Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Brain From Planet Arous - Giant Brain Bent On Ruling The World!

Former Mr. Shirley Temple, John Agar, stars in this 1958 sci-fi gem from Howco International - the same studio who produced Attack of The 50 Foot Woman, also from 1958. Agar plays a nuclear physicist who discovers a crashed meteor in the California desert at a location named Mystery Mountain. This location is actually the famous Bronson Canyon near Hollywood - seen in a number of 1950s low-budget, drive-in features. Agar and his assistant travel to the site of the crash and are confronted by an evil floating brain named Gor from the planet Arous. Gor murders Agar's assistant and transforms his soul into Agar's body. Gor makes it clear that he is determined to possess world power and domination, and feels he can obtain it through Agar's scientific knowledge. Agar's finance, played by Joyce Meadows, and soon to be father-in-law notice an immediate change in his personality. He expresses a desire for world power and seems to be devoid of any human emotions, except getting extra rough with his finance when he kisses her. To demonstrate Gor's power, Agar arrives at the Pentagon in Washington D.C. to meet with top military officials and world leaders. He demonstrates Gor's dangerous powers by showing the group a random nuclear explosion in the desert, and by bombing a commercial jet in flight. Considering the fears we have today of terrorist attacks on commercial airliners, this is a very scary thought to contemplate. Meanwhile, another alien brain from planet Arous named Bal arrives at the home of Agar's finance. This brain claims to be a "good brain," and wants to stop Gor's evil plans. Bal transforms his soul into the body of Agar's dog named George. This allows Bal to be able to confront Gor without being fully recognized. Gor departs Agar's body for good at the end of the film, giving Agar time to chop up the alien brain with an ax. Watch carefully for the wires holding up the brain as Agar chops away at him, adding some unintentional humor. Director Nathan Juran (aka Nathan Hertz) is known for a number of interesting 50s drive-in cult classics, such as The Black Castle with Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr., The Deadly Mantis (1957) and Attack of The 50 Foot Woman from 1958. Happy viewing! Steve D. Stones

Monday, July 25, 2011

Enjoy an abbreviated 'Dracula'

Courtesy of Castle Films and YouTube comes this eight minute-plus version of the classic Universal Bela Lugosi Tod Browning directed 1931 Dracula. Castle Films' heavily edited adaptations of classics used to be on all the time. I first saw this filmette during an assembly at summer school in the early 1970s.


Deconstructing ANTZ

A Tale of “Antz” meant more for adults than just the kiddies

Essay by Katalin Gibson

Our toddler daughter loves shows about animals big and small, so when we decided to watch the animated movie “Antz” a few nights ago, it had promised to be an entertaining evening for kiddie and a restful one for the by then worn out parents. However, after a few minutes the interest of our little one started to wane--maybe her taste refined by repeated viewings of Barney and Elmo has not prepared her for ontological monologues in the Woody Allenian vein. Mommy, on the other hand, started to be sucked into the movie as it unfolded the fable of an Orwellian ant colony. It strangely reminded me of my childhood spent behind the iron walls of communism, the old parroted slogans (“In unity is force,” “Nobody is irreplaceable”), and the workings of a society marked by overbearing state control.

Not that “Antz” is about Hungary in the 1970s and early 80s--rather, its model seems to be universal: the pattern of dictatorship. It could take place just about anywhere, from an ant colony to the Soviet Union or ancient Rome, with leaders like Mussolini or Darth Vader. The genre of “Antz” is somewhat reminiscent of Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” told from a slightly aberrant and neurotic but otherwise average ant worker’s point of view. “Z” is the classic Woody Allen from “Bananas,” just as clumsy and oddly charming, an unwitting revolutionary leader who manages to overhaul the ‘milit-ant’ leader Mandible’s burgeoning autocracy. And, as someone would expect from the hero of a tale, he becomes the new and just leader and marries Princess Leia, I mean Bala--a charming little story, where evil gets thwarted and good prevails.
So far this should be an ideal children’s story--adults have already become too cynical to believe in fairy tales anyway. In fact, it wasn’t the storyline that gained my attention, shame on me. Rather, some elements that drew provoking parallels between the everyday drudgery, the lopsided musketeer world of the ants, where all is for one but the one couldn’t care less about the many ordinary nonindividuals--and my once familiar world of communism with the Labor Day demonstrations, planned society, indoctrination and indistinct masses.

