Saturday, April 21, 2018

Keep On Reading Bill Warren’s Fantastic “Keep Watching The Skies!”

Does the phrase Klaatu barada nikto evoke fond memories of watching The Day The Earth Stood Still? Can the mere mention of science-fiction films such as The Incredible Shrinking Man, This Island EarthThem! and The War of The Worlds bring a smile to your face? Then there’s a book on the subject you simply must read. It’s the late Bill Warren’s incisive, thoroughly researched study of the genre: Keep Watching The Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties. The book focuses on films produced between the years 1950-62, the first golden age of the sci-fi movie. Originally published in two volumes in 1982 & 1986, the updated & combined “21st Century Edition” was released in 2009, and is still in print. This massive tome covers everything from bona fide classics such as It Came From Outer SpaceInvasion of the Body Snatchers and Forbidden Planet to less honored (but still enjoyable) titles like Invisible Invaders, Devil Girl From Mars & Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

Warren grew up during the time of many of these films original release and he saw many of them on the big screen, and has remarkably sharp recollections of them. He offers a personal (as well as historical) perspective regarding each film he reviews in the book. While his criticisms of some of the genre’s less successful efforts can be a bit harsh, his informative and illuminating writing is a delight to read. His passion for these movies is infectious. Warren’s extensive coverage of these films includes a wealth of facts on actors, directors, screenwriters and crew members, along with detailed information about production history, script changes and even discusses alternate versions of the films. Each movie gets its own entry, in alphabetical order, and there are several helpful appendices offering further information that’s not featured in the main volume. There are also some great illustrations, photos and film poster reproductions featured throughout the book.

While it’s length (over 1000 pages) may seem daunting, it’s the kind of book you can savor a little at a time; you’ll find yourself moving throughout the book to read about your own favorites, and then returning to check out some more entries on films you may not have seen. Keep Watching The Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties is an indispensable guide to one of the most enduring of film genres. If you’re a fan, you’ll truly appreciate Warren’s insightful and entertaining analysis of these movies. While you may not always agree with his assessments, you’re sure to learn something new about these films and the people who made them. The book is available in a print edition, as well as an excellent, affordable e-book version, which is the one I used to prepare this review. Highly recommended. And remember, as Scotty the reporter said at the end of 1951's The Thing "Keep watching the skies!"

Saturday, April 7, 2018

H.G. Wells Rocks (No, Really...)

Here's another piece I did over at Culture Sonar, the fantastic arts and entertainment site. This time, it's all about a landmark record combining H.G. Wells, rock & roll and..... Richard Burton? Couldn't happen, you say? Well, it did back in 1978 with the release of the double album Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of War of The Worlds, a rock opera that featured Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy and Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues. Read all about it by following the link below the image.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Sherlock Holmes Crosses Over Into...Hell?

Sherlock Holmes has faced all manner of challenges in his long career, but it’s safe to say he’s never encountered enemies quite like the ones he meets in Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell. In this frightening tale, the consulting detective encounters the Cenobites, originally introduced in author Clive Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart, and later featured in the Hellraiser film series. The story takes place after Holmes’ defeat of his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty. The great detective has grown bored and needs a new challenge. Watson is concerned for his friend, as the detective's keen mind and laser focused intellect seem to be going astray. Holmes needs a new challenge. When our heroes are engaged to investigate a man’s mysterious disappearance, it leads them to a sinister organization known as the Order of the Gash. The trail also leads to a mysterious puzzle box with supernatural properties, which may open a portal to other dimensions, and perhaps the gates of Hell itself.

The Holmes of this story is as obsessed with solving a mystery as he’s always been, and his quest leads him down a more twisted road than he’s ever taken. But will Holmes triumph over the dark forces he’s facing, or be overcome by them? The first half of the novel (like many of the duo’s adventures) is narrated by Watson, but the good doctor and the great detective himself alternately tell the second half of the adventure, when their journey takes them to the very depths of Hell, where they meet a legion of eerie beings who could consume their very souls. Once the true face of the leader of these demonic forces is revealed, it turns out to be someone well known to our heroes. That familiar face is now in command of these evil creatures, and plans to use them to conquer and control multiple worlds.

