Category Archives: tv

Dark Intruder (1965)

Director: Harvey Hart

And so, to officially end this year’s month of horror, we turn to the small screen. Kind of. This was actually the pilot for a proposed TV series called The Black Cloak, which none of the American TV networks wanted to touch cos they considered it a bit… heavy or something. An occult detective chasing a sort of Jack the Ripper but with more demonic tendencies in fin-de-siècle San Francisco? That was too much for TV audiences to deal with. So Universal, somewhat grudgingly, put it out in cinemas as a supporting feature since they couldn’t do much else with it, and the networks were smug until, a few years later, The Night Stalker demonstrated TV audiences were actually perfectly fine watching that sort of thing… Anyway, I first heard about this years ago, read about it in a book about film adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft; this isn’t actually one, but the passing reference to Azathoth (and, more obscurely, Nyogtha) demonstrates that author Barré Lyndon had at least a passing acquaintance with the Cthulhu Mythos, and the Sumerian business is kind of fascinating in light of the infamous “Simonomicon” over a decade later. (Wonder if this was an influence at all?) Basically, the plot is as I briefly described above, Leslie Nielsen plays Brett Kingsland, a bon vivant playboy in 1890 San Fran where a series of strange murders is taking place, which he finds have something to do with Sumerian demonology in some way; while the “film” is kind of evidently an episode of a TV show in its execution, the story’s actually pretty good and there are some decent things here. It’s hard to entirely disagree with this piece that calls Nielsen the weak link in the chain, though, even if only because of hindsight; this predates his “official” comedic coming-out in Flying High, but he rather notably plays Brett in a flippant, foppish style that kind of looks a bit weird. “Frank Drebin without the jokes” isn’t actually that far off. Still, this was just the pilot for the show, and I imagine certain things would’ve been fiddled with had a series been commissioned (remember how different Star Trek was in pilot form?). That one wasn’t is, I think, a great disappointment; Dark Intruder certainly looks like the potential was there.

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Alternative 3 (1977)

Director: Christopher Miles

It’s fascinating how people get taken in by hoaxes, particularly obvious ones, and even more particularly admitted ones. Nearly four decades after the fact, for example, people are still falling for Alternative 3; a Google search demonstrates as much in seconds. Rewatching it tonight myself, I find myself asking a number of questions about the thing, especially this: just how were people expected to receive it in 1977? I mean, I know how they did—either by not sticking around for the credits containing the actors’ names and panicking about it being real, or by reading the credits and berating ITV for perpetrating this irresponsible nightmare vision—but how were they meant to? The film’s own avowed copyright date is “April 1st 1977”, and I suspect it might’ve been more of a dead giveaway had it actually aired on that date… which it didn’t, since Anglia (the studio behind it) couldn’t actually get a slot for it on ITV that day and it actually aired nearly three months later. But would it have seemed more obviously fake or not?

For that matter, why am I even asking how “obvious” the fakery is? Is it only “obvious” because I already know it’s a hoax? Do the people in it only seem like they’re acting because I know they’re actors? If someone just sat me down with it and said “here, watch this” and I’d never heard of A3 before, how would it strike me? Compare it to Propaganda, which I didn’t know was a hoax when I watched it but I still felt there was something weird and wrong about it. Similarly, back in the early 90s I remember a program called The Einstein Code, which revolved around Einstein having developed a sort of “bad luck bomb”, it just got more and more preposterous, I got more and more “what the fuck is this shit”… and then I saw the “April Fools Production” credit at the end and I howled.

