Tuesday, February 4, 2014



Yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title.  

Hi folks.  Back again to continue my project of watching and commenting upon all of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan pictures, in order.  Next up is the fourth entry in the series which finds Tarzan becoming more domesticated by the day.  Notably milder than the Pre-code installments discussed last time, this one still packs a bit of a punch when we get to the captured-by-cannibals sequence.

The film begins with a plane in trouble over the jungle.  Its passengers are the doomed Lansings, from England, and their infant son.  In a nod to the Tarzan book series, it is noted that the Mr. Lansing and his son are heirs to the house of Greystoke.  For the uninitiated, the literary Tarzan was actually the son of Lord Greystoke. This may be the only time that the name is mentioned in the film series, but I'll let you know.  After the inevitable plane crash, a pretty nice looking miniature effect, the baby is rescued by some passing chimps shortly before villainous natives discover the wreck.  The boy ends up in the hands of Tarzan and Jane who take him to raise, naming him "Boy."

Tarzan's lavishly appointed tree house with its elephant-powered elevator and other Flintstone-esque amenities actually had made its debut in Tarzan Escapes (1936) but is given even more attention here as the series begins its slow turn into a more family-friendly fantasy.  The comic relief antics of Cheetah aren't given quite as much time here as they will be in later pictures, but you can see it coming.  There had actually been a three year gap between this and the previous film as MGM's interest in the series had waned and the studio's option on the Tarzan character had been allowed to lapse.  In the interim, the decidedly B-level independent feature TARZAN'S REVENGE (1938) had been produced by Sol Lesser, from whom we will hear again later.  That film featured Olympic Decathlon champ Glen Morris as Tarzan.  Morris is known to have had exactly three total acting credits in his lifetime, including this one, which should tell you something about his success filling Weissmuller's....uh...loincloth.  But, hey, he was an Olympic champion and was later seriously wounded in action during the war, so maybe we should cut him some slack on his acting chops. Eventually, MGM decided to have another go at the franchise and the result was this very respectable entry in the saga.

After a five year jump in the story, the Tarzan Family's peace is disturbed by a safari led by Boy's cousins who stand to inherit a million pounds if they can prove that everyone in the plane died.  Tarzan and Jane do not disabuse them of this notion, claiming Boy as their own child. Eventually, of course, the greedy Brits figure out who Boy is and instead of leaving him with Tarzan and Jane, who would be happy to support their subterfuge, and returning to England to collect their cash, they decide to take Boy back to civilization and become corrupt executors of his trust fund, or something.  Anyway, they manage to convince the ever innocent Jane that this will be in the child's best interests.  Tarzan is violently against the idea, however, so Jane gets him out of the way by trapping him in a deep ravine before heading out to guide the party back to civilization.  In trying to avoid the terrifying Gabonis who have plagued the previous three pictures, the safari runs afoul of the not-much-better Zambilis and in short order find themselves prisoners awaiting sacrifice.

Like the Gambonis, the Zambilis have a pretty dark fate in store for their guests.  The victims are taken one by one to a ceremonial hut filled with chanting natives where they are trussed to an alter; unspecified organs are removed with big curved knives and held aloft while the victim squirms and gasps and then a big stone hammer-like thing swings down and bashes out their brains.  Pretty dark stuff for a picture from 1939. The film manages to depict this in just enough detail that the viewer understands what is happening without seeing the actual gore.  Bravo.  As you might suppose, Tarzan gets out of his predicament and storms to the rescue with a herd of elephants and a few chimps, some of whom are clearly Little People in costumes.  Here the film tries to shake off the horrors of the last few minutes with some comic relief involving chimps battering Zambilis and even an old Three Stooges-style gag where Boy bops the natives on the head with coconuts as they run past one-by-one.  

In the melee, Jane has taken a spear to the back and as she fades away in Tarzan's arms, he forgives her betrayal and begs her not to die.  And she doesn't.  As a matter of fact, Maureen O'Sullivan had not been at all keen on continuing the role of Jane and the script called for the character's graceful demise at this point.  Apparently, however, MGM and/or test audiences found this ending to be such a bummer that Jane got better with a quick reshoot.  O'Sullivan would ultimately be convinced to play Jane two more times before she, and MGM, left Tarzan behind forever.

Here's a nice shot from the sacrificial hut.

