiere at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota was promptly cancelled.  The finished prints of the film - which had only been completed by Sassone and editor Glenn Garland sneakily completing the editing themselves whilst working on a subsequent project - were seized (Sassone and Garlnd's illicit night time torchlit prowl around the production facility to try and grab the reels before they vanished being too late and finding them already gone) and presumably languish somewhere deep in the Fox vault, Wicker Man-reminiscent rumours of the cans being buried somewhere in Kentucky persisting.

Their devious deal done, Fox and Eichinger would take just over a decade to put out their preferred version of the film, that thing with Jessica Alba as Sue and the bloke from Nip/Tuck as Doom that cost a hundred times more and is a tenth as enjoyable, and after the sequel to that effort the property would be rebooted once again in the absolutely disastrous 2015 omnifuckery hallucinated by Josh Trank.

It may be a low bar to vault, but of the four (to date) Fantastic Four movies, the early '90s flick is by far the most enjoyable and the one most faithful to the spirit of the Lee and Kirby comics.  For my money, anyway.  Hopefully one day some coke-addled exec will see a flash of sense and get the negatives dusted down and cleaned up.  With luck, they can involve the still-enthusiastic Sassone and maybe spruce up the edits, effects and vocal dubs to the standard that they always should have been.  Get it out there.  It's doing nobody any good mouldering in a vault.  I can buy the Reb Brown Captain America films and the Peter Hooten Dr Strange, why can't I see this?

Sod Tim Story, and definitely sod Trank.


Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Werewolf (David Hemmings, 1987)

"There are two kinds of people in this world: those who believe in flying saucers, and those who don't."

The video age of the 1980s and early '90s was a great time to grow up as a fan of horror, fantasy, and science fiction movies.  The ongoing sagas of the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Howling and Hellraiser series were a constant stream of fear and thrills for one thing, and now and then another thing would pop up unexpectedly (and I don't just mean my private parts whilst on public transport, though I did have to carry my rucksack in front of me a lot in my early hormonal teens).  Way back in the hazy mists of the late Nineteen Haties, I embarked upon my usual crusade to the video shop (how arcane!) and espied a cover entitled merely Werewolf.  As one of my favourite films as a child was John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (my parents had a strange attitude towards what constituted appropriate viewing for a five year old), and i'd seen Joe Dante's The Howling as well as stuff like the Stephen King adaptation Silver Bullet, another lycanthropic legend seemed logical.  Also, the fact that the font in which the title was emblazoned on the cover was quite like the recently-released (we're talking 1990, here, I was only ten or eleven) Patrick Swayze vehicle Ghost made me think that perhaps this was part of a franchise - maybe there would be a movie next year called Vampire with similarly elongated lettering upon it's frontage.

I had no idea that I was watching anything other than a movie, rather than the pilot episode of a TV series - helmed by David Hemmings, former star of Antonioni's Blow Up (1966) and Argento's Profundo Rosso / Deep Red (1975), turned director of many a television piece from Follyfoot (1973) to Quantum Leap (1989-1993) - but it worked in of itself, much like the pilot movie of the Bill Bixby The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982), and it would appear on first glance the subsequent series would share many similarities.

Created and written by the rather appropriately-named Frank Lupo (ex of The A-Team),  our story begins in the very Eighties locale of the Fantasia nightclub wherein the big haired and rolled-up sleeves clientele are boogieing the night away to 'Silent Running' by Mike and the Mechanics when an even scarier presence is wending its way between them.  From a subjective tracking camera P.O.V. shot we see the killer as he eyes up his prospective victims, as it flashes between normal vision and a sort of werewolf-vision; less the thick red filter of Legend of the Werewolf's werewolf-cam and closer to a hazy heat-seeking Predator.  As the unseen lycanthrope scopes out the bar, we are treated to our first sighting of his hand - the palm cross-crossed with scar tissue in the form of a five-pointed star, a pentagram which quickly begins to bleed (don't pick at your scabs, kids).  Outside in the car park at midnight (that should be the title of something), a yuppie couple wend their loved-up way to their overpriced rollerskate of a vehicle to head back home for some doubtless coke-fuelled lovin' when our wolfman, now transformed and in the mood for some carnivorous lunar activities, decided to make three a crowd and tears both them and their car asunder.

