Monday, October 14, 2019

Childhood Memories: More Halloween Specials

The Halloween Train is a'rollin'! Our next stop? Some sweet childhood memories...

Several years ago, October 2013 in fact, I wrote about some of my favorite and most memorable Halloween Specials, from my childhood years. The big ones were covered, like It's The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, and Garfield's Halloween Adventure. But there were certainly many more, some I remember clearly, and some that are more or less lost to the vapors of time. Today I'm here, all these years later, to finally get around to talking about some more of those pieces of my childhood. So let's get started!

Few things are worse than a sad pumpkin.

The Pumpkin Who Couldn't Smile (1979)

Directed by one of the greatest figures in animation history, Mr. Chuck Jones himself, this Raggedy Anne & Andy cartoon was something of a follow-up to the previous year's Christmas special, The Great Santa Claus Caper. While that story featured someone (who looked an awful lot like Wile E. Coyote) trying to ruin Christmas, in this story, Halloween is in the process of BEING ruined, for two sad, lonely souls. The first, is a little boy name Ralph, whose Aunt Agatha thinks that Halloween is a pointless holiday, just an excuse for children to get into mischief, and thus won't allow little Ralph to partake. Anne and Andy, voiced by veteran voice actors June Foray and Daws Butler, set out to find a Halloween pumpkin for Ralph, to try and cheer him up.

The principle players (minus Agatha).

 Which of course brings us to the second lonely soul, a lone pumpkin in a pumpkin patch, who hadn't been picked by anyone. Utterly depressed and crying uncontrollably, the pumpkin was resigned to rotting, or possibly becoming someone's pie, but of course Anne and Andy have other ideas. With the help of their dog Raggedy Arthur and his trusty skateboard, they manage, with a few hijinks, to get the pumpkin down the hill, to Ralph's house. They hoist him up to Ralph's window, where the boy instantly falls in love, but their job isn't quite done just yet. There's still Aunt Agatha (also voiced by Foray) to contend with. Raggedy Anne speaks to Agatha in her sleep, and reminds her of when she was a little girl, and had loved Halloween, to which Agatha awakes and remembers. Agatha realizes that her nephew deserves to have those beloved memories and good times too, so she has a change of heart, dresses up like a witch, and takes Ralph out Trick or Treating while there's still time.

All in all, a simple but sweet special, and very much embodying Chuck Jones' sense of heart that most of his works possessed. I loved this special as a kid, which they would show in reruns various years. Even though it made me sad for the boy and the pumpkin, to have these two lonely souls come together and have each other, and to have Aunt Agatha flip the script and become fun again, it was a nice emotional ride that made me feel good. Plus I really wanted my own Raggedy Arthur!

Childhood terror.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949)

Actually one half of the two-story 1949 Disney feature The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, both this and the Wind in the Willows segment were played with some regularity on the Disney Channel when I was growing up in the 80s and early 90s (back when the channel was worth a damn). This wasn't exactly a "Halloween Special", per say, but either as part of the Disney's Halloween specials of the 80s, or just by itself in full, the Disney Channel tended to play this classic gem pretty much every year, in some form.

The stuff nightmares are made of.

 For as much of reputation for being "kiddy" as Disney seems to have (even when I was a kid), they certainly had a way of embodying fear, and darkness, and evil, in their animated movies over the years. Whether it was Queen Grimhilde, who turned herself into the old witch in their original Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs feature, or the fearsome Sheer Khan in The Jungle Book, or The Horned King in the underappreicated classic The Black Cauldron. And the spectre of the Headless Horseman, roaming the woods on Halloween Night, is no exception. In fact he might be the most fearsome of all!

Based on the 1820 short story by Washington Irving, the Disney adaptation faithfully tells the story of the tiny town of Sleepy Hollow, and their new eccentric schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane. Crane fancies the young and beautiful Katrina Van Tassel, heiress to much local farmland and fortune, and wants to make her his wife. But the local hero and roughneck, Brom Bones, has other ideas. So at a harvest party at the Van Tassel house one night, Brom proceeds to tell a scary story of the "Legend of the Headless Horseman", who allegedly accosts travelers on that very night, and drags them to hell if they can't outrace him and cross the covered bridge, which he is incapable of crossing.

To me as a kid, the tale itself WAS legitimately spooky, but the sequence that followed, of poor Ichabod on his moonlit ride home, was outright scary. As he and his lazy horse get spooked by various sights and sounds in the night along their way, they eventually come to the darkest part of the wood. It's there, that they are indeed accosted by a mysterious cloaked form, who indeed seems to be missing a head. That Headless Horseman has a sword, and seems to be after Ichabod's head! The atmosphere of fear and dread that Disney created for this sequence is fairly unmatched, I think, in the history of animation, as far as creating a truly frightening scene goes. It is the perfect haunted tale, and thus is perfect for any Halloween. I always liked to think that Ichabod truly did get away, but that's up to each viewer to decide.

The Davis Family.

Mr. Boogedy (1986)

Unlike the previous two specials listed, this one was new when I was a child. I would have been about five years old when it premiered on the Disney Channel. This live action special is unique for a couple of reasons, but the chief one is, that it manages to be both goofy as hell, yet at parts legitimately creepy, especially if you were a kid like me. Starring Richard Masur and Mimi Kennedy as Mr. and Mrs. Davis, as well as young actors Kristy Swanson and David Faustino (who would later go on to fame in the Married with Children show), the Davis family (including youngest son "R.E."), are a perfectly likable, yet goofy family. Carlton, the father, who adores pranks and jokes of all sorts, runs a novelty gag shop, which he is moving, along with his family, to the sleepy hamlet of Lucifer Falls. He's moving them into a requesitely spooky old house, with a purported haunted history to boot!

Boogedy Boogedy, BOO!

As silly as this movie can be, including the town historian Mr. Witherspoon, played by the great John Astin (of Addams Family fame), to me as a little kid, it also genuinely scared at least a little shit out of me at times too. It turns out that their home used to belong to a mean old bastard named William Hanover, who loved a young widow Marion, who did not return his feelings. So he made a deal with the devil himself, to gain a magic cloak which granted him great power. He used this cloak to kidnap Marion's son Jonathan, in an attempt to force her to marry him, but when he used the magic he couldn't control, he accidentally blew up his house, killing all three, who would be stuck in the place as ghosts. The Davis boys, Corwin and R.E., first meet the ghost of Jonathan, who still has the cough he died with, and the entire family eventually begins getting haunted by Hanover, the titular "Mr. Boogedy" of the film, who has the ability to possess objects, and even people.

The Disney Channel played this for several Halloweens when I was growing up, as well as its somewhat unnecessary sequel Bride of Boogedy, though I think they had stopped playing it in favor of newer stuff, sadly, by the time the mid-90s hit.

That says it all.

Halloween Is Grinch Night (1977)

Another spooky piece of my childhood, this was played at least two or three times on TV as I was growing up, in repeat of course, as I wasn't born until late 1981. Produced by Dr. Seuss himself, as almost all of the animated specials based on his works were, this one was, I do believe, a TV exclusive sequel, much as the later The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat was. It was executive-produced by DePatie-Freeling Enterprises, co-founded by legendary animator Friz Freeling of Looney Tunes fame. DFE was responsible for the Pink Panther shorts of the late 60s and 70s, as well as most of the Dr. Seuss specials, and several TV shows like the 70s Fantastic Four and Spider-Woman. As for this special itself, while not AS classic as the original 1966 adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (directed by Chuck Jones), I'd personally say that it's pretty close.

That mean ol' Grinch!

I suppose that you could, as I do, consider this to be a prequel to the Grinch's Christmas story, as he's still terrorizing Whoville at this time. The setting is on Halloween night, which in Whoville means trouble. For on Halloween night, that's when the "Sour-Sweet Wind" starts a'blowing, and that sets creatures like the Gree-Grumps and Hakken-Kraks to making all sorts of noise. Which in turn makes the Grinch, who is permanently grump, go into EXTRA grump mode. And THAT means that Whoville is gonna suffer, because when he's EXTRA grump, he likes to scare people!

He ain't afraid of no ghosts!

But there's one little Who, who doesn't give a single shit, or at least pretends not to, about this scary, scary Grinch, on this scary scary night. His name is Euchariah, an intelligent and learned little fellow, who has to use the "Euphemism" (the outhouse) after those Sour-Sweet Winds start raging, and those winds blow him all the way up to Mt. Crumpit, where the Grinch lives. On the road, he encounters said Grinch, driving his Paraphernalia Wagon with the begrudging help of his dog Max, down to Whoville to stir up trouble. But in Euchariah, he finds a boy who claims not to be afriad, and so he decides to put the boy to the test, inviting him into the wagon, and all the terrors that await. The boy does just that, which leads to a surreal and awesome segment where all manner of Dr. Seuss weirdness abounds. But in the end, ol' Euch ain't havin' it, and tells the Grinch to stuff it! It's a great testament to standing up to your fears, but it's also a really great special, perfectly suited to the holiday.

While the great Boris Karloff, who originally voiced the Grinch, was about a decade passed by this point, voice actor Hans Conried, who would voice Thorin Oakenshield in my beloved Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Hobbit the same year, filled in admirably in the role. In a fun bit of trivia, Henry Gibson, of Laugh In and The 'Burbs fame, did the "voice" of Max the dog. This is one of my favorite Halloween specials, and in my opinion the second-best Seuss cartoon, after the original Grinch affair.


So there you have it! Some more Halloween Special goodness, which I'm sure some of you were aware of, and some of you weren't. If you've never seen any of these, or even if you have, do consider looking them up and dusting them off during this month of October. Classic horror movies are nice, but nothing beats a good Halloween Special, if you ask me. Stay tuned, as there just MIGHT be one more Halloween treat headed your way before the big day hits! Cheers!

Monday, September 23, 2019

Godzilla Chronicles: Destroy All Monsters!

Last time around, I took at look at what some might consider the least of the Showa Era Godzilla films, 1967's Son of Godzilla. Of course, that's not an entirely fair estimation, considering the movie that came after the one we're here today to talk about. But that's a story for another time. Today, we're here to talk about what most Godzilla fans consider one of the very best in the series,  1968's Destroy All Monsters!

Godzilla hanging out in "Monsterland".

Destroy All Monsters saw the return of the two original mainstays of the franchise, director Ishiro Honda, and composer Akira Ifukube. Both had taken a break from the series since 1965's Invasion of the Astro Monster, my personal favorite. The two films in between had taken a progressively lighter tone, both being adventures taking place on small islands. For Destroy, Ishiro brought the series back to a somewhat more serious tone, more or less picking up where he had left off in "Monster Zero", dealing with alien invaders.

The big difference here though, was that while his previous Godzilla movies, Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster and Invasion, really established the "monster mash" motif, having three or four monsters at a time, for Destroy, he and Toho wanted to go bigger. By this time in the late 1960s, the Godzilla franchise was starting to make progressively less money, so at the time of production, there was a very real idea that what they were making would in fact be the last Godzilla movie, possibly ever. With that in mind, they wanted to go out with a bang, and thus in some ways this was the most expensive, and ambitious Godzilla movie to date. This time, they weren't going to have just three or four monsters. They were going to have just about every monster previously seen, even in non-Godzilla Toho films, outside of King Kong.

One of the more obscure monsters, Varan.

As far as the plot goes, because this movie was originally somewhat intended to be the last hurrah for the series, it takes place in the "far future" of 1999 (keeping in mind that this was 1968). By that date, mankind had, in the Tohoverse, reached a technological level where they could deal with the giant monsters of the world more easily. They kept most of them on a remote island which they dubbed "Monsterland" (called "Monster Island" in later films), a place where they could both study these amazing creatures, and through various scientific means, keep them from trampling around the globe. World peace had more or less become the norm by this version of 1999, and mankind even had outposts on the moon.

To this backdrop, we the audience are fairly quickly into the film, treated to these now peaceful monsters, suddenly missing from the island. Instead, they're inexplicably off rampaging around literally the entire planet. One thing this movie did that was unique for these old Toho films, was that it involved the whole world, and not just Japan or some nearby fictional island. Gorosaurus, a monster from the 1967 film King Kong Escapes (displaying Baragon's burrowing ability) trashes the Arc de Triumph in Paris, France. Rodan causes hurricane force winds to smash up Moscow, Russia. A new Mothra larva is seen running amuck in Beijing, China. The great sea serpent Manda, from the 1963 film Atragon, lays waste to a rail system in London, England. And the big man himself, Godzilla, is shown in perhaps the film's most iconic imagery, destroying the United Nations building in New York!

How can Gorosaurus burrow underground with such tiny T-Rex arms?

Godzilla, about to toast the "Big Apple".

Humanity is left scrambling to discover just what the hell caused them to lose control of these monsters, and make them go on this extra-aggressive global assault. And naturally, once they do a little digging, they discover the answer: more goddamned aliens! This time, with those bastards from Planet X out of the way, another race from much further into space come calling. The female-looking Kilaaks are the culprits this time around, and of course what they want is ownership of the Earth. They basically stole Planet X's playbook on controlling monsters to threaten Earth, but they just upped the ante, using about ten monsters instead of just three.

You could even call these chicks Kilaakian K......jerks.

Of course what any Godzilla fan and/or kid worth their salt would care about, was the monster action. And while it could have had more, this movie still delivers. It's cool to see the various monsters all over the planet, but unfortunately those scenes are just tantalizing, short little morsels. The main course isn't delivered until the movie's epic climax. It turns out that all those attacks on other cities, was just a distraction so that the Kilaaks could set up shop in Japan. Soon enough, they have the monsters doing what they do best: attacking Tokyo, etc.

But without giving TOO much away, those pesky Earthmen (and women) eventually pull through, and manage to sever control of the monsters. The aliens are then forced to reveal the final boss, Godzilla's biggest and baddest foe, King Ghidorah!

The King vs. The Demon From Space

My boy, Anguirus, along with Gorosaurus.

Ultimately, the film's highlight is the big battle royal, or if we're using proper pro wrestling terms, a major handicap match, between the seemingly unstoppable King Ghidorah, and practically every other major monster on Earth. In the past, keeping in mind that Godzilla is a badass who is never fully defeated by anyone, even if he "loses" a fight now an then (King Kong, Mothra Larva), the Big G and his enemies/friends, could not fully defeat the evil space dragon Ghidorah. Both times that Godzilla and Co. fought him, they were able to basically drive him away from Earth, and that's it.

That's really saying something, considering Godzilla's track record. He's kicked the shit out of more monsters than he could shake his tail at. But Ghidorah? That dude is made of tougher stuff! So THIS time around, and again bearing in mind Toho was treating this as the last Godzilla film, they threw a TON of monsters at the three-headed sonuvabitch. Godzilla, of course, leads the charge, but almost everyone else gets some kind of lick in. On the one hand, it does seem kind of unfair that Ghidorah is ganged up on by like, EVERYBODY. But on the other hand, it also emphasizes just how bad ass he apparently is, because it takes help from most of Godzilla's pals, to really put him in his place.

One of the best scenes in the movie, Anguirus biting that asshole's neck!

Stomping a mudhole and walking it dry.

Now for my part, this is one of the few Showa Era films I didn't get to see as a kid. During my "Godzilla Craze" years, from ages 8 to 13 or so, as I've related in the past, I got to see most of them in some fashion or another. Whether it was VHS tapes we'd find at Walmart, or my beloved TNT's MonsterVision, I got to see all but four of the fifteen Godzilla movies, as well as related films like the solo Rodan and Mothra movies. But it's really too damn bad I had to miss out on this one. While Ghidorah would have been nice, Son is fun, and Hedorah incredibly unique, Destroy is the BIG Battle action that a kid obsessed with Godzilla, as I was, would have gone nuts for.

Essentially speaking, what I'm saying is that I wish I'd been able to see ALL of the Showa films during that young, raw, innocent age. Because I would have enjoyed them all and gotten a lot more out of them. I didn't get to see Destroy, I'm going to say, until at least age 16 or 17, when I finally managed to rent it. I still enjoyed it, due to my enduring nostalgic love of Godzilla. But I would have absolutely flipped my shit, even at age 12 or 13, to be able to see that climactic battle.

The cover art of the original DVD I owned.

As with almost all of these films, I would eventually come to own it on DVD in my 20s, when I had spending cash to burn. Above, you can see the cover of the original DVD I bought, but as neat as that art is, the disc itself sucked. Yes, the movie was there, but that was literally ALL that was there. The damned thing didn't even have so much as a menu screen! You just popped the disc in, and the movie immediately started, and would play on loop until you stopped it. It was nice owning the movie, but to say that DVD release was a let-down is an understatement. Thankfully, I came to later own a better, more worthwhile DVD release, which actually had, you know, a menu, and subtitles, etc.

Thinking about where this movie stands for me, when it comes to Godzilla movies, I'm not sure it's in my personal Top 5. Keeping in mind that my Top 5, or even Top 10, are made up entirely of Showa era films. While I do like and appreciate the 80s/90s Hesei era films, they just don't compare to the tone, spirit, and fun, to me, of the Showa movies. I like Destroy All Monsters a lot, even though I was sadly robbed of that childhood nostalgia connection to it. But even with the grandeur of its climactic battle, it doesn't quite hold a candle, for me, to my all-time favorite, "Godzilla vs. Monster Zero" (the alternate name for Invasion of the Astro Monster). My Top 3, easily, are Monster Zero, Sea Monster, and King Kong, in that order. I suppose #4 would be a toss-up between Hedorah (Smog Monster) and the first Mecha-Godzilla film. So it's possible that Destroy is #5, if one of those two aren't.

The cast and crew.

As a movie on its own merits, while "cheesy" by many people's standards, for what it is it's pretty solid. The plot is simpler and more streamlined than even, say, Monster Zero or Sea Monster. But it's a well done, entertaining ride. And as far as technical achievement's go, I can't stress enough just how complex and likely difficult it was to pull off that final battle. Keeping in mind that "monster suit" actors were not in high abundance, as you had to have high endurance, be in great shape, and have a high tolerance for discomfort, and be able to act and move in bulky suits where you can barely see, if at all. The fact that they pulled off such an elaborate fight, and involved so many monsters, was a hugely ambitious thing for them in that time. And I think they pulled it off pretty well.

By today's standards, many people look at guys in suits stomping around miniature sets, and say "that looks SO fake". But the thing is, those suits were usually high quality and super elaborate, and the miniature sets were works of art in their own right, taking a long time to build and having a (usually) high attention to detail. The whole "Suitmation" deal was an art-form of its own, that Toho basically pioneered, and it gave birth to later things like Ultraman, and the Power Rangers. It seems to be a dying art, at least in the movies (it's still going strong in Japan with GoRanger, Ultraman, Kamen Rider, etc. shows). Even Toho themselves seem to have mostly abandoned it, which in my opinion really sucks. Much like stop-motion animation, or traditional hand drawn cell animation, it is an art form that I strongly feel deserves to be continued and kept alive. There is something far more organic, and "real", about seeing giant monsters "in the flesh", so to speak, instead of even the best, most detailed, yet lifeless computer graphics.


So as always, if you haven't seen Destroy All Monsters, make sure to put it on your list of "Movies to Watch" this Halloween season. And speaking of Halloween season, stay tuned for more spooky goodness to come in the month of October!

For now, for any who may have missed them, here are the other Godzilla Chronicles articles, in order:

1. The Beginning

2. Gojira (aka Godzilla: King of the Monsters)

3. Godzilla Raids Again

4. King Kong vs. Godzilla

5. Mothra vs. Godzilla

6. Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster

7. Invasion of the Astro Monster (aka Godzilla vs. Monster Zero)

8. Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster

9. Son of Godzilla

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Silver Screen Stories: The Dark Crystal

With this property's sudden resurgence in interest, I think it's high time I talked in depth about one of my favorite movies of all time, and in my humble opinion, one of the best films ever made.

In December, 1982, a movie quietly released that, while it made money, was not a big financial success, and certainly not a blockbuster hit. And yet, it was arguably the most unique display ever put to film, presenting arguably the most distinctive and inspiring cinematic world ever crafted. This was all done before the age of CGI and cheap movie tricks. This was done with a lot of grueling work and determined effort, led by a mad visionary and his merry gang. That man was Jim Henson, and that movie, was what I (and I believe he) consider to be his master work, The Dark Crystal.

Doing it the hard way. The right way.

Coming off of the raging success and cultural phenomenon that was The Muppet Show, not to mention teaching and inspiring entire generations with his contributions to Sesame Street, Jim Henson was a man suddenly finding himself wielding a certain amount of power and creative capital. With the additional success of his first film (though he didn't direct, a fact he later lamented), 1979's The Muppet Movie, and deciding to end his famous Muppet TV hit after only five seasons, while he felt they were still on top, he was ready to finally realize a project he'd been slowly crafting for years. Jim had always felt, even when he was first doing TV spots in the 60s, and then the early Sesame days on PBS, that puppetry wasn't "just for kids". In fact he was insulted by the notion. He took it not only as an affront, but also as a challenge, to prove that no, in fact, puppetry could be, and should be, for everyone. He realized that in a big way with his smash success, The Muppet Show, a show centered around cute and funny puppets, that aired on "Prime Time" TV, and appealed to people of all ages. He had already proven his point in spades, but to a creative madman like Mr. Henson, that was simply not enough.

He believed that puppetry could evolve. That it could, and should, go even further. And to fully illustrate and actualize his vision, he had just the project in mind. He had been thinking for years, of a story, grand in concept and adventure, set on an entirely alien world, yet embodying incredibly familiar and pertinent elements for we sordid humans here on Earth. Jim was the kind of guy who literally wanted to change the world, and in some small way, I think his most complex, most challenging, and at least as far as I'm concerned, his greatest work, achieved that.

Fantasy made real.

The remarkable thing about The Dark Crystal, is not just that it features (even by today's standards) super complex and advanced puppetry, and animatronic work that for the time was very bleeding edge and groundbreaking. It also isn't the excellent cinematography work or memorable, sweeping score. It isn't even the charming, frightening, and universally excellent characters the story presents. The MOST remarkable thing, if you ask me, is the fact that this movie creates an entirely original, unique, alien world, Earth-like enough to not be jarring, and yet very much not of this world. They didn't skimp when making this movie, even though they made it on a "paltry" budget of $25 million dollars. They squeezed every last drop out of that budget and their production time, and practically broke their backs creating and filming what, as far as I'm concerned, is the most lush, most vivid, most organic, and most fully realized fantasy/sci fi world ever put to film. And all of this while not having a single, regular human character, purely puppetry, animatronics, and a few long-shots of actors for fluid movement.

They went the extra mile and then some, probably in large part because of Jim's drive and obsessiveness to detail. He had a lot of collaboration and help making his dream a reality, but make no mistake, The Dark Crystal was Jim's vision and his baby. He wanted to craft an entirely foreign world, and while the film does feature some beautiful location shots as well, the vast majority of the film features just that: a living, breathing world that they built from scratch. And they didn't do the bare minimum, or even a great job. They did a fantastic job, probably even going overboard in the world-building department. Every rock, every weird alien plant, and curious little creature, from a spooky bog, to a dense jungle, and even soaring mountaintops, are all beautifully crafted and realized. Every single set, from the "Earth Mother" Aughra's mountain observatory, to the rustic Podling village, to the dusty Gelfling ruins, and of course the dark and daunting Crystal Palace, not a single square inch is left unattended. They weren't lazy with even the tiniest, most easily hidable corner of any set. This movie isn't just a water mark for puppetry, animatronics and special effects, it should be required viewing for set design and production as well.

Jen's teacher and father figure, urSu the Mystic.

Kira's family, the people who raised her, the Podlings.

As a child in the 80s, I can rightly say that this was indeed one of the movies I "grew up with". Even in the years before we owned a VCR, this must have played on TV, because I know I saw it several times. I have heard many people say that this movie "scared the shit out of them as a kid". But I honestly did not have that experience, and feel like most who say that are exaggerating. Yes, it has some scary parts, certainly the monster Garthim, which definitely did scare me as a kid a bit. But my memories of this movie are not of being "traumatized", as some hyperbollically claim. Rather, my memories of it are fond, happy ones. This world, and these characters really delighted and inspired kid me, so much so that it became one of my favorite movies of all time, and remains so to this day.

One of the film's many iconic moments.

Story-wise, at its heart, beyond the obvious themes of "Good vs. Evil", things coming full circle, and in a way, redemption, to me, the story is about the two main characters, Gelflings Jen and Kira. Both orphaned at a very young age, because of the Skeksis ordered extermination of their people, neither grew up knowing much at all about themselves or their own culture. In fact, before Fate had them meet as the story unfolds, they each had come to believe they were the very last of their kind. Jen and Kira are awesome to me, beyond just being the movie's heroes. They are also, in a way, "Soul Mates", and they lean on each other and come to each other's aid, throughout the tale once they're together.

Jen is, pragmatically speaking, the central protagonist of the tale, as he is who you meet first, he is the one given a quest by his dying master, and it is technically he who Destiny seems to have tasked with healing the eponymous "Dark Crystal", to save their world. But having grown up sheltered by the wise and gentle Mystics, while he did commendably make his way, alone, to grumpy Aughra's mountain, Jen is largely naive to the greater outside world. It is arguable that without meeting Kira and receiving her aid, he might not have completed his quest. Or perhaps it is more appropriate to say, that much like the concept of "Soul Mates", the two of them really do compliment and complete each other in the tale. Jen with his higher learning and sense of purpose, and Kira with her knowledge of the natural world and seemingly endless compassion. They work together from the moment they meet, Kira joining him without a second thought, as if they belonged together, which honestly they did. And ultimately, without spoiling too much, it takes them both to meet their journey's end.

The Gelflings confronted for the first time by a Skeksis.

I've actually covered this film a bit in the past, in the second part of my "Top Favorite Movies" piece. In that article, I somewhat arbitrarily listed it at "Number 10", which isn't really accurate to where it should stand on my list of favorite movies of all time. This is legitimately one of those films that I almost never get tired of. I would likely get sick of seeing it for a bit if I saw it too frequently, but it is one of those movies that I can pop on almost "anytime", and still feel like watching it and enjoy it. Most movies, even many I adore, I have to be in a mood to sit and watch. This is one of those very rare films where that isn't so much the case. Having said that, if I were to "officially" say where this movie belongs on that list, I would at least say the Top Five. It's damn hard to think about pushing out the likes of Ghostbusters, Big Trouble in Little China, or The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. But in all honesty, when I really give it serious consideration, this probably belongs as my #3, or even arguably #2, behind only my TOP favorite of all time, the 1977 Rankin/Bass animated The Hobbit.

The Ritual of the Suns.

Seeing as I spoke at length about this movie in that aforementioned article, I think I might as well quote some of what I said there, as I don't mind saying it was pretty decent stuff:

"The ultimate end product, wound up being quite possibly the most dense, organic, living and vibrant fantasy world ever put to film, and that is including all of the massive-budget CGI films of the modern day. With a sweeping, majestic musical score, a dark but endearing story that Henson himself wanted to reflect the original, darker Grimm's Fairy Tales type material, a lot of deep spirituality and philosophy hidden in subtle layers throughout the film's world, and characters that were not only visually stunning and lifelike, but genuinely memorable. I remember seeing this movie as a young child, and having it evoke so many things from me at such a young age: fear, wonder, excitement, inspiration, you name it. I truly don't think this movie gets nearly the recognition it deserves, both for the almost impossible, monumental achievement it's even getting made and coming out like it did represents, but also for just genuinely being an amazing piece of film. And to think that the studios producing this master-work, were going to gimp it and give it minimal advertising, basically sending it out to die, because they "didn't get it". Thankfully, Jim cared so much about his baby, that he bought it back from the studio, and funded it's release himself, just to make sure it got a fair shake."

That last part is absolutely true. Jim not only wanted creative control of his vision, but he also wanted to avoid a situation that many great films (such as Big Trouble in Little China) suffered at the hands of Hollywood. That being the sheer idiocy of a major studio putting millions of dollars into a film, only to effectively "send it out to die" by releasing it at a bad time, and/or giving it next to no actual promotion, ensuring it will fail the box office. And again, while it was no mega-hit, Jim's shrewd and risky move paid off, as the film was a financial success, even if at the same time it somehow also got semi-ignored. It did, of course, go on to become a cult hit on VHS and TV showings, where I first encountered it, as I'm sure many other 80s (and perhaps even 90s) kids did.

Another great thing about this movie was the fantastic art it generated. You can already see some at the top of this article, but here are a few more:

A European poster, I believe.

Simply stunning detail.

Excellent "Good and Evil" contrast.

The simplest, and my personal favorite.

As I'm writing this, a new prequel series on Netflix now exists, and is available to watch. The movie itself has also, to Netflix's credit, been on their streaming service (as well as available to rent physically), for some time now as well. I won't speak too much on the series, though I've watched a few episodes so far, except to say that while it definitely has a few of its details wrong, which I feared, it does seem to have its heart in the right place, and is mostly pretty well done. The biggest criticism I'll lay at it before I move on, is to say, of course, that while the production crew should absolutely be commended for mostly sticking to the style of the original movie, as the vast majority of characters and creatures are still puppetry or animatronics, and there are no human actor characters, I STILL feel the show utilizes FAR too much CGI for my taste. The original masterpiece created an entire living fantasy world without it, I think outside of a few little flourished here and there, this new crew could have and should have as well.

Interestingly enough, this series was technically born out of an idea for a sequel film, called "The Power of the Dark Crystal", which was for decades stuck in what is known as "development hell", where it simply found no backing and gained no real traction. That concept, taking place years after the movie's events, was eventually turned into a twelve issue comic book series, released in 2017, which I still need to read. I had been somewhat excited by the idea of a sequel, and yet, frankly, much like this well-meaning prequel series, while it might have been cool, nothing can ever top, or even truly match, the original.

The one of a kind Aughra.

As far as this man's concerned, The Dark Crystal was and remains a singular cinematic experience, the likes of which had never been done before, and I do not earnestly believe will ever truly be done again. Of all the many incredible things that Jim Henson brought to life over his career, I really do feel like this movie was his "Magnum Opus", and from what I've gathered, Jim felt that way himself. I think he wanted to keep going, to try and do even more and go even further with puppetry, which to a limited effect he tried with the movie "Labyrinth", but while exceptionally well done, it just wasn't on the same level. I don't think any of his other works were, even as great as they were. To me, this movie embodied not only what he worked for and believed in as a creator, but I also feel it embodies Jim Henson the person. As if this movie, more than any other work, is his creative fingerprint. It certainly was his most unique, and probably the hardest thing he ever made. But he loved it, and so do I.

I genuinely feel bad for any person, especially any child, who has never seen this movie. Because I really do believe it is one of those "have to see before you die" type of films. I also think that it's difficult as numbed and jaded adults, to get the fully experience as (sadly) only a child can. My childhood sucked big time in a lot of ways, but I was fortunate in the respect that I got to experience movies like these when I was raw, open, and innocent. And if I had to say that any three words most represented what I feel Jim Henson tried to present to people with his works, it would be those three: raw, open, and innocent. I certainly think that was probably what he wanted to make us "big kids" be able to feel again, even if only for a few fleeting moments.

So as I often say with these pieces, if you've somehow never seen this movie, then please go watch it. If you haven't seen it in a long time? Give it another whirl. And for the love of all that's good and pure in the world, if you happen to have kids, MAKE sure they watch it too. Take care, and brace yourselves for the coming spooky season...

Sunday, July 28, 2019

80s Sci Fi Cult Classics

Most people are aware of the big hits of any given era of film. But much like the contrast between big hit songs on a given album, versus the "deep cuts", the remaining tracks that did not become radio hits, there are far more films that come and go in a given year, let alone a given decade, that sadly for often a combination of reasons (not all said reasons being sensible or fair) do not become big hit films. Some of these do, however, find life later on, and a fanbase, as they eventually come to be appreciated and even loved. These kinds of films are often referred to as "Cult Classics", as to their fans they attain a manner of "Cult" status.

 I wrote an article last year, describing in detail why I feel that one could make a VERY strong argument in favor of the notion that the 1980s were, overall, the single most prolific and successful decade for modern movies. Many other decades produced tons of incredible, even classic films, including the following 1990s. But "pound for pound", the 80s produced more great films, including major hits, in just about any genre you could mention, than any other decade. And along with that, the 80s also produced more than its fair share of "Cult Classics".

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ET.jpg
One of the greatest films ever made.

One of the most popular and prolific genres of the 1980s, was far and away science fiction. You had Star Wars, Star Trek, Back to the Future, Short Circuit, arguably Ghostbusters, and many more. Not the least of which, of course, was Steven Spielberg's masterpiece, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, which is the first movie I ever saw in theater as a small child.

Those are the movies most people know. Those are the big hits and the ones that made the big bucks, the movies that many consider "defined the decade". Which is a very fair assessment. But there are also the films that are lesser known, that didn't get the big success, yet in many ways are no less classic, and embody their era just as much. It is some of these movies, these "Cult Classics", that we are going to take a look at today.

This movie was my childhood.

Film: The Last Starfighter
Year: 1984
Director: Nick Castle

The Last Starfighter is one of the signature movies from my childhood, meaning that I grew up seeing it on TV, and later recorded on VHS. It appealed to me on many levels, from being a Star Wars esque "space opera" of sorts, to having a lot of quirky, comedic elements. But most importantly, to a kid who gradually fell in love with video games throughout the 1980s, it was a game about a kid who played a video game, and wound up being a real-life hero who saves the galaxy! I seriously doubt there were many 80s kids for whom a story like that would not hold at least SOME appeal.

This seminal 80s flick (as far as I'm concerned), was directed by Nick Castle, a cohort of John Carpenter, who in fact had been the principle actor to portray "The Shape" (Michael Myers) in the original horror hit Halloween. He would go on to have a major hit in the early 90s, with Dennis the Menace, but this was his first directorial taste of success, though it was a modest one at the time. While notable for its plot that centers around a video game, The Last Starfighter was also notable at the time for being one of the early movies, along with Disney's Tron, to make extensive use of computer graphics. In my opinion, the effects would be a lot better looking, and would have aged a lot better, if they had used traditional models effects work, ala Star Wars. But considering the time, the CGI was top quality. 

Teacher and Student.

The story centers around small-town boy, Alex Rogan (played by Lance Guest), a teenager who dreams of going to college in the city, and leaving his dusty trailer park home behind. Unfortunately for him, his girlfriend, Maggie (played by Catherine Mary Stewart), seems afraid of change, and isn't ready to leave their home and her grandmother behind. Frustrated with his boring young life, Alex's one real outlet, is the mysterious arcade game that resides at the park's shop, called "Starfighter". An incredibly (see: unrealistically) advanced game for the mid-80s, it's a first person space shooter, which Alex excels at, one night even beating the game and getting the high score.

What Alex didn't know, is that the game is actually a test, planted there by alien Centauri (played brilliantly by veteran actor Robert Preston. Finding himself approached, and essentially shanghaied, by Centauri, Alex is thrust far across the galaxy, to the headquarters of the Star League, the heroic outfit that he had played as in the arcade game! Centauri invented "Starfighter" to find new recruits for the Star League, making a tidy profit along the way, and Alex just so happens to be his newest find. The only issue is, confronted with the reality of being a REAL Starfighter, and fighting a REAL space war, he balks, and just wants to go back home.

Reach for the stars...

Centauri begrudgingly agrees to take him home, where an android "Beta" has taken his place so no one will know he's gone, but they don't realize that as soon as they left, the evil Kodan Armada launched an attack on the Star League, decimating it. And finding that one of the "Starfighters" has survived, they send an assassin agent to Earth to finish the job. As a kid, the scenes where the drooling monster Zando-Zan try to kill Alex (and his Beta), were truly frightening to me. But suficed to say, Alex realizes how much is at stake, and with his alien trainer Grig (played by Dan O'Herlihy) and one prototype Starfighter ship intact, he now resolves to train and attempt the impossible: taking on the Kodan Armada, as a lone Starfighter, just he and Grig alone. Just like in the arcade game.

It was a modest hit for its time, but as far as I'm concerned, The Last Starfighter is one of the best movies of the entire decade, and one of the best science fiction stories ever put to film.

One of the darkest moviea starring a kid, ever?

Film: Space Raiders
Year: 1983
Director: Howard R. Cohen

This movie is pure Roger Corman, in many key ways. Corman, as a director or producer, had a history of making use of the limited budgets and resources studios would throw his way. He also had a habit of making unplanned films out of extra filming time, old sets, free actors etc., from other movies he'd been working on. A fine example is this, 1983's Space Raiders. Written and directed by Howard R. Cohen, who also made the cult horror spoof Saturday the 14th, this film reused special effects and re-arranged scores from Corman's previous New World Films effort, 1980's Battle Beyond the Stars. If you've seen both movies, you can tell right away that a lot of the "space battle" and starship effects are shared between the two. Taken on that level, yes, this movie was fairly cheaply made. But that is not reason to dismiss it, however, as I'll explain.

Battle Beyond the Stars was a space-opera re-imagining of Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece Seven Samurai, which itself had been remade by Hollywood previously in the 1960 western, The Magnificent Seven. Space Raiders, on the other hand, as the title implies, is a story about a group of space pirates, who wind up accidentally taking on an unwanted child stowaway during one of their raids. Whereas Battle played it fairly straight, you could look at Raiders as something a bit more akin to a dark comedy. Though they share much of the same effects and many music cues, and are both technically "space operas", that is about where the similarities end. And for my money, while Battle is certainly a solid film, Space Raiders is a rare case where the movie made with footage from another, winds up being the better end product.

Just hangin' with the Boys.

The story centers around a group of pirates led by the Space Service colonel turned rogue, Captain C.F. "Hawk" Hawkens. His group make a raid on a storage depot, to steal a space freighter owned by a massive interstellar corporation referred to only as "The Company" (similar to 1979's Alien). When the firefight breaks out, no one notices a 10 year old boy named Peter, who had been playing in the depot, as he tries to escape danger by hiding in the very freighter the pirates are trying to steal. After the stolen freighter rendezvous with the pirate's own ship, the boy is discovered after he emerges from hiding, asking if they would please take him home.

At first, Hawk and company consider ransoming the child, as he's the son of one of The Company's corporate office types. But Hawk later has a change of heart, and promises that he will indeed make sure the kid gets back home safely. The rest of the story plays out both as a dark comedy, and progressively, more and more as a tragedy as well. While none of the crew initially seems to like the kid, and they certainly don't want him around, honoring Hawk's wishes, they go out of their way to protect him regardless, and it ultimately starts costing them their lives.

As far as I'm concerned, if you were unaware that Space Raiders reused effects and music from another movie, you really wouldn't be able to tell. And even so, it doesn't affect the film's story, which I feel is its strength. The core of the movie, is a tale of greedy, ruthless pirates, who wind up caving in to their "human side", trying to protect a child they didn't mean to kidnap. It is both a  heartwarming, as well as in the end, rather sad story. But I love this movie in spite of its warts, and I'd highly recommend it if you want a fun, relatively unknown 80s space movie.

Joe Dante's unheralded gem.

Film: Explorers
Year: 1985
Director: Joe Dante

Fresh off of his surprise 1984 mega-hit, Gremlins, Joe Dante was on top of the world. Or so one would think. Typically, in modern Hollywood, when a director has a massive hit like that, and Gremlins was more than just a hit, much like Ghostbusters it was something of a cultural phenomenon in the 80s, they are given a fair bit of leeway in their next project(s). Because as far as most money-minded Hollywood execs are concerned, if a director has a huge hit, that means they could potentially make MORE huge hits, which equals more money.

In this man's opinion, Explorers could have easily been that next smash hit, but unfortunately, even with his major Gremlins success under his belt, Paramount Pictures still rushed this film into production, and then didn't even allow Dante to completely finish it the way he wanted. Even the final editing was rushed, and then the studio didn't do enough to promote it, putting it out at the worst time, going head to head against the blockbuster Back to the Future. All of that taken into consideration, however, Explorers is still a really great film, and one of many that I somehow missed out on as a kid, but wished I had seen it, because I would have adored it.

The three young Explorers.

The film stars Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, and Jason Presson as a trio of pre-teen boys, attempting the impossible. Ben (Hawke), is the dreamer, an avid reader and watcher of anything science fiction, who daydreams of visiting the stars and having great adventures. As the story starts out, he is having a bizarre dream, centered around him flying over what looks like an enormous technological city, but what actually turns out to be a diagram for a highly advanced microchip. Upon waking, Ben tries his best to make a sketch of the diagram, and briefly wakes his friend Wolfgang (Phoenix), telling him about it. He later gives the diagram to Wolfgang, the son of scientists, who manages to make a real microchip, based on the diagram, which he connects to his father's computer. Along with their new friend, Darren (Presson), they start experimenting with their new discovery, which turns out to be a generator for a very powerful force field, which could conceivably carry them anywhere with zero gravity or inertia, even into space!

With the help of Darren, who happens to be very handy with tolls and building, they use an old abandoned Tilt-a-Whirl car, to craft their own make-shift spaceship. Running their first test drive with the force field, they fly around town, causing more commotion and havoc than they intended to, which brings unwanted government and police attention to their sleepy town, looking for UFOs. They are determined to try again, wiser for the wear, this time taking it to their ultimate destination: space. One of many "kids having crazy adventures on their own" films from the 80s, Explorers is an incredibly entertaining and heartfelt movie, serving as both a perfect slice of the 80s decade, but also as an obvious love letter by Dante himself, to classic science fiction.To me, much like Gremlins, the film has a ton of heart, and this intangible warmth and life to it that the best Joe Dante movies possess. And I would personally rank it as one of his Top 3 films, along with Gremlins and The 'Burbs.

Probably one of the most underrated films of all time.

Film: Enemy Mine
Year: 1985
Director: Wolfgang Petersen

Another movie I remember seeing as a kid. And to a child, not only did I miss out on many of the nuances of the plot, but I also found it to be rather scary, even though I liked it. Enemy Mine is a strange beast, in that it started production with a different director, Richard Loncraine, but he was removed early on, and replaced with German director Wolfgang Petersen, who was fresh off the success of the classic 80s fantasy film, The Neverending Story.

This film would go on to be a box office failure in the United States, but but not only was it one of the movies that proved that films could have a successful second life on the burgeoning home video market, it was also apparently THE first western science fiction film to be shown in Soviet Union theaters. It would up being a big hit over there, as a consequence, which in a way is ironic, considering that you could easily take the plot to be a parallel, in many ways, to the "Cold War" between the US and USSR.

From bitter enemies, to best friends?

While the special effects, sets and soundtrack are all really well done, and the acting is superb, it is the plot that makes Enemy Mine truly stand out in the slew of major sci fi films that came in the wake of Star Wars. As stated, there is a (Hot and) "Cold War" going on in the late 21st century, when humans have managed to make it out into deep space, and are colonizing other worlds. Unfortunately, another, more reptilian alien race, the Dracs, also has claim to some of those worlds, as the human "Bilateral Terran Alliance" (BTA for short) keeps pushing into their territories. And as these things tend to happen, instead of peaceful talks, war breaks out instead.

One particular BTA fighter pilot, Willis "Will" Davidge, winds up in a skirmish with some Drac ships, and crazed for vengeance after they shoot down some of his own, Will and his co-pilot Joey, chase a hit Drac ship down into the atmosphere of an unknown world. Their ship becomes damaged by the flying wreckage of the Drac ship, and both ships wind up crash landing on the surface. Joey sadly dies from injuries, and Davidge is left alone on a strange planet, with one hostile co-habitant. Finding the Drac ship remains, he learns that the Drac is still alive, and he initially tries to kill it, before later trying to steal some of its food, as he has none of his own. He gets caught, easily, and becomes the Dracs' prisoner, though they are quickly forced by a meteor shower and other circumstances brought on by this inhospitable planet, to work together for mutual survival.

Jerry and Davige's "son".

And that of course is where the story really shines. Forced to live together, alone, on this mostly barren rock, Davidge and Jeriba Shigan, who come to call each other "Da-Witch" and "Jerry" respectively, their relationship evolves over time. They go from being bitter enemies turned reluctant allies, to later coming to learn each other's language, and in Davidge's case, he even starts learning to read the Drac holy book. Jerry eventually becomes pregnant, as Dracs are asexual beings, and he eventually winds up dying in childbirth, leaving Jerry alone to raise a baby Drac, whom he names Zammis according to Jerry's wishes, all on his own.

I already feel like I gave away too much of the plot, if you've never seen it, but it really is a great, bittersweet story. The message that even bitter enemies can become friends, and that our "enemies" are not always as evil as we imagine them to be, and that there is always another way, are really heartfelt, and come across organically (not forced) in the course of the story. Plus they still ring true to this day. If you've never seen Enemy Mine, do yourself a favor and see it, as I think it's one of the most well done, and unique, sci fi films ever made.

Probably my favorite 80s sci fi film.

Film: Flight of the Navigator
Year: 1986
Director: Randal Kleiser

Outside of E.T. and Return of the Jedi, and of course The Last Starfighter, this was probably my top favorite sci fi film as a kid. And it's not hard to see why. Co-produced by Disney and Producers Sales Organization (snappy name, eh?), this is another film that is both VERY 80s, but also very unique. I don't think I've ever seen another movie or story quite like it, which to me is a good thing! It was directed by Randal Kleiser, who had previous success with Grease and The Blue Lagoon, and would go on to have future hits like White Fang and Honey I Blew Up the Kid.

The movie centers around a 12 year old boy, David Freeman, and his inexplicable disappearance, and reappearance. Traveling through the woods on a 4th of July night, in 1978, he and his dog are supposed to meet his bratty little brother, Jeff, to bring him home. Jeff jumps out from behind a tree, scaring David, and runs off, but before David can give chase, his dog runs off too, having found something. There seems to be something at the bottom of a creepy ravine, and trying to get a better look, David winds up falling in, becoming knocked out. He later wakes up, not knowing how long he's been out, and climbs back out, making his way home. But upon reaching his family's house, he finds that it is occupied instead by an elderly couple he doesn't recognize.

David and Max.

As he soon discovers from the police, it is now 1986, and he's been missing (and even believed dead), for 8 years. The police track down where his family now lives, and he is forced to come to grips with the fact that his parents are older, and his bratty little brother is now a mature 16 year old. The whole world has grown up around him, while he remains 12, and has missed out on 8 years of big changes. He agrees to be observed by NASA for what is supposed to only be 48 hours, and during their tests, they discover that for some reason, his brain waves carry unknown star charts, and various other information. He learns that they want to keep him longer, to learn more about this enigma, but just in the nick of time, he is also contacted by a telepathic voice in his head, who sends a robotic NASA courier to smuggle him to a remote hanger.

In the hanger, of course, is a strange UFO, with smooth, seamless features, that open up a door for David to enter. Inside, he meets "Max", a nickname he gives the sentient "Trimaxian Drone Ship", who it turns out, is the cause of his current predicament. As it turns out, Max had taken David as a specimen on his travels from the planet Phaelon. While studying David, they discovered that humans (allegedly) only use so much of their own brain capacity, so as an experiment, they filled his mind with information, including star charts, to see what would happen. Max brought David back home, but because of "Time Dilation", the round trip took 8 Earth years. And after dropping David back off, while looking at some flowers (yes, really), Max crashed into a power lines, and was captured by NASA.

"Max" from the outside, sleek as hell.

Because Max's memory was damaged in the crash, to be able to return his other specimens and get home, he needs the star charts that reside in David's mind. But first, they need to escape NASA together, and for that, Max needs David's help. They wind up going on wild adventures together, with much hilarity ensuing, but ultimately, David realizes that he is in the wrong time, and doesn't belong here. Plus he knows NASA will probably never leave him alone. So instead, though it is dangerous, he asks Max to take him back to 1978, when he was first picked up.

As a kid, I adored this film, and still do. It's a lot of fun, in no small part because of Paul Reubens voice acting as Max. Fresh off of his formal introduction to the world as Pee Wee Herman, in Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Reubens brings some of that same manic energy (and even a bit of the same voice), due to Max's circuits being scrambled. Young child actor Joey Cramer also does a great job as David, and has a great chemistry with Max, who keep in mind is mainly represented by a robotic eye-stalk. But it also didn't help that ship is filled with several small alien creatures, which being a "Monster Kid", appealed to me greatly.

As I've said with pretty much all of these, if you've never seen Flight of the Navigator, do yourself a favor and watch it. It's a hell of a fun ride, it's funny, and it's an entertaining sci fi story to boot.


Before I go, here are some honorable mentions for lesser known 80s sci fi flicks:

The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai
Flash Gordon
Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone
The Ice Pirates
Invaders From Mars (remake)
They Live

Well that's it for now, though I may return in the future to do some other 80s genre "Cult Classics". Make sure to watch these movies if you haven't, and I'll see you next time!