Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Curse of Cousin Smith" (November 16, 1966)

In “Curse of Cousin Smith,” Jeremiah Smith (Henry Jones) -- citizen of the universe and cousin to Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris) -- lands on the Robinsons’ planet in search of his long-lost relative.

It turns out, the two men have been competing for years to be the last surviving family member so as to inherit the considerable Smith family fortune.

Now, Jeremiah thinks he has discovered a way to exploit Dr. Smith’s avarice. 

Working with his space gangster friend, Little Joe, he has a “Friendly Universal Gambling Machine” transported to the planet.  

Dr. Smith, who can’t resist gambling, will not be able to pay his debts after losing big time at the cosmic slot machine, and the machine will kill him, thus leaving Jeremiah the heir to the estate.

Fortunately, John Robinson (Guy Williams) has other plans.


“Curse of Cousin Smith” is a terrible episode of Lost in Space (1965-1968).  I thought last week’s show, “The Thief from Outer Space” was terribly weak, but it had nothing on this installment of the series.

Why is “Curse of Cousin Smith” so awful? 

First and foremost, the creators of this series seem to have forgotten the title and premise of their own program.  Here, without difficulty or delay, Jeremiah Smith finds the Robinsons and his cousin on a distant world.  He says he "heard" that there were Earth people there.

So apparently the Robinsons' presence on the planet is common knowledge.

But how did Dr. Smith’s cousin get to deep space in the first place?  

As the series premiere, “The Reluctant Stowaway” explains, the Robinsons are the first Earth people to attempt to reach another solar system.  The family makes that journey in a state-of-the-art spaceship, and, so far as we know, no other ships like the Jupiter 2 have been constructed. The Robinsons have now been in space (or stranded on various planets) for perhaps two years.

So how does Jeremiah Smith have a history in space, and friendships with the likes of space gangsters?   When did he launch into space? 

If -- since the Robinsons’ departure -- Earth has made some technological breakthrough that permits casual and pervasive space travel, why has no one from Alpha Control attempted to find and rescue the family?  

We know from this episode that the family, apparently, is easy to find, since Jeremiah not only knows there are humans on this world, but the particular human he is looking for, his cousin.

You can’t really be “lost in space” if everybody can find you, and travel to your location, right?

Beyond a faulty premise, “Curse of Cousin Smith” doesn’t remember anything about Dr. Smith’s background.  He is introduced in “The Reluctant Stowaway” as a foreign saboteur, an agent in the service of a foreign country. His mission is to prevent America from launching the Jupiter 2 and winning the space race.

Well, come “Curse of Cousin Smith,” we find out that Smith’s cousin is a Southern Fried gentleman, right down to the accent and bolo tie. How exactly can we explain that Smith is an agent for a foreign power while his cousin is from the South, in North America?  

Even in terms of dialogue, “Curse of Cousin Smith” is on shaky ground.  Will (Bill Mumy) explicitly notes in the episode that Dr. Smith “never mentioned any of his relatives to me.”

That’s not strictly true.  The first season episode “The Ghost in Space” revolves around a bog monster on Priplanus, whom Dr. Smith believes is his dead relative, Thaddeus Smith.  He believes he is being haunted by Thaddeus, and takes Will on an adventure based on that very premise.

Also, in terms of continuity, note that the Robinsons have no problem, this week, believing in cosmic space gangsters and casino machines, where last week they ribbed Will about his unbelievable story of a space thief (Malachi Throne).

Basically, everything about this episode is a mess, and the stupidity of the narrative is astounding. I suppose the viewer is to assume that Jeremiah hitches a ride off the planet on the next outgoing spaceship, but doesn’t bother to take along the Robinsons, or help them escape their marooning.  It's the Gilligan's Island syndrome all over again.

Still, there’s an intriguing insight in this episode.  Maureen (June Lockhart) politely tells Jeremiah that Dr. Smith is just going through one of his “difficult periods.” 

The fact that this comment comes from the family matriarch is important. It sounds very much like she is a Mom describing her naughty child, or teenager.  Understand that fact, and you get a key to understanding Dr. Smith and the way the writers/creators of the series use him.  He is not bad, he’s just a naughty kid going through a bad phase.