The next morning, we flash to the lifestyles of the rich and idle as we are introduced to our protagonist Eric Cord (U.S. soap opera veteran John J. York a.k.a. Mac Scorpio), who since being orphaned at a young age has been living with the well to do Nichols family and spends most of his free time lounging in their swimming pool and pursuing the lovely Kelly (Michelle Johnson, who would soon after star in Anthony Hickox' 1988 Waxwork, and go on to co-star in Dr Giggles and Death Becomes Her), sister of his best friend and also sort of semi-adopted sister.  Incest for the wincest!  Not eager to inform Mr Nichols that he's knocking boots with his precious daughter, Eric ducks out of staying for dinner to head off to the flat he now shares with Kelly's brother Ted (keep it in the family, yeah?) and heads there in his roll-top convertible as evening falls listening to Timbuk 3's '(The Future's So Bright) I Gotta Wear Shades'.  Because it is the 1980s.  Arriving to find all the lights off in the apartment and Ted (a brilliantly nervous and twitchy performance from Raphael Sbarge) sitting in the darkness loading a revolver, Eric is understandably a bit worried and perplexed.  Begging his friend to tie his to a chair and keep him from leaving before midnight, Ted explains that the gun contains silver bullets and that not only is he a werewolf and responsible for the recent spate of killings in town, but that he wants Eric to kill him - something that he insists to his incredulous pal that he will be willing to do once he sees what he becomes.

As time ticks past, the restrained Ted tells his tale: that when working a summer job on a trawler for a Captain Janos Skorzeny (a nice reference there for the genre conversant - that being the name of the vampire villain of the 1972 Kolchak pilot movie The Night Stalker) he was attacked by a strange animal when heading homeward at night through the docks: 

"I'm seeing these eyes - these yellow... demon eyes."

After recovering from the creature's assault, Ted has slowly come to understand what he now is and - having failed to trace the wolf that bit him, the originator of the lycanthropic bloodline - has resorted to ending it all.  Eric obviously doesn't believe a word of this, but round midnight (Miles Davis title drop!) something comes over brother Theodore and a startling metamorphosis occurs.  Splitting out of his clothing Hulk-style and easily shredding the ties that bind him, Ted his now a huge bear-sized bipedal wolf that attacks his roommate and Eric, after sustaining a gnawing lovebite on the shoulder, gives in to  the dying wish for suicide by friend (as opposed to cop) and uses the silver bullets.  When the commotion brings the neighbours from the adjoining apartments inquiring, the sight of a bloodstained Eric holding a gun and his naked deceased flatmate sprawled on the floor are obviously grounds for suspicion and the injured party finds himself under arrest for murder.  

After suffering some American Werewolf-style hallucinatory nightmares in his hospital bed, Cord is convinced that he is now the bearer of the curse.  Even though his slaying of her brother has obviously damaged the already awkward relationship with Kelly and her father, she comes to Eric - who has managed to secure bail thanks to an aggravatingly quippy bondsman played by Ethan Phillips (Star Trek's very own Jar-Jar Binks Neelix) - with an audio cassette Ted mailed to her before his death confessing his story to her and his plan to get Eric to kill him.  I wonder what's on the other side of the tape?  Probably 'Somewhere In My Heart' by Aztec Camera or Prefab Sprout's 'King of Rock 'n' Roll'.  Anyway, this is enough for Kelly to decide to try and help Eric and they leave town to track down Captain Skorzeny (looming 6'5'' Western star Chuck Connors) whom they have determined to be the O.G. progenitor werewolf.  However, this entails skipping bail and missing a court date and so bounty hunter Alamo Joe Rogan (Lance LeGault), rather non-politically correctly referred to as "the Indian" despite only being part Native American, is dispatched on their trail. 

