Friday, October 27, 2006

Marvels both good and ill...

Marvel Comics is in the new this morning. On the one hand, some of their superheroes are to be honored on U.S. postage stamps, as the classic DC comic characters were recently. Several of the featured characters are the usual heavy hitters--Spider-Man, The Hulk, Wolverine, Silver Surfer, Iron Man, The Thing, Captain America--but there are a couple of b-listers (Daredevil, Namor), a character presumably only included because of a recent but already forgotten movie (Elektra), and...Spider-Woman? Really? Spider-Woman? Over, say, Thor? Luke Cage? Ghost Rider? Ant-Man? Weird. I can really only assume they wanted some female characters in their for whatever reason. However, the Wasp or the Invisible Woman would have seemed better choices.

Moreover, Spider-Woman really gets two stamps. The set includes a stamp for the featured characters, and then a separate second featuring a classic comic book cover of their respective series. (Except that Wolverine gets his own stamp, while the X-Man cover stamp features the old team before he joined.)

The stamps can be seen here (click on the small image).


As also reported at Cinescape.com, there is far stranger Marvel news afoot:

"According to the Hollywood Reporter, Marvel Comics has partnered with CBS' daytime soap opera Guiding Light to produce an episode in which a character is zapped by an electrical current and becomes infused with superpowers, including the ability to levitate and to conduct electricity.

The episode, set to air Nov. 1, involves the show's Harley Davidson Cooper character, played by Beth Ehlers. As part of the deal, Marvel will produce an eight-page insert for some of its top comic titles that involves Marvel characters descending on Light's fictional town of Springfield to determine whether the new superhero is friend or foe.

"Joining forces with Marvel is such a natural fit for us because comic books and soap operas have so much in common," said "Guiding Light" head writer David Kreizman."


Er, yeah.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

It Came From Netflix! Devil Dog, Hound of Hell (1978)

Devil Dog is another fondly remembered made-for-TV horror film from the genre’s golden age, although this one played on CBS, not the ABC of Movie of the Week fame. It actually premiered on Oct 31st, so it’s certainly appropriate Halloween viewing. It’s just good, campy fun.

Following closely in the pawsteps of such films as The Omen (the large demonic dog of which may have inspired this movie), DD is a pretty typical TV flick of that vintage. Except for lighting that may be a shade too light, it’s a thoroughly professional production, made back in the day when the studios had unit dedicated to churning out films for TV’s insatiable maw. Like the B-movie units of old, the films generally produced were generally derivative and budget oriented, but solidly put together.

Some Satanists go to buy a bitch—a real one—to be impregnated. They then perform a rite that rather hilariously is the analogue to when Satan impregnated Rosemary of Rosemary’s Baby. Two of the Satanists are played by familiar faces. Their leader is Martine Beswick, who starred in Hammer cavemen films like One Million Years BC and Slave Girls. Most famously, she played Ralph Bates murderous distaff alter ego in Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Popular character actor R. G. Armstrong, meanwhile, also played a Satanist in the extremely good Race with the Devil. Satanists were all over the place in the ‘70s.

Anyhoo, the Satanists arrange a quick demise for the pooch of a typical ‘70s TV family, and then substitute one of the demon-quickened puppies. (Again a rip-off of The Omen.) Wife Betty and the children, Bonnie and Charlie, quickly take to the dog.

Less thrilled is Maria, their inevitable Knowing Ethnic maid. (Minorities are closer to nature and have simpler faiths than us smug whites, and so typically more aware of the Eeevil.) As soon as she appears wearing a cross, you know she will oppose the hellacious hound and also probably act as the first victim of a (admittedly bland) series of Omen-esque deaths. And so she does, going up in a gout of flame in her bedroom. When the family returns home that evening, I was dying for someone to breathe in deeply and observe, “Hey, something smells good!” Sadly, no one does.

