Archive for September, 2010

It’s a hard truth, and one to which many of us have trouble reconciling ourselves:  there are only so many hours in a day—twenty-four, to be precise—and when you spend twelve of them just getting to, through, and from your day job, as I do, plus at least a couple of them sleeping, that doesn’t leave much time for living your life, let alone blogging.  So the bad news is, I’m writing a series of posts on Richard Matheson for Tor.com, which will make it even harder to find time for BOF.  The good news is…I’m writing a series of posts on Richard Matheson for Tor.com!

Seriously, Tor.com (see link at right) is an excellent outlet for this series, “Richard Matheson—Storyteller,” to which other writers may be contributing as well; today’s I Am Legend article has already garnered TEN TIMES as many views as the average BOF post.  Tor being his primary trade publisher, there would seem to be no better place to spread the word about Matheson in general, which I’m always happy to do even without a book to promote, and Richard Matheson on Screen in particular.  Not to mention the fact that they have a very spiffy-looking site, and you couldn’t ask for a nicer person to work with than my Tor.com editor (if that is the correct term).

In my introductory post, I refer to Richard’s “long and fruitful relationship with Tor,” where my old friend Greg Cox has been his editor for almost two decades, but the description could apply just as well to me.  I promoted Tor titles as a publicist for St. Martin’s Press, which distributed their books before acquiring the company, and over the years they have hired me to write press releases, jacket copy, and even reading guides, including one for Matheson’s own Somewhere in Time.  As avid BOF readers know, I also did some editorial work with Elleston Trevor for them.

In order to provide loyal BOF fans with as much content as possible, I’ll run a “Tor.com Alert” here every time I post a new article over there.  Meanwhile, I’ll do my best to continue coming up with new content on the home front, or at least “new” content derived from articles written for the former Scifipedia site, and from reviews written for the fabled Bradley Video Library catalog.  Rest assured, I won’t abandon you, and I’ll make sure this site is worth every penny you pay for the dubious honor of reading it, but for now, do check out the two posts that kick off the series.

Read Full Post »

Marking the 89th birthday of co-founder Milton Subotsky, we revisit this SF-oriented profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

As a purveyor of cinematic horror in the 1960s and ’70s, Amicus Productions was Britain’s only serious rival to Hammer Films, whose personnel (e.g., Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, directors Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker) it borrowed on a regular basis. Ironically, the studio was founded by the American producers Max J. Rosenberg (1914-2004) and Milton Subotsky (1921-91).

Also a screenwriter, Subotsky received the story credit on an early effort that was technically a Vulcan Production, John Moxey’s City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel, 1960), a splendid tale of witchcraft featuring Lee in a solid supporting role. He later scripted the first official Amicus production, Francis’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964), which started a signature series of anthology films.

Subotsky based one of the earliest Amicus films, Francis’s The Skull (1965), on horror author and screenwriter Robert Bloch’s classic “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade.” Bloch was then hired to adapt his own published stories into Francis’s Torture Garden (1967), Peter Duffell’s The House That Dripped Blood (1970) and Baker’s Asylum (1972), each of which utilized the anthology format.

Amicus eventually became the first studio permitted by publisher William M. Gaines to film stories from the eponymous E.C. horror comics of the 1950s in Francis’s Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Baker’s The Vault of Horror (1973). But it also made several significant contributions to the SF genre, including the only feature films to date based upon the long-running BBC-TV series Dr. Who.

Unveiled in the Doctor’s second adventure, “The Daleks” (aka “The Dead Planet”), the titular mutants inside their metallic casings, whose primary goal is to “Exterminate!” humans, soon became the most enduring of his interstellar adversaries. Thus, an adaptation of Terry Nation’s serial seemed a safe bet for Amicus to introduce the Doctor to the big screen—and in color—for the very first time.

Written by Subotsky, with additional material by the show’s script editor, David Whitaker, Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) changed the Doctor from the Time Lord of the series to an eccentric human inventor, played by Peter Cushing. The film was directed by Gordon Flemyng, who worked almost exclusively in British television for the thirty-odd years of his decidedly unremarkable career.

The Doctor’s invention, the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), is disguised as a police call box, and can travel through time and/or space. It does both, whisking the Doctor and his granddaughters Barbara (Jennie Linden) and Susan (Roberta Tovey) to the planet Skaro in the distant future, when Barbara’s clumsy boyfriend, Ian Chesterton (Roy Castle), stumbles against the controls.

Poisoned by nuclear war, Skaro is inhabited by two races: the peaceful, humanoid Thals, and the deadly Daleks, which are protected by their mechanized armor. Joining forces with the Thals, the Doctor and his companions undergo the usual quotient of captures, imprisonments, and escapes, but ultimately defeat the Daleks by interfering with the magnetic forces that control their futuristic city.

Cushing and Tovey were back, with a bigger budget, the same screenwriters, and essentially the same crew, for Flemyng’s Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966), based on Nation’s second Dalek serial, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” Ian and Barbara were supplanted by police constable Tom Campbell (Bernard Cribbins), another comic foil, and the Doctor’s niece, Louise (Jill Curzon).

In 2150, the Daleks are excavating in England with evil intent, hoping to blow out the Earth’s magnetic core by planting a bomb in a fissure, effectively turning the planet into a giant spaceship. This ambitious plan is put to rest when the Doctor reprograms their human slaves, the Robomen, and diverts the bomb down an unused shaft, so that the magnetic pull draws the Daleks down to the core.