At first glance, combining Arthur Conan Doyle’s intrepid Holmes and Watson and the shadowy denizens of Clive Barker’s fiendish Cenobite universe might seem like an odd pairing, but author Paul Kane melds the two worlds brilliantly. He creates an atmospheric and shudder inducing tale that manages to stay true to the hallmarks of both fictional universes. The novel is peppered with easter eggs and subtle nods to both franchises. Kane is a leading expert on the horrifying world of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, and is a bona fide Holmes fan to boot. While some traditional Holmes fans may find Sherlock Homes and the Servants of Hell strays a bit too much into the horrific for their tastes, those who enjoy a ripping good yarn will be very glad they went along on this terrifying adventure with Holmes and Watson. The book was originally published in 2016, and is available online and at local retailers such as Barnes & Noble.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Visiting the "House on Haunted Hill"

Have you ever been invited to a (haunted) house party? That's the plot of House on Haunted Hill, a delightfully spooky fright fest from 1959. Produced and directed by William Castle, the movie stars Vincent Price as millionaire Frederick Loren, who invites five people to spend the night at a supposedly haunted house. If you survive the night in this terrifying place, you get $10,000. All of the attendees need the money Loren's offering for one reason or another. He hands out fun party favors such as handguns that are stored in little coffins! One of the guests is Watson Pritchard, who knows a great deal about the shall we say, colorful history of the house. He warns everyone that it's a very bad idea to stay the night. In addition to Price, the cast includes veteran character actor Elisha Cook, Jr. as Pritchard, Richard Long (of TV’s The Big Valley & Nanny and The Professor), and Julie Mitchum, sister of actor Robert Mitchum.

Director Castle was well known as a flamboyant showman who used unique gimmicks to sell his films. During screenings of The Tingler (1959), there were vibrators installed under the seats that induced shocks when the title creature was on screen; for 13 Ghosts (1960), patrons used special ghost viewers to see (or remove) the spirits from the screen. In House on Haunted Hill's theatrical showings, a skeleton seemed to float right out of the film at the audience in a process called Emergo. These ideas worked like a charm for Castle, who had a tremendous amount of financial success with his films. His movies were aimed primarily at teenagers, who ate them up like the candy from the theatre's concessions stand. His autobiography was called Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare The Pants Off America. 

A gathering of guests at the House on Haunted Hill
House on Haunted Hill is truly the kind of B film they don’t make anymore. The movie features ghosts, blood dripping from the ceiling, secret rooms, skeletons in the basement, and heads with no bodies as part of the scares and shocks. But is there a non- supernatural reason for some of the weird goings on in the house....could our suave host know more than he's telling? Price is at his witty, menacing best and gets most of the film’s choice dialogue, though Cook also gets to deliver some, like "Only the ghosts in this house are happy we're here" and the film’s memorable closing line. This is a matinee movie for the ten year old in all of us; it sounds kind of old fashioned and goofy in the age of "found footage" horror films and endless sequels to movies like Saw, but that's exactly why it's such great fun. 

The film was remade in gorier fashion in 1999 with Geoffrey Rush, but that version can’t hold a candle to the original. The movie is available in various DVD and Blu-ray editions (including a colorized version) and for digital download as well. So warm up the popcorn, and settle in for some silly, scary fun. And here’s another piece of suggested viewing: The 1993 Joe Dante (Gremlins) film Matinee is a story about a B movie producer (played by John Goodman) who premieres one of his monster films in a small Florida town during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Goodman's character is an affectionate homage to Castle. Matinee is also worth a look, especially for fans of classic 50s and 60s sci-fi, horror and fantasy films. Here’s a link to the trailer for House on Haunted Hill

Sunday, March 4, 2018

And the "Alternate Oscar" Goes to.....

