Saturday, April 18, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Mystery Island (1977): "Fate's Just a Dirty Trick"

This week on Mystery Island (1977), we get “Fate’s Just a Dirty Trick,” episode number eight, another in a series of generally atrocious stories. 

Specifically, Dr. Strange has managed to awaken both the fugitives and his own minions from the cave of the “sentinels of time.” 

But Chuck and Krieg have switched bodies upon awaking. 

Yes, Chuck is now in Krieg’s body (though with Chuck’s voice), and Krieg is in Chuck’s body (but with Krieg’s voice). 

Of course, this makes no sense whatsoever. Why would your voice change if you hopped into somebody else’s body?  

The human voice emanates from a physical source (not a spiritual one, like the soul), in this case, the larynx.

Once more, we get a lot of running around in this episode, some dumb quips, and little else.

Here, the ending makes no sense whatsoever.  Strange’s minions and the fugitives are all standing together in a clearing.  Chuck and Krieg suddenly switch back into their normal bodies, but Chuck pretends to be Krieg and engineers an escape for his friends.  

But Krieg is standing right there, back in his own body, and he doesn’t object, or interfere with Chuck’s plan! 

Why not?

Then, the episode ends with the three humans and P.O.P.s. jumping onto a raft and sailing downstream, towards a waterfall while a strange being watches from behind some bushes.  I will say this, the series' primary strength is its outdoor photography.  The scenes with the raft boast a nice, adventurous quality, true to the pulp origins of the series.

This is the last Mystery Island installment available on YouTube at the moment, so I hope the last few weeks have given you at least a flavor of this 1977 Saturday morning series. As I’ve noted before, I have watched many Saturday morning programs from the seventies, but none have been as consistently horrible as this one.  Not even Big John, Little John.

Next week, I start Valley of the Dinosaurs (1974),

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Secrets of Isis: "Scuba Duba" (December 6, 1975)

In “Scuba Duba,” a high school student, Steve (Brian Byers) is demonstrating impulsive, careless and even reckless behavior.  

First, he repels down a mountainside precipice at Rocky’s Point to photograph an eagle’s nest.

Then, he ignores all of instructor Rick Mason’s advice and goes scuba diving alone, without his partner Nancy (Eileen Chesis) at his side.  

On his swim, Steve gets caught between two rocks underwater, his air is low, and things look grim.

Fortunately, Isis (Joanna Cameron) has been keeping an eye on him.  She sees Steve’s struggle in the gem of her magical amulet, and races to the rescue…

Another wayward young student learns a valuable life lesson in this episode of Isis (1975 – 1976).  

The show’s consistent and repetitive modus operandi? Learn from your mistakes!  

In most stories of this Filmation Saturday morning series, a student commits a grievous (and life threatening) error, and then does it a second time.

That second time is the charm, however, and it scares the student straight. In both cases, Isis is around to prevent death, and pave the way for a moral reckoning.  Here, we get the message: “Thanks to Isis, Stevv is still with us.

“Scuba Duba” is unique primarily in terms of the venue it selects.  This is the first episode in which we see the superhero operating underwater.  Ingeniously (though not invisibly...) some shots consist of stock footage.  We see Isis flying, but a blue filter and bubbles have been superimposed over the footage to suggest she is cruising deep beneath the waves.

And yes, this is also the episode in which we see Joanna Cameron…wet.

Isis’s powers continue to be a bit inconsistent, episode-to-episode. Sometimes her magical Egyptian amulet can reveal problems in the future. Sometimes it can rewind to the past.  Here, it reveals Fred trapped underwater concurrently, and Isis arrives in time to rescue him. 

Basically, this amulet can do anything that Isis -- or series writers -- require of it.

Also in this episode, Isis summons “Sister, Goddess of the Wind” to return a broken rope to her position during the mountain climbing interlude. 

Once the rope obliges, Isis asks “strands of rope which were undone, come together now as one.”  The rope automatically fits back together!

Next week: "Dreams of Flight."

Friday, April 17, 2015

Found Footage Friday: Final Prayer (2015)

Final Prayer (2015) -- formerly The Borderlands -- is hands-down the scariest found-footage movie I’ve screened recently.

Every time I begin to worry that the format is played out (see: The Houses that October Built [2014]), a new film emerges that renews my faith in the sub-genre’s durability and potential. 

And “faith,” oddly enough, is an appropriate starting point for a discussion of this particular film.

Final Prayer is a movie, in some ways, about misplaced faith, or misplaced belief. The characters in the film believe a certain set of principles, both rational (scientific) and irrational (religious), and find both sets wanting.

In fact, every bit of “learning” accomplished by these characters -- and by the human race in the last thousand years, at least -- is left in question by the time of the film’s terrifying climax.

The big critical slam against found footage horror movies is typically that characters are but shadows of real people, ciphers who do little but around like chickens with their heads cut off, only with a camera attached to their hips.

Final Prayer seems to recognize this problem or cliché and has one character derisively state upon getting a camera that he has been “promoted to tripod.”

But that character, Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) is ever so much more than that description entails, and his spiritual (or perhaps, existential) journey is a crucial aspect of the film

One of the real joys in Final Prayer is watching this character -- A Vatican investigator searching for a hoax -- interact with the technical guru of his team, Gray (Rubin Hill).  The relationship they share makes the movie more than a run-around, and grants the audience the opportunity to invest in the film’s horrific denouement, which is telegraphed, appropriately enough, by another line of dialogue from early in the film: “That’s nature for you. Big stuff eating little stuff.”

Final Prayer is set in mostly three locations: a cabin, away from the action, a creepy old hill-top church built in 1260 AD, and the rocky, nightmarish catacombs underneath the church. Demonstrating patience, restraint, and judicious use of jump scares, director Elliot Goldner keeps mining these locations for increasing tension and anxiety, and to escalate a vibe of throat-tightening, amorphous dread.

By the time you reach the film’s final, harrowing final sequence, you’ll feel positively unraveled. Now, I’m an old hand at movies like this, but the film’s final dive into the twin terrors of Claustrophobia and Phagophobia (the fear of being eaten alive or swallowed) may take you a while to fully process.  I always state that a horror movie has really worked on me when, later in the night, memories of it trouble my slumber.

Final Prayer troubled my slumber. 

In short, the film features appealing characters facing the truth that reality is not as they believed or imagined it, and ends with the expert mining of more than one commonly-held human fear.

The result, I believe, is one of the found-footage format’s brightest lights, and a film that legitimately earns comparisons to greats like The Blair Witch Project (1999), and REC (2007).

“Some people think they are doing the Church a favor, when in fact they are just sending us back to the dark ages.”

A Vatican investigative team, consisting of Deacon (Kennedy), tech wiz Gray (Hill), and Mark (Aidan McArdle) visits an old, rural church in remote, pastoral England. There, young Father Crellick (Luke Neal) believes that he has observed God’s miracles.  He even videotaped one -- during a baptism -- that resulted in object moving on the altar, apparently of its own volition.

Deacon’s job is to prove that Father Crellick is orchestrating a hoax, or, alternatively, find evidence of his veracity.  As Deacon delves into the history of the Church, he learns that it has been closed since 1880, and that the last priest to live there opened up an orphanage nearby, claiming that he had found a different “master” than the Christian God.

Father Crellick appears to commit suicide after Deacon assesses his miracle a fraud, but later Deacon begins to find evidence that there is a dark power working in the Church.  The Christianity of the place is, actually, merely a “painted façade,” a place housing a much older, much darker spirit or being.

Soon, Deacon finds a hidden staircase leading deep into the Earth -- and into the hill – and he summons an elderly priest, Calvino (Patrick Godfrey) to exorcise the Church. 

But during the exorcism, Mark vanishes -- presumably down the staircase -- and Deacon and Gray make a terrifying descent into the underworld.

“I may have a new master now.”

In the course of Final Prayer, Deacon tells Gray a story about Vatican investigators, including a Cardinal, who traveled to Brazil and were tasked with discovering the truth about a supposed miracle in a Church there. 

What the team witnessed in Brazil, he says, might have been “the Face of God.” Regardless of what exactly the team saw, the members died afterwards, and one man cut his own eyes out with a knife because he couldn’t live with what he saw…what he learned.

Final Prayer very much concerns Deacon’s similar reckoning; his awakening. There’s a strong Lovecraftian aspect to the film as Deacon and Gray explore the history of the Church and the region, and learn that long before the Church existed, pagan rituals occurred there, pagan rituals involving a dark, malevolent God, and the sacrifice of human babies.

Without giving anything else away, Final Prayer concerns the idea that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of by man’s philosophy, science, or religion. Gray, a non-believer who nonetheless desires an answer to the “Great What If” of human existence, relies on scientific tools to chart “the three-dimensional” space inside the church, seeking clues. 

Deacon meanwhile, wants to punch holes in Crellick’s miracle, so that his faith, in essence, can be re-affirmed.  God would not create a miracle in this place, for this rookie priest, he believes.  He is a cynic, having seen -- far too many times -- how hoaxes harm people.   

But the point is that both characters must reckon with an order outside their belief systems, a much older order than the ones to which they subscribe. There’s a great scene here, in a pub, in which Deacon and Gray debate, in broad strokes, the history of religion and worship. They discuss how, long ago, believers worshiped things they could see, like the Sun, whereas modern religions rely on a belief in something not physically present, something invisible. Which is the more powerful God?  

The thing that you have no evidence of and imagine?  Or the thing that is actually present, staring you in the face?

This conversation is of significance, given the comment (by the church’s last priest) that he has a new master. 

It’s more apt to say he has discovered a very, very old one. It’s clear that this priest converted from Christianity when he met a deity -- or a devil -- in the flesh.

Final Prayer succeeds as a horror film because it follows so carefully and so intelligently Deacon and Gray as they discuss the mystery, their world views, and their experiences. When they relate to one another, they do so with wit, humor and cleverness. The repartee is so intriguing, cerebral and attention-holding that the jump scares -- particularly one involving a dog -- carry real impact. Like every other aspect of the film, these periodic jump scares are superbly rendered and wholly unexpected.

But the third act of Final Prayer is in a class by itself in terms of suspense and horror, as revelations come hot and heavy, one atop another, in the catacombs of that creepy church. Only a fool -- or perhaps a person determined to know the truth -- would head down there, into those dark, increasingly cramped tunnels.  I am bothered a lot by claustrophobia, and Final Prayer pushes that button further than any film I’ve seen since The Descent (2006), and even further than the great As Above, So Below (2014).

There comes a point, here, where you want to turn away and not see anymore, especially as the final reckoning unfolds in the most disgusting and grim way imaginable.

You may not like (or frankly, enjoy) how the movie ends, especially if you have become invested in the characters and their journeys of discovery. But as I told my son when I recounted the events of this movie (he loves to be told scary stories), the great thing about found footage movies is that nothing but the footage itself needs to endure the experience. The only survivor we, as an audience, requires, is the storage medium: the film, the disc, the videotape, what-have-you.

Final Prayer remembers that aspect of the format, and grants Deacon’s spiritual and existential journey the kind of grim, uncompromising punctuation that will leave audiences reeling.

Say your prayers...your slumber shall be troubled. 

Movie Trailer: Final Prayer (2015)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens - Teaser Trailer #2

The Films of 1975: The Ultimate Warrior

It’s interesting what becomes valuable to us when almost everything is taken away,” one character muses in The Ultimate Warrior (1975), a violent action film that heavily forecasts The Road Warrior (1982), Cyborg (1989) and other films of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre. 

In this case, it is Yul Brynner rather than Mel Gibson or Jean Claude Van Damme who plays a warrior of the wasteland, one who must protect the remnants -- and indeed the future -- of human civilization. 

As in the case of the other films name-checked above, there’s a powerful Western vibe or overlay to The Ultimate Warrior.  This is the story of a Clint Eastwood-like stranger who arrives at the City, and either saves it from injustice, or induces it to experience a rebirth.  

It’s fascinating how the hero/stranger in such tales is always an outsider to the community or village at large, isn’t it?

The myth of the hero on a white horse arriving to clean up town -- and then leave it for the better -- is a deeply entrenched one in American culture. So much so that it still exists today in political campaigns.  Everyone (on both sides of the aisle) wants to be cast as the heroic outsider riding into corrupt/failed Washington D.C. to clean it up. 