Boy is played by the cute and charismatic Johnny Sheffield, who would return seven more times in the series.  Sheffield had appeared in a few small parts prior to this and explained later that he would never have gotten this plum role if Weissmuller hadn't taken the boy under his wing and coached him in the swimming skills the part called for.   The film does include a good deal of swimming and one pretty impressive scene in which the 7 year old keeps pace with the Olympic champ (and a baby elephant) during an underwater swim. Boy does a lot of running, leaping, swimming and swinging in this picture and I never detected a stunt double, though I'd be surprised if their weren't one in there somewhere.  Sheffield's athletic prowess stuck with him pretty far into adulthood and he enjoyed a post-Tarzan career fairly similar to Weissmuller's, playing Bomba the Jungle Boy in a string of twelve kiddie matinee pictures, another series I need to catch up with.  Sheffield did just fine as Boy and while a lot of purists prefer the earlier, darker Tarzan films, before he acquired a  family and a tricked out tree-house, the emotional dynamics between the three are quite effective, at least in this picture.  The boisterous father/son affection between Tarzan and Boy comes across as quite genuine, perhaps because, as Sheffield later claimed, Weissmuller was an important father figure and mentor to the child in real life.  And I challenge any parent to watch the scene in which Jane encourages Boy to squeeze through a small gap in the stockade fence and "never look back," while she remains behind to face the sacrificial altar, without getting just the tiniest bit choked up.

That's it for now.  Up next--TARZAN'S SECRET TREASURE

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Project: Weissmuller!

One of my viewing projects of late--one among many--is an attempt to watch the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan series from the 30s and 40s.  My goal is to watch the entire series from start to finish and present my impressions here.  That's a tall order as Weissmuller did 12 of these pictures over 16 years, 6 fairly lavish studio productions at MGM followed by 6 mostly B-level features for RKO.  As an aside, once he no longer looked good in loin cloth, Weissmuller donned a safari outfit and pith helmet and starred as Jungle Jim in a series of 16(!) kiddie matinee level programmers in the late 40s and early 50s.  Jungle Jim was a popular comic strip of the day which depicted the adventures of a safari guide with a lot of animal friends.  That series had its moments and perhaps I'll try to get through it once I've finished the Tarzans, but it's an extra-low budget affair.  The budget was so low in fact that when the producers' license to use the Jungle Jim character ran out, they made a few more pictures with Weissmuller in the same costume, doing the same stuff, but now just called "Johnny Weissmuller." Nobody noticed.

But I digress.

Weissmuller was a former Olympic swimmer who was tapped for the part primarily for his physique and  athletic ability.  Fortunately, he turned out to be something of a natural actor in this particular role,  conveying pathos, anger and affection for his mate quite effectively through facial expression and body language when the script called for it.  20-year old Maureen O'Sullivan would take the role of Jane Parker and continue in the part for the remaining 5 MGM pictures.  Venerable British character actor C. Aubrey Smith would play Jane's father in the first film.  Finally, the cast was rounded out by Neil Hamilton as Jane's conflicted-but-decent suitor, Harry Holt.  Hamilton would become most well-known for the role he played 34 years later as Commissioner Gordon on the BATMAN television series.

TARZAN THE APE MAN was released in April, 1932 and performed splendidly at the box office.  As an exciting adventure picture, it holds up pretty well today with a number of exciting sequences and a sometimes grim tone that still packs a punch.  The film, like much of the series, is definitely politically-incorrect in both its depiction of the African population and the callous attitude toward African wildlife shown by the white safari members.  If you can get past these artifacts of the times, the films in the series, particularly the early ones, carry a persistent theme of conflict between frequently corrupt and hypocritical "civilized" Brits and Americans and the purer, natural lifestyle of Tarzan and his mate. Jane and the couple's son, Boy, are repeatedly tempted by the technology and amenities brought to the jungle by Western expeditions, to the point of lying to Tarzan or betraying him "for his own good" on several occasions.  These situations always end up with the safari and Tarzan's family in the clutches of the local cannibals, in need of dramatic rescue.