Film fans, critics, and writers all have their opinions about the Oscars. In the days leading up to the Academy Awards ceremony, there are endless debates about who will win, and after the awards are handed out, there’s a lot more discussion about who did win, and who should have; it’s a favorite activity among movie lovers. There have been many books written about the Academy Awards, but one of the most unique is 1993’s Alternate Oscars, by veteran film scribe Danny Peary. The book details Peary’s choices for the categories of Best Picture, Actor and Actress from the years 1927 thru 1991. Peary also details his own list of “Award Worthy Runners Up” in place of the other nominees in each category. 

Sometimes, Peary agrees with the Academy’s choices, but more often than not he doesn’t. That’s where things get really interesting. For example, for the year 1958, the musical Gigi won Best Picture. Peary’s winner is Touch of Evil, the classic noir directed by Orson Welles. For the year 1977, he chooses Sissy Spacek for Best Actress in Carrie over the Academy’s choice, Faye Dunaway in Network. It’s no surprise that Peary celebrates a number of often neglected genre films among his Oscar picks, as he’s the author of the acclaimed Cult Movies books, which celebrate the weird, wild and wonderful world of genre cinema. Some of his choices even address infamous snubs by the Academy: the alternate Oscar for 1982's Best Picture goes to Steven Spielberg’s E.T. over director Richard Attenborough's epic biography Gandhi, which was the Academy's choice.

Peary’s insightful commentary regarding the performers and the films he’s selected as the winners makes for fascinating reading. Many of his choices may open your eyes to some excellent films and performances you haven’t seen, or remind you of old favorites that you’ll want to rediscover. I do wish Peary would publish an updated edition of the book, as it would be wonderful to see his own choices for some of the more recent Oscar winners. One thing’s for sure, after you finish reading Alternate Oscars, it will probably open up a whole new series of discussions with your fellow movie fans. The book is currently out of print, but affordable used copies can easily be found at online retailers such as Amazon. Seek out Danny Peary’s Alternate Oscars, and let the debates and discourses begin!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Retro Movie: Ray Milland in Corman's "X"

Diana Van der Vlis & Ray Milland
Filmmaker Roger Corman made a name for himself as a producer and director with a host of successful low budget genre films in the 1950s and 60s, and also helped start the careers of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and many others, by giving them work on his movies. His series of influential Edgar Allen Poe adaptations (most of which starred Vincent Price) are now regarded as classics. Another interesting Corman project from this period is the 1963 tale, X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes, simply titled “X” onscreen. The movie tells the story of Dr. James Xavier, who is experimenting with moving beyond the limits of vision in humans. Xavier develops a serum that will expand what we can see. After briefly testing it on animals, Xavier decides to uses the eye drop serum on himself, and his visual capacity does increase. At first, he can see through clothing and solid objects. He is startled by, and elated with, the results.

But that’s not enough for the scientist, and as he continues to use the serum, Xavier begins to see much more than he bargained for: it’s a textbook example of the old science-fiction theme, “there are some things man was not meant to know.” Xavier’s research partners drop his funding, and even though his increased visual capacity helps save a young girl’s life at the hospital where he works, no one supports him. He ends up working at a carnival sideshow as a mentalist, and later as a faith healer. Xavier continues to see deeper into the world than any man ever has; will he see beyond this dimension, or even this universe, and will it drive him insane?

The movie is well cast; Milland (who had worked with Corman previously on the Poe film, The Premature Burial) is excellent in the title role. He perfectly conveys the elation, and later dread, that Xavier feels as he sees shapes, colors and things that he eventually can’t (or won't) comprehend. Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone and John Hoyt are all effective in supporting roles, and Don Rickles (yes, that Don Rickles) is quite good as a carnival barker who wants to cash in on Xavier’s visionary powers. Corman regulars Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze have cameos as customers at the carnival sideshow. The effects are well done for the period, and eerily convey the odd & mind-bending things that Dr. Xavier sees, which are beyond the veil of normal human perception.