Finally, I will say I like the fanciful nature of the tech in this episode.  The gambling machine is kind of neat in a fantastic, whimsical way, and I love the moment where it goes mobile, chasing Jeremiah and Dr. Smith through the desert, firing its lasers.

Next week: “West of Mars.”

The Films of 1986: Vamp

Writing for The Richmond Times Dispatch, movie critic Carole Kass termed Vamp (1986) “sleazy, tawdry and disgusting.

Oddly, those are some of the very reasons I enjoy this film so much. The film is absolutely all those things, and, I would argue, delightfully so.

But the reason Vamp worked in 1986, and still (largely) works nearly thirty years later is that the film boasts a goofy big-hearted sense of humor.

Although I am not one of those horror fans who insists that the genre today is dead or even in trouble, I do believe that -- to a certain extent (and certainly post-torture porn era) -- the modern horror genre has forgotten a little how to have fun; how to make audiences scream and laugh at the same time.  I believe the quest for gritty authenticity has, in some way, driven the horror genre away from humor.

By contrast, the mid-1980s represents a great time in the horror cinema precisely because efforts such as Return of the Living Dead (1985), Fright Night (1985) and yes, Vamp, all walked that uneasy line between horror and comedy.

Fright Night and Return of the Living Dead are better films, but Vamp is stylish, and boasts a powerful reason for using the creative approach that alternates screams and giggles.

In short, the film is a coming of age story about a sheltered, privileged suburban kid, Keith (Chris Makepeace) who sees life in “the Big City” for the first time, and must reckon there with people who are different from him, and possibly dangerous.

These people have different life-styles, different orientations, and yes, different appetites. Mostly, they’re vampires.

In the film, Keith takes his first steps into this larger, initially unsavory world, and must determine where and how he fits in.  He must learn how to recognize those who are dangerous (like Grace Jone’s Katrina, or Billy Drago’s albino, Snow,) and those who are merely different.

Taken on those terms, Vamp is fun and forward-looking, and probably deserving of a re-examination in 2015.

One might even conclude that the film, with its meditation on a vampire co-culture feels “very new, very now.”

“Welcome to your worst nightmare!”

Fraternity pledges Keith (Makepeace) and A.J. (Robert Rusler) make a deal to hire a stripper for the frat house’s upcoming party, in exchange for membership in the organization.  Unfortunately, their campus is “200 miles from nowhere” and they don’t own a car.  Accordingly, Keith and A.J. agree to pretend to be friends with Duncan (Gedde Watanabe), a rich kid who owns a car, and take a road trip to the big city to procure an exotic dancer.

There, by night, the trio visits the “After Dark Club” in hopes of finding a good stripper for the party. A.J. is enamored with exotic Katrina (Grace Jones), but the dancer turns out to be an aged Egyptian vampire.  Worse, the young men seem to have stumbled into the Vampire District!

After Katrina kills, A.J, Keith must step up and find a way home.  He must do so alongside an employee at the club who claims to know him: Amaretto (Dedee Pfeiffer). 

But it’s going to be a long night…

“All you are to her is a quick fix.”

As I noted in Horror Films of the 1980s (2007; McFarland), there’s a nice little joke informing Vamp. Many hero’s journey tales or coming-of-age stories involve, specifically, the crossing of the threshold. That concept is literalized here. Early in the film, Duncan’s car goes on a crazy, out-of-control spin, and when it stops, those inside it have arrived at the world of the Big City.

It’s as if a tornado itself has deposited the car and the occupants there, and one character -- appropriately referencing The Wizard of Oz (1939) -- jokes “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”  The idea, clearly, is one of transition; of Keith moving from his cultural comfort zone (as A.J.’s straight man) in the safe world of college, to the larger, more dangerous and exotic world beyond.

The exotic (and erotic) world of the After Dark Club is depicted in Vamp in lurid shades of green and red, a color palette that suggests the red light district, cheap motels, and neon signs.  It is Keith’s task, in this garish world, to determine who is friend, and who is foe. If he is to grow up (and not die), in other words, he must come to understand the perils of pleasures of a multi-cultural world. He must confront those who are not like him and determine how to view them.