In the first film, the climactic rescue comes about because Jane, her father and Harry have been captured by a tribe of vicious dwarves (NOT pygmies, Harry points out) who are preparing to sacrifice them to a hideous ape-god thing kept in a pit.  Of course, Tarzan shows up to do battle with the thing and the fight is one of the gorier episodes you'll find in a 30s studio picture.  In fact, the first two Weissmuller films were produced during the "Pre-code" era--the period from the inception of the talkies to about 1934 when Hollywood studios grew very lax in the enforcement of their rules concerning violent and sexual content.  As a result, films from this period frequently feature surprising amounts of sexual frankness, even nudity, as well as a level of violence and moral nihilism that wouldn't be seen in Hollywood pictures again until the late 60s.  TARZAN THE APE MAN contains several violent episodes, culminating in the gory battle with the ape-god which includes eye-gouging and throat-slitting with plenty of blood and grue.  The gorilla suit used in this sequence is not one of the more realistic I've ever seen, but it adds to the impression of the creature as some kind of crude, corrupted monster, rather than just a regular ol' gorilla.

If TARZAN THE APE MAN took advantage of Hollywood trends to up the ante on violence and general grimness, the next film took sex and violence to a whole new level.  Produced two years later, as the Pre-code period was winding down, TARZAN AND HIS MATE pushed the content boundaries in every way possible, particularly in terms of nudity and frightening, explicit violence.  TARZAN AND HIS MATE may be the pre-codiest Pre-code ever produced by a major Hollywood studio.  (Cecil B. DeMille's THE SIGN OF THE CROSS is another strong contender for this title.)  MATE contains so many instances of nudity that I lost count.  The most famous of these is Jane's four minute nude underwater swimming sequence (performed by a body-double).  The film also contains a lot of National Geographic-reminiscent instances of topless native women--except this isn't stock footage of actual Africans, these are California actresses carefully placed around the studio sets topless to add spice to the village scenes.   Even actor Paul Cavanagh, who plays the white villain of the piece, has a carefully composed nude scene climbing into a bathtub.  Lest you think it's all about nudity, you'll also see plenty of explicit violence with knives, spears and arrows piercing flesh Friday the 13th-style, right on camera.

TARZAN AND HIS MATE has a lot more going for it than just explicitness.  It's one of the most exciting jungle adventure films ever produced.  Once the action gets rolling, it seldom lets up.  The film also introduces the Gabonis--a cannibal tribe with white face paint who would menace Tarzan and his associates in several more pictures.  The depiction of the Gabonis is quite frightening and effective--heralded by distant rhythmic ceremonial chanting, they emerge from the jungle in a remorseless swarm, slaughtering safari members quickly and ruthlessly.  The Gabonis have no apparent motivation other than a desire to kill and nearly push the film into the horror genre whenever they appear.  TARZAN AND HIS MATE culminates with Jane and Harry trapped, pinned down by a contingent of spear-hurling natives and a pack of lions in a loud, roaring, frenzied set-piece.  The film is almost universally acknowledged as the best of the series.

The next installment, TARZAN ESCAPES (1936), works quite well as a standalone film but pales in comparison to its predecessors in nearly every way. Actually produced in 1935, the film was then re-edited and partially re-shot, in part to tone down a number of violent and frightening scenes that were no longer felt to be acceptable under the new Hollywood production code that had gone into effect shortly after the release of the previous film.  A comedy relief cockney fraidy-cat character was added and the film was generally made more family-friendly.  When watching the films in sequence, it becomes painfully obvious that a number of animal attack and Gaboni sequences have been lifted whole from MATE and dropped into this film.  The plot of ESCAPES is also rather familiar; again Tarzan comes to the rescue of a safari group, this time led by a two-faced villain who has been trying to capture the ape man and put him in a freak-show.  A number of borderline Pre-code elements remain in the picture--the Gabonis are still frightening and violent and their method of executing prisoners--a contraption which basically rips people in two--is depicted in a way that really pushed the newly-installed boundaries. This is the first of the series with borderline fantasy elements--if you don't count Tarzan's ability to communicate with animals--as the safari encounters the threat of giant lizards while crossing a primordial swamp.  Reportedly this is one of the sequences which was toned down, as the original lizard attacks were apparently quite gory.  Unfortunately, another sequence in the swamp was jettisoned from the film entirely--an attack by a swarm of giant vampiric bats!!  The excised footage from TARZAN ESCAPES is most likely gone forever but a restored "Director's Cut" of the picture remains a cherished film buff fantasy, keeping company with the lost KING KONG "Spider-Pit" sequence.

