January 30, 2014

Science Won't Save You

Poster - The Time Travelers (1964)
Now Playing: The Time Travelers (1964)

Pros: Inventive glimpses of future technology; Unusual ending illustrates a time travel paradox
Cons: Unoriginal, cookie-cutter plot; After a promising start, film bogs down with portentous dialog, dumb humor and a tour of an android factory that goes on way too long

With regard to the future, it’s hard to figure out what to be afraid of anymore. I’m pretty sure the country isn’t going to be overrun by angry jihadists determined to impose Sharia law on us. My blood runs cold (ironically) when I read about the scientific consensus on global warming, but it’s such a complex abstraction for most of us that it hardly registers in the cacophony of the great 24-hour media parade. And like many Americans, I don’t see the economy getting a whole lot better, especially on the jobs front, but hey, the guvmint and all those smart people at the NY Times and cable news say the recession has been over for several years now … time to get a haircut, get a job and move on.

I may not know exactly what to pin my worst fears on, but being an eternal pessimist, I just know that the future is going to be worse than the present – maybe by a little or maybe a lot, but worse for sure (not that the present is anything to crow about).

Cold war era duck and cover drill
What?! Another State of the Union address and the
Republicans' response? Time to duck and cover!
Time was, every red-blooded American knew exactly what to be afraid of: the Commies and their A-bombs. It was a much simpler, more auspicious time for stark, raving fear … and we liked it! We did duck and cover A-bomb drills in school, then came home and gathered around the old console TV to watch Walter Cronkite solemnly reciting what the nefarious Reds were up to in Cuba, Vietnam and other places we’d never heard of. On the weekends we’d go to the matinee or watch Creature Features to see the ravages of all-out atomic war in some cool sci-fi flicks. Good times!

One week there’d be astronauts returning from space to find the Earth blowed up real good (World Without End, 1956); the next, astronauts traveling to Mars would find the remnants of an alien civilization buried under radioactive rubble (Rocketship X-M, 1950). Then there were the here’s-how-it’s-all-gonna-go-down-day-after-tomorrow flicks whose atomic shocks hit a little too close to home: Five (1951), Invasion U.S.A. (1952), and Panic in the Year Zero! (1962), among others. And of course, there were always the pompous aliens warning us of complete annihilation if we continued our war-like ways. If they weren’t talking our ears off (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951; The Cosmic Man, 1959), they were taking the liberty of blowing up our warhead-capable spaceships to save us from ourselves (War of the Satellites, 1958).

The Time Travelers are about to have the portal close up on them
"Hey, what's this 100" flat screen doing
out here in the nuclear wasteland?"
Writer-director Ib Melchior’s Time Travelers encounter a pretty standard B movie post-apocalyptic world 100+ years into their future. The film is one of a large number of variations on a theme near-and-dear to sci-fi moviemakers of the era: modern day travelers/explorers/astronauts stumble upon a lost, isolated city/civilization/colony and bring new hope and vitality to it as they help the proud yet weak/corrupt/dying members fight off external threats in the form of mutants/dinosaurs/aliens, etc.

In fact, Time Travelers so closely parallels the earlier World Without End, it's easy for someone who's seen the two films to get them confused or to perhaps think that Travelers was a remake: both feature accidental time travel to a post-atomic war future; the explorers are chased by mutant humans into an underground sanctuary of science and civilization; the accidental visitors are at first wowed by the technological prowess of the colony; one of the male travelers falls for a cute but naive colonist; in spite of their technological wizardry, the constant mutant threat is grinding the colonists down, and they're succumbing to desperation and corruption; the visitors start to wear out their welcome, and one of the hosts plots to feed them to the wolves/mutants; as things come to a head and the emboldened mutants breech the colony's defenses, the comparatively unsophisticated but courageous visitors prove to be invaluable allies in fighting off the mutant threat. (See my write-up of World Without End here.)