And this is why I wonder how people were supposed to respond to Alternative 3. Was it supposed to seem, you know, “wrong” to them in the way Propaganda and The Einstein Code did; were people supposed to look at this bizarre story of human colonies on the Moon and on Mars in the event of some terminal environmental catastrophe here on Earth and think “hang on, this doesn’t sound right” and wonder why some of the people in the film looked oddly like people they might’ve seen in other films of TV shows… cos what makes me ask is, in fact, the framework in which it’s presented, i.e. as an episode in a series called Science Report. Did such a series actually exist? I can’t actually find any reference to it online except in relation to A3; IMDB only lists A3 itself as an individual “TV movie” and has no entry for a series called Science Report that I can find. SO… if this series didn’t exist, were people surprised to see it on TV? If it did, were people surprised to find it had a bunch of reporters and other staff they wouldn’t have seen before? Did A3 seem, you know, “unlike” the other episodes? How “acted” does it really seem to other people? These are things I don’t know, and that’s part of what makes A3 so hard to actually appraise… the other part being, of course, that the story behind the hoax is the story, the hoaxed thing itself is in some ways just a prop…

Room 666 (1982)

Director: Wim Wenders

In which Wim Wenders visits the 1982 Cannes Film Festival and sits an assortment of his fellow attendees down in a hotel room with a 16mm camera, a tape recorder, a TV playing quietly in the background, and a question about the future (or otherwise) of cinema for them to pontificate on. Which they do at varying lengths; Jean-Luc Godard goes on for about 10 minutes, Mike De Leon for just a few seconds. Of course, from our perspective, Wenders’ own film is an artifact of the past, as probably inevitably happens to things like this which consciously try to predict the future of something; years later, our primary interest (should we care at all about such things) is mainly in seeing who got what right (the film’s fascination with the extent to which television might displace cinema is particularly amusing these days). Indeed, the film hardened into history within less than a fortnight of its first screening, when one of Wenders’ interviewees, R.W. Fassbinder, permanently checked out of the world with the help of some prescription and non-prescription drugs… and quite a few of his other interviewees have either passed on as well or else been kind of quiet over the years. Werner Herzog always offers good value, of course, kind of predicting the Internet as we now know it, while Michelangelo Antonioni, who would’ve been much the oldest filmmaker here, is, interestingly, perhaps the one most comfortable with the idea of technological change and having to adjust, quite interested in working with video (which he’d already done by this point). Plus Monte Hellman’s lament about the stuff he tapes off TV then never gets around to watching will no doubt resonate with many viewers even now (he said, looking with horror at his own monstrous backlog). And Steven Spielberg’s grumping about filmmaking only getting more expensive has kind of proven to be the case, not that he’s done much to help the situation with some of his own films or anything… In some ways, though, it’s the last interviewee, Yilmaz Guney, who’s the most interesting, not only because his interview is the only time Wenders varies his camera set-up in the whole film, but because he couldn’t actually appear on camera at all; at the time he was still in hiding from the Turkish government, so Wenders presents a recording of him instead. It’s actually a nice reminder in a way that pondering the future of cinema is an interesting thought experiment, but it’s not necessarily the most important thing in the world to contemplate…

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)

Director: Mark Cousins

So yes, this was an effort of a few days; not even I’m fool enough to watch a 15-hour plus thing like this in a single hit. Even doing it as I did, one disc (i.e. three episodes) a day, was difficult enough; each episode has quite a lot packed into it, and three in a row was kind of pushing it… Anyway, this is in keeping with the last couple of things I reviewed, being a film history documentary based on a film history book, although this is a much more general study than the genre-specific items we looked at, and, unlike them, this one is made by the author of the book and narrated by him as well. Said narration seems to be a sticking point with some people; Mark Cousins is unabashedly Irish and so is his accent, and his rather specific intonation (which tends to rise more than fall) is initially a bit difficult to get used to; it’s not the sort of voice I suspect most of us are used to hearing narrate something like this. Once you get past that, there are other small irritating things, little faults of subediting that really should’ve been caught, ranging from little things like wrongly dating a film to, well, larger ones like wrongly identifying a film (there is a notable difference between Méliès’ Moon at One Metre and his Trip to the Moon, Mark). And even with the unquestionably generous runtime, there’s still little bits of additional information that could’ve been squeezed in to flesh certain things out, you know, how some “third cinema” filmmakers like Haile Gerima in Ethiopia actually learned their trade in the US, that sort of detail. Be all that as it may, though, it’s hard to deny Story of Film is a pretty grand bit of work, an avowed history of innovation in film more than an overall look at the art form. This means it does tend to focus more on the “arthouse” side of things at the expense of popular genres, except, obviously, where Hollywood is concerned (and, later, Hong Kong and India), so I’m sure some critics will find it incomplete and missing out too many classics in favour of less obvious examples (especially the African stuff). This approach is fine by me, of course, it’s the less obvious examples I’m interested in and they’re the ones that give Story of Film its value. As I’ve indicated, it’s not perfect—I think my ideal film history doco would be an adaptation of Bordwell & Thompson’s Film History: An Introduction, which would undoubtedly dwarf this if it were done properly—but as a (comparatively) compact study of the world of cinema, it acquits itself well.

