Archive for June, 2010

Ray Harryhausen

On the occasion of his 90th birthday, we revisit this profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

“When King Kong fell from the Empire State,” Ray Bradbury recalled in Ronald V. Borst’s Graven Images, “he killed two kids with one slam, me and my pal Ray Harryhausen. Kong changed our lives, only for the good, forever. Because of its fabulous monsters razoring the air with their electric cries, I stayed in touch with ancient beasts and wound up writing the screenplay of Moby Dick [1956] for John Huston. Harryhausen got work with Willis O’Brien, Kong’s animator, on Mighty Joe Young [1949].” Fittingly, Harryhausen’s first solo effort, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), was based on Bradbury’s story (aka “The Fog Horn”).

Born on June 29, 1920, in Los Angeles, Harryhausen supplemented his lifelong interest in dinosaurs and gorillas by studying sculpture and anatomy in high school and night film classes at USC. His first attempts at stop-motion animation, in which a detailed armature is moved incrementally and photographed frame by frame, then composited with live-action footage, were made in his garage. After working on George Pal’s Puppetoon shorts, Harryhausen joined the armed forces in the Signal Corps unit as an assistant cameraman and, on his own, produced the animated short How to Bridge a Gorge.

This was shown to Frank Capra, who had him transferred to his Special Service Division, where Harryhausen worked in various capacities. After the war, he was contacted by his idol, O’Brien (who had told him to study more anatomy when they met in 1939), and ended up doing most of the animation on Mighty Joe Young as his assistant. Retired since the original Clash of the Titans (1981), he is still recognized as the master of the technique, more recently used in Corpse Bride and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (both 2005).

Harryhausen is perhaps the only effects technician whose name commands greater recognition than those of his directors, including Eugène Lourié, Fred F. Sears, Nathan Juran, Don Chaffey, and Gordon Hessler. In an interview for Filmfax, he told this writer, “these type of pictures that we made were not director’s pictures, as they call them in the European sense of the word. The director sometimes comes in after the picture is all laid out and even started in production.”

A twenty-five-year collaboration with producer Charles H. Schneer and Columbia Pictures began with Robert Gordon’s It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), in which budget constraints forced him to animate a six-tentacled octopus attacking the Golden Gate Bridge. “We both had an intense interest in filmmaking, and Charles loved fantasy,” Harryhausen recalled. “We worked well together, although we had many opposing ideas.”

Harryhausen assisted O’Brien on the dinosaur sequences of Irwin Allen’s documentary The Animal World (1956)—which, like Lourié’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, was released by Warner Brothers—and animated machines rather than fauna for Sears that same year. “The challenge on Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, of course, was to see if you could make a mechanical-looking object have some sort of interest to the public for an hour and a half,” he said.

Creations like the Ymir, the alien in Juran’s Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), had more personality than rubber-suited monsters or computer-generated effects. “I don’t sit down and analyze it. I try to give it as much character as I can, little nuances and little gestures,” he said, noting that the gorilla in Mighty Joe Young “had an enormous amount of character, and that rubbed off a bit on the Ymir, too, I think, because he was a humanoid figure.”

Dynamation, Harryhausen’s technique of combining live action and animated figures without elaborate miniature sets and elaborate glass paintings, debuted in color in Juran’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958). It was the first of four consecutive films scored by Bernard Herrmann, who “seemed to fit our type of film so beautifully,” said Harryhausen. “Miklos Rozsa [who scored The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)] writes a different type of music. His is more romantic in style, and for certain subjects his would be much more preferable.”

Jack Sher’s The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960), based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Cy Endfield’s Mysterious Island (1961), from the novel by Jules Verne, both grew out of existing scripts, with Dynamation written in. Gulliver added only an animated alligator and squirrel, but Mysterious Island was extensively reworked to incorporate animated creatures.

Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963) is Harryhausen’s personal favorite, and the climactic battle with an army of skeletons—brilliantly scored with castanets by Herrmann—took four and a half months to animate. “There are bits and pieces in each film that you sort of fall in love with, or you wouldn’t make the film,” he said. “But I think Jason was the most overall complete film, although there are many scenes I would love to do over.”

It was back to classic SF literature with Juran’s First Men in the Moon (1964), adapted from H.G. Wells’s novel by Nigel Kneale and Jan Read (who co-wrote Jason with Beverley Cross). “We adhered very closely to H.G. Wells’s description of the space sphere, and we tried to stick to Wells as close as possible,” Harryhausen recalled. “I shuddered when I had to use children in Selenite suits—which I once vowed I would never do—but being practical I was forced to, otherwise I might still be animating the many lunarians up to the present day!”

Harryhausen worked with screenwriters “very closely, because they had no idea of what you could and could not do with Dynamation. I would make many sketches. For example, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad started out with eight big sketches and a twenty-page outline I made of how to put the thing together, and I took it around Hollywood, and nobody was interested. I even took it to Edward Small, who later saw the success of Seventh Voyage, and then he latched onto Jack the Giant Killer [1961],” which reassembled many Sinbad alumni, but not Harryhausen.

Reunited with Chaffey at England’s Hammer Films, Harryhausen remade One Million B.C. (1940) with stop-motion as One Million Years B.C. (1966), which combined live-action and effects footage spectacularly, also showcasing Raquel Welch in a fur bikini. “They wanted to remake King Kong, but King Kong was such a classic I hesitated to get involved with that. But One Million I felt we could do so much better than crocodiles with rubber fins glued on their backs. So I jumped at the chance,” Harryhausen recalled.

James O’Connolly’s The Valley of Gwangi (1969) was a project O’Brien had been forced to abandon. “I remembered Obie had given me a script of it way back in the ‘40s, which I had in my garage. I dug it out, and we thought we could finally put it on the screen…Unfortunately, Warner Brothers was purchased by a different company by the time we finished the film, and of course the new companies never care for what the old companies did. So they just dumped it on the market with no publicity,” Harryhausen said.

The Sinbad trilogy concluded with Hessler’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sam Wanamaker’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), which Harryhausen co-wrote with Brian Clemens and Cross, respectively; John Phillip Law and Patrick Wayne were the new Sinbads. “Kerwin [Mathews] naturally had aged a bit…but that wasn’t the main reason,” he noted. “We tried to have different approaches. Seventh Voyage had a very garish, storybook quality to it, a stylized type of film, where Golden Voyage had a different approach. We tried to keep the colors very subdued and we tried to make it more realistic, in a sense, than a stylized version such as Seventh Voyage, and then Eye of the Tiger was different again.”