Allan Bryce’s Amicus: The Studio That Dripped Blood tartly (but not necessarily inaccurately) dismisses their next SF efforts, Montgomery Tully’s The Terrornauts and Francis’s They Came From Beyond Space (both 1967), as “the two worst films the company ever produced.” Each was based on a decidedly pulpy paperback (Murray Leinster’s The Wailing Asteroid and Joseph Millard’s The Gods Kate Kansas, respectively).

Francis told me in an interview for Filmfax that after budgeting for both movies, Amicus spent most of the money on The Terrornauts, leaving very little left over for him. “So we were trying to do this film with not much money, and I thought it was a rotten film anyway,” he said. “That was another Subotsky script [indeed, his writing was widely considered the studio’s weakest link], which I didn’t interfere with.”

In The Terrornauts, a group of humans is spirited off into space and subjected to a series of intelligence tests, before being plunged into the middle of a war between alien races. Francis’s film concerns another alien race, this time taking over humans to effect their mysterious plan, which turns out to be nothing more menacing than trying to get from our moon to their own world to die at home.

More ambitious and intelligent, but faring badly at the box-office, was Alan Cooke’s The Mind of Mr. Soames (1969), based on the novel by Charles Eric Maine. Reminiscent of Charly (1968), it stars Terence Stamp as a thirty-year-old man awakened from the coma he has been in since birth, with Robert Vaughn and Nigel Davenport as doctors in disagreement over how to educate him.

Scream and Scream Again (1970) was an odd hybrid of horror and SF, and of personnel from both Amicus and American International Pictures, then expanding into England. Star Vincent Price, director Gordon Hessler, and screenwriter Christopher Wicking had already worked together at AIP, while Rosenberg and Subotsky produced the film, and Lee and Cushing co-starred.

Based on Peter Saxon’s The Disorientated Man, this historic teaming of horror’s “big three” is a disorientating experience indeed, with multiple settings and plotlines that seem unconnected at first. Finally, it becomes clear (relatively speaking) that Price’s character has been creating a race of deadly, super-strong “composites,” which are infiltrating various governments to control the world.

Amicus also produced some of the few films based on SF novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, best known as the creator of Tarzan. Financed—and distributed in the U.S.—by AIP, The Land That Time Forgot (1975), its sequel, The People That Time Forgot (1977), and At the Earth’s Core (1976) were all directed by Kevin Connor, as was their last anthology film, From Beyond the Grave (1973).

Land and People concern Caprona, a lost continent on which, as in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, dinosaurs still exist at the time of World War I. The survivors of a British ship, including American Bowen Tyler (Doug McClure), are taken aboard the U-boat that torpedoed them, and clash with the crew before encountering prehistoric creatures and mysterious tribes of cavemen.

At the Earth’s Core is set in another fictional world, Pellucidar, to which Tarzan himself paid a visit in one of Burroughs’s sequels. McClure starred as David Innes, who journeys to the center of the Earth in a giant drilling machine, with Cushing as Abner Perry, the absent-minded professor who accompanies him, and Caroline Munro as Dia, the primitive princess he rescues from assorted perils.

Amicus was in fact disintegrating as the Burroughs films were being made; Subotsky left the company in 1975, after Land was completed, and the company was officially dissolved even before People was released by AIP. But while its track record was mixed and its production values never as high as Hammer’s, Amicus is fondly remembered for the genre entertainment it offered for a decade.

Read Full Post »

Bert I. Gordon

On the occasion of his 88th birthday, we revisit this profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

Affectionately known as “Mr. B.I.G.,” Bert I. Gordon directed, produced, co-wrote, and/or created the special effects for more than a dozen SF, horror and fantasy films. While he was active through the 1980s, the films for which he will be most fondly remembered epitomized the monster movies of the ’50s, and featured oversized fauna of the two-, four-, six-, and eight-legged varieties.

Born on September 24, 1922, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Gordon was a producer of television commercials who broke into filmmaking as the producer and cinematographer of the adventure yarn Serpent Island (1954). His wife, Flora M. Gordon, assisted him in various capacities—most notably with the special effects—on many films, and he cast their daughter Susan in four of his productions.

Gordon came into his own with King Dinosaur (1955), scripted by Serpent Island director Tom Gries from a story by Gordon and co-producer Al Zimbalist. When the planet Nova enters our solar system, four scientists are sent to explore it, encountering “dinosaurs” (i.e., stock footage and photographically enlarged lizards) and other giant critters, which they destroy with an atomic bomb.

Even more typical of Gordon’s work was The Beginning of the End (1957), as the late Peter Graves (see “Goodbye, Mr. Phelps”), the stalwart hero of SF films before he landed his iconic role on Mission: Impossible, faced a more terrestrial but no less gigantic threat. Accidentally created by agricultural experiments, irradiated locusts menace Chicago, until Graves lures them to a watery death with their mating call.

In The Cyclops (1957), Gloria Talbott is understandably shocked to learn that radioactive ore in a Mexican valley has turned her fiancé into a twenty-five-foot giant with a deformed face, played by Duncan (aka Dean) Parkin. Continuing a busy year, Gordon’s association with American International Pictures began with his signature film, which was inspired by the success of Jack Arnold’s masterpiece.

