Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Thundarr the Barbarian


Animation Block: Thundarr the Barbarian

 

Going back to the well of the 1980’s, we find today a rare gem in the animated world. Jack “King” Kirby blessed the world with many characters, yet his foray into animation is often downplayed. Hired by Ruby-Spears in the early portion of the decade, Jack did the layouts for what would become Thundarr the Barbarian.

 

In the year 1994, a runaway planet hurtles between the Earth and the Moon, causing global upheaval. Mankind is cast into darkness. Our narrative begins two thousand years later. Earth is reborn as a world filled with sorcery and super science. Thundarr, a barbarian, escapes from his life as a slave alongside the Princess Ariel and Ookla the Mok.  With his Sunsword, a gift from Ariel, Thundarr and his companions ride the strange worlds under a broken sky.

Looking back at the show, I am amazed and disappointed it didn’t last longer. Airing in 1980 and before the FCC loosened all the rules meant the children of the era were spared Thundarr action figures, comics, and general merchandise. With Steve Gerber and Mark Evanier doing scripts, I am utterly dismayed that the show lasted as short as it did, finally ending production in 1982 with reruns on various networks after that.  Violence was never shied away from but it was never glamourized. The entire show had a fairly grim look at things to be yet there was also some degree of optimism. Princess Ariel deserves special mention as well. She was sassy but never obnoxious and her magic powers were consistent; or at least not used as a deus ex machina as much as other shows of the time period. She actually did stuff on the show rather than simply be the token female.  

What went wrong? Typical of the time the show was formulaic; Thundarr and company enter a ruined city or former landmark and encounter a wizard or other type of ne’er-do-well.  A battle is fought, hostages sometime taken and Thundarr and company leave much the same as they entered. But other shows were structured just the same and still lasted longer. Cost and ratings were given as the chief reason for the show’s cancellation, but unlike every other bit of 1980’s nostalgia, Thundarr the Barbarian seems to have been skipped by the retro toy companies and comic books companies, save for a few action figures made a couple of years ago.

The entire series was finally released onto DVD and is well worth the time to re-watch.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

New Adventures of the Lone Ranger


The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger (1980)

 

With the passing of famed producer Lou Scheimer, I felt it right to look back on one of Filmation’s lesser known properties. The Lone Ranger, also known as the New Adventures of the Lone Ranger, began properly with the Tarzan/Long Ranger Adventure Hour on CBS in 1980. With reruns of the animated Tarzan series, viewers would see the animated adventures of the masked rider of the plains.

With William Conrad as the Lone Ranger and Ivan Naranjo as Tonto, viewers could tune in and see the Western duo fight bushwhackers, mad scientists, and encounter such historical figures such as Nelly Bly. The animation was slick, although since this was a Filmation production it also meant we would endlessly see the same close-up of Tonto’s face and the same shot of the heroes mounting their horses. With the concerns of various parents groups and before the loosening of rules regarding advertisements, the focus was mostly on education. There was plenty of action, but every so often it would stop so our heroes or someone else could lecture on new-fangled things like refrigerators or hot air balloons. There would also be a short public service announcement after every episode.

None of the episodes were interconnected and the plots only lasted as long twenty minutes long. The music, consisting mostly of the famed William Tell Overture, was used to great effect. 

A DVD was released last year, but it only contains most of the series. A possible second volume would solve this, but with underperforming Long Ranger reboot it appears that would be very unlikely.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Horror Film countdown 2013, part 25


Bride of the Monster (1956), dir. Ed Wood, Rolling M Productions



And now friends we come to the end of the horror movie countdown; what began with the silent era and moved into the sleazy grindhouse has now drawn its last bow. As we moved into directors we started with the masters of the genre, we now end with arguably the worst. Ed Wood was never in anyone’s top ten lists, but the man had determination. Nothing else, mind you, but he could at least be counted to show up on time and wear nice pants.

 

Mac (Bud Osborne) and Jake (John Warren) are out hunting when they get caught in a terrible use of stock footage. Seeking shelter at the old Willow place, they are surprised to learn the place isn’t as abandoned as they thought. Dr. Eric Vornoff (Bela Lugosi) orders the men away, but when they demand to be let in, Lobo (Tor Johnson) is summoned. Fleeing into the stormy night, Mac is promptly set upon by a mutant octopus and devoured. John is beaten up by Lobo and taken back to the house.

