Ultraman 1.13 – Oil S.O.S.

I wanted to use a better picture than a capture this time to make sure you can see this monster, which is called Pestar, really well. I was probably in my late twenties when I swapped for a batch of about twenty episodes of Ultraman on VHS. You want to know about feeling dumb? I rewound this episode, watched it again, paused it, and scratched my head, having absolutely no clue how the blazes they did it. The previous episode on the tape was the one with the pantomime horse dragon. I guess I could accept two actors in a horizontal suit easily; walking side-by-side with a puppet bat head between them just didn’t occur to me. It took me a stupidly long several minutes to figure this out.

Ultraman‘s miniature effects are badly dated and often laughably obvious, but this episode has a very, very good sequence with a massive fire spreading through an oil refinery. There are lots of extras running in terror within the plant, and a heck of a lot of cuts between the fire and several explosions on the miniature set and all the actors and extras rushing around on the real thing. It helps that this week’s monster is quite easily killed, and the climax is not Ultraman wrestling with a couple of guys in a fireproof suit, but rescuing Ito from a huge fire. This was quite entertaining, and had our son tremendously excited.

Photo credit: Ultraman Wiki

Mad Monster Party? (1967)

If you have a five year-old and don’t show them Rankin/Bass’s 1967 feature film Mad Monster Party? around Halloween, then there should be a government agency to come around your house and cite you for neglect. I’m not saying it’s a great film – it’s a good one weighed down by too many songs – but if you want to keep a kid hypnotized and giggling for 95 minutes, then you need to get a copy of this movie. It’s really fun.

I remain amazed that it isn’t better known. Rankin/Bass’s stop-motion television holiday specials are so well remembered, but this oddball movie just seemed to vanish into obscurity. It was something that you read about but never saw, until 2009, when Lionsgate put out a DVD that was available everywhere. I picked my copy up at Target the week it was released; they had a big display like it was a summer blockbuster. It’s such a charming film, flawed, but impossible to dislike.

Two big factors helped to turn this from an okay old kids’ movie into something long-lasting and memorable. The script was co-written by the immortal Harvey Kurtzman, and the characters were designed by one of my favorite artists, Jack Davis, who passed away earlier this year. It’s full of silly puns and “boys and ghouls” level humor, jokes about poison, and slapstick shenanigans like a Black Lagoon-esque fish creature and an invisible man throwing pies in each other’s faces. This is like Comedy Ground Zero for elementary school kids.

So what’s the story about? Well, on the Caribbean Isle of Evil, Baron Boris von Frankenstein finally completes his life’s work, a formula that can destroy matter with a single drop. He chooses to retire at the top of his game and hand control of the great monsters to his chosen successor, inviting most of them – all but a mysterious pest known only as “It” – to a convention at his castle. Most of the monsters conspire and plot and hope that each will be the new boss, but the baron actually plans to pass the business down to his only living relative, a half-blind soda jerk from Vermont who’s allergic to everything.

Unlike a modern children’s movie, which tries to cast everybody on the B-list for voices, the only celebrity voices involved are Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller, who plays the bride of Frankenstein’s Monster, and they are both hilarious. The monster, incidentally, is called “Fang” for some reason. I love that. Everything about the movie oozes an effortless charm, with gags both obviously telegraphed and subtle. I wouldn’t call it timeless – there’s actually a horrible and badly dated moment where the baron’s scheming secretary falls in love with the soda jerk after he tries to smack her out of being “hysterical” – but kids love monsters like these, and they love the slapstick fun. Our kid was in heaven.

I had almost as much fun building it up as watching it. I didn’t let on that this was a stop-motion film for children or let him see the box art, but over the last week told him we were going to watch a scary movie. I gave him one last chance to back out, and said that if he gets scared, he could hold my hand. Then I asked whether, if I get scared, I could hold his. At one point about two-thirds in, a big black furball in the baron’s lab sprouts a pair of eyes and I went “eek!” My son grabbed my hand and gave me a good squeeze to make sure I was okay.

Space Academy 1.9 – Planet of Fire

Another very weird coincidence this time: this episode of Space Academy features a guest star named Don Pedro Colley. He plays a lonely man on an isolated planetoid who messes up Tee Gar’s experiment. I looked up his credits on IMDB, and found that he’s been out of the business for quite some time. But literally two weeks ago, Midnight Massacre, his first screen credit in eighteen years, was released, and he seems to have two other films in the works. Good to see he’s still around and getting work.

Last time out, I mentioned how Space Academy is the quintessential ’70s sci-fi show. Another point for it in that sweepstakes: Peepo. This robot is very likely the first of all the many R2-D2 clones and copies that made their way into movies and TV and grocery store personal appearances in the late seventies and early eighties. K-9 from Doctor Who is sometimes given this credit, but K-9’s first story, “The Invisible Enemy,” was taped in April 1977, a month before Star Wars was released. Space Academy went into production in July and began broadcast in September, and K-9’s first story sat on the shelf for six months and was first shown in October. Unless there’s a cash-in I don’t know about, I believe Peepo was the first robot character to have been designed as a reaction to Star Wars, and he beat K-9 to screens by a couple of weeks.

Did Peepo succeed in charming children? Well, the grownups tonight were a little restless, because Dr. Science was not happy with Tee Gar’s goofball ideas, nor his downright reckless – yet approved! – methods of experimentation. But when Colley’s character picked up Peepo and walked off with him, our son growled “Not cool, not cool,” very annoyed that the robot might get hurt. He’ll probably fall completely in love with K-9 when he meets the tin dog in a couple of years.

Monster Squad 1.11 – The Weatherman

I vividly remember “The Weatherman” from my childhood. In part that’s because the villain was on the Milton-Bradley board game – bottom center if I remember rightly – and in part because the episode taught me that Alaska was the largest of the states. In an insane and beautiful coincidence, this morning the episode also taught our son that very same fact. Like me forty years ago, he thought Texas was the biggest state. That’s what it looks like on most maps!

And this fact messed me up on a class project in school, not in kindergarten for the 1976 election, but four years later, when Reagan the elephant and Carter the donkey and Anderson the large letter I were trying to win states in an educational group game. I insisted beyond reason that whichever candidate my team was assigned absolutely had to win Alaska, because it was the largest state. And that’s how I learned how the electoral college works. Blasted Monster Squad.

And this fact is important today, because the plot of the episode concerns the Weatherman holding the entire nation to ransom by covering it in snow and ice on July 4th and demanding a special election to make him president. (He gets 126% in Illinois, I observe without comment.) As soon as I finish writing this silly thing, my son and I are in fact off to the polls to cast my vote. What a cute coincidence!

The Weatherman is played by the unmistakable Avery Schreiber, of course. I remember once about twenty years ago that Schreiber came up in conversation sometime and somehow and my best friend didn’t know who he was. Somebody mentioned he was Jack Burns’ partner and he didn’t know who Burns was, either. You know, fat guy, bushy moustache… he was the Weatherman in Monster Squad! How we managed without IMDB and Wikipedia on our phones.

Anyway, go vote, everybody! Let’s have 126% turnout this year! I read that a Trump voter in Iowa was arrested yesterday for voting twice in Des Moines, so we’re on the way!

Ultraman 1.12 – Cry of the Mummy

Oooh, they found a great location to play in this week. This episode features a mob of costumed extras running around the inside of a power plant trying to capture a 10,000 year-old mummy-creature that’s been brought back to life. The first two-thirds of the episode are really wonderfully effective, with great camerawork and lots of creeping around. If the comedy of the last installment hadn’t completely neutralized this program’s ability to shock, I bet this really would have unnerved our son a little bit. Unfortunately, after last week’s slapstick, I think the show is going to have to pull out a pretty heavy duty shock to scare him again.

Arashi kicks all kinds of ass this time. He kills the mummy with his heavy-duty laser bazooka, but that wakes up another monster that had been in hibernation with it. This one’s a giant, and it’s one of the silliest so far. It’s a dragon, apparently called Dodongo, which is played by two suit actors in a pantomime horse costume. And Arashi again comes to the rescue, and very gruesomely blinds the beast, blowing out both of its eyes with his laser.

When Ultraman shows up, it’s really just to put the blinded and enraged creature out of its misery, and the director rather savagely lingers on the pathetic thing’s last few death twitches. It’s a shame the pantomime horse business is so silly – Ultraman even “rides” it for a second – because it undercuts a somber ending in which the Science Patrol members reflect that it would have been better if the beasts had been left to hibernate forever.

Space Academy 1.8 – The Phantom Planet

Halfway through its run, Space Academy is revealing itself to be pretty much the quintessential seventies sci-fi show. This episode, again written by Samuel A. Peeples, has been my favorite so far. You’ve got your Diet Star Trek storyline – a strange creature is trying to communicate with our heroes to preserve artifacts from an ancient civilization before its planetoid is destroyed – and your Star Wars sense of design and shots of the undersides of miniature spaceships with big glowing engines and your very, very seventies addition of telepathy and ESP and all that silly Tomorrow People stuff. This episode even does the mind reading one better and adds astral projection to Chris and Laura’s list of psychic powers.

Who gets the blame for all the telepathy and mind-reading and such that pushed its way into shows about spaceships, anyway? I think we can blame Erich von Däniken for all that “there are those who believe that life here began out there” nonsense in Battlestar Galactica. I’d like a scapegoat for the ESP stuff as well, please.

Anyway, understanding that any modern viewer will have to take a deep breath anytime Laura and Chris do any of their seventies psychic stuff, this really was an entertaining episode. The creature – a zero-budget “ghost” that howls and moans like ghosts always did on TV when you were a kid – is unusual and we weren’t sure what it was up to at first. Despite the goofy costume on the creature, they really did a great job with the miniature effects, and the shots of a Seeker flying among some asteroids is truly impressive. So yeah, the show’s dated, but really entertaining for all its limitations.

Monster Squad 1.10 – The Skull

Geoffrey Lewis, who we saw a couple of months ago in the final episode of Ark II, plays this week’s villain, the Skull. His plan is to revive the corpses of all of history’s greatest villains into an unstoppable, undead army. The only one he succeeds in reviving, however, is the mummy of, err, “King Toot.”

Our son got a little nervous twice tonight. Both Frank and Bruce are put in dangerous traps and things look a little bad for them. But the threat against Bruce is so silly that it was pretty instantly defused. Earlier, I had been a little surprised that the big fight was actually a little more… shall we say “real” than the previous, ridiculous ones with such silly and inoffensive weapons as balloons and invisible swords. The characters were actually throwing each other around. Then Bruce ends up in a grave and the Skull threatens to dispose of him with a silver bullet. That’s how you kill werewolves, remember, by shooting them with a bullet made of silver.

Except this is the antiseptic Saturday morning of 1976. There are no guns here. The Skull intends to gently toss the bullet at him. Defeating werewolves is apparently a whole lot easier than I thought.

Ultraman 1.11 – The Ruffian from Outer Space

Ultraman always had a silly side, with Arashi and Ito pulling faces and mugging at the camera with goofball slapstick, but this is the first episode that’s made as a pure comedy for kindergartners. I think if you don’t have little ones in the house when you watch this, it may be tough going. But good grief, my five year-old just howled through it. It’s his favorite episode of the show so far.

The story’s about a telepathic stone that falls to Earth – naturally, Hoshino spots it – and ends up in the hands of a criminal. The stone can become anything that anyone wishes of it, and the criminal wants a monster. After some hijinks where the stone turns into a piano, a blushing bride, and a birthday cake (what would happen if somebody ate a slice?), the criminal wishes the stone into a monster which the Ultraman Wiki tells me is called Gango. He doesn’t rob banks with the monster, and he doesn’t overthrow the government. He plays practical jokes on hotel porters and scares girls in bathing suits and, like any five year-olds in the audience, laughs himself so hard that the frame freezes.

I’m not joking. This kid’s sides hurt from laughing.

Eventually, the criminal decides that he could have even more fun with Gango if the monster was a really big monster. He forgot to make that wish outside, and Gango, growing to “fight our hero” size, levels the hotel and puts the dude in a coma. The fight with Ultraman is strictly played for yuks – Gango is ticklish, it turns out – and somebody at the network was left wondering why they needed to spend so much money on miniature cities and explosions when all you need to do to entertain the audience is have a guy in a monster suit jump out at a waiter who’s carrying a pie. To hear some people tell it, Japanese television these days is nothing but that kind of program.

Space Academy 1.7 – Monkey Business

There wasn’t anything wrong with tonight’s episode – it concerned a solar mirror jammed in the wrong position, pointing down at an artificial planetoid – but I guess I wasn’t in the right mood for it. I just kept questioning things instead of taking this inoffensive story on its own terms. For example, I wanted to know…

It’s 1977. Didn’t we already see a kid and a chimpanzee stowing away on this morning’s repeat of Speed Racer? And…

Why are the hangar bays at Space Academy so incredibly huge? Isn’t that a somewhat inefficient use of space?

Ah, well. My son wasn’t distracted by such boring adult concerns. He liked the story just fine.

Monster Squad 1.9 – The Wizard

The most notable thing about this episode is that they’re running out of safe and comedic ways to have fights without making NBC’s Saturday morning censors upset, so Dracula and the villainous Wizard, played by Arthur Malet, have a swordfight with invisible swords. I think the actors were having fun.

What else? Weirdly, they set up this character in the previous episode. Ultra Witch was trying to get the Wizard sprung from prison, which is the sort of “big picture” world-building that these kinds of kids’ programs very rarely ever did. But the previous episode isn’t actually referenced at all this week, which makes you wonder why they bothered.

There’s also a Jonathan Livingston Seagull gag, because this was the seventies, as well as a lot of gags about patriotism, because this was 1976, specifically. The enormous Mickey Morton played one of the Wizard’s henchmen. He’d be back on NBC in two weeks as a big monster in Land of the Lost. Our son thought this was “pretty cool” and we’re glad that somebody did.