“Universal-International had just issued The Incredible Shrinking Man [1957], and we decided to turn the binoculars the other direction, building a story around a pitiful character who experienced the world’s most terrifying growth spurt,” recalled AIP’s co-founder, Samuel Z. Arkoff, in his memoir Flying Through Hollywood By the Seat of My Pants. What resulted was Gordon’s The Amazing Colossal Man (1957).

Trying to rescue the pilot of a downed plane, Colonel Glenn Manning (Glen Langan) endures the blast of a plutonium bomb, and miraculously survives—but begins growing eight to ten feet per day, ending up as a seventy-foot giant who is blown off of Boulder Dam with a bazooka. With poetic justice, co-writer Mark Hanna then created a carbon copy of the distaff kind in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958).

Gordon clearly continued to be “inspired” by The Incredible Shrinking Man (adapted for the screen by its original author, Richard Matheson) with his next film, Attack of the Puppet People (1958), as lonely, widowed doll-maker Franz (John Hoyt) shrinks people to puppet-size just to keep him company. In an audacious bit of self-promotion, Bob Westley (John Agar) proposes to Sally Reynolds (June Kenny) while they watch The Amazing Colossal Man at the drive-in!

Col. Manning was sufficiently popular to warrant a sequel, War of the Colossal Beast (1958), although somewhat the worse for wear, with one eye blasted out by the bazooka. Looking like The Cyclops (and now played by the same actor), he steals trucks for food in the Mexican mountains, but after he is brought back to L.A., his damaged brain recovers long enough for Glenn to electrocute himself.

Rounding out the ’50s was Earth vs. the Spider (1958), which bore a suspicious resemblance to another Arnold film, Tarantula (1955). One of Gordon’s numerous collaborations with George Worthing Yates (who scripted with László Görög), it concerns an outsized arachnid that is presumed dead after a dose of DDT, displayed in a high school gym, and then revived by…a band rehearsal.

Never afraid of beating something to death, Gordon incorporated a cinema showing Puppet People as well as Colossal Man. He then gave the big bugs a break in a children’s fantasy, The Boy and the Pirates; a ghost story, Tormented (both 1960); and one of his most polished productions, The Magic Sword (1962), as St. George (Gary Lockwood) braves seven curses to rescue the fair princess.

Now ready to return to his favorite theme of gigantism, Gordon went straight to the source in Village of the Giants (1965), an alleged adaptation of The Food of the Gods. It’s unlikely that H.G. Wells would recognize—or at least acknowledge—his novel as the inspiration for this teen-fest, although it admittedly concerns “goo” that makes things grow, thanks to boy genius “Ronny” Howard.

Another hiatus ensued, encompassing the supernatural stories Picture Mommy Dead (1966) and Necromancy (1972), the presumably self-explanatory How to Succeed with Sex (1970), and the police thriller The Mad Bomber (1973). But then Gordon returned to the Wells well with back-to-back adaptations, for AIP, of The Food of the Gods (1976)—again—and Empire of the Ants (1977).

A veteran of Necromancy, Pamela Franklin starred in the former, with Ida Lupino as the wife of a farmer, who thinks that the strange substance bubbling up from the ground on an isolated island is Heaven-sent. She begins to believe otherwise when it results in giant rats that eat her husband, as well as worms, wasps, and chickens; only a detonated dam saves the besieged survivors from the rats.

Empire is a far cry from Wells’s story, which was closer to Carl Stephenson’s “Leiningen vs. the Ants,” memorably filmed by Byron Haskin as The Naked Jungle (1954). Here, Joan Collins and Robert Lansing are embroiled in a plot to staff a sugar refinery with people whose minds have been dominated by pheromones from a queen ant, rendered gigantic by, you guessed it, radioactive waste.

Gordon segued into witches with Burned at the Stake (1981) and Satan’s Princess (1990), and the fertile field of sex comedies with Let’s Do It! (1982) and The Big Bet (1985). But for a generation of viewers, his name was synonymous with a monster movie’s unique charms, and no matter how silly the stories or threadbare the rear-projected special effects, they provided entertainment, pure and simple.

Read Full Post »

What Dreams Didn’t Come

In 1978, producer Stephen Simon (then known as Stephen Deutsch) read Richard Matheson’s forthcoming novel What Dreams May Come just before they began preproduction on Somewhere in Time (1980), which Matheson had adapted from his book Bid Time Return, and as with the previous project, they made a handshake deal for Simon to produce it as a film.  In 1998, What Dreams May Come was eventually released, with New Zealander Vincent Ward directing Robin Williams—fresh from winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in Good Will Hunting (1997)—in a script by Ron Bass, himself an Oscar winner for Rain Man (1988).  During much of the twenty intervening years, however, Simon had fought valiantly to get Matheson’s own screenplay shot.

When I interviewed Matheson in preparation for writing the introduction to Gauntlet’s limited edition of the novel, he told me that Simon “was now into my work and read it and fell in love with it and again wanted to do it.  We actually tried to do it together.  I did a script on it [in 1985], and then he could never get the backing to make it.  My original script was, of all places, for the Lucille Ball company [Desilu]….[We] flew to Munich several times to consult with Wolfgang Petersen, who was interested in doing it, but it didn’t work out.”  Simon did not agree to radical revisions requested by Petersen, the director of Das Boot (1981), In the Line of Fire (1993), Air Force One (1997), and Troy (2004), but finally had to accept another writer to get the film made.