One more bit of business about TARZAN ESCAPES:  One of the added comic relief scenes involves cockney character actor Herbert Mundin doing a double-take at an odd jungle creature he spies.  The sequence is pretty short, but sharp-eyed classic horror film buffs may recognize legless performer Johnny Eck from MGM's notorious Pre-code FREAKS (1932) wearing a modified version of that film's "duck woman" costume that someone must have dug out of the wardrobe storage bins.  It's a welcome little Easter Egg for classic genre fans.  TARZAN ESCAPES was my favorite of the Weissmuller films for years, but probably only because I'd seen it several times before I ever saw TARZAN AND HIS MATE.  Now I recognize it as fine but flawed. 

Here is a Mexican lobby card with an interesting looking scene from the swamp sequence which did not make it into the final cut.

How I wish they hadn't messed with it.

That's it for now.  I'll be back with a look at the next three MGM pictures.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Video Watchdog DIGITAL

I just wanted to take a moment and recommend that you check out the newly available digital edition of Video Watchdog 175 at this link.

Video Watchdog is THE magazine for serious fans of horror, cult and classic genre film.  And I'm not just saying that because I happen to have a review in this particular issue.  On page 76.

Seriously, if you aren't familiar with Watchdog, this is you chance to download a digital copy and check out the new issue for free.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

On the Nightstand

Today, I thought I'd talk a bit about a few books I've read lately that I enjoyed for very different reasons.

The first was a birthday gift that I requested after seeing a review in the New York Times.

James Purdy (1914-2009) spent his life quietly turning out short stories and novels which have generated a small but devoted literary cult while remaining virtually unknown to the public at large.  Purdy, born in Ohio, has been compared with Flannery O'Connor in terms of the odd, lovingly misanthropic nature of his fiction, as well as his penchant for reclusiveness and disinterest in promoting his work or connecting with his fans.  

These stories (so far) are short, very self-contained character sketches and I've been following John Waters' advice (he provides the introduction for the volume) and reading one before bed at night, so this should take a while.  Purdy definitely has a predilection for showing us characters who probably didn't graduate at the top of their high school class attempting to deal with the desperate emotional dilemmas that crop up in everyone's life from time to time.  Unlike other literary authors who like to write about intelligently introspective people who puzzle over their problems before arriving at some sort of personal epiphany, Purdy bring us characters who don't quite understand why they feel the way they do or have any idea what they might do to solve their problems.  Quite often, they're not even sure what those problems are.  Two women, friends for years, have both lost sons in different ways.  Yet they have no idea how to sympathize with or support each other.  Instead of depicting their progress toward understanding one another, Purdy chooses to explore the tension and vague resentment which underlies a typical visit.  And that's it.  Nothing is better at the end of the story.  In another piece, a thirty-something woman has fallen out of love with her husband and has become increasingly sexually frustrated, though she is unworldly enough to not quite realize this.  When an elderly shopkeeper makes inappropriate, almost coercive sexual advances, she is repulsed, flattered, turned on and ashamed.  She pushes him away and stumbles out of the store, even more upset and confused.  The End.  

Purdy manages to depict his characters with equal measures of sympathy and condescension.  You can't help thinking that if these people were just a little bit brighter or more conversant with the ways of the world, they could at least make some sort of peace with their feelings, but Purdy never allows them that.  Each story is a small bubble of lovingly rendered frustration and anxiety which will remain suspended that way forever in time.  Yeah, one at a time every couple of days is plenty. 

And now for something completely different.

I have a huge to-read slushpile of old used paperbacks I've picked up and I decided recently to make an effort to dig deep into the stacks, especially the items that qualify as what I'd call "comfort food reading."  So with no further ado, I offer:

I always liked movie and TV novelizations as a kid.  In the days before home video, they allowed you to take a movie home with you, in a way, and often expanded upon the associated film with a lot of extra detail and explanation.  Many popular television series in the 60s and 70s spawned tie-in novels that provided extra "episodes" for fans to enjoy.  You still see film novelizations, especially with scifi and adventure movies, and a few TV shows with dedicated fanbases still get tie-in books, but the practice is not nearly as widespread as the days when you could find WELCOME BACK, KOTTER and GET SMART novels at your local bookstore.