The father, Mike (TV movie staple Richard Crenna), soon begins to suspect something’s wrong when the now-grown and quite handsome German Shepherd stares at him and nearly makes him jam his hand into the whirring blades of his lawn mower. However, he shrugs this incident off. (!!) The lawn mower wasn’t working, by the way, so apparently the dog powered it via an infernal combustion engine.

Sorry.

So the dog takes over the children and Betty, the latter of whom gets all slutty and apparently actually starts sleeping with other men. The three start holding Satanic rituals, and worse, start getting all uppity with Mike. Eventually he tries to kill the dog, but bullets don’’t work. So of course he flies to Ecuador to seek out a Wise Old Man living in a cave. Because, you know, all Wise Old Men live in caves. Even on Mars. (See Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.) Luckily Mike just happens to be one of the rare people blesses with Power of Good or some convenient crap, leading to the inevitable showdown with the Doggie of Doom.

Highlights include the Marmaduke dog next door who’s freaked out (and eventually disposed of) by the then puppy-sized Satanic Shepherd; some truly hideous wallpaper that really is the scariest thing in the film; the son using his new Satanic clout to win the Student Council presidency at his elementary school; and the wife showing her new bad side by tempting Mike into sex in the neighbor’s pool. Of course the use of slo-mo and glowing eyes to make the dog look Eee-vil are just the icing on the cake.

The cast sports even more familiar actors than those listed above. Crenna, Rambo’s boss, presumably needs no intro. Wifee is played by Yvette Mimieux, once Rod Taylor’s Eloi girlfriend in George Pal’s The Time Machine. She starred in number of TV and drive-in movies (Hit Lady, Jackson County Jail), and the year previous had joined Bo Svenson as the lead of the MTV Yeti flick Snowbeast.

The young daughter is played (pretty badly) by Kim Richards, a veteran kiddie actor who most famously starred in Escape From Witch Mountain and its sequel Return to Witch Mountain. Notice that, for whatever reason, Richards is the chosen actor to get a "starring" credit on the DVD box art. Is she really more famous than Crenna?

Anyway, her telepathic brother in the Witch Mountain movies was assayed by the young but busy Ike Eisenmann, who again plays her sibling here. One of the films numerous funny parts is that despite the film skipping over a year (to allow the dog to grow up), neither kid of course looks at all taller or older. Weirdly, as adults Ike and Kim returned to their Witch Mountain roles in 2002's The Blair Witch Mountain Project.

One of the miscellanious victims is played by busy TV actor Ken Kercheval, who starred, among other shows, in Dallas. Veteran movie actor Victor Jory (over 180 IMDB credits) played the Old Man in the Cave. Meanwhile, Devil Dog was directed by genre vet Curtis Harrington, and he provides a clean, unobtrusive style to things. He sort of made a specialty of MTV horror flicks, with titles like How Awful About Allan, The Cat Creature, Killer Bees and The Dead Don’t Die.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Petrified (2004)

This film answered some questions I’ve been asking this month as I watched a parade of solid low-budget horror fare from the ‘70s and ‘80s. To wit, why our the modern equivalents of these films, the DTV movies that pack the video stores each week, and the Sci-Fi “original” movies, so inevitably poor? Not that you’d expect greatness from films like that, but how about some solid, halfway decent efforts?

Well, veteran B-movie maestro Charles Band reminded me that there are still such movies. (I hadn’t even been aware that Band was still making films, but apparently so.) Ones, again, that aren’t really ‘good,’ but are at least somewhat well-crafted, and have a sense of fun regarding their own limitations. Band might not be the Roger Corman of the 21st century, but he’s probably as close as we’ve got right now.

Petrified is the sort of film I can really only recommend (and then with provisions) on the basis of having personally kind of liked it. Certainly I cut the film a lot of slack, and other viewers may not be so tolerant. And it’s not something I’d buy and put on my DVD shelf. Still, it was a satisfactory rental, which was exactly what I had hoped of it.