In Richard Matheson on Screen (which was sent to the printer at the end of August), I compared the novel and film, yet the publication of his unproduced screenplay in Matheson Uncollected: Volume Two allows us to examine the “missing link.”  Interestingly, my first reaction while reading it was surprise at how much of what was in his script, which naturally is more faithful to the book, wound up in the film, although Bass made many changes and additions in his adaptation.  Matheson said, “It’s been suggested to me a number of times that I should arbitrate for a credit on the screenplay and I can’t do it, because his screenplay is so different, and whatever similarities there are are in the source material.  He claims he has never read my script, and I have no reason to doubt his word.”

Matheson’s adaptation alters a few of the autobiographical details with which he peppered the novel as “a hook to hang the story on” (e.g., his protagonist, Chris Nielsen, is now an architect rather than a television writer; Chris and his wife, Ann, have three children instead of four), yet it incorporates one that I don’t remember from the book, the devotion to the Dodgers that he and Chris both shared with their younger sons.  He was such an experienced screenwriter by that point in his career that I can’t imagine his script would not have made a full-length film.  But man, Bass’s version—hardly elephantine at 114 minutes, which includes a seven-and-a-half-minute credit crawl—just seems so much more complicated, with all of its “who’s who in Heaven” revelations of souls in other forms.

Each depicts Chris dying in a car crash, remembering his courtship and sometimes stormy family life with Ann, attending his own funeral, and causing a disbelieving loved one (daughter in Matheson, wife in Bass) to write “This is Chris…I still exist” in her diary.  Matheson reveals the initially indistinct figure who guides Chris into and through the afterlife as his older brother, Bob—another autobiographical detail—whose recitation of the many synonyms for Heaven amusingly echoes the deranged Vincent Price enumerating the names of Hell in Matheson’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961).  In both versions, Chris is reunited with the family dog, Katie; walks underwater without harm; and learns that there is work in Heaven, that reincarnation actually exists, and that he is Ann’s soul mate.

One of the major differences between the scripts is that Bass provides more justification for Ann’s suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills, giving her a history of mental instability that included a previous attempt and a period of institutionalization following the deaths of their children in a prior crash.  Ann (Annabella Sciorra) blames herself for both accidents, so it is a combination of guilt and grief that drives her to take her own life.  According to Matheson, MGM, the studio involved when he wrote his script, felt that audiences would be unsympathetic to her character if she killed herself while her children—whittled down to two, Marie (Jessica Brooks Grant) and Ian (Josh Paddock), by Bass—were alive, which may have been one reason why his screenplay was ultimately not filmed.

In Matheson’s novel and script, her death is foretold in dreams that replay—with fatal outcomes—real-life events in which Ann nearly fell from a cliff or drowned.  Bass’s Chris is a doctor, and Bob becomes his medical mentor, Albert (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), yet in a complex game of musical souls, we learn that “Albert” is actually Ian, who chose the form of the one man Chris respected, while the Tracker (Max Von Sydow), who leads Chris through Hell to find and save Ann’s soul, is in reality Albert.  In every iteration, Chris locates Ann (referred to as Annie in the film) in a grim, “negative version” of their home that she has created out of her despondent mind, tries to make her understand what has happened to her, and movingly offers her his thanks and apologies for their life together.

When Chris volunteers to remain there with Ann, his selfless gesture enables her to leave Hell and be reborn, although Ward’s original ending (truer to Matheson), reuniting their souls in Sri Lanka before Chris must endure forty years of separation, gave way to one in which the two “meet cute” beside a lake.  In another last-minute change before the film was released, Michael Kamen’s score replaced an unused one by Ennio Morricone, which to the best of my knowledge has never gotten a legitimate release, although it is available on a “gray market” CD along with his Red Sonja (1985) score.  Someday, I’ll have to do the Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz shtick and try to synch up the Maestro’s What Dreams May Come cues—which my daughter got me—with the proper scenes.

The other thing that struck me while reading Matheson’s script was how sorry I would have felt for the poor art director, production designer, and special-effects technicians who had to execute it.  He writes of sounds “which permeate the air with a sense of beneficence…[and] can only be described as heavenly,” of water that is “shimmering with delicate hues, unlike any water ever seen on Earth,” and of “the most incredible and lengthy zoom shot ever filmed”—good luck with that!  Then again, I’d probably have been just as sympathetic if I had read, “Chris interacts with the wet paint of his imagined Heaven,” as he does in the film’s Oscar-winning special effects…yet as inventive as they were, it bears noting that Matheson’s descriptions also include the significant phrase “paint stroke.”

Read Full Post »

Antonio Margheriti

On the occasion of his 80th birthday, we revisit this SF-oriented profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

A cinematic “Giacomo of all trades,” Antonio Margheriti (1930-2002) worked in various genres during his forty years as a director, producer, writer, and special effects technician. Billed as Anthony M. Dawson to disguise the Italian origins of his work from less perceptive filmgoers, Margheriti popularized the subgenre of space opera as its most frequent practitioner in the 1960s.

Margheriti entered the industry in 1957 as a screenwriter, and by the following year had already co-directed Gambe d’Oro (Legs of Gold, 1958) with a regular collaborator, Turi Vasile. Space Men (aka Assignment Outer Space, 1960) not only marked his solo directorial debut, but also initiated the series of colorful adventures that are perhaps his single greatest claim to fame.

