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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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Monster Squad 1.8 – Ultra Witch

I was four and five years old when Monster Squad aired, about the same age as my son today, and “Ultra Witch” was the story I remembered the most. In part, of course, that’s because Julie Newmar plays the villain. My dad, who, as dads do, would occasionally look at the silly Saturday morning nonsense his allegedly intelligent son was watching when he could have been doing something productive, shake his head sadly and leave the room, came in the den to tsk-tsk what was on TV, stopped his nefarious dad scheme and sat down to watch her. My father would watch anything – anything – with Julie Newmar in it. Me, too, come to think of it.

(Incidentally, the exact same season Monster Squad was on NBC, over on ABC, the only television program I was ever forbidden to watch was on earlier in the morning. Dad caught a few minutes of Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon Jabberjaw. I don’t know whether it was Jabberjaw’s nyuk-nyuk voice or the unbelievable stupidity – even for a Hanna-Barbera cartoon – of that premise or if he had a really bad headache that morning, but I was sternly told to never, ever watch that program ever again. Dad’s been gone almost six years, but I’m pretty sure the prohibition still holds and I have followed that rule to the letter for four decades without complaint or appeal.)

Anyway, you probably don’t need any other reason besides Julie Newmar to watch this one, but the other thing that stuck with me is the Ultra Witch’s deadly weapon. She has a blaster called the Ronald Raygun that removes the third dimension from anything and leaves its target black and white. (Pause to make sure y’all caught that.) She uses it to turn the Monster Squad into full-size monochrome photographs, kind of like the flattening ray that Dr. Cassandra used in Stanley Ralph Ross’s final episode of Batman. This freaked me out as a kid. I don’t believe I ran from the room screaming or anything, but I was really, really worried about my heroes. Fast forward to today, and our son was, briefly, really worried as well, his security blanket crushed into a ball in front of his face. That’s never a good sign. He assured us at the end he was certain everything would be fine, though.

There are lots of other things to note about this one. The puns are impressively terrible, and the other guests include Richard Bakalyan, who had appeared in Batman as four different characters, Joe E. “Joey” Tata, who had appeared in Batman as three different characters, and Johnny Brown, best known for his recurring role on Good Times, but who we saw last year in the first episode of Filmation’s The Ghost Busters. Brown plays Dandy Andy, a parody of Famous Amos. I am 99% certain that Famous Amos was only known in southern California in 1976, so I figure somebody in the production department really liked those cookies. I am also 99% certain that Famous Amos cookies were also better in 1976 than they are today.

Bottom line: I will be quite surprised if another episode turns out to be this entertaining. It’s genuinely funny, or at least agreeably goofy when it isn’t, has four notable guest actors, is guaranteed to alarm five year-olds, and it’s got Julie Newmar being sexy, silly, and unforgettable. What’s not to love?

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Batman 3.24 – The Joker’s Flying Saucer

Every once in a while, we run into an episode so boring that there’s nothing to say about it beyond noting the firsts or lasts. This one, like the second Louie the Lilac episode, is just plain dull. It’s the fourth and final appearance in the show for Richard Bakalyan, who here plays one of the Joker’s henchmen, painted green and sent to cause a Martian panic in advance of the Joker’s arrival in a craft-built flying saucer. It’s the final appearance of Cesar Romero, and I would say that it’s the final appearance of the Joker, but I think we’ve got one very silly cameo by a stand-in to get through before that.

Earlier this evening, I picked up two more volumes of the cartoon Batman: The Brave and the Bold for our son, since he’s watched the 13 episodes on the one that he has about six times each. This episode was so dull that I genuinely felt bad putting on this bore instead of letting him have fun with the cartoon. I’ll make sure he has time to watch a couple tomorrow.

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Batman 3.7 – Louie, the Lilac

There’s kind of an amusing scene in the middle of this episode. Richard Bakalyan, back for his third appearance in the show and playing one of Louie the Lilac’s gangster cronies, has tailed Barbara Gordon back to her apartment and locked her in her bedroom to keep her from notifying her dad, the commish. Barbara, of course, changes into Batgirl and re-enters her main room from the terrace, and Bakalyan acts all innocent, like he’s just had a quarrel with his sweetie, who won’t come out to talk.

Otherwise, this is like watching paint dry. Milton Berle isn’t actually bad in his role, it’s just that he plays it so straight that his character is simply boring. The plot is some bafflegam about making all of Gotham City’s twenty flower children love him so much that when they become successful grown-ups, they’ll become his ticket to political and financial power, I guess. I was left wondering, after director george waGGner’s unhappy experience working with noted control freak Otto Preminger in the previous season, whether the similarly difficult and controlling Berle made his life similarly awful.

Daniel confounded us again by saying that he really liked this dull story, but apparently his favorite part was seeing Egghead show up in the teaser for next week’s episode. Who knows?

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Batman 2.53 – King Tut’s Coup

Hooray, King Tut’s back, and he’s just as big a bonehead as ever! I like how they keep Victor Buono separated in all the dialogue scenes from West and Ward; it lets Buono completely steal the show and leaves the stars unable to do anything about it.

This episode answers a question I had when we first met King Tut back in season one. I swore I remembered from when I was a kid seeing the mild-mannered professor of Egyptology lose his marbles and think he was the baddie. It happens here… not in flashback, though, it’s just the latest occasion in which he gets conked on the head.

Other notable names appearing in this episode: Richard Bakalyan, who we last saw as part of the Riddler’s gang, has a very odd scene as a performer whom Tut has roughed up to leave a message – in hieroglyphics, on a scroll – for Batman. Lee Meriwether, who had played Catwoman several months before in the feature film, here plays Bruce Wayne’s date for an ill-timed Egyptian-themed costume party, the sort of thing that a sensible citizenry would cancel if they know that King Tut’s prowling around. Predictably, Tut sees her in costume as Cleopatra and falls in love with her.

I’ve been remiss in noting the Batclimb cameos. This week, a popular gossip columnist of the day, Suzy Knickerbocker, pops her head out. Recently, we’ve also seen Art Linkletter and Edward G. Robinson, who didn’t appear to appreciate his grandkids pestering him to do this silly show.

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Batman 1.32 – The Riddler’s False Notion

This episode… well, it’s really kind of horrible, actually. It’s just one eye-rolling moment after another. I even found myself very much on the Riddler’s side when he, naturally, let the very boring truth of his plan out. He’s just making the movie to get Van Jones to open his safe so he can burgle it.

It turns out that Van Jones has, in the collection of films in his vault, the only copy of the most famous silent film of them all. Hoarding bastard. Batman should have let the Riddler get on with it. Oh, yeah, Bruce Wayne’s probably buddies with Jones at the country club. Rich people.

There’s a long, long, bit where Batman brings Commissioner Gordon to the Batcave to administer a truth test to the Riddler’s dame of the week, and a really ridiculous bit where Batman tosses a rope down to the bound Robin, who is plummeting to his death, and who catches the batarang in his mouth, and is grateful to his dentist for his clean teeth after being hauled up. Never mind his teeth, what about his jaw, neck, and spine?

Anyway, the high point came after this awful one ended and we got a little freeze frame “next week!” shot that the Penguin will be in the season finale. Daniel declared that he’s not scared of the Penguin. Penguins are cool, because they live on ice!

Then I told him that after the Penguin episode, we would watch the movie, and asked him who might be in the movie. He immediately predicted that Batman will meet Mr. Snake, who’s like a snake, but he walks like a man. I said that he sounded like a bad dude and hoped he was wrong. I was corrected: Mr. Snake is a good guy, who punches bad guys super, super, super hard. Shame that he’s not in the film, really!

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Batman 1.31 – Death in Slow Motion

What an odd, odd series of coincidences. See, yesterday, at work, I decided to put on my headphones and listen to some music on a YouTube playlist of mine while I did some data entry. One of the songs on it is one that we’ll be seeing with Daniel in a week and a bit, Mama Cass Elliot singing “Different.” I happened to glance over there as I got to a stopping point, and saw, on the YouTube sidebar of recommended similar videos, a 1973 episode of Match Game, the greatest game show ever made, featuring Elliot. Well, there was what I was doing during my lunch break settled.

So on this episode, Jack Klugman berates the host, Gene Rayburn, for his inept impression of Chester from Gunsmoke. “You got a job! What are you trying to do, put Frank Gorshin outta work?!” Celebrity impersonations were Frank Gorshin’s bread and butter. He had an extremely successful nightclub career in the 1960s and 1970s, and routinely appeared on programs like The Tonight Show doing his repertoire. Batman didn’t offer him very many chances to do that kind of thing, but darned if tonight, we didn’t watch an episode which begins with the Riddler dressed as Charlie Chaplin doing a long shtick in the lobby of a fancy theater, being chased around by faux Keystone Kops, a big distraction while he robs the box office.

You have to ask… what are the odds that, on top of his expertise with explosives and safecracking, his brilliant criminal mind, his obsession with leaving clues in the form of riddles, his encyclopedic knowledge of US Customs regulations, foreign wax solvents, and Incan history, the Riddler is also a skilled Charlie Chaplin impersonator? Did he pick this up in the penitentiary talent show or something? Do he and the Bookworm sing Charles Aznavour duets together?

Unfortunately, the amount of screen time devoted to Gorshin doing his Chaplin routine meant that there must have been some fierce editing done, because unless you’re paying enough attention to recognize Gorshin as Chaplin, there’s literally not one thing given to the audience to announce the foe before Commissioner Gordon calls in Batman. So having already paused the action to explain to Daniel who the heck Charlie Chaplin is, we had to then say “And oh, yeah, that Chaplin guy was actually the Riddler… just roll with it.”

The real surprise and confusion comes from the Riddler reminding his crew that their robberies and mayhem are because the millionaire Van Jones, a grumpy old teetotaler whom we met in the theater lobby, has hired them to make a silent movie of their criminal exploits. That’s Richard Bakalyan in the image above as the gang’s cameraman. Bakalyan made a career playing cops and heavies, often in Disney live-action films, and will turn up in this show a couple more times in other roles. He died earlier this year. The robbery of the Mother Gotham Bakery payroll is amazingly entertaining, incorporating sleeping cream pies, daysticks that look like French loaves, exploding eclairs, and Sherry Jackson, dame of the week, begging for charity in what looks like a cast-off Li’l Abner costume.

The cliffhanger had Daniel hiding behind the couch. Apparently as part of the Riddler’s movie opus, he kidnaps Robin and, in classic silent movie melodrama style, has him unconscious on a conveyor belt heading toward a spinning sawblade. The mustache-twirling bad guys of old movies really were sick in the head, weren’t they?

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