Movie Reviews 444 – I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958)

August 6, 2020

Marriage is one of those long term commitments that you really have to consider wisely and make sure you have chosen a lifelong soulmate, a person you know from the inside out. But sometimes even the most arduous scrutiny can be thwarted when, for example, your groom to be is abducted and replaced by an alien entity the night before the nuptials.

Such is the case when newlywed Marge (Gloria Talbott) notices something has changed in Bill (Tom Tryon) the moment they tie the knot. While outward appearances have not changed, gone is his easy going demeanor as well as his passion for her. Instead she finds that her husband is now distant, quick-tempered and worst of all, reluctant to engage physical affection. There are other things too, like his fascination with storms and how dogs seem to take an immediate dislike to him. But her concerns are dismissed by those she tries to reach out to.

I Married a Monster from Outer Space is a poor man’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with less sophistication in a script that isn’t as taut, less frantic pacing and not nearly as visionary or novel in concept. However it has a few things that make it worth the watch. The story is a little more layered in the ‘aliens want to colonize Earth’ department with a conceptual twist that would later be swiped and reversed in Mars Needs Women. And while there isn’t a lot of it, the budget special effects work well and add a nice touch of genuine horror to the science fiction centric plot. In place of oozing pods we have a cool enveloping smoke sequence when humans are ‘assimilated’ by the aliens. The film also makes good use of ‘negative film’ when the aliens are portrayed, a technique that will be used often in later years and one that fans of the original Outer Limits television series will be all too familiar with. But by far the standout special effects are the glimpses of the alien ‘faces’ overlaying their human subjects whenever there is a lighting strike. The design of those faces and the aliens as a whole, with crisscrossing masses of musculature, is downright freaky.

With decent performances by the cast, especially the principals, there is enough mystery and intrigue in determining who are the ‘converted’ humans that are now aliens, Andromedans to be exact.. That said, the logic does fail completely in some scenes, notably one where a fellow ‘assimilated’ alien visits Bill who feigns ignorance when directly told to report to ‘the ship’ given other facts about the aliens dictate that he should have known immediately.

The ending is posse predictable but with a twinge of sympathy for the aliens, but as a whole the film is decent  nostalgic popcorn sci-fi horror fare.

Movie Reviews 443 – Under the Rainbow (1981)

July 31, 2020

Under the Rainbow is one of the oddest and most un-PC films I’ve ever watched on the big screen as a teen, but for reasons that confound me I never forgot about it and had to see it again, if for no other reason than to confirm it wasn’t something I just dreamed up. I recall a lazy afternoon where a friend and I were scouring the “Now Playing” section of the local newspaper – that’s how we did it in those pre-computer, pre-Internet days – and deciding to go see it as there was nothing else of interest we hadn’t already seen. So this was already a non-standard movie going affair from the start. The only notable attraction in the film ad was that it starred Carrie Fisher, still riding high on her Star Wars notoriety. It also listed Chevy Chase but even then that was no draw for myself as I already loathed him as a comedian whose only track record was being the former SNL news anchorman. I hadn’t heard hide nor hair about it since then. One of those films shuffled under the rugs.

The title is a play on Over the Rainbow, the theme song of The Wizard of Oz movie and it is the behind the scenes filming of that film that is the setting for this comedy. To be precise, it is largely focused on the 150 ‘vertically challenged’ actors that were hired to portray the diminutive “Munchkins” in The Wizard of Oz. If legend and gossip are to be believed, those hired Munchkins, holed up in a hotel for months on end as the gruelling shooting for Oz wore on, were a drunken hoard of sex crazed maniacs that partied throughout the night and consistently got into trouble both on and off the set. In fact, a chaperone of sorts was hired to control and contain them lest their antics hold up shooting even longer.

This brings us to Under the Rainbow where that exasperated chaperone Annie (Fisher) shepherds the ‘little people’ into the Culver Hotel just across the studio where OZ is being filmed. There are only two other groups staying in the hotel. The first are a bus full of temporarily stranded Japanese tourists, all men wearing traditional white suits, a point that will be significant later. The second group is a travelling Austrian Duke (Joseph Maher) and his wife (Eve Arden) under the protective custody of U.S. Secret Service agent Thorpe (Chase), given worries of an assassin on the duke’s trail and the impending breakout of World War II.

Together these three groups will the intricately intertwined when Otto, a Lilliputian Nazi secret agent (Billy Barty), is scheduled to hand over U.S. invasion plans to a Japanese counter-agent (Mako) in the very same hotel. Otto is told to make contact with a white suited Japanese man, while the other is to look for a midget (their term, not mine). While both evil agents try to sort out which of the myriad other hotel guests are their supposed contacts, agent Thorpe fumbles at protecting his monarch charge while a real assassin hopelessly navigates the boisterous and meddlesome hotel invasion.

Yes, there are a lot of contrived and hokey wee folks slapstick, lame jokes, and even and oft scantily clad Fisher whose wardrobe is right up there with her golden bikini from The Empire Strike Back. Chevy Chase is … well Chevy Chase. And the film has one of those silly grand finale chase scenes where everyone heads from the hotel to the Oz film set to wreak havoc not only on OZ but Gone With the Wind.

But the film does have some genuinely funny scenes, a neat ‘wrap-around’ story with a short actor hoping for a Hollywood gig which kinda works, a recurring gag regarding the Duke’s wife’s dog ‘Strudel’, and some nice weaving of words in multilayered script.that play on the overlapping plot points.

Definitely an anachronistic oddity, and probably not for everyone, but sometimes this is exactly the kind of movie one needs for a change.

Movie Reviews 442 – Green Room (2015)

July 17, 2020

While Sam Peckinpah can lay claim as the progenitor of ultra violence in films, writer director Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room proves once again that there are still innovative creators willing to push some of those boundaries further while maintaining a high standard of storytelling as a framework and not just relying on blood and gore as the main draw.

A group of punk rock musicians have an unfortunate streak of botched concerts planned by a promoter who, in a last ditch effort to find them at least one decent gig, refers them to a cousin of his willing to host them in a remote Oregon bar. With an understated warning that his cousin hangs with a ‘rough crowd’ the band heads out hoping to recoup at least enough money to buy some real food and eliminate the need to siphon gas from parked vehicles as they have been doing to get this far.

After a few quick introductions upon arrival and setting up their equipment the band takes to the stage and play, unfazed by the discordant audience, even taunting them with a playlist that includes the lyrics “Nazi punks! Nazi punks! Fuck’em!”. With their performance completed, they gladly collect their pay and start packing the van for whatever comes next. That is until one of the band members, Sam (Alia Shawkat), forgets her phone in their dressing room and Pat (Anton Yelchin) goes back to retrieve it only to stumble upon the body of a young girl in the room full of anxious looking skinheads.

The band is quickly rounded up back into the room and held at gunpoint until it can be decided what to do with the witnesses which include the despondent friend of the deceased (Imogen Poots). While the band pleads for their release promising to keep their noses out of the affair, the burly group confer among themselves as to their next steps and summon Darcy (Patrick Stewart) their evident leader. But with a bit of luck (and a lot of violence) the band regains control within the room, but are locked in. Thus begins a cat and mouse game of wits, proposals, counter-proposals, weapon exchanges, and … more violence.

With violence on par with Straw Dogs, the dire situation of the barricaded victims is further exacerbated by other things they find within their environs. Led by the geriatric leader figure Darcy, their captors are both a cult and a criminal organization, the hierarchy of which is based on the colour of the laces on their Doc Martens. With total command of his often dimwitted followers, Darcy is sharp as a knife, a meticulous planner and always it seems, one step ahead of the band.

Great suspense, excellent acting throughout and another example of the great loss it was to lose Yelchin, an actor who already made a huge mark at such a young age and was destined for so much more until his untimely, and nonsensical demise.