In the typical procedure for producing the novelization of a feature film, the studio would provide the contracted writer with a script for the film and the writer would flesh it into a novel long before the film was completed.  Novelizations (and comics adaptations) were usually released slightly ahead of the film to drum up interest.  Because of this advance preparation, scenes and dialogue that didn't make into a film's final cut can often be found in the novelization.  It can be interesting to discover "deleted scenes" this way.

Today's featured novelization, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES has been one of my favorite films since I first watched it on television with my babysitter.  So bleak and hopeless.  So violent and nihilistic for a film franchise which would soon be marketed to young children with coloring books and dolls.  Watching movie good guys get machine-gunned to death by relentless hordes of brutal apes struck quite a chord in an 8 year old.  And that ending!...but no more spoilers.

It's probably been decades since I've read a film novelization and while I know I read this one, I remembered nothing about its style and quality.  The author is Michael Avallone, a prolific writer who hammered out almost 300 novels and assorted short stories under 15 or 20 pseudonyms.  In addition to film novelizations, he did a lot of TV show tie-ins, including things like THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., MANNIX and THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY.  He also wrote some NICK CARTER novels and plenty of original stuff too.  

Well, I didn't know what I was expecting, but Avallone's style here is....interesting.  The most positive spin I can put on it is that it frequently reminds me of the overwrought narration found in the more "cosmic" Marvel comics of the early 70s, like Steve Gerber's MAN-THING (that's gotta be a future column) or Jim Starlin's CAPTAIN MARVEL and WARLOCK (ditto).

A couple of samples:

"The search became a trek. A wearying, parching, searing exodus across a land that might have sprung whole from the pages of the Old Testament. Never had Brent known so much desert, so much sun, so much dry, sandy, barren nothingness....Brent could only let the horse plod along in a forward direction and hope for the best.  The girl clinging to his dampened body was like some lovely homunculus growing out of his very back."

Hell, now THAT'S interesting.  In the movie, we get a couple of shots of them galloping along sand dunes while the sun flares the camera lens.

"Brent and Taylor went at each other still more viciously.....Snarling, snapping, biting, digging at one another as if the universe depended on this one, single encounter to give anything of life meaning, sense....The stunning waves of traumatic hypnosis held Brent and Taylor in a dazzling, relentless hold which would not loosen until the Negro opened his eyes."

I suppose it's not good objectively; maybe he was stacking adjectives to improve his word count. But it did keep my interest up throughout a story which has worn a smooth groove in my consciousness.  Since I knew precisely what would happen next in the plot, right down to the dialogue, the pleasure in reading this became a matter of wondering what the hell kind of verbal interstate pile-up the author would come up with next and being delighted each time he managed to surpass himself.  A less...flamboyant..style might have lost me.  If I see another Michael Avallone paperback, I'm going to pick it up.

Now a few comments on something I've just started.

Yes, this is actually a TV show tie-in novel, albeit a brand new tie-in to an old series.  THUNDERBIRDS, of course, was the 60s series about International Rescue, a team of adventurers who rescued people from precarious situations every week with their supercool, near-future scifi vehicles and gadgets.  Oh, and the show was presented using cleverly designed marionettes and exquisitely detailed miniature props and sets. Seriously, imagine a colorful, Mad Men-era office or living room with sharply designed furniture and detailed decor, down to the ashtrays, paintings and potted plants.  Now add a subtle touch of James Bond gadgetry.  Finally, remember that you're building the whole thing from scratch to scale for 18-inch high puppets and you have to design and build several new ones for every episode, every week. That's a big part of the pleasure of this show, for me at least.  There are also the jets, boats, cave-ins, explosions and underwater rescues, all created in convincing miniature detail by masters of a very specialized craft.

Anthony Taylor's ARCTIC ADVENTURE is an official THUNDERBIRDS tie-in, part of a series which includes a few others.  I'm just a couple of chapters in, but already I can recommend it to anyone who's a fan of the show.  The book does what TV tie-ins do best by providing the reader with extra insight into the thoughts and motivations of the characters and plenty of background information to flesh out the plot.  In the first few chapters, Taylor gives us a compelling backstory for the show's tech genius character Brains and practical details about the origins of International Rescue never really addressed on the show.  Also, Taylor knows his aero-tech pretty damn well.  It never occurred to me that writing a THUNDERBIRDS novel would require more than a thorough knowledge of the show plus writing skills.  Part of the show's appeal, however, has always been its plausible, detailed technology.  If you want to write about starships, you can toss around terms like "hyperdrive" and "anti-matter dampeners" all day long.  If you want to write about advanced stealth aircraft, you better know what you're talking about or the readers will realize that you're spinning out nonsense pretty quickly, regardless of how much they know about it themselves.