Later to play James Bond’s friend, Felix Leiter, in Thunderball (1965), Rik Van Nutter stars as reporter Ray Peterson, who has a ringside seat when a malfunctioning computer puts a nuclear spacecraft on a collision course with Earth. As usual, the film’s imaginative visual flair counterbalanced any deficiencies in Ennio De Concini’s screenplay, written as Vassily Petrov.

For Il Pianeta degli Uomini Spenti (Planet of the Lifeless Men, aka Battle of the Worlds, 1961), Margheriti secured the services of Claude Rains to play eccentric Prof. Benjamin Benson. Again scripted by “Petrov,” it concerns a planet that wreaks climatic havoc by orbiting Earth, but the computer that launched its unmanned saucers turns out to be the relic of an extinct alien race.

Margheriti segued into Gothic horror, using two stars who had worked with the maestro, Mario Bava. Christopher Lee received a solid supporting role in La Vergine di Norimberga (The Virgin of Nuremberg, aka Horror Castle, 1963), while I Lunghi Capelli della Morte (The Long Hair of Death) and Danza Macabra (aka Castle of Terror; both 1964) showcased Barbara Steele.

Margheriti alternated these with a spate of pepla (sword and sandal films), then resumed his SF efforts with what became known as the Gamma I Quadrilogy. Produced by Joseph Fryd and Walter Manley, with screenplays from writer-producer Ivan Reiner and Renato Moretti, the quartet is named for its primary setting, a space station of the United Democracies c. 2000 A.D.

In I Criminali della Galassia (The Galaxy Criminals, aka The Wild, Wild Planet, 1965), we meet Cmdr. Mike Halstead (Tony Russell), his gal, Lt. Connie Gomez (Lisa Gastoni), and his pal, Jake (rising star Franco Nero). Like many supporting players, Massimo Serato had multiple roles in the series, here playing a mad scientist miniaturizing subjects for eugenics experiments.

Revisiting the alien possession theme from Bava’s Terrore Nello Spazio (Terror in Outer Space, aka Planet of the Vampires; 1965), the trio returned in I Diafanoidi Portano la Morte (The Diaphanoids Bring Death, aka War of the Planets, 1966). Resembling green clouds, the bodiless Diaphanoids lure Mike and his crew to a base on Mars, seeking to replace their deceased hosts.

Similar to Battle of the Worlds, Il Pianeta Errante (The Wandering Planet, aka Planet on the Prowl, 1966) added to the sense of déjà vu with its alternate title, War Between the Planets. Genre mainstay “Jack Stuart” (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) was the new hero, Cmdr. Rod Jackson, in this tale of another rogue planet that creates disasters on Earth and must be blown to smithereens.

Interstellar Yeti varied the mix in I Diavoli della Spazio (Space Devils, aka Snow Devils, 1967), which once again starred “Amber Collins” (Ombretta Colli) as Jackson’s love interest and Enzo Fiermonte as his superior, Gen. Norton. Superintelligent aliens from an icy but endangered world, the Yeti seek to colonize Earth, after changing the climate to flood and freeze its surface.

In an interesting postscript, Manley and Reiner transplanted this successful formula into a U.S.-Japanese-Italian co-production, Kinji Fukasaku’s The Green Slime (1968). Shot in Japan, it featured American pseudo-stars Robert Horton and Richard Jaeckel, Italian leading lady Luciana Paluzzi, and goofy tentacled monsters attacking the crew of an apparent sister station, Gamma 3.

Margheriti then concentrated more on horror films such as Nella Stretta Morsa del Ragno (In the Grip of the Spider, aka Web of the Spider, 1971), a remake of his earlier Danza Macabra. He also contributed to the giallo crime thrillers with La Morte Negli Occhi del Gatto (aka Seven Dead in the Cat’s Eye, 1973), and even directed a spaghetti Western, Take a Hard Ride (1975).

The infamous Apocalypse Domani (aka Cannibal Apocalypse, 1980) concerns a virus that causes cannibalism. The director “knew that it was really a vulgar production, based essentially on the pre-sales to countries like Germany and Japan that were very much into outlandish sexual and lurid kind of cannibalistic stories,” as its mortified leading man, John Saxon, told me in an interview for Filmfax.

In its final years, Margheriti’s career degenerated into derivative potboilers like Yor, the Hunter from the Future (1983) and Alien Degli Abissi (Alien from the Deep, 1989). But for all of its admitted low points, his oeuvre introduced a uniquely entertaining brand of SF, in which mod futuristic visuals and fast-paced action took precedence over low budgets and loopy scripts.

Read Full Post »

Another day, another obit:  this time we mourn the passing (at a respectable 86) of stage, screen, and television character actor Harold Gould, whose feature-film work included The Front Page (1974), Love and Death (1975), and Silent Movie (1976).  He had memorable recurring parts on Rhoda and The Golden Girls; the former earned him one of five Emmy nominations, as did the role of L.B. Mayer in The Scarlett O’Hara War (1980).  Among his few genre roles were Robert Bloch’s The Couch (1962), William Castle’s Project X (1968), and two apiece on The Twilight Zone, The Invaders, and The Ray Bradbury Theater (one of which garnered another nomination).