Preston Foster as Dr. Von Steiner and John Hoyt as Dr. Varno
The 20th century scientist and the 21st century one are
grimly determined to save what's left of civilization.
For all their similarities, the two films differ from each other in subtle but important ways, to the point that they are very different in spirit. I much prefer the spirit of Ib's Time Travelers. While World Without End is by far the better looking and more polished film, the basic message is standard, loutish, '50s Red Scare stuff. The effete colonists' love of culture and desire to live in peace are fatal weaknesses in WWE. It's up to the 20th century guys in bomber jackets to save the day with bad-ass attitudes and homemade bazookas.

On the other hand, Melchior’s film is a sort of love letter to higher culture and all the amenities and technology trappings that go with it. If the film fails, it’s because it spends too much time touring the wonders of the nuclear wasteland sanctuary. The film meanders around as we see in minute detail how the android workers are assembled. Then we see how the cavern-dwellers (mainly the females) get their needed vitamin D in futuristic sun-tanning rooms (certain parts of the anatomy discreetly covered of course). Then we peek in on sanctuary nightlife as sensual Reena (Delores Wells) treats her new 20th century boyfriend Danny (Steve Franken) to a wild musical lightshow courtesy of the Lumichord! Next, the venerable Dr. Varno (John Hoyt), head of the colony council, demonstrates to the appreciative time travelers how they grow food in advanced hydroponic chambers. Then, the show-stopper — he reveals that the entire colony is preparing to take off in a sleek, needle-nosed starship for the Alpha Centauri system, where they’ve identified habitable planets with oxygen and plant life. (The humans will spend the long trip in suspended hibernation while the androids attend to the ship. One kicker—the slimy councilman Willard, played by Dennis Patrick, calculates that there won’t be enough supplies and rocket fuel to accommodate the extra 20th century guests. Uh oh!)

The starship is being readied for its trip to the Alpha Centauri system
"All aboard the Alpha Centauri express!"
By the time we’ve digested all of this, the atavistic parts of the brain are thinking, “hey, we haven’t seen the mutants in awhile… it’s about time for them to kick some colonist butt.” Screenwriter/director Melchior is clearly enamored of technology, and sees it as an unmitigated good in the right hands. In World Without End, the sensual Lumichord and tanning scenes might have been used as further proof of the colonists’ corruption and depravity. In Time Travelers, it’s proof that life can still be good, even in the middle of a nuclear wasteland, as long as there’s someone around to preserve culture and technology from barbarism and decay.

Of course in the long term entropy always wins. Ib’s storyteller instincts take over in the last part of his movie, as he unleashes the mutants upon the underground sanctuary to great effect. For all their hard work, the colonists’ science won’t save them, but perhaps there’s still time for a few survivors (hint, hint). I won’t give away the ending, which is wild and hallucinatory (and prefigures, to a degree, the ending of the much bigger budgeted and more celebrated 2001: A Space Odyssey).

The mutants attack at the climax of The Time Travelers
For these Walmart shoppers of the future,
every day is Black Friday.
Time Travelers writer/director Ib Melchior is primarily known for a handful of sci-fi B’s that have become cult favorites over the years. Melchior is such a fascinating character (as of this post he’s still going at the age of 96), that a biopic of his life would put some of his own wild-and-woolly sci-fi/fantasy pictures to shame:
"Losing his mother as a child and unable to live with his father, Lauritz (who as a world-famous tenor roamed the world), Ib, in the care of a housekeeper, was left more or less to survive on his own on the streets of Copenhagen, before he was enrolled in boarding school. During those early days, he grew fascinated with motion pictures and determined that some day he would create such miracles on his own.

Ib Melchior, Six Cult Films From the Sixties, BearManor Media, 2009
En route to that goal, he became an actor, a set designer, a singer, a stage manager, and a theatrical director. He embarked on activities that found him traveling across Europe, learning several languages, immigrating to the United States, and discovering a new thing called science fiction, the discovery of which was interrupted by World War II. Inasmuch as he spoke six languages and knew Europe intimately, he volunteered his services to the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps, during which service he would master parachute jumping, fight the Nazis, capture a general, risk his life behind enemy lines, solve life-and-death cases, practice combat tactics and cryptography and survival techniques -- all under extreme circumstances. This resulted in his being decorated by three countries and invested as Knight Commander, awarded a Knight Commander Cross, and gave him material for a dozen best-selling novels based on his own experiences." [From the foreward by Robert Skotak, Six Cult Films From the Sixties: The Inside Stories by Writer/Director Ib Melchior, BearManor Media, 2009.]
Whew! It's enough to make you tired just thinking about it! Maybe we don't have it so bad in the here and now after all, and as for the future, well, at least we won't be fighting Nazis. And maybe, just maybe, we've dodged the all-out nuclear war bullet too. But you might want to take a look at The Time Travelers anyway, in case you ever have to survive in a barren, radioactive wasteland.