Harryhausen always directed the effects sequences himself. “One has to guide the actors where to look and how to feel,” he noted, but Sinbad’s battle with the six-armed goddess Kali in Golden Voyage presented a unique challenge. “We had to have six arms, so that we could rehearse with the actors. So we strapped three stuntmen together, one behind the other, with a great big belt, which was rather grotesque looking on the set, but…that gave the position that the actors would have to know in order to have their swords in the right place at the right time.”

Cross and Harryhausen returned to Greek mythology with Clash of the Titans. “I had Jim Danforth and Steven Archer help finish the picture, because we had some technical problems that caused us to go way behind schedule.” Of his retirement, Harryhausen observes, “I wanted to get out of being in a dark room for a year after everybody else has gone home and made two or three other pictures…And then the front office seemed to think that you had to have an explosion every five minutes, and you just can’t develop mythology or Arabic things in that way…”

In 1992, Harryhausen received the Gordon E. Sawyer Academy Award for recognition of his technical contributions to the motion picture industry, and New York City’s Museum of Modern Art honored his contributions to fantasy and motion pictures with a 1981 exhibition of his work. He has also seen the palpable effects of his efforts on such fans and future filmmakers as Danforth, John Landis, Dave Allen, and Rick Baker, whose careers he has helped to inspire.

Read Full Post »

Six more examples of Bad Cinema, ranging from hilariously awful to simply wretched.

“It’s Alive!”: Not to be confused with writer-director Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive, this is a film no sane person would want to own—unless they thought it exerted the train-wreck fascination of a Plan 9 from Outer Space or a Beast of Yucca Flats, or it was an uncredited adaptation of a story by Richard Matheson…or both. Yes, you guessed it, the answer is “C: All of the above.” To call this low-rent bastardization of Matheson’s “Being” a no-frills production is to define “sound” as a frill; much of it is shot silent, with ridiculously portentous narration and/or cheesy (and equally uncredited) music. It’s probably just as well that director-producer-writer-editor Larry Buchanan didn’t spend much on the scenery, the way this cast chews it, especially Big Bill Thurman as an Ozarks wacko who keeps a pet monster in a cave, feeding it with passing strangers who won’t be missed. Eighty minutes is an eternity, about which you can read more than you ever needed to know in Richard Matheson on Screen.

Mesa of Lost Women (aka Lost Women of Zarpa): Astounding piece of Bad Cinema with Jackie Coogan (yes, Uncle Fester from The Addams Family) as a scientist experimenting with spiders in his desert lab. Someone decided that a strumming guitar and piano would make for a menacing soundtrack. The unintentional hilarity that results must be heard to be believed (when things get tense [?], he just strums harder!); oddly enough, the score was reused by the same company, Howco, in Ed Wood’s Jail Bait. Wood players Lyle Talbot, Dolores Fuller, and Mona McKinnon are also on hand here, and although Eddie himself was not involved, it’s heavy on such Woodian traits as disjointed plotting and non-sequitur-filled dialogue. Also features a jaw-dropping “exotic” spider-woman dance sequence.

Metempsycho (aka Tomb of Torture): This one has no nudity or gore, which—while hardly prerequisites—always help maintain interest, since a lot of it consists of people walking around, but it does have a high weirdness factor. The utter absence of a single recognizable name on either side of the camera (unless you count co-writer “Johnny Seemonell,” really Giorgio Simonelli, who collaborated on a dozen films with the skull-crushingly unfunny Italian comedians featured in Mario Bava’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs) certainly didn’t bode well for this Euro-curiosity. For those of you without a dictionary at your fingertips, metempsychosis refers to the transference of a soul from one body to another at death, and while it’s hard to tell what’s going on for a lot of the time, the implication seems to be that this happened when a countess was killed and her young lookalike was born. After two young girls trespassing in the castle are tortured to death by a maniacally laughing servant who looks like he got his face caught in a Mix-Master, it looks like we’re in for an exploitation bonanza. But what follows is a bizarre mishmash of Gothic atmosphere and painfully scored comedy (Simonelli’s contribution, no doubt), as a reporter seeking a story on the two murders falls for the lookalike, who’s haunted by dreams of the countess being killed by an armored figure. I can’t be the only one who watched this film waiting for the latter to brandish a rubber chicken a la Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and you’ll want to do the same after seeing it.

Monstrosity (aka The Atomic Brain): This rock-bottom-budgeted curiosity concerns a mad scientist swapping brains. It seems the Doc’s wealthy female patron wants to find herself a hot young bod (hey, don’t we all?), but they’re not getting the best results from the corpses that he and his deformed assistant (the titular monstrosity) are stealing from the local boneyards. So she hits on the idea of hiring three young and difficult-to-trace women from foreign climes, ostensibly to work in her household, and plans to leave her fortune to the most promising of the three, so that she can happily spend it in her new body. The Doc, however, has other ideas involving her pet cat, and—in predictable fashion—most of the cast has bought the farm by the end.

The Navy Vs. the Night Monsters (aka The Night Crawlers): A Shakespearean classic of Bad Cinema, based on the novel Monster from the Earth’s End by Murray Leinster, whose lame Wailing Asteroid inspired the insipid Amicus SF flop They Came from Beyond Space. Quite a track record! This one stars Anthony Eisley (Dracula Vs. Frankenstein), Mamie Van Doren (Matheson’s ill-fated The Beat Generation), and—God help us all—Bobby Van, so you know you’re in trouble. A planeload of scientists and samples from an Antarctic hot springs area crash-lands at the Gow Island naval base, and pretty soon the gang’s tangling with hilariously inept killer trees. While famously stacked, Mamie’s not even as attractive as I remembered, so she contributes essentially nothing; as for the rest, I’m tempted to ask which is more wooden, the trees or the cast, and to call the dialogue sappy.

Night Terrors: Since this represents the collective effort of director Tobe Hooper and stars Robert Englund and William (Phantom of the Paradise) Finley, you can bet that good taste will be but a memory. Englund plays both the Marquis de Sade, in period scenes that don’t seem to have much to do with anything except exploitation, and his equally twisted modern-day descendant. Finley plays an archaeologist who locates an ancient Gnostic tomb, in which he discovers…something or other. Englund fingers (in every sense of the word) his daughter to be first corrupted, then terrified by the murders of most of the cast, and finally sacrificed for the purposes of…something or other. Needless to say, things don’t go exactly according to plan, but the film really just stops rather than actually ending. A sleazy, inexplicable mess.

