August 28, 2012

Night of the Living Head

Poster - The Thing That Couldn't Die
Now Playing: The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958)

Pros: Unique concept; creepy atmosphere created on an ultra-low budget
Con: Anticlimactic ending

I'm so glad that scientists in Russia are working feverishly to make it possible for the world's billionaires to live forever in shiny new cybernetic bodies. ("Human Immortality Could be Possible by 2045, Russian scientists say," CBC Community blog, July 31, 2012). After all, pillaging, plundering and accumulating billions in the span of a normal lifetime is just so 2011… been there, done that. With all the time in the world to effect their machinations on the rest of us, humanity can soon look forward to the first trillionaires and then… what comes after trillionaire? And, with cyborg bodies impervious to pain, hunger, temperature or anything else, at least somebody will survive and thrive in the extreme climate change that all those egghead scientists keep nagging us about. Who, I ask you, is more deserving of immortality than the 1% of the 1%?

It wasn't that long ago that questing for immortality was seen as arrogant and unseemly and something that was better left to God or Providence or whatever. Traditionally, would-be immortal beings have not fared well in popular culture -- whether it be a stake through the heart, a silver bullet or the sun's cleansing rays, nature and the great Circle of Life (including that vital component, Death), always won out.

In spite of the title, The Thing That Couldn't Die is no exception. As it turns out, the Thing can indeed die (I don't think I'm giving away too much here), but it does its darnedest to creep out the audience before it meets its inevitable fate. Although The Thing is obscure even for '50s B sci-fi-horror-thrillers, I distinctly remember watching it on the old black and white TV in the basement rec room and being more "weirded out" than usual-- I was only 9 or 10, and needless to say I didn't sleep well that night. Years later, I hunted down a VHS copy to figure out why the thing had such an effect on me back then.

William Reynolds and Carolyn Kearney
These two cute all-American kids are about to
meet an undying, Devil-worshiping Thing.
The Thing That Couldn't Die is a compact, unpretentious horror-thriller, with the action taking place at a single location mostly at night, and featuring a monster that manages to scare with a minimum of make-up and special effects. The setting is a ranch in some unnamed location in the southwest. Struggling artist Hank Huston (Jeffrey Stone) and his fiancee Linda (Andra Martin) are visiting for the fresh air and artistic inspiration, along with Gordon Hawthorne (William Reynolds), a local boy back from college for the summer.

The movie opens with the three watching ranch owner Flavia McIntyre (Peggy Converse) and her teenage ward Jessica Burns (Carolyn Kearney) looking for water the old-fashioned way-- with a dowsing rod. Jessica is emotionally and psychically sensitive, with a good track record for finding lost objects and groundwater using her special gift. The ranch guests are skeptical, until Jessica tells Linda where she can find her lost watch-- in a mouse's cubbyhole at the base of an old tree. They also find an old medallion that college-boy Gordon gives to Jessica for protection against evil. "Nature seems to speak to you in voices the rest of us can't hear," he tells the moody teenager.

It comes in handy, for before long, Jessica uses her special gift to locate an intriguing old chest. A date, 1579, and an ominous warning are inscribed on it: "If you value your eternal soul, open not this accursed chest." Believing it to be a treasure chest left behind by Sir Francis Drake's expedition, Flavia wants to open it right away, but the level-headed Gordon convinces her to wait until an expert from the university can examine it.

Of course, greed wins out, and the ranch foreman assigned to guard the chest (James Anderson) convinces the hulking, simple-minded ranch hand Mike (Charles Horvath) to help him open it. Instead of treasure, they find the severed, but still living head of Gideon Drew, who, as we find out later, was a Devil-worshipping member of Drake's crew. Drew's head immediately casts a spell over the brutish Mike, who promptly kills the crooked ranch foreman. Using Mike as "transport," Drew proceeds to search for his body while casting an evil pall over the ranch and its residents.

Gideon Drew (Robin Huges) hypnotizes another victim
This hat was designed by Edith Head.
Thing delivers some good, creepy moments. Particularly effective is the opening of the chest in the dead of night to reveal the severed head of the old Devil worshiper-- both repellent and rakishly handsome at the same time, Gideon's hypnotic eyes fix on the simple ranch hand while his lips mouth a silent spell. Later, with the hypnotized Mike's able-bodied help, Drew goes in search of his body. There's a classic "face at the window" scene, with Mike holding up the eerie head so it can peer into Linda's bedroom. The scene that really got my 10-year-old heart racing comes at the end, in the very ordinary setting of the ranch house living room. As the protagonists look on in horror, a hand emerges from the box with Drew's headless body, pushes the lid open, and the whole headless corpse shakily stands up while the head waits breathlessly (pun intended) to be reunited with it.

