Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fantasmo 6th Anniversary Schlock-O-Thon

As unbelievable as it may seem, this Friday your Team Fantasmo is celebrating 6 years of brining you the best cult cinema has to offer! That's right we've shared 6 years' worth of movies together, and this may be our best anniversary special yet! In addition to the fine feature film pictured above, we will be showing three additional movies. That's right, it's a quadruple-feature evening!! Best of all for our first feature, which will remain a mystery until Friday, we are showing the movie Fantasmo was born to show . . . what we consider to be THE WORST MOVIE EVER! It's new to Fantasmo so you definitely don't want to miss it! Of course there will also be the delightful commentary you've come to know and love over the years, and lot of delectable snacks! Without any further ado here are your full Schlock-O-Thon details:

When: Friday, April 1, 8:00 p.m.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322


#1 - Mystery Feature

#2 - The Green Slime

#3 - Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze

#4 - Troll 2

So there you have it, perhaps our best Schlock-O-Thon lineup yet. Come share in the celebration as we ring in year 7, and see these on the big screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Movie Review: Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975)

With our BIG anniversary show just a couple of weeks away, I thought it would be appropriate to review a movie that maybe . . . just maybe . . . will find its way into the lineup. For years back in the 80’s I saw this movie on the shelf in my local mom n’ pop video store, and for whatever reason time and again I passed it up. The box cover art looked amazing, and this was around the same time Indiana Jones was still big, so it is somewhat of a miracle that I never checked it out. Well for years Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze has been unavailable on video, and now Warner Bros. has released it through their archive program. Before sitting down to watch it I did a little homework, and the film was produced the legendary George Pal (The Time Machine, War of the Worlds). That alone would recommend a viewing, however it was also helmed by Michael Anderson (aka director of Logan’s Run). Has to be quality right? Well let’s just say it’s neither of these gentlemen’s finest hour.

In a nutshell, the Doc Savage character is indeed an Indiana Jones, adventurer/explorer type of character. However he also shares a good deal in common with Batman. He has trained to the limits of human perfection and is a brilliant scientist/inventor (as the cheesy theme music lets you know on several occasions). This superhero quality also extends beyond his physical and mental capabilities. Doc has a loyal bands of sidekicks, each with their own special abilities, as well as a “fortress of solitude” in the far north, and a penthouse that includes a variety of vehicles (including a helicopter that launches out of a giant eagle’s head). Better still his official logo appears on all of his vehicles, clothing, and accessories. The logo looks just like the lettering in the poster, and you almost expect to see a little tradmark insignia on his various pieces of property. I have to admit, being a comic book fan, I’m a sucker for this sort of thing. Had Doc Savage taken off I’m sure I would have owned all of the toys!

The film opens with an attempt on Doc’s life, as a Native American marksman takes a shot with a sniper rifle. No problem though because the windows in Doc’s penthouse are all designed to refract the interior such that everything appears 3-inches off from where they actually are. Doc and his gang give chase only to find that the whole thing was a distraction. While they were out a secret map sent to Doc from his murdered father gave details of a hidden jungle oasis with a lake of gold. Undeterred Doc and company head to the far reaches of Hidalgo, where they encounter the villainous Captain Seas. Seas has teamed up with some locals of Mayan ancestry in order to gain access to the gold. Doc sets out to defeat Seas who, with the help of the Mayans, has harnessed the power of The Green Death (cheesy animated snakes) to do his bidding.

There are worse superhero movies than Doc Savage, let’s get that out of the way first. Captain America (1990), Batman & Robin, Superman IV, The Fantastic Four (any incarnation), Steel, etc., come immediately to mind as examples. Those barely manage to be watchable, whereas Doc Savage is non-stop fun from the word go. The problem with Doc Savage is that it doesn’t live up to what it could be. It has all the ingredients necessary to fire on all cylinders including a wealth of source material, a great producer and director, and a cast who appears fully game for the proceedings. Honestly this should be a perfect hybrid of Raiders and Batman, yet the ball is dropped so completely it boggles the mind. Instead of high adventure we receive high camp that makes Adam West’s Batman seem like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight by comparison.

First off let’s talk about that cast. Ron Ely (TV’s Tarzan) cuts a dashing figure as Doc. On a visual level he is just about as perfect as one could hope. He’s a little wooden in the acting department, but honestly his performance worked for me. Just the right combination of overconfidence and machismo. His band of sidekicks were also well-played, with the most recognizable being Paul Gleason (The Breakfast Club, Die Hard) as Long Tom. Each has their own distinct personality and skill set which are highlighted on various occasions. My personal favorite was the brick character of Monk, who has a piglet companion named Habeas Corpus. Yep. Paul Wexler plays like a Christopher Lee substitute, but he is adequate as the villain. Making more of an impression is Pamela Hensley (Buck Rogers) in her screen debut as Doc’s leading lady. Everyone seems to be having a great time with the material . . . and that’s just the problem. It’s like the cast was told to set the volume to 11, and as a result the performances give new meaning to the word goofy. Yes this quality does make the film enjoyable to watch, but it destroys any chances of Doc Savage being a decent superhero movie.

The performances are perhaps the least of the problems derailing Doc Savage though. Coming from George Pal you would expect this to look very cool and colorful. Guess again. Crude matte paintings, cheap special effects and sets, and bland 70’s era costumes are the order of the day. The opening action sequence really sets the tone for the film, as the matte painting of Doc’s penthouse is nothing short of subpar. I am a huge fan of matte paintings in classic films. Sure they are fake looking, but they can be absolutely beautiful. This is a movie that screams for a high level of artistry. Unfortunately what’s on display is lackluster. The special effects are just as bad if not worse, with the highlight being The Green Death attacks. I understand animation was necessary given the limitations of the time, but the animation here is not good even for the period. They should have brought in Disney talent for something like this. Every time we’re treated to a Green Death sequence, what should be terrifying is instead laughable. Finally the sets look like a few steps above an Ed Wood production, with the most disappointing being the lake of gold. I kept thinking they must be saving the best for last, but it was easily the worst of the film.

There’s another element that cannot go unmentioned, and that is the unfortunate choice of music. The score is an adaptation of John Philip Sousa, theoretically designed to emphasize the patriotic aspects of Doc’s character. Sousa’s music is even given lyrics which are all completely ridiculous and over-the-top. Whenever the music kicks in the silliness of the film is ratcheted up to even higher levels, and it actually manages to detract from sequences that might otherwise be moderately exciting. In a way this would be a great soundtrack to own due to the silly songs championing Doc’s abilities, but I can’t imagine this is what the filmmakers intended. I could find no references to a soundtrack CD ever being released, but my guess is that it would do well among cult movie aficionados!

From my comments you might think that I don’t care much for Doc Savage, but the truth is that I found its many shortcomings endearing. Much like a Gymkata or a Mighty Peking Man it is so wildly ridiculous that it never ceases to be entertaining, qulalifying it as a perfect example of a good bad movie. Any disappointment stems from the fact that the character could be adapted in a way that would lead to a great superhero film, and it’s a shame that this initial outing derailed that possibility. Apparently a reboot was planned in the late 90's starring Schwarzenegger and to be directed by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Walking Dead), but once the former entered politics those plans were off the table. Perhaps the saddest repercussion of the film was that it effectively ended Pal’s career. I’ve recently been reading a book of non-fiction articles by Harlan Ellison, and in one he mentions how Pal spent the last years of his life desperately trying to get another project off the ground. Thanks to Doc Savage, and the perception that Pal was out of step, this never happened. Questionable stylistic choices in Doc Savage aside, it’s a shame that Pal wasn’t given a chance to give us one more final epic, as clearly he was a talented fellow.

One final bit worthy of mentioning is that a franchise was in the works for Doc Savage. At the end of the film we are told that Doc will return in Doc Savage: The Arch Enemy of Evil. This reminded me a great deal of Buckaroo Banzai Vs. The World Crime League. Actually Doc shares much in common with Buckaroo, although the latter is more successful across the board in my opinion. Interestingly details on the always reliable Internet suggest that a fair amount of the sequel was filmed simultaneously with The Man of Bronze (foreshadowing Superman 1 & 2). Because the first outing bombed so badly it was never completed and released. Boy would that footage have made a great extra on the DVD (assuming it still exists in a vault somewhere)! After the success of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, I want to know where is the Internet campaign for Michael Anderson to complete his original vision?!?

Be sure to join us at Fantasmo for our anniversary show on April 1st, and you may just get your chance to see Doc Savage on the big screen . . . the way it was meant to be seen!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Movie Review: MacKenna's Gold (1969)

I found myself down with the flu this week, and as a result ended up watching a fair number of movies while incapacitated. On a completely random whim I engaged in a mini-marathon of Gregory Peck movies, which included a fair number of Westerns. I’ve always thought Peck was one of the coolest actors of his generation, with standout films like Spellbound, Twelve O’ Clock High, Moby Dick, and of course To Kill A Mockingbird to his credit. He was also was no stranger to the Western genre, and I highly recommend you check out The Bravados, Yellow Sky, and Duel in the Sun to name but a few. While those are all great, MacKenna’s Gold absolutely knocked my socks off this week. I had never even heard of it, and came across it midway through my marathon. I don’t write about Westerns on the blog much because, outside of the spaghetti variety, they don’t often enter the cult film category. Without question this one qualifies with flying colors.

The first thing that caught my eye, ultimately leading me to check the film out, was the all-star cast. The film features Eli Wallach, Edward G. Robinson, Keenan Wynn, Burgess Meredith, Julie Newmar, and Telly Savalas among others. The two leads are Peck and Omar Sharif. Back in the day studios would cram pack event movies with a list of stars like this as a means of drawing folks into the theaters and away from their televisions. You still see this sort of thing employed today (e.g. Rob Zombie), but too often it literally amounts to empty cameos. In the older films each star was given their moment to shine, justifying their presence beyond simply padding the cast list. Regardless of time period I’m a sucker for big star casts, so I immediately gravitated toward the film once I noticed the roster.

Beyond the sheer volume of star power, I found the pairing of Peck and Sharif intriguing. Both gentlemen have very distinct onscreen personas, and I was curious to see what kind of chemistry they would have with each other. I think Sharif came off as more interesting because the villain is generally more fun to watch, but it was interesting to see the two actors play off of each other. The actor that was the coolest surprise of all was none other than Ted Cassidy (Lurch of The Addams Family). He played a menacing Apache member of Sharif’s gang, and was prominently featured. Much like his signature role he maintained quite a presence, but he was allowed to stretch a little here. Too often TV stars like Cassidy, familiar for one role, never get an opportunity to venture out. When they have that moment, and they shine, it’s worth checking out (e.g. Leonard Nimoy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

So the cast drew me in, but little did I know just how unusual the film would turn out to be. The first thing that hits you is the score, which was composed by Quincy Jones. Not surprisingly it’s very catchy, and features songs performed by none other than Jose Feliciano. In a number of 60’s Westerns, there was an effort to make them more contemporary. The era of John Wayne was winding down, and folks were seeking something new. Non-traditional music was one way of accomplishing this goal, but unfortunately it trended toward the psychedelic end of the spectrum. For me this usually translates to kitschy fun at best, and an intolerable mess more often. Credit the talent of Quincy Jones, as he manages to meld the desired modernity with a rousing Western theme, resulting in a truly fun score. As for Jose Feliciano, well you’re either going to like that or not. If you let yourself get into the movie it’s probably going to work for you, I found it grew on me by the end.

Having satisfied the cool music requirement, the next point of interest is the plot. Unfortunately that isn’t anything too special. Peck plays noble Marshall MacKenna who learns the location of a valley filled with gold from a dying Apache. Unfortunately he runs across Mexican Bandit Colorado (Sharif) and his gang, who force him to lead them to the legendary treasure. Along the way the all-star cast arrives in the form of rival treasure hunters and pursuing cavalry. That’s about the size of it. Where things get interesting is the execution. The film is directed by J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, etc.), a fellow who knew how to push the envelope for better or worse. Here he is at the height of his powers and clout, and appears determined to make one of the most over-the-top Western movies ever committed to film. The setup of Peck learning about the treasure, and the introduction of Sharif’s gang moves a little slowly, but once they collide the rollercoaster never stops.

One thing is certain, this film is clearly designed for a big screen experience. Having already mentioned the all-star cast and the cool pop music, another element aimed at luring the television audience to the cinema was the enormous spectacle promised. The film was shot in 35mm with certain segments shot in Super Panavision 70. As a result specific sequences would be projected in a larger format. A modern equivalent would be The Dark Knight, for which certain sequences feature full 70mm IMAX projection. You can easily identify these while watching MacKenna’s Gold, as they have a “you are there” type of quality. For example there’s a scene where Peck is being dragged behind a horse and it puts the viewer in his place. It’s very cool and likely wowed audiences back then (and probably still would if projected correctly). The film also featured a 70mm six-track sound recording, meaning it included the capability of blowing you out of the auditorium in a DTS/THX type of fashion.

The spectacle doesn’t stop there however. MacKenna’s Gold is loaded with special effects. Every once in a while you might run across an old Western with some sort of visual processing (e.g. blue screen backgrounds), but this is on the order of an Indiana Jones film. In fact there’s a climactic chase up the side of sheer cliffs which appears to have been virtually lifted by Spielberg for Temple of Doom. Speaking of Temple of Doom, another sequence worth mentioning is when Sharif and company are crossing a dangerous rope bridge across a canyon. Not only is it one of those Super Panavision 70 sequences, but it is shot with a hyperactive quality that is unquestionably later used by Sam Raimi in his Evil Dead series. Whenever Raimi has the evil spirits launch an all-out assault on the cabin in his films, it looks very much like the style in this sequence.

The number of these sequences was perhaps the most surprising aspect of this film. It reminded me of an 80’s film for that reason, and obviously had an influence on filmmakers of that era. In the 80’s special effects were the order of the day, but they were still being refined to the level of sterile perfection they now (sadly) enjoy. Because it was an evolving process there was a wild energy and enthusiasm behind them . . . as well as a desire to throw everything possible on the screen. MacKenna’s Gold has that same unhinged glee about throwing an effects sequence in wherever possible. Oh they aren’t all successful, not by a long shot, but they’re still a wonder to behold.

One final sequence bears mentioning, that sent the whole film over the edge. Going into the film I figured it was probably one of your classic epic movies, which was geared toward a general audience (meaning appropriate for all ages more or less). Granted from what I’ve said already, the film is over-the-top in many ways. Even so these elements, while certainly wild in character, are not jaw-droppingly crazy. So about three quarters into the movie Gregory Peck has a naked underwater wrestling match with femme fatale Julie Newmar. I wasn’t sure if my flu symptoms were causing hallucinations at that point, or if it was actually happening. In looking at the poster later, it sure enough turned out that the film was rated “M” for mature audiences only. There are certain things one expects when entering a Gregory Peck film, but naked underwater wrestling is not usually one of them. Bizarre.

So there you have it, a 60’s Western that plays like an 80’s film in a lot of ways. Great music, cool cast, ridiculous special effects, and way out of left field underwater wrestling. Stagecoach this is not, but it’s still undeniably entertaining.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Williamsburg Film Festival

It's time once again for the annual Williamsburg Film Festival, celebrating classic Hollywood films. If you've been around Fantasmo for a while you'll know Rob and I have a soft spot for this event, as several of its guests over the years have participated in Fantasmo episodes (including Friday the 13th star Betsy Palmer and Empire of the Ants heroine Jaqueline Scott). This year they have a great lineup of guests coming in for the event, and of course film screenings and panel discussions. You'll also likely see your Team Fantasmo roaming about, so of course that's an added draw of major proportions : ) Last year we actually held a Fantasmo screening of House of Wax at the festival with leading man Paul Picerni in attendance. It was a lot of fun hearing stories about stars of that era (including Charles Bronson and Vincent Price), and that's always one of the highlights of the festival.

If you can make it the big show is next week, running from March 9-12 at the Holiday Inn Patriot Convention Center. Hope to see you there!