Read Full Post »

I’ve seen a lot of stuff in the media marking June 25 as the first anniversary of the day Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died, and that coverage brought me to tears…but not for either of them. Like many young men of my last-gasp Baby Boom generation, I had an unhealthy obsession with Farrah’s iconic swimsuit poster in my youth, yet I didn’t really follow her career after she left Charlie’s Angels, and as for Jackson (Michael, not Kate), well, let’s just say I wasn’t a huge fan. My wife, however, was—to put it mildly—which must have made her double trauma almost unendurable, for that was also the day we lost Muffin.

She was about two when we got her, although we never knew for sure, because she was a feral or “barn cat,” adopted a year or so earlier by a woman with several other pets. This woman, a friend of my sister-in-law’s, then got another dog that started to attack Muffin, and although the latter might rightly be considered to have had seniority, it was decided to find her a new home. So, with some trepidation, we rescued her from this now-hostile environment, about two years after we had been put through the ringer by losing our first cat, Snickers, to a long, painful, expensive, and ultimately undiagnosed illness at the relatively young age of eleven.

Loreen grew up in a cat household, but my experience with feline ownership had hitherto been limited to Snickers, known to his less charitable acquaintances as The Spawn of Satan. He wasn’t really all that bad, especially in light of other unnamed cats who have since joined our extended family, but he was kind of a crotchety guy, and it’s my belief that since we adopted him as a kitten, he never knew how good he had it and was thus somewhat spoiled. Muffin, on the other hand, seemed to know precisely how lucky she was to be with us, and showed her appreciation by being the most loving animal on God’s green earth.

I know one always likes to believe that one’s team or girlfriend or car or hometown or mother or whatever is the best, but I think even neutral observers would say that Muffin was, if not unique, then certainly a very special cat. She was brown and stripey and petite and had tufted ears that suggested a touch of Maine coon, and she was well named by Loreen, because she sort of looked like a nice golden-brown buttered muffin. She never attacked, bit, hissed at, or deliberately clawed anyone, although she disliked being picked up, and would flail around with her needle-sharp claws in an unintentionally dangerous way if you did so.

The biggest danger Muffin presented to me was that she would sneeze in my face and cause a dramatic allergic reaction in my eyes, which she did more than once, yet she was so friendly that you really could have her right in your face, or rub her tummy, with no fear of reprisals. Unlike some cats, she welcomed affection, so much so that I even built a few minutes of “Muffin Time” into my daily commutational routine, when I would sit and pet her before heading off to the train station. But any time could be Muffin Time, especially if you needed the feeling that all was right with the world, or so it seemed with little Muffin in it.

After losing Snickers (the same week I was laid off in 2005), Loreen in particular wasn’t sure she wanted to set herself up for another tragedy, but since Muffin was young and reportedly healthy, we figured we’d have quite a few good years before we had to worry about that. What we didn’t know, until we took her to the vet for the first time, was that she had a heart murmur and was FIV-positive, so, good years, yes; quite a few, no. Around two years later, I noticed that Muffin appeared to be limping, and we thought perhaps she’d sprained her leg jumping down from a windowsill, little dreaming that the limp was a death sentence.

With the first of an endless gauntlet of vet visits (many of the details and nuances of which I’ve undoubtedly forgotten or blocked out), the cascade began: the limp was caused by cancer; then they discovered that cancer riddled her entire body; she also had an enlarged heart; then she went into cardiac failure. Apparently her poor immune and circulatory systems were so compromised that her whole body basically turned against her. We left her at the veterinary hospital overnight in a kind of feline oxygen tent, hoping they could stabilize her enough that she could at least go home and die in peace, surrounded by the love of her new family.

Yet we were to be denied even that small mercy, and I’ll never forget returning on the last day, with the TV spewing forth what seemed to be nonstop Fawcett and Jackson coverage, so that I could be there with Muffin as she was gently released from her suffering. For all the good they did, we might as well have taken the thousands of dollars we spent trying to save her and set fire to them. There’s no real point to be made here, except that I didn’t think it would hurt this much after a year, but it does, even now that we have Mina and Lucy, two beautiful young sisters we adopted from the no-kill animal shelter PAWS in Norwalk last fall.

Speaking of anniversaries, this Fourth of July—Mom’s eightieth birthday—marks one year since we visited my dear friend Liz in Vermont, where I got unexpectedly hammered on her fabulous margaritas. She presented me with her late husband Garritt C. Van Dyk’s Napoleon’s Air Force: A Battle for Change, posthumously published by http://www.Xlibris.com and recommended even for those who, like me, are not students of history. The story of France’s observation balloon corps is a fascinating cautionary tale about how an innovation such as military aviation can die on the vine, a victim of what Garritt calls “the infant mortality of worthy ideas.”

Read Full Post »

Marvel Snapshot: 1974

For those of you who haven’t figured it out already, I’m kind of anal-retentive when it comes to things like lists, and when I was a lad, I actually created a 14” x 17” chart for each year from 1974 to 1980, indicating who wrote which issue of most of the major Marvel Comics. That just shows you the primacy the written word had in my life even then, although it may also have been a conscious or unconscious reaction to the fact that in, say, The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, the artist was usually the only contributor considered worth mentioning. There were a few holes in my collection when I created the charts that I didn’t bother to fill in after acquiring the back issues in later years, but even with those gaps, each chart represents a nostalgic snapshot of Marvel’s superhero strips from that particular year.

Throughout 1974, for example, one of my all-time favorites, “Stainless Steve” Englehart, was in his prime, presiding over The Avengers, Captain America—both being penciled at year’s end by “Our Pal Sal” Buscema—and the Dr. Strange strip, which in June graduated to an eponymous book brilliantly drawn by Frank Brunner. Fresh from their war with the Defenders, the Assemblers tangled with the Zodiac and kicked off the saga of the Celestial Madonna (née Mantis), while Cap met the orphaned X-Men (whose book was then devoted to reprints) and underwent a crisis of conscience in the Moonstone/Watergate/Nomad storyline. Doc’s newly vacated berth in Marvel Premiere went to newcomer Iron Fist, written by the likes of “Lively Len” Wein, Doug Moench, and Tony (“The Tiger”) Isabella.

Another paragon of continuity was “Merry Gerry” Conway, firmly at the helm of both Amazing Spider-Man and Thor all year long; the Thunder God met Firelord for the first time and Hercules repeatedly as the pencil passed from Sal’s brother “Big John” Buscema to Rich (“Swash”) Buckler. Aided and abetted by the distinctive artwork of Ross Andru, Gerry introduced Spidey to such new foes as the Punisher (debuting in #129), the Tarantula, and the Grizzly in between return gigs by old standbys Dr. Octopus, the Molten Man, and the Green Goblin. Conway also had a hand in Fantastic Four, with Buckler kicking off the lion’s share of a thirty-issue run and Ultron crashing the star-studded wedding of an Inhuman, Crystal, and a mutant ex-Avenger, Quicksilver (aka Pietro), to mark their 150th issue.