Given the obvious budget limitations, the filmmakers wisely emphasized atmosphere over fancy effects. The nighttime photography is particularly effective for such a low-budget production. And while the monster is recognizably human, the concept of a living, demonic head enlisting impressionable humans to help him look for his body is enough to make the skin crawl. The problem with the film is that it wraps things up just as the monster really comes "alive" and begins to flex its supernatural powers. As head and body reunite, Gideon exalts: "At last I breathe again! Satan still lives -- four centuries have not reduced his power!" And then, a few moments later, he's proved wrong as wrong can be in about the most mundane way imaginable. Over. Finis. Thaaaaaaaaat's all folks!!

A clue to Thing's abrupt, unsatisfying ending perhaps lies in director Will Cowan's resume. With only one other exception, all the films Cowan directed in the '40s and '50s were shorts. It's as if he just wasn't up to directing something with a larger budget and longer running time, and his instinct, honed over two decades of making shorts, was to wrap things up quickly. Still, he does deliver some pretty eerie sequences and decent shocks in the build-up to the disappointing climax.

Baby Boomers might recognize lead actor William Reynolds (Gordon). After a string of B movie roles in the '50s, Reynolds stepped into television, appearing in such series as Wagon Train, Maverick, and The Twilight Zone, before landing his most notable role as Special Agent Tom Colby on Quinn Martin's The F.B.I.

A good copy of The Thing That Couldn't Die is hard to find, but MSTK3's version is available on YouTube.

Bonus: A short, select "living head" filmography

These days, the few living heads that make it into popular culture are fodder for jokes (e.g., Futurama). But back in the days of beatniks and atom bomb scares, resuscitated heads popped up frequently in B movies. The Thing That Couldn't Die is unusual for its supernatural origin. More commonly, the unfortunate heads were the result of mad scientists mucking around in things better left alone. Here's a sampling from the '50s and early '60s:

The Man Without a Body (1957)
A wealthy businessman with a brain tumor enlists the aid of a dedicated but ethics-challenged scientist to resuscitate the head of Nostradamus, whom he plans to groom to take over his business empire. Definitely in the running for the wackiest B sci-fi movie concept ever. Starring the ubiquitous Robert Hutton as the pedantic scientist.

The Head (1959)
This German production features the gloriously evil and demented Dr. Ood (Horst Frank), who "saves" his mentor after a heart attack by keeping the severed head alive in a serum first tested on dogs. He then plans to use the senior doctor's knowledge to transplant the head of his hunchbacked girlfriend onto the body of an exotic dancer. A dark, cheesy and very guilty pleasure.

The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962)
This one has achieved mythic cult status with its sleazy themes (liberally borrowed from The Head) and outrageous overacting. How can you go wrong with a beautiful, telepathic living head, voluptuous strippers, and a monster in the basement all wrapped up in one nice, neat B movie package? Stars the weary-looking Jason Evers, who was slumming in between stints on such TV shows as Laramie, The Defenders, Gunsmoke, and The Guns of Will Sonnett.

"If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you..."
  -- Rudyard Kipling

August 18, 2012

Backyard Movies on a Budget

The classic American drive-in
Now Playing: Anything you want... in your backyard

Pros: A great way to get together with family and friends and feed your movie addiction at the same time; simple set-up
Con: You're always at the mercy of the weather (but indoors isn't nearly as much fun)

My earliest movie memory (actually, one of my earliest memories period) is of family movie night at the drive-in-- putting on my footie pajamas and piling into the old Studebaker wagon to go see a double-feature. To save a buck, Mom made the popcorn at home. The very first movie I remember seeing was Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959) with pre-Bond Sean Connery. I was absolutely terrified when the banshee appeared, and hid underneath the dashboard until my parents gave me the all-clear. Then the Death Coach appeared, and I dove down under the dashboard again. I didn't come out again until we got home.