What I resolutely admire about Vamp is that even though the film is yet another story of a white male’s heroic journey, it nonetheless takes time to genuflect to a superior idea; that Keith’s narrow, parochial world view isn’t the only one, and that he can and will grow beyond it. 

One delightful moment in the film finds Keith realizing, to his horror, that all the denizens of the After Dark Club are vampires. “That doesn’t make them bad people,” replies a patron, and that’s sort of the film’s point. As human beings, we are afraid of the things that we don’t know. We judge that which is different --- at least at first -- to be bad.

So at least initially, the vampires of the film are terrifying to Keith. They aren’t people…they’re monsters!  Note, for example, the scene in which he watches a child vampire viciously attack an unsuspecting stranger.  Keith recoils in horror and disgust at the sight. And when he confronts A.J. as a vampire, his friend tells him he can no “longer be trusted” because of what he has become.

Yet by Vamp’s denouement, Keith is not only more confident, he is more experienced, and therefore willing to accept that his former best friend, A.J. (Robert Rusler) can be two things simultaneously: both a vampire and buddy. 

After the new-ness of the vampire population has worn off, and Keith feels he can conquer the danger they represent, he is open to A.J. returning to school, and re-establishing his friendship with him. He has also met a love-lorn vampire (one who dreams of being more to Katrina than a quick-fix), and another who dreams of being “classy” like the people he imagines in Las Vegas. Now these characters may still be monsters, but they are people at the same time.  The dynamic has reversed.

Not long ago, a user on Twitter contacted me and pointedly asked me if I felt there was homo-erotic tension between Keith and A.J. in Vamp.  My answer? I think there is, and I think that it is absolutely intentional.

That unspoken homo-eroticism fits in with the film’s bigger idea: that Keith is growing up in a world of different kinds of people, and reckoning with different kinds of relationships.

Far from home (which remember, in terms of the film, is 200 miles from the city metropolis…) Keith must reckon with new vistas and new ideas. And it’s impossible to deny that, historically-speaking, vampirism is often equated in the horror film with homosexuality.

Therefore, it is possible to read Keith and A.J.’s bromance as being indicative of desires deeper than mere friendship. A.J. come out as a vampire -- a surrogate for homosexuality -- but confesses to Keith that because of his new identity, he can no longer be trusted. That’s an expression of fear in the face of something new.  But in Vamp, after some initial discomfort and trepidation with that “new” idea, however, Keith finds he is absolutely okay with A.J. and his new orientation.  A.J. is okay with it too. They find they can still be friends, even with new knowledge about each other.

Ironically, this plot-line makes Vamp the second film (after A Nightmare on Elm Street: Freddy’s Revenge [1985], to pinpoint Rusler as an object for homo-erotic desires. 

In Vamp, however, the homo-eroticism is quickly defused. In growing up, Keith finds his confidence, and that confidence is expressed in the fact that his amorous attentions are now directed towards women, namely Allison/Amaretto.  A.J. becomes a vampire and friend rather than a potential lover. 

Still, I would argue that the film deserves credit, at the very least, for its through-line of acceptance. 

By the end, A.J.’s “other-ness” is de-fanged as a threat, and he stands around kvetching about his wardrobe. He has been assimilated into the mainstream, his “difference” from the dominant culture no longer judged a mortal danger to it. He can be a vampire, and still go to college, and still be best friends with straight-arrow Keith.  No longer is he a “monstrous” other.  He’s just one voice in a culture of many.

Grace Jones’ Katrina is the yang to that yin, one might conclude. 

If A.J. is The Other made normal (and acceptable to mainstream society), Katrina is the “Other” as a continuing threat. Katrina is a feral, abusive user, one who does not seek consent before indulging in her feral appetites. Jones is perfect for this villainous role, given her career and physical attributes. As Julia Felsenthal quotes photographer Jean-Paul Goude in Vogue (September 28, 2015): “Men think she’s sexy. Women think she’s a little masculine…and gays think she’s a drag queen.” 