Steve (“Baby”) Gerber flourished year-round with Daredevil (who first met one of his most persistent foes, Deathstalker, in #114) and the brand-new Marvel Two-in-One, featuring an important early appearance by the Guardians of the Galaxy. He also wrote some or all of the Son of Satan stories in Marvel Spotlight, whose prior star, Ghost Rider, now had his own book with multiple issues by Isabella and at least one by “Marvelous Marv” Wolfman. Other year-long runs, both more or less bimonthly, included Mike (brother of “Groovy Gary”) Friedrich’s Iron Man, as Shellhead faced a bewildering array of foes leading up to the kitchen-sink War of the Super-Villains, and “Dauntless Don” McGregor’s Black Panther strip in Jungle Action, with Buckler replaced by the improbably named Billy Graham.

Unfortunately, my records are somewhat spotty for several books, but it looks like Wein made significant contributions (often in collaboration with Sal Buscema) to both Marvel Team-Up and The Defenders, who tackled the Squadron Sinister, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and the Wrecking Crew. Conway took over MTU by year’s end, and he, Wein, and “Rascally Roy” Thomas all wrote multiple issues of Incredible Hulk in the midst of “Happy Herb” Trimpe’s lengthy tenure as artist, highlighted by some noteworthy guest stars. Adam “Him” Warlock, then between books, resurfaced (and temporarily died for the first time) in the Counter-Earth saga chronicled in #176-8, and future X-Men mainstay Wolverine was introduced on the very last page of the now extremely expensive #180.

Representing one of the acknowledged pinnacles of Marvel’s achievements in any era, writer-artist Jim Starlin wound up the first Thanos War in Captain Marvel—as well as a memorable crossover in Avengers #125—and called it quits after #34, leaving some cosmically huge shoes for successor Englehart to fill. Meanwhile, Moench and Buckler introduced the ill-fated Deathlok the Demolisher strip in Astonishing Tales #25, following a four-issue run of It! The Living Colossus (which I never read). At the other end of the life cycle, Sub-Mariner ended a checkered Silver Age career, breathing its last with #72 in September after issues by Gerber and Wolfman, among others, and a Spidey guest-shot, but the Prince of Atlantis would be back in not one but two new books the following year.

Go to 1975.

Read Full Post »

Concluding our overview of Raymond Chandler’s screen career and that of his best-known creation, private eye Philip Marlowe.

The less said about Marlowe’s next appearance, Lady in the Lake (1947), the better, and even “appearance” is a bit of a misnomer for a film in which he is visible only when he walks in front of a mirror, since director-star Robert Montgomery decided to shoot the whole thing with a subjective camera. That’s a great idea in one respect, allowing us to spend less time looking at Montgomery, but as a directorial choice, it stinks, making for a pretentious mess that wasted one of my favorite Chandler novels (from whose title it also excised the initial article). Similarly, The Brasher Doubloon (1947) was an otherwise good adaptation of The High Window, hampered yet again by an abysmal Marlowe, in this case George “No Relation” Montgomery.

Per the IMDb, Chandler’s work was adapted into episodes of The Philco Television Playhouse (“The Little Sister”), Robert Montgomery Presents (“The Big Sleep”), Nash Airflyte Theatre (“Pearls Are a Nuisance”), Studio One (“The King in Yellow”), Climax! (“The White Carnation,” “The Long Goodbye”), Schlitz Playhouse of Stars (“Tower Room 14-A”), and Storyboard (“I’ll Be Waiting”). Meanwhile, he labored fruitlessly on Strangers on a Train, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith and partly filmed at the railroad station in my former home of Danbury. Shortly after Chandler’s death, ABC ran a single-season Philip Marlowe series involving Richard Matheson, but my research was unable to document his specific contribution.

James Garner had yet to play Jim Rockford when he appeared in Marlowe (1969), but in retrospect, it’s easy to see that the star of The Rockford Files was an apt choice for the role, not surprisingly focusing on his charmingly smart-aleck side. Despite such modern-day interpolations as a flamboyantly gay hairdresser and a martial artist (Bruce Lee) who trashes Marlowe’s office, the film is a fairly faithful adaptation by Stirling Silliphant of The Little Sister. Silliphant’s work ranged from the heights of Village of the Damned (1960), his Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night (1967), and Charly (1968) to the dregs of Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite (1975) and the Irwin Allen bombs The Swarm (1978) and When Time Ran Out… (1980).

If Robert Altman indeed intended to subvert the private-eye genre with The Long Goodbye (1973), then his (mis)casting of one of my least favorite actors, his M*A*S*H (1970) star Elliott Gould, as a nebbishy Marlowe was surely a step in the right direction. One wonders if Big Sleep vet Leigh Brackett was in on the joke, since the film ostensibly derived from her script includes an inexplicable sequence in which Marlowe is struck by a car and winds up in a body cast. Among its other oddities are an omnipresent title song, which recurs in a variety of versions at hilariously regular intervals, and a typically eclectic cast featuring the great Sterling Hayden, soporific director Mark Rydell, Laugh-In’s Henry Gibson, and baseball player Jim Bouton.

The character was restored to an atmospheric period setting in Dick Richards’s Farewell, My Lovely (1975), with noir mainstay Robert Mitchum as an aging and world-weary Marlowe, a respectful script by David Zelag Goodman, an excellent main-title theme by David Shire, and the young Sylvester Stallone in a small role as a thug. With The Big Sleep (1978), Mitchum became the only actor to play the role in two features (produced, as was The Long Goodbye, by Elliott Kastner), although his wisdom in doing so is open to question, especially at the hands of aptly named writer-director Michael Winner. The story was reset not just in the present but in London, effecting a 180 that not even James Stewart, slumming as General Sternwood, could overcome.

Perhaps as a result, Marlowe has since been absent from the big screen, if not from cable television, where Chandler’s short stories—many of which were cannibalized in his novels—became the basis for the series Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, starring Powers Boothe, and episodes of Fallen Angels (“Red Wind,” “I’ll Be Waiting”). Another of my least favorites, James Caan, played Marlowe in HBO’s Poodle Springs (1998), directed by Bob Rafelson and adapted by prestigious playwright Tom Stoppard from a novel with an interesting history. Chandler’s unfinished manuscript had been completed by Robert B. Parker (often seen as his successor), who also authored Perchance to Dream, a sequel to The Big Sleep, and died at 77 on January 18, 2010.

