Sunday, May 26, 2019

Johnny Sokko and Giant Robot in Voyage Into Space

By Doug Gibson

Voyage Into Space is an absolutely bizarre 1970 or so Japanese monster-rama that involves a young boy, Johnny Sokko, having control over a crime-fighting, flying Giant Robot. Sokko and Giant Robot work for the Unicorns, a UN-type spy ring trying to save the world from the extraterrestrial evil, Guillotine, his various sidekicks, including "Spider" and Dr. Botanus. The "army" of Guillotine is "the Gargoyle Gang," a group of military types who resemble Nazis. (Watch the clip below)

This is a weird movie but unbelievably entertaining for young kids and nostalgic adults who recall seeing it when they were young kids. I saw this film when I was 7, 8 or 9 and we used to talk about it on the playground in school. It stars no one you ever heard of, the special effects are pretty bad, the acting terrible, the dubbing weak, but it's strangely cool. There's a 1960s' counterculture aura to this film. Several of the baddies dress like they stepped out of a Roger Vadim film. Guillotine raises a whole host of monsters and some are pretty interesting. One is a giant plant; another is a giant eyeball (I kid you not).

Voyage Into Space, the film, was one of American International Pictures Television's most popular options, and as I mention, I saw the film often on TV as a child. I only saw Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot as a series once as a child, on  a low watt UHF station, Channel 52, in Southern California. It apparently was not as successful in the U.S. as a series. Several years ago the series aired on Hulu. Now various episodes can be found on YouTube, Facebook ... The movie and series are incredibly surreal. It has a campy charm and old fashioned Japanese monster thrills that demands a cult.

But still, this film, released by American International Films to TV only, is woefully cheap. The battling monsters don't match up to the same size in close ups and far-away shots. In one scene, Johnny Sokko and a Unicorn agent wash up on the beach with their clothes fully dry and pressed and their hair neat. Johnny Sokko's dubbed voice sounds a little like Bea Arthur of The Golden Girls. The Giant Robot hero is very cool, though, and the film's theme song is catchy. My son, who like his dad loves the film, hums the theme song daily.

Voyage Into Space is actually about four episodes, including the first and last, culled from the 30 or so-episode series from the late 60s called Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot. For more than a generation, you couldn't find Voyage Into Space on VHS or DVD. I spent decades wondering what had happened to my favorite Japanese color monster film. Today, with the Net circling the globe, it's easy to find. Watch it above

It's a great film, particularly if you have a fondness for the Japanese monster genre, and your kids will love it. ALSO,ENJOY THESE GIANT ROBOT CLIPS!

Thursday, May 16, 2019

American International Pictures – A Comprehensive Filmography - By Rob Craig

Review by Steve D. Stones

It's often been said that you can't judge a book by its cover. It's also been said that you can't judge a book by its movie. If you've ever read a film analysis book by Rob Craig, you know his books deliver both in their content and their colorful cover designs. His analysis of forgotten films and underground cult directors is well researched and well written. Craig treats these often forgotten films and their directors with great respect. Craig never resorts to giving aggressive pot shots to any of the films he writes about, unlike some film critics and historians I won't mention here.

In the introduction to his latest book – American International Pictures – A Comprehensive Filmography (McFarland 2019), (800-253-2187) Craig makes it clear that this book is meant as an analysis of AIP films and their television product, and not intended as a history of the company or a biography of the company's founders – James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff. The Amazon link is here.

The sole purpose of this project, according to Craig, is to gather as comprehensive a listing of all film product that AIP was involved in marketing, which includes – all AIP theatrical releases, films and series released to television through AIP, and to chronicle all product released through one of AIP's subsidiaries or satellite companies. The list of AIP's satellite companies is quite long.

Also in the introduction, Craig mentions what he considers to be one of the most unique and interesting products offered by American International TV, which was a series of eight original productions by Texas cult filmmaker – Larry Buchanan. These productions were released under the “Azalea Pictures” banner in the 1960s. The films include – The Eye Creatures (1965), Zontar, The Thing From Venus (1966), Creature of Destruction (1967) and In The Year 2889 (1966) – all remakes of 1950s films. This is a topic which is no stranger to Craig, since he discussed the Azalea films at great length in his awesome book about director Larry Buchanan (The Films of Larry Buchanan – A Critical Examination – 2007 - McFarland ).

Many of my all time favorite low-budget films are discussed in Craig's latest book, such as: A Bucket of Blood (1959), The Screaming Skull (1958), The Phantom Planet (1961), Planet of The Vampires (1965), The Pit & The Pendulum (1961), The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy (1959), and the Mexican import – Santa Claus (1959). It's great to see Craig give a positive nod to Santa Claus. I was beginning to think that my co-blogger Doug Gibson and myself were the only two human beings on the planet to appreciate Santa Claus and all its bizarre charm.

Craig's latest book reminds me a lot of Michael Weldon's – The Encyclopedia of Film (1983 Ballantine), only Craig's writing gets into much greater details of the films he discusses. One of his most interesting reviews in the book is for A Bucket of Blood (1959). This is one of his longest reviews.

Released Halloween 1959 and directed by Roger Corman, A Bucket of Blood is considered a horror comedy that comments on the then “beat culture/beat generation” of the 1950s. Craig mentions the film as being ahead of its time, since straight-forward horror films had played themselves out by the end of the 1950s. A Bucket of Blood brought a fresher point of view as a spoof and parody of horror films and beat culture while at the same time keeping a cynical tone.

Craig mentions that he views Little Shop of Horrors (1960), a film made by Corman shortly after A Bucket of Blood and one which has some similar plot points, as the far more superior of the two films. Although I'm a fan of both films, I'm not sure I agree with Craig's analysis of Little Shop of Horrors as being a much better film. While it may be true that actor Dick Miller incoherently mumbles many of his lines in the film, portraying him as a doofus, as Craig points out, this does not detract from Miller's character as a struggling coffee house worker and artist. In fact, in my view, it greatly adds to his lonely, shy, and backwards character that helps to reinforce the stereotype of the “struggling genius artist.” A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors make great companion films.

For further reading of Craig's work, refer to his excellent book on director Ed Wood: Mad Genius – A Critical Study of The Films (McFarland 2009), Gutter Auteur – The Films of Andy Milligan (McFarland 2012) – and his equally awesome book on films of 1957 – It Came From 1957: A Critical Guide To The Year's Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films (McFarland 2013). Also refer to the above mentioned book on the films of Texas director Larry Buchanan. Happy reading.

Friday, May 10, 2019

"The Unknown' is a silent era masterpiece

By Doug Gibson

When I watch Tod Browning's 1927 silent masterpiece "The Unknown," and I've seen the film many times, for 50 minutes time ceases to exist. I'm lost in a film that is simply Lon Chaney's greatest performance, and yes that includes "Phantom of the Opera" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." "The Unknown" is the most intense performance Chaney had, and 90 percent of the effectiveness is in his facial expressions.

The film involves a small circus troupe, owned by a gypsy entrepreneur. Alonzo the Armless (Chaney) is the star attraction, a man without arms who can do amazing stunts, such as throw knives around the pretty torso of the circus owner's daughter, Nanon, played by a very young, barely clothed, and very gorgeous Joan Crawford. Another star performer is circus strongman, Malabar, played by Norman Kerry. Malabar loves Nanon, but she shrinks from him, telling Alonzo that she hates to have men's hands pawing her.

Alonzo is assisted by a little person, Cojo (John George). Cojo helps Alonzo conceal a secret -- that he really has arms. In fact, he has a hand with two thumbs. Alonzo, it's learned, is on the run the police, who are looking for a suspect with arms. All this is interesting but ultimately it is supporting material to the film's theme, which is Alonzo's desire to posses Nanon and gain her love. I hesitate to say that Alonzo is in love with Nanon. He equates love with possession, and ownership. Chaney's facial expressions when Alonzo is near Nanon are movie legend, combinations of pride, desire, lust, deformed love, coveting, desperation.

In the guise of being a friend, Chaney encourages Malabar to try to embrace and kiss Nanon, fully knowing that will repel the object of his desire. When Malabar is near, Alonzo's face often changes into a furious loathing individual, with envy, jealously and hate making his visage truly terrifying. One senses easily what a dangerous man Chaney's Alonzo really is when disturbed. Indeed, after being humiliated by Nanon's father, circus owner Antonio Zanzi (Nick De Rita) Alonzo swiftly finds him alone and kills him.

It's evident that if his possessive longing for Nanon -- one that Alonzo can only hide with great effort -- is not requited soon, mortal trouble may emerge soon. This leads Alonzo to engage in a macabre, desperate act that he hopes will win Nanon's love. When his ploy backfires, the minute or so where Chaney's countenance changes from hope, ecstasy, confusion, despair, anger and finally rage disguised as maniacal laughter is perhaps the strongest in silent films, and perhaps all films. The late Burt Lancaster cited the scene as the most compelling he ever witnessed in film. Alonzo's ensuing desperation leads to a climax that threatens Nanon, Malabar and himself.

Adding to the eccentricity and creepiness of this movie is its accurate descriptions of life in a small-town circus, a job that a younger Browning once had. Chaney was, as always, a perfectionist, and with Browning's direction gets excellent acting performances from Crawford, Kerry, and others. Although it looks on the screen as if Cheney is actually performing stunts, and everyday activities, with his feet, Browning used a an armless double, Paul Desmuke, to manipulate the toes. For a long time "The Unknown" was virtually a lost film, until a print was located in 1968 in Paris. The 50-minute version is missing a few unimportant scenes. The shorter version actually improves the film, making it leaner and more focused. Chaney's obsessive, jealous desire for Nanon is more focused, with fewer interruptions.

This film is shown several times a year on TCM. Don't miss it the next time it airs. It's also on DVD and snippets are found on YouTube, see below. The film was released by MGM. Versions seen today have a suitable creepy, semi-synthetic score. Watch the trailer below the snippet!