Vamp plays up Jones trademark androgyny in a clever way. We aren’t certain, seeing Katrina, what exactly she is, how she identifies, or what she wants. Her strip-tease is quite different from the others featured in the film, and seems an expression more of wildness than any particular brand of sexuality.  We see Katarina and we register her as hungry, animalistic, prowling.  She could be, essentially, any number of things -- male, female, gay, straight, what-have-you -- but in fact Katrina is just one thing: a hungry “user” of those around her.

Of all Grace Jones’ 1980s genre roles, from Conan the Destroyer (1984) to A View to a Kill (1985), Vamp utilizes her physical presence and charisma best. We have doubts about Katrina’s identity until the truth becomes plain.  She is a monster, and yet that monstrosity has nothing to do with how she identifies (gay, straight, androgynous), but rather with how she treats those around her: as walking blood banks.

But at first, her physical otherness is all the viewer sees.

Today, it seems difficult to deny that Vamp is about category-straddling as a normal aspect of life in the Big, Modern, American City. The child-vampire is both innocent and a monster. Snow is both ‘white’ and part of a deried co-culture (the Albino gang). The After Dark Club is both sexually liberated and predatory, perhaps even simultaneously sleazy and “classy,” given the predilections of its owner. Likewise Amaretto is both known and unknown to Keith.  In broaching a multi-cultural, diverse world, Keith must navigate all these contradictions, and accept the ones that don’t hurt him (like A.J.’s new orientation) and dismiss those that could (Katrina, namely).  

In other words, the film asks Keith, ultimately, to view others not by categories, but by their actions.  The world, if not shades of gray, is shades of red and green.

I opened the review by noting that Vamp is alternately funny and scary, and I believe that approach is the best way to mimic the film’s leitmotif about the Big City. When confronted with the unknown, sometimes we assess it as dangerous, and sometimes not. By making us laugh and scream, Vamp reflects this reality.  We can react to “new” things with terror, or with humor.  Danger can be defused by humor…or not.

Vamp is a fun, gory horror movie, and an example of a different age and different sensibility in the genre, for certain. But the film retains value today because it is about a person of the dominant culture opening his eyes to the fact that not everybody who is different than he is must by definition be bad, or a “monster.”

Sometimes, Vamp reminds us, people are only “monsters” until you get to know them; until the initial dread of difference recedes and you see the people not for their categories or labels, but for their common humanity.

Movie Trailer: Vamp (1986)

Monday, October 12, 2015

Ask JKM a Question: Well-Regarded Films that I Don't Like?

A regular reader, Chuck, writes:

"I have a secret confession: I dislike Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

I have tried…TRIED…to like this movie. I have looked deep within myself, hoping it will finally somehow register with me, so I might finally join the masses who sing its praises as one of the greatest, most celebrated and groundbreaking cinematic achievements of all time. 

But, try as I might, I just don’t get it. I think its dull, depressing, over-rated and pretentious. And I know you disagree with me. The entire world (it seems) disagrees with me too. I am in the vast minority, I know that. 

Unfortunately, this sometimes makes it difficult to share my opinion with others, given how passionate fans of that particular film can be. And, unlike Star Trek or Star Wars fans—who have always been accustomed to dealing with at least some measure of detractors—many film buffs seem flat-out baffled (sometime even furious) when I mention my feelings towards 2001.

Which leads me to my question: Is there a classic, critically acclaimed, and much-beloved film (or franchise) that, try as you might, you just do not “get it.”

That's a great question, Chuck! I feel for you! 

I do love 2001: A Space Odyssey (as you noted), but I have indeed felt like you do regarding films that others cherish.  

So I can sympathize.  

Not trying to change your mind, but perhaps you can get to the point where you admire the film's artistry, even while maintaining your points of criticism.  That way, you get it, you just don't like it.

Or maybe not!

As for me, The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010), and The Avengers (2012) all fall into the category where the Kubrick film landed for you. These films are widely and wildly lauded, and yet I wouldn't give one of them an unreserved positive review. 

Vast swaths of my demographic group  -- middle-aged fan-boys -- love, love, LOVE these movies, and I don't even like them a whit. 


The Dark Knight is visually-muddled and thematically deplorable (an apology, basically, for the post-9/11 surveillance state).