Read Full Post »

I’m savoring the prospect of introducing my daughter to The Blue Dahlia (1946), which I recently taped from TCM, and which I understand indirectly gave the 1947 Black Dahlia murder its name. Not because I’m under any illusion that it’s a masterpiece, but it does star the stellar screen team of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (in whom, as noted, I perceive a resemblance to the youthful Madame B.), introduced in 1942 with back-to-back adaptations of Graham Greene’s This Gun for Hire and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. It also features an excellent supporting cast headed by William Bendix and Howard Da Silva and, most important, an Oscar-nominated screenwriting credit for one of my favorite authors, Raymond Chandler.

Chandler (1888-1959) is, of course, better known as the creator of private eye Philip Marlowe, and one of his best films as a scenarist, Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), was largely rewritten by Czenzi Ormonde, with whom he shared screen credit. As is often the case, I came to Chandler’s work through the movies, specifically Howard Hawks’s 1946 version of his first novel, The Big Sleep, in which Marlowe was played by Humphrey Bogart. Since Bogart is my favorite actor, it’s no surprise that the same is true of Hammett, via John Huston’s 1941 version of his p.i. classic The Maltese Falcon, but as a lad I was too enraptured with Bogie to notice the nuances distinguishing Marlowe from Hammett’s Sam Spade.

In the novel, Spade is compared with Satan, a fact made explicit when Warren William essayed the role (albeit as “Ted Shane”) in Satan Met a Lady (1936); Ricardo Cortez was the first Spade in the 1931 version, which retained Hammett’s title and character names. Bogart’s famous line, “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it,” neatly conveys Spade’s lack of hypocrisy over the fact that, first, said partner was a skirt-chasing louse and, second, he was banging said partner’s wife. Marlowe, on the other hand, is a kind of displaced knight in tarnished armor, at once cynical and idealistic, and various interpretations have emphasized various elements of his complex character, with varying degrees of success.

Interestingly, “Marlowe” first appeared incognito in two 1942 films that are most notable for hijacking Chandler novels as vehicles for other literary and cinematic sleuths. The Falcon Takes Over shoehorned Michael Arlen’s eponymous character (played by George Sanders) into the plot of Farewell, My Lovely, while Time to Kill was a de facto adaptation of The High Window with Lloyd Nolan as Brett Halliday’s Michael Shayne. In collaboration with director Billy Wilder, Chandler notched his first screenwriting credit on Double Indemnity (1944) the same year Marlowe made his official debut in Murder, My Sweet, which—with RKO Radio apparently counting on the public’s short memory—was also based on Farewell, My Lovely.

Despite Chandler’s notoriously poor relationship with Wilder (not much improved upon with Hitchcock), it must be acknowledged that Double Indemnity is a film noir milestone, and that he was an inspired choice to adapt fellow hard-boiled writer James M. Cain. In such cinema-friendly novels as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce, Cain excelled at depicting morally questionable characters who come to grief when they give in to criminal temptations, and nowhere is this milieu better captured than in the tale of adulterous murderers Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). The film’s seven Oscar nominations included the script, Stanwyck, Miklós Rózsa’s score, Wilder’s direction, and Best Picture.

Sandwiched in between Chandler’s next two screenwriting gigs, And Now Tomorrow (1944) and The Unseen (1945)—neither of which I’ve seen—Murder, My Sweet marked Dick Powell’s bid to establish himself as something more than a song-and-dance man. This he did admirably as one of the screen’s better Marlowes, backed up by the villainous likes of Claire Trevor, Otto Kruger, and Mike Mazurki as Chandler’s immortal Moose Malloy, under the direction of HUAC name-dropper Edward Dmytryk. Chandler approved of the film (ditto The Big Sleep), but RKO quickly had to retitle it after previews to draw audiences who initially stayed home in droves, assuming Farewell, My Lovely to be yet another Powell musical.

Plenty of lore surrounds The Blue Dahlia, e.g., that Chandler was forced to change the ending (for reasons I can’t disclose sans spoilers) and, in order to accommodate Ladd’s imminent military service, finished the script at his home in a weeklong drunken marathon. Speaking of alcoholic authors in Hollywood, Big Bill Faulkner was credited alongside Hawks, Bogart, leading lady Lauren Bacall, and fellow scenarist Jules Furthman on both The Big Sleep (co-scripted by Leigh Brackett) and the Hemingway adaptation To Have and Have Not (1944). For me, Bogie was the definitive Marlowe, although the romantic side was played up to reflect his growing on- and offscreen chemistry with fourth and final wife Bacall.

To be concluded.

Read Full Post »

Bad to the Bone, Part II

Six more examples of Bad Cinema, ranging from hilariously awful to simply wretched.

Dracula Vs. Frankenstein (1970, aka Blood of Frankenstein): The late Al Adamson’s no-budget nonsense is a giant in the field of Bad Cinema, a patch-job jerry-rigged from footage shot in three different batches in an attempt to salvage the abortive earlier versions. An ailing J. Carrol Naish stars as the last living (?) member of the Frankenstein family, with an alcoholic Lon Chaney, Jr., mercifully mute in his role as the psychotic sidekick, Groton; Anthony Eisley as the semi-hero who gets wiped out in the original climax (which was news to the actor when he saw the finished film); Jim (Dallas) Davis as a curt cop; Russ Tamblyn as a biker, whose presence is due to the fact that the film started out as a followup to the Adamson/Tamblyn Satan’s Sadists; Forrest J. Ackerman in a self-serving bit part that guaranteed the film coverage in Famous Monsters of Filmland; and Angelo Rossitto as—what else?—an evil dwarf. Zandor Vorkov is a strong candidate for the screen’s worst Dracula, with two interchangeable no-name “actors” as the Frankenstein Monster (due to the separate shooting gigs), who looks like he fell asleep in his oatmeal; I would have said that the second climax, in which Dracula tears the Monster limb from limb before disintegrating in the sun, had to be seen to be believed…but because it’s shot in a dark forest, you really can’t see it! With Al’s lady love and future wife, the late Regina Carroll, who lets her ample endowments carry most of the, er, weight.

Eugénie: In this typically inept exploitation effort from writer-director Jess (aka Jesus) Franco, allegedly based on a novel by the Marquis de Sade, a girl (Franco mainstay Soledad Miranda) and her stepfather (Paul Müller from Nightmare Castle and Franco’s own far superior Count Dracula) become lovers and serial killers, until she falls for their next victim and dad kills all three of them. That’s Franco himself saving a paycheck by playing the improbably named Attila Tanner, a writer who keeps hinting that he’s onto their little games, and then does absolutely nothing about it. It takes a guy with his total lack of style or talent to make an 80-minute movie, with a naked girl every few minutes, tough to sit through. Miranda was killed in a car crash in 1970, the year this film was shot; that same year, Franco released an entirely different movie with the same title (perhaps better known as Eugenie…the Story of Her Journey into Perversion), although to make matters more confusing, this one was not released until 1975.

