The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

Times have certainly changed. The very beginning of the DVD presentation of this film is the BBFC card certifying that this movie, better known in the United States as The Crawling Eye, is not to be shown to an audience with anybody under the age of sixteen in it. Sixteen?! I first saw clips of this on some HBO special about sci-fi or monster movies when I was about our son’s age and could not freaking wait to see it. Later, its unconvincing icky-squicky monsters got it a brief revival moment in It Came From Hollywood – about which, stay tuned! – but when I finally landed a copy, when I was about, yes, sixteen, I realized this movie was all about everything except the icky-squicky monsters.

It really is a shame about the monsters. If they weren’t here, this film would probably have been forgotten. Instead, it’s remembered for all the wrong reasons. That’s why, when I gave our son a brief introduction, I glossed over the American title very quickly and moved right on. It’s a badly flawed film, but when it shines, it’s really creepy and really effective. Before the icky-squicky monsters decide to take matters into their own tentacles, they’re using clouds to decapitate people and frozen corpses to go after psychics with meat axes and knives. There are moments of this movie that are really skin-crawlingly gruesome and work tremendously well, and it’s a shame they couldn’t sustain it all the way through.

So The Trollenberg Terror started life as a six-part serial for British commercial television. So did another film, The Strange World of Planet X, made as a seven-parter for ATV, and The Creature, a one-off play for the BBC written by Nigel Kneale. All three of these productions, which I believe were all destroyed by the TV companies, were made into feature films in 1957-58, starring that fine actor Forrest Tucker, who was living and working in the UK and playing the American lead role so that movies made there would stand a better chance at landing American distribution. These three all got more lurid names in the States: Crawling Eye, Cosmic Monsters, The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas.

Interestingly, the film version of Trollenberg retained one member of the TV version’s cast, Laurence Payne, who plays a journalist who figures there’s a story in all these missing person reports coming out of Switzerland, and knows it must be true when a UN troubleshooter who had investigated a similar case in the Andes a couple of years before turns up. Several other familiar faces from the period are in the film, including Janet Munro, Colin Douglas, and Warren Mitchell, who seems to have employed a different European accent in everything I’ve ever seen him in.

The kid found this satisfyingly creepy, and gave a resounding noise of disgust and disapproval when the icky-squicky monster shows up, which I was glad to see. This is a very old-fashioned film in its pace and mood; Jimmy Sangster’s script has plenty of moments of shock and terror, but like quite a lot of fifties sci-fi horror, there are plenty more moments of people drinking like fish and smoking like chimneys while debating what to do next and demanding more proof before they can act. But he came through it just fine, and later in the evening discussed where the crawling eyes should end up in a “monsterpedia” that he’d like to see somebody write about movie monsters. There are probably many such books, although I fear the crawling eyes probably don’t command too many pages in them. Possibly an occasional footnote.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.11 – Horror in the Heights

And now back to December 1974. We rejoin Darren McGavin halfway through the only season of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. “Horror in the Heights” was written by Jimmy Sangster, who, as I learned from a delightful little nostalgia book called The Best of Crime and Detective TV‘s chapter on Kolchak, had written several Hammer horror films. I picked up that book in 1987 or so, and that was probably the first fact I ever absorbed about Hammer’s movies, other than Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing had been in many of them. It stuck with me to the point that whenever I, much, much later on, sat down to watch a Hammer, I’d always smile when I saw Sangster’s name in the credits, knowing I was in for a good one.

I’ve seen many writers, including the authors of that book, single out “Horror in the Heights” as the very best episode of the Kolchak series, second only to the original TV movie. I honestly enjoy a few other installments much more, especially the wittier ones, but “Heights” is nevertheless a darn fine hour with some shocking moments and a very rare and very underplayed one.