Movie Reviews 441 – Trog (1970)

July 10, 2020

Hollywood is renowned not only for creating larger than life movie stars but for setting some of them up for a  fall later when their shine has withered, and none of those demises have been as shocking as the precipitous drop that befell former Film Noir reigning queen Joan Crawford. Like some of her predecessors, she managed to resurrect her flailing career, first with Mildred Pierce, and even a second time with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But all that fame and glamour vanished and at the end her final feature film was a low budget horror movie called Trog.

Before I delve into the film itself, I must impart my fascination with this film which I cultivated upon reading a detailed synopsis – with the requisite gory film stills  to go along – in one of those 70’s horror pulp magazines, probably an issue of Famous Monsters. I read that article over and over laying on a mattress in the cargo space of the family’s station wagon on one of our yearly 400 mile vacation treks to the US. While I recognize it now as a modest, even feeble story, my then 10 or 11 year old adventure oriented mind was captivated by it. But without the multitude of media resources available today, it took more than 30 years before I could watch it, resigned to viewing it as an objective adult while at the same time relishing in seeing what my former imagination envisioned.

The story has three young men exploring an underground cave network with internal tributaries that eventually lead two of the spelunkers into the lair of a feral troglodyte. This “Trog” kills one and injures another but the third man escapes and brings his injured colleague to the hospital-laboratory of esteemed anthropologist Dr. Brockton (Crawford). She immediately demands to visit the cave herself and manages to snap a picture of the creature which reveals to her its scientific significance.

With a skeptical police investigating the circumstances of the deceased man, Brockton brazenly lures Trog out and once she has him in her lab begins to study the creature. But having a wild animal within the confines of a small town irks one of the prominent business men (Michael Gough), a longtime nemesis of Brockton, and he has the local council effectively put Trog on trial. But the eventual fate of the beast rests not in any authoritative proclamation of guilt or innocence.

To be sure, while the script attempts to tackle a semi-serious plot of a ‘missing link’ in the human evolutionary progression, the story is rife with plot holes, implausibilities and outright silliness. Crawford puts on a brave face but is resigned to deliver long lifeless monologues urging that science prevail despite her own almost clownish application of ‘science’. While great effort was put into Trog’s facial appearance, the special effects end there, the rest of Trog clearly being a loin-clothed regular man.

There are conflicting claims regarding Crawford’s on set behaviour at the time, numerous claims being that she was persistently drunk and relying on ‘cue cards’ for her lines, others denying the levels of her intemperance. Regardless, she never made a film after this one and to add insult to injury, after she passed away her daughter penned her infamous biography Mommie Dearest, later adapted to film, chronicling her abusive child rearing among other faults.

Hammer alumni director Freddie Francis employed nearly ten minutes of claymation stock footage of dinosaurs created by legendary artists Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen for another project, but even that feels as shoehorned in as some of Crawford’s diatribes. To be sure, this is a train wreck of a film, but one can argue whether the wreck is the film itself, or that of Crawford’s swan song. But sometimes you just have to see the wreck for yourself and I for one enjoy being a passenger on this particular voyage, Time and Time again.

Movie Reviews 440 – My Young Auntie (1981)

July 3, 2020

I have to admit that when I first picked up this DVD of My Young Auntie I thought that Michelle Yeoh was the star of this film. I realized my mistake as soon as the movie started, but my sorrow was relatively short lived. Part of the reason was that this was directed, written and starring Chia-Liang Liu who also helmed the classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, a film I now count on as one of my all time favorite martial arts movies. The other reason? Kara Hui, who is the star of this film can kick ass almost as well as Michelle.

While this film is another product from the legendary Shaw Brothers studio, it does depart in some ways from their earlier films, most notably the inclusion of several elaborate, flashy, dance scenes and a distinct catering to North American ideology and culture, sometimes mockingly, sometimes reverent.

An elderly dying patriarch of a family tries to divert his impending inheritance from falling into the hands of Yung-Sheng, one of his wicked brothers (hereafter referred to as “Uncle #3”), he can only legally pass on the deed of his fortunes to his favored nephew Yu Ching-Chuen (Chia-Liang Liu) by marrying his young devoted servant Tai-Nan (Hui) and having her passing it onto Ching-Chuen. She reluctantly agrees and upon the old man’s death travels to deliver the deed to the intended nephew.

Surprised, Ching-Chuen welcomes the young Tai-Nan into his humble home but has an ever greater surprise when arriving unannounced the next day is his bratty son “Charlie” Yu Tao (Hou Hsiao), who has returned from college for a break and clashes with the girl, misunderstanding who she is. Educated and adopting western style and demeanor, Tao brings Tai-Nan to the city where she is exposed to the sophisticated glamour and glitter of modern urban clothing and lifestyle. But even donning a gown and heels Tai-Nan shows that she can battle when confronted  teen goons. And her fighting prowess and pairing with Tao will be needed when Uncle #3 steals the deed to the dead man’s fortunes. The at odds pair must storm Yung-Sheng’s heavily guarded, booby trapped compound and the surprises waiting for the two once there.

While the usual tropes, battles displays of martial arts prowess (lots of trampoline aerials if that is particularly appealing) are there as expected, it’s the aforementioned unusual aspects that differentiate this film from other Shaw productions. One scene that even shocked me because it was so unexpected was Tao saying the F-word and giving ‘the finger’ to Tai-Nan. Not sure if this daring addition was something commonplace in later years, but it was certainly the first time I encountered it in this type of film. Director Chia-Liang Liu includes longtime colleague and star of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin Gordon “Chia-Hui” Liu in scenes, but surprisingly more for comedy relief and singing tunes than for combat.

As is often the case, the payoff is in the final battle and in this regard, Auntie delivers the goods, combining beauty with graceful force and speed all matched step for step by Tao. The deftness of their fighting is mirrored by their reluctance to admit they are falling for one another, although that plot angle is so minor it could have been excised altogether. While some of the slapstick is a bit on the heavy side, the handling of ageism and social evolution were welcome touches.

One thing viewers will have to contend with is the all too usual awful Chinglish subtitles that are not only incorrect, incomplete and misleading, but in some cases adding to the confusion of numbered ‘Uncles’. This may be an “Auntie” film, but the confusion of which uncle was which is the only thing that nearly had me crying “Uncle”.

Movie Reviews 439 – The Whip and the Body (1963)

June 26, 2020

I’ve been inordinately busy the last while and had to severely curtail my usual movie viewing habits to just one or two films a week so I decided to treat myself to the equivalent of a “sure thing”, a viewing of a Mario Bava film I have never seen before.

La Frusta e il Corpo has a few surprises, the first being the many alternate English titles it was released under. Mainly found as The Whip and the Body you can also find it as “The Whip and the Flesh”, “Night is the Phantom”, and, most bizarrely, titled simply as “What”. One smaller surprise is the appearance of star Christopher Lee, or should I say not his inclusion but his hairstyle. I’ve never seen him with a plain, side part cut and I actually had to take a double, even triple, take before I was satisfied it was really him I was seeing. But fans of Lee will be delighted to learn that his role is satisfyingly evil and right at home as he plays the part of Victorian era pariah in this multi-layered, dysfunctional family horror drama.

The emphasis on romance, spurned, feigned, hidden, and even violent, is evident with the seductive score from the very first few notes. Kurt (Lee), the outcast son of a elderly Count, returns to the family’s seaside castle to reclaim the entitlements he lost when he was disowned by his father. As it so happens one of the things he lost was the love of Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) recently wed to Kurt’s straight laced brother Christian (Tony Kendall).

Kurt meets up with Nevenka on the beach below the castle cliff and tries to seduce and rekindle her love for him. In doing so he viciously whips the sadomasochistic loving Nevenka as the surf crashes and her screams fade into the night. Despised and unwelcome by all, Kurt becomes the focal suspect when Nevenka fails to return that night. Not only is Kurt a scoundrel, but the very reason he was turned away in the first place was his role in the suicide death of the daughter of the Count’s servant. That girl’s memory is enshrined in a glass case containing a solitary rose and the dagger she used to commit her final deed.

Nevenka is found the following day on the beach, still alive but shaken and that night the very same dagger is used by someone to kill Kurt in his darkened room. The suspects include nearly everybody from Kurt’s dying father, his jealous brother, the servant mother of the girl who killed herself and even his brother’s mistress, his cousin Katia. But apparitions of Kurt and the fact that the dagger used to kill him inexplicably was the one encased point to a supernatural influence at play and even suspicions that Kurt is one of the ‘un-dead’.

While this is clearly a lurid tale with Bava’s signature kaleidoscopic color palette to match, the sexuality is rather surprisingly tame, relying on hints and suggestive dialogue. The film straddles being a Gothic horror and a whodunit mystery with just enough to satisfy both audiences. Many elements such as the seemingly incessant howling winds, slowly turning door handles, muddy boot prints and a swivelling fireplace work well for either genre. All in all, another solid Bava oeuvre.

My DVD from VCI Entertainment features a restored, uncut European version that includes the infamous beach scene (often censored), but oddly retains Bava’s directorial credit listed as pseudonym John M. Old and has opening credits that are a mix of English and Italian. Another peculiarity I’ve never seen before for such a short feature, a mere 88 minutes, is the film being needlessly segmented as Part One and Part Two. I’m sure there is a story behind all these weird aspects of this cut, but sadly the only Special Feature on the DVD was a commentary track by a critic and no separate interviews or featurettes.

Movie Reviews 438 – The Andromeda Strain (1971)

June 13, 2020

The Andromeda Strain is one of those films that I can watch over and over again, and as it seemed it was on TV at least once a year back in the 2 channels only days, that was exactly what I did. Based on Michael Crichton’s first novel, this was also his first hit which ushered him in as the Hollywood science-writer wunderkind at the top of his game coming out with Westworld (as a screen play) and The Terminal Man in quick succession.

The film begins with a brief docu-drama preamble listing some pseudo-facts of scientists probing space for dust particles for study, but also also with a hint to biological-warfare research. With that as an introduction we then see two obvious government types spying on a very remote New Mexico town (population: 68) from afar. They are searching for a lost satellite when they notice that buzzards hovering over the town before they eventually venture in. Their last moments are recorded as dying screams over the radio.

This sets in motion Project Wildfire, a feared for and meticulously planned project to deal with the improbable but possible introduction of microscopic alien life on Earth. The brainchild of Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill), he and a preselected chosen team of scientists are summarily rounded up and hauled to the secret Wildfire facility tucked away in the Nevada desert. There they are challenged to both find the particle and decipher the alien physiology as the clock ticks with the worry that it will spread across the globe before it can be contained.

The group consists of a feisty microbiologist (Kate Reid), a grandfatherly pathologist (David Wayne), and Dr. Hall (James Olson) a last minute backup replacement medical doctor who ends up being one of the most important given his marital status. For safety reasons, WIldfire is equipped with a failsafe nuclear bomb that is set to go off in the event of a contamination leak and based on the ‘odd man hypothesis’ should that alarm sound, only Dr. Hall has the capability to defuse the bomb.

If the tension among them solving the problem at hand weren’t enough, undisclosed medical issues, simple mechanical failures, communications disruptions, the cliché requisite decision needed by the president, and of course that bomb ready to blow ratchet the drama. More perplexing are the clues they have to work with, two surprising, yet seemingly complete opposite survivors found in the town. One is a newborn crying baby and the other is a semi-crazed old man. Both should be dead given the circumstance and yet the fact that they are alive prove that there is a solution to containing the organism.

This is a great techno-thriller that stands the test of time not only due to the realistic approach applied to science but by the all too real threat it presents. The production values spared no expense in creating a contemporary, yet highly advanced scientific complex that remains impressive watching it today. Moreover, most of the gadgetry and props are utilized within the plot and are not just added to impress us. The scientist undergo an admirably detailed, lengthy, multi-phase decontamination process as they descend through the complex, each successive lower level being biologically cleaner than the one above it. There are plenty of robotic remote manipulators, full body glove boxes, realistic successive video zoom magnifications, and some dazzling moving  three dimensional images of the life form. If it weren’t for the ancient teleprompter scrolls, teletypes and stencilled door markings.you’d hardly know this was a fifty year old film.

One thing that does belie it’s age is a number of shocking animal testing scenes with rats and rhesus monkeys. While many appear to die gruesome agonizing deaths, it seems that while they were really exposed to gases that knocked them out cold during filming, they did survive those scenes. Not for the squeamish for sure, but once again it does enhance the realism of the entire film.

The film plays with the notion that the entire ordeal was a byproduct of a military research operation into potential biological warfare weaponry and for added drama has a bit of a cop-out, open ended final scene. But the all too real scenario depicted, especially given this current pandemic, raises the spectre of a worse fate lest we not be prepared. One has to wonder if there really is a Wildfire lab somewhere out there. I hope so.

Model Build: That time I accidentally became an award winning model maker!

June 10, 2020

The story of how I came about building RAM, a mecha-figure from the Net Warriors series of Hobby Craft models, is more interesting than the model itself. I refer to the whole episode as “That time I accidentally became an award winning model builder”. If you think me winning a model building contest is surprising I can tell you that no one was more surprised than myself, so let me explain.

The story begins sometime in the mid 90’s when I first started attending science fiction conventions. While I have always been a genre fan, I almost had to be dragged by friends to my first convention, Con*cept in Montreal, as I was not entirely convinced I would enjoy the experience. Suffice it to say that I not only found my milieu but was surprised to see that the convention touched upon many other aspects of fandom than the fiction itself, SF oriented plastic models being one of them. I was immediately taken by the variety and quality of the many models on display. I noted that people could vote for their favorite models, but did not think much of it at the time. But seeing more models the following year, I vowed that I would build one myself to participate in the fun. This pledge was one that went unfulfilled for a number of years, just one of those things that just seem to fall by the wayside as time goes on.

That changed the day I stumbled upon a trove of cheaply priced robot model kits in a department store where I picked up this RAM kit and three others. Now I suspected that these would not be the best quality models, but given my limited experience this was actually exactly what I needed as I knew I would not be able to do justice with the build anyhow. I considered it a trial-and-error, practice project. However, with the intent to bring it to the next convention, I set out to build that model to the very best of my abilities.

The build was straight forward and for the painting, all Testors enamels, I created two variants of blue and green mixtures to mimic the box art. This was also my first attempt at ‘weathering’ although at the time I didn’t I barely knew about washes or dry-brushing. I wanted more than just a stand alone model so I made a simple wood base with some quarter round ‘Corderon” moulding which I lightly varnished. On this, I created a crude plaster ‘Island” with a single embedded rock and some sand for texture. I remember being concerned on how the unstable model would stand up, and forming grooves for the feet before the plaster set. I can’t recall exactly what I used to keep the feet clean of the plaster, but I think I just used sections of a plastic bags wrapped around the feet to mold the contours before the plaster dried. Once dry, I lightly painted some brown and green into the base. The only real ‘mod’ to the model – my first ‘mod’ to any model ever – was to add a tiny aim sight wire loop at the end of the rifle. The end result, shown here, was not bad, but hardly anything special.

With the model completed I just waited for the convention to begin, and right after the weekend registration sign up, proceeded directly to the model display room so that I could plunk it down on a table after filling out a simple form. Aside from admiring all the other model entrants occasionally the rest of the weekend, I pretty much forgot about it with the exception of hoping to remember to pick it up at the end of the convention.

 

My surprise came on Sunday afternoon when I did go to retrieve it. There was a woman there, not one of the volunteers running the convention as far as I knew, and as I went to pick my model up she asked me my name and then exclaimed to me “You won a prize.” Certain that a mistake had been made, she explained that I won third prize in the “Robot” category. The evident look of shock on my face made her add “There were four Robots, and yours came in third in the voting.” which she said with an understanding smile. I even got a prize, a brand new paperback novel of Star Trek Voyager #14: Marooned along with the award itself which consisted of a plastic laminated paper with a minuscule trailing white ribbon sticking out.

The prize novel is very fitting as I was never an ST Voyager fan so it was indicative of my merit. The book however does offer one clue in that it was printed in 1997, so I at least know that the event was held on or after that year.

I never bothered looking up what the organization was that handed out the award, and have been curious ever since. Aside from the “Model Contest: Third Place” designation all the award has is a stylized logo for SFMBA, and “Science Fiction Model Builders’ Association”. Looking up the club online today brings scant information. The best I could do was find a Fancyclopedia entry stating that it was a Toronto club, and another discussion thread saying that it was an Ottawa club. If anyone knows more on the history of the SFMBA please let me know.

I’m also curious about the entire model set of this Net Warriors series of Hobby Craft models. After a nearly twenty-five years hiatus, I am currently building a second kit from the series that I bought that day, one called CO-RUPT. And someday I’ll get around to building the others I have, E-MALE and SIR-FUR.

And that was how I became an ‘award winning’ model builder. Hey, at least there was one other model robot there that day that got less votes than mine, right?

 

Movie Reviews 437 – The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

June 4, 2020

We’ve been living in a political dark period for some time now. The growing presence of Internet social networking sites has transformed them into powerful political influence conduits that are not only vulnerable, but being actively exploited not only by political parties, but also foreign powers which are even a greater threat.

While some of the younger people may believe that this is a new phenomena that has come about because of online social networking, the manipulation of a voting public has been around since there have been politicians. Newspapers going back hundreds of years have been empires built and manipulated by controlling owners, often brazenly favoring candidates, parties or ideological stripes. When Television came along, it proved an even more powerful tool given the inherent audio and video capabilities.

One of the first presidential campaigns in which it is acknowledged television was a deciding factor was the John F. Kennedy win over Nixon in 1961. Charisma aside, even makeup and lighting during the televised debate proved to present remarkable differences between the men. Ironically president Kennedy plays a part in this review of The Manchurian Candidate, a classic thriller that hinges on the then nascent Cold War.

Former Korean War prisoner Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) returns home to a hero’s welcome orchestrated by his mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) who stages the event as a photo opportunity for her husband, Senator Iselin (James Gregory) who is running for president. Shaw, despising his manipulative mother and buffoon step-father is being bestowed a congressional Medal of Honor, hailed for reputedly escaping his captors and single handedly saving a number of his battle comrades.

The only problem is that none of what he remembers actually happened. While he and the others have clouded recollections of the official story, they have lingering nightmares of an entirely different scenario. In their dreams they are seated onstage listening to a speech on horticulture delivered to a women’s auxiliary club. But those very memories waver and at times the women are actually Communist henchmen, and even worse, a brainwashed Shaw obediently chokes a fellow serviceman when asked. That dead serviceman is one who supposedly was killed in action.

These conflicting memories have a greater impact on Shaw’s former commanding officer, Maj. Marco (Frank Sinatra) who never got along with the loutish Shaw, and yet when asked what he thinks about him uncontrollably replies in a trancelike state “Raymond Shaw is the bravest, kindest, warmest most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” Marco’s persistence in flagging the authorities that something is wrong finally pays off, but while convinced Shaw has been brainwashed by the enemy, the purpose for his release and supposed mission remain unknown. That is until Marco figures out the psychological trigger, the appearance of the Queen of Hearts in a card deck, which makes Shaw submissive to following instructions.

This is an edge-of-your-seat thriller with remarkable performances by the entire cast, but particularly by Lansbury as the ice-cold calculating pivotal figure. The unloved Shaw whose only redeeming quality is seeing his mother for what she is, has a brief tinge of humanity restored when he falls for the daughter (Leslie Parrish) of his step-father’s political nemesis (John McGiver), but even that interlude falls victim to his mother’s interference. The entire relationship is as interesting as the political intrigue and there are some not so subtle hints of an incestuous relationship. Less enjoyable is a shoehorned in love interest for Sinatra with Janet Leigh that just falls flat.

Front and center of course is the political maneuvering. While some may find the idea of simple brainwashing a bit much, as a plot element it remains effective even if only symbolically. The sequences in which the filming interleaves the old ladies transforming into a communist audience is mesmerizing. If the ending were not good enough after we find out what the endgame Shaw was being driven into, there is an added twist to make it all the better.

There was a longstanding myth that this film was pulled from theatres after JFK’s assasination due to the eerily similar aspects in the film but that has largely been dispelled over the years. What is true is that it was not promoted or marketed for a number of years following the incident and fell into obscurity for a long time until a revival in the late 80’s after which it gained praise and established itself as a classic film.

Richard Condon’s novel on which the film was based or perhaps the film itself seems to have been the inspiration for the episode The Hundred Days of the Dragon from the original Outer Limits television show. Shortly after this release director John Frankenheimer went on to helm 7 days in May which also shares elements of this story.  My MGM special edition DVD also had a nice featurette by fellow director William Friedkin as well as interviews with Frankenheimer, Sinatra and Screenplay writer George Axlerod.

I have to admit that while I have watched this film several times before, I find it all the more chilling in this political climate we find ourselves today. Foreign political interference is hardly even concealed and the effects of having a weak candidate in a position of power is all too evident.

We were warned.

Movie Reviews 436 – Graduation Day (1981)

May 29, 2020

If you were to believe the cover of my DVD (not the poster shown here) then Vanna White, the letter flipping goddess of night time game show Wheel of Fortune, was the star of the film Graduation Day. In actual fact, she barely makes opening credits, being literally the last person listed, which should prepare you for the fact that her role – if you can even call it that – is one of those ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ ones. And true to form, I did miss her while watching, but more because she was so young compared to how she later looked on the show. So right out of the gate, the expected, yet clearly misguided marketing had me wondering what I was in for.

My next surprise was to see that this was a Troma production. While the name of schlockmeister producer-director extraordinaire Lloyd Kaufman was nowhere to be found, the good folks at Troma are the ones who gave us such low brow classics as The Toxic Avenger, Father’s Day and Tales from the Crapper among the dozens of other B-film delights. Now I’m not averse to watching Troma movies, on the contrary, I believe that everyone should indulge in their brand of mindless entertainment on occasion, but I just wasn’t expecting that here.

You don’t have to be a genius to infer from the title that this film is probably about a bunch of school kids that will be ceremoniously killed off, and such turns out to be exactly the case. And for all the other flags encountered in those first few minutes, I must say that I had little hope for the rest, but I trudged on.

The film begins with a group of girls running in some high school race at track meet as they are cheered on by a grandstand of students and coaches. When one girl suddenly falters mid-stride suffering from some medical emergency and then dying right on the spot, she inadvertently sets in motion a serial killer among the student body. Taking a page from the Giallos that preceded it, the film then employs a black gloved killer point of view, stopwatch in hand, for the mounting pile of teen bodies, each death being ceremonially X’ed off from a team photo.

Included in the range of suspects is the runner’s elder sister (Patch Mackenzie), a knockout military officer who comes back home to pick up her graduation award and armed with many questions even before the spree begins. Then there is her stepfather who seems more interested in any insurance proceeds. Is it the overbearing coach (Christopher George) whose drive for athletic supremacy may not only have led to the girl’s death, but also resulted in his firing? And what’s up with the sleazy, lounge lizard, toupee wearing music teacher? The principal with the switchblade collection? The spineless cranky cop? The mystery is spiced up by a string of crude, sometimes laughable, yet still fun, student demises, mostly with some sort of sport or sport equipment involved.

I have to admit that the nostalgia factor for myself was not merely tied into the fact that this was an 80’s slasher, but the entire look and feel of the school and students brought back memories of my own high school (Go JFK!), right down to the green and yellow school colors of the skin tight gym shorts and tees. Throw in retro oversized radio headphones, roller skates, a peach colored suit, and last but not least, scream queen Linnea Quigley and I was sold. While the reveal was far from a surprise (some of the kills give it away) it does end with a nice Psycho-esque ending.

So what is my rating for this movie? I’d like Vanna to reveal the letter B please!