For an example of things that didn’t bother me (but might bother another), the film is very short. In fact, although it officially runs about 70 minutes, it’s really about an hour, since the combined opening and closing credits must last about ten minutes. However, I’m always gassing on about how the cheesy but fun sci-fi movies of the ‘50s were immeasurably aided by their similarly short running times. Add 20 minutes to many of these, to reach the seemingly obligatory 90-minute running time of today’s cheapie features, and many of these would become unbearable. So, no, a short running time doesn’t bother me.

Our subject wastes no time—as you expect, since it only boasts an hour of actual movie—depicting some crooks meeting up to conduct a shady deal with an antiquities buff. The featured artifacts include a coffin-shaped box, so we immediately get that something bad is about to happen. Sure enough, after collecting their money, the thieves murder their client, and then attempt to murder Buzz, their go-between. Buzz manages to escape. Not long after, a monster bursts from the coffin and sucks the life from the two remaining crooks. Well, that’ll learn ‘em.

Buzz, who scampered off with an artifact in tow, breaks into a seemingly deserted clinic and phones for a ride. Soon after he bumps into an attractive woman, Helen. It was here that, if I didn’t fall in love with the film, I at least got a little crush on it. Asked what sort of clinic this is, she replies, “It’s a facility to cure those with severe cases of nymphomania.” (!!)

I mean, c’mon, how old school can you get? Monsters and nymphomaniacs? That’s pretty much the whole package right there.

It’s with this, though, that the movie will lose a lot of other potential audience members. Somebody like Fred Olen Ray or Jim Wyrnowski or those folks who make those faux-lesbian movies that star Misty Mundae would take this concept and run with it.

However, Band instead proves he’s really old school by largely ignoring the opportunities to pad out the film with several girl on girl make-out scenes. Indeed, he kind of cheats the whole ‘nympho’ thing altogether. There’s a little of that, provided with just a soupcon of T&A. Not much, however, and after the first such scene we never really get another. Again, this sure to irritate many, but I found its hucksterish reticence sort of quaint, even charming.

Instead, we follow the monster as it stalks around the clinic, threatening and killing the various stock characters, all while the film manages to take things fairly seriously and yet still wink at the audience once in a while. This is aided a lot by the actors, who like the film itself aren’t really good, but can at least deliver a line and hit their marks. Still, compared to the stiffs you often get in those aforementioned Sci-Fi original movies, these guys look like the company at the Old Vic.

Production-wise, I’d say that production-wise, the film comes across on a syndicated TV-show level. One thing I really liked is that the monster—a long-dormant outer space beastie wrapped up in mummy bandages (!)—is realized not with CGI but with a good, old fashioned mask. And a pretty decent one at that, I must say. Kudos, chaps. There is CGI, but its generally used for various lighting effects when the monster sucks the life out of people, and its sparing use is another plus.

One of the only times where you really have to call a penalty on the movie is the end of the film. Buzz and Holly meet up with an FBI agent who’s been trailing behind them the whole movie, and the woman has a clearly much shorter haircut than she did the rest of that ‘evening.’ Holly, too, looks different, as if she lost weight or something in her face between the time the main shooting wrapped and this epilogue was filmed. (I’m hoping it’s that, and not that she got plastic surgery or something.)

Presumably they realized that they needed at least a little more running time to get to the point (about an hour) where they could even call this a feature, and shot this wrap-up scene months later. In any case, the blatant hairstyle change particularly is pretty hilarious.

I also enjoyed the way they played the guy who runs the clinic. I was expecting some sort of garden-variety villain, but instead he’s (in the best tradition of crap movies) a fairly benign mad scientist who believes the secret of eternal youth is to be found from the heavily sexed. (!) He’s given all the standard gobbledygook to say regarding his theories, and again given the film’s bizarre lack of actual sexual content after all this buildup, I can only assume Band was having the audience on.

Again, I’m not promising something here. I’m just reporting that I had a pretty good time with this film, and that even its faults were of the sort that I actually embraced. Would you feel the same? Got me. If you’ve got an hour to spare—and maybe a six pack sitting by—maybe you’ll find out some day.

By the way, as the eight minutes (!) of end credits began to roll, I wondered how they found enough names to stretch things out that long. I actually had been planning to joke that my name would now be added to the list, just for having watched the movie. It turns out I wasn’t far wrong. In the midst of the credits, we cut to Charles Band himself during a tour he made of the country, showing some of his films in various theaters and selling various Full Moon-inspired toys, like ones based on his Puppet Master series.

In this clip, Band promised the theater audience that anyone who bought $100 of Full Moon toys and DVDS and whatnot in the lobby would have their name added to the credits of this (then upcoming) movie. And so he apparently did, as perhaps several hundred ‘executive producer’ names begin to scroll by. Smart guy, that Band. Not only did he sell more merchandise, but he ensured that at least 200 people would buy the DVD for this movie!

Order Godzilla DVDs ASAP!!

In a year replete with terrific cult movie DVDs (Brainiac, Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare), one of the best is Classic Media's swank "Gojira" DVD, which boasts for an extremely reasonable price both the Japanese and heavily altered American cut of the film, commentaries, documentaries, a booklet and one of the nicest packages I've ever seen.

Classic has had two more Godzilla DVDs lined up, for the first two sequels, Godzilla Raids Again, and Godzilla vs. Mothra. Both sets will again feature the original Japanese cuts (in Scope, where appropriate), as well as the American dubs. Extras are also included in each set.

These discs were due on Nov 7th, but have been delayed from general release until next spring...

BUT...

The DVDs can still be ordered directly from the site, and they will be mailed out on Nov 7th, months before they hit other venues. The discs are already being offered at a decent 25% discount ($15, instead of $25), and moreover, GOOD THRU THIS FRIDAY, there's a code that knocks $5 off the $5.50 shipping charge:

GRAMOTH1

Or, good until Nov 2nd, if you order both movies (as I did), this code:

GRAMOTH2

knocks $6 off the order. So you save even another buck.

Just enter that code during the order process.

Chances are the discs will be even a bit cheaper next spring, but $15 a shot is a very good price. Frankly, I also just want the company to know people are excited about these discs, so they keep on doing more.

Monday, October 23, 2006

If at first you don't succeed...

"Nobody knows nothing," screenwriter William Goldman once said about the movie business. And he's right. My first reaction to hearing that Keanu Reeves was going to star in cyber-sci-fi movie called The Matrix was, "Good grief, doesn't anyone remember Johnny Mnemonic?!" (On the other hand, my fears were belatedly at least partly justified by that film's two sequels.)

Anyhoo, Nicole Kidman and the new Bond, Daniel Craig, are filming The Invasion (recently changed from The Visiting), the lastest in a long, long line of remakes and knock-offs of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Again, one must ask, "Good grief, doesn't anyone remember The Stepford Wives?!"

However, The Invasion is being produced by Joel Silver, who also produced The Matrix...

Here's hoping he can catch lightning in a bottle a second time. Because if he doesn't, there are going to be a lot of fingers pointing out there, and for good reason.

NBC to go to more reality and game show programming...

Much consternation is going on right now due to the fact that NBC is cutting $750 million dollars from their budget, and that this means that there will be less scripted programming on the network next year, and more reality and game shows, which is a lot cheaper.

I have to admit, I don’t know what the problem is, aside from a certain snobbery regarding reality shows. True, most of them such, but so do most scripted shows. And entries like The Amazing Race and Survivor still hold their own, quality-wise, with the best of network television. Meanwhile, while some are stupid and go off the air quickly, some of the recent gameshows (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Deal or No Deal) have been fairly ingenius.

While these critics moan that the networks don’t allow shows they like to stay on long enough to find an audience—which some shows have, but certainly not a huge amount—the fact remains that the producers of scripted shows are shooting themselves in the foot, like today’s movie stars, by charging too much for their product at a time when (again like movies) the concept is generally more important than the ‘star’ power.

The critically-acclaimed but poorly-rated Friday Night Lights, for instance, supposedly costs over $2 million an episode. A more notable case in point is perhaps this season's most lauded series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Frankly, the only reason this show hasn’t been cancelled yet is that it would lose the network a tremendous amount of face. This was the program that the network spotlighted and blathered on about the most in the pre-season, with the connivance of the critical community.

As I’ve noted in the past, the problem isn’t that Studio 60 isn’t a good show, it’s that it does nothing to bring in audience members who haven’t particularly cared for producer Sorkin’s previous two series, The West Wing and Sports Night. Until Sorkin can figure out a way to stop making niche programming—and it seems likely that The West Wing featured the best setting for his style of fantasy politics and soap opera, one that will be hard to top—it remains entirely possible that he’ll never attract a mass audience again.

The real problem, therefore, is that NBC is paying $3,000,000 an episode (about $75 million for a whole year's slate) for a show that is almost designed not to draw a mass audience. There will be much wailing and snide asides about how the non-viewers were too stupid to ‘get’ the program, but whatever, the fact remains that Studio 60 has shed additional audience share every single week. Sooner or later, NBC will have to bite the bullet and cancel the show.

What’s interesting is how often this happens. Making the Studio 60 debacle even more notable is that not only did NBC redo their entire prime time schedule to protect the program after it’s originally scheduled timeslot was shaping up as too competitive, but that it providentially got a tremendous break from ending up being placed after the show that actually is what Studio 60 was promoted to be; the season’s breakout hit. That program, of course, is Heroes.

There’s probably an interesting book to be written on how programmers keep getting these calls wrong, and that supposed toss away shows, that often just barely got on the air, are the ones that really hit it big. [Actually, that book has been at least partly written. See below.] This makes one wonder what potential mega-hits didn’t make the airwaves in favor of 'star'-laden flavor of the month programming that quickly, and expensively, died on the vine.

The X-Files was pretty much entirely ignored by Fox and the critics in favor of its lead-in, The Adventures of Bronco Billy. (That was a good show, don’t get me wrong. But it was ‘supposed’ to be the hit, not The X-Files.) Same thing with CSI, which only got on the air at the last minute, and was scheduled as an afterthought to run after the supposed slam dunk hit that year, an expensive redo of The Fugitive. Like Studio 60, The Fugitive was kept on longer than was really justified because the network had made such a big deal about it.

In any case, as market fragmentation continues, the real answer for the makers of scripted TV shows, the stars and writers and producers and everyone involved, is that they will have to start making these shows cheaper if they want to avoid being replaced by the American Idols and the Deal or No Deals. Either that, or the networks will have to get better at figuring out which shows are in fact going to draw big enough audiences to justify such expense. And those audiences are going to get harder to get as time goes by.

In any case, anyone who is interested in this sort of thing should definitely check out the recent book Desperate Networks, which covers one year of programming amongst the various broadcast networks and reveals that every one of the biggest shows of the last several years; Lost, American Idol, Desperate Housewives, CSI, etc., just barely got on the air. It’s a great book, and a fascinating look into one of the most influential businesses in America.

Good remakes and bad...

NBC has reportedly ordered a treatment for a new Bionic Woman series, with the redo being sheparded by David Eick, an executive producer of the recent Battlestar Galactica. This is good news, as one would hope that Galactica’s success would auger a slew of remakes of actual failed shows and movies from the past, instead of the often moronic attempts to refashion something that really worked well in the first place. Bionic Woman was certainly not as bad as the original BG, but it could definitely be improved upon. In contrast, look at the recent Night Stalker redo, which got about everything wrong, turning veteran newshound Kolchak into a hot hunky youngster, saddling him with a hot female sidekick, giving him a tragic backstory so as to establish a through-line of the new series (all like four episodes of it), and, worst of all, all but eliminating the humor that defined the original series.

Oh, and make sure Max the bionic dog stays.