Saturday, December 20, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Korg 70,000 B.C.: "Eclipse of the Sun"


In “Eclipse of the Sun,” little Ree is bitten by a snake.

She develops a terrible fever and both Mara and Korg feel she will not live for long. Korg, Tane and the others go in search of a “kuba” root that can mitigate the “heat” of the fever.

But to find the root, the family must tread into the “Valley of the Voices,” a place where Gods reputedly speak in anger. 

The family’s entrance into the valley coincides, alas, with a solar eclipse that plunges the world into darkness…



Korg 70,000 B.C. (1974) generally does a very good job of transmitting what it must feel like to live in a world without knowledge and without science, only fearsome Nature, and the threat of angry Gods. 

In “Eclipse of the Sun,” Ree is dying, and the family must risk alienating a Great Spirit to save her. When the world is then “shrouded in darkness,” Korg and the others have real reason to fear that they have angered the Gods. Bok, for instance, is terrified of the eclipse, “sure that the world is coming to an end.” He actually collapses into some kind of paralyzed state from his fear.



Once more, Korg 70,000 B.C. holds up a mirror, in a way, for some aspects of religion…which can provide no concrete answers for events in the natural world, and which makes us second-guess our own actions. 

Have we angered the Almighty by attempting to save our dying child with medicine? That’s the question Korg and Mara are confronted with here.

Unfortunately there are people out there today who still possess such Neanderthal beliefs about medicine.  I can see why it’s appealing, too: it’s ego-centric.

If we believe vehemently in God’s anger at our behavior, we are simultaneously believing that our decisions, our choices (our obedience or disobedience) have some importance in the grand scheme of things. In this way, belief is not ultimately about obeying a deity, but about putting our own lives up on a pedestal.

All is vanity?

Of all the Saturday morning programs I have covered of late, Korg 70,000 B.C. is turning out to be the one most bristling with adult (and controversial) ideas.  I wasn’t exactly expecting that, but I’m grateful that the series was crafted with intelligence and curiosity…if not always a decent budget.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: BraveStarr: "The Wrong Hands"


In “The Wrong Hands,” a race of alien warriors -- the feline Krang -- land on New Texas and attempt to purchase Kerium for a scientific experiment.

In truth, however, these military aliens are testing a deadly disintegrator weapon, and want to conquer the galaxy, starting with BraveStarr’s town…





“The Wrong Hands” is a bit of a departure for BraveStarr since it involves a new alien race, and a would-be invasion of New Texas.  

The alien Krang, in this case, seem like a modification of the Larry Niven's Kzinti as seen in Filmation’s Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-1974).  The episode provides some nice designs for their technology, including their battle carrier.


In terms of artistic structure, “The Wrong Hands” very carefully compares the Krang physician -- who has developed a deadly weapon -- with New Texas’s doctor, who is sworn to protect the town’s people.  This is a nice way of pointing out how people in the same group might possess very different priorities.





The message of the episode is, finally, that power can attractive evil, or cause selfish behavior. BraveStarr relates this message to himself, during the course of the episode, and remembers a story when he was young, and used a miner’s tool as a weapon.

Friday, December 19, 2014

All I Want for Christmas Countdown #6: Micronauts Rocket Tubes (Mego; 1979)

Cult-Movie Review: Road Games (1981)


“…Duel [1972] had already been made. I was just struck by how much like a Panavision movie screen a truck window looked, and how the driver looked out and down at the world. Rear Window [1954]) again.”

-Director Richard Franklin, describing the genesis of his thriller, Road Games (1981), in my book, Horror Films of the 1980s (2007)


Last week I wrote here about director Richard Franklin’s career in the genre, and his first horror hit, Patrick (1978). 

This week I want to turn your attention to an even more accomplished film from the auteur, and one championed by Quentin Tarantino himself: Road Games (1981).

Written by Everett De Roche, this film stars Stacy Keach as a clever trucker named Quid, and Jamie Lee Curtis as a hitchhiker, called “Hitch” (after the master of suspense). Together, this unusual duo puzzles through a series of brutal murders in rural Australia, all from the cab of a truck that is carrying slabs of meat through the country-side.

Although Road Games is often lumped in with the slasher film craze of the same era because of Curtis’s presence in a leading role and the violent nature of the Jack the Ripper-like killer, the film actually harks back to an earlier film tradition: The Hitchcockian thriller. 

As Franklin notes above, Rear Window is absolutely the model here, but the film actually adds new elements to the Master’s equation too. Keach’s window on the world -- the truck windshield -- is always seeing things in motion, always traveling.  That makes it quite unlike Jimmy Stewart’s (stationary) apartment window, and this factor adds a sense of velocity and unpredictability to Road Games.  You are never quite sure what is going to happen next. Around each corner is a surprise, and often a shock.

In fact, Road Games cleverly adds a number of new twists to the familiar formula, including the fact that Keach’s character is suffering from a physical condition of a sort too (again like Stewart’s character).  Only Quid suffers from physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation rather than a broken leg.  He is therefore in the position of questioning reality itself – and his own perception -- and that element too adds a strong sense of the unpredictable.

Bolstered by at least one stellar action scene set on the road that involves a truck, a car, a boat and a boat’s anchor, Road Games remains a taut, well-orchestrated horror movie. The effort showcases, again, Franklin’s gallows sense of humor, precise, clean direction, and playful sense of gamesmanship.  The film’s surprises, including a last minute sting-in-the-tail/tale, continue to impress, and the score by Brian May is terrific.

In short, this is one of those films from the early 1980s that has held up well, and one can point to Franklin’s sort of neo-classic approach to the material as a reason why.


“Maybe this is some new kind of game.”

An exhausted truck driver named Quid (Keach) is assigned an emergency job by his dispatcher, “pushing piggies to Perth,” or rather, transporting cargo (meat) during a nationwide strike.

But as he prepares to rest for a short night before a long day of driving, Quid spies a suspicious man go into a hotel with a beautiful hitchhiker.  Early in the morning, the man leaves the premises in a green and black van, but there is no sign of the woman…only a cooler which may contain her severed head.

Quid believes the driver to be the Jack the Ripper-styled murderer “butchering” young women in the area, but has trouble convincing the local police of his theory. Instead, they think Quid may be the killer. 

Soon, Quid and his pet dingo, Bosworth, pick up a hitchhiker, Pamela (Curtis), and the two go back and forth debating about the killer and his nature, a discussion which both passes the time and proves terrifying in its implications..

At a rest-stop, the duo runs across the green van, parked and apparently abandoned. Pamela goes inside to investigate, and to discover what dark secret resides in the cooler. 

Instead, she is captured by the killer, who drives off in a hurry. Quid gives chase in his truck, but by now, most of Australia believes he is the wanted murderer…


“Aren’t you a little old to be picking me up?”

In Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart played a photographer with a broken leg, a man with a good “eye” who was bored, and then took to watching his neighbors in a nearby apartment building to alleviate that ennui. 

Road Games instead takes an exhausted truck driver, Quid -- a guy who is too smart and too educated for this particular job -- who passes the time trying to entertain himself, quoting poetry and generally over-thinking everything.

I haven’t slept since Wednesday,” he tells his dispatcher, adding that he is “hallucinating.”  Thus the audience is faced with the distinct possibility of an unreliable protagonist, one who is smart and imaginative, but also pushed beyond the point of fatigue. Has Quid’s imagination gotten the better of him?  Is he seeing things and making connections that aren’t really there?

Road Games also adds motion – near-constant, driving motion -- to the Rear Window gestalt, because it is set on the road, in a truck and the scenery is constantly changing.  Thus, viewers may think of travel terms like “highway hypnosis” as they apply to Quid.  Sometimes, it just seems like he’s trying to stay awake, grasping at straws. The always-moving nature of the film also manages to make Quid and Pamela feel isolated.  Help is never around when they need it, and that damned green van is always nearby.

Another travel term, made popular long after the movie’s release, similarly comes to mind: road rage. 


In one of the film’s most brilliantly-executed action sequences, a car driver pulling a boat behind his vehicle decides that he doesn’t want Quid to pass….and acts accordingly.  Quid, who is pursuing the killer in the green van, can’t back off or risk losing his quarry, but must get around the enraged driver and the results are catastrophic for one of them.  Before the scene is over, the boat is pulped.  In all, this sustained sequence in Road Games is so well-designed, shot and edited that it brings to mind another popular Australian film of the age: The Road Warrior (1982).

The leitmotif underlining Road Games is not surprisingly, game-playing. Quid plays games to stay awake and occupy his superior mind.  The killer plays a game too, trying to evade capture and frame Quid for his terrible acts.  But throughout the film, we see characters playing I-Spy, and so forth.  The aforementioned road rage scene might even be called a game of “cat and mouse,” with the cat crushing the unlucky mouse. And when Hitch (Pamela) and Quid discuss the killer’s motivations -- psycho-sexual or not -- they are also playing a game, and engaging in some fun banter at the same time.

The film’s tension and energy, however, arises not from the games that are played by the characters, but the questions (or puzzles) Franklin and De Roche throw out.  What is in that ubiquitous cooler? Why does Quid’s truck, carrying the meat slabs, weigh too much (by precisely the weight of a human corpse?) Where is the killer hiding, if he isn’t inside the men’s room at the rest stop?

In my review of Patrick, I noted how Franklin plays, visually-speaking, with words, literally.  There, the words “emergency entrance” on a hospital sign became “emergency trance,” for instance. Similarly, Road Games shows viewers such terms As “Universal Meats” and “Tomorrow’s Bacon,” and they are rife with double meaning. 

For example, if both human and animal carcasses are on that truck – and therefore indistinguishable -- then it is carrying “universal meats” in a sense.  And if the human body gets delivered to market with the pork, then it too is “tomorrow’s bacon” in a really creepy, nasty way.

Franklin manages to incorporate this sense of gallows humor without adding any unnecessary moments or wrong turns.  The film feels clean and spare, and totally committed to its purpose of subverting expectations, surprising the audience, and generating unbearable suspense.  By the same token, the film’s protagonists are delightful, and it is a pleasure spending time with them, and listening to their intelligent (if sometimes speculative) banter.


Although “the opening weekend was a disappointment,” Franklin told me, for Horror Films of the 1980s, appreciation for Road Games soon grew.  “It was only when it got on TV that it really took off.” (page 276). 

From there, it was a short climb to “cult movie” status for Road Games, a film that absolutely deserves an immediate blu-ray release.  

Movie Trailer: Road Games (1981)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

All I Want for Christmas Countdown #7: King Kong Model Kits (Mego; 1976)

One Year From Now, on December 18, 2015...


So...I was at vacationing Smith Mountain Lake with the family when the Star Wars: Force Awakens teaser trailer premiered last month, just after Thanksgiving, and I never posted it here.

One good reason: I couldn't access my blog from our cabin (no wi-fi).

Another good reason, I was helping my eight-year old son, Joel, film a found-footage horror movie with his cousins. It's about a rural maniac who tps (toilet-papers) his victims in the woods.  I play the Crazy Old Man/Ralph character warning the kids not to go into the woods.

But back on topic. Since the end of November, this brief first peek at the new Star Wars has been, probably, the most dissected teaser in cinematic history.  And a few folks have e-mailed me and asked me my thoughts on it. 

I've watched the teaser a number of times, read many shot-by-shot analyses of it, and also observed. fan response (which, not surprisingly, is divided.)

And I still arrive at the conclusion...that we simply don't have enough good information to formulate any guess as to the quality of the film, or its story.

The images in the very brief trailer are selected primarily for purposes of introduction (to our new young cast, droids included), and nostalgia for the OT: TIE fighters, X-Wings and the Millennium Falcon.

These selections say a lot about the movie's demographic appeal. Young and old alike will find something to like here!  This one is going to try, hopefully successfully, to bridge generations.

Personally, I am not bothered by the design of the new light saber or the ball droid, or the rectangular dish on the Millennium Falcon, and I imagine it took some degree of restraint not to include imagery of Han, Luke, or Princess Leia in the teaser.

Contrarily, it might have been nice to see R2 and C-3PO -- even for a second -- since they are the only on-screen link between three eras of Star Wars storytelling.

Otherwise, I was neither bowled over nor debauched by the teaser.  The full trailer, when it drops, should give us a bit more to chew on.

In the scheme of other movies trailers I've featured here lately (which are not teasers, importantly), Star Wars falls somewhere in the middle of the pack.

At this juncture The Force Awakens looks more palatable than Terminator 5, and about a million times less colorful and inspired than Mad Max: Fury Road.

So, the countdown begins. One year from today, the saga continues...

Cult-Movie Review: When a Stranger Calls (1979)



Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls (1979) remains one of the most effective and terrifying horror movies made during the disco decade.

This statement is accurate, I reckon, because I knew the film’s punch-line before I ever saw the movie.  

When I was ten years old, my beloved aunt Vivian would frequently regale me with horror movie stories at family gatherings. I just couldn’t get enough of these cinematic tales, which she recited in every fantastic and grotesque detail. Vivian told me, over the years, the stories of Halloween (1978), Alien (1979), The Fog (1980) and When a Stranger Calls.

So I actually knew that the film’s killer was calling “from inside the house” before I ever saw the movie’s first frame.

Yet when I finally saw When a Stranger Calls with my own eyes, my pre-knowledge of that crucial “twist” made no difference whatsoever. The movie scared the shit out of me.

Watching the film again this week for the first time since 1999 (when I wrote Horror Films of the 1970s), the opening scene still unsettled me, and left my wife feeling anxious and jittery as we turned off the lights and went to bed.

And yes, that’s absolutely the sweet spot for horror movies: the promise of a troubled night’s slumber as you turn out the lights and your head hits the pillow.

Based on an urban legend (the babysitter and the man upstairs…), When a Stranger Calls opens with a meticulous, self-contained set-piece of near perfect execution. A high-school age babysitter (Carol Kane) is inside a suburban house alone, and being tormented by an increasingly creepy telephone caller. The frequency of the calls escalate, and the police trace the call….

...And, well, you know doubt know the rest.

When a Stranger Calls undeniably falters some in its second act, even as it establishes the pitiable character of its boogeyman, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley). The film also explores the seedy terrain of late-1970s city life, but the movie’s lead, Charles During (as Det. John Clifford) proves pretty unappealing.

Finally, When a Stranger Calls pulls itself back together with a rip-roaring finale -- and one of the creepiest jump scares of the decade -- making the audience forget how listless some scenes in the second act actually are

So When a Stranger Calls is not perfect, perhaps, in the sense that a film such as Halloween may be. But the film nonetheless opens and closes with some of the scariest imagery in the 1970s genre canon.



“Have you checked the children?”

High-schooler Jill (Kane) arrives at the house of Dr. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano) to babysit his two children, who are already in bed and asleep. The good doctor and his wife leave for dinner and a movie, reporting that they will not return until after midnight.

Jill settles in, and begins to study in the family living room. But before long, she begins to receive disturbing, threatening phone calls from a stranger. Jill contacts the police, and they endeavor to trace the call. 

Jill learns, to her horror that the caller is inside the house, using the upstairs phone line.

The police, including Det. Clifford (Durning) arrive and apprehend the killer, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), but not before he has murdered the children with his bare hands.

Seven years later, Duncan escapes from an asylum, and Clifford, now a P.I., resolves, with Dr. Mandrakis’s funding, to kill him.

Clifford follows Duncan’s trail to a city bar called Torchy’s, and to a barfly named Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst).  She has seen Duncan on more than one occasion, and allows Clifford to use her as bait to catch the killer.

Duncan escapes, however, and chooses different prey. 

Jill, the babysitter he once stalked (and nearly killed), is now a mother herself, with two young children…


“It’s probably some weirdo. The city is full of ‘em.”

In 2014, iPhones and cell phones have perhaps made the central scenario of When a Stranger Calls feel dated.

Now, it is easy to call anyone, from any location, including the next-room-over. But by the same token, that caller’s name is identified on a screen, so it’s tougher to prank call folks too.

But the standing assumption in 1979 was that telephone calls were coming from an exterior location, from outside the house. When a Stranger Calls thus plays wickedly with the status quo, and intriguingly, does so in the very year that AT&T’s advertising agency coined the memorable slogan “reach out and touch someone.”

Curt Duncan is someone who has taken that idea all-too literally. He uses the telephone to psychologically terrorize his prey, and he utilizes his surprising position -- inside the Mandrakis house -- to “touch” (or kill…) them.

The film’s opening scene is elegant, simple, and beautifully shot and edited. Walton doesn’t over-gird the sequence with too many elements or too many competing ideas. Instead, the inaugural set-piece boasts a purity of intent, and allows the audience to proceed from the assumption of a mystery phone caller outside the house, and then, with increasing tension, pulls the rug out from that particular assumption.  In other words, the movie tricks us.

I admire the way Walton sets the terrain for the battle too. We meet Jill and the Mandrakis parents, and then move into the living room, where the sitter does her school work. A series of long shots establish both Jill’s isolation and vulnerability, and then the shrill ringing of the telephone interrupts the solitude of the night.


Jill explores her terrain tentatively at first, a half-lit world of doors that are half-open, and freezer ice machines that make disturbing noises.  This scene is true to life in a very visceral, literal sense. How many times have you heard something you can’t readily explain, and explored your house in the dark, seeking the source? 

I have a couple of rowdy cats, so I feel like I go tracking down weird nocturnal noises in the dark at least two or three times a week.  I don’t expect or anticipate finding anything weird or disturbing or dangerous. 

But the thought that I could do so is always there in the back of my mind, lurking.




We then view Jill from outside the house, through the windows, and the visual impression is of a bird in a cage. 

Another impression created by this composition is that Jill is being watched or stalked from the outside of the house.  We thus mistake the perspective for a point-of-view subjective shot. Of course, this isn’t so.  We are observing that Jill is in danger, trapped inside.  There is no danger outside.

This is the film's "inversion" principle, which I love. When Jill locks herself in for safety's sake (on the instructions of the police), she is not saving herself, she is trapping herself.


As the scene progresses, and events reach a fever pitch, the phone seems to take on a larger stature within the frame. The device is seen -- looming ever-larger in the frame -- in insert shots and close-ups. The phone is the avenue by which Jill is terrorized, and so its importance seems to grow as the scene gears up.  In Poltergeist (1982), the TV is the portal through which terror enters the world of the normal or routine.  In When a Stranger Calls, it is the phone that introduces a sinister element to the real world.


After the killer’s down-right terrifying enunciation of a mission statement -- he wants Jill’s blood, all over him -- we then get the panicked police calling Jill and warning her to get out of the house…that the killer is inside the home with her. Jill runs for the door and the film cuts to the upstairs hallway, where light bleeds suddenly out of a bedroom, and a silhouette appears.


We see no killer, no weapon. There is no violence at all, actually, only a beam of light and that menacing shadow to suggest the presence of evil.

And the restraint works like absolute gangbusters. What we fear is not a particular person or even a particular pathology, but rather the Id-like specter that can, somehow, pierce the balloon of safety we have erected around our neighborhoods and our homes.

Uniquely, the second act veers in the opposite direction, making Duncan much more than a shadow or “Shape.”  We see him hitting on Tracy (Dewhurst) in Torchy’s and getting beaten up by another bar patron.  We see him living on the streets, in skid-row, trying desperately to connect to someone.  

The malevolent silhouette of the first act becomes a hauntingly human – and frail -- individual in the second act.

In a sense, this is the way of all fear. It starts out palpable and urgent when we don’t understand it. But when it becomes recognizable or quantifiable, the sense of terror lessens.

I must confess, I have mixed feelings about this development in the film. On one hand, familiarity diminishes the sense of horror, as I wrote in Horror Films of the 1970s. The more we see that Duncan is a slight-of-build, mentally-ill British man, the less fearsome he becomes.  Horror absolutely thrives on the things we don’t know and don’t understand, not the things we do know and do understand.

Oppositely, it is interesting and ambitious that When a Stranger Calls doesn’t hew to a two-dimensional approach to its boogeyman. Duncan is not Evil Incarnate, but a deeply sick man whom society has abandoned.  I suppose my real problem with the second act may be that Duncan seems no match -- physically or mentally -- for the portly, grave-faced veteran cop Clifford, a man who is willing to commit murder outside the confines of the law to bring his quarry to justice.

But even this somewhat deflated second act possesses moments of raw power, and more importantly, fear.

On two occasions, director Walton takes the audience on a night-time sojourn through the seedy city, from Torchy’s to Tracy’s apartment building.  The camera seems to move further and further away from her as she walks home by sickly-green city-light. As the camera retracts, and Tracy gets ever smaller in the frame, one can’t help but get the impression of a world in which the city has been ceded to criminals, or to the sick.  This isn’t a place of safety or security, and Walton’s expressive camera work expresses this notion well.






Again -- in the second act this time -- Duncan violates the safety or sanctity of the hearth, of the home. He hides in Tracy’s hall closet and leaps out at her when she least suspects danger. This scene is lensed almost entirely in close-up, which makes for a real and dramatic switch from the long, lonely, dark shots of the city streets. Walton’s visual approach and selection of shots seems to suggest that Duncan’s violation is highly intimate, even if his stalking grounds feel lonely, abandoned, and vast.



I suppose the real test of Beckley’s effectiveness in the role of Duncan is that the final act works effectively.  Curt goes after Jill again, in her suburban home this time, and hides in her bed -- in plain sight -- as her sleeping husband.  In extreme, warped close-up, Duncan looks sick and twisted, and attacks Jill, and the moment is utterly terrifying.  Even when he know the killer, then, his disruption of our expectations of safety has a mighty impact.


Gazing at Walton’s visual technique, one might be able to detect a subtle message or subtext here. Society (epitomized by the cold, clinical Dr. Monk) has given the cities to the crazies, to the violent, to the wackos.  And worse, those crazies aren’t satisfied with what has been ceded to them.  They are encroaching ever deeper into the suburbs, appearing in places that should be safe: the bedrooms of our most cherished family members: our children or our spouses.



This leitmotif may make the film sound paranoid, but the horror genre is not, largely, about reason or logic, but rather about the fears that won’t go silent, even when we know they aren’t entirely rational.

When a Stranger Calls is really about the crazy “outside” making in-roads “inside,” not just in your family room or kitchen, but inside your head too, in your very imagination. 

The killer is inside the house already -- and has been for some time -- but you don’t know it yet.

Movie Trailer: When a Stranger Calls (1975)