The Avengers is over-long and, approximately, about nothing. It's such a dull movie, in fact, that I fell asleep in it the first two times I attempted to watch it. I find The Avengers absolutely lacking in any human interest at all.  It's a great hype machine, but notthing else. And, of course, I'm a huge admirer of Joss Whedon's, so I am baffled by how little of the artist's personality or humor made it into the film.

But Inception is the one that gets me, really.  It is regularly ranked in the top 200 at IMDB -- currently ranked at #14 -- almost 80 slots higher than 2001: A Space Odyssey.   Other film it ranks higher than: Unforgiven (1994), Raging Bull (1980), Chinatown (1974), and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

I have seen this film's praises sung so many times. And yet, as I've written before, the concept is inherently ludicrous.  The film also moves at the pace of slow molasses.

In Inception, a group of people delve into multiple levels of dreams to "plant" an idea into the psyche of an unsuspecting individual.  The same task was routinely accomplished on the original Mission: Impossible (1966-1972) series using either psychological manipulation or psychotropic drugs.  

But no, Inception takes us into layers and layers of dreams, all moving at different rates, and runs over two-and-a-half hours to get us exactly where Mission: Impossible got audiences more plausibly, and with greater economy, several times a season.

Why is Inception so beloved? It's the Nolan effect, I think. (And hey, I like Batman Begins and Interstellar, Insomnia, and Memento).  He was riding a high after Dark Knight, and his next film received the benefit of the doubt, I suppose.

So I do understand your feelings even if I disagree with your assessment of 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

And I'm absolutely certain many, many movie scholars and fans disagree with my selections too. 

The thing is: people don't really have to agree with you. If you can make the case for your view of a film -- and its consistent -- you really don't need anyone else to agree with you.  

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Boxes

A box is a receptacle or container used for storage or transport.  Boxes can be made of any substance, and carry a certain air of mystery about them. If a box is sealed (and unlabeled), it is impossible to tell what object may be inside it.

The box has featured prominently as a story device in many episodes of cult-TV.

Perhaps the most famous example of a dangerous or mysterious box comes from The Outer Limits (1963-1965) and the episode titled “Don’t Open Till Doomsday.” In this creepy tale, a bride and groom-to-be of the year 1929 receive a wedding present: a strange box labeled with the titular warning. 

The groom opens the box, however, and seems to de-materialize. A generation later, in 1964, the would-be-bride is an old woman, and wants to threaten another couple with the box, hoping to trade the man for her long-missing partner. What’s inside this box? A creepy alien from another dimension, one bound and determined to destroy our universe.

The Star Trek (1966-1969) third season episode “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” also features a box with an alien inside.  

In this case, that alien is Amabassador Kollos, a Medusan whose appearance is so hideous that if any humanoid gazes upon his face, that human will be rendered permanently insane.  When the Enterprise is sabotaged by one of its designers and hurled into a weird dimension, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) must mind-meld with the Medusan, who is a brilliant navigator, to get the Enterprise home.

A second season story of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) called “The Guardians” involves a strange jade box.  An old man tells Buck he must take it to the edge of the galaxy, but the box begins to cause strange hallucinations among the crew of the Searcher. Admiral Asimov (Jay Garner) imagines his crew lost in space, starving to death.  And Wilma pictures herself as a blind, pitiable creature forever wandering the ship’s corridors.

In the Alias (2001 – 2005) episode “The Box,” guest-star Quentin Tarantino plays a villain Cole, who engineers a heist inside SD-6 headquarters. In particular, he wants to liberate a mysterious object known as “The Box” from a vault.

A brilliant episode of Futurama (1999 – 2013) called “The Farnsworth Parabox” involves a box that houses a parallel universe, and therefore parallel versions of the Planet Express employees.  The problem is that neither universe is evil and that spillover between universes and counterparts become inescapable, and dangerous.

A 2012 episode of Doctor Who (2005 – present) called “The Power of Three” involves a “slow” invasion of the Earth by tiny black cubes…or boxes.  Deemed harmless, these boxes are used as paper weights and decorations by the people of Earth.  The cubes activate at some point, and open up to reveal…nothing (except the fact that they are, actually, boxes).  Soon, however, people start to die from heart attacks, and the Doctor realizes the boxes are to blame. They are the tools of the Shakri, alien beings known to the Time Lord, who would strip a planet free of pests.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Boxes


Identified by Hugh; Star Trek: "Is There in Truth No Beauty?"