X is a solid bet for fans of the sci-fi & horror genre; it definitely transcends its B-movie origins to tell a unique story. There are some nice touches from director Corman (who was several films into his excellent work on the Poe cycle at this point) and it strives to deliver a bit more than the typical genre films of the period. Many reviewers & writers (including Stephen King in Danse Macabre, his landmark study of the horror genre) have noted the almost Lovecraftian themes that pop up late in the movie. It’s a well-crafted chiller, however you interpret it. The film often airs on Turner Classic Movies and other cable channels, and is also available in a nifty Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber, which includes commentaries from Corman and writer-director Joe Dante, among other extras. Here’s a link to the trailer: the way, it's interesting to note that Dr. Xavier coincidentally shares his last name with the telekinetic Dr. Charles Xavier, the leader of Marvel Comics mutant heroes, the X-Men, who also debuted in 1963.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Jim West Faces a "Night of the Puppeteer"

The Wild Wild West was one of the most entertaining television shows of the mid to late 60s. Creator and producer Michael Garrison conceived the series as a sort of “James Bond in the Old West” which cleverly combined elements of the hugely popular spy genre with the traditional Western. The show followed the adventures of Secret Service agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), who battled all kinds of outlandish and colorful villains in the 1800s. West was the two-fisted man of action, and Gordon was a master of disguise, as well as the provider of unique gadgets the duo used to escape the deathtraps devised by evil criminal masterminds such as their frequent foe, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, masterfully played by Michael Dunn. Like the Batman series, the show featured a variety of famous guest stars portraying the villains, including Boris Karloff, Ida Lupino, Burgess Meredith, Ricardo Montalban, and Agnes Moorehead.

Lloyd Bochner
One of the more memorable episodes of the show’s first season (filmed in black & white) is “The Night of the Puppeteer,” which opens with Jim West visiting a Supreme Court Justice. Jim warns the man that two of his colleagues have been murdered, and they are concerned for his safety. During a puppet show being performed for the judge’s grandson, one of the puppets tries to shoot the judge! Fortunately, West foils the attempt. Jim later examines the puppets, and finds a clue, which leads him to a bar called Triton’s Locker. While there, he gets into a fight with the patrons, and ends up in an elevator, which speeds him to an underground lair. There he meets Zachariah Skull, the mastermind behind the killings. It seems Skull has a bone (pun intended) to pick with the judges, and society in general. He intends to put Jim on trial for his life....though the final verdict has already been decided.

Skull is also a brilliant inventor, and has surrounded himself with life-size, steam-powered puppets that do his bidding, including a ballerina who dances with West. There are some nicely played scenes between Robert Conrad and character actor Lloyd Bochner, who imbues Skull with a subtly menacing quality. The sequences in Skull’s underground home are strikingly lit, and well staged by Irving J. Moore, who directed many episodes during the course of the series.  There’s a nice twist at the episode’s climax which recalls a classic horror film I won’t mention here, in order to avoid spoilers. Along with other eerie episodes of the series, like “The Night of the Druid’s Blood” and “The Night of the Man-Eating House” this entry veers into territory which might seem more at home on The Twilight Zone or Thriller, with some very effective results. The one drawback to the episode (written by frequent contributor Henry Sharp) is that the wonderful Ross Martin isn’t given much to do as Artemus Gordon.

The tone of The Wild Wild West shifted somewhat from darker episodes in the first year of its run to more outlandish adventures in subsequent seasons (and sometimes back again to more traditional, action-oriented Western tales) due to some behind the scenes shuffling of producers. But the series was always enjoyable, thanks to the chemistry between the two appealing leads, as well as the colorful villains, the lovely damsels in distress, and those amazing gadgets. And let’s not forget that wonderful train the duo used as their base of operations! The show ran for four seasons, and remains a fan favorite, thanks to syndicated reruns and DVD releases of the entire series. There were also two “reunion” telefilms produced, The Wild Wild West Revisited in 1979, and More Wild Wild West in 1980. Both featured Robert Conrad and Ross Martin reprising their roles. The Wild Wild West is a fanciful and delightful series combining elements of Westerns, sci-fi, fantasy, and action-adventure. It's well worth checking out.