Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Movies that can't be as cool as their poster art

Once again- there just ain't no way! One of the slew of bloody barbarian movies that paraded through cinemas in the wake of CONAN's huge box office take. Director Umberto Lenzi is usually much better with crime films than anything else but with character names like Ela, Isa, Vood, Rag and Tog I'm going to have to see this one. Hopefully brain-bashing violence is on tap to make my viewing more interesting.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

TARZAN- Love & Hate

I’ve been a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most famous creation since I was a boy. Like many other kids with an appetite for adventure fiction I read the first of the Tarzan novels and fell in love with the stories of the orphaned nobleman raised by gorillas in the African jungle. His adventures fighting predatory beasts, harassing Arab poachers, finding the occasional lost city and battling nefarious bad guys seeking various treasures thrilled me page after page. It’s because I loved the Tarzan of ERB that I could hardly stand the Tarzan of Hollywood.

In the books Tarzan is of noble British blood and by the end of the first novel he is aware of his lineage and has reclaimed his title as Lord Greystoke. Possessing a great intellect as well as amazing physical ability he speaks several languages, is able to mix well in society and is easily the master of his life. ERB’s character chooses to live in Africa with his wife and family on a sprawling jungle plantation with his sworn Waziri tribesmen nearby. ERB’s character was a man to be reckoned with and feared as much for his cleverness as his knife.

When as a young lad I was able to finally see the 1932 film TARZAN OF THE APES I expected to see something close to the definitive screen version of my beloved jungle man. After all- this movie was hailed as the best Tarzan film ever made. I was sorely disappointed! Who was this monosyllabic moron calling himself Tarzan? He didn’t seem bright enough to hold two thoughts in succession much less reason or think. I suspect that Tarzan as played by Johnny Weissmuller would have had trouble negotiating a stoplight regardless of his facility with knife or vine. His inability to form complete sentences even after being around Jane for years pointed to a severe metal deficiency that appalled and finally disgusted me. I caught one of the later films in the series a year or so after seeing the first and could not believe they still had him acting like an idiot. If the dumb ass can’t dope out a spoken language he hears ever day of his life then he’s too damned stupid to be anyone’s hero! So, I decided to stick with reading an occasional original novel for my Jungle Man fix and avoided any other of Hollywood’s attempts to destroy one of fictions great characters.

But then came my college years and a group of friends with similar interests as myself. Among them was a fellow who also loved ERB’s Tarzan but had come to terms with the Weissmuller Tarzan. Pointing out that the books were always going to be around for fans to read he slowly convinced me that the Hollywood version had its good points as well. True- it had more than its fair share of idiotic elements but the films were fun entertainments and worth enjoying as what they were intended to be. No, they’re not the ‘real’ Tarzan and ERB fans may grit their teeth at the knowledge that this is how 99% of folks think of him.

And Hollywood giveth with one hand while it smacketh with the other. I honestly doubt if Tarzan would be as famous and well known if not for the hugely popular Weissmuller films. Perhaps the character endures because the black & white images from these films were absorbed into the brains of a generation or two of children hungry for adventure in the trees? Maybe one of the biggest reasons the original 24 Tarzan novels never go out of print is that young boys are curious for more of the jungle man’s tales than the films can provide?

It’s true that because of the Weissmuller Tarzan films the chances of an accurate adaptation ever being done are nearly zero. But I’ve made my peace with Hollywood’s version of Lord Greystoke. I’m watching those old films with great joy now as they come out on DVD in sets. And I’m even looking forward to each movie with anticipation. In my 30s I’m finally getting that feeling a lot of boys had sitting in a darkened theater or curled up in front of the TV for an afternoon matinee. The thrill of watching a Jungle Man swing though the trees, wrestle lions and kill crocodiles as I wonder what will happen next is wondrful. The books are better, but that’s almost always the case, isn’t it.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Films that can't be as cool as their poster art (an occasional series)

I submit to you that there is no way this film can be even close to as fantastic as its amazing poster. Directed by Amando Ossorio of BLIND DEAD fame and starring Ray Milland I must eventually see it, of course. But there is no way it is even a fraction as good as this artwork would have me believe.

Friday, August 18, 2006

John Agar Rules! Part 3

In BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS our man Agar plays Steve March, a geologist working with his partner Dan (Robert Fuller) in the desert southwest. They’ve been getting odd fluctuating gamma radiation readings (!?) centered miles out in the desert and Steve insists they check it out. Once there they track the readings to a newly formed cave and are attacked by Gor-the titular brain from another world. This evil alien kills Dan and possesses the body of Steve with the intention of using his incredible destructive mind powers to take over Earth, launch an invasion of his home planet and molest Steve’s fiance Sally (Joyce Meadows)- not necessarily in that order. Steve constantly tries to fight off Gor’s control to little effect but Sally and her father become very concerned about the spasms of pain that accompany his attempts. They ridiculously decide to travel to the desert cave and there discover Vol, another brain from Arous sent to recapture the fugitive Gor. Vol explains how to kill the mad brain and just before he’s able to take over the world Sally gets this information to Agar who takes an ax to the criminal cerebellum.

Almost too fun to be believed this is a classic so-bad-its-good movie. The story is incredible with characters doing hysterically illogical things simply to advance the plot. I’m still trying to figure out why a geologist would be given clearance to attend a major nuclear test or how (or why) geologists were monitoring ‘gamma radiation readings‘. But honestly the rest of the movie could be totally boring and would still be worth seeing for the insane final scene. The sight of John Agar ax-whacking an oversized brain dangling from clearly visible wires is one of the most hilarious things this side of PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE. The film had to be fun for Agar as well since he gets to play two roles- good guy and bad brain. He does a good job as both but it’s the evil moments that really shine. Rarely is he more entertaining than in the sequences in which he convinces assembled world representatives of his power and issues his mad orders complete with diabolical laughter. Brilliant! Highly recommended for these who like their popcorn movies spiced with cheese.

To be continued........

Saturday, August 12, 2006

John Agar Rules! Part 2

In THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956) Agar plays Dr. Roger Bentley an archeologist working on a dig somewhere in Asia. (That’s as specific as the film gets!) He finds a tablet fragment with indications of Sumerian origins and then comes across an ancient oil lamp that points towards a local mountain. Agar along with Hugh Beaumont mounts an expedition to the summit and after much stock climbing footage they reach a high plateau scattered with crumbling Sumerian buildings. After a member of the group falls into a deep crevasse the men descend into the mountain and make the archeological discovery of the century- a living Sumerian settlement cut off from the world for thousands of years! Most of the population has become albino with extremely pale skin and sensitivity to bright light while some have ‘devolved’ into hideous mole like humanoids. The mole men are used as slave labor and treated horribly. Using his still functioning flashlight Agar convinces the rulers that he’s a messenger from one of their gods and starts romancing one of the Sumerian ‘throwbacks’ i.e. a normal looking woman named Adad (Cynthia Patrick) with a great hair stylist. Finally Agar and Beaumont instigate a Mole man rebellion making good their escape with Adad in tow.

Silly, cheesy fun from start to finish THE MOLE PEOPLE never resembles anything close to reality. When our heroes encounter the Sumerians there is a very quick nod to Agars’ ability to speak the (very dead) language but then all the members of the party suddenly can as well. The mole men are treated as beasts and constantly beaten but never use their digging ability to escape their cruel masters. And of course, isn’t Agar lucky to run across that rare ‘normal’ girl to romance and rescue? But with all the crazed fun this film offers it is Agar’s character that gives the film its entertaining high points. Arrogant to the point of annoyance Bentley is so forward in the first third of the movie that it feels like he’ll be the villain of the story. Adding to the strangeness on display is some of the dumbest dialog of any film of the period with Agar getting the lion’s share. That he was able to utter lines like “In archeology all things are possible” with a straight face shows a real acting skill.

In the right frame of mind THE MOLE PEOPLE is a blast and while never actually good it still stands as a great example of the qualities fans love about 50‘s Science Fiction movies. I love this film the way you love a not too bright pet that might chew up your shoes but is simply too cute to strangle.

To be continued...........

Thursday, August 10, 2006

John Agar Rules! Part 1

Long before I knew John Agar by name he was one of my heroes. He was the guy that took a cattle prod to the Gill Man, found a hidden underground civilization and blew up a giant spider in the desert- all without breaking a sweat! The fact that my adolescent mind could combine these three different movie roles and thereby turn Agar into a kind of superman is probably because he played similar characters in many films. Some might say they were often the EXACT same role. He was usually the smart, stoic, smiling fellow that could be counted on when the Mole Men attacked or a were-creature was stalking his fiance. These movies weren’t always very good (and Agar didn’t appreciate them at the time) but as film nuts in the 21st century have discovered his genre movies are always entertaining even if not for the reasons originally intended! Agar’s first foray into fantastic cinema was a sequel to the classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. It’s not his best genre film but it did give him a key contact for later greatness.

Picking up a year after the first film REVENGE OF THE CREATURE has a couple of stalwart scientists types return to the Black Lagoon to capture the monster. Using dynamite charges (!) to subdue him they transport the amphibian back to Florida and set him up in Ocean Harbor for scientific study and public viewing. Ichthyologist Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) and fellow scientist Professor Clete Ferguson (John Agar) begin trying to both communicate with the Gill Man and romance each other. Their romance is a bit more successful probably because Agar doesn’t poke Nelson with an electrified prod every ten minutes as he does the Creature. Finally the poor aquatic beastie manages to break free, kill a few folks and run off into the open water with gunmen in hot pursuit. Once again he has his sights set on a female and this time it’s Miss Nelson he goes in search of, putting her new fiance Agar on the offensive!

Director Jack Arnold made this as well as the first Gill man film and his strong guiding hand helps make this a fairly exciting monster romp. Though it pales in comparison to the original and makes the major error of removing the Big Guy from his jungle habitat its still a fun movie. Agar has made no secret of the fact that he hated making the series of monster epics he starred in in the 1950’s but here, as in all his performances you can see that he still threw himself into things 100%. That’s one of the things that make his genre movies so enjoyable- Mr. Agar worked hard to sell every scene, every time. This kind of enthusiasm pays off when the audience is asked to believe in incredible events and his earnest performances help sell all kinds of absurd situations. Its this aspect of what he did that makes watching Agar's films so much fun. He really seems to believe what’s going on and invites us to come along for the ride!

To be continued.......