From now up until Christmas Day, I'm going to try to post items here about some of the great toys (and other gifts), I got for Christmas when I was a kid. I was lucky enough to grow up in the 1960s which was, in many ways, a true golden age of toys. Let's start with one of the biggest Bond toys of all.
The James Bond 007 Road Race was released in time for Christmas, 1965. It was sold through Sears and it cost plenty. It came in a huge box and consisted of six pre-formed sections containing roadways and landscapes. You snapped the sections together to create a nifty race track. Two slot car type vehicles were included for your racing pleasure: a red Ford Mustang and the classic, iconic Aston Martin DB-5 (which is still the coolest car ever made). Plug this sucker in and let the races begin. Watch out for that oil slick! And the death-defying jump from the mountain top across open space! You could make your car switch lanes if you were skilled enough. It promised, and delivered, hours of fun.
I really, really, really wanted this one from the day I first saw it advertised in the Sears Wish Book Catalog (hands up if you remember that massive tome of treasures). The road race set was huge and expensive but Santa (my mother and grandparents) were good to me that year because this baby was waiting under the tree on Christmas morning. I had to set it up in my parents' bedroom because it required both easy access to an electrical outlet and a fair amount of empty floor space to set it up on. The transformer used to get pretty hot and stinky with that godawful electric smell after a few minutes of racing and I had to unplug everything and let it cool down for a while before resuming my James Bond road race adventure.
GOLDFINGER, the film this set was based on, was the first James Bond film I ever saw. It's still my favorite Bond film of them all. This toy was a terrific way to relive the action and thrills I had seen on the big screen a few months earlier that year. I don't recall exactly what happened to this prized possession. Destroyed? Thrown away? Sold in a yard sale? I only know two things.
It didn't survive my childhood.
And boy, do I wish it had.
British actress Caroline Munro appeared in several 1970s genre films including THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971), THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973 and pictured above), CAPTAIN KRONOS-VAMPIRE HUNTER (1974, one of my personal favorite Hammer horror films), AT THE EARTH'S CORE (1976) and as Bond bad girl Naomi in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977). Note: I saw all of these films in Austin area movie theaters when they were first released. Ms. Munro added a great deal of visual interest to the films she appeared in. They may not have all been masterpieces but they are all unforgettable thanks to her inimitable presence.
The lovely Lynda Carter starred as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in the television series WONDER WOMAN from 1975 to 1979. The show ran for three seasons. The first one, on ABC, was set during WWII. When ABC didn't renew the series, it moved to CBS and the stories were fast-forwarded to the present day.
Carter was perfection as the Amazing Amazon. Next to Christopher Reeve as Superman, she's the best actor to comic book superhero casting ever. If there's any justice in this crazy world, she'll appear as Queen Hippolyta at some point in the upcoming DC movies featuring Wonder Woman.
Lynda Carter is truly one for the ages.
Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (among others), hit upon a fresh, original take on comic book super-heroes when they first started building what would become the Marvel Universe in the early 1960s. The characters that they created were humans first, heroes second. As such, they all had problems of one sort or another. Resentment, anger, jealousy, anxiety, relationship worries, familial responsibilities, damaged hearts, physical handicaps, you name it, the early Marvel super-hero characters had to deal with all of these issues and other types of neuroses. They were all deeply flawed people which served to brilliantly underscore their spectacular achievements as heroes with a heavy dose of irony. As Spider-Man, Peter Parker could save the day against Dr. Octopus. As "puny" Parker, he couldn't catch a break with girls.
HANCOCK (2008) leans heavily on the flawed super-hero trope pioneered by Stan and Jack and other creators. The film opens cold, with Hancock (Will Smith) already established as a Los Angeles based super-hero. He's super strong, invulnerable and can fly but he eschews a costume or alter-ego of any sort. He's simply "Hancock". He's also an asshole.
Hancock has a serious drinking problem. He's angry and isolated from the general public even though he regularly saves the day. The trouble is he does a tremendous amount of property damage in the process which has resulted in several warrants for his arrest being issued. Alone, the only one of his kind in existence, the troubled super-hero takes refuge in the bottle and hides out in, not a Batcave or Fortress of Solitude, but two mobile homes butted together on a hill top overlooking the Los Angeles basin. He's Luke Cage without a costume and a very bad attitude. His drinking problem also echoes the classic "Demon In A Bottle" sequence in which Tony (Iron Man) Stark, wrestled with booze.
