Category Archives: movies

Message From Space (1978)

It’s largely forgotten today, but if you want to sit down with a kid and enjoy a downright insanely entertaining movie, Message From Space will certainly do. After those last two turkeys we watched for this blog, this was both a relief and a pleasure. This is a fun, fun movie, almost tailor-made for slow Sunday mornings for kids to watch on a UHF channel while Mom and Dad are still asleep.

You know how Star Wars is really inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress? This is a movie that doesn’t pretend. It’s The Hidden Fortress in space, gleefully pilfering its look and set pieces from Wars and running at breakneck speed with explosions and sword fights every five minutes. Anybody who’d get bored watching this film didn’t have an attention span in the first place.

The plot goes like this: evil space villains have conquered a peace-loving planet, and the defeated people’s ageing leader sends eight seed pods into space to recruit help. The baddies follow the trail from their region of space into ours, and while the seeds collect a rag-tag group of misfits to fulfill their destiny, the villains learn about the beautiful planet Earth and decide to conquer it next. Among its international cast, it’s got Sonny Chiba and Vic Morrow, and a young American actress named Peggy Lee Brennan in a role that looks like it was written for Suzy Quatro.

Our son adored this film, of course. I mean, if you like Star Wars, here it is again, only with old-fashioned miniature effects instead of computer-controlled one, and with a climactic sword fight that is roughly a billion times better than the one Dave Prowse and Alec Guinness had. It’s got both a Vader Villain and his creepy old silver-skinned mother in a wheelchair, beat-up and dirty little one-man spaceships, cocky hotshot pilots, a musical score that sounds a whole lot like John Williams, and a Death Star trench climax that’s pilfered straight from the original, only using about a quarter of the screen time and including giant doors in the tunnels that threaten to close right in front of the quasi-X-wings.

Bizarrely, my son took exception to one little bit of design. The whole affair is ridiculously sumptuous for what could have been a cheap knock-off. According to a book by Stuart Galbraith IV, Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, it was actually the most expensive film ever made in Japan up to that time, and you can see it all onscreen. The costumes, sets, spaceships, and effects are all completely over the top and outlandish and I think they all look splendid, but for some reason he grumbled that the villains’ gigantic flying fortress – their Star Destroyer, basically – was “a hunk of junk,” and kept calling it that whenever he wasn’t whooping, laughing, or shouting “Oh my goodness, they’re killing everybody!”

So when the flying fortress meets its destructive end, he jumped off the couch in ecstasy, and bellowed “I TOLD you it was a hunk of junk!” He was happier about that than the downright amazing end for the chief Vader Villain, weirdly.

Message From Space sports a co-writing credit for Shotaro Ishinomori, a comic book artist who spent the seventies being consulted by lots of TV and movie producers in Japan, and collaborating on all sorts of shows that look incredibly fun and/or silly. This is absolutely a fun movie, one I was happy to revisit. It’s not high art, but neither’s Star Wars, and every six year-old in the galaxy should see it.

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Fugitive Alien (1978 / 1986)

In the 1970s, Tsubaraya Productions made several sci-fi television shows apart from their most popular franchise, Ultraman. I don’t think that any of these really need trouble your attention much. There was Mighty Jack, of course, and Jumborg Ace, and Time of / Army of the Apes, and the see-it-to-believe it Dinosaur War Aizenborg, in which cartoon characters save the world from live-action actors in dinosaur costumes. That would have been a silly series in the first place, but then somebody decided that these needed to be talking dinosaurs.

Recognizing that I’m not the best candidate to debate the issue, Star Wolf was probably the best of this unfortunate bunch of lousy teevee shows. The premise comes from a trio of novels by Edmond Hamilton. Centuries in the future – well, possibly, the English-language script is very, very questionable – some aliens led by Lord Halkon attack the Earth. One of their “Star Wolf” raiders, Ken, gets into a fight with his colleague about whether to murder civilians, goes rogue and joins Captain Joe and his crew to save the galaxy from his former allies.