When the pair manage to locate the creepy one-eyed Skorzeny, the realisation that it is going to be the night of transformation (the changes in this mythos not being predicated on the cycle of the full moon, but more random) causes Eric and Kelly to head to the nearest Big Six Motel where she ties him up in the bathtub (kinky stuff again) only for the predatory Skorzeny to swoop in and snatch her before the powerless Eric's eyes - whisking her away to his nearby forest cabin-cum-lunchplace, decorated with the skulls and remains of his previous victims.  Alamo Joe appears just as night falls and failing to listen to his helpless and hog-tied bounty's protestations about a kidnapped girl throws Cord into his van to take back to town where a cell's waiting for him.  However, the change overcomes Eric and as the beast within emerges he breaks his bonds and tears his way out of the hunter's truck to head off to rescue his mate and take on the evil alpha male.  Arriving just as Skorzeny too transforms before the traumatised valley princess - a truly creepy transition involving tearing away his own skin a la Neil Jordan's Company of Wolves - the pair of canis lupus sapiens duke it out in a duel of tooth and claw which ends only when an upturned lantern sets the cabin ablaze.

Waking in the morning amidst the wrecking, Eric determines that both Kelly is safe (if shellshocked by her recent ordeals) and that Skorzeny has got away - paving the way for a future in which he hunts his own One-Armed Man in the form of a one-eyes werewolf whilst a fugitive from the law himself, with a relentless lawman (his very own Sam Gerard) on his tail.  Setting up a sadly short-lived (a further 28 half-hour episodes followed this full length pilot) Fugitive-cum-Incredible Hulk TV series, this is a decent little werewolf film in its own right.  Passing by breezily at under 90 minutes its good recommended fun for any connoisseur of those things that walk (whether on two legs or four) when the wolfbane blooms and the moon is full and bright.  Or, you know, whenever you get a pentagonal scar on your hand that starts bleeding.  That works too.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

King of the Rocket Men, Chapters Seven to Nine (Fred C. Brannon, 1949)

 Chapter Seven: Molten Menace

...and yet, in another of those "well, you just didn't see this last time" twists that I so know and love (like a mutant stepchild kept in the attic), we see that Jeff recovered from the gunshot long enough to leap from the truck inside the warehouse just before the driverless vehicle caroomed - yes, that's a word - to its doom.  Happy that at least Vulcan didn't manage to get his hands on the device which now languishes at the bottom of the river, Jeff and Prof. Millard head back to the cave where after laughing that Dirken must now be convinced that King is not the Rocket Man (maybe that was the title of Tristram Coffin's first volume of autobiography, a la Leonard Nimoy's I Am Not Spock) Millard bemoans that it's the superior intellect of the malignant Vulcan that is keeping him languishing in this subterranean haven and that finding Vulcan's weakness must be their priority.  As Millard has finally completed his work of the experimental sonic decimator - which he demonstrates by utilising its beam of 'thromium waves' to melt a thick bar of manganese steel, "One of the hardest metals we know" - they decide that the time will soon be right to try and draw Vulcan out using the machine as bait.  But first, suggests Jeff, the time has come to take Burt and Glenda into their confidence.

Jeff tells his friends the truth and arranges for them to take his completed X-22 launcher to the Rocket Cave (which, we discover, is located "near Hermit Mountain") while he, anticipating being tailed by Dirken and his hoods, will head in the opposite direction.  However, the wily Vulcan intercepts a radio transmission from King's car transceiver to Millard and orders his goons to turn around and trace the cave.  As Winslow and Ms Thomas arrive with the firing mechanism, Millard has scarcely just incorporated it into the decimator when Dirken and his men arrive to seize what is now "one of the most deadly machines ever devised".  As Jeff busts the rocket suit out from the boot of the car and jets to the cave, a struggle with the villains results in the decimator being activated and the haywire machine causing the inner walls of the cavern to begin melting into running lava...

Chapter Eight: Suicide Flight

...and as Millard struggles valiantly with the out of control device, Jeff rescues Burt and Glenda from their bonds and they flee down the cavern corridors pursued by the molten magma flow.  Spotting an open air shaft in the side of the mountain (what is this, a pyramid or something?), Rocket Man ushers his charges through the tunnel and they break on through to the other side into the open air as the bubbling lava stream sweeps through the caves.

 Back at Science Associates Administration, Jeff confesses to the rest of the board that yes, he knew that Millard has survived the initial attempt on his life by Dr Vulcan and that he had kept his secret while he worked underground (quite literally) to complete his life's work.  His fellows show understanding, but comment that it was all for nought as the decimator has now been destroyed - to which King declares that as he had worked alongside Millard in the artefact's development he may be able to recreate it.  This gets his fellow members to stand to attention (that gag will never get old, because I will never grow up), and many of them offer and assistance and expertise that he may require in making the machine.  Thanking the group, he says that he will be in contact should he require anything and as the meeting breaks up moves to place the designs for the decimator in the office safe.  When Burt comes over and asks whether he thinks it wise to leave the plans here, King declares that it's the safest place that he can think of loud enough for any and all of the departing experts to overhear.