Solaris (1968)

Director: Boris Nirenburg

I’m having one of my periodic reading jags at the moment; I’m in the mood for books rather than films. Got through eight books since the start of January, whereas the only thing I’ve watched since that review of Zelig was an afternoon TV screening of The Maltese Falcon on Saturday. Great film, of course, but no need for me to review it again.

So one thing I’ve been doing lately is haunting Amazon.com.au, the Australian branch of Amazon that only sells Kindle ebooks. I’ve kind of gone the e-book route for new purchases for an assortment of reasons, not the least important of which is the decreasing amount of space I have for actual hard copy books. Price is also a consideration, it should be said. There are certain publishers like Valancourt Books and Black Coat Press who have fascinating catalogues (the former specialises in original 1790s-1820s gothic novels, the latter in 19th century French SF) I’d like to explore but I don’t really have the space for all the books I want to read nor the money for them. Their electronic editions may be less, you know, nice than their print versions, but eh. I paid, for example, $6.25 for one of Black Coat’s ebooks that would’ve set me back nearly $21 if I bought the physical book. And that’s if I bought through Book Depository, who are themselves selling it cheaper than the RRP of $24.44. You see why I went electronic. (It’s also a damn sight easier to dispose of the book and get money back for it if I find I don’t like it…)

This is all by way of introduction to our subject proper: the 1968 Russian TV adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Bear with me.

So I was browsing for Penguin Classics. Saw they have an edition of Lem’s Cyberiad due later this year. That sent me in search of Lem’s other works. Unfortunately most of the electronic editions are in Spanish, but they do have a new translation of Solaris (the old one, translated from the French translation of Lem’s Polish original, was condemned by Lem himself and seems to be widely considered crap). I bought that, cos, you know, only a bit over five dollars. Then I went to Wikipedia, cos I didn’t actually know much about Lem beyond his reputation (I read a story by him in an anthology once)… and there I read this sentence: “He is known as the author of the 1961 novel Solaris, which has been made into a feature film three times.”

Hang on… THREE?

Tarkovsky, yes, Soderbergh, yes… who was the third one?

So I followed the appropriate links, and there I discovered the existence of the FIRST screen adaptation of Solaris, Boris Nirenburg’s production for Soviet state TV. Which the Wiki page told me was on DVD, but apparently only in Russia. Hmm, I wondered, could this thing possibly be on Youtube? A quick search revealed it not only could be, it WAS—subtitled in English, too, which I don’t suppose the Russian DVD would be. Admittedly, the subtitles did prove to be a bit wobbly, as I expected they might, but they weren’t an insurmountable obstacle.

Now, I’ve not actually read the book yet, but wanted to get into the TV version anyway; I gather that, despite Lem’s carping about how the film versions told his story (“to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space”), Nirenburg actually remains more faithful to it than either Messrs Tarkovsky or Soderbergh; no lengthy preludes on Earth or anything like that. That said, I don’t suppose Nirenburg’s budget would’ve actually extended to anything of that sort in any case; if I’d ever wondered what a 1960s episode of Doctor Who in Russian might look like, I suppose this could be it (I’m presuming, owing to a few tell-tale signs, that it was in fact shot probably in much the same way as 60s Who, i.e. on video in long takes with multiple cameras, and the source material for this release is a 16mm telerecording). It’s kind of rudimentary on the technological level, maybe even more so than I’d thought it might be; come to think of it, I’m not even sure if there’s a shot of the planet Solaris itself (there’s one bit in the first part that I think was meant to represent it, but I don’t know).

The pace is somewhat more grinding than even 60s Who could be, though, which is probably its major issue; at 142 minutes it’s not too far off the length of Tarkovsky’s version despite not containing any of the stuff he introduced. It is kind of wilting stuff. On the plus side, Nirenburg actually does achieve some not bad moments of semi-horror; there’s an atmosphere on the station that borders on the gothic at times. It’s not bad on the whole, but I suspect it’s mainly now of comparative interest; Tarkovsky’s film might be less faithful to Lem’s book but it works rather better as a production in its own right. Still, I’d rather watch this again than the Soderbergh version…

Sharknado (2013)

Director: Anthony C. Ferrante

Fucking morbid curiosity. It’s led me down many a dodgy path in film, and HOLY FUCK it just led me down one of the dodgiest ever. When a friend on Facebook mentioned it was on GO! tonight, I knew I had to tune in though I equally knew I should resist… At least I suppose I now have some idea where the exploitation film is at in 2013; I was familiar with The Asylum (“mockbuster” masterminds behind this… thing) in theory—I suspect a DVD called Transmorphers I sighted at my local DVD emporium a number of years ago was the first I heard of them—but this is the first actual contact I’ve had with one of their products. Actually, the fascinating thing about Sharknado is its status as a social media phenomenon… made for the Syfy TV network in the US, it drew slightly below average ratings by Syfy standards but the Twitter word of mouth was voluminous enough that the viewer numbers increased substantially for a second screening and increased again for a third, ultimately leading to cinema screenings within a few weeks of its TV premiere. I know this sort of thing isn’t without precedent (hi there Duel), but I imagine it’s not exactly common for a TV film to blow up like that…

So, a global warming-generated megastorm wreaks havoc on Los Angeles, sucking thousands of sharks out of the ocean and dumping them, well, everywhere. A bunch of people try to survive the havoc. In short, it’s 86 minutes of pretty solid cheese that wastes little time on niceties like character, plausibility, continuity or decent special effects (I’ve seen better CGI in episodes of Doctor Who that cost vastly less than the million dollars this thing apparently cost). This review makes the point that the film really should be taken on its own terms and judges it a roaring success as such; I’m not so sure. Sharknado is pretty bad, but at the same time I’m not sure it’s bad enough. I could see the film trying to be so-bad-it’s-good without ever quite achieving that. I don’t know how else to explain what I mean other than saying Sharknado probably needed a director with more skill to make it really bad in a fun way. Someone who cared about making a bad film properly. If that makes sense. A better director could’ve played the material for more black humour (and more gore as well, the film could’ve done with that) and perhaps elevated it to real preposterousness; as it stands, it’s just, yeah, cheesy without being quite as inspired as it could’ve been. It feels like it was designed to generate the sort of Twitter buzz that it did without really being “good” enough to merit the fuss, not well enough made (really, the CGI is just so-bad-it’s-shit) to really be interesting. Fun but kind of frustrating too. On the plus side, at least I’m going to see out 2013 with one actual new release covered on the blog…

Nineteen Eighty Four (1954)