(Years later, Darby O'Gill's Death Coach would get me a second time. Having somehow forgotten how terrifying the movie was to me at the age of three, I unwisely showed it to my stepkids, who were in elementary school. Later that night as I was watching TV, I jumped off the couch at the sound of a high-pitched scream coming from upstairs-- my step-daughter dreamt that the Death Coach was coming for her…)

At any rate, I survived my first encounter with supernatural forces at the drive-in, and have had a fondness for scary movies and drive-ins ever since (fortunately for her, my step-daughter has decidedly more conventional tastes in movies.) Thanks to the internet and DVD, I can indulge my tastes for vintage scary movies with ease. Drive-ins are another matter. According to, there are less than 400 drive-ins still operating in the U.S., down from a high of between 4000 and 5000 in 1958.

That's a shame. Describing the drive-in experience to someone who's never been is like channeling Dana Carvey as the Grumpy Old Man: "We'd pile into rickety old cars, and half of us would be in the trunk to avoid paying for a ticket; when we got there, the place smelled like exhaust fumes and stale popcorn; half the time it would rain, and when it wasn't raining, you tried to watch the movie through bug-splattered windshields; and the sound that came out of the clunky metal speaker made your old portable record-player seem like a state-of-the-art system in comparison… but we LIKED IT!"  Regardless of the downsides, there's just something satisfyingly communal about watching movies under open skies that even the best, up-to-date indoor theaters can't match.

I haven't been to a drive-in in a long, long time, but recently it occurred to me that if I couldn't easily get to a drive-in anymore, I could at least bring a tiny bit of the open-air, drive-in experience home. One evening in the early spring, I was relaxing on my back deck when it dawned on me that I already had the basics of a pretty good backyard, "big screen" movie set-up-- particularly the L-shaped deck with plenty of room for chairs and snack tables facing a small, flat grassy area that would be perfect for setting up a screen.

As you might expect, there's quite a bit of information about backyard movie set-ups on the net. You can go big and expensive, or relatively cheap (especially if you make the screen yourself). I decided on a middle-ground, moderately budget-conscious approach: no cheap DIY bedsheet screen, but no high-end equipment either.

I already had an extra DVD player that I had recently replaced with Blu-Ray. I researched projectors, and found a budget-friendly ViewSonic model, which, while aimed at the business/school presentation market, got high marks from home theater buffs without a lot of $$ to throw around (and supported 720p and 1080i HD with HDMI). I was just about to make my own screen with PVC pipe and blacking material from the local fabrics store, when by chance I found a very affordable portable, pull-up screen (again, aimed at the business presentation market, but perfectly suitable for my purposes). I bought a cheap tiered metal shelf for the projector and DVD player and an HDMI cable to hook the two together. For big sound in a small package, I bought the JBL Creature, which, when not being used for backyard movies, is hooked up to my computer (the system looks like it came straight out of a B sci-fi movie). All in all, a pretty decent home theater package on a moderate budget.

Here are the damages:
  • ViewSonic PJD5133 projector: $350
  • Standard upconverting DVD projector: $0 (if you've already got one to spare) to $70 (more of course if you go Blu-Ray)
  • 80" free-standing, pull-up projector: $145
  • JBL "Creature" speaker system: $65
  • Two-tiered shelf for DVD & projector: $20
  • Other incidentals (HDMI cable, sound system Y adapter, powerstrip): $40 - $60
  • Watching backyard movies under a cloudless, starry sky: Priceless
  • Total: at most, a little over $700 (less if you've already got some of the stuff on hand or build your own screen)
I've already had a couple of successful movie nights this summer, and hope to do at least one more this season. I also plan to run movies on my front deck this Halloween (weather permitting).

Backyard movie equipment set-up
The equipment is super-easy to set-up and take down, and
can be stored in closet when not in use.

Connections are simple
Connections are simple: HDMI cable between player and projector, and
Y adapter from the player to the "Creature" sound system.

2 backyard movie fans
Two backyard movie fans wait patiently for the show to begin.

Now playing in the backyard: Fright Night (the original)
Now playing in the backyard: Fright Night (the original). The screen can be secured with
bungies, rope or wire for added stability in fairly windy conditions.

