December 24, 2011

A Special Holiday Message from Beyond Time and Space

Happy holidays, and may all your movie watching be very merry!

I wonder where he shops for his clothes?

December 21, 2011

Crackpot Science

Crack in the World (1965)

'50s and '60s sci-fi is well-known for its guilty pleasures, and Crack in the World is guiltier than most: guilty of jaw-droppingly bad science; guilty of perplexing character behavior; guilty of an ending that will have you shaking your head in disbelief. But then, let's also give it some credit. In some respects, the film was ahead of its time. The producers obviously realized that audiences wouldn't sit still for the same old invaders from outer space or giant radioactive creatures. Instead, man himself, in the form of an arrogant and heedless scientist, represents the ultimate threat to the earth. Crack's enviro-humanistic message hit theaters at a time when concern for the environment was just a seed some years away from flowering in the national consciousness. Crack also prefigures the public disaster mania that flooded theaters of the 1970s with epics like Airport (1970) and its numerous sequels, The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974), and many others.

The film begins in a remote area of Africa (actually a remote area of Spain standing in for Africa), at the Project Inner Space base. A delegation of project backers headed by Sir Charles Eggerston (Alexander Knox), arrive to check in on the project. They're escorted by beautiful geologist Maggie Sorenson (Janette Scott), wife of project head and brilliant scientist Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews). In a facility miles below the surface (it looks more than a little bit like the technologically advanced lair of a James Bond super-villain), the delegation is briefed by Dr. Sorenson on the final phase of the project-- an audacious plan to shoot an atomic missile down into the depths of the earth in the hopes of breaking through and freeing magma from the earth's core to provide humanity with limitless geothermal energy.

Sorenson tells the group that the potential gains are well worth the small risk. He admits that a colleague on the project, Dr. Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore), is very concerned that such a concentrated nuclear explosion could exacerbate problems with small fissures in the earth's crust already created by atomic testing, with possibly catastrophic results. Conveniently, Rampion is in another part of the world studying a volcano, and is unable to make his case in person (we learn later that the devious senior scientist purposely invited the commission to visit while Rampion was away).

Dr. Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews) uses an early
version of Powerpoint to make his case for shooting
an atomic missile straight into the earth's core.
Sorenson emphasizes the revolutionary possibilities of limitless geothermal energy, and the delegation, no doubt with visions of limitless profit, gives Sorenson and his team the go ahead to shoot the missile. Rampion, learning of his mentor's duplicity, arranges an emergency meeting with Sir Charles to try to persuade him to call off the launch. He doesn't beat around the bush:
"Suppose the Macedo trench splits open under the ocean? A crack a thousand miles long, bringing superheated magma in contact with the ocean... Earthquakes, tidal waves, mass destruction on an apocalyptic scale!"
Sir Charles is persuaded, but too late. His call to the project as the countdown proceeds is put on hold. The missile shoots down the miles-long shaft, a tremendous explosion blows the missile tower to smithereens, and, lo and behold, a fountain of magma erupts from deep within the earth. Success! Humanity's energy needs are guaranteed for a thousand years!

The jubilation, however, is short-lived. As the project team admires the magma fountain that they've created, eagle-eyed Maggie spots a cloud of dust in the far distance kicked up by a panicked stampede of animals. They try to figure out what's spooked the herd, to no avail. In the underground facility, the seismographs record large earthquakes in the vicinity. Two African communities have been completely leveled with great loss of life. One has a long history of quakes, but the other-- no history at all. As news of other events comes in, the scientists realize that Rampion was right-- the quakes are taking place along the Mercado fault. It soon becomes evident that the explosion has caused a crack along the fault that is picking up speed and threatens to literally tear the earth apart.

Headquarters of Project Inner Space, or lair of a
James Bond super-villain? You make the call!
With the vindicated Dr. Rampion now in charge, the team attempts to stop the devastation with yet another atomic explosion on a volcanic island in the crack's path. Instead of stopping the crack's progression, the second explosion changes its course, with interesting and momentous results.

Crack in the World looks much more expensive than its relatively modest budget (estimated at $600,000 by IMDb, pretty meager for an effects-laden film even in 1965 dollars). The model work and pyrotechnics, interspersed with stock footage of volcanic eruptions and lava flows, is very impressive. Even with the somewhat ridiculous sight of an atomic-tipped missile hanging upside down from its gantry, ready to be launched into the earth's depths, I found myself thinking through the countdown sequence that, setting aside the fantastic premise, it had almost a documentary feel to it -- this is exactly how it would go if such a hare-brained scheme were attempted in real life. The success of the film's look and feel is no doubt due to the contributions of art director Eugene Lourie. Lourie had a long and successful career in art direction from the 1930s through the 1970s. He also directed some of the most memorable and influential "giant monster on the loose" sci-fi epics of the 1950s and '60s, including The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), The Giant Behemoth (1959), and Gorgo (1961) (and let's not forget The Colossus of New York, 1958, even if Eugene himself wanted to).