The novel is off to a fine start, as solid as any episode of the show, and I can't wait to find out what happens next.  I can already recommend it to any THUNDERBIRDS fan.

That's all for now.  I should be back soon with an update about Video Watchdog #175 which features one of my reviews.  More of my peculiar obsessions to come.  Thanks for reading.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Dark Shadows Guy

Looks like I may be developing a reputation as a DARK SHADOWS specialist.

A little over a year ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a lively roundtable discussion of the history and impact of this landmark series with some other DS aficionados that was published in Video Watchdog #169.  The article was well-received by the genre film community and the issue as a whole was honored with a Rondo award for "Best Themed Issue" of a magazine.  You can find the issue, along with most other Video Watchdog issues right here.

Soon I'll have another DARK SHADOWS piece to add to my portfolio, as the upcoming Video Watchdog #175 will include my review of the current comic book series from Dynamite Entertainment.  When the issue becomes available, I'll post a link here for anyone interested.

I thought I'd use today's post to talk a bit about DARK SHADOWS and its appeal, particularly for those aren't all that familiar with the show or who perhaps retain vague memories of the days when it was a genuine pop culture phenomenon.

DARK SHADOWS was essentially a soap opera which ran on ABC in the late afternoon, Monday through Friday, beginning in 1966 and finishing up in 1971.  The afternoon time slot may have been a key to the show's success as school kids were often able to make it home in time to catch the day's episode. In fact,  "I ran home from the bus stop every day to watch DARK SHADOWS," has become a ubiquitous part of every fan discussion of the program.  It's hard to dispute that as the show began to feature more and more monsters--vampires, witches, werewolves--its appeal to younger viewers skyrocketed, to the point that its stars, including Jonathan Frid and David Selby, became regular fixtures in the teen magazines of the day.

The show began as a more or less realistic soap with a very Gothic atmosphere.  The story of young Victoria Winters, hired as a governess by the mysterious Collins family, included most of the familiar tropes.  A spooky old mansion, mysterious footsteps, characters burdened by decades-old secrets--all trappings as familiar to viewers then as they are to us now--lent the show's opening months a mood very different from the standard suburban angst soaps surrounding it on the schedule grid.  As the months went by, the writers (guided by producer Dan Curtis) took bolder steps into the unknown.  The characters began to see ghosts.  And eventually, the ghosts became pivotal characters in the series' story lines.

In April 1967, the show crossed a bold line by introducing an actual monster, the vampire Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid), as a new villain.  Originally intended to serve as the focus for an extended story arc before finally being destroyed, Barnabas quickly became popular with the show's audience and generated quite a bit of buzz.  Suddenly, instead of being that spooky soap opera, DARK SHADOWS became that show about the adventures of an actual vampire.  As the ratings rose and Barnabas gathered more and more media attention, the show's creators decided that the vampire wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Over the ensuing years, Barnabas was joined by several werewolves, witches and demons, a Frankenstein-like creation, a Jekyll and Hyde knock-off and several other supernatural creatures.  Beyond the addition of monsters, the writers hit upon the innovation of time-travel and alternate dimension story lines.  Viewers were treated to extended (months long!) trips into the past to explore the history of the Collins family in the 18th and 19th century.  While these excursions were compelling and among the series' most lauded accomplishments, all the time-travel and journeys into the lives of alternate universe versions of the family may have contributed to the show's cancellation as viewers began to lose track of exactly which version of the Collinses they were watching.  Despite some fine moments, the show's final year must have proven baffling to casual viewers as it jumped back and forth between the "real" 1970 Collinwood mansion, the 19th century Collinwood, an alternate universe 1970 Collinwood and a possible 1990s future, before finishing up in an alternate universe 19th century Collinwood with all the regular cast members playing different characters in each time period.  If that's confusing to read, imagine trying to keep track of it watching a few episodes a week or coming back to the show after missing a few weeks or months.