Flesh Feast: Starring Veronica Lake and a cast of thousands…of maggots. Actually, this sad swan song for the once-lovely leading lady (sadder still for those who know she bore a resemblance to my wife in her heyday [Veronica’s, that is]), made by justifiable unknowns, is so cheap that they couldn’t even afford that many. She must have been crazy and/or starving to think this would have done her any good, either professionally or financially, but it deserves some kind of special award for the sheer loopiness of its premise: she’s a doctor experimenting with an anti-aging technique in which maggots nibble off the outer layer of wrinkled skin, and her patient, who’s planning a South American-based revolution, is none other than Hitler himself. The last line, at least, is unforgettable.

Gallery of Horror[s] (aka Alien Massacre, The Blood Suckers, Dr. Terror’s Gallery of Horrors, Return from the Past, The Witch’s Clock): This rock-bottom anthology film gives, if not new meaning to, then at least renewed appreciation for words like “cheap” and “inept.” Perpetrated by David L. Hewitt, a woebegone writer-director with ties to AIP, it’s peppered with stock footage from better (and better-known) AIP films like Roger Corman’s House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum, and The Raven (all coincidentally written by Richard Matheson). John Carradine hosts in an ill-fitting tux against a muffed matte shot, and appears in the first story, which has an ending as abrupt and impenetrable as it is unsatisfying. Another tale features a vampire preying on a hilariously unconvincing period London; another stars the bottomed-out Chaney, Jr., as an ill-fated colleague of Dr. Frankenstein; yet another features a double-crossed doctor who rises from the grave to take vengeance on his wife and her lover, with a scenery-chewing voiceover that must be heard to be believed (and which we in the BOF household still spoof to this day: “Now I will have my revenge!”). All are shot in incredibly cramped close-ups to try to conceal the impoverished sets, while the script is as lacking in imagination as these filmmakers were in resources; utter crap.

The Horror of Party Beach: This classic of Bad Cinema was shot in God’s Country—as defined by BOF, that’s Connecticut, for all you city slickers and country bumpkins out there—and directed by Del Tenney (Curse of the Living Corpse). It seems some spilled radioactive waste has caused protozoans to replace the organs in drowned bodies, resulting in rubber-suited monsters that need human blood to survive. Don’t you hate when that happens? The acting, dialogue, score, photography, and makeup are so uniformly bad you’ll howl with laughter. Contains some amusingly gratuitous gore as well.

Horrors of Spider Island (aka It’s Hot in Paradise): Nude scenes were reportedly excised from the version I saw, and although even abundant nudity wouldn’t make this a good movie, it couldn’t hurt. A group of dancers (and I use the term loosely) en route to Singapore is stranded by a plane crash on a remote Pacific island, where a woefully inept giant spider is shot dead by their leader (the annoying Alex D’Arcy from Adamson’s Blood of Dracula’s Castle), but not before he’s bitten and turned into a woefully inept spider-man who is, perhaps wisely, kept offscreen for most of the picture. The girls spend most of their time fighting over the attentions of two dorks who show up to resupply the uranium-hunting scientist working on the island before he became arachnid-food. Abysmal.

To be continued.

Read Full Post »

I Dream of Geena

The recent death of baseball player Dorothy “Dottie” Kamenshek, one of the inspirations for the character of Dottie Hinson in Penny Marshall’s fine film A League of Their Own (1992), prompts me to ask, “What the hell happened to Geena Davis?” Since she, like David Lynch, has had the dubious honor of multiple screwings by ABC, first with her eponymous sitcom and then with the grossly mistreated Commander in Chief (despite her Golden Globe Award and Emmy nomination), I envision her lying in an alley somewhere with a big ol’ knife protruding from her shoulder blades. Her 2009 IMDb credits, Exit 19—a TV outing that featured Matthew Lillard (strike one!) and apparently didn’t even credit a director (strike two!)—and Accidents Happen, flew right under my radar, and that’s a damn shame, because Geena’s been one of my favorite contemporary actresses since…well, that requires some reflection.

Let’s not mince words here: she’s smart, she’s hot, she’s tall, she’s talented, she’s funny, she’s charming, and she’s an archer, so what the hell is not to like? It’s tough to pinpoint just when Geena showed up on said radar, but since I may not have caught David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) on its release, probably put off by his usual yuckiness, I’m guessing it was in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988), in which she was cast opposite the equally appealing young Alec Baldwin. I’m not normally a big TV guy, so I never saw Geena’s appearances on Knight Rider, Buffalo Bill, Riptide, Family Ties, Remington Steele, or Sara, and don’t remember her originally making a big impression on me in Tootsie (1982), even if she does now; of course, I forget an awful lot.

Two more dissimilar films than The Fly (in which Geena uttered the immortal line, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”) and Beetlejuice could scarcely be imagined, but each ranks among my favorite ’80s films and gave her a chance to shine. Having overcome my initial squeamishness, I now recognize the former as one of the best remakes around, and its gene-splicing premise strikes me as much more plausible than the head-switching one in the 1958 original, although that’s setting the bar pretty low. One of the reasons I like The Fly more than most Cronenberg films is its romantic relationship, rendered all the more affecting by the protagonist’s fate, and all the more believable by Geena’s on- and offscreen chemistry with leading man and future second husband Jeff Goldblum.

Since I love both Davis and Goldblum—who also co-starred in Transylvania 6-5000 (1985) and Earth Girls Are Easy (1988)—and they seemed so well suited to each other, I was always sad that they didn’t stay together, but hey, that’s their business. She then nabbed a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Accidental Tourist (1988), a film that appears on my mental “Need to Revisit” list, not least because it reunited William Hurt and writer-director Lawrence Kasdan from BOF favorite The Big Chill (1983). Along with Stephen Frears’s Hero (1992) on that same list is Cutthroat Island (1995), directed by soon-to-be-ex #3, Renny Harlin, who showed conclusively that Geena could kick serious butt in the superior spy thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight (1966).

I have vaguely favorable memories of Angie, Speechless (both 1994, the latter reteaming Geena with Beetlejuice co-star Michael Keaton), and Stuart Little (1999), which as I recall was significantly altered from E.B. White’s beloved book, but right before A League of Their Own—in which, thank God, she reportedly replaced the dreaded Debra Winger—she made two films that really stand out in my memory. Quick Change (1990) is a brilliant caper movie with an excellent cast headed by Bill Murray (who co-directed with Howard Franklin), Randy Quaid, and Jason Robards. And Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991), which I believe was one of the first films I saw with my main man Gilbert Colon, is an inspiring, albeit tragic, tale of two beautiful women (Geena and Susan Sarandon, both justifiably Oscar-nominated) unexpectedly empowered but ultimately doomed by circumstances.