Where to find it:
Available online

Amazon Prime Instant Video

"Crash thru the time portal to the world of the future!"

Timely Bonus Coverage: The Time Tunnel (TV series, 1966 - 1967)
Editor's note: Continuing with the time travel theme, I asked my good friend and science fiction television enthusiast Doug Mappin if he would do some nostalgic mind traveling and contribute a piece on his favorite Irwin Allen-produced sci-fi series. Side note: Ib Melchior would come to rue the day he'd ever heard the name Irwin Allen. But that's a long, sad story for another day, and to my mind, doesn't detract from Allen's short-lived but highly regarded time travel series.

DVD cover art - The Time Tunnel (TV series, 1966 -1967)
In the 1960s, Irwin Allen was the Aaron Spelling of science fiction. In 1964, he launched a continuation of his 1961 film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It recounted the exploits of the crew of the SSRN Seaview. A year later, he fixed his gaze (and tripped) on the stars with Lost in Space. In 1966, he looked to history books and wondered “what if we could travel to the past and the future?” and with that came my favorite (and shortest lived) of his four science fiction series (Land of the Giants in 1968), The Time Tunnel.

The Time Tunnel remains, to this day, my favorite of Allen’s four television series. Arguably, it has its flaws, but to me, it was the most intriguing.

The lively series was led by Dr. Tony Newman (James Darren) and Dr. Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert), two travelers trapped in a not yet perfected time machine. Back home the tunnel was headed by the scientific team of Lt. General Heywood Kirk (Whit Bissell), Dr. Raymond Swain (John Zaremba), Dr. Ann MacGregor (the lovely Lee Meriwether) and on occasion, the technician Jerry (Sam Groom). For 30 episodes, the series traveled to the time of the Bible, to the far future, to an attempt to assassinate President Lincoln (not the assassination), to Krakatoa, to Robin Hood, to the time of King Arthur and Merlin. My two favorite episodes dropped the travelers into two real time incidents of personal interest.

The Time Tunnel awaits a guinea pig.
"Go straight down that weird, circular hallway, take a left,
and the bathroom is right there. You can't miss it!"
In the pilot episode “Rendezvous with Yesterday,” it is revealed that a U.S. Senator has arrived to shut down Project Tic Toc after numerous failures to prove its worth. Rather than permit this, Tony sneaks into the complex in the stealth of darkness and propels himself into the past aboard none other than the RMS Titanic! A rescue attempt is formulated and Doug goes after him in the hopes of attempting to change the past and save the Titanic… and return to their own time, 1968. They fail and the two travelers are (for sake of the series) condemned to travel from place to place, time to time.

In a subsequent episode, the two are faced with the conundrum often posed by science fiction writers: “What if you met your ancestor in an earlier time?” In “The Day the Sky Fell In,” we learn that Tony was with his widowed father, a Navy Lt. Cmdr., when the Japanese launched the insidious sneak attack on Naval Station Pearl Harbor and the adjoining Hickam Field. In that period, Tony’s father would turn up missing, presumably killed in the attack.

I would posit this was one of the finest (if not THE), episode of the show. Unlike many of Allen’s other shows, this episode dwelled on the emotion rather than just “run, jump and shoot.” When Tony finds his father wounded by a dropped and yet undetonated bomb, Tony reveals to the Lt. Cmdr. that he is his son as the father dies in his arms after heroically warning the carrier fleet out-to-sea that the station is under attack. I defy anyone to have a dry eye at the end of this episode. This was not Irwin Allen’s normal MOD.

One of the great things about The Time Tunnel was many of the episodes were tailored to famous (or infamous) periods of history that had been previously recounted in big budget films. Allen raided the film vaults using footage to accentuate their stories. We got to see the Trojan Horse in all its glory on a budget that a television series could never have accommodated. It was great and yeah, at times, it was corny.