So what is the enduring appeal of this interesting television experiment?  Beyond the nostalgia of those who liked the show as kids and the appeal to fans of classic horror in general, the show continues to retain a fan base because, quite frankly, there has never been anything like it before or since in television.  One factor is the five-episodes-a-week format, a schedule traditionally limited to mainstream serials with broader appeal.  Having hundreds of hours to fill gave show plenty of time to stretch out its storylines and the imaginations of its writers.  Another reason it endures is probably the camp factor.  The show IS a 1960s soap opera, after all, with all that that implies.  Melodramatic dialogue and acting, cheap sets and the rough edges that come with having to put on a new production, live-to-tape (meaning no second takes) every day of the week in a tiny New York studio, all lend the show something of a quaint air at times.  Even the die-hard fans find things which make them chuckle sympathetically from time to time.  But DARK SHADOWS is in no way a so-bad-it's-good kind of deal.  It's the product of a lot of fine creators and actors doing their damndest to put together something worthwhile and original under the most demanding of circumstances.

So there you go.  If you're a fan of today's extended storyline original series and you can get into old-timey horror stories and you can hold the snarky laughter and dismissiveness at bay when the dialogue gets a little overblown or a special effect looks cheesy, then DARK SHADOWS may be for you.  The entire 1225 episodes are available in one handsome box set for a few hundred bucks but I wouldn't exactly recommend  that kind of plunge for the casual dabbler.  There seem to be quite a few numbered episodes available on Youtube if you want to patch together a viewing experience that way.  But the best bet for most folks is probably the big chunk of the series offered on Netflix streaming.  This block of shows begins with Barnabas' debut episode which is actually where most interested parties should probably start.  If you really get into the series, you can go seek out the earliest episodes later.  That's what we did.  Oh and the show was in black and white until maybe 75 or a hundred episodes after Barnabas shows up, so don't be put off by that.

At the top of this entry you'll find what I think is a pretty solid DARK SHADOWS scene.  This particular clip takes place in 1795 after young Barnabas Collins has become a vampire under the curse of the witch Angelique.  Here, freshly gorged on the blood of the innocent, he confesses his shameful secret to family servant Ben Stokes.  Other than Gloria Holden in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936), Barnabas was very likely the first reluctant, guilt-ridden vampire.  I think this scene gives a nice sense of that.  Direct link here.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

When the Ripoff is More Enjoyable than the Original

I've been having some fun lately with THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977).  Trailer link here.

Produced amidst all the hoopla surrounding the 1976 remake of KING KONG, the film was an attempt by Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers studio to expand their international box appeal beyond the kung fu flicks that had made them famous.  They had already had some luck with INFRAMAN (1975), another giant monster epic that deserves its own post.  TMPM combines the monster-suit-vs-miniature-buildings approach with a nearly point by point lifting of the King Kong plot.  Note that the title of the post calls this ripoff "more enjoyable"  not "better."  I'm talking strict subjectivity here, folks. It's simply more enjoyable to me than the '76 Kong.  KING KONG (1933), by the way, doesn't belong in the same discussion with either of these films.  Kong '76 has its defenders, but I would watch PEKING MAN 3 times before I'd watch 76 even one more time.

THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN is delirious, campy but not too campy, and just a tad more "adult" than you'd expect.  It features no small amount of blood and belongs on the very short list of giant monster films that contain nudity.   Another plus is the incredibly detailed miniature Hong Kong that gets torn to shreds by the fur-suited menace.  The picture careens from one WTF scenario to another and ends with a wild final battle (yes, on top of a building) that is more exciting than one would expect.  The last shot of the film is genuinely excellent, capping off the previous 90 minutes of insanity with an iconic image that John Ford might have been happy with had he made a giant gorilla movie.

I don't know if THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN performed as expected or not. It doesn't seem to have made much of a splash in the U.S.  I've been into monster movies since I was a kid and went to see INFRAMAN at the Ross Cinema when I was about 9, but I'd never heard of this picture until Quentin Tarantino acquired the rights and released it on his Rolling Thunder video label in the 90s.  It's still available from Rolling Thunder on a very affordable 3 film set which also includes DETROIT 9000 (1973) and SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (1975) both of which are worth your while.  And if you're cheap or shady or both, I think the whole film is available on Youtube, whether it's supposed to be or not.

THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN would make an excellent party movie and should be enjoyable for anyone who enjoys old school monster movies or is just in the mood for something jaw-dropping.

Thanks for reading.  I leave you with the Love Theme from THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN.  Don't try this while pitching woo at home.  Direct link here.