Hancock saves public relations pitchman Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) from dying in a train wreck. Ray sees an opportunity with Hancock, a chance to both redeem the fallen hero and make a name for himself as a PR wizard. Ray convinces Hancock to willingly go to jail. He reasons that the longer Hancock stays behind bars, the more the public will miss him and realize that they've taken him for granted. When something truly bad happens again (and the crime rate does escalate in his absence), Hancock will emerge from prison to save the day. Oh, and he'll be sporting a genuine super-hero costume (a blue spandex number with yellow pinstripes that looks like it was borrowed from an X-MEN film).
Sure enough, a major bank robbery goes down, with hostages and a running gun battle with LAPD. Hancock soars into action (accompanied by a score which sounds remarkably like John Williams' classic SUPERMAN fanfare). He saves the day and all is well.
Except it isn't. Because there's something funny going on between Hancock and Ray's wife,
Mary (the take-your-breath-away gorgeous Charlize Theron). She has displayed hostility towards Hancock from the very beginning of the film, a hostility which is finally explained in a not-quite-satisfying third act.
HANCOCK has moments of thrilling super-hero action, all of them brought to vivid life by outstanding special effects. There are also some extremely funny moments in the film, the standout being a scene that takes place during Hancock's first day in prison. I laughed so hard at this one I think I scared my dog. All three leads are solid but I think the screenplay by Vince Gilligan and Vincent Ngo could have used one more rewrite, especially in that third act.
Overall, I enjoyed the film. It was fresh, different and unique. Not being based on any existing comic book property, the creators had full reign to take the characters and the story in any direction they desired. All of that worked for me and I would be tempted to give this one three out of four stars except for one thing.
The camera moves in every shot.
Whether it's to the right, the left, up, down, in or out, the camera is constantly drifting no matter what it's filming. Action sequence or just two people talking, the camera moves and moves and moves and moves. It's an incredibly distracting affectation, one that literally pulls me right out of the fantasy on screen and into the realm of oh-this-is-just-a-movie. Why is the camera moving? Is it to create tension? Induce motion sickness in viewers? Did both director Peter Berg and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler think this would improve the film in some way? Did they not trust the material? This constant movement is as annoying as those oh-so-obnoxious lens flares in every film J.J. Abrams makes. In fact, rumor has it that the upcoming STAR WARS film is going to undergo a name change before release next month to STAR WARS: THE LENS FLARES AWAKEN.
Seriously. Peter Berg. Tobias A. Schiessler. Stop it. Enough with the moving camera already. Don't do it again. Please. Because of this hysterical "look at me, I'm directing!" visual tourette, I have to knock a full star off of HANCOCK's rating. With a locked down camera, it's a three star film. With a helplessly adrift camera, it's a two star movie.
And that's being generous.
This the first entry in what I hope will be a semi-regular feature here on the ol' blog, a little something I call "My Favorite Brunettes." (with apologies to the 1947 Bob Hope film).
Let's begin with Dianna Rigg who captured my heart as Emma Peel on the British cult spy television series THE AVENGERS. Rigg was only on the series for three years, from 1965 to 1968, but she created one of the greatest and strongest pop culture heroines of the 1960s. Smart, athletic and beautiful, Emma Peel is one for the ages.
Rigg was also superb as Tracy, the woman who won James Bonds' heart in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969), one of the best Bond films of all time. She held her own against co-stars Telly Savalas and Oliver Reed in the neo-steampunk comic adventure THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU (1969) and was Vincent Price's partner in peril in the delicious black comedy THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973).
COUNTDOWN (1968) is a semi-science fiction film that I have been vaguely aware of over the years. I know I never saw it when it was released, in fact, I don't recall that the film ever played in any Austin area movie theaters. When I found a copy for two bucks at the thrift store the other day, I knew that here was a chance to fill in a gap in my science fiction film viewing.
COUNTDOWN concerns the efforts of NASA to launch a one-man space flight to the moon. It seems the Russians are about to launch a three-man moon shot before the Apollo program is ready to do the same. The idea is to send a survival hut to the moon ahead of the manned launch. The astronaut who pilots the modified Gemini space capsule to the moon, will then take shelter in the hut and stay there until a subsequent Apollo mission can land and retrieve him.