AOL News’s Joseph Schuman captured why I am writing this:  “If there was a signature movie role in [Gould’s] long, versatile career…it was the elegant con man [Kid] Twist in The Sting, the 1973 fable of ragtime-era grifters starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.  The film’s audiences first saw Gould arrive in town wearing matching gray gloves and a fedora.  A jewel-studded tie pin, spats and gold-headed cane rounded out the picture of a dapper sophisticate whose bearing was as precise as the cut of his salt-and-pepper mustache.  But Gould’s eyes, as he signaled recognition to Newman, conveyed the street sense of a veteran con.”  That nails it.

I can’t hold a candle to the professional obits I’ve just been skimming when it comes to covering Gould’s distinguished stage career, his marriage of 60 years (God bless him), or trivia such as the fact that he played the fathers of Marlo Thomas and Ron Howard in what became That Girl and Happy Days, respectively, but lost the roles when the series eventuated.  I do know that when an actor makes a relatively brief role as indelible as Kid Twist, he has something special, and Gould had it in spades.  There are many reasons why The Sting is one of my all-time favorite films, and supporting players like him are a big one, so he will be much missed; here’s looking at you, Kid.

Read Full Post »

I was saddened to learn this morning that Kevin McCarthy had gone to that great Green Room in the sky—saddened but not shocked since he was, after all, 96 and had enjoyed, by any standard, what could conservatively be called a good run.  His screen career stretched over more than sixty years, and got an early boost with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination as Biff in Death of a Salesman (1951), which by a bizarre coincidence I just saw on stage with Christopher Lloyd.  He also had the honor of starring in a genuine Classic of the Cinema, Don Siegel’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which led to my becoming acquainted with Kevin a few years ago.

Prior to that, my friend Gilbert Colon and I had been invited to contribute to “They’re Here…”: Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute, edited by McCarthy and the redoubtable Ed Gorman, and published by Berkley Boulevard Books in 1999.  I interviewed W.D. Richter, screenwriter of the 1978 version; Gil tackled Abel Ferrara, the director of Body Snatchers (1993); and Kevin was represented with a lengthy interview by my sometime mentor, John McCarty.  When Ed planned a new and somewhat different version of the book, released by Stark House Press as Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute in 2006, I was again asked to contribute, and therein lies the tale.

Ed retained our Richter and Ferrara pieces, but wanted a new interview with Kevin, which was kinda cool because it meant that between us, Gil and I would speak with participants in all three versions made at that time (and if you’re listening, Nicole Kidman, I’m ready for our one-on-one to talk about 2007’s The Invasion).  Naturally, I didn’t want to rehash what John had done in the first edition, so I tried to come up with a new angle.  With Gil as my able research assistant, I interviewed Kevin regarding what we called his “second career as a genre icon,” particularly his work with Joe Dante in the likes of Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), and InnerSpace (1987).

Of course, McCarthy figures in Richard Matheson on Screen for his role as Uncle Walt in “It’s a Good Life,” Dante’s segment of Twilight Zone—The Movie (1983), and he made another notable genre appearance in the original Zone episode “Long Live Walter Jameson.”  No less impressive, his mainstream credits include John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), written as a vehicle for spouse Marilyn Monroe by Salesman playwright Arthur Miller, and Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976).  But it is Dr. Miles J. Bennell in Body Snatchers, a role that he repeated in a cameo for Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version, for which Kevin will inevitably be best remembered.

Having known him, I can attest to the fact that there never was a man less like a pod person than Kevin, full of energy and enthusiasm well into his nineties, and when we did the interview it was not so much a question of interrogating him as simply of unleashing him to tell his anecdotes of Montgomery Clift and Stanley Kubrick.  The hardest thing was to get him to stop tinkering with it and approve it for publication, so I finally just gave him the transcript and let him run with it.  Siegel’s preferred title for Body Snatchers was Sleep No More, since the pods took people over while they were sleeping, but now, at last, Dr. Bennell can rest in peace; we’ll miss you, Kevin.

Read Full Post »

Naval Gazing

When the good folks at TCM recently chose Gregory Peck as their Star of the Month, it gave me the chance to revisit an old favorite that I had seen many times over the years, but not for quite a while, Raoul Walsh’s Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951).  Now, I am not normally a big naval-adventure guy; I’ve never read Patrick O’Brian’s work, and despite my affection for Peter Weir, I was “just whelmed,” as Dad used to say, by his Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003).  But I’m here to tell you that after seeing this film in my youth, I went out and bought and read all eleven volumes in C.S. Forester’s superb series about the Napoleonic Wars.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Forester was an excellent writer, and although his filmography is relatively lean, as Spencer Tracy said of Katharine Hepburn in Pat and Mike (1952), “what’s there is cherce.”  The very same year in which Peck hit the high seas, Humphrey Bogart earned his overdue and only Oscar opposite Kate in the screen adaptation of Forester’s The African Queen.  Another BOF fave, Cary Grant, starred in Stanley Kramer’s The Pride and the Passion (1957), based on Forester’s The Gun, and starting in the 1990s, Ioan Gruffud (later well cast as Reed Richards in the disappointing Fantastic Four films) made an excellent Hornblower on A&E.

Warner Brothers apparently acquired the property as a vehicle for studio mainstay and longtime Walsh collaborator Errol Flynn, but that idea fell by the wayside for various reasons, and I can’t say I’m sorry.  I am second to none in my affection for Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), but he would have been wrong for the part (as would Burt Lancaster, also considered).  TCM host Robert Osborne tells us that when the indigenous critics gave Peck high marks for this British-made film, it was rare for an American playing a Brit; significantly, leading lady Virginia Mayo was reportedly cast only after several British actresses proved unavailable or uninterested.