Star Wolf ran for 24 half-hour episodes in the spring and summer of 1978. Regardless of the story’s origins in Hamilton’s novels from the late sixties, the show’s design was all Star Wars. There’s a Vader Villain, ships that look like X-Wings, other ships with the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit windows, laser guns, even a light saber in one tiny bit. It’s a derivative and silly kids’ show, but for all I know, the original series might not have been too bad. Some of the miniature work is really pretty good.

But we may never know whether the original program was worth a darn, because this wasn’t released in English by a company that knew to hire Peter Fernandez and Corrine Orr to do the voices and edit out as little as possible. No, the English language rights to most of the seventies Tsubaraya shows were purchased by Sandy Frank, the source of all our pain, and if there was anything worth watching in Star Wolf, it’s not evident in what came next.

Fugitive Alien is a 100-minute compilation of the first several episodes of Star Wolf, and it is a breathtaking mess. The film was packaged and offered to UHF stations in 1986, and it is so incompetent that Mystery Science Theater 3000 did it twice, and watching it without Joel and the Bots is like a day without sunshine. The voice actors are probably Sandy Frank’s neighbors gathered around a condenser mic, the script uses “country,” “nation,” “planet,” and “constellation” interchangeably, people describe characters as not wearing space suits when they plainly are, that sort of thing.

Our son tolerated it. My wife went to the grocery store. He was attentive in the beginning, when Lord Halkon has ordered his forces to destroy all life on Earth – his forces just rob a jewelry store and steal some gold bars, so that command might have been a quirk of the Sandy Frank script – and paid attention again when Ken gets arrested on the Planet That’s the Middle East, but the forty-some minutes between them are ponderous talking scenes in office buildings. Well, Rocky tries to kill Ken with a forklift, so I guess you could say that something happens then.

Magically, you can tell from the costumes and design and cars that the original series, much like Ultraman, was set in the near-future, with technology we could imagine as right around the corner from the present day. So you’ve got average joes in 1977-78 clothes riding around in Jeeps watching slideshows and punching up information on TRS-80s talking about their centuries-old alliance with the Planet That’s the Middle East.

The film does have an actual ending, but it also says “To Be Continued.” I did not break my son’s heart when I told him I did not have a copy of Fugitive Alien 2 and that we would not be watching it.

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The Amazing Captain Nemo (1978)

I’m a nostalgic and forgiving kind of guy, and so I’m pretty certain that every single thing from my childhood that I loved as a child is something I can look at from the dull light of middle age and see what appealed to me when I was small. Then there’s The Return of Captain Nemo, which ran for three episodes on CBS in 1978. I saw the first two installments and loved that show like you wouldn’t believe.

This morning, we watched The Amazing Captain Nemo, a compilation movie made from the three TV episodes, whittled down from about 150 to 105 minutes. If I didn’t have my six year-old son hopping with excitement from the laser gun fights, underwater action, and explosions, I would have wandered away from this turkey to go play mublety-peg or something. I’d say that it’s the stupidest thing we’ve watched for this blog, were it not for the unfortunate reality that I know what we’re watching next week.

The Return of Captain Nemo seems to have come about because CBS was very much aware of bandwagons, but they were too timid to actually jump on any of them. In the spring of 1977, NBC showed a series of TV movies called Man From Atlantis. They starred Patrick Duffy as a comic book-type hero, with a former Batvillain, Victor Buono, as a recurring enemy. These were so successful that NBC ordered a weekly series, and CBS and Warner Brothers followed suit with an idea for a clone, even casting another former Batvillain, Burgess Meredith, as their show’s baddie. Captain Nemo was in the public domain, and while Irwin Allen had left weekly TV production behind for big-budget disaster movies like The Towering Inferno, he knew how to make bottom-of-the-sea television without a lot of money, so they asked him to produce it.

Then Star Wars happened. Suddenly Burgess Meredith got an alien robot henchman and a lot of golden androids. The important rooms of his submarine, the Raven, got turned into black-curtained “limbo” sets like everywhere in the third season of Batman so the set designer could spend money making all the corridors into Death Star hallways to stage laser gun shootouts.

Then Man From Atlantis died as a weekly series. CBS decided that they maybe only wanted three episodes, and called it a pilot mini-series. The mini-series flopped, and Irwin Allen and Warner Brothers got to make a little money back by turning the three hours into a film version, cropping the 4:3 picture into widescreen. The three-part version has apparently never been screened anywhere since an April 1981 broadcast in the UK; the film is the only way to see it. Only Irwin Allen completists need bother.

I’m assuming some of the intricacies must have been lost in the editing, because the speed with which the kind and patient Nemo works out a deal with naval intelligence to be their go-to man to battle the evil Professor Cunningham is really the most amazing thing about this movie. We never learn anything about Cunningham’s alien buddies or weird technology, Lynda Day George is present only because if she wasn’t, there would not be a single female character in this movie at all, and Atlantis itself is treated as a mild curiosity and depicted with a no-budget-at-all white set with two Greek columns. All of the dialogue is hilariously macho – “I’m going alone,” “no time for explanations,” etc. – and the two action man leads, played by Tom Hallick and Burr DeBenning, look like they were cast because there weren’t any cop shows that needed them that month.

But holy anna, our six year-old loved it. He was hopping up and down and shouted “This is AMAZING!” at one point. He liked the underwater gunfights so much that he’ll probably pass out when he sees Thunderball one of these days. He did creep behind the sofa at one point when Captain Nemo was captured and Cunningham uses one of those mind probes you see in sci-fi shows to get the equations and blueprints for the Nautilus and its laser(!) from his brain. We’ve seen Captain Nemo in four films now, and this is the most ridiculous thing to happen to him in any of them.

And it was always thus. In the seventies, my parents were good friends with a fellow named J.D. Faulkner, who always confused me by being unmarried. My folks knew nine thousand people and I swear J.D. was the only bachelor among them. He always arrived unannounced, and one terrible Wednesday – March 22, 1978 – he showed up raving about this restaurant in Marietta, insisting that Mom and Dad drop plans and join him there. It is perhaps amazing that I grew up loving food and restaurants as I do after what happened next. This insidious trip to whatever that restaurant was – my parents never admitted its name under interrogation – cost me the third episode of the show, but I guarantee I ruined their meal by whining about it. I started crying because the second part had a cliffhanger ending. I mean, it said on the screen “TO BE CONTINUED,” so that meant my parents were obliged to let me see what happened next.

Somehow, in that strange logic of six year-olds, I concluded that the cost for missing part three of The Return of Captain Nemo was twenty-four dollars. My father agreed to pay it to shut me up, and I ate my spaghetti in silence. It wasn’t even good spaghetti. Mom made better spaghetti than this. Mom made, and continues to make, better spaghetti than anybody else on the planet. I don’t know why I ordered it.

Then my dad refused to pay the twenty-four dollars. Then there wasn’t an episode four of The Return of Captain Nemo. Somehow I didn’t become a serial killer.

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The $tar War$ Ca$h-Ins: Introduction

Star Wars was first screened on May 25, 1977, although, as was common in those days, it was many, many months before everybody got to see it. I turned six that December. I still hadn’t seen it, though of course I’d heard about it. Everybody at school claimed to have seen it, or to have a cousin who had seen it, but got all the details of the plot wrong. We had bubble gum cards and coloring books and other legitimate merchandising long before anybody in the suburbs of Atlanta really saw the movie.

The reason I know I hadn’t seen it by my birthday was simple: I got my first three Star Wars toys at my birthday party and none of my friends had any idea who the characters were. But rest assured that the Sand Person and the Death Squad Commander had all kinds of exciting adventures in their Land Speeder on the den floor until I got some action dolls of characters with names for Christmas.

Knockoff toys showed up by the truckload almost instantly. Old Captain Action figures were repurposed, swords were made from glow-in-the-dark plastic, and there were wind-up cute robots on every desk in every school. As far as cash-ins go, the space age had begun. The movies weren’t far behind.

Regular readers know that most Sunday mornings, we watch a movie together. Beginning June 11, we’ll be watching eight of the most blatant of the $tar War$ Ca$h-Ins, in what I believe is the order they were released. This won’t quite be a comprehensive study of the form, but I think we’ll have a lot of fun. Here’s a short introduction detailing a few high points, or low, about what we have already seen, won’t be seeing, or will watch a little later down the road.

September 1977: Space Academy
We’ve already watched this series. Filmation’s Saturday morning show Space Academy was already in pre-production with a number of plot elements and archetypes that predated Star Wars. It’s more like Trek than Wars, but the visuals, corridors, and space combat scenes are clearly influenced by Wars, and then there’s Peepo, television’s first cute R2-D2 rip-off.

December 1977: The War in Space
This dopey movie falls victim to this blog’s “pay for play” rule. I’ve never owned a copy, and it’s out of print and stupidly expensive, but it’s such a turkey I wouldn’t ask any of my mates, who’ve been making fun of it for twenty-five years, for a copy anyway. Nevertheless, it seems to be the first Wars cash-in to make it into theaters, even beating the original to screens in Japan. The story goes that Toho sent director Jun Fukuda and a big crew to California so they could see this allegedly game-changing movie that everybody in the special effects business was raving about. They were already at work on a sequel to the sci-fi film Atragon and changed course at breakneck speed to beat the American film into Japanese theaters. The result is a barely-coherent mess with some nice visuals, a Chewbacca clone, and a hilarious Darth Vader clone from the spherical star cluster which you Earthlings call Misty-13. That’s where they all live. Their world is far from here. They can go all over the immensity of the galactic system. It was released in America with a dub job so incompetent that it seems like an act of petty revenge. Go about eight and a half minutes into that link up above and marvel at the marbles in that guy’s mouth.

March 1978: The Return of Captain Nemo
Burgess Meredith has a strange alien henchman and silent golden robot allies to stage shootouts in the Death Star corridors of his submarine, and only Captain Nemo, freed from cryogenic slumber, can stop him! This TV series would have looked very different had its designer never seen Star Wars. Read all about it here.

April 1978: Fugitive Alien
The Japanese TV series Star Wolf had more than one influence on its look and feel, but its spaceships and bad guy came straight from the Lucas playbook. It was repackaged for American television as a compilation movie in the mid-eighties and people have giggled about it ever since. Read all about it here.

April 1978: Message From Space
Stay tuned for our post about this movie later this month.

July 1978: Battlestar Galactica
Stay tuned for our post about the theatrical movie, which preceded the TV series in some countries, in July.

September 1978: Jason of Star Command
We’ve already watched this series. Jason was actually an incredibly egregious and blatant cash-in, but it was done with such good humor that it was hard to object or take too seriously. Plus, Sid Haig. I really enjoyed how, in response to George Lucas explaining that his film was an homage to the cliffhanging serials of the 1930s, Filmation said “Yeah, we remember those, too,” and made the first season a sixteen-chapter serial just like Flash Gordon and his ilk. Then the next season, Filmation got the rights to Flash Gordon itself and made a sixteen-chapter cartoon out of it.

March 1979: Starcrash
Stay tuned for our post about this movie in July.

May 1979: Shape of Things to Come
Stay tuned for our post about this movie in July or August.

September 1979: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
We’re going to skip over good ol’ Buck for the time being as we have lots of other shows and movies to watch, but the first season is waiting patiently on my shelf to show my son when he’s just a little bit older.

December 1979: The Black Hole
Stay tuned for our post about this movie in August.

September 1980: Battle Beyond the Stars
Stay tuned for our post about this movie in August.

There were certainly other clones and cash-ins after this Roger Corman epic, but that pretty much covers the basics, and cheesy sci-fi eventually stopped being quite so blatant. For example, December 1980’s Flash Gordon wouldn’t have been made had Star Wars not been a hit, but it’s really its own thing, with Ming the Merciless reminding audiences he was the chief cosmic baddie long before Darth Vader. Another example: In 1981, comedian Rich Little starred in a family sitcom pilot – it wasn’t picked up – called Nuts and Bolts which would have been unremarkable were it not for the co-stars. Nuts and Bolts were cute robots like R2-D2 and C-3PO.

Similarly, Star Wars‘ miniature work started influencing the BBC’s visual effects unit, most obviously in the opening shot of the Doctor Who serial “The Invasion of Time” in February 1978, and the series Blake’s 7, which was launched right around then, but we have to draw a line somewhere. In much the same way that discussing every spy movie is going to hit a wall where you’re discussing the movies that wanted to be James Bond on one side and the movies that were influenced by or were a reaction to Bond on the other, you have to stop somewhere.

One final note about cash-ins: one of my pals suggested we watch 1982’s The Man Who Saved the World – better known as “Turkish Star Wars” – and I’m tempted. Last year, Ed Glaser of Neon Harbor tracked down what is likely the last remaining 35mm print of this film and hopes to one day restore and release it. Yes, tempted is the right word. Drop us a line if you do, would you, Ed?

Image credits: Plaid Stallions, Flickr.

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Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars celebrated its 40th anniversary this week, so we sat down to watch it this afternoon. Our son just hopped and squeaked with excitement. “My first Star Wars movie!!!” he yelled. We told him at the playground that we’d decided to watch the movie this afternoon instead of Sunday morning. He and some seven year-old immediately started swordfighting with imaginary light sabers.

It’s fascinating to watch this through the eyes of a kid and see what they know already, since its impact on culture has been so great that elements of it are simply as ubiquitous as football and pop music. My opinion on marketing might not be worth a whole lot, but I’ll say on my death bed that the absolute stupidest thing that Lucas or Disney or whoever did to this property was make Darth Vader not scary anymore. How is anybody meant to be frightened of Darth Vader when they turned him into a Mr. Potato Head? Boy, that wasn’t the case when we were kids.

But if you remember – and we’ll come back to this next week – none of us really went into Star Wars blind. The movie was released, they say, on May 25 1977, but I certainly didn’t see it until January or February the following year, and I think that’s the case for many people my age. But we had trading cards and toys. I’ve kept few of my treasures from childhood, but I’ve still got a mostly complete set of Topps cards – missing one green border and six yellows – and my classmates, friends, and I breathlessly assembled our knowledge from little pieces of ancillary information. Heaven knows the movie itself keeps its secrets. You wouldn’t know from watching these 120 minutes that Biggs Darklighter and Wedge Antilles have lives outside the cockpits of their X-Wings.

My wife and I learned today that this continues. After R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawas, he’s carried off to a vehicle that our son recognized. “A Sandcrawler!” he shouted. He knew exactly what that was. He watches videos on YouTube that teenage Lego fans make about their constructions and Sandcrawlers, of all things, are remarkably popular.

Of course, some of it he didn’t actually understand. In some places that might be because Baby Harrison Ford and Baby Mark Hamill had not quite learned how to act yet, and their line delivery is occasionally kind of rushed and unclear. Thanks to them, our son thought that the “Jumbo Lightspeed” was a remarkably cool special effect. But my favorite of his announcements came when the flight squadrons started getting together on Yavin’s moon and he recognized an X-Wing but didn’t know what it was called. “Hey! A Star Wars ship!”

Indeed, he loved this movie to pieces. He was jumping and cheering during the final battle and would have been riveted for another hour, easy. Me, I thought it was a little odd and, especially in light of the later films and their casts of billions and hundreds of planets, small. I haven’t actually sat down to watch it in such an incredibly long time that I’d forgotten just how much stuff happens on Tattooine before they get to Mos Eisley. It’s a wonderfully busy film, and I think that in lesser circumstances, Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing would have easily dominated everybody and everything.

Imagine this movie made just five or six years before, without the set design and creatures and visual effects that keep your attention so focused on the solid reality of this incredibly unreal place. Think about how strange those mile-deep maintenance shafts are, and how for some insane reason the architects decided to stick the tractor beam controls right in the middle of a fall-to-your-death chasm. Guinness and Cushing would have stolen the movie outright if this had been a 1972 Hammer/Seven Arts film, in much the same way Cushing had walked away with At the Earth’s Core the year before. (We’ll get to that movie in a few months!) But Star Wars so masterfully presents its place that even the isolated case of overacting – really only that “ultimate power in the universe” guy that Vader Force-chokes – doesn’t take audiences out of the picture very much.

I really don’t have anything more to say than that. Star Wars, like The Wizard of Oz which we watched recently, has been written about so much already that the other things I did feel like mentioning have been done to death. Chewbacca didn’t get a medal, you know. Yeah, they’ve addressed that in at least two comic books!

So anyway, happy birthday, Star Wars. Thanks for all the memories, and we won’t make your newest fan wait three years to see what happens next.

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Logan’s Run (1976)

A case might be made that our son, who has only turned six recently, might be too young to appreciate or understand Logan’s Run, and maybe I should have held off on showing him this. However, we’ll be watching Star Wars in a couple of weeks, and I wanted him to have a little idea of what American science fiction films were like before George Lucas showed up and kiddified everything.

He’s far too young to grasp the cerebral likes of 2001, Westworld, or The Andromeda Strain, and while Planet of the Apes is on the agenda for later this year, I still worry that film’s going to scare him quite a bit. So I decided that Logan’s Run, despite the worrying premise of early death and fleeting glimpses of nudity, would serve as our example. It also led to a much more kid-friendly TV series the following year, and so I decided we’d watch that as well, so look out for that next month.

So the techno-future of Logan’s Run is all lights and computers and travel capsules and escalators in shopping malls under a big dome. It’s a PG film of the seventies, so much of the discussion of pleasure is left understated, but this is a world where the people play with abandon and sleep together without repercussions. They’re under the thumbs of the Sandmen, who wear black and there are quite a few more of them than you’d expect standing around in the background. The Sandmen take their orders from a sultry-voiced evil supercomputer. People are promised the possibility of renewal – reincarnation, basically – after their lastday, and a garish and totally over-the-top death ceremony called Carrousel. People don’t question the system, and people don’t ask what’s outside the domed city.

The film stars Michael York as Logan 5, a Sandman who has been given a deep undercover assignment to find the secret exit to Sanctuary which Runners – people who make a bid for freedom before their lastday – have been using. He realizes that Jessica, a girl that he recently met while looking for some free evening company who is played by Jenny Agutter, wears an ankh symbol affiliated with the Sanctuary movement.

This level of detail went a little over our kid’s head. We did have to pause early on, because the first half-hour is a little talkier than our six year-old wanted to handle, and so we had to tell him to quit kicking his legs around and pay attention, and if he had questions, actually ask us instead of ignoring the movie until some shooting started. He improved, but in fairness, the action quotient did, too.

Logan is so deep undercover that the other Sandmen don’t know about his mission. He’s forced to become a Runner himself and make his way through the strangely complicated way out of the city that the underground resistance movement guards. Unfortunately, the network of Runners have made their own jobs so difficult that none of them know that they’ve been sending Runners to their deaths at the hands of a demented robot who has killed hundreds and hundreds of people. Until Logan shows up, nobody has been armed and able to defend themselves from it.

The robot, Box, is played by Roscoe Lee Browne, and I don’t mind telling you that when I first saw this movie on HBO around 1979 or so, Box really gave me the creeps. He’s not around for long – educated guessers have figured that the Box scene, and an earlier one in their run in which Logan and Jessica get separated in a steam room orgy, were both ruthlessly edited down to remove as much nudity as possible so the movie would get a PG rating – but Box is one of those creations that every kid of the seventies remembers. Until Star Wars made them safe, robots were often very menacing.

The movie is flawed in places and certainly dated, but there’s really a lot to like. I enjoyed how the music is all disco synthesizers and Jean-Michel Jarre electronics inside the city, but is played by a traditional orchestra once our heroes get outside. I like how the lasers used in the New You clinic are surgical things that cut you with solid beams of light, and not zap guns. I enjoyed Farrah Fawcett and Peter Ustinov, and I especially liked that the writers didn’t make Ustinov’s character, the old man that they meet outside the dome, the wise fellow who can explain everything. The old man is just as baffled by the world as Logan and Jessica, but he understands a tiny bit about how families can work in a society where kids aren’t born in tanks and raised by computers. And Richard Jordan, who plays the Sandman who believes Logan has betrayed the system, is an entertaining villain, but heaven knows how a guy who’s never seen the outside world before is able to track our heroes on an overnight excursion.

Actually, the real flaw in the film is its need to make Logan the savior of the story and individual cause of the city’s explosive downfall instead of the protagonist who got out and began getting the outside world ready for people leaving the dome. Things should have been set into motion by having Jordan’s character call for as much backup as possible once he found all of the bodies that Box had frozen, and then let a large company of Sandmen see the sun for themselves.

The writer seems to have painted himself into a corner by the path they took, which means there’s no real way out except for explosions and destruction literally driving the population outside. This means that the sultry-voiced evil supercomputer has to do that “Does not compute… SELF-DESTRUCT!” thing that evil supercomputers often did around the seventies. No wonder all of our generation’s parents were terrified when we gave them their first hand-me-down PCs. They spent more than a decade waiting for the darn things to blow up in movies.

I’m grousing a lot over a generally entertaining movie that has our son curious to see its retelling as a weekly show, but the ending is massively silly, and I love the way all the people fleeing the dome just show up at the top of some stairs. None of this army of extras has any urgency, none of them move like “our entire world is blowing up,” they just show up and say “check out Peter Ustinov and his old man hair.” It’s a good setup, an interesting dystopian utopia, full of good actors, and one deeply goofy ending. Maybe the show will do it better?

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Return from Witch Mountain (1978)

There’s a churlish and contrary side of me that remains petulantly bothered by Disney’s 1978 film Return from Witch Mountain. My complaint is that Tony and Tia don’t get to do nearly enough together. Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann had such fun chemistry together in the original film, and they’re separated for nearly the entirety of the sequel.

On the other hand, they don’t waste time getting this story moving. I like the way this movie just takes off running. Ten minutes in, and we’ve met the villains, as played by Christopher Lee and Bette Davis. I don’t believe that either actor would have listed this movie among their ten best, but boy, are they ever fun. They’re properly evil, too. The only thing in this film that troubled our son was Christopher Lee knocking out Tony with an injection – could movie makers get away with anything like that today?! – but he recovered and enjoyed the daylights out of this.

I’ll tell you who else would enjoy the daylights out of this: anybody who grew up in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. There’s a lot of location filming here as Tia meets up with a gang of truant kids called the Earthquakes and hides out with them looking for Tony. Bizarrely, she doesn’t think about going to the police for help. I get that identifying herself would be a huge issue, but the subject just doesn’t come up.

Speaking of police, I guess if I’m being honest, the only thing about the movie that actually aggravates me is the mammoth plot hole about Bette Davis’s station wagon. Once the baddies have stuck a mind control chip behind Tony’s ear, they’ve got an accomplice with telekinetic powers and she plans to heist a museum of $3,000,000 in gold. But she didn’t think it through, and her car is totaled by the giant stack of gold bricks. At no point do the police follow up on this. Of course, in Disney films, policemen are only ever present to either have their own cars wrecked, or lower their eyebrows, ticket pad in hand, when somebody else’s car gets wrecked, but seriously, nobody followed up on the destruction of the getaway car to see who owned it?

Anyway, with our heroes separated, the movie’s effectiveness comes down to the chemistry with their co-stars. Eisenmann has the totally thankless task of playing an emotionless slave for almost the whole film; he’s a blank slate for Lee and Davis to be simply evil. Richards is teamed with a kid gang played by young actors who are pretty entertaining, too. One of the gang is played by “Poindexter,” a child star who seemed to inevitably take roles in the seventies that Robbie Rist had turned down. The gang’s leader is Christian Juttner, who we’ve seen in Ark II and Wonder Woman, and who we’ll see again in a recurring part in the first season of The Bionic Woman in a couple of months. Grown-up support comes from the wonderful Richard Bakalyan as a jerk of a taxi driver who steals the kids’ luggage and deserves what he gets, and Barney Miller‘s Jack Soo as “Yoyo,” the truant officer trying to catch the Earthquakes.

With that in mind, it’s probable that, with its dated optical effects, rear-screen projection, obvious stunt doubles and wire-work, Return from Witch Mountain looked a little old-fashioned to audiences in 1978 as Star Wars and all of its imitators were showing up in theaters – more on that subject very soon – but our son probably enjoyed this even more than the original. The telekinetic chaos is genuinely fun to watch, even if Davis really should have tried her museum heist after dark, and the effects scenes are perfectly paced to keep children interested.

Our kid absolutely loved the really excellent car chase about halfway through the film, and when Tia telepathically sends a goat to fetch the Earthquakes, he was roaring. The animal ends up in a car while its driver is oblivious – we’ve seen that before from Disney – and then all the tough-guy kids end up hanging from pillars in their hideout’s big room while it brays and nips at their legs to get their attention. He was laughing so hard he nearly cried, and made up a “Chasing the Goat” song.

So yes, perhaps Davis and Lee might have done well to heed the old advice about not working with kids and animals, because for this six year-old, they were downright forgettable in the wake of the slapstick comedy. But the grown-ups appreciated seeing these giants at work. The film is flawed but entertaining, but they elevated it a little in my book. Plus, of course, whenever we will see Christopher Lee in any other film or show – and we certainly will – I can remind our son “He was Professor Garron in Return from Witch Mountain!”

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The Wizard of Oz (1939)

I had planned for us to watch The Wizard of Oz sometime next month, but I got a craving to see it again so we moved it forward. I’ll have less to say here than in other chapters about movies; you know this story already and it’s one of the most written-about films in Hollywood’s history. I have nothing to add beyond our own experience.

We stopped it and restarted it after about five minutes. Our son wasn’t paying a lick of attention. But we forced the issue and he loved it. Our son was happy and laughing aloud through much of the movie, making occasional exclamations of delight over the proceedings. “Those munchkins hatch from an egg?!” “A lion afraid of imaginary sheep!” he called out with glee. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Wizard of Oz is flawless.

My only quibble is that I can’t stand the high-pitched voices of the Munchkins, but whoever designed their costumes deserved all the awards in the industry. Ray Bolger and Bert Lahr are hilarious and perfect in their roles, and I always spare a thought for poor Jack Haley, lumbered in one of the the era’s most uncomfortable costumes and makeup jobs. The Tin Man was our son’s favorite character, so we appreciate Mr. Haley suffering for his art.

At any rate, glee turned to anxiety when our heroes went off to obtain the witch’s broomstick. That amazing scene between Judy Garland and Margaret Hamilton had him wide-eyed and desperately hugging Mom, and the whole rescue sequence had him kicking and jumping and dashing to the staircase behind our sofa in anxiety and excitement.

I was concerned, of course, about whether the Wicked Witch would terrify our son. As somebody who wishes to be a better wordsmith than I am, I have always been pleased by Joseph Berger’s 1985 obituary of Hamilton in The New York Times, which describes her as “the actress whose role as the cackling Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz unnerved generations of children.” That’s so perfect.

This blog is nearly two years old. We began it with H.R. Pufnstuf, creating a worry of witches that has lasted to this day. Margaret Hamilton’s performance, I am pleased to say, retains its power to unnerve after nearly eight decades.

I have not watched The Wizard of Oz in quite a long time. See, about eleven years ago, I was dating this beautiful Little Green Girl, as she liked to be known, who absolutely loved Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked – the musical less so – and who insisted that I read the book, over my objections and suspicions. She didn’t even allow me to buy the edition with the cover that tied in with beautifully-designed artwork of the musical, forcing a book with a far less interesting cover on me.

So I read the novel over the course of a week, and finished up with a public display of whimpering, crying and downright bawling when the Wicked Witch meets her unfortunate end. I was on my lunch break in a Jason’s Deli in Alpharetta and made such a Mary-at-Chuckles’-funeral spectacle of myself I never darkened that restaurant’s door ever again. The relationship didn’t last, but it cemented my love for the witch to the point that I just haven’t wanted to see that awful child from Kansas kill her again.

Naturally, of course, that was our son’s favorite scene. Kids!

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