The project, dubbed the Pilgrim Program, is the brainchild of astronaut Chiz Stewart (Robert Duvall), who wants nothing more than to pilot the craft he designed on the mission he concocted. But NASA top brass refuse to let him go, since Chiz is a military officer and it's determined that a civilian should be the first American on the moon. The assignment is given to Lee Stegler (James Caan), a scientist and rookie astronaut. Chiz is assigned as the mission director and he and Lee continually butt heads during the ramped up training program.
Lee is finally launched on his way to the moon. He lands and sets out to find the survival hut. He finds a surprise on his journey and, with his oxygen supply dwindling, it becomes a race against time for him to find the hut. Does he make it? I'm not telling.
COUNTDOWN is based on the novel THE PILGRIM PROJECT by Hank Searls. The screenplay, by Loring Mandel, is pretty routine stuff. The really interesting things about COUNTDOWN are to be found in the cast and production crew. The film is directed by, believe it or not, Robert Altman. But none of Altman's stylistic quirks are on display here. The movie is directed in a straight-forward, matter-of-fact style that is frankly, pedestrian and boring. The film was produced by none other than William Conrad, who would later star as the rotund title character in the CANNON TV detective series.
Caan and Duvall are both good but neither was a star at this point in their careers. The supporting cast is made up largely of faces seen primarily on television including the lovely Joanna Moore (Nurse Peggy on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) as Caan's wife, Charles Aidman as the chief flight surgeon, Steve Ihnat as a NASA top exec and Ted Knight as a NASA public information official. The whole production has the flat, static look of a made-for-television film. There's lots of stock footage and the final sequences on the moon feature some fairly good special effects. But the narrative lacks any real suspense or tension. Better films in this genre include THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT (1967),,MAROONED (1969), THE RIGHT STUFF (1983), APOLLO 13 (1995) and GRAVITY (2013). Sad to say, I can't really recommend COUNTDOWN to anyone who is not a die hard genre fan.
Despite it's B-movie status, COUNTDOWN earned a comic book adaptation, published by Dell Comics. I have a copy of the comic book in my collection. It has a nice photo cover, as you can see, with make-your-eyes-bleed interior artwork by Jack Sparling.
We lived in Fort Worth, Texas for two years in the early 1960s. It was a temporary relocation for my dad's job. I attended kindergarten and first grade at Westcliff Elementary School. But the thing I remember the most about those years in Fort Worth were the entertainments I was exposed to for the very first time in my young life. I saw and experienced things that made an indelible impression on me, things that, in many ways, shaped my life forever and always.
When I got home from school every afternoon I watched a program called SLAM BANG THEATER on KTVT Channel 11. This was a local kids' show, hosted by a fright wigged character named "Icky Twerp". One of the staples of SLAM BANG were Three Stooges shorts. I saw Moe, Larry and Curly for the first time and loved them. I still do. After SLAM BANG, Channel 11 ran episodes of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. Again, this was my first exposure to the Man of Steel (I had yet to even see, much less own and read a real Superman comic book) and it was love at first sight. I love that show to this day and Superman still ranks as my all-time favorite super-hero.
On Friday nights at 10:30 p.m., Channel 11 ran horror/science movies on a program entitled NIGHTMARE. Like hundreds of similar shows on television stations across the nation in the 1960s, NIGHTMARE had a host, this one named "Gorgon". Both "Gorgon" and "Icky Twerp", of SLAM BANG, were played by a gentleman named Bill Camfield. He was one helluva busy guy!
I remember staying up late with my dad a couple of times to watch THEM! (1954) and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953). These films, along with a telecast of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) on NBC's SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES, were my very first exposure to the cinema of the fantastic and you better believe that that needle went in hard and deep.
The very first science fiction film I saw in a theater was THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1962). It played on a double bill with TARZAN GOES TO INDIA (1962) at the, if I recall correctly, Camp Bowie Theater. I was permitted to attend this double feature with some of the kids from the neighborhood. Someone's mom or dad accompanied us. TARZAN thrilled me. TRIFFIDS petrified me.
Cut to a few years later. We'd moved back to Austin where my dad assumed his new position as general manager of the newly minted Hancock Shopping Center. I used to go to his office regularly after school and he allowed me to pretty much have the run of the entire center. There was a two-story Dillards department store back then and on the second floor, there was a small book department. It was there that I discovered the paperback copy of THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS pictured above. I vividly recalled how much the film had frightened me but nonetheless, I sure wanted to read this book. The cover art was fantastic and I was a fairly advanced reader at a young age (I was probably eight years old at the time). My dad bought the book for me but alas, my young eyes were bigger than my literary stomach was at the time. I never read the book.
I don't know what ever became of that original copy. It's long gone. But at some point over the years, I acquired another copy of that oh-so-seductive looking science fiction paperback book. The other day, I watched CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (and blogged about it). The film was a semi-sequel to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, which was based on the novel, THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS by British author John Wyndam. I checked the science fiction shelves in the man cave and found that the only book I had by Wyndham was THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1951). I decided that, after fifty years, it was time I finally read this acknowledged sf classic.
I finished reading the book yesterday and I must say, it is vastly different from the film. If anything, it's even scarier in its' depiction of a world gone almost totally blind due to a vast, worldwide meteor shower which caused everyone who looked directly at it to be blinded overnight. Waking up in a hospital ward, his eyes bandaged from an accident, our hero Bill Masen, finds himself one of a handful of sighted survivors in a London plunged into chaos and upheaval as blind people stagger helplessly through the streets.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the triffids are also moving about. These enormous, ambulatory plants (created in a laboratory prior to the meteor shower and, ironically, the instrument of Bill's bandaged eyes) possess whip-like, toxin coated stingers that lash out at humans causing severe injuries and death.
Bill soon finds a lovely young woman, Josella, who is also sighted. Together they try to survive and escape from London, searching for other sighted people. They meet several different factions, some espousing mutual co-operation, others forcing a kind of slave labor in order to care for both the sighted and the blind. At one point, Bill and Josella become separated and Bill, along with a no-nonsense companion named Coker, set out to find her. Along the way, Bill rescues Susan, a young sighted girl, whose brother has been killed by the triffids. Bill and Susan eventually find Josella and several bind people in a remote farm house where they set about making a new life for themselves. The have to continually guard against the triffids who appear to have the ability to hear as well as move.
Several years pass before the small group is contacted by an emissary from another colony established on an island just off the British coast. Bill and the others make plans to join this new colony but before they can depart, they are waylaid by gun-toting "soldiers" who demand that they work for the feudal government the men have created.
The climax is a bit rushed and the story ends on an abrupt, albeit hopeful, note. THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS. is a terrific post-apocalyptic novel which posits a terrifying new world. The narrative, told by Bill, is gripping and thought provoking, detailing what an average man and woman must do to survive and begin to rebuild a shattered society. It's grim stuff that taps directly into the post war anxieties of the Cold War and the nascent atomic age. Add in the brilliantly conceived triffids and you have a genuine science fiction classic.
It took me a long time to finally read this unsettling and disturbing work but I'm glad I did. It's not everyone's cup of tea but it is very well done. Highly recommended.
I watched BEDLAM (1946) as my Halloween horror movie for this year. BEDLAM was one of several low-budget horror films produced by Val Lewton at RKO during the '40s. They are all good and worth seeking out.
BEDLAM is not so much a horror film as it is a historical costume drama about social justice and reformation. There's no supernatural element whatsoever but there is a monster, a very human one. Boris Karloff stars as Master George Sims, the man in charge of St.Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum in 1761 London. Bow legged and black bewigged, Sims oozes malevolence. Not only does he mistreat the poor souls in his care but he actually charges the moneyed class for tours of the asylum. His exploitation of the mentally ill carries a whiff of Tod Browning's macabre masterpiece FREAKS (1932).
Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is the heroine of the piece. She begins as a paid companion to the corpulent and corrupt Lord Mortimer (Billy House) but she slowly has her eyes opened to the horrors of the asylum by steadfast, Quaker stone-mason Hannay (Richard Fraser). Nell lobbies for reform, enlisting Whig politician John Wilkes (Leyland Hodgson) for help. But she's brought up on false charges and imprisoned in Bedlam where she learns the truth about some of the inmates and faces Master Sims' ultimate cure for insanity.
Producer Lewton and director Mark Robson used William Hogarth's artwork A Rake's Progress as source material for the screenplay which they co-wrote. The cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca is approprately atmospheric. With a running time of 79 minutes, BEDLAM tells a tightly constructed tale that is highlighted by a superb performance by Karloff. Note: one of the inmates is played by Robert Clarke, who went on to star in the low-budget genre classic THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON (1959). I almost met Robert Clarke once years ago but that's a story for another time.
BEDLAM isn't your typical horror film but it's well worth seeing if you're a fan of Karloff or the films of Val Lewton. It would work well on a triple bill alongside Sam Fuller's SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963) and Milos Forman's ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975). Recommended.