The Ultimate Warrior -- directed by Robert Clouse -- certainly puts an interesting spin on this old archetype, recognizing in this case that the City will fall, but that mankind can survive nonetheless. The hero’s responsibility is not, then, to the City, in this case, but to the very future of the species.  The film uses as symbols for that future both plant seeds, and a human fetus, carried in the abdomen of quite possibly the world’s last mother.

The future world of 2012 (!) as depicted viscerally in The Ultimate Warrior is one of starvation and desperation, scarcity and shortages. There is no gasoline, no medicine, and no hope. The Baron’s (Max Von Sydow) community suffers from a plague of “fatalism,” according to the film’s dialogue.

In terms of historical context, it is easy to see why the apocalypse takes this form. The film arises, like No Blade of Grass (1970) or Z.P.G. (Zero Population Growth) (1972) from an age in which resource shortages, pollution and over-population looked like the trifecta of impending doomsdays, the three-headed bullet that had our name on it. Similarly, the country was still careening from the morale-sucking failures of the Vietnam War and fall-out from the Watergate Scandal.  “Fatalism,” in those days, wasn’t the purview of only sci-fi films.

The film’s great virtue is its sense that mankind will endure. That fatalism can be outlived. The final scene -- set outside the confines of the de-humanized City -- promises a re-birth of hope, and an end to the fatalism that reduced man to selfish barbarian.

But of course, such catharsis can only arise after a particular brutal confrontation between Brynner and William Smith -- local warlord -- in a subway car.

That’s as it should be, however, since this is an action film. The Ultimate Warrior is vastly underrated in terms of its action, story, and value to the genre, but even worse, it often gets no credit for imagining the savagery of the post-apocalyptic world that filmmakers and critics would later associate with the Mad Max saga.  It’s a film that deserves a second look, even forty years later.

In the year 2012, the civilized world has collapsed into anarchy due to famine. The Baron (Max Von Sydow) -- the leader of small community of survivors in New York City --realizes that his people will not survive long when faced with vile scavengers like the evil Carrot (William Smith) and his men. 

Thus, the Baron recruits a soldier of fortune named Carson (Yul Brynner) to act as guardian to his people.

But the Baron has another motive for bringing the warrior into the fold. He recognizes the inevitable; that there is no future in city life.  Specifically, The Baron wants to send his pregnant daughter, Melinda (Joanna Miles) to safety in North Carolina along with a batch of specially-engineered seeds that can grow despite the famine, and re-start the cycle of life. 

The Baron tasks Carson with the care of his daughter and the seeds during the journey, but Carrot does everything in his power to stop the mission.

The Baron’s people are none-too-happy either, to learn that their leader has determined that their lives and futures are expendable.

The Ultimate Warrior’s depiction of its dark future world remains quite powerful. The city looks like a vast junkyard, and the Baron’s community lives on a city block barricaded on all sides. The entrance is accessible only through a parked-bus, and inside the community we see small gardens, wind mills (for energy production), and a community pantry running very low on provisions. 

Impressively, The Ultimate Warrior considers that in a new world order like this one, new laws will be necessary, and the film reveals how even the best society’s -- like the one established by the Baron -- must operate on draconian law.  There’s nothing to waste, nothing to squander, and yet the laws are so harsh that some essential sense of humanity is sacrificed.

For example, one citizen in the compound is accused of stealing a tomato, and forced to endure cruel justice.  The Baron declares “Give him to the street people” and the offender is cast-out into the urban jungle.  The Baron pays for his own trespasses as well.  After sending away his daughter, Carson, and the seeds, he stays behind, and his own people beat him to death for selling them out. This sequence seems indicative of the proverb that those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.  The Baron showed no mercy to offenders, and is, finally, shown no mercy, himself.
A real sense of human savagery permeates The Ultimate Warrior, and one sequence involves the desperate mother and father of a small baby venturing out into the “wilderness” of New York to acquire powdered milk for their infant.  A less frank, less honest film would have had them survive; would have had the hero rescue them.  In this case, Carson is too late to help the family, and barely escapes with his own life. The fate of the baby is pretty grim too, an indication that the City is running out of tomorrows.

The Ultimate Warriors’ last act leaves behind the terror of the City, as Melinda and Carson (carrying the seeds), flee the metropolis through the subway system, Carrot and his men in pursuit.  In this section of the film, the tension is especially high because The Baron -- Melinda’s father -- has actually given explicit instructions that Carson is to consider the fate of the seeds ahead of the fate of Melinda and her child. 

That’s how desperate things have gotten for the human race.  Family ties are now less important that a life-giving crop. When Melinda goes into labor, with Carrot’s men in pursuit, the film reaches its pinnacle of anxiety, since one wonders what decision Carson will ultimately make. It’s a tough choice, and one I don’t envy.

Carson chooses the morality of the old world, interestingly, and stays with the pregnant mother.  He thus risks everything, but maintains his soul.  It’s a fair trade, given the film’s outcome.  As the titular “ultimate warrior,” Carson dispatches Carrot and his men with great aplomb, violence and blood-shed. The final set-piece in the subway (wherein Carson must chop off his own hand to kill Carrot) is gruesome in the extreme, but the final shots of Carson, Melinda and her baby reaching the picturesque beaches of North Carolina provide the film its final punctuation, a visual and emotional catharsis that makes the whole journey worthwhile.

For my money, the cutthroat No Blade of Grass still takes the cake as the bluntest, nastiest slice of post-apocalyptic life in the 1970s cinema, but The Ultimate Warrior absolutely points the way to the genre’s future. The film re-purposes old Western myths and tropes but doesn’t candy-coat the grim realities its characters encounter.  While it is not, perhaps the “ultimate” post-apocalyptic film, The Ultimate Warrior is nonetheless a really fine piece of work, and the grandfather, perhaps, of The Road Warrior.

Movie Trailer: The Ultimate Warrior (1975)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Late Night Blogging: The Wild, Wild West

Guest Review: The Harvest (2015)

“Don’t Tell Mama:” The Harvest (2015)

By Jonas Schwartz

Like director John McNaughton’s first film Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990), The Harvest is a methodical study of insanity, as grief turns parents into monsters. Samantha Morton haunts as Dr. Katherine Young, an unstable mother driven insane by her need to save her dying son.

Prone to violent mood swings and cold irrationality, she makes the audience nervous during her quiet moments, and frazzled when she attacks. Just as unnerving is Michael Shannon as Katherine’s enabling husband, who knows she has crossed the line but allows her to continue her outrageous mission.

Orphan Maryann (Natasha Calis) moves in with her grandparents (Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles), decent people who nonetheless mistaken her for a problem child, one who seeks attention. In reality, Maryann is a sensitive girl, courageous and curious. She meets her neighbor, Andy (Charlie Tahan), an invalid, lonely boy, and they become immediate friends.

Andy had been in isolation most of his life with only his odd parents as company. Mother Katherine at first tolerates Maryann but she eventually forbids the girl from visiting. Maryann refuses to take no for an answer, particularly when it’s obvious Andy needs the camaraderie.

Each visit discovered by Katherine causes more havoc as the doctor becomes further exasperated by the young visitor. Maryann discovers the secret Andy’s parents have been hiding, but her grandparents assume she’s acting out, making up stories. Maryann has been abandoned by the adults and only she can protect her young, defenseless friend from his own mother.

Though The Harvest has been marketed as a horror thriller, this is a slow burn film, one heightened by Morton’s character’s mood swings. Part Mommie Dearest (1980) part Misery (1990), Katherine Young is a basket case, one driven to the edge by her eternal love for her son and her terror that he will die. Katherine is never presented as evil, just utterly sick. Morton’s performance heightens that unbalance, leaving the audience terrified of her irrational, eventually violent, behavior.

As the henpecked husband, Michael Shannon has never appeared so frail. Usually a manic, hulking beast in Bug, Revolutionary Road and Take Shelter, he here plays someone so used to bowing to his wife, he has lost his moral center. This tragic being wants to do the right thing, but has no power over his wife.

Both Calis and Tahan are endearing child actors. They relay youthful vulnerability and a sense of bravery.

Director McNaughton doesn’t rely on tricks (the one twist is blatantly obvious) or gore to hook his viewers. He allows the actors to control the tension with penetrating results. The Harvest is a minor work but one worth discovering.

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonasat the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

Pop Art: The Wild Wild West (Gold Key Edition)