When later that evening a shadowy behatted figure makes its way into the room, opens the safe (constantly muttering the combination as if 'twere an incantation) and removes the plans, Jeff and Burt pounce on him to find that it is Dr Von Strum.  As they begin to interrogate the suspected villain, they begin to realise that the terrified Teuton is under the influence of a malign mesmerism and has no idea why he was there or what had befallen him beforehand.  Jeff resolves to pursue the only clue that they have: Von Strum's only memory is to deliver the papers to an address at Mink Shoals (Or: considering the whole enemy destroying a country from within angle - Moseley Shoals?  Eh?  Eh?  Amirite?  Tell me why does the river run red?).

Leaving the recovering Von Strum at Glenda's apartment to recuperate and recover his wits in the care of Glenda and Burt, King locates the assigned address and finds a house on a lonely road wherein Durkin dwells.  Disappointed to find the monkey rather than the organ grinder himself, Jeff gets into one of his regulation two-fisted dust-ups but comes off second best as Durkin flees with the information that Von Strum lives and that Dr Vulcan is compromised.  Tracing the errant professor to Ms Thomas' building, Vulcan decrees that Von Strum must be destroyed before his memory returns and he can finger the Vulcan (if you're having bad thoughts about T'Pol right now, you're a very naughty nerd).

Bursting into the apartment and overpowering Burt, Durkin and his co-conspirators prepare to execute the inhabitants when a roaring of engines alerts them to Rocket Man's rapid approach.  As the airborne ace jets towards the windows, the gunmen level their weapons at the approaching target and open fire...

Chapter Nine: Ten Seconds to Live

...yet somehow our hero manages to outmanoeuvre the oncoming hail of bullets and lands on Glenda's balcony.  Realising that the jig is up, Durkin and his men hare out through the apartment door pausing only to pump a couple of slugs into the prone Professor Von Strum.  As Rocket Man makes his entrance onto the scene of the crime Bury is already checking the fallen scientist's vitals and pronounces him dead.

"I'm sorry," says our tardy hero flatly over the corpse.  "If I could only have gotten here sooner, I might have prevented this."

Oh, you think?!?

Back at S.A. H.Q. (which in my head is pronounced exactly the way that the CPU says "SARK!" in Tron), King also has to face the quite correct accusations of the board when the coroner's verdict of homicide comes in and his co-workers opine that had he let some of them in on his plans Dr Vulcan may not have made such a gambit and Von Strum might still be alive.  Acquiescing, Jeff states that in future he will report any and all further progress with regards to the decimator - adding as an aside to Burt after the meeting breaks up that they might be surprised just how soon that may be.

At the new Rocket Cave (the original having been destroyed by magma), Jeff shows Burt the completed decimator but seems unsure as to whether it can be safely tested without devising some kind of shielding - as the thromium may be detectable even beneath the ground.  Meanwhile, Dr Vulcan is unveiling his own device to Durkin (tee hee): a machine that can track the thromium waves from a distance.  He gives the tracer to Durkin and instructs him to locate the secret hideout and the decimator.  When Durkin's mooching around the entrance sets of a proximity alarm, Jeff and Burt make their way outside just in time to see one of Durkin's confederates zooming away on a motorcycle.  Falling for the decoy they hop in the car and head off in hot pursuit, tailing the biker around the mountain road until King gets off a well-aimed gunshot that propels the fleeing felon over the side of the cliff to his certain doom.  Our hero once again, ladies and gentlemen.

As Killer King and his accomplice return to the cave, they realise they've been had when they find the decimator predictably gone.  Checking the secret camera hidden outside, they get a good look at the getaway van that the villains have mounted the errant device inside and Jeff changes into the rocket suit to head heavenward to give chase.  Reaching their rendezvous with another of Vulcan's goons, Durkin and his pal load the machine from the van into another car before setting a bomb with a ten-second fuse in the van.  As Rocket Man arrives and enters the truck hoping to find his invention, the vehicle is blown to smithereens...