I remember being taught unwavering loyalty to the Party and their doctrine, to look at the West as the source of all evil, and to mechanically do whatever was prescribed. Divergent voices were stilled and resistance sprouted underground--another image befitting “Antz.” And, of course, this forbidden land of the West, only known from fabled accounts became our Insectopia, the land of plenty and bliss. Not many were permitted to travel, especially beyond the western borders (or, to the Soviet Union, for that matter--although I think they tried to protect the Soviets from the too liberal East Europeans in that case), and the ones who came back had tales of wonders to tell and backed their stories with 5-pound product catalogues.

Utopias are very attractive if you live in a society you find grossly lacking in perfection. You may look at stories of other lands as a proof of a real paradise. But in “Antz,” Insectopia turns out to be a garbage can: the rotting waste shared with other, jovial insects exemplifies bounty that you don’t have to work for. I guess, it would look extremely inviting if I’d had to slave in a mine every day to get my allotment of food. Otherwise, the appeal might stem from ignorance and you’ll have to be careful not to get completely lost.

Because in this new land unknown dangers lurk for the inexperienced travelers--like a piece of gum for Z and Bala, but you could also mention unemployment, menial and low paying jobs, or a lack of knowledge of the land’s culture. Maybe it is for this fear of the unknown, together with the restrictions imposed on travel (let alone the ridiculously low amount of money you were able to exchange for hard currency: $50 person for a trip--you could maybe cover the gas from it...) that most Hungarians didn’t travel much.

The workers felt safe in “Antz,” and there is something safe in your homeland, regardless of the government over you. For the average people, the monotony of everyday work and life in Hungary alternated with the occasional diversion of state-sanctioned holidays with the inevitable parades, through sunshine and rain, even in the aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion. In a strange way, this type of planned economy and society provided a source of security: things went so routinely that change would have been just as upsetting for the average worker as for the leader. The lifestyle was kind of accepted, and no one thought that things would dramatically change practically overnight. (When they did, and a more competitive type of economy was introduced, the effect came like a shock to the majority of people, who felt suddenly really lost in their newly found freedom.) And needless to say, the Antz-type instantaneous improvement in society just isn’t going to happen. I don’t know, what causes it, but while things look so simple from the average person’s stand point, when you get to be in charge, you find yourself in a huge maze of interests and conflicts, and you objectivity suddenly disappears.

Here may lay the secret of a happy ending: it is not the story that ends, but the chances of a perfectly happy resolution. Good luck to “Z” figuring out classes, just distribution, or freedom of speech in the new ant-land.

These are questions for a different genre, however. It can be refreshing to willingly “suspend our disbelief” in perfect political systems and just enjoy a little tale of little creatures, identify with the suspense of being stuck in chewing gum, and rejoice when all ends well. Maybe adults are the ones, who really need tales.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ed Wood the novelist - Death of a Transvestite

Death of a Transvestite, by Ed Wood Jr., 172 pages, Four Walls Eight Windows Press, 1999. Originally published by Pad Library in 1967 under the title Let Me Die in Drag.

Besides making some of the most ridiculous ... and unique films ever produced, the infamous Ed Wood produced a lot of writing. He may have written more than 100 novels, and perhaps 1000 short stories. Friends recall that the prolific Wood could wake up, sit down in front of a typewriter and finish an entire screenplay by the evening. Wood's second career writing novels and stories, however, took off in tandem with his alcoholism. He wrote exploitation novels for the cheap paperback market, receiving only a few hundred dollars a book and no royalties. Many of his books have pseudonyms, and by the end of his life, he was writing mainly pornography.