Maggie Sorenson (Janette Scott) tries one last time to
get her husband's attention before the world blows up.
Crack is less successful with the human side of the story. The film plays up the intertwined relationships among the three principal protagonists, Dr. Stephen Sorenson, wife Maggie, and professional and romantic rival Ted Rampion. Stephen is a complicated and confusing character. We see early on that he's being treated for a debilitating and possibly life-threatening mystery illness. And, we find out that the project's second-in-command and Sorenson's chief critic, Dr. Rampion, was once Maggie Sorenson's lover. The Sorensons have only been married for a short time, but Stephen is too wrapped up in his momentous project and too worried about his illness to treat his wife with even a modicum of affection or respect. She wants a baby and tries to get him interested, but he coldly rejects her. Later, he impugns her professional abilities and accuses her of still having feelings for Rampion. We're left wondering why he married her in the first place, and why he would torture himself by working so closely with her former lover. As the film races to its climax, Sorenson literally drives his beautiful wife into Rampion's arms. He comes off as more of a obsessed, petulant horse's ass than a tragic figure.

The zenith of Dana Andrews' acting career came in the 1940s, when he starred in such prestigious A-list productions as Laura (1944), A Walk in the Sun (1945), and the Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Later, as the A-list offers stopped coming in, he got work in some very good B pictures (Curse of the Demon, 1957; The Satan Bug, 1965), and some that were not so good (The Frozen Dead, 1966).

Square-jawed Kieron Moore's other sci-fi, fantasy and horror work includes Satellite in the Sky (1956), Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959), Dr. Blood's Coffin (1961), and The Day of the Triffids (1962). His hard-to-place accent in Crack in the World would not lead you to believe he was an Irishman, born Kieron O'Hanrahan.

Janette Scott also starred in Day of the Triffids with Kieron. Other genre appearances include Hammer's Paranoiac (1963) and William Castle's regrettable remake of The Old Dark House (1963).

In spite of the exasperating and confusing behavior of the main characters and a ludicrous ending, Crack in the World is one of the better sci-fi spectacles of the '60s. Watch it for the rockets, the explosions, the earthquakes, the flowing lava, the train wrecks, and all manner of geologic mayhem. It's finally been released on DVD by Olive Films, and is available on Netflix (streaming or disc).

"Would it mean the end of the world, or a new life for all mankind?"

December 5, 2011

The Scarecrow Before Christmas

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

OK, I admit it. This time of the year is a bit hard for me, because my predilection for dark and sinister movies doesn't exactly fit in with the joyous spirit of the holidays. It's not that I can't do light holiday fare-- I've enjoyed White Christmas (1954) and Holiday Inn (1942) multiple times. But, this being a blog dedicated to horror, sci-fi and thrillers, I'd rather not dilute my brand too much by including them here. On occasion, the uncanny and the holidays do mix -- Dickens' A Christmas Carol being the most obvious example. Of course, every film and TV version of Dickens' classic has been reviewed countless times by actual professionals, so adding my two cents would be somewhat pointless. And film industry attempts to mix Christmas and horror have tended to be bottom-of-the-barrel slasher stuff (e.g., Silent Night, Deadly Night, 1984; Santa Claws, 1996), which, fortunately for all of us, doesn't interest me in the slightest.

So, at the risk of going against the holiday grain, let's talk about scarecrows (or in this season of leftovers, let's think of it as Halloween leftovers). What is it about this leftover from our agricultural past that makes it so scary? While the scarecrow as a horror icon is not quite on par with the estimable vampire and zombie, there's no denying its staying (and scaring) power. As I browsed through the local Spirit Halloween store a couple of months ago, I was struck by all the scarecrow-themed masks, costumes and animated figures on display. Even as actual use of scarecrows out there has dwindled to next to nothing, public captivation with them lingers on. Someone (not me!) could perhaps write a treatise on residual animist beliefs that survive even in advanced technological societies, but what it all comes down to is the discomfort most of us have with things that are made to look human, but aren't. We know on a rational level that the scarecrow is only old clothes, burlap sacks and straw, but some tiny sliver of a much more primitive part of our brain wonders if there isn't something alive, possibly malevolent, hiding behind the dark cut-out holes that are supposed to be its eyes.

The 1981 CBS-TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow exploits this primal fear very effectively. So effectively, that it has stuck (like a pitchfork) in the brains of horror fans for decades, and has been released on video twice (most recently a very nice digitally restored version released by VCI Entertainment). The movie's supernatural horror is set in motion by a horror of a different kind-- small-town bigotry and fear that escalates into a murderous frenzy. In one of the great performances of his long career, Charles Durning plays Otis P. Hazilrigg, a priggish and officious postman who seems to think his uniform makes him the de facto leader and protector of the small rural town that he delivers mail to. In Dark Night's opening minutes, we find out that Otis is very concerned about the friendship of a developmentally disabled man, Bubba (Larry Drake), and a young girl, Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe). While we see the complete sweetness and innocence of the friendship between the child and the man-child, Otis conjures up something perverse and disturbing from the depths of his reptilian brain. Goaded on about the questionable relationship by one of his hayseed friends, Otis spits out his hatred for Bubba like a tinpot Gestapo making plans to rid his little corner of the world of rabble and filth:
He's a blight, like stinkweed and cutworm that you spray and spray to get rid of but [they] always keep coming back. … Something's gotta be done… but it has to be permanent!
Otis soon gets his chance when a tearful Bubba shows up at the Williams house with Marylee unconscious in his arms, crying "Bubba didn't do it!" With rumors swirling that the Williams girl is dead and Bubba is responsible, the arrogant postman quickly takes the law into his own hands and forms a posse with three of his redneck friends. Bubba stumbles home with the vigilantes in close pursuit. Bubba's mother (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon's older sister) knows of Otis' hatred for her son, and thinking quickly, encourages him to "play the hiding game." Unfortunately, Bubba's hiding place fools no one. Otis slowly walks up to a scarecrow in a nearby field, and gets close enough to see Bubba's red-rimmed, terrified eyes through the cutout holes in the burlap head. Guns at the ready, the men are nervous and hesitant about what to do. Even the normally resolute Otis seems unsure of himself and his plan to find a "permanent" solution to the problem of Bubba. But then, ironically, a crow flies up and caws, causing the nervous men to start firing. Poor innocent Bubba, hoisted on the scarecrow framework like a Christ figure, is riddled with bullet holes.

Bubba's hiding place is quickly discovered
by the crazed vigilantes.
After learning from the radio dispatcher that the little Williams girl is alive -- she had been attacked by a neighbor's dog, and Bubba had rescued her -- Otis calmly takes a pitchfork from a posse member's truck and sticks it in Bubba's hand. The resulting inquest is a total whitewash, with the presiding judge and most of the town siding with cocky Otis and his murderous stooges in their protestations that they were only defending themselves. Only the incorruptible district attorney Sam Willock (Tom Taylor) and Bubba's grieving mother seem to know what really happened. But the redneck posse's cockiness soon turns into confusion and then terror, as a supernatural agency begins to dispense severe justice in the wake of the town's failure to act.

One of the brilliant aspects of Dark Night is its slow buildup from Otis' and his crew's certainty that they have gotten away with murder, to inklings that all is not right, to abject terror as an unseen vigilante is stalking each of them in turn. Correspondingly, the movie literally gets darker and darker with each scene, starting with the innocent play of Bubba and Marylee shot in bright, glorious California daylight, and ending in the dead of night in a lonely field where the last perpetrator is held to account. The supporting cast of redneck vigilantes each gets a neat acting turn as they fall prey to the unstoppable avenging force. First, they each encounter the inanimate scarecrow that seems to pop up out of nowhere, standing in silent accusation. Then, fittingly, they meet their fates via the very farm implements that are their livelihood.

Otis the evil mailman (Charles Durning) encounters
justice from beyond the grave.
But the movie really belongs to Durning's Otis. His attempts to keep it all together as it becomes apparent that justice will be done by a force far beyond his control or understanding keep the viewer wondering what he will do next, and what further depredations he's capable of. Little touches that reveal the character's mindset -- like a glimpse of Otis' modest boarding room decorated with flags, war memorabilia, and a bust of Napoleon -- are unusual for a low-budget TV movie. To the bitter end, the sweating, panicked Otis refuses to believe in the supernatural, preferring to believe that the upstanding D.A. Willock is orchestrating the whole thing. In the DVD commentary, Director Frank De Fellita and writer J.D. Feigelson noted that Durning (who filled in for Strother Martin, who passed away before filming got started) was initially put off by his character's unremittingly evil nature. But apparently he revised his assessment of the character and the film when it unexpectedly became a cult hit.

Two other aspects of Dark Night propel it above and beyond the usual TV movie fare. Child actor Tonya Crowe is very effective as Bubba's best (and seemingly only) friend. In one chilling scene at a school Halloween party, she matter-of-factly tells the desperate Otis that Bubba told her what he did. "Bubba didn't tell you anything" the Otis exclaims. "Bubba's dead!" "I know," she says flatly, but with a burning malice in her eyes (see the clip below). To complement the great acting, Glenn Paxton's original score masterfully accents the growing darkness and suspense.

I do have one reservation with the movie. I have a hard time reconciling the live Bubba's gentleness with the remorseless supernatural avenging force, in spite of the horrific evil that was done to him. (Larry Drake would later very successfully play another gentle, developmentally disabled man, Benny Stulwicz, in NBC's hit series  L.A. Law). I prefer to interpret the dark happenings as the result of the psychic outrage of those who dearly loved Bubba -- his mother, Marylee, and the D.A. -- sparking a kind of ancient spirit that acts on Bubba's behalf, leading the perpetrators to just deserts partly of their own making. So call me a sentimentalist!

VCI Entertainment's DVD or Blu-ray release of this timeless classic should be right at the top of your holiday shopping list for that horror aficionado in your life.

A desperate Otis, trying to find out more about the implacable supernatural force pursuing him, gets no help from Bubba's young friend Marylee: