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Monday, January 30, 2017

The Many Faces of Wonder Woman

Over the years Wonder Woman has gone through some remarkable changes, from being a ground breaking superhero in a genre that was mostly an all boy's club to being a feminist icon supported by the likes of Gloria Steinem, and then to be a star of her own television show that ushered a generation of boys through puberty.  Now after decades of standing in the shadow of Batman and Superman she is finally appearing on the big screen in her own movie, so today we will take a look back and see where Wonder Woman came from and see just how far she has come.

Wonder Woman was created in 1941 by American psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston as an answer to all that male spandex clad heroics that were appearing in the comics of the time. In fact much of the credit for Wonder Woman’s creation must go to his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston who thought if you were going to create a hero with different ideals, centering on solving problems with love instead of fists, it should be a woman. With the help of artist H.G. Peter the Amazon from Paradise Island first appeared in issue #8 of All Star Comics, and her adventures came just in time as America was heading into another world war. Comic book readers were treated to Wonder Woman taking to the fight to evil Axis powers as well as dealing with the petty antics of the gods, in fun and exciting ways of course, but from these early issues one can see that the road to superhero fame wasn’t an easy one for her.


All Star Comics #8

“At last, in a world torn by the hatred and wars of men, appears a Woman to who the problem and feats of men are mere child’s play – a woman whose identity is known to none, but whose sensational feats are outstanding in a fast-moving world! With a hundred times the agility and strength of our best male athletes and strongest wrestlers, she appears as though from nowhere to avenge and injustice and right a wrong! As lovely as Aphrodite and as wise as Athena – with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules – she is known only as Wonder Woman. But who is she, or whence she came, nobody knows!”


If she is so outstanding why is she constantly being tied up?

An important thing to understand about Wonder Woman’s creator is that he was bit on the kinky side, he considered bondage and submission to be a "respectable and noble practice" and thus he wrote in a rather odd weakness for our heroine. Where Superman was laid powerless when exposed to kryptonite Wonder Woman on the other hand suffered from "Aphrodite's Law" a stipulation that made the chaining of her "Bracelets of Submission" (and yes that is what Wonder Woman’s metal bracelets were originally called) together by a man would take away her Amazonian super strength. Now Wonder Woman tended to free herself from these predicaments thus preventing her from becoming a complete damsel in distress, but the repeated images of a scantily clad female in bondage was one of the major bullets in the arsenal of those hell-bent on censuring comics, and it was a key element in the ushering in of the Comic’s Code.


“Suffering Sappho!”

Wonder Woman’s origin story is a unique one, she wasn’t rocketed to Earth from a doomed world or inspired by a flying rodent after losing her parents, instead William Marston delved into Greek mythology to create her backstory. We first learn that she was sculpted from clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta, and given life by Athena who saw the Amazonian’s sadness over not having a child of her own, and Wonder Woman of course got a passel of superhuman powers as gifts from the Greek Gods. And aside from her powers she was also given quite the arsenal of weapons with the foremost being her “Lasso of Truth” that compelled anyone caught in its coils to tell the truth.  Marston being instrumental in the development of the modern polygraph machine (lie detector) makes this addition to the mythos more understandable.

Wonder Woman also has her indestructible bracelets (the less said about that whole “Bracelets of Submission” thing the better) which where were formed out of the rare metal amazonium (or feminum if you watched the 70s television show) and not only could it deflect bullets, or any other type of incoming fire, but it could also absorb the kinetic energy of an attack. Even Wonder Woman’s tiara was far from being just a fashion statement as it could be used as a projectile, functioning like a boomerang as well. Her most famous accessory would of course be her invisible plane which according to Marston represented the “Invisible feminine compliance that allowed women of the Depression Era to enter and survive in the hostile male dominated work place with less resistance from that hostility.” Gee, I always thought it was just a cool ride.


As Freud famously said, sometimes a plane is just a plane.

Her invisible plane also stemmed from the fact that Golden Age Wonder Woman couldn’t fly. Later in the Silver Age her powers were increased to her being able to ride wind currents, thus allowing her to imitate flight over short distance, but eventually she reached almost Superman levels of power and gained the ability of true flight. This didn’t mean she discarded her plane as it still made hauling her luggage around much easier.


It also allowed her to give Aquaman a lift from time to time.

Batman and Superman had being making live action appearances as early as the 1940s but Wonder Woman wasn’t having such luck, she didn't even get a crappy serial. How hard could it be to put an actress in a star-spangled costume and have her punch a few dudes?  Sadly the answer to that question is apparently, "Very, very hard."


Wonder Woman (1967)

The popularity of the Adam West Batman series led producer William Dozier to take a crack at bringing the Amazon princess to life, and after watching this thing you may wonder if he was on crack. His 1967 test pilot was only five minutes long but was also just plain terrible, with Dozier's take on Wonder Woman (Ellie Wood Walker) being a vain idiot who was badgered by her mom about not being able to get a man.  We can be grateful that it never got picked up for series.
During the late 60s and early 70s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman surrendered her powers in order to remain in Man's World rather than accompany her fellow Amazons to another dimension so they could restore their magic. This depowering of Wonder Woman was a rather strange direction for a comic to take their superhero in, sure Superman would occasionally lose his powers but not for very long, and to make up for this loss of power writer Denny O’Neil and artist Mike Sekowsly introduced the character of I Ching, the last surviving member of an ancient sect, to help and train her in numerous martial arts and weapons use.

This all stemmed from Denny O’Neil’s belief that Wonder Woman would be a more heroic character if she had attainable skills and abilities rather than powers imbued by the gods of Olympus. So basically turning her into Batman but without the brooding and dark fashion sense.  This version of Wonder Woman is what probably led to her second live action incarnation starring Cathy Lee Crosby as Diana Prince secret agent.


Wonder Woman (1974)

Like the "I Ching" era Wonder Woman this version also had none of the standard powers normally associated with the character, instead she functioned more like a female James Bond. In this failed 1974 pilot movie Wonder Woman worked as Steve Trevor’s secretary but also as a field agent who would secretly investigate on his behalf. Without super powers this Wonder Woman mostly dealt verbal banter with villains, as well as occasionally having drinks with them, and though she did sport a star-spangled costume it was not the Wonder Woman costume most of us would be familiar with, and sadly her fighting skills were not even on par with the I Ching era of the character.  This was all going to change just one year later.


Wonder Woman (1975-1979)

Due to the declining sales of the comic DC finally returned Wonder Woman to her roots, returning her powers and teaming her up with The Justice League of America back in the WWII era. This change stemmed from the popularity of television’s third and most successful attempt at a live action Wonder Woman, which also introduced Lynda Carter as the titular character. This series ran for three seasons, but with only the first season taking place during WWII, and Lynda Carter’s effortless charm made the show a must watch for countless fans. From battling Nazis to alien invaders this series had everything a kid could want. Wonder Woman still had a penchant for being tied up but nobody’s perfect.  After it's cancellation we weren’t to see another live action Wonder Woman for decades, but her adventures would continue on in both comic book form as well as in animation.


Super Friends (1973-1986)

Kids may have not been able to get their fill of a live action Wonder Woman but from 1973 and to 1986 they were able to sit down in front of their television sets each and every Saturday morning to catch the thrilling adventures of the Super Friends. The roster changed over the years but it usually had Wonder Woman working alongside the likes of Superman, Aquaman, and Batman among others.  She was also got stuck working with such idiot teenagers as Marvin and Wendy, along with their pet Wonder Dog or the even dumber Wonder Twins and their annoying space monkey Gleek. Standards and Practices at the time didn’t allow much violence in a show meant for children so Wonder Woman mainly ferried people around in her invisible jet, or she'd occasionally snag somebody with her magic lasso. Things got a little weird for her when the Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show was produced as it spent much of its time with Darkseid trying to marry the Amazon princess.


"I don't have to put out the garbage, I'm the ruler of Apokolips."

In the mid-80s George Pérez, Len Wein, and Greg Potter did for Wonder Woman what John Byrne was doing for Superman in his Man of Steel reboot, they gave her a complete revamp of her origins and made her an emissary and ambassador from Themyscira, but her Greek mythological history was still maintained and they spent a good deal of time with Diana trying to handle her “eccentric” relatives as well as her numerous other foes such as Cheetah and the scientific genius Veronica Cale. This reboot was incredible successful and many future writers and artists used the George Pérez model for reference.

In 1996 Mark Waid and Alex Ross brought the world a four issue mini-series titled Kingdom Come, an Elseworlds story (Elseworlds being a place for stories that exist outside of DC canon) that dealt with a future where traditional superheroes were considered out-of-touch and that a new breed of amoral and dangerously violent vigilantes were wreaking all kinds of havoc.

When these two groups clash, with Lex Luthor’s evil machination right in the middle of it all, things got really hairy and ideologies on all sides were threatened. This version of Wonder Woman has her as a lieutenant to Superman in his war against these irresponsible newcomers, but it ends with her and Superman finally hooking up which was kind of nice.  Meanwhile back in the world of animation the popularity of Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series, both co-produced by animation great Bruce Timm, resulted in us getting one of the best incarnations of Wonder Woman to date.


Justice League (2001-2004)

Fully powered and able to hold her own against some of DC’s biggest heavy hitters this series set the gold standard for how to depict Wonder Woman. In this show we finally got to see Diana Princess of Themyscira as she appeared in some of the best versions of the comics, powerful, noble and taking shit from no one.


"And no, you can't have a ride in my invisible Jet."

In 2004 we got the brilliant Eisner Award winning comic New Frontier by writer/artist Darwyn Cooke which gave us a darker version of Wonder Woman. Taking place during the 1950s this mini-series hearkened back to the Golden Age of comics but with a bit more edge to it as these classic heroes met up with heroes from the Silver Age and with some startling results. The Wonder Woman in this comic didn’t shy away from killing and was also up for a good time when called for.


If you crossed women she was cool with letting you die.

In 2011 there was another attempt at bringing a live action Wonder Woman to the small screen (after many failed attempts to get a movie off the ground one had start feeling sorry for the poor Amazon) but this pilot was so derided by all who saw it that it was never aired or even finished.


Wonder Woman (2011)

This version of Wonder Woman (Adrianne Palicki) had three identities; first there was Diana Themyscira powerful head of Themyscira Industries, then we had her costumed Wonder Woman persona whose crime fighting is funded by the merchandise sold by her company, and finally there was Diana Prince who lived alone with her cat. Not only is the three identities idea stupid but this show also had her torture and murder her opponents without a second thought. I’m okay with a darker version of Wonder Woman but this take on the character was just ludicrous.
Things may have been looking rough for Wonder Woman in the live action world but she was about to get a complete overall in the pages of DC comics with their New 52 launch which would reboot and relaunch many of their classic characters.


Wonder Woman New 52

The biggest change to Wonder Woman here was a serious tweaking of her origin story, as mentioned she was originally a clay doll made by her mother Queen Hippolyta, who wanted a daughter and whose pleas were heard by the goddess Athena, but now it’s revealed that the whole doll thing was a lie and that Diana was the product of an affair between the Queen and the god Zeus.  We also learn from this reboot that while growing up she was not considered a true Amazon, being as everyone thought she was made of clay and not flesh, and this resulted in some of the other Amazons insultingly calling her “Clay” and not letting her play in all their reindeer games.


I myself don't tend to make fun of people with godlike powers, but maybe that's just me.

After years and years of trying to get a big screen live action version of Wonder Woman off the ground it finally happened in 2013, but unfortunately not in her own movie. Despite a critical drubbing from fans and critics alike Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel made enough money for Warner Brothers to continue with their plans for a DC Extended Cinematic Universe to rival what Marvel was doing.


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is nothing more than a glorified cameo, with much of her appearance simply being set-up for the upcoming Justice League movie, but when she is finally allowed to strut her stuff as she joined Batman and Superman in their fight against Doomsday, I was impressed with what I saw. How Gal Gadot will handle the character in her own movie has yet to be determined, but what little I did see of her in this movie was interesting enough to give me some hope. Also it’s not being directed by Zack Snyder, so that’s goes in the plus column.


Wonder Woman coming this summer!

Wonder Woman has certainly had quite the eclectic career, from appearing on the cover of Mz Magazine, surviving decades of changing morals in a world where many female superheroes were relegated to being just knock-off version of their counterparts or being glorified testosterone fueled fantasies for pubescent teenagers, to finally landing her spot on the big screen with her male contemporaries.  Wonder Woman stands out as one of the better comic book characters to ever appear on page or screen whether that be male or female.  I'm sure we will be treated to many more interesting takes on the Amazonian princess in the years to come and I'm looking forward to each and every one of them.


How about a Sex and the City riff with these three?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Six Million Dollar Man (1973) – From Book to Screen

In 1972 writer Martin Caidin wrote a speculative science fiction story called Cyborg, where astronaut and test pilot Steve Austin loses an eye, one arm and both legs after a disastrous crash during a test flight, but with advanced cybernetics they are then able to replace them with bionic ones. He would then go on to work for the government as a secret agent using his mechanically enhanced abilities to carry out various dangerous missions. A year later Universal Studios adapted the novel into one of their movies of the week, which was then followed up by two more movies of the week and then eventually a five season series. Fans of the series will notice some major differences that were made from both the book to the original made-for-TV movie and then from it to the ongoing series that followed, and today we’ll look back at “Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive” to see how it all started.


When one sits down to watch this movie right off the bat you are wondering where is that cool opening narration we all love? “We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better, stronger, faster” which was narrated by Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson) in the series but is missing in this movie.  In fact the character of Oscar Goldman, who is also in the Martin Caidin’s book, is completely absent in this movie-of-the-week as well. Instead the man behind the Office of Strategic Operations (OSO) is Oliver Spencer (Darren McGavin) a ruthless and callous man whose six million dollar project is just waiting for the right guinea pig. In an OSO boardroom meeting he is asked if he will be looking for volunteers and he responds, “No, accidents happen all the time. We’ll just start with scrap.”


Oliver Spencer, government asshole.

Another strange change the movie made was in turning Steve Austin (Lee Majors) from an Air Force colonel to a civilian test pilot, a change that was later reversed when it went to series and he once again becomes Colonel Steve Austin as he was in the book. I’m betting that had much to do with the counter culture movement of the time, some exec probably thought kids wouldn’t respond as well to a man in uniform, and when we first see Steve Austin he’s thumbing his nose at authority by showing up late for his test flight and basically ignoring the Air Force officer in charge. To me this didn’t come across as a “man beholden to no one” but more like a guy who should be fired.


“I don’t answer to the Man.”

Maybe if he hadn’t worried so much about looking cool he wouldn’t have smeared his aircraft all across the runway. Later in the opening sequence of the series it’s made clear that something went wrong with the craft, “I can’t hold it, she’s breaking up!” but in the pilot it looks as if he just botches the landing.

While Austin is in operating room Spencer shows up to oversee things in the hope that this mangled piece of meat could be just the kind of “scrap” he’s been looking for. Spencer later approaches Dr. Rudy Wells (Martin Balsam), Austin’s doctor and long-time friend, and he offers the doctor all the money he could possibly need to put Steve Austin back together again, “Whatever it takes.”


“But the show is called The Six Million Dollar Man, so try and keep the cost close to that.”

Spencer then admits that once Austin is outfitted with his bionic parts he will be used as an agent in instances where one man, a man with special abilities, would work where a large military force would be inappropriate and a so called "normal agent" would be ineffective. In the book Oscar Goldman was the man behind the purse strings, but he promised to stay completely out of day-to-day work at rebuilding Austin, and his need of secret agent isn’t broached until Steve is up and around as well as being fully functionally. Also missing in the movie is the character of Dr. Michael Killian, a distinguished surgeon and the head of the Bionics Research Laboratory in Colorado. In the book Rudy Wells is a flight doctor, and a very good surgeon as well, but he’s not an expert in cybernetics as the television move makes him to be. The loss of Dr. Killian easily falls under the category of “We don’t have time for all the characters that appear in a novel” and so he got axed.

Another key character from the book that is not to be found in this movie is Steve Austin’s fiancé who witnessed the horrific crash, and Rudy later tells her that it would be best for Steve if she just disappeared, “Steve will come to hate you. He is no longer the man as we knew him. You will not be able to avoid pity, he will never believe, never, that pity is not your chief motivation. If you truly love him do the one thing he would ask you himself. Leave him and never come back.” That is the last we hear from that character in the book, which is pretty damn harsh, and Austin never even asks about her. She’s just forgotten.

Of course the book does add in other lovely ladies to provide some love interest; there is Jean Manners a registered nurse who does her best to keep things professional, then there is Nurse Kathy Norris who is most notable for her large breasts and who falls madly in love with Steve, and finally Israeli agent Tamara Zigon who is partnered with Steve on his final mission in the book. The movie drops the Israeli agent and jettisons Kathy Norris as well and gives the love interest part to nurse Jean Manners (Barbara Anderson).


The hot nurse, a television staples since the beginning of the industry.

Martin Caidin’s novel is two thirds medical drama with one third action adventure (well the last third includes two awesome secret agent missions so you do get your money’s worth), and could be compared to the works of Michael Crichton as they both wrote in the field of speculative fiction. The book of course has more time to get into the physiological aspect of a man, a man who had walked on the bloody moon but now has to deal with the loss of three limbs and an eye, but the TV movie by director Richard Irving does manage to hit the highpoints and even includes Steve Austin’s suicide attempt as well as his dealing with the rejection of his new artificial limbs at first.


Steve Austin, a man not too keen on his replacement parts.

The book had time to get into Austin’s head as he adjusted to being part man part machine, getting back into the cockpit and having sex with Kathy Norris both being key parts in that, but both book and movie also included a moment that shakes the Bionic Man to his core. In the book after his lovely tryst with the buxom Nurse Norris they encounter crashed school bus where Steve must save a bunch of kids from being burned alive.  When his bionic arm is cut open during the rescue, revealing to a little girl that she is being saved by a machine, the girl freaks out and screams. This sends Steve back into his shell. In the movie it’s after a picnic with Nurse Manners that the two come across a crashed car and Steve must use his bionic abilities to pull a boy from the wreckage and it’s the boy’s mom who kind of freaks out when she sees wires sticking out of her son’s rescuer’s arm.  In shock she asks...


“What are you?”

The answer you're looking for lady is he's the dude who just saved your son's life.  This scene works a bit better in the book as one can more understand a small child freaking out opposed to a grown woman, one who had just seen her son being saved by this man. Most people seeing wires sticking out of a guy’s arm aren’t going to immediately think “Robot!” A rational adult would assume he had some kind of prosthetic arm. In both cases this sends Steve back into despondency; in the book Rudy Wells breaks him out of it by basically say, “We can easily take away those bionics and give you the best room in the VA hospital of your choice, and you can join the ranks of countless damaged service men.” In the movie Spencer tells Steve that the government needed a weapon that can think on its feet, something more dangerous than a canon, and thou Steve comes with a ton of messy emotions, something they'd rather not deal with, they come to the conclusion that they had to comprise and go the cyborg route because full A.I. robots aren’t around yet.


“We’d have prefered a Cylon but you’re the best we’ve got at the moment.”

For some reason Steve Austin doesn’t punch Spencer’s head right off, and this scene is the biggest misstep the movie makes in its adaptation. The shift from damaged psyche to super-agent is handled a lot better in the book whereas in the movie it comes to down to. “We built you to be a weapon, so suck it up Buttercup and get out there.” This makes the movie’s change of making Austin a civilian test pilot even stranger; in the book he’s a military man so him transferring from Air Force to Special Operations isn’t that big of a mental shift, but in the movie it was made clear at the beginning that he didn’t give a shit about authority, so him suddenly signing up with an asshole like Spencer isn’t remotely believable. And just how big of an asshole is Spencer? Well the first mission he is sent on involves dropping him into a Saudi Arabian desert to rescue a man who can bring peace to the Middle East, but the whole mission is later revealed to have been an intentional suicide mission, and the guy Austin was sent after was long dead.  Spencer reveals to Wells that he was sent on this suicide mission because they needed to know if he had the will to survive, “I can always have another cyborg built if this one fails.”


Of course he does survive and he kicks some serious butt.

In the book Oscar Goldman is a pragmatic man but he's not the complete government monster that Spencer is. Steve is sent on two missions in the novel; the first is to sneak into a Russian submarine pen to prove that the Soviets are working illegally in South America, and on the next mission that he teams up with Israeli agent Tamara Zigon to steal the Russian’s latest advance fighter jet the Mig-27. Both of these missions are exciting and nail biting, and would make for amazing television, sadly they were also something a 1973 TV movie’s budget could not afford.

One thing the book and all three pilot movies dealt with quite well was Steve Austin’s reluctance to kill, but when the needs justify it he doesn’t hesitate to dispatch an enemy with lethal force.  In the book this usually meant a bionic punch to the head but in the show a little less graphic measures were taken. Once the series became incredibly popular with younger viewers, and Steve Austin becane a role model and a toy line, the killing pretty much stopped.


No more ripping tank hatches off and dropping grenades in them.

The movie ends with Rudy Wells about to put Austin under so that he can repair the damage, both mechanical and organic, that he'd sustained on his mission, but because we don’t hate Spencer enough already we get a moment with him pulling Wells aside to ask him, “Is it possible to keep him asleep indefinitely?” Yes, our wonderful Spencer wants to keep his pet cyborg in a medically induced coma until there is a need for his special abilities. I think the asshole metre just broke on that one. Wells responds, “Over my dead body.”


“It was just an idea. Not a bad one at that, eh.”

I love Darren McGavin but thank god he was quickly replaced by Richard Anderson as the gruff but lovable Oscar Goldman, and though this television movie veered greatly from the source material at times, cutting much of the medical stuff and a lot of the action due to the time constraints and budget of movie of the week, it still managed to capture the heart of the book. Much of the success of this movie, as well as the series that followed, is of course due to Lee Major’s Gary Cooper like charm and the fantastic supporting cast. So if you are a fan of The Six Million Dollar Man series I do highly recommend checking out Martin Caidin’s book and the first pilot movie for regardless of their differences both the book and the movie are quite fun.

Bionic Differences

• In the book Austin’s eye is replaced by a micro-camera, not something he could actually see through, and certainly no telescopic feature that it had in the show.
• Steve Austin lost his left arm in the book but actor Lee Major being right handed changed that.
• The bionic limbs had a few more gadgets in the book; he had a dart gun hidden in one of his fingers, and he had an oxygen tank in one of his legs for scuba diving.
• His speed in the series reached and then exceeded 60mph but the book it’s just noted that he breaks every Olympic and world record.



Note: The popularity of The Six Million Dollar Man series also led to some of the best toys every produced.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Rats: Night of Terror (1984) - Review

When it comes to post-apocalyptic movies they mostly fall into two categories; there is your Road Warrior type of film with its bands of leather clad survivors battling to stay alive in a world savaged by nuclear war, or some such disaster, and then there is your modest science fiction outings like Damnation Alley where we follow a small group of people dealing with redneck survivors bent on rape and murder or radioactive creatures (i.e. giant scorpions and flesh eating cockroaches) that threaten our heroes at every turn, but then there is 1984's Rats: Night of Terror by director Bruno Mattei and screenwriter Claudio Fragasso which kind of blends the two.

Like most post-apocalyptic movies Rats: Night of Terror begins with an opening crawl to explain to us the world the story takes place in (with added voice over for the reading impaired of course), and in this opening we learn that in 2015 nuclear war devastated all five continents and that the survivors fled underground to begin the period called “The Second Human Race.” We are then told that a century later some men were not happy with the current underground system that was imposed on them and these men fled to the surface to live as their ancestors did. These revolutionaries would be called The Primitives and the two communities would have no contact a long period of time. The narration ends with, “The people still living below ground are sophisticated and despise the primitives, regarding them as savages. This story begins on the surface of the Earth in the year 225 A.B. After the Bomb…” That’s pretty hefty info dump for a movie that basically turns into group of characters getting eaten by rats in a deserted building.


A group that look to be cos-playing The Warriors.

Our cast of characters consists of eleven members of a roving band of primitives; there is Kurt (Ottaviano Dell'Acqua) the groups esteemed leader, next is his second-in-command Taurus (Massimo Vanni), then there is Duke (Henry Luciani) who is clearly jockeying for leadership and the title as biggest asshole, next is Lucifer (Jean-Christophe Brétigniere) whose sole purpose seems to revolve around yelling angrily and screwing around, he’s followed by Noah (Christian Fremont) as the “smart one” who tries to figure out what’s going on, next of course is the group’s mystic Deus (Fasto Lombardo) who is bald, has a weird insignia on his head, and whose job is to apparently spout mystical nonsense whenever appropriate, and then there is Video (Gianni Franco) who got his name from being an expert at video games even though civilization has been wiped out and there are no signs of either Atari or Sega having survived the apocalypse.


You can tell Kurt is the leader because of his kicky red scarf.

Then we have the women of the group; first is Diana (Cindy Leadbetter) who looks to be Kurt’s girl but mostly stands around looking stoic, then because every horror movie needs a hysterical female we have Myrna (Ann-Gisel Glass) as the girl voted most likely to die screaming, and next is Lilith (Moune Duvivier) who is dressed in a cape and fedora and looks to be an escapee from a Japanese manga, and finally there is Chocolate (Geretta Geretta) a black woman who at one point has a bag of flour dumped over her which causes her to dance around singing, “I’m whiter than all of you!”


And yes, this scene is as embarrassingly awful at it sounds.

Though this film is draped in all the proper accoutrements of a post-apocalyptic movie it’s really at heart a slasher flick, sure the cast of characters are dressed in typical Road Warrior fare, and the setting is a decimated city ravaged by nuclear war, but for the next ninety minutes these eleven misfits will be picked off one by one as if they were in a standard horror movie. In fact the first to die is Lucifer and Lilith who break the cardinal rule of having sex in a horror film. Of course there is no machete wielding maniac terrorizing this group but instead it’s a bunch of rats that seem to have developed a taste for human flesh, and because this is a low budget Italian horror movie from the 80s there will be no CGI rats, thus most the attacks involved someone either throwing a rat at one of the actors or dumping a bucket of rats over their heads. I’m also guessing neither PETA nor the American Humane Society were invited to Italy to monitor the production for during the end credits the usual “No animals were harmed” is conspicuous by its absence. In one particularly horrifying scene Noah is attacked by rats and Kurt, their fearless leader, comes up with the brilliant solution to use a flamethrower to kill the little bastards. Needless to say this doesn’t help Noah all that much as he goes from a screaming man covered in rats to crispy corpse covered in burnt rats, but what is truly shocking is seeing the stuntman in full burn flailing around with live rats on him.


Were these rats in the stuntman’s union?

This movie doesn’t seem to concern itself with much of anything let alone the ethical treatment of animals, what we do get is gore, nudity and people running around in the dark yelling at each other while being bombarded with rats. There is barely a threadbare of a plot to be found; a gang rides into a desolate town/city, said gang enters what looks to be your debilitated building only to find out that it’s chock full of food and supplies, it even has a water purifier and even a hydroponics garden in the basement. They proceed to make themselves at home and then start dying one by one as the rats attack because our "heroes" have the combined IQ of a head of lettuce. That they don’t take finding a bloody corpse being eaten by rats as a clue that this place may not be all that safe kind of says it all when it comes to these characters and their intelligence.


“Hey, he totally could have died of natural causes.

The only hint of a plot deals with a computer room they find, one that Video is able to get working by just randomly hitting buttons, which later reveals just who the previous occupants were and what happened to them. This found recording informs our idiots that this whole place was part of an experimental station for something called “Return to Light” and that the mission failed. Turns out a recent mutation of rats, one with sharpened intelligence and who will now eat anything not of the same species/race as them, came to consider this outpost to be an intrusion into their territory. The recording warns the listeners to stay in the control room as it’s the only place safe from the rats…the voice is wrong. Very wrong.


“Kurt, can you find a nice light jazz station on that thing?”

Rats: Night of Terror would normally be considered one of those forgettable Italian low budget films with terrible dubbing, with much of the dialog having been changed to make the dubbed English track match the lip movements of the Italian actors, which resulted in such great lines as, "If you must copulate, why don't you go outside and do it?"  Now this does add to the entertainment value of this movie but what truly makes this film memorable is the ending, the incredibly “What the fuck were they smoking” ending. If you don’t want the amazing twist spoiled for you stop reading now.

The movie ends with Kurt, Deus, Video and Chocolate trying to prevent the rats from bashing down the door to the control room, and don’t ask me how rats are able to break a door down (I always thought chewing their way through stuff was their thing), Deus is killed by corpse full of rats, again don’t ask, and Kurt dies trying to buy time for Video and Chocolate to escape. During all this fighting the film keeps cutting to a group of hazmat clad figures in gasmasks climbing out of the sewers and spraying some type of gas around to kill the rats, and eventually Video and Chocolate are rescued by these strangers. Video informs their rescuers that they are glad to have been found by friends, and then Chocolate states, “Once, someone told me they read in a book that we all lived on the Earth together, that we were all brothers. The book was called the Bible, and it said that God created man and animals.” Now this may seem like an odd thing to say to a group people who just saved you from being eaten by rats, but before you even get a chance to digest just how idiotic the drivel she is spouting was one of their rescuers removes his gasmask.


What a twist!

Rat people, they were seriously saved by rat people? Why did we just spend ninety minutes watching a bunch of Road Warrior rejects getting pelted with live rodents when there was motherfucking rat people around? Why wasn’t the movie about these guys? Worse is that the movie just ends there without any further explanation.  Did those people who stayed underground eventually turn into rat people? Or are they an offshoot of rats that grew to be large humanoids? Well we will never know and I’m betting the writers of this movie didn't know either. My guess is that they could only afford one rat mask so that’s all we got. Clearly neither Bruno Mattei nor Claudio Fragasso understood how a “twist” is supposed to work, this is like if The Sixth Sense ended with the reveal that Bruce Willis was an alien all along. Somewhere Rod Serling is rolling in his grave.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953) – Review

With Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe Republic Pictures decided to go with a television program instead of their standard theatrical serial episodes, but due to contractual obligations with unions employees who worked on the show it had to be released theatrically before it could be broadcast on television. Thus it was released in serialized form in 1953 to the theatre going public, and then finally on syndicated television for NBC in 1955. Many fans of movie serials do not consider this Republic Pictures entry to be a true serial as it does not have the classic cliffhanger ending, instead each episode (which weren’t even listed as chapters) wraps up with Commando Cody and friends thwarting whatever diabolical plan the villains had hatched that particular week. Yet unlike most television show of the period you couldn’t just plop down in the middle of the run to catch an episode as the story was serialized with a beginning, middle, and an end. This is a format more familiar to television viewers today.


Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe is also an odd duck as it is a prequel to the Republic serial Radar Men from the Moon (1952) as it is here that we are introduced to the team that will help Commando Cody defeat the threat from the Radar Men. So in this prequel we meet Joan Gilbert (Aline Towne) and Ted Richards (William Schallert) as they are hired by Mr. Henderson (Craig Kelly), who is in charge of all outer space operations, to assist Commando Cody (Judd Holdren) in developing an atomic powered rocket ship. What they don’t know is that they’ve also signed on to be sidekicks in a knock-down drag-out fight against an evil warlord from outer space. The real head scratcher here is that Sky Marshal of the Universe is not just a hyperbolic title for the series but is Cody's actual job description and title yet he doesn’t even have a rocket at the start of the serial. How exactly can you call yourself Sky Marshal of the Universe when you haven’t even managed to get off your own planet yet? The project that Cody is working on is so top secret that the government insist he wear a mask at all times for his protection as well as those he works with.  A mask that looks about as effective as Robin the Boy Wonder's mask would have been.


Note: It also insures that if the lead actor quits he can be more easily replaced without many people noticing.

Joan and Ted are then informed that the Earth is in the middle of a war with a powerful enemy from outer space, and that what the public believed to be random meteor strikes were actually missile attacks from this enemy. Lucky for planet Earth the amazing Commando Cody is on par with Doc Savage in the brains department, he’s not only an atomic rocket expert but he’s also one of those movie scientists that are good in pretty much every field of science and he manages to devise a cloud of radioactive cosmic dust that completely encircles the Earth that lets nothing pass through it. Thus the bulk of the 12 episode run deals with this mysterious enemy, and their attempts to find a way through the cosmic dust so as to strike at the Earth, and Cody and his pals stopping them at every turn. We later learn that the architect of these attacks is a man known simple as The Ruler (Gregory Gaye) and is from some unknown planetary origin. The Ruler is also a scientific genius and he uses his brilliance to form an array of devastating attacks on Earth, but he doesn’t want to destroy Earth he wants it to submit to his rule so that he can use its resources and location as a staging ground for his campaign to conquer the universe. Lucky for us his brilliance does not extend to his screening practice when it comes to hiring space agents and fifth columnists on Earth as they all kind of suck at their jobs.


The Ruler does have a unique fashion sense though.

As Republic serials go this one had a bit of a lower budget than earlier entries such as the Adventures of Captain Marvel, and to stretch a buck further it included lots of stock footage from the previous serials King of the Rocket Men and Radar Men From the Moon.  That aside the overall the production value of Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe is still pretty solid with the reused footage mostly consisting of shots of Commando Cody streaking through the sky with his rocket pack.


An effect achieved by running a full scale dummy down a cable from a high location to a lower one.


Then interspersed with closes ups of Cody in front of rear screen projections of the sky.

Each week audiences would be thrilled as our heroes had to figure out what diabolical plot The Ruler was orchestrating that particular day in his bid to conquer the Earth; such as dropping bombs into the atmosphere to seed the clouds thus causing massive storms across the globe, creating multiple suns to turn the Earth into a desert, pushing the moon on a collision course with Earth (though that would leave little left of the Earth for The Ruler to actually rule), and he even manages to link Saturn’s gravity field to the Earth’s so as to shift the axis of the planet to cause an ice age. To say that the science behind most of these plots was a little sketchy would be a vast understatement but they are all pretty damn theatrical and you have to give the writers credit for creativity.


The remote control killer robot is about the most believable thing on this show.

What is bit off putting is that the world at large is kept completely in the dark about this “secret war” with an alien super power, so the people of Earth are constantly going nuts when stuff like the moon heading on a collision course with Earth or multiple suns popping into existence with no rhyme or reason. They have no idea why all of sudden the world is rocked by catastrophic occurrences on almost a daily basis.  I’m betting the world’s religions would have been doing gangbuster business during this secret war. And clever and heroic as Commando Cody and his sidekicks were there is still a lot of death in destruction happening, for instance in the episode “Nightmare Typhoon” we see New York City basically getting wiped off the map.


How exactly do you spin this into a happy ending?

The show wants us to let slide the fact that billions of dollars of damage is being done across the globe, and that countless innocent lives are being lost, I guess we can chock it all up to the cost of intergalactic freedom, and instead focus on the battle of wits between Commando Cody and The Ruler. I mentioned earlier that much of the plots are foiled because The Ruler’s minions are of less than stellar calibre, Cody can take on three of them single handledly in a fist fight, but Cody himself isn’t surrounded by the best help. The two guards stationed outside their headquarters are knocked out by henchman on an almost daily basis, and Cody himself doesn’t seem to notice that bad guys are constantly parked right outside his office so they can overhear the plans are heroes coming up with. And poor Dick Preston (Richard Crane), who replaced Ted Richards as Cody’s male sidekick in the fourth episode, gets turned into a brainwashed zombie after being kidnapped and Cody doesn’t even notice anything odd. I mustn’t fail to mention that Commando Cody constantly enters rooms, ones where he knows the villains are occupying, with his gun arm outstretched so that it can be quickly knocked out of his hand.


“I hope nobody is hiding behind this door?”

Now this of course leads to the staple of movie serials; the furniture smashing, lamp tossing, ever present fist fight. Sixty percent of the action in a movie serial consists of fist fights with the hero battling an array of henchmen that the chief villain has sent to accomplish some plan, and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe is no exception. What’s nice is that the fight scenes themselves are fairly well choreographed in such a way that they don’t look choreographed. The fisticuffs look about as chaotic as a real fight would be, with opponents throwing fists as well as furniture at each other. My particular favorite moment is when Cody is having a punch up with one of The Ruler’s goons in a burning warehouse, the henchmen notices the fire is nearing a bunch of acetylene tanks so he breaks off the fight and tries to flee, but Cody tackles him and knock the guy unconscious. Our hero then flees the building just before it blows up, clearly leaving the knocked out goon to die in the resulting explosion.


Commando Cody is a guy with a nice flexible moral center.

Of course the show isn’t all weapons of mass destruction and fistfights it’s also got your customary space opera stuff.  Commando Cody and his team relentlessly pursue The Ruler and his minions even into the depths of space…well once he gets the rocket of his built that is, and this takes them into many dangerous situations.


Where in space a bucket helm and some coveralls is all you need.

And if you are a fan of science fiction movies of the 50s and 60s you may have noticed that most interplanetary landscapes look a lot alike. Whether it’s the moon, or a distant planet, things tend to look a lot like the Southern California desert (Note: Surprisingly Valdez Rock does not make an appearance in this serial) or any other nearby driving location for the cast and crew.


You can tell this is Venus because of the Space Tank.


Here we see a surprisingly lush forest on Mercury.

As serials go Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe is a fairly decent one, the cast are all fairly good if a little wooden at times and the borrowed footage is blended in rather well, the action is top notch and the “special effects” are as good some of the stuff you’d find in science fiction movies with bigger budgets. So if you like rocket packets, space ships, robots and Ming the Merciless knock-offs you will most likely have a blast watching the adventures Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe.


But seriously, did any of the other planets get a say in Cody being named Sky Marshal of the Universe?