In Nightmare of Ecstasy, Rudolph Grey's excellent oral biography of Wood, the author points to Killer in Drag and Death of a Transvestite as Wood's strongest literary efforts. He's probably right. Death of a Transvestite, a sequel to Killer in Drag, was written before Wood had more or less entirely gravitated to porno. It's a sleazy but entertaining tale of Glenn, a hit man for the Mafia who is also a transvestite, albeit a heterosexual one. The story begins with Glenn in prison, facing execution, relating the story of his life to the warden. In return, the warden will allow Glenn to be executed in drag.

It's actually better than it sounds. Wood was too lazy a researcher to produce a great book, but he captures the underbelly of the characters and settings. Cliches, sleazy prose, sex scenes, violent deaths and hyperbole abound in Death of a Transvestite, but the novel has heart. You root for Glenn. Try to imagine Elmore Leonard producing a first draft of a novel written in a couple of days without spell checks and, presto, you have Death of a Transvestite.

Most of Wood's books are out of print of course, and they command a very high price (in the hundreds of dollars) when an original can be found. However, Four Walls Eight Windows Press, a publisher with offices in New York and London, has reintroduced a few of Wood's novels. (Some were introduced in England in the late 80s) Death of a Transvestite and Killer in Drag can be found at most bookstores, and another Wood re-release, an earlier previously unpublished novel called Hollywood Rat Race, can be purchased via Amazon.

-- Doug Gibson

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Standard-Examiner Editorial: Harry Potter enchants screens one more time

The following editorial ran in the Standard-Examiner newspaper on July 14, 2011:
At midnight -- an appropriate hour -- Friday, the final "Harry Potter" film will hit screens. Scattered among the packed theaters will be lucky Muggles who won a handful of tickets provided by the Standard-Examiner's Mark Saal, who somehow finagled a couple of score-plus passes. CONTINUED

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Old Mother Riley Meets Bela Lugosi, or maybe a Vampire

By Doug Gibson

LUGOSI'S FINAL BRITISH FILM ... is NOT THAT GOOD ... BUT it's not as bad as many claim. In fact, it's the final film Bela Lugosi made where he looked healthy and in charge of the production. Its main weakness is that it is a unique bit of very low-brow British comedy that was popular from the 20s to the early 1950s. "Old Mother Riley" was an ugly, cockney, ignorant widow (played by actor Arthur Lucan in drag) who muddled herself into various ridiculous situations, dragging around her fatherless daughter, Kitty, played by Lucan's wife, Kitty McShane.

Lucan and McShane gained a reputation in music halls within the British provinces. They made a string of "Mother Riley" films that earned small profits in England but were not released in the U.S. By 1952, the series was about kaput, and Lucan and his wife were separated. Renown Pictures, which was producing Mother Riley films, noted the success of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and used a Renown executive, Richard Gordon, to get Lugosi to make "Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire." Gordon, a frend of Lugosi, had arranged a Dracula stage tour for Lugosi in England. For $5,000, Lugosi, well past his prime, was eager to make the film.

The plot involves Mother Riley getting her mail mixed up with a mad scientist named Von Housen (Lugosi) who thinks he's a vampire. Mother Riley gets a killer robot, Von Housen gets a bed warmer. Von Housen uses the robot to kidnap Mother Riley to his mad scientist house, with sinister servants and secret passageways, etc. Von Housen, delighted to find out Mother Riley has his favorite blood type, serves her lots of rare beef and liver. Von Housen, also seeking uranium to build more robots, has kidnapped a young lovely (Maria Mercedes) and her boyfriend. The girl's dad apparently knows where to find uranium, or something.

It's often not too clear because this movie is not really a Lugosi film. It's a showcase for Lucan's manic Mother Riley, with her rapid dialect that is hard for Americans to understand. Lugosi plays well in the film. As he did in every film, he gave it his all. Lucan's humor is very corny and not too funny. The final half of the film is comprised of Mother Riley trying to get the cops to believe her, a very unfunny battle with the robot, and a wild chase through London. As many critics have mentioned, "Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire" fails because it makes the bad guys, the "monsters," look ridiculous. "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" succeeds because the monsters stay scary, and only the comedy stars do comedy. The director of the film was John Gilling, who later directed better films, including Hammer's "Plague of the Zombies." The role of a helpful maid, that might have gone to Lucan's estranged wife, Kitty McShane, was instead played by Dora Bryan, who later gained a measure of fame as a serious actress.

Gordon tried to pitch the film in the U.S. as "Vampire Over London," but there were no buyers. Lucan's Mother Riley comedy was too unique to British provinces for the U.S. market. Gordon considered taking out all Mother Riley scenes and shooting new scenes with Lugosi for a film called "King Robot," but Lugosi's soon-declining health killed that idea.

In the early 60s, it was eventually released as "My Son the Vampire," with comedy singer Allan Sherman singing a song with that nonsensical title in the opening credits. That version, which omits a dark Lugosi chuckle at the beginning as well as the actor's screen credit, is what is sold in the U.S. today and plays on Turner Classic Movies. The original British version, which might be interesting for Lugosi completists, can be purchased at AmazonUK as a Region 2 DVD. Sinister Cinema sells a print with the little-used "Vampire Over London" title. The credits at least include Lugosi's name, although there is no Lugosi chuckle.

A footnote: For many years a myth endured that Lugosi's 1952 British Dracula stage tour failed and the actor and his wife were left stranded and broke in London. The myth further states that he made "Old Mother Riley ..." just so he and his wife could have transportation fare to return home. That myth is still repeated in books and on Web sites. It's a fun tale but completely untrue. As authors Frank Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks recount in their book, "Vampire Over London," the Dracula tour provided steady work for Lugosi -- who enjoyed good reviews -- in England for several months. It played the English provinces and suburbs of London. Its only failing was that it was not of enough overall quality to make the West End, Britain's Broadway. The "Old Mother Riley" film was in fact a bonus for Lugosi, a nice windfall -- he and his wife had already earned enough money to easily make it back to the states.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Devil Girl From Mars - Female Darth Vader Rules The Galaxy With An Iron Fist!

It's hard to believe that Devil Girl From Mars may have once scared the pants off baby boomers of the mid-1950s. The plot of the film has many similarities to the 1951 classic The Day The Earth Stood Still.

Martian Nyah, played by Patricia Laffan, is a sex starved, female version of Darth Vader who comes to earth to find men to take back to mars for breeding purposes. She comes dressed in a tight black outfit and cape, and carries a deadly ray gun. Her spaceship crashes in the hills of Scotland.

Joining Nyah is her oversized robot shaped like a kitchen appliance with a police light on top. The robot zaps anything and anyone in his path with an atomic ray, including humans who do not obey Nyah. He walks with a pace slower than a common snail, making it easy for victims to get away.

Nyah projects an invisible ray around a local Scottish Inn to keep the occupants contained while she decides which men to take back to mars with her. The occupants make several attempts to stop Nyah, but are unable to foil her plot. One of the occupants, an escaped murderer from a local jail, agrees to return to mars with Nyah in exchange for sparing the lives of the remaining inn occupants. While onboard Nyah's ship, he is able to destroy it, spoiling any future plans to return to earth for more men.

Most 1950s sci-fi films portray women as helpless victims while the men are busy being the heroes and saving the day. Devil Girl From Mars, however, reverses this formula a bit. Nyah is an evil queen from another world who has come to terrorize male victims. Was this a bold feminist statement for the 1950s? Perhaps. But only if Nyah had been successful in her attempts to bring back men to mars. Nevertheless, this is what makes Devil Girl From Mars unique from so many other 50s sci-fi flicks. Enjoy, and happy viewing!

Steve D. Stones