August 5, 2012

Nigel Kneale: The Oracle of British Television

Now Playing: The Year of the Sex Olympics (BBC2 Theatre 625 series, 1968)

Pros: A 40+ year-old teleplay that is as relevant now as it was when it was aired; Clever construction of a future world on a TV movie budget
Con: Only surviving print of this color TV movie is black and white

I know what you're thinking-- he's so desperate for attention and readers that he's taken to writing about pornography! Well, you're WRONG!! With the summer Olympics being held in London this year, I thought I'd capitalize on all the hype to showcase a son of Britain who set some records of his own in the great "sport" of television and entertainment. If they gave out gold medals to TV writers, he would have amassed quite a collection in his distinguished career. (Of course, it doesn't hurt that one of Nigel Kneale's more interesting and prophetic teleplays has both 'sex' and 'Olympics' in the title. Anyway, read on, it's not what you think…)

Speaking of the Olympics, I have a confession to make. I'm just not into them any more. They're boring and irritating. They're the epitome of wretched excess. Every four years, the host city uses troops and police to sweep the area clean of "undesirables." Money that could and should be used for health, education and basic infrastructure is used to construct elaborate stadiums and and other athletic venues, many of which are left to rot after the circus moves on. A huge chunk of change is spent on the opening and closing ceremonies alone, with each host and set of sponsors desperately trying to upstage the last. The results look like someone gave a group of demented, spoiled 12-year-olds a billion dollars to spend on the biggest, craziest, "awesomest" spectacle their little brains could come up with. The games themselves have expanded to the point of absurdity, and the inclusion of professional athletes has greatly diminished whatever noble luster the Olympics may once have had. The U.S. basketball "dream" team's recent massacre of Nigeria was an embarrassment and an insult to the very idea of "competitive athletics."  The final nail in the coffin as far as my interest goes is the stench of corruption and money that follows the thing around year after year. From the International Olympic Committee scandals to the frequent revelations of cheating and doping on the part of athletes (not to mention revelations of their sex lives… from their mothers!!), I've seen way too much of how this particular "sausage" gets made, and I've lost my appetite for it.

Still from The Year of the Sex Olympics - The Sample Audience
The sample audience seems to like what they're seeing.
Speaking of appetites, Nigel Kneale's The Year of the Sex Olympics features a dystopian future where normal human appetites for sex and food are considered problematic by elites who want to control population in a world of dwindling resources. The world is divided into a tiny minority of "high drive" people, selected via genetic screening to run things and to breed more high-drivers, and everyone else... aka, the low drive proles who need to be kept placid and dull and content with their meager lives. In this Brave New World, the drug of choice is television. The masses are fed a steady TV diet of mind numbing, repetitive sex and food fights, the better to suppress their appetites for both. The first commandment of this society is to "Watch, not do." The masses are to live their lives vicariously through the images on their TV screens. Not only has war been banished, but any form of tension is considered bad -- sit back, relax, and let the high-drives do the driving (of society) for you.

But the high-drive life is not a bed of roses, as Nat Mender (Tony Vogel) finds out over the 103 minute running time of the teleplay. Nat is the producer of the highest rated show in the land, "Sportsex." Although the show is auditioning couples on the air to compete in the Sex Olympics, the sample audiences (who are monitored 24/7 by video) are not responding well. The pressure is on to keep them glued to their TVs and satiated. But Nat himself is feeling restless and unsatisfied. He has a 9 year-old daughter with another network employee, Deanie (Suzanne Neve), but hasn't seen her since birth (children are raised by the state, not their parents). He gets a pep talk from the network co-ordinator (Leonard Rossiter) about how important he and his job are, how vital it is to serve up vicarious, televised experience to the masses -- "apathy control" -- to keep them docile and content: "Cool the audience, cool the world."

Nat's disgruntlement takes a new turn when Deanie introduces him to her friend and fellow employee Kin Hodder (Martin Potter), who designs and hangs drapes on the set of "Artsex." Kin is seriously depressed. He sees no use in what he does. He wants to be a real artist, one who makes pictures that "stay" (drawings, paintings), not the abstract, animated graphics that are supposed to calm audiences between show segments. Nat agrees to look at Kin's pictures. (See the clip below.)

Kin's pictures are nightmarish collection of distorted, agonized faces. Deanie is disturbed by the pictures ("They make me shudder!"), but Nat can't take his eyes off them. In spite of himself, Nat tries to help the deeply disturbed Kin show his pictures on the air. When Kin tries to fend off network security to show his pictures on live TV, he falls from a scaffolding and is killed. At that point both Nat and the network producers have an epiphany. Nat finds his humanity, while the network finds a new ratings sensation. It seems the sample audiences responded very, very well to Kin's on-air tumble. Nat's associate, Lasar Opie (Brian Cox) marvels, "They can take tension… they want tension!"