Identified by Hugh: Lost in Space

Identified by Ponch: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "The Guardians."

Identified by Chris G: The Twilight Zone: "Button, Button."


Identified by Hugh: Futurama: "The Farnsworth Parabox."

Identified by Hugh: Smallville.


Identified by Hugh: Supernatural.

Identified by Mr. C: Fringe.

Identified by Hugh: Doctor Who: "The Power of Three."

Identified by Hugh: Game of Thrones

Sunday, October 11, 2015

At Flashbak: Sci-Fi TV: 1976

My second article at Flashbak this week gazes at the (strange) sci-fi TV programming of the year 1976. 

The three series I look at are: Filmation's Ark II, a post-apocalyptic kid's show, The Gemini Man, and one of the weirdest genre programs ever: Star Maidens.

Ark II features a great central vehicle and some spiffy uniforms and sets, and Star Maidens is bolstered by great production design from Keith Wilson. 

The Gemini Man?  There's not much to recommend this son-of-The Invisible Man (1975) series, except the fact that Mystery Science Theater 3000 had a good time with a compilation movie version, Riding with Death.

Read the whole article at Flashbak, here.

At Flashbak: Sci-Fi TV: 1987

This week over at Flashbak, my ongoing blog-series looking back at forgotten or obscure science fiction TV series focused on the year 1987.

This was an age that brought some weird programming.  

First, there was the dystopian series, Max Headroom, about the rebellious digital avatar for a courageous journalist, Edison Carter (Matt Frewer).

Then, there was the pseudo-post-apocalyptic Glen A. Larson production, The Highwayman, starring Sam Jones, Jacko, Tim Russ, and the incomparable Jane Badler.

And last (though not least), is a show that aired three times before being canceled: Once A Hero. This series focus on a comic-book superhero hero, Captain Justice (Jeff Lester), who transitions from his world to the real world...and moves in with your typical '80s sitcom family.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Chapter 3: Escape from Dragos" (September 22, 1978)

In “Escape from Dragos,” the energy clone of Commander Canarvin (James Doohan), returns to Space Command and surreptitiously lowers the base’s defense shields, thereby creating an opportunity for Dragos to attack the facility.

Back on the Dragon Ship, however, Jason uses Wiki to help Canarvin escape from custody and make his way to a captured Star Fire. 

Canarvin escape custody, but Jason remains a captive of the evil Dragos…

In this fifteen minute segment, the overall plot moves incrementally forward, with the fake Canarvin endangering the Academy, and the real Canarvin on his way to stop him.  Thus we have that old TV trope: the evil commander.  Should he be questioned? Trusted? Obeyed? Removed from authority?

Those are the questions that trusting, loyal subordinates must now ask.

Beyond the Canarvin situation, not much happens in terms of character in this story, except that Nicole (Susan Pratt) reveals here proficiency in kung-fu.  Parsafoot (Charlie Dell), by contrast, has an embarrassing display of his physical skills.  Though meant to be comic relief, Parsafoot’s behavior is actually cringe-inducing.

It’s always a shame when a show that seeks not to talk down to kids ends up pandering to “childish” characterization, and that’s what happens in “Escape from Dragos.”  We don't need comic relief from Parsafoot in this story.  We need good, exciting storytelling instead.

Otherwise, here are some more broad observations about the series, this week.  We see that the corridors of Drago’s vessel are all made of rock, rather than the advanced-looking materials of Space Command.  This fact suggests that the corridors were carved out of asteroid rock but the task of making the corridors attractive and livable was left untended.  Those things likely don't matter to Dragos.  His crew consists of mindless minions, so why bother with the decor, right?

Also, as is the case with Space Academy (1977), the special effects on this series hold up nicely. This mini-episode features a scene in which Canarvin’s Star Fire is freed from the Dragon Ship’s bay. We see the doors open, and the ship drop out and accelerate away.  Very, very impressive work.

Next week: "A Cry for Help."