Prior to this episode, Carl Kolchak has always fought alone. Even when he does pick up allies, he has to convince them what’s happening. This is the first time that our hero gets to meet anybody who’s been doing this monster-killing business already. He meets a very old man who has been hunting rakshashas for sixty years. Rakshashas are beasts who use mind control to appear to their victims as somebody that they can trust, seducing them before eating all the flesh from their bones. This is actually telegraphed in a remarkably grisly visual that opens the story, with a character entering a filthy meat packing plant and finding hordes of rats nesting in the offal that’s just been left aside for later disposal.

There’s a pretty strong cast for this dark outing. Phil Silvers is top-billed among the guests, and it’s always nice to see him in a straight dramatic role. Murray Matheson gets a chance to clown around as an antiques dealer who thinks he’s funnier than he actually is. But the show is stolen by Ruth McDevitt’s recurring character of Miss Emily. We think that Carl is going to be safe from the rakshasha when he tells the monster-hunting Ali Lakshmi that he doesn’t trust anybody. And then Miss Emily proves him wrong.

Our son had been pretending to be scared and unnerved that we were returning Kolchak to the rotation, but he didn’t hide his face away or anything, and told us afterward that this episode wasn’t really scary. Then Marie pointed out that if a rakshasha were to come after him, it would probably disguise itself as one of us. That got a funny grimace.

Wonder Woman 1.13 – Wonder Woman in Hollywood

For the end of Wonder Woman‘s run on ABC, they brought back Debra Winger and Carolyn Jones, along with writer Jimmy Sangster, for one of those “run around the backlot” stories that were common in the 1970s. This time some Nazis mount a plan to kidnap four of America’s greatest war heroes by convincing General Blankenship to let all four appear in a morale-boosting movie. At the same time, Drusilla returns to the States to remind Diana that she needs to come home for Paradise Island’s 2000-year anniversary, so she gets to have lots of hot dogs and ice cream along with a new adventure.

Overall, it isn’t a bad story, and much better than the previous two, but it does have the feeling of end-of-season budget woes, and one of the actors almost sinks the whole thing. Robert Hays guest stars as one of the four great war heroes, but the big secret is that he’s really a coward who lucked into a situation where he came out smelling of roses. This is immediately obvious from his first scene. In his defense, this was very early in Hays’ career. He got better.

Our son didn’t mind. He really loved this one, which had lots of opportunities for the heroines to throw villains around. Drusilla is formally called “Wonder Girl” by Hays right at the end, but unfortunately, this would be the final appearance of the character. There have been sixty gajillion different Wonder Girls in the pages of DC Comics, but Debra Winger’s version of Drusilla outshines all of them.

ABC cancelled Wonder Woman, citing the expense of doing a period show along with their desire to drop some of their superhero programming. Funny how in 1977, the two Bionic series and Wonder Woman were thought excessive on ABC, and forty years later, shows like these dominate the CW. Anyway, CBS picked it up, moved the storyline to the present day, and teamed it with The Incredible Hulk for two solid years on Friday nights.

We won’t be watching the CBS Wonder Woman. All credit to Lynda Carter, whose acting skills improved exponentially every week and who left the show looking even more gorgeous than when she began it, but it was the worst kind of cheesy, fad-chasing seventies pablum, with stories about teen idols and skateboarders, and Wolfman Jack as an evil DJ. There were minor format changes every few months, a cute robot like R2-D2, and a completely bizarre hail mary in the final episode setting up a new format, with Wonder Woman joining a team of amateur crimefighters that included an indestructible man and a chimpanzee. There’s exactly one episode I wouldn’t mind seeing again, a creepy one with John Carradine as the voice of a disembodied brain.

After the show was cancelled, Lynda Carter made a million TV movies and variety specials and recorded a couple of LPs, was the face of Maybelline for a while, and co-starred with Lee Horsley in the not-awful ’90s western Hawkeye. She had a small part in Sky High, a film that’s better than anybody expected, and that includes the people who made it. She was in Smallville at least once, and appears once in a while as the president with a big secret in Supergirl. Lyle Waggoner, who got the oddball chance to play Steve Trevor Jr. in the retooled series but was gradually phased out so that Lynda Carter could have a new handsome co-star each week, mostly retired from acting a couple of years later, after starting a business selling home-away-from-home trailers for movie shoots, but occasionally appears in amusing projects like the 2003 TV movie Return to the Batcave.

Wonder Woman 1.5 – The Feminum Mystique (part two)

So some Nazis attack Paradise Island. The reality of seventies television means that we didn’t get what modern superhero teevee would do in this sort of situation. I can totally imagine the team that makes those four shows on the CW pulling off a full-scale pitched battle, with Amazon archers bringing down German soldiers on the beaches. Here, bizarrely, the expeditionary force happens to choose to land on the remote part of the island where the Amazons mine feminum, from which they forge their bracelets. And so the eight soldiers run into Diana’s group of unarmed (!!!) Amazons, and they overcome the women with gas grenades.

No, nobody gets an arrow or a javelin in the chest. The Amazons are content to… well, throw the villains into the water. Oh, the seventies, how you disappoint us so. Even before the Nazis get their minds wiped before being shipped into Allied hands, they have no idea that the island has a large population.

On the other hand, our son was incredibly pleased by the stunts and the tame violence. He loved seeing the villains tossed into the pond, as well as the climax, in which Wonder Woman stops an experimental jet from being stolen by an agent by grabbing a wing and letting it spin in circles. Full credit to the producers and Lynda Carter for pulling that off: it wasn’t a stuntwoman, and it looked pretty dangerous.

Honestly, my favorite part of the episode came when John Saxon’s villainous character briefly justified the Nazi cause to Carolyn Jones’s Queen Hippolyta. I say this not because of the scene’s content, but because these are two really great actors working extremely well together. Saxon is still working; he has nearly 200 credits at IMDB and I notice that we’ll be seeing him again down the line in other projects.

Overall, it’s a good story, with some very intelligent bits – watching the villains determine Paradise Island’s location based on Drusilla’s recounting of constellations is really clever – and some very good acting, from the veterans as well as from newcomer Debra Winger. Times have changed and expectations have evolved, but for its day, this was not bad at all.

Wonder Woman 1.4 – The Feminum Mystique (part one)

The first two-part episode of Wonder Woman is another that everybody remembers. It introduces Debra Winger as Diana’s younger sister Drusilla. In other Paradise Island news, Carolyn Jones takes over the role of Queen Hippolyta, and Erica Hagen, who had been in a couple of first season Land of the Lost episodes, plays another Amazon named Dalma.

The Queen has decided that Diana has spent enough time in America and should return home to fulfill her duties. This is set in June 1942. I was saying the other week that this show would make more sense if it had been set in ’43, but now we’re meant to believe that Major Trevor washed ashore on the island in the spring and the queen thinks Diana should have ended the war already? Oddly, that’s precisely what John Saxon’s bosses in Germany say this week: a proactive Wonder Woman would end the war within weeks.

The original story was written by Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday, who would later create the iconic cop drama Cagney & Lacey, and the teleplay credited to regular Hammer Films scribe Jimmy Sangster, who had moved to California in the early seventies and was popping around various studios writing TV episodes. The title is a cute pun on Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, but it doesn’t make any sense in this show yet. “Feminum” is the name of the indestructible metal that the Amazons use for their bracelets, but that is not explained in part one of the story.

Our son really enjoyed this one, and was excited when Drusilla does a spin and turns into a costumed hero. He was less happy when she gets into trouble and is captured by John Saxon’s gang. I enjoyed the way that Drusilla is shown to be naive and doesn’t understand our culture, the way that Wonder Woman was all too briefly in the original film. But our son is still learning our culture as well, and I had to pause a couple of times to explain things like code phrases and how Drusilla’s yellow dress is garishly unlike what teens in 1942 were wearing.