On location of the "Live-Life Show"
Nat Mender and family realize that "Live-Life"
is nothing like a studio.
When the network realizes that showing people at risk will keep the masses glued to their TVs, they develop a new series, the "Live-Life Show," wherein a family is plopped down in the middle of a desolate, deserted island to fend for themselves with only the basics: shelter, fire, a few warm clothes, and a limited supply of food. If they run out of food and can't find any more, they starve. If they get sick and can't heal themselves, they die. No outsiders, or the network, will come to their aid. Nat jumps at the chance to reconnect with himself and his family, and talks Deanie into taking their daughter to the island to be the first "Live-Life" family. We come to realize just how sheltered their civilization is when, on their first day on the island, Nat and Deanie marvel at how the air flows around their bodies (they apparently have no word for wind!) As they marvel at little things like matches, and bigger things like sheep (they've never seen one), the network is plotting to boost ratings by introducing another person to the supposedly deserted island… a person who will soon uproot their lives in dramatic fashion…

The Year of the Sex Olympics packs a lot of ideas, and some dead-on prophecy, into a relatively modest television production. It's full of little touches that make this fictional world seem both familiar and surreal: the characters speak in a clipped, abbreviated dialect, as if even speaking was too taxing for the inhabitants of a post-literate world; when not speaking, the characters are sucking on energy "popsicles" (something like 5-hour energy shots in our own world); while waiting for Deanie, Kin tries to kill time by watching an "Auto-Chess" game play against itself (only machines play chess, since humans are too distracted); the network performers, with their gaudy body jewelry and face paint, would fit right in at any upscale urban night club in 2012. And of course, the "Live-Life Show" has a lot in common with Survivor and its ilk (although I don't think anyone's died on Survivor yet, as much as today's audiences might be rooting for such an outcome).

Year's titles start with a very simple declaration: "sooner than you think…" which then dissolves into the Olympic rings made of male and female symbols. Also notable is that writer Nigel Kneale is given top billing ("By Nigel Kneale"). By this time, Kneale was a rock star of British television and entertainment, having created the monstrously popular Quatermass series and contributed screenplays to such films as Damn the Defiant! (1962), First Men in the Moon (1964), and Hammer's The Witches (1966) and 1967's Five Million Years to Earth (based on his 1958-59 Quatermass and the Pit TV series; see also my post on another Kneale-scripted Hammer production, The Abominable Snowman, 1957). According to Kneale biographer Andy Murray, the teleplay almost didn't get made:
"The first hurdle was the formidable Mary Whitehouse, president of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, and the self-appointed watchdog of morality on British television. 'She somehow got hold of the script,' Kneale remembers. 'There was always some little spy ready to slip her things. I don't think she'd read anything but the title and said 'this must not be put on! I will have the producer sacked!' She went after the producer, Ronald Tavers, who was a nice, rather quiet, self-effacing man, and she did her damnedest to get him booted out of his job. However, she was overruled."  (Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale, Headpress, 2006)
Producer Lasar Opie (Brian Cox) watches his own program, the "Live-Life Show"
Producer Lasar Opie (Brian Cox) can't take his eyes
off his own creation, the "Live-Life Show."
"Censorship" of another form ultimately did strike the production. The original color recording was wiped by the BBC as a money-saving move. With no sense that these teleplays should be preserved for future generations, standard practice at the time was to re-use the tapes. At any rate, a decent black and white copy on 16mm eventually surfaced. According to one reviewer, a lot was lost:
"[A]ccording to Nancy Banks-Smith's review, viewers today aren't really seeing it. It lacks the colour designs which were, ironically, an integral part of the effect. The world of the play is intentionally garish and strident, a barrage of reds, greens -- and even gold face make-up. The existing monochrome versions present a grey world, which rather spoils the effect." (Ibid.)
Even without color, Year is worth seeing for Kneale's unique, prophetic vision and some top-notch acting (including Brian Cox in an early role). You can get a DVD-R copy from Sinister Cinema.

Disgruntled network employee Kin Hodder (Martin Potter) wants to be a real artist, and tries to enlist the aid of Nat Mender (Tony Vogel) to show his work on the air: