Friday, August 25, 2017


   VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE was another import from Japan's Toho studio, re-edited to include new footage of an American star. Myron Healy was a gruff character actor who kept busy for decades, but headlined several genre films during the 50's and early 60's. He plays a Navy scientist making preparations for an experimental process designed to desalinate large bodies of water. The target for the test is an ancient lake located on a small Japanese island, an island modern on one end, but still trapped in the past on the other end. Superstitious natives are worried that Healy will rouse the anger of their deity Varan (known only as "Obaki" in the film itself). Well, this being a Japanese monster movie, you know what happens. Soon, a giant dinosaur is smashing modern cities! 

   This was an economical import, leaving much of the Japanese footage in it's Japanese language (and I imagine the effect would be somewhat undercut if you could speak Japanese, since several scenes are switched around and placed in new context which the native dialog would betray). This is mixed with new footage of Healy and his supporting players carrying the main story on the outskirts of the original action. Healy narrates, and explains what's going on elsewhere on the island. The new footage is minimalist, and looks fairly cheap compared to the more expensive Japanese footage. Even so, it's done with enough professional sheen that you have to be an experienced cinemanaut to really notice how inexpensive the new footage is. No doubt seeing it in a scope transfer would make the footage look a bit slicker. The American version even adds a special effect, one of Varan reaching into a cave to menace the American cast. The prop claw is a pretty good match to the Japanese suit's hands, and although rather stiff, it blends seamlessly into the process shot of the cast cowering in the foreground (this was probably done with rear projection, but the effect is lovely regardless).

   The original Japanese version was always considered weak, something of a misfire. The US version is certainly a stronger vehicle, with far more compelling human drama (with some unflinching but unobtrusive political content regarding the planned relocation of native peoples), though it's fallen almost completely off the radar in recent years. It did have a VCI video release way back when, and the video is a collector's item now (a Synergy Entertainment DVD was likely taken from the video tape copy). The film screams out for a wide-screen transfer, being one of those movies which took full advantage of the wide lens. 

   Although it uses the American title, the version currently available on official DVD release from Tokyo Shock is the subtitled Japanese version -though it is at least a nice scope transfer (oddly, the cropping on the American version is more noticeable in the Myron Healy scenes than it is on the Japanese footage). Of the films I'm very much hoping will be unearthed in a nice scope transfer, VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE is right near the top of the list! Not the most fantastic Japanese monster movie, but a very agreeable 70 minutes.

Saturday, August 19, 2017


   There were dozens of space adventure heroes developed for local TV stations across the country. Most of these shows were done live and not many produced outside of LA or New York were Kinescoped. An exception was Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. This series was shot on film and syndicated through much of the country. Those who didn't catch it on television probably saw one of the several feature films edited from the series for kiddie matinees (among them BEYOND THE MOON, MANHUNT IN SPACE, MENACE FROM OUTER SPACE, CRASH OF MOONS, SILVER NEEDLE IN THE SKY, etc). Because of all this, Rocky Jones remained one of the most visible and well-preserved space heroes of the era. Also, Rocky wasn't slapped together by locals at a UHF affiliate. His adventures were professionally produced in Hollywood, with greater production values than most such heroes saw. Richard Crane played Rocky, the square-jawed man of action who tried to keep peace in the universe from his advanced rocket, the Orbit Jet. As a Ranger, Rocky was employed both to police and to observe the space ways. Much of the time we spent with Rocky involved diplomatic missions to alien worlds. Scotty Beckett was Winky, Rocky's co-pilot and right hand man. He was the designated comic relief, but like Space Patrol's Cadet Happy, could always be counted on when things got serious. Sally Mansfield was Rocky's romantic interest, Vena, though she didn't seem to get wooed very often with the call of duty always sounding. The feature films fell into the public domain and some of them can be found on numerous multi-movie sets from companies like Mill Creek. Though edited from TV episodes, the movies seldom come across as such, playing more like actual (if economical) features.

I love this image...

   Presumably, this image was lifted from an old magazine ad, obviously from some time in the 80's. The family gathered around the television set watching a monster movie (one assumes) really takes me back to my own childhood. Granted, we never reacted like this, but it does remind one of a time when America was defined by the family unit. I love this image.

Thursday, August 17, 2017


   Science Fiction Theatre was one of the first genre anthology shows, sporting a who's who of beloved character actors noted for their work in B movies. The most recurring guest stars of the series seemed to be Marshall Thompson, Bruce Bennett, and Bill Williams. Other guest stars included the likes of Vincent Price, Victor Jory, Kenneth Tobey, Whit Bissell, Ed Kemmer, and on and on. The host was genial actor/radio announcer Truman Bradley (pictured), his authoritarian voice essential to grounding an anthology series concerned with elements of the fantastic and their relation to science. Early episodes in particular were focused on hard science fiction, so much so as to be almost atheistic in their approach. Whether it was viewer complaint or observance from someone on the crew, this condition was rectified and the remainder of the series took on a much more faithful tone. Perhaps the oddest thing about Science Fiction Theatre is that the first season was shot in full color -at a time when very few television sets had the ability to receive color broadcast! Likely to reduce production costs, the second season was filmed in black and white. Subjects ranged from communication with beings from space to fantastic murder investigations in which the weapon or clue was some piece of cutting edge technology. Bradley would open each episode by demonstrating some scientific principal or new area of research which had inspired that week's story. There's really no such thing as a 'typical' episode to point to as an example, since the series covered so much ground. Engaging, thought-provoking, dramatic, the series avoided the Bug Eyed Monster pulp aspects of popular science fiction -which ultimately may be why the show faded into relative obscurity. Infamously, one episode inspired the screenplay for the Universal International smash TARANTULA! in 1955. The complete series was issued on DVD, but there were technical issues of some sort involving the color correction for title transition scenes. Though able to be fixed, it was apparently expensive to do so and only the first episode received the full restoration. The other color episodes have stretches of black and white footage where these transitions occur. Reportedly, a bluray release is correcting that issue.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Quick Look: BEACH PARTY (1963 - color)

   By 1963, American International had established itself as one of the major studios, and no film better illustrates that position than BEACH PARTY. The film spawned an entire genre that many still think of in fond reflection of the 60's. I caught these pictures on television as I was entering teenhood, and I loved them to pieces. I still love them, and it's a series packed with so much fun that I think I'd have to be a miserable grouch not to love them! 

   In this first outing, Frankie, Annette, and the gang are being used as case studies by anthropologist Bob Cummings -who intends to prove that 20th Century teen culture has reverted to the same level as primitive jungle cultures! The film was a smash, and AIP quickly churned out a follow-up, MUSCLE BEACH PARTY. Another hit, the gang (including director William Asher) was reunited for BIKINI BEACH. AIP then experimented with variations of the themes established in this original trilogy. SKI PARTY took things to snow banks, while PAJAMA PARTY spoofed science fiction. SERGEANT DEADHEAD took the act into the service comedy, while DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE spoofed international espionage. BEACH BLANKET BINGO returned to the original scene, and proved one of the most popular entries. It was followed by HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI, the last one to star Frankie and Annette. GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI, a haunted house spoof, starred Tommy Kirk and Deborah Walley. And of course, there were tons of cash-ins and knock-offs produced by other studios (THE GIRLS ON THE BEACH, IT'S A BIKINI WORLD, BEACH BALL, etc). On the small screen was Gidget, a series (based on the feature films) frequently directed by William Asher. Frankie and Annette would send up the entire 60's beach scene when they went BACK TO THE BEACH in 1986.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Quick Look: PAJAMA PARTY (1964 - color)

   My favorite of the beach movies remains PAJAMA PARTY, despite how wildly it deviates from the typical series format. This was the one that introduced Bobbie Shaw: the instant dream girl of many a young man. Though she did other parts, it's her performance as the Swede in the fur-trimmed bikini that she'll always be remembered for! "Ya, ya!" Also on hand are the series regulars and guest stars like Jesse White, Dorothy Lamour, Elsa Lanchester, and Buster Keaton -who steals the show as the "red man with yellow streak." Keep your eyes peeled for a young Teri Garr amid the background dancers. The plot for this one is pretty wild, concerning as it does a planned invasion from Mars. Tommy Kirk is an advance scout sent to prepare the way for an invading army, but he falls in love with Annette Funicello. Meanwhile, the con-man next door is out to steal Aunt Wendy's hidden fortune, and has hired a crew to help him -including the oblivious Eric Von Zipper and his gang. Has one of the funniest guest star cameos in the whole series. Don Weis takes over direction from William Asher, and would bring back several of the same characters (or versions thereof) for GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI, which effectively ended the series.

Friday, August 11, 2017

A Quick Look: BACK TO THE BEACH (1986 - color)

   In the 80's, America was riding a bit of a nostalgia wave (no pun intended). Part of that was BACK TO THE BEACH, a valentine/update to the Frankie/Annette beach movies AIP made during the 60's. A tribute to all things surf culture, the story saw our sweetheart couple coping with the adult world. Frankie has become a work-a-holic car salesman, while Annette must deal with the pair's young delinquent son. The couple finally decide to take a much-needed vacation to Hawaii. We catch up with our heroes as they make a stop at their old beach, where their daughter is carrying on with a beach bum. When Frankie and Annette have a fight, they end up staying on the beach to help their children. Very quickly, our stars fall back into their old world and help a new generation of surfers save their beach from a punk motorcycle/surf gang -which their son has joined! Although given an 80's make-over, BACK TO THE BEACH is largely in the same spirit as the original films. The emphasis here is strictly on fun, and by the time things are over you feel very good. In addition to the AIP beach movies, BACK TO THE BEACH salutes the entire 60's scene. Connie Stevens is the aging 'bad' girl now raising a son. Bob Denver, in full Gilligan costume, is the bartender who keeps trying to tell patrons about the years he spent as a castaway. ("There were girls, but you couldn't touch 'em.") Don Adams is the harbor master. The cast of Leave It To Beaver, meanwhile, judge the climactic surfing competition! It became a TV staple for a few years. Due to copyright issues, Frankie's character is never actually called by name, and is credited simply as "Annette's Husband"!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

R.I.P. Haruo Nakajima

   World pop culture was recently hit by the loss of an icon, though one which seldom had his face before the public. Haruo Nakajima was Toho's monster man, the actor who played Godzilla from 1954 to 1972, in addition to seemingly hundreds of other Japanese giants including Rodan, Baragon, King Kong, the Green Gargantua, and numerous Ultraman enemies. By all accounts a sweet, gentle man about which has never been said a bad word, Nakajima-san was without argument a major part of countless boys' lives. He infused his roles with life and a level of research many would not think required for playing giant monsters. He did play a few human parts in various Japanese films, but his being the Big Blue Dinosaur saw him on screens all over the world. His retirement in the early 70's was a major blow to the genre of Japanese monster movies, and his passing truly denotes the end of a golden era of science fiction adventure. Rest In Peace, Nakajima-san. God bless you, and thanks for so many great memories. I can't imagine my childhood without his impact. Many actors have played Godzilla, but none with the abilities of the man who really created the part. His Godzilla had character those who followed him never captured. His Godzilla created moments which stick with you. My favorite may be the scene in GODZILLA VERSUS THE SEA MONSTER in which he tears the claw from a giant lobster, and then taunts his foe with the severed limb! Most Godzilla movies starred Godzilla, but Haruo Nakajima's Godzilla movies really starred Haruo Nakajima. Goodbye Sir, and thanks again.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

A new project of mine...

   Here's some preliminary work on a project I'm developing. Per usual, I'm drawing a graphic novel based on an idea I think would make a good animated movie. In this case, it's the story of Milyy, a dancing circus bear who believes she is actually a Russian peasant girl. I'm gearing this project more toward children than my past projects. Still hammering out the plot, but I'm already enjoying the work more than anything I've worked on in a long time! Milyy, all images and characters are (c) 2017 Rock Baker. 

Milyy discovers her looks have changed


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Quick Look at TV: DINO-RIDERS

   Dino-Riders was an 80's Saturday morning cartoon series which was (like Transformers and the revamped G.I. Joe) part of a multi-pronged merchandising promotion which included a television series, comic book, and toy line. Dino-Riders, sadly, was the shortest-lived. Basically, it was a combination of STAR WARS and dinosaurs, as the entirely human Valorians struggled against the evil Rulons (an assortment of alien races united to conquer the universe under the command of frog-like despot Krulos) in a war across space in the distant future. An accident involving the Valorians's time drive and the Rulons' tractor beam results in flagships of both factions becoming stranded on prehistoric Earth. Soon, the war is being fought with the aid of dinosaurs wearing battle gear. The dinosaurs cooperate with the Valorians, able to quasi-communicate with the animals through pendants that transfer thought waves, but the Rulons must control their beasts by use of "brain boxes." The 80's were one cool decade for little boys! The pilot episode was issued on VHS to promote the toy line. Seems other additions to the line brought with them two more episodes on VHS, but I never saw these. The show itself has so far eluded official DVD release, which is a shame. The dinosaur toys, meanwhile, were re-issued minus the sci-fi accessories multiple times over the next couple decades. One should still be able to find the toy commercials on YouTube.