 

Once there, Dr. Vornoff straps John to a machine and informs him that he is about to take part in a great experiment…or else he’ll end up dead. Once John is pumped full of radiation, Lobo drags him back to the octopus for disposal.

 

The recent deaths have managed to motivate the local news, as reporter Janet Lawton (Loretta King) has it out with police captain Tom Robbins (Harvey B. Dunn), who orders her to stay out of police business. Janet’s boyfriend, Lt. Dick Craig (Tony McCoy) is put in a rough spot.

 

Enter Dr. Vladimir Strowsky (George Becwar), noted monster hunter, who claims that there might actually be a monster responsible for all the deaths. That’s enough for Janet, who drives out there and promptly wrecks her car. She is also dragged to Dr. Vornoff by Lobo. It seems Dr. Strowsky has a sinister motive too, as he is actually there to woo Dr. Vornoff to come work for their homeland. Dr. Vornoff is less than nostalgic and murders his former coworker. From there he hypnotizes Janet and plans to once again try with the radiation. The police, meanwhile, have figured out where Janet is and rush to her rescue. Will they make it in time?

 

Ed Wood does get a bad rap from the going public, but honestly? I would take this over Fart: The Movie any day, or anything by Michael Bay. The performances are less then stellar, and the octopus prop is noticeably that, but seeing actors pretending to fight with limp rubber limbs just makes my heart glad in ways bouncing CGI robot testicles don’t.

Horror Film countdown 2013, part 24


The Last House of the Left (1972), dir. Wes Craven, Sean S. Cunningham Films


Easily on the nastiest films in this countdown, and one of the most infamous, Wes Craven’s debut began as a genuine roughie before being reworked into a rougher (yet still softer than the first draft) version of Ingmar Bergman’s the Virgin Spring.

 

 

Mari Collinwood (Sandra Cassell) is celebrating her 17th birthday. She and her best friend Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham) are off to the big city to see a rock concert. Mari’s parents John (Gaylord St. James) and Estelle (Cynthia Carr) are concerned, especially about Phyllis, but in the end they relent.

 

Once they enter the city proper, both girls decide to buy some weed from the sleaziest fellow they can find, a smack addled no goodnik named Junior (Marc Sheffler). Junior lures them back to the rattrap hotel he’s crashing at with his dad, Krug Stillo (David Hess), Krug’s best buddy “the Weasel” Fred  Podowski (Fred J. Lincoln), and Krug’s best gal pal Sadie (Jeramie Rain). Krug and Weasel have just broken out of prison, and it seems they are up for anything.

 

Some time later, both Mari and Phyllis are roughly pulled from the trunk of Krug’s car. From there the girls are humiliated, raped, tortured, and finally killed. Car trouble forces Krug and company to seek shelter during a thunderstorm at the only house for miles, a quaint cottage with the name ‘Collinwood’ over the front door…

 

While the film’s reputation for utterly depravity is well earned, there are several missteps. After nearly every horrible thing Krug does the film then cuts to the wacky antics of the sheriff (Marshall Ankers) and his deputy (Martin Cove) as they bumble and scamper around. It kind of defeats the horror of it all when we go from a brutal rape to the sheriff yelling at chickens.

Horror Film countdown 2013, part 23


Piranha (1978), dir. Joe Dante, New World Pictures



Moving ahead, we find one of the many graduates of Roger Corman’s school of cheap filmmaking. Joe Dante cut his teeth on the sometimes sleazy world of Hollywood, directing what Steven Spielberg would eventually call the finest of all Jaws rip-offs. 

 

Two teenagers, Barbara Randall (Jane Squire) and her boyfriend David (Roger Richman) are having a typical make-out session in the woods when they get the idea to continue their carnal questing deeper in the wooded area. Finding an abandoned Army testing ground, they decided to consummate their passion within the crumbling area. Ignoring the warning signs, they easily enter the area. Deciding a full moon skinny dip would set the proper mood before their little death, both are soon naked and splashing without care. Something then kills them both.

 

After some time has passed, private eye Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) has been hired to find the missing teens. She retraces their steps with the extremely reluctant help of local man Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), who takes time from his busy scheduling of drinking and trying to look after his hydrophobic daughter Suzie (Shannon Collins), who was recently dropped off a camp down the river. They follow the teen’s trail exactly and soon end up at the testing ground. When Maggie empties the pool to search it, all she finds a small pile of bones and Barbara’s locket; this action prompts a wild-eyed man to scream at them and try to steal Maggie’s jeep. One car wreck later the man identifies himself: Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy).

As the trip float down the river on a homemade raft, Dr. Hoak explains the reason for his outburst. It seems he was the head researcher of Project Razorteeth, an attempt by the military to breed an aggressive type of piranha capable of living in both salt and fresh water for use against the Viet Cong.  Maggie and Paul dismiss Hoak as crazy, at least until they find the remains of Jack (Keenan Wynn), Paul’s neighbor. His legs have been bitten off. Also, Jack’s house was in a straight line straight to the summer camp where Suzie is right now.

Paul, Maggie and a boy Hoak rescued before dying manage to escape the river and get word to the authorities, represented by Colonel Waxman (Bruce Gordon) and his aide, Dr. Menger (Barbara Steele). Neither the colonel nor the doctor wants the word of their screw up reaching the public, so Paul and Maggie end up in the slammer.

The piranhas, on the other hand, don’t care about public relations and plan on turning the summer camp into an all you eat buffet. Can our heroes stop them in time?

Remade and squeals aplenty, none compare to the first. Dante has enough humor and scares to balance everything out. Dick Miller as the cheapskate amusement park owner is a nice touch.

Horror Film countdown 2013, part 22


It Conquered the World (1956), dir. Roger Corman, American International Pictures



Moving backwards slightly we go to the king of the low budget, Roger Corman. Corman, like Castle, had been a producer and used to low budgets. Deciding to direct, mostly to save on costs, It Conquered the World was his first horror film.

Dr. Paul Nelson (Peter Graves) is overseeing the launching of the first man made satellite. While the control room watches in rapt attention, Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef) is in another part of the base arguing against the launch. It seems all previously attempts have failed, because argues Anderson, the other planets in our system don’t want us polluting the skies with our special brand of aggressive lunacy. The higher ups refrain from laughing in his face, but they make it clear the launch is going ahead.

 

Three months later, Anderson and his wife Clara (Beverly Garland) are hosting Nelson and his wife Joan (Sally Fraser) over for dinner. Nelson is in a good mood, as the satellite is working perfectly and Anderson’s worries about annoyed aliens has obviously been proven false.  Anderson takes it in stride and proceeds to show Nelson his new hobby: A giant radio. He claims to be in contact with Venus. When Anderson points out that he can’t hear anything, a phone call from the base brakes up the awkward scene. It seems the satellite has just vanished.

 

From there things get crazy. The satellite crashes and the town surrounding the base lose all power. It seems Anderson was talking to Venus, or at least one surviving member of the planet. It, for lack of a better word, is quite keen on relocating to Earth. Anderson promised to help It after It promises to rid Earth of its stupidity. Anderson then gives a list of people it needs to convert, via flying manta ray puppets. The list includes most of the base’s higher ups and several civilians, including Nelson’s wife. After Nelson kills Joan, he and both Andersons decide that maybe this wasn’t such a hot idea and each go their own way in trying to kill It.

The actors save the movie, even if Graves is prone to making endless speeches. It, when we finally it, is less intimidating that the poster would have us believe. If one has to see it, stick with the version with Joel and the Bots.

 

Horror Film countdown 2013, part 21


Macabre (1958), dir. William Castle, Allied Artists



Moving ahead, we take a look at the man sometimes considered the low rent version of Hitchcock, William Castle.  With Macabre, Castle, no stranger to showmanship when it came to promoting his work, had a life insurance policy with Lloyd’s of London to insure any audience member who died of fright while watching the movie.

Doctor Rod Barrett (William Prince) is a small town doctor with a beautiful daughter and a struggling practice. After his wife died three years ago and his sister-in-law not soon after, Dr. Barrett’s former father –in-law Jode Wetherby (Phillip Tonge) has made it his hobby to ruin Barrett’s life and career. Town police Chief Jim Tyloe (Jim Backus) isn’t Barrett’s biggest fan, as he even he suspects Barrett of some degree of incompetence. Aside from that, everything seems more or less okay, except one day when he gets a phone call. It seems his daughter won’t be coming home. She’s tied up…inside a coffin with roughly five hours of air left.

From there it is a frantic race against time. Barrett desperately tries to follow the stranger’s instructions while Chief Tyloe tries to go through the suspects, which quickly expands to include nearly everyone in town.

As a mystery goes, Castle is a genius. The crime is set up early with a clear deadline in reach. The stranger is kept mysterious enough that anyone is a suspect. The film waffles a bit near the end, as once the stranger is revealed, the typical reaction is “wait, what? Then why did that character act like that?”