Montage of stills from The Time Tunnel TV series
The Time Tunnel lasted but a season and to me, was the one Irwin Allen production that was canceled long before its (pardon the pun) time, leaving its potential of historical adventure untapped. One interesting notation regarding the series: the travelers never once, in my recollection, questioned whether it would be appropriate to change the flow of time. In the two episodes I recounted above, both Tony and Doug made valiant attempts to warn the residing occupants of the time that danger was imminent. Both failed.

Of course, as was so typical of Allen’s series, with the good, there was the bad and the silly. We met numerous silver and green skinned aliens, with plans of dominion of the earth and of man. Thankfully, the series never fell to the lows that plagued Lost in Space.

Many fans, myself included, pined over the loss of the series and in 2002, a new pilot for the series was filmed. Unfortunately, the Fox Network failed to pick it up, deeming it too similar to Stargate SG-1, a claim I reject. It was a superior production, and while I don’t like some of the changes they made, it would have proved a worthy successor to its older parent. If you get the chance, look up the series on DVD, which incidentally includes two other time travel projects from Irwin Allen.

-- Doug Mappin

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Available online

IMDb Videos (Beta)

The catchy theme to The Time Tunnel...

January 14, 2014

Safety Last: Close Calls in B Movie Stunt Work

This brand new year is a particularly auspicious one for me, as I started a new job last week. With a new job comes new challenges, not the least of which is trying to find out where HR is holding its employee orientation in a maze-like building the size of a small city block. I was running late, had wolfed down a burnt toaster waffle for breakfast, didn't have time to make or buy a coffee, forgot my water bottle, and was desperately looking left, right, up, down and around the main foyer of the Services building, trying to find some clue as to where they were holding the orientation, when a fellow new employee (who had the presence of mind to get there early) came out of a nearby restroom, took pity on me, and mercifully guided me to the appointed meeting room.

The great Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923)
"I think I have just enough time
to grab a quick cup of coffee!"
I was absolutely sure there'd be coffee, maybe even doughnuts (or at least bagels), but alas, there were no refreshments whatsoever. It was all business at an ungodly early hour of the morning. Plus, the HR people were fiendishly clever. There was a sign-up sheet up front, but also sheets to be signed and turned in only after they'd covered the material. There was to be no quick scribbling of initials, then quietly skipping to track down a nice grande latte or a fresh blueberry muffin. Instead, I had to absorb scores of Powerpoint screens full of dry information only the most zealous accountant or personnel manager could love… all without a trace of caffeine in my system!

Ironically enough, the morning was saved by the last part of the presentation… on, of all things, workplace safety. While not exactly a stand-up comedian, the presenter at least knew enough to grab attention with photos and videos of some of the most diabolical workplace hazards ever cobbled together by caffeine-starved clock-punchers whose only excuse could be that they were sleepwalking through their jobs. There was a photo of a rickety ladder tied to another rickety ladder to make the mother-of-all dangerous makeshift extension ladders. There was a daring workman, barefoot, with sopping wet pants, busily using an electric drill and extension cord while standing on an aluminum ladder set up next to a pool of water. Yet another featured a pair of workmen perched on a high, narrow ledge ringing an impressive atrium -- no railings, no tie-offs, the one using a short ladder on the ledge to get to an even higher window, the other kneeling at the foot of the ladder. One sneeze, one slip and …

But the coup-de-grace was a video clip of the one of the more dangerous workplaces I've ever seen. Behind a bar, a woman can be seen in the foreground filling a glass, her back turned to the counter. Two other employees pop into the picture, and one lifts a trapdoor in the floor (?!) right behind the woman and walks down the steps to a cellar. Oblivious, the woman finishes filling the glass, takes a step back, and promptly disappears down the hole! (The presenter assured us that although it looked bad, the woman was not killed. Apparently the investigators concluded that lack of communication was a key -- as in, "Hey there Norma, we're right behind you and and please be aware that we just opened the trapdoor to this incredibly dangerous, incredibly stupidly planned cellar located right in the center of the busy, cramped space behind the bar….")

Although