Read Full Post »

If I Had a Hammer, Part V

Concluding our idiosyncratic survey of some noteworthy Hammer films and related items.

Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972): Hammer made a howling error bringing Dracula into the present with this entry in its declining series, but setting much of the story in an abandoned church helps (as do Stephanie Beacham and Caroline Munro). Adding insult to injury is the resurrection of the transparent “Alucard” pseudonym (already a mite feeble in 1943 in Universal’s Son of Dracula) for Dracula’s minion. At least the film reunites Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as Dracula and Van Helsing for the first time since 1958, although making Cushing’s character the grandson of the original Van Helsing, who dies in battle with Dracula in the 1872 prologue, certainly strains chronological credulity. But Lee, as so often happens, is given little to do. Death to Stoneground!

Fear in the Night (1972): This psycho-thriller was written and directed by Hammer—and psycho-thriller—mainstay Jimmy Sangster. Cushing stars as the headmaster of an English boarding school that is vacant for the holidays, wed to Joan Collins (a frequent genre presence at that time); Ralph Bates plays a newly hired teacher, with Judy Geeson as his terrified, and mentally unstable, spouse.

Straight on Till Morning (aka Dressed for Death, Til Dawn Do Us Part, The Victim; 1972): I have yet to see this psycho-thriller from director Peter Collinson (The Italian Job), with Rita Tushingham as a naïve girl whose dream lover is actually a serial killer, played by Hammer’s “It Boy” du jour, one Shane Briant (Demons of the Mind, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell).

Vampire Circus (1972): One of Hammer’s more distasteful latter-day films, with a nasty tone, no stars, and a no-name director (assuming Robert Young isn’t the same guy from Father Knows Best). For those who care, it has some feminine pulchritude on display, but believe me, that’s not necessarily enough. It depicts the depredations wrought upon a European village by the curse of the vampire count whom the inhabitants had staked years earlier. George Baxt (City of the Dead) got story credit, but told me he just sold them the title for £1,000. If that’s the case, “You go, George!”

Captain Kronos—Vampire Hunter (aka Kronos, Vampire Castle; 1974): This failed attempt to launch a new series was written and directed by Avengers alumnus Brian Clemens, with Caroline Munro as the titular vampire hunter’s sexy sidekick. It’s too bad it didn’t do better, because it’s unusual and atmospheric, with Horst Janson effective in the title role, rousing music by Laurie Johnson (also of The Avengers), and Briant and Ian Hendry in the supporting cast.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974): The last film of both director Terence Fisher and Hammer’s second-longest series, exceeded only by their Dracula films. Cushing returns as the Baron, now using his fellow inmates at an asylum as raw material, with Big Dave Prowse (the body of Darth Vader) as his second Frankenstein Monster, following The Horror of Frankenstein; Briant as his assistant; and Madeline Smith (The Vampire Lovers) as the mute Angel, whom Frankenstein hopes to mate with his latest monster. Not the best, but a better swan song than their Dracula had…

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (aka Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride, Dracula Is Dead…and Well and Living in London; 1974): Lee’s last Hammer Dracula, made by the same team as Dracula A.D. 1972, with Cushing returning as Van Helsing, Joanna (The New Avengers, Absolutely Fabulous) Lumley supplanting Stephanie (seaQuest DSV) Beacham as his granddaughter Jessica, and Lee offstage for much of the picture posing as reclusive tycoon D.D. Denham, who has a weird scheme to decimate the Earth with a plague. I guess everybody needs a hobby…but why Dracula?

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (aka The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula; 1974): Believe it or not, the world’s first Kung Fu vampire movie is better than you’d think. It’s a co-production with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers, and while it doesn’t have Lee as Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson subs for him in a few, mercifully brief scenes), it does have Cushing as Van Helsing, atmospheric direction by Hammer stalwart Roy Ward Baker, and a return to a period setting. Interestingly, while Baker (who had directed Lee’s last period entry, Scars of Dracula) supplanted Alan Gibson after the ill-advised attempts to update the Count, Don Houghton wrote all three films.

Shatter (aka Call Him Mr. Shatter; 1974): Hammer honcho Michael “Mr. Mediocrity” Carreras replaced a behind-schedule Monte Hellman as the director of their second and last collaboration with the Shaw Brothers, also written by Don Houghton. Stuart Whitman—a non-star if ever there was one (would you believe he got a 1961 Oscar nomination for something called The Mark?)—is the eponymous assassin (“That’s not a name.” “Yeah—more of a way of life.”), complete with cheesy ’70s theme song, who gets double-crossed in Hong Kong. Even “guest star” Cushing (in his last film for Hammer) and Anton Diffring (the star of Baxt’s Circus of Horrors and Hammer’s The Man Who Could Cheat Death years earlier) can’t do much to salvage a lame Bruce Lee knock-off.

To the Devil a Daughter (aka Die Braut des Satans; 1976): Hammer’s last gasp in the genre is a thoroughly unpleasant yarn based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley (author of The Devil Rides Out), with Lee as a Satan-worshipping priest, the briefly unclothed Nastassja Kinski as the object of his Rosemary’s Baby-esque scheme and writer Richard Widmark as the opposition; it’s a sad finale.

Hammer House of Horror (1980): A friend sent me copies of all thirteen episodes of this mystery and suspense anthology series, but alas, I have yet to find time to watch any of them. I do know one, “The Silent Scream,” stars Peter Cushing, for whatever it’s worth. But that’s all I can tell you.

The World of Hammer (1994): Narrated by the late Oliver Reed, this series is not quite a documentary, as it provides no biographical or background information. It’s really more of a clip-fest, with such thematically grouped episodes as “Christopher Lee,” “Frankenstein Films,” “Mummies, Werewolves and the Living Dead,” “Peter Cushing,” “Sci-Fi,” and “Wicked Women.”

Flesh and Blood (1994): Not to be confused with Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh + Blood, Ted Newsom’s superb feature-length documentary is narrated by Hammer’s two biggest stars, Christopher Lee and, shortly before his death, Peter Cushing. It can’t cover everything in 100 minutes (yes, Richard Matheson is mentioned as the screenwriter of The Devil Rides Out and the abortive Night Creatures, but not Fanatic), yet it does admirably recount the studio’s rise, glory days, and decline with an abundance of clips, trailers, and interviews with director/fan Joe Dante and a “Who’s Who” of Hammer: Roy Ward Baker, James Bernard, Martine Beswick (misidentified as “Beswicke” despite posters showing her name), Veronica Carlson, Michael Carreras (aka Henry Younger), Hazel Court, Freddie Francis, Val Guest, Ray Harryhausen, Anthony Hinds (aka John Elder), Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Caroline Munro, Ingrid Pitt, Jimmy Sangster, and Raquel Welch.

Addendum: The good folks at Watching Hammer (http://watchinghammer.blogspot.com/) have instituted a new weekly feature in which they get well-known experts to write about their Top Ten Hammer films.  By a bizarre coincidence, the first three are all people who were kind enough to allow me to quote generously from various published interviews in Richard Matheson on Screen:  Ted Newsom (see above), journalist Alan Jones of Cinefantastique fame, and Little Shoppe of Horrors publisher Richard Klemensen.  Since I knew them to be nice guys on top of their other credentials, my expectations were high but, if anything, exceeded.   Their intensely enjoyable lists achieved the same effect I strive for here at BOF, combining informed viewpoints on films, filmmakers, and film history with personal reactions that, I hope, make for a good read; theirs sure did.

Read Full Post »

Irwin Allen

On the occasion of his 94th birthday, we revisit this SF-oriented profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

“Among those who have kneed science fiction in the groin Irwin Allen must rank high,” wrote John Baxter in Future Tense. Before the blockbusters The Poseidon Adventure (1973) and The Towering Inferno (1974) made him the “Master of Disaster,” Allen’s contributions to the SF genre, on the large and small screens, were undeniably profitable, if at times decidedly juvenile.

After working in the magazine, radio, and advertising industries, Allen began producing films in the early 1950s. Among his earliest successes was The Sea Around Us (1952), an Oscar-winning documentary based on Rachel L. Carson’s book, and as a follow-up he decided to make a film about various animal species, The Animal World (1956), which he also wrote and directed.

For its dinosaur sequence, Allen hired the up-and-coming king of stop-motion animation, Ray Harryhausen, and his mentor, Willis O’Brien, who had created the pioneering effects of The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933). After numerous career reversals, O’Brien was elated when Allen then recruited him as the effects technician for his 1960 remake of The Lost World.

Unfortunately, Twentieth Century-Fox wanted to rush the film into theaters to capitalize on the success of its Jules Verne adaptation Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). This did not allow enough time for the painstaking stop-motion process, so at Allen’s insistence, O’Brien was forced to use Journey’s more economical method of photographically enlarging live lizards.

As Harryhausen told this writer in an interview for Filmfax, “He was flabbergasted that they would go that way, but it was a cheaper way, and unfortunately I don’t think it was as good. The Lost World depended so much on the dinosaur that looks like a dinosaur, and not a lizard with some fins glued on his back. They did that with the first One Million B.C. [1940]…” O’Brien died just two years later.

The film depicts an expedition to a remote Amazonian plateau that Professor Challenger (Claude Rains) claims contains extinct Jurassic dinosaurs. He is joined by big-game hunter Lord Roxton (Michael Rennie) and Jennifer Holmes (Jill St. John), whose father, a newspaper mogul, finances the expedition on the condition that a reporter, Ed Malone (David Hedison), is included.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) was basically an updated version of Verne’s own 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which, like The Lost World, was written by Charles Bennett and Allen, who also directed. Bennett is best known for working with Alfred Hitchcock on six of his best British films, plus Foreign Correspondent (1940), for which he shared an Oscar nomination.

After the Van Allen Belt catches fire, presumably ignited by a meteor, Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon), the inventor of the nuclear submarine Seaview, and Captain Lee Crane (Robert Sterling) concoct a desperate plan. By firing a missile on a precise date and trajectory, they propose to blow the burning belt outward, which they do after many trials and tribulations.

Bennett and Allen at last tackled Verne directly with a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of his Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962), with Voyage veterans Barbara Eden and Peter Lorre joined by Red Buttons and Fabian. Cedric Hardwicke plays Professor Samuel Fergusson, whose balloon, the Jupiter, is pressed into service to scuttle Portuguese slave traders in Western Africa in 1863.

Allen assaulted the airwaves with four fondly remembered SF series, all produced by Fox and often running concurrently: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-8), Lost in Space (1965-8), The Time Tunnel (1966-7), and Land of the Giants (1968-70). All but Lost in Space aired on ABC, with Bennett contributing several scripts to the new Voyage and one to Land of the Giants.

Like Lost in Space, which ran on CBS, Voyage began in black-and-white, with a serious tone, but degenerated in later, color seasons into increasingly outlandish episodes and a repetitive monster-of-the-week format. Richard Basehart, who reportedly displayed a growing disdain for his well-paid work, and The Lost World’s David Hedison were recast as TV’s Nelson and Crane.

As its proposed title, The Space Family Robinson, suggests, Lost in Space was a futuristic version of Johann Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson, with Guy Williams and June Lockhart as the eponymous Robinson parents. Comic villain Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris) threatened to steal the show, and was played more seriously by Gary Oldman in the 1998 feature-film version.

The Time Tunnel thrust its protagonists, Drs. Tony Newman (James Darren) and Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert), into various eras past and present, many of which were created using Fox’s stock footage and standing sets. As with the other Allen series, the episodes became more and more far-fetched as the series progressed, and aliens abounded in a desperate bid for ratings.

Land of the Giants, in which seven Earthlings crash on a planet whose inhabitants dwarf them, rehashed not only Richard Matheson’s classic film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), but also the recent series World of Giants (1959-60). Once the novelty wore off, it fell into a formula, with one member of the cast (led by Gary Conway) getting captured and requiring rescue by the rest.

Allen’s subsequent small-screen SF efforts included the failed pilots City Beneath the Sea (1971), which began life as a test film with another cast, and The Time Travelers (1976), clearly modeled on The Time Tunnel. He also went back to the Jules Verne well one last time with The Return of Captain Nemo (1978), a miniseries pitting Nemo (José Ferrer) against a mad scientist.

As the cycle of disaster movies petered out, Allen returned to both the big screen and the director’s chair with one of his most notorious flops, The Swarm (1978). Based on the novel by Arthur Herzog, it combined an SF premise of killer bees threatening humankind with the usual mix of stars (e.g., Michael Caine, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda) and scenes of destruction.

Allen’s waning years as a producer included a superfluous sequel, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), and a disastrous disaster movie, When Time Ran Out… (1980). But his record of successes both commercial and critical (The Towering Inferno was nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture) and the popularity of his TV cast members at fan conventions speak for themselves.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »