Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Video Cheese: BLACK ANGELS (1970)

Note: Here's another mini-review prepared for www.jabootu.net's Video Cheese feature. It has been published here with the kind permission of Mr. Ken Begg.

BLACK ANGLES (1970 - color)
    "A race war on wheels!"

   First, let me note how impressed I was with this video tape. The transfer was simply gorgeous and the print was in fantastic shape for such an obscure title as this. 

   That's one thing I really like about 80s video cassettes, the source prints for movies like this tend to look much better because the prints were much younger than they are now (and age has had time to rough up these things in the meanwhile). At the time, you could still dig up some really nice prints of some really obscure junk. Upon seeing how sharp this print was, I automatically granted the film some points of favor. It would have to be pretty bad for me not to have a little affection for it after seeing such a nice picture. I would like to acquire more tapes from Trend Video and see how they stack up.

   This makes the fifth biker flick I'd seen at the time of writing this review. I really enjoyed two of them (The Hellcats, The Born Losers), and felt really let down by two others (Cycle Savages, The Wild Angels)*. Where does that leave Black Angels? Smack in the middle, really. It had some good elements and some bad elements. 

[* I've since seen a few other films in the genre. Most have been pretty bland, but the occasional gem like THE WILD REBELS has also come my way.]

   Like the worst of biker flicks, there was much meandering and seemingly endless filler material. Like the best of biker flicks, this one had a plot. Sort of. It doesn't demand a lot of space to review for that very reason.

   The title refers not to a gang of black bikers, the Choppers, nor their white counterparts, Satan's Serpents. The Black Angels are actually the highway patrolmen who observe the doings of the gangs from a distance. One cop in particular has a plan to end the reign of lawless terror these gangs engage in, and he's planting the notion that the two gangs are headed for a race war. The bait set, he sits back and waits for both gangs to destroy one another.  That's actually a pretty neat plot for one of these pictures.

   Don't get the wrong impression, though, the main action all takes place within the last five minutes or so, it still takes 80 largely non-eventful minutes to reach the climax.

   Mostly, we watch the misadventures of Chainer, leader of the Satan's Serpents. Playing Chainer, our star Des Roberts never really did anything else a lot of people have seen. He acted in something called The Demons, a witchcraft movie so obscure the IMDB doesn't have a year for it (though it seems to be on DVD...somewhere), then a homosexual hardcore flick called Dracula and the Boys! Then our current subject, and finally another Dracula movie. He plays the king of the undead himself in Guess What Happened to Count Dracula, and even worked on that film's soundtrack. I've not seen Guess What Happened to Count Dracula, but I do know Something Weird Video sells one their impressive double feature DVDs featuring the film. Other cast members here also turn up in the Dracula movie.

   Roberts has that whole Peter Fonda thing down here, so that would seem to be why they cast him. He commands unquestioning respect and loyalty from his men, and his women. He's a jerk, but as the Leader you're forced to give him a little credit and respect, like some kind of (survival?) instinct.

   Chainer's gang hangs out in a ghost town, and have a chained mountain lion in a barn! Why? We never really know why they have it. Maybe it wandered in by accident one day and they trapped it, thinking it a fun conversation piece?

   Our actual plot revolves around Johnny Reb, a southern biker who wanders into town and hides from the fuzz in Chainer's ghost town. He's played by another unknown who also appeared in Guess What Happened to Count Dracula. Reb joins the Serpents, then starts spouting racist slurs when the gang stops off at a beer bar and are served by a black waitress. (He's from the south, you know, so obviously he's a racist. Such was the mandate of 70's exploitation movies.) 

   Chainer sets him straight, their beef with the Choppers is over turf, not color. "This country," Chainer sighs the film's best line, "its getting so you can't have a decent fight with a black man without somebody making it out to be about race."

   Reb later picks up some "uppers" from a car in a dark parking lot, despite his claiming to be new in town he has not only found a supplier, but one who doesn't take money! Unfortunately, by the time Chainer figures this out, he and his gang have already taken Reb's little gift. They're downers, and everyone is now vulnerable. 

   Reb goes outside and rips off his confederate cap before signalling to the Choppers who are waiting on the hillside. He slips into a Choppers jacket. Questioned, Reb laughs "I'm black!" There's a line after this that may clear things up a bit, but I couldn't catch it due to the roaring motorcycles. (Is he supposed to be a light-skinned black man? An honorary Chopper, allowed to hang out with the cool kids after helping them destroy their enemies? Has he been dyed white?)

    Although doped, Chainer and his men put up enough of a fight to kill everyone in both gangs. Then there's the now escaped mountain lion, who rushes out to chew one guy to death before moving on to another victim! Chainer and his opponent end up falling into a snake-pit! 

   The Black Angels pull up to observe their handiwork, then drive off knowing a threat to the community has been neutralized. Over the images of various white and black guys dead at each other's hands, we get a song about peace. How ironic, or tragic, or arty, or something. I don't know about you, but it makes me want to hug somebody.

   Again, not gang-buster stuff, but mildly better than one usually expects from a biker flick. Although cheap, the film is technically well mounted. There are some familiar backdrops here, as one might expect from any California-filmed cheapie of the period. Amazingly, they avoid using Bronson Canyon entirely!  

   All this was directed by Laurence Merrick, who also helmed the aforementioned Des Roberts movies. The obscure beyond obscure The Demon, the hopefully lost Dracula and the Boys, this, and Guess What Happened to Count Dracula. His only other work is a 1973 documentary Manson, about the infamous cult-leader/killer. The Database notes that he was shot and killed in 1977, by a deranged stalker, lending a darkly ironic touch to his body of film-work involving killers, psychos, and vampires.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Reflecting on Gammera/Gamera

Gammera, he's invincible!

   Japanese monster movies really took off in the mid 60's. In particular, the years of 1966 and 1967 saw just about every Japanese movie studio (with the size to attempt it) release at least one giant monster movie following the success Toho studios was having with the Godzilla movies. The only studio to really make a go at a continuing series was Daiei, who in 1965 kicked off a series of films built around a monstrous prehistoric turtle. The first film, shot in spooky black and white, was imported a year later and released in the States as GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE.

   The film detailed the efforts of mankind to destroy a prehistoric monster unleashed by an un-planned atomic blast at the North Pole. Gammera wasn't just any ordinary giant prehistoric reptile that could spit fire, however! Gammera actually thrived on flames and heat, and grew stronger as the military attempted to kill him! Moreover, through a means I've never been able to figure out, he could also fly! By pulling in his limbs and spinning, Gammera was somehow able to take flight! What's more, he was so massive and powerful that he caused disruptions in the weather and tides!

   GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE was a box office success on both sides of the Pacific. The American cut was actually superior, given a nice political flavor in the addition of new footage featuring American stars like Brian Donlevy and Albert Dekker. Happily, the new footage also provided a rare meaty role for character actor Dick O'Neill fairly early in his career.

   Gammera was practically indestructible on Earth, so the only solution was to get him off the planet. Gammera was trapped inside the nose-cone of a massive rocket and shot into outer space! Oddly, he wasn't the only monster to be ejected rather than outright killed, as 1967's THE X FROM OUTER SPACE ends much the same way (however, that film didn't require construction of an outlandishly huge missile to accomplish this task).

   In Japan, Gammera was pressed into service for a second film. State-side, American International Pictures began scooping up Japanese monster movies for it's television division, knowing any color giant rubber monster epic was a guaranteed ratings-grabber. beginning in 1968, this included the Gammera movies, and the American studio even helped finance the pictures and suggested ways to keep the films profitable in the all-important American market.

   AIP's dubbing changed Gammera's name to Gamera (the pronunciation changing from Gam-rah to Ga-meer-ah), and began their slate of films with 1966's WAR OF THE MONSTERS. In this entry, which remains the most adult and moody of the lot, explorers go searching for a rare jewel which turns out to be the egg of a monster that is quickly running around loose in Japan. Meanwhile, Gamera has been freed from his rocket prison when a meteor collides with it. Gamera heads right back to Japan to bust up a dam before flying off to find ever greater sources of heat.

   While Gamera no longer causes environmental devastation by his very presence on Earth, he's still a monster here. With the newly hatched Barugon on the loose, however, Gamera is the lesser evil. Fortunately, he also proves the stronger, and after a couple of rounds, ends Barugon's terror and sets off to find another active volcano somewhere.

   WAR OF THE MONSTERS was a high mark for the series, but it was noticed the mostly-child audience wasn't being entertained by all the adult-oriented drama. The series pressed into a third chapter, and the focus was on action and adventure rather than human drama. To this day, THE RETURN OF THE GIANT MONSTERS remains heralded as the finest entry in the saga, and one of the best of all Japanese monster movies.

   This time around, an active volcano attracts Gamera back to Japan while also unleashing the literally blood-thirsty monster Gaos from a subterranean lair. Gamera fights off Gaos, and firmly establishes himself to be a hero. 

   The development here is interesting, as the course of the three films shows Gamera becoming more and more attuned to humanity (in the AIP dub, he even understands English!). While this is never actually stated, it seems Gamera is highly empathic to human thought waves, and becomes less and less alienated from the human race (in particular, he gets along with children extremely well). This tendency would grow stronger and stronger as the series progressed.

   Of note, with this entry Gamera gets a peppy theme song.

   Up till now, the Gamera movies were pretty sedate, comparing favorably to the Toho adventures being made at the same time. As kids were the main audience for such films, though, 1968 saw the series take a severe turn into the goofy. From here on out, kids would be the focus of the series, which became increasingly akin to Saturday morning programming. At AIP's suggestion, the next few films would also feature American kids in addition to Japanese ones.

   DESTROY ALL PLANETS saw Gamera at odds with would-be invaders who sought to conquer Earth. To facilitate this, the creatures of planet Viras take two boy scouts hostage and hold them ransom for the rest of the world. Since the UN is in charge of negotiations, Earth quickly surrenders. Fortunately, Gamera is on hand to actually fight back, although he briefly falls under alien mind-control. In the last act, the Virans combine into a giant squid-type critter which inflicts upon Gamera damage that would normally kill even a giant Japanese monster!

Behind the scenes

   Gamera next took flight in ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS. Without doubt, this was the wildest entry of the entire series, concerning as it does Gamera's flight to a planet on the other side of the sun to save two small boys from being eaten by space women! What's more, Gamera meets his most infamous enemy, fighting off a knife-faced monster called Guiron! Weirdly, this is the film that would probably see the most American airtime thanks to AIP-TV.

   With the dawning of the 70's, Gamera got a little of his dignity back, when GAMERA VS MONSTER X got a slightly larger budget and a plot that echoed his earlier adventures. This time around, scientists unwittingly release a prehistoric monster when they remove an ancient totem pole from a tropical island. Turns out the statue kept in check the hideous Jiger, and now the monster is loose and heading for Expo 70! 

   Although it has it's cartoonish moments, GAMERA VS MONSTER X is a step back up for our hero. Sadly, this situation would be rather quickly reversed....

   GAMERA VS MONSTER X would be the last Gamera movie AIP-TV would release. GAMERA VS ZIGRA was made while Daiei was going bankrupt, and the film being finished at all is a bit of an achievement. It's also really goofy.

   In an extremely convoluted plot, a lounge singer/actress/something visiting the moon is zapped aboard an invading spaceship and brainwashed into aiding the Zigrans in their plans to subjugate all land-dwelling life forms into becoming food for the aquatic aliens. When some scientists and their children are zapped aboard the same ship, the kids manage to escape. Zigra demands the children be tracked down and killed for fear they have overheard the plans of the aliens, right after broadcasting their plans to the world via television. Fortunately, Gamera shows up and destroys the alien ship. Unfortunately, it's alien pilot grows to the same size as Gamera and defeats our hero in battle.

   Not to blow the ending or anything, but Gamera eventually returns and takes care of business, saving Earth once again. He couldn't save his studio, however, so although plans were made for another episode, it all ended right here.

   Daiei eventually scrapped together enough capital to re-open it's doors, and it was felt a way to raise some quick cash might be with another Gamera movie. How do you make a giant monster movie with no budget? You film some silly superhero movie and pepper it with stock footage from all the previous Gamera movies! 

   The result was SUPER MONSTER in 1980. Although mostly a collection of earlier battle scenes re-written to be Gamera struggling against an alien invader's army of mutations, a few new inserts of a flying Gamera model were employed. The bulk of the plot dealt with a small boy and his relationship to three women who turn out to be superheroes from a distant galaxy at war with an oppressive despot known as Zanon.

   The girls transform into their super-duds by doing an elaborate dance routine. Unfortunately, they can be tracked whenever in their super-forms, so a lot of time is wasted showing them go super, get shot at from space, and then go back to their civilian identities via another dance number. The film is repetitious in the extreme, and listless as well. Of particular detraction is Gamera's boring new theme music. SUPER MONSTER bombed. I believe the studio slid back into bankruptcy.

   While the AIP-TV prints of the Gamera movies were still turning up on UHF stations across the Americas, they would eventually fade from view by the end of the 80's. Along comes prolific producer Sandy Frank, who's looking to cash in on the video craze. As did K. Gordon Murray before him, Frank purchases a large number of foreign movies and TV shows and recuts them for consumption by American kids. Who among us, of a certain age, will ever forget the heyday of Celebrity Video's Just For Kids line, which included such fare as TIME OF THE APES, FUGITIVE ALIEN, and the anything but kid-friendly THE "LEGEND OF DINOSAURS" in all their VHS glory? The line also served as a re-introduction to Gamera the flying turtle to American audiences.

   Frank got a number, though not all, of the Gamera films and re-packaged them with new credit sequences. In most cases, he also found the original International dubs for the films he acquired (creating new dubs for the couple that didn't have such dubs available). Marketing Gamera as a hero for the video tots, the films entertained a new generation, and was again a popular electronic babysitter. (Also of note is that the pronunciation of Gamera's name returned to Gam-rah during this period.)

   Frank's line consisted of GAMERA (a straight dub of the film previously re-worked into GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE), GAMERA VS BARUGON (the International dub of WAR OF THE MONSTERS), GAMERA VS GAOS (ditto for THE RETURN OF THE GIANT MONSTERS), GAMERA VS GUIRON (a new dub on ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS), and for the first time in the States, GAMERA VS ZIGRA.

   A few years later, a number of films in the Sandy Frank video library, including all of his Gamera releases, became the subjects of Mystery Science Theater 3000, where Gamera was introduced to a whole new new audience. It's well argued that Gamera's major fame in the new Century is the result of his adventures being watched and commented upon by Joel and the Bots. With this, Gamera went from Godzilla knock-off to pop culture icon in the United States. As well, the MST lyrics for the Gamera theme song have become just as popular.

ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS as GAMERA VS GUIRON on Mystery Science Theater 3000

   As Gamera was being re-invented by Mystery Science Theater 3000, he was also being re-invented by the Japanese. As Daiei managed to recover itself by the 1990's, plans began to surface of a revived Gamera series. Godzilla had been regularly brought back to screens in the same decade, and it seemed only natural other studios might try to cash-in.

   At first, it was thought Daiei should make a cheap, kid-friendly little monster movie that could be released to matinee audiences. Then, something happened. It was decided any studio could be lazy (and indeed that word sums up the 90's Godzilla series perfectly), so the new Gamera film would try. It would try very hard. The result is one of the finest displays of special effects ever seen anywhere in the world. 1995 signalled a crowning achievement, the release of GAMERA, GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE.

   This film re-cast Gamera as a man-made device. An ancient civilization had built Gamera to destroy ravenous flying creatures called Gyaos. When Gyaos suddenly reawaken in the 1990's, so does Gamera....

   GAMERA, GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE was a smash hit. Daiei quickly re-trenched and put even more effort into 1996's GAMERA 2: THE ADVENT OF LEGION, which had some people proclaiming it to be the single finest Japanese monster movie ever made. Gamera had finally made it.

   In GAMERA 2, our hero is nearly defeated by a virus-like monster which feeds on silicon, and can break down into thousands of smaller creatures. The same year's Godzilla film had a much similar plot, but it was easily outclassed by the Gamera movie. 

   Although the film relies a bit too much on digital effects, the practical stuff is even more impressive than that seen in the previous film. The film was hailed as a landmark in the genre, and raised hopes for the genre's revival. Although the explosion of the 60's was never duplicated, it was around this period that Japanese and other Asian producers began to play around with the genre again. 

   For whatever reason, though, Gamera would sit out the next three years...

   It wasn't until 1999 that fans finally got the promised third entry, GAMERA 3, THE REVENGE OF IRIS. The resulting film was much darker than the previous films in the cycle, which has some fans split on it's merits.

   In the story, Gamera is losing his touch with humanity (which was much more straitly explained in this series) as environmental chaos is releasing Gyaos in frightening numbers. Meanwhile, a young girl (who hates Gamera because her parents were killed when he first hit town) discovers a mysterious egg in a forbidden cave. The creature which hatches out of the egg develops a symbiotic relationship with the girl as it goes about draining the life of anyone hapless enough to run across it. 

   Some extremely gruesome death scenes are among the film's items of contention for fans. Some think it goes too far, some think the new direction works in the film's favor. Either way, GAMERA 3 ended the new series. A fan-made GAMERA 4 featurette tries to wrap all the loose ends together, but few people have seen it.

   If I recall correctly, the new century saw Daiei absorbed by another studio. Either way, Gamera would have one last day in the sun when 2006 saw GAMERA THE BRAVE make the rounds. This one was a return to the kid-oriented plots of the 60's and 70's, while retaining the masterful effects of the 90's films. 

   The film in question revolves around a young child dealing with the loss of his mother, who comes into possession of a baby Gamera. The timing is fortuitous, as the baby grows to large proportions just as a hideous aquatic dinosaur suddenly appears.

   The new century also saw the original Gamera movies finally make the scene in wide-screen. A simply smashing VHS release finally unearthed a beautiful scope transfer of GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE. For those with more of a taste for foreign language cinema, the same company (ADV Films? Sadly, I can't remember for sure) also released a subtitled and scope tape of the original Japanese cut under the title GIANT MONSTER GAMERA.

   With the coming of DVD, multiple packages of public domain monster movies have included the once-forgotten AIP-TV prints of many of the 60's films. Meanwhile, a company called Shout! Factory has tried to import the original slate of films in all their widescreen glory via a series of disks which retain the uninspired original Japanese titles (or rather, simplifications of such). 

   The Shout! Factory disks for GAMERA and GAMERA VS BARUGON were pretty, but sadly lacked any of the English dubs. This was rectified with the subsequent double feature disks rounding out the series, which provided not only the AIP dubs, but the Sandy Frank dubs as well! 

   Should that not be enough, Shout! Factory also released a special metal-box collection of the five Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes featuring the Gamera movies.

   Will we see more of the flying turtle in the future? If Godzilla has taught us anything, it's that if we wait long enough we'll probably hear Gamera roar again....

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Oddball Film Report/Video Cheese: THE PUMAMAN (1980)

NOTE: This piece, originally written for www.jabootu.net, has been published here through the kind permission of Mr. Ken Begg.
WARNING: extremely misleading poster art

THE PUMAMAN (1980 - color)

    "Donald Pleasence tries to take over the world again. This week he's stopped by Aztec superhero Pumaman"

   Life's a rich tapestrey, isn't it? One night, you're sitting down to enjoy a classic like HELLFIGHTERS, the next night you run something like THE PUMAMAN. What a world, huh?

   THE PUMAMAN was one of seemingly hundreds of lame superhero movies made to cash in on the spectacular box office success of the SUPERMAN movie and its sequel. Oddly, I haven't seen a large number of these films. I know Pumaman isn't the lamest of these super-types, but he sure makes a strong try for the crown.

   For starters, what a weird concept. Martians arrive on earth 3,000 years ago calling themselves "gods" and depositing a huge golden mask on our planet. The head god/alien appoints his son the custodian of the mask, and the care of the mask will pass from son to son through the generations. 

   The people who live with the mask in the Andes mountains have super power and intuition, and worship the alien gods, even being granted miracles such as the healing of physical wounds. The mask itself contains circuitry like a modern computer board, yet has supernatural powers, among them controlling men's minds by creating a plaster duplicate of their heads (?). So it's a science fiction set-up, but one using language of the supernatural. In the right hands, that could work, but here it's just confusing.

   Our current Pumaman is the Robby Douglas-y (but not quite that macho) Tony Farms, an American professor of palaeontology at the London Museum of Natural History. (Got that? Italian movie, British setting, American hero.) 

   One day, a Ted Cassidy-like Aztec, Vadinjho, shows up to let Tony know that he's The Pumaman, and insists that he wear a goofy-looking belt that will reveal his powers. Tony already has a power or two, like being immune to beatings, seeing in the dark, and getting dizzy or nauseous whenever he senses danger (this is a superpower?).

   Tony has just met the girl of his dreams, the slinky Jane Dobson who lives at the Dutch embassy in London (Jane is played by model, Playmate, and occasional actress Sydne Rome). But Jane is really the mind-controlled slave of Kobras. Kobras has the mask and plans to rule the world, but must first kill the Pumaman that poses his only threat. And really, that's all we ever learn about the guy. He's played by Donald Pleasence and he's evil, no further backstory needed, right?

   Well, needless to say, Vadinjho eventually forces Tony to don his Puma-belt and we're off and running. (Pumaman's superhero costume, by the way, consists of tan slacks, a dark sweater with a cartoon of the mask on his chest, the belt worn over the lower part of his sweater, and a drab poncho that opens up into his red-lined cape-let. He looks cheap even by the standards of a Saturday morning superhero show made by a tiny UHF station in the early 70's. And what does any of this stuff have to do with Pumas, anyway?) Vadinjho teaches Tony the ways of the Pumaman (which is generational, just like The Phantom), and the Pumaman sets out to prevent Kobras from using the Aztec mask to take over the world.

   There are plenty of faults on hand, but two gigantic flaws really loom over this film's production.

   One is the laughably bad rear-screen projection used to portray Tony in flight. His actions never seem to match the bobbing and weaving of the background plate, which itself fails to match the photography of the rest of the movie, often appearing more than extra grainy. These scenes never fail to provoke uncontrolled laughter, and make one notice just how expertly this kind of thing was done back when George Reeves played Superman. (Or for that matter, how skilfully this kind of thing was done on Shazam!) How such awful effects are possible in 1980 remains another mystery right up there with Judge Crater and Amelia Earhardt!

   The other item, no less laughable, is the music. While a superhero film of this vintage avoiding a score made to sound like John Williams' music for SUPERMAN is a noble and rare event, the music used hardly suggests action packed excitement. All the music used here sounds like it was recorded for a Public Service Announcement in 1984. (In fact, it sounds almost identical to the music playing in the gag Legal Will Kit commercial in an episode of Corner Gas!)

   You'll be rubbing the tears from your eyes when you see the many action scenes set to the Pumaman's main theme, which sounds like the sort of cheap but aggressively cheerful music you'd hear in a pitch for time-shares in sunny south Florida!

   The rest of the effects are a mixed lot. There's a model helicopter in the climax that looks like it was lifted from a Japanese monster movie (and the odds are good that it was, in fact, lifted from another movie entirely).

  The effects of the mask being used are portrayed by the economical, yet effective effect of filming the action in a mirror being shook or poked from behind (and the effect is headache-triggering, so it really sells the whole mind control bit). 

   Tony rips a car apart at one point, which looks okay, if not perfect. Vadinjho holds a speeding car in place in a scene, and that effect is handled pretty well.

   Pumaman can travel across dimensional space too, and he does this by walking through walls, an effect about as listless as you can imagine with Tony simply walking outside the matte plate. In the void, everything is solarized, like a negative on a color picture, and Pumaman is superimposed over this footage with about the same level of skill used to show him fly over anything else. 

   When not using process shots, Pumaman flies via the traditional hold-the-actor-out-on-a-platform-in-front-of-the-camera-and-don't-show-his-legs trick, which remains more effective here than the effects shots.

   Tony's ability to see in the dark is portrayed by shooting everything through a red filter. On the other hand, the establishing shots for this power, with the camera zooming in on Tony's eyes (while wearing green contacts and the illusion filled in with sound effects) are nicely effective.

  The alien spacecraft, a giant sphere with sections of alternate color that rotate in opposite directions, is pretty good (too good for this movie actually).

   In the end, its Donald Pleasence that stands out, by not standing out. This has to be his least effective role, as he is instructed to yet again to just do his Blofeld routine. Usually a magnetic performer, here he just comes across as bored, probably just happy to have a paycheck he can cash. He tries to inject some energy into the moments when Kobras is squaring off with Pumaman, but he remains largely flat throughout. Not that he's bad or anything, he's Donald Pleasence, after all. No doubt much of the trouble is how he was directed. Still, THE GREAT ESCAPE seems such a long time ago. I'm happy that enjoyed playing Dr. Loomis in the HALLOWEEN series, because there were plenty of those sequels for him to make after this.

   I'm sure some readers will remember THE PUMAMAN being a subject on Mystery Science Theater 3000. In this case, the movie is just as funny without the robots. Being nearly 100 minutes long, though, the guys at Best Brains had to do a bit of trimming. This is mostly small stuff.

   The scene where Vadinjho tries to make Tony don the Puma-belt went on a bit longer, with Vadinjho holding Tony's car down so he couldn't leave for Jane's party, then jumping into the car with him. Tony then parks the car against a wall so Vadinjho can't follow him in. Jane notes the dirt on Tony's tuxedo jacket and she helps him dust it off before introducing him to her father, which is where the MST episode picks up again. 

   Other trims include Vadinjho spying on Kobras as he talks to a dignitary, and later the same guy being beaten by Kobras' henchmen for turning him down. Tony's fight with the henchmen in the Dutch embassy also goes on quite a bit longer. Things like that.

   The cut element that stands out most involves Kobras keeping control over his slaves. When the subject starts to resist, the plaster heads start to crack. Kobras increases his mental hold on them by increasing their pain, this accomplished with a robotic arm that looks like a huge metal insect leg. A spike on the end buries itself deep in the top of the plaster heads, causing great pain. The subjects then submit just to relieve the pain. (Not a bad detail, really.)

   In the end, a fairly forgettable superhero movie. I'd be curious to know if The Pumaman were the subject of some obscure comic strip or just made up for the movie. One can only assume a comic strip would have been much more exciting....
Even more misleading poster art!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A brief history of King Kong and friends

A Brief History of King Kong and Friends

   Needless to say, I'm a fan of KING KONG, the 1933 epic which remains after so many decades one of the single finest adventure movies ever made. Amazingly, despite the advance of motion picture effects technology, the champion from 1933 still towers over nearly every great effects extravaganza produced since! Yeah, the film was something special, and so was Kong. Unfortunately, Kong seems to suffer from a curse that dictates each subsequent appearance of his is increasingly poor. Granted, there was nowhere for him to go but down the scale from his first feature, but the long journey hasn't been too kind for the big ape. Things started nicely, however.

Still for KING KONG shows a scene that never happened.

   KING KONG has influenced nearly everyone who ever saw it. A great many who entered the motion picture or effects fields point to the film as their inspiration. The movie, produced in 1933, remains just as exciting today. The film was such a smash hit, RKO rushed a fun sequel out the very same year! SON OF KONG was a delight, and remains beloved.

(There's also rumor of a Japanese film from 1938 called KING KONG IN EDO, but there's almost nothing on the film, aside from a couple of obscure photos -if indeed it actually existed!)

SON OF KONG, also 1933

   In the late 40's, much of the same creative team of KING KONG returned to giant ape antics with MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. This film rivals KING KONG in it's amazing effects work, although the tone is rather more kid-oriented this time around (not that that's a bad thing).

   KING KONG was re-issued in the 1950's and did spectacularly. The monster boom was ushered in, and King was at the forefront. The film played television as well as theaters, and was merchandised heavily in this era (cartoons and comic books, as well as pulp materials, featured their share of giant apes as well). Some kids were introduced to Kong via the newest and coolest magazine on the stand, Famous Monsters of Filmland.

   With the dawning of the 60's, Kong's fans got their first new giant ape movie in years. KONGA burst onto the scene via a mad scientist movie about animal enlargement experiments. The monster itself was played by a guy wearing the George Barrows gorilla suit (the first and last time the iconic suit was loaned out to someone else).

There was nothing subtle about the advertisements!

The film was adapted into a pornographic paperback novel! This distinction was also shared with REPTILICUS and GORGO!

The same three monsters also had their own comic book series!

In some parts of the world, the pretence was thrown out the window completely!
    Since the 30's, Kong's animator Willis O'Brien had been trying to sell a script called "King Kong vs Frankenstein" but nobody saw the potential until the early 60's, when producer John Beck bought the story. He took it to Japan's Toho studios, where the story was altered to feature Japan's own titan of terror. KING KONG VS GODZILLA remains one of the most popular (and satisfying) of all the Godzilla films.

Toho's Kong, version A, the suit with extended arms to give a more ape-like look.

Version B had shorter arms to allow the actor inside more mobility in fight scenes.
   In 1966, King Kong resurfaced as a Saturday morning cartoon series from Rankin/Bass and Toei of Japan. The show was the first animated series produced in Japan for American audiences. In this incarnation, Kong was the pet of a young boy named Bobby Bond, whose family was stationed on Mondo Island (when it wasn't said to be Skull Island!). Bobby's older sister and their scientist father would assist Kong in his battles against the forces of evil, not the least of which was the bald madman Dr. Who!

   Toho had been wanting to do another Kong film, and finally got to do one in 1967 when the Rankin/Bass series was adapted to the big screen. Gone were the Bonds, but Dr. Who remained, and brought a giant robot duplicate of Kong along with! The resultant film was KING KONG ESCAPES, one of the most fun of all giant monster/espionage/adventure movies! (So far, while Kong's films were steadily sliding in quality, they were still pretty nifty. The next decade would establish a severe dive in the grade.)

Toho also gave us some Kong-like monsters in THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS.
   Through the rest of the 60's and into the 70's, Kong remained very popular. The Volkswagon 411 commercial with animation by David Allen (and featuring the daughter of the original girl-in-the-paw Fay Wray) is the stuff of legend (which is good, because I couldn't find a good photo!) There was the King Kong model kit from Aurora, among other items...

 ...including comic books from around the world...

   In the mid 70's, a bidding war between Universal and Paramount began. The item of interest being the rights to remake KING KONG for the new era, making use of the most advanced special effects techniques money could buy! Fans were excited, as Paramount won the battle and began to heavily promote the film. A number of exciting posters remain a bitter reminder of what could have been, as the film produced was a ponderous affair which strained to be relevant instead of trying to be good. The resultant film has largely been judged a slick but mindless fiasco, one of the most epic turkeys of a decade that had more than it's fair share of epic turkeys.

What could have been....

   Although the 1976 KING KONG was a disaster (although a slick one, as noted), Kong was still the monster of the hour. Toys and other merchandise were scooped off of store shelves as quickly as they could be stocked. Even more exciting, other studios were unashamedly cashing-in on the return of Kong by producing their own giant ape movies. These were seldom very good, but they were largely much more fun than the listless, if handsome, Paramount vehicle.

A*P*E may hold the distinction for being the dullest of the lot....

...while MIGHTY PEKING MAN probably remains the most berserk!

MIGHTY PEKING MAN also made the rounds under the far more exciting title of GOLIATHON.

QUEEN KONG, a spoof of the Benny Hill variety, may be the most obscure such film...
   Dino De Laurentiis, who had produced the disappointing 1976 film, apparently still had the rights to Kong ten years later, because in 1986 came KING KONG LIVES! The direct sequel to the 1976 film was a mess in every manner possible, from script to effects work. The films biggest flaw is it's very approach to the subject. In KING KONG LIVES, Kong isn't a monster mankind has to deal with. Kong is presented as the hero, and the American military is presented as the monster Kong has to deal with! The film plays like it were dreamed up by an 8 year old, and then written down by a moronic adult. From boring to outright asinine in just two films, that's quite an achievement.

In this one, Kong is revived via an artificial heart. Left unexplained is why anyone thought that was a good idea.

How many Kong fans are even aware of KING KONG LIVES?
   More uplifting, 1986 also saw the King Kong ride open at the Universal theme park in Florida. The ride featured a life-size mechanical Kong which was used heavily in advertising the facility. The Kong ride remained the park's most popular for a very long time.

   KING KONG continued to play on television and win new fans ever since it first appeared there in the early 50's. When technology allowed for the colorization of black and white movies by the late 80's, KING KONG was one of the first subjects to get this infamously annoying treatment. Still, that may have been better than the 1998 animated musical (!) THE MIGHTY KONG, which may have been seen by even fewer people than KING KONG LIVES!

   Universal again attempted to remake KING KONG in 1996, but the project fell through as the 90's proved to be a bad time for giant monster movies. The studio finally got a massively-budgeted retelling into theaters in 2005. Kong's name value made the film a commercial success, particularly on home video, but the film was another bloated mess. Shockingly, it retained the dumbest elements of the '76 version, including making the girl fall in love with Kong! (Carl Denham, Robert Armstrong's he-man adventurer who was the subject of the 30's films, was nothing short of my childhood hero. Appallingly, the '05 remake casts him as a mad man, while also turning Bruce Cabot's manly seaman Jack Driscoll into a wimpy screenwriter of a sort that seems far more 70's Alan Alda than anything 1930's Hollywood would produce...)

The final insult?
     Now we wait to see what happens next. If the record holds, the next Kong film will be downright un-watchable, but who among us isn't hoping for a reverse in the established trend?

The champ of '33 as rendered by actor, artist, and Kong fan Frank Dietz.

   Kong's fandom certainly shows no sign of waning. 2014 will see the release of Frank Deitz and Trish Geiger's documentary LONG LIVE THE KING. A title to which I can certainly nod in agreement....

(Note from the future: in 2016, Kong finally broke the curse and appeared in a pretty decent flick called KONG:SKULL ISLAND. Given a very 80's feel, this one finds a 1973 expedition running into a monstrously huge Kong.)

I want a copy of this....