The praise is justified, for Peck is excellent in the role, although bolstered by skillful storytelling in which we learn about Hornblower’s character—or at least his public persona—from what his officers and crew say about him.  He must be ramrod-straight on the outside to command their respect and obedience, yet part of his appeal is that no matter how often he succeeds, he is full of self-doubt.  This ranks with Moby Dick (1956), On the Beach (1959), and The Guns of Navarone (1961) among my Peck favorites, and while I have issues with his two Alfred Hitchcock films, Spellbound (1945) and The Paradine Case (1947), those do not concern Peck’s performances.

Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N. (as it is known in its native land, “R.N.” standing for Royal Navy) doesn’t exactly feature an all-star cast, yet there are some interesting names among the supporting players, starting with Robert Beatty as his best friend, Lt. William Bush.  Beatty later appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Where Eagles Dare (1969), and Richard Matheson’s miniseries The Martian Chronicles (1980), while an unnamed Spanish sea captain is played by Christopher Lee, briefly engaging in swordplay with Peck.  Also among Hornblower’s crew are James Robertson Justice and Stanley Baker, both of whom were reunited with Peck in Navarone.

Ordered to aid a Central American tyrant rebelling against Napoleon’s ally, Spain, Hornblower secures him a Spanish ship, only to learn that Spain has changed sides and he must destroy his prize.  Circumstances compel him to take Lady Barbara Wellesley aboard, and after she displays courage under fire his admiration grows into something more, but because he is married and she engaged, their love seems impossible; returning home, he discovers that his wife has died in childbirth.  Captured on their next mission and sent to Paris for trial, Hornblower, Bush, and Seaman Quist (Justice) escape en route, steal a ship, and return to England, where a widowed Barbara awaits.

Hornblower fans may be surprised to see that according to the credits, this film is based on “the novel” by Forester, since Captain Horatio Hornblower—the first book to appear, but not the first chronologically—is now published in three volumes:  Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colors.  Forester is credited with adapting the film from his work, presumably accounting for its fidelity despite the inevitable compression.  The other scenarists were Aeneas MacKenzie, who co-wrote the Flynn/Walsh They Died with Their Boots On (1941), and the team of Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, Oscar nominees for the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957).

There must have been a special place in Guy-Movie Heaven waiting for Walsh when he got there in 1980, and although a British naval saga might not immediately seem his cup of tea, it fits into his half-century as one of Hollywood’s greatest action directors.  He worked with Bogart on The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and Bogie’s breakthrough hit, High Sierra (1941).  Walsh also directed Flynn in Desperate Journey, Gentleman Jim (both 1942), Northern Pursuit (1943), Objective, Burma! (1945), and Silver River (1948), among others, while James Cagney’s gangster classic White Heat (1949) was an earlier Goff-Roberts-Mayo collaboration.

Composer Robert Farnon, whose BOF-centric credits include The Road to Hong Kong (1962), Bear Island (1979), and the series The Prisoner and The Champions, was adept at capturing the story’s many moods, from rollicking to romantic.  Indeed, those moods helped endear Captain Horatio Hornblower to me, especially in its judicious use of humor, as Bush repeatedly wagers (and wins) on his captain’s actions.  With Mayo as lovely and appealing as she was opposite Bob Hope and Danny Kaye in, respectively, The Princess and the Pirate (1944) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), this offers thrills, laughter, and love—in short, something for everyone.

Read Full Post »

And now, a more detailed look at the contents of Gauntlet’s Matheson Uncollected: Volume Two; I’ve already listed where each item had its original publication, if any (see “Richard Matheson: Past Masters”).  Appearing barely a year after his professional debut, the lengthy “Mountains of the Mind” (1951) was Matheson’s first story set at fictional Fort College in Indiana, where a young professor is impelled by unseen forces to seek out a certain mountain range, and finds an astonishing discovery awaiting him.  The Paul Stuve Discovery™ “The Hunt” (1952) is a solid, gritty Western of the type Matheson later collected in By the Gun, in which two reluctant deputies help a taciturn sheriff track down his errant son, with inevitably tragic results.

As noted earlier, “Now Die in It” (1958) was expanded by Matheson into Ride the Nightmare the following year, and with slight variations parallels the first few chapters of the novel, filmed as a 1962 episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and as the Charles Bronson vehicle Cold Sweat (1970).  It concerns a man concealing a criminal past from his wife, a past that comes back to haunt him in the all-too-physical form of a former crony who breaks into their house planning to kill the husband, and forces a lethal confrontation.  At that point, the protagonists come to a metaphoric fork in the road, and without giving too much away, I’ll just say that in story and novel they take dramatically different paths.

From 1958 we jump forward to 1972 with “Leo Rising,” a clever short-short with a sting in the tail, and to 1980 with the Matheson pére et fils opus “Where There’s a Will,” which is set largely within the confines of a coffin and, for claustrophobes like this writer, delineates the ultimate nightmare.  Drawing from Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, wherein numerous Matheson stories, teleplays, and interviews were first published, the 1980s are also represented with works both humorous (“Getting Together,” 1986) and serious (“Person to Person,” 1989).  The former chronicles the increasingly outlandish efforts of an ill-starred couple to avoid being separated, and the latter depicts the plight of a man who receives unsettling “phone calls” from a voice inside his head.

Matheson used the Hollywood milieu he knew so well as the setting for “CU: Mannix” (1991), the story of an aging movie star who practices imposture to test his fourth wife’s fidelity, only to receive an unexpected comeuppance.  Moving into the 21st century, “Portrait” (2003) is a whimsical ultra-short combining word and image, while “Haircut” (2006) is a macabre vignette (unfortunately containing a large number of typos) in which, although there are clues that hint at the ending, Matheson still conjures up a growing sense of dread.  The first of the previously unpublished pieces,  “An Element Never Forgets,” is an unrelated Fort College story and—as its title suggests—a whimsical one, which resembles some of Poe’s comic outings and presumably falls very early in the Matheson canon.

We are given no information on when the two unfinished novels were begun or why they were abandoned, but at least the first of them, Red Is the Color of Desire, includes an outline that tells us where Matheson was headed.  This aborted narrative depicts a recently widowed man’s obsession with his attractive upstairs neighbor, despite mounting evidence to suggest that she is a vampire; the outline suggests a finished work that would have contained elements of “Trespass” (filmed as The Stranger Within) and I Am Legend.  The other, The House of the Dead, is about a writer who is assigned to profile a recently deceased artist, and encounters ominous undercurrents at the huge Connecticut estate where he meets the artist’s widow and personal physician.

Up next:  Matheson’s unfilmed screenplay for What Dreams May Come.

Read Full Post »

Fantastic Voyage

On the occasion of Raquel Welch’s 70th birthday (although to me she’ll always be the hottie from One Million Years B.C. and such 4:30 Movie favorites as Fathom, Bandolero!, Lady in Cement, 100 Rifles, and Flareup), we revisit this article written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

A solid cast and spectacular visuals make this 1966 tale of a miniaturized submarine on a life-or-death mission inside a human body one of the most entertaining SF films of the 1960s.  The subject of countless imitations and homages, including the Dennis Quaid comedy Innerspace (1987) and an episode of The Simpsons, it also inspired an animated children’s series on ABC.

Director Richard Fleischer was eminently qualified, having handled the ultimate in SF submarine stories, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in its 1954 Disney incarnation.  The son of pioneering animator Max Fleischer, he had shared a Best Documentary Feature Oscar for Design for Death (1947), and was long associated with the studio, Twentieth Century-Fox.

No fewer than four screenwriters were credited on the film, whose story was devised by Otto Klement and Star Trek contributor Jay Lewis (aka Jerome) Bixby.  The adaptation was by David Duncan, whose many SF films include The Time Machine (1960), while Harry Kleiner, a veteran of various genres ranging from crime thrillers to Westerns, supplied the final screenplay.

A scientist who has been working behind the Iron Curtain, Jan Benes (Jean del Valle) is injured while defecting to the West with the help of an intelligence agent, Grant (Stephen Boyd).  His life is threatened by a blood clot in his brain, and as General Carter (Edmond O’Brien) tells an astonished Grant, the only way to perform the delicate surgery needed is from inside his body.

Grant is quickly recruited to join the surgical team that will be miniaturized inside a sub, the Proteus (designed by Harper Goff, as was Captain Nemo’s Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues).  The process lasts for only an hour, and Benes is, ironically, the only one who knows how to extend that period indefinitely, hence the urgency with which the West wishes to unlock his secrets.

The crew comprises a surgeon, Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy); his assistant, Cora (Welch in an early, iconic role); a pilot, Capt. Bill Owens (William Redfield); and Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasence), who navigates and heads the team.  A series of sabotage attempts reveals the presence of a traitor on board the Proteus, and its many mishaps require visits to various organs.

An unnatural joining of circulatory tubes forces a detour through the heart, temporarily stopped by the surgeons tracking their progress, and a trip through the ear turns disastrous when a pair of dropped scissors sets off catastrophic vibrations.  Delicate ear fibers are disturbed, and antibodies cover Cora’s white wetsuit, constricting and choking her until they can be removed.

In his memoir Just Tell Me When to Cry, Fleischer recalls that on the first take, Welch’s male crewmembers tactfully refrained from touching her legendary bosom, leaving a veritable “antibody brassiere” in place on her wetsuit.  When they overcompensated on the second take, grabbing her breasts with wild abandon, Fleischer was forced to choreograph the entire scene.

The likeliest suspect, Dr. Duval, is revealed as a red herring when Michaels knocks out Owens and tries to ram Benes’s brain with the ship, just as Duval is cutting the clot with a laser beam.  Grant uses the laser to disable the Proteus, which—with Michaels still trapped inside—is consumed by a white corpuscle, forcing the crew to improvise their exit through the tear ducts.

While the filmmakers went to laudable lengths to ensure the film’s anatomical accuracy, having doctors inspect its oversized sets, the miniaturization process they depicted is, of course, quite implausible.  Himself a scientist, acclaimed SF author Isaac Asimov famously tried—with mixed success—to reconcile some of these inconsistencies in his novelization of the screenplay.

Fantastic Voyage won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, as well as the Academy Awards for Art Cruickshank’s special visual effects and for Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration.  It was also nominated for Oscars in color cinematography (by Ernest Laszlo, who won the previous year for Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools), film editing, and sound effects.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »