Space: 1999 1.8 – Dragon’s Domain

Well, here’s a surprise. I figured since the kid insisted we watch Space: 1999 from time to time, I’d do up its most infamous child-scaring episode right, and we watched it together late at night with all the lights out. “Dragon’s Domain” is the one with the great screaming tentacled monster with the headlamp eye that skeletonizes its victims. But our boy is a much older boy than the boy who was once so very bothered by many of the monsters we’ve seen together. He was flatly and firmly unimpressed. So nine’s too old. You got kids of your own? Throw this at ’em earlier.

The kid said that he liked precisely two things about it. Recovering from getting clobbered the second time by the “Saint George” character who insists on fighting his dragon, Alan asks “What’s that guy got against me?” And among the models in the spaceship graveyard, our son spotted the same ship used by Julian Glover’s people in the previous episode, “Alpha Child.” That’s it.

But I thought this was the best of the first eight by a mile. I really like its scope. Much of it is a flashback to an incident in 1996-97 where “Saint George” takes off on a 14-month flight to visit a new planet in the solar system, along with Michael Sheard and two women. They find a graveyard of other spacecraft, but “Saint George” can’t get out of the cockpit while Sheard and the ladies are horrifically killed by the monster. The dude escapes, jettisoning the bulk of his ship, makes it home, and nobody believes him. 800 days into Moonbase Alpha’s journey, in between galaxies and nowhere near anything, “Saint George” has a nightmare of the monster again, because the big dude got hungry and parked his spiderweb of spaceships in the moon’s path. Seems a bit unlikely that a big dude powerful enough to do that could get whipped by an axe to the headlamp, but there you go.

Here’s the other thing I really liked, and it’s the show that Gerry Anderson and Lew Grade should have given us instead of this silly series. Douglas Wilmer plays the commissioner of Earth’s unified space program, and there’s a hell of a show here about putting together the funds to explore our own solar system, and finding seven or eight derelict alien spaceships on the other side of Pluto, with or without a big space monster. It’s somewhere that Anderson kind of looked at five years previously in his strange feature film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, but abandoned in favor of weird post-Kubrick metaphysics and philosophy about the strangeness of space. There’s even a little cameo by Bob Sherman, who’d later play the CIA guy in The Sandbaggers, as a newsreader for a show about the space program. I just think it’s a huge missed opportunity, because honestly, the nuts and bolts of how Moonbase Alpha got started is far, far more interesting to me than black suns and space rocks and rules of Luton.

But maybe I wouldn’t be focused on that had the big monster scared the pants off our son like it was meant to.

The Avengers 4.20 – The Danger Makers

Here’s another fourth season Avengers with a pile of great character actors from the period. This one features Nigel Davenport, Moray Watson, and the awesome Douglas Wilmer. Unfortunately, there’s that law about using a high-profile actor like Wilmer working against the writer’s intention here. Roger Marshall had scripted a few of these already, and we’ve become used to the stock character of a specialist doctor, usually employed by Steed’s branch of the ministry, not having an enormous amount to do with the plot. But Wilmer doesn’t play those kinds of characters, and there are exactly two suspects available who could be the mysterious “Apollo,” the leader of the Danger Makers. It’s probably going to be Douglas Wilmer.

This is the episode with the nailbiting scene where Mrs. Peel gets initiated into a society of thrillseeking military men by way of electrified poles and see-saws. It’s impossible to watch without holding your breath. The whole thing is hugely entertaining, but it required some more explanations than usual for our kid. We didn’t bother with one of the villains’ hobby of phrenology; we were already behind with explaining chicken runs and Russian roulette. We chose to emphasize that nobody really plays that, but he’s going to see an awful lot of it in movies and TV. At least I hope nobody really plays it.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

Fifteen years after making the first, and, to most people, the definitive Sinbad movie, Ray Harryhausen was back with a movie that many seem to suggest is one of the lesser films in his career. But man alive, I think it’s terrific. It may not be as great as Jason and the Argonauts – what is? – but I enjoyed this even more than the original Sinbad movie, and John Phillip Law, who plays Sinbad in this one, is really fun.

I casually mentioned to our son before we sat down this morning that he should pay attention to two of the actors in particular. Tom Baker, of course, we’ll be seeing much more of in the future. Here, he plays the villainous Prince Koura, an evil magician with designs on the throne of Marabia and far more, and he’s really fun. At no point does Koura do anything heroic or appear as anything other than a black-hearted sorcerer. He’s completely hypnotic, and it beggars belief that he was so short of work in 1973 that he was thinking about calling it quits. Eight years later, work would be a little scarce because of typecasting and something of an industry reputation for being, shall we say, mercurial and temperamental, but every casting director in London should have been phoning him in ’73.

And then there’s Caroline Munro, and I’m planning to see her at least twice more for this blog this year, and possibly a couple more times if I decide to write about James Bond and Hammer movies down the line, when our son’s a little older. I think she was one of the most gorgeous actresses around in the seventies, and I’d watch her in anything, so it’s kind of helpful that she kept making such fun movies that decade.

One of those Hammer films was Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, which was among those films that Brian Clemens made during his brief period working in features between his TV series The Avengers and Thriller. Since Munro was under contract with Hammer at the time, Clemens was encouraged to cast her in Kronos, and was so impressed with her that while he was working on the story for The Golden Voyage of Sinbad with Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles Scheer, he lobbied for her to take the lead female role. Honestly, there’s not a great deal to her part here, but she looks terrific.

The most curious casting, though, is Sinbad himself. John Phillip Law had been earmarked for greatness just a few years before this, and in 1968 alone had starred in three different cult films: Barbarella, Danger: Diabolik, and Skidoo. But while these odd films have fans today, at the time, they were all box office bombs. He was a sex symbol, but his career had stalled. This film was a hit, but it didn’t get him any meaty roles. He worked through the seventies, but mainly in cheap Italian action movies. I think it’s a shame that he didn’t come back for the next Sinbad movie four years later.

But you want to know about the special effects and what our son thought. As befits a Harryhausen movie, anything can happen here, and some of it is completely unpredictable. Other things are ever-so-gently telegraphed by what we know from previous Harryhausen films and what we’ve seen Koura do. I was unfamiliar with this movie and didn’t even look at the package art with more than a glance because I dislike spoilers so much. This wasn’t a case like Jason and the Argonauts where I spent the entire film waiting for that mob of skeletons to get reanimated. When Koura and his henchman get kidnapped by a green-painted tribe of cultists who worship Kali, they make the horrible mistake of bringing him into a cave with a ten-foot tall statue of their goddess, made of stone and with six arms. She’s there on the cover of the DVD, but that’s not why I knew she’d come to life. It’s the way the camera let me know it was coming.

Our son’s favorite monsters, meanwhile, were a pair of hideous, winged “spies,” brought to life from paper and Koura’s blood. His favorite scenes were the two bits where these creatures were killed. He especially loved seeing the second one brought down.

Overall, this whole film was one of the best and most entertaining scary experiences that he’s ever had. He says that he really liked this movie, but insists that it was not exciting. It was just plain scary, full stop. Between all of the monsters and the last-second escapes, he was in heaven, but he was also under his blanket. One thing’s for sure: he was never bored, not at all. There’s just enough humor for an occasional gag, but the stakes are pitched just perfectly for kids: abstract “good” versus “evil,” with no ramifications or subtlety. When a new pair of monsters shows up for one of the last battles, and Koura intervenes on behalf of the evil one, it’s the closest thing to a complicated allegory in the film. Otherwise it’s just wild, delicious popcorn made by a very talented team and we enjoyed it a lot.

Incidentally, there’s a very odd little bit of foreshadowing for a movie that hadn’t been made yet. Douglas Wilmer co-stars here as the magical Grand Vizier of Marabia, and wears a golden mask that completely hides his identity throughout the film. I briefly wondered why in the world you’d cast such a familiar name and face as Douglas Wilmer and then hide him under gold for a whole picture, and then I remembered that’s precisely what happened in 1980, when the makers of that Flash Gordon movie cast Peter Wyngarde as Max von Sydow’s right-hand man and hid him under gold as well! If you ever wonder why, I think they got the idea from here.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

We hadn’t sat down for a Sunday morning movie in a while, but today we picked back up with a fabulous one. Tom Hanks once said that Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film of all time, and I think Hanks knows movies more than I do. He may be right; it’s certainly very fun.

Our five year-old critic got squirmy in the middle, and when the traitor on board the Argo, played by Gary Raymond, revealed himself, he had no idea what the heck was going on. But to be fair, Douglas Wilmer’s evil king tapped Raymond to spy on Jason, the true heir to the throne of Thessaly, almost an hour previously and Raymond didn’t actually do anything nasty after that, so we can forgive him for being baffled by the swordfight.

We also needed to pause early on after realizing that our son had virtually no contact with Greek mythology prior to this, and didn’t know who these gods were. I think that Ares and Hephaestus are in an episode of Justice League Unlimited, but other than that, I don’t know that today’s popular culture really references these beings much anymore. Niall MacGinnis plays Zeus and Honor Blackman, in between her two seasons as Cathy Gale on The Avengers, plays Hera. The two of them take an interest in Jason after competing prophecies and prayers attract their attention.

I really like the way that the film addresses a desire to live in a world without the interference of gods. There’s an interesting bit where the Olympians consider the wisdom in striking down every heathen who blasphemes.

Also appearing in the movie are Todd Armstrong, who never had the career he deserved, as Jason, Nancy Kovack as the priestess Medea, Laurence Naismith, who would later manipulate The Persuaders to do his bidding, as the shipbuilder Argus, Nigel Green as a most unusual (but still very effective) Hercules, and Patrick Troughton – didn’t we just see him last night? – as a blind soothsayer. Our son didn’t recognize him, of course. Troughton was such a chameleon.

The movie’s directed by Don Chaffey, who mainly did television work, but also Pete’s Dragon for Disney, and it is one gorgeous, beautiful movie. It’s also a movie where the director knows when to back off and let Ray Harryhausen take over.

Wow. Okay, it’s true that jaded eyes can spot the difference in film stock whenever something magic is about to happen. This actually works against the beautiful modern restoration of this movie, with the blues in particular so vibrant that even in thirteen-degree January Chattanooga, we warmed up just looking at the sea and the sky. Nevertheless, the special effects are completely amazing for their day and remain astonishing.

I also love how all the stop-motion beasts in this movie have their own body language. The giant statue of Talos is slow and lumbering, the harpies are blurs of motion, the hydra’s heads and tail are each doing their own thing, and the seven (seven!!!!) skeletons who attack Jason, Phalerus, and Castor are unstoppable. Well, it’s possible they might have dispatched one of them.

Apart from his fit of mid-movie boredom, our son really enjoyed this film. He leapt out of his skin when the hydra showed up, started chewing on his security blanket when the skeletons attack, and might have swallowed the whole thing if Jason hadn’t made it out of that. He said that his favorite part of the film was when they use the golden fleece (or “golden cloak thing” in his words) to bring Medea back to life.

I dunno what my favorite part of the movie is. Possibly the skeletons. That animation is so darn good. Sure, they could do it on a computer now, but just imagine the work that went into matching all that up with the live-action footage. We’ll see a few more Harryhausen films down the line, but they might all be in this one’s long shadow. It’s a fantastic movie.