So I’m beginning my contributions to the Peter Cushing centennial blogathon with a consideration of one of his earliest big roles… He may be better known for some of the films he made after this, but I don’t think any of them resulted in questions being asked in parliament, nor headlines about someone allegedly dying from shock while watching it. Yes, the night of November 12 1954 saw a major stink being made with Rudolph Cartier and Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of the Orwell novel… Unfortunately we don’t have that performance; what we do have is the remount of it from four nights later, which the BBC staged rather grudgingly thanks to the fuss the first performance had generated (said fuss also making sure the replay was a big ratings hit for the BBC as well, which I don’t suppose they objected to). Cushing apparently thought the first one was better, in which case we can only imagine how heavy it must’ve been; the remount is hardly lightweight stuff. Looking at it tonight, I actually found it easy to imagine it causing the uproar that it did; even now it’s still pretty intense (and some aspects of it still have some disappointingly contemporary resonance). Obviously stunningly played by Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell (Julia), though Andre Morell’s O’Brien mustn’t be overlooked, and neither should Donald Pleasance in the somewhat smaller role of Syme, the man working on the Newspeak dictionary; Pleasance uses the joy he shows in the destruction of language to give Syme the sort of villainous cast so many of his later roles would possess, elevating this little man into something more menacing than perhaps even Orwell had intended. The remarkable thing, of course, is that this was live television, and in many ways—although, ironically, one of the American drama anthologies had already adapted the book in 1953—Cartier’s production is leagues ahead of the examples I’ve seen in the Golden Age of Television box. It’s markedly longer, for one thing, the subject matter is remarkably adult (I’m still amazed by how far it goes, given that we are talking about 1954), and the BBC obviously didn’t have ad breaks to give them a few minutes’ grace; the handful of pre-filmed segments are all the rest the actors would’ve got. The smoothness of the whole thing is remarkable; apart from one or two mild fluffs you’d barely notice and what looked like a classic BBC wobbly wall in Winston’s apartment, I’d barely have guessed it was, in fact, completely live if I didn’t already know. Quite something.

Written for the Peter Cushing centennial blogathon at Frankensteinia

The Goodies: Earthanasia (1977)

Other people have their seasonal film-watching rituals; this one is mine. Every Xmas Eve, it’s time to cue up disc 2 of the first Goodies DVD, ready to press play on “Earthanasia” as soon as 11.30pm rolls round. (I wish I could make it 1977 again when I do so, but some things are beyond even me.) This is not only my favourite Goodies episode, it’s one of my favourite episodes of any TV series ever, three men in a room waiting for the world to end on Xmas Eve… this year, of course, it has a certain added flavour what with the “Mayan” apocalypse shenanigans of the last few days (you’ll notice that the other date offered by some for the end of the world, i.e. last Sunday, never delivered either), but it’s screamingly funny every year, of course… As much as I enjoy the eighth series of The Goodies, this conclusion to the seventh would’ve been an astounding way to end the whole program, reduced to its most basic set-up of just Tim, Graeme and Bill together in the office (with a guest voice on the radio and TV); it’s Xmas Eve, and the world’s leaders have decided the world’s in too bad a state to be allowed to go on, so they’re going to blow it up at midnight (it being a bit after half past eleven when the news is announced). This leaves the boys with two problems: how to decide what they’re going to do with the last 25-odd minutes of their lives, and how are they going to cure Tim of his inhibition about his belly button before the world ends. Amazingly, despite confining the episode to its core cast and keeping them in one room, the show never feels like an end-of-season oh-shit-we’re-out-of-money-better-cut-costs exercise in the way that, for example, certain episodes of Doctor Who were, it takes real care with its real-time premise and there are only one or two bits where it slips up (the ABC’s propensity for cutting The Goodies to fit a children’s timeslot it was never meant for kind of ruined that timing). An ideal way, for me at least, to usher in the early hours of Xmas Day.

Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

Bad Beatles fan here. I’ve loved them for decades, and yet it’s taken me until now to see this. Still, unavailability’s a bitch like that (it was on DVD here years ago via Avenue One, but I had enough sense not to give them my money)… I happened to spot it in the TV guide for this afternoon, and so decided I’d better remedy that gap in my appreciation of the Fabs. Appreciation, of course, was the last thing it got at the time, as we know, and with hindsight that’s hardly surprising; the Arena documentary on the film’s making was also shown before the film, and someone from the BBC at the time said they had a gap in programming for Boxing Day that year, and The Beatles just happened to be working on this film that would fill it nicely, the BBC thought it’d be ideal slotted between Petula Clark and Norman Wisdom… OH HOW WRONG THEY WERE. I mean, now that I’ve seen it myself, I can see the Fabs weren’t really doing much that was, strictly speaking, new; the film seems to have been mostly Paul McCartney’s idea, he was better connected with the artistic avant-garde of the period than the rest of the band, and he obviously took cues from the work of others in creating MMT. But it was one thing for the world’s biggest pop band to make an experimental home movie with no real plot and a lot of random weirdness, it was another for the BBC to offer it as family viewing entertainment on Boxing Day when people were coming down from festive season business, and I somehow wasn’t surprised when I saw it today that it made people choke on their turkey leftovers (I’m surprised the strip club scene made it to air). Also, as quite a lot of the commentary on its re-release notes, it was a colour film shown in b/w on BBC1, so that did it no favours (the “Flying” sequence, which uses colour filtered outtakes from 2001, would’ve made even less sense than the rest of the film, cos the colour was the whole point)… they did show it in colour on BBC2 a few days later, but so few people had colour sets then that it didn’t help either.

Since then poor unloved MMT has come down through the ages as the Fab Four’s Fabbest Fuckup; the revisionist view now upon its rerelease seems to mostly be that it’s a lot better than conventional wisdom would have us believe, and that’s understandable, though I didn’t think it was the “lost classic” they’re now trying to push it as. It still is what I think it always was: the work of a bunch of young men being self-indulgent Four pop stars trying their hand at something a bit different, probably not really knowing enough about what they were doing to really make it work, but, having said that, the circumstances of its first presentation probably caused its reputation to be far worse than it really merited. I didn’t think it was that good—I understand the whole “happening” and improvisatory aspect of it and how important that was to them, but a stronger sense of direction would’ve helped—but I suspect that if it had premiered at a film festival or something it would’ve been received far more differently, probably a bit better. Anyway, it might’ve been a minor hole in my film knowledge, but at least it’s filled; maybe one day Let It Be will finally get its own legitimate release and I can fill that gap as well…

The Days of Wine and Roses (1958)

And then there was videotape. Apparently Playhouse 90 started recording whole shows live to tape in 1957—and from that time onwards live TV drama’s days were kind of numbered—but in this case John Frankenheimer actually used a mix of live and tape owing to what would otherwise have been some insuperable complexities. It was actually kind of interesting to see how the mix worked, cos the video segments (all of which seem to have been the AA meeting scenes) must’ve been recorded live and not edited afterwards (tape technology would’ve been far too primitive for that), but somehow they felt less “live” than the actual live sections. And yet those parts of the program have this really odd tendency to feel, you know, “filmed” or something. Like the man says here, it’s hard to remember at times that these shows were live, but this is the most trouble I’ve had in the whole set doing so. It’s such a slick production I really had to work to remember it was in fact a (mostly) live performance. It’s just the subject matter… like I’ve said elsewhere, I find alcoholism (or addiction generally) kind of a repelling subject, hence why I’ve never seen the film version of this, or its relatives like The Lost Weekend, and also why this was the program in the Golden Age of TV set I was looking forward to the least. Having said which, I’d have to be an even bigger fool than I already am to deny the thing does have power, and it’s pretty ruthless indeed in its general lack of sentimentality and refusal to capitulate to a happy ending. It’s just that, however good I intellectually recognise it is—and it surely is very good—the subject is one that prevents me from getting too close to it. Which is a problem with me rather than the production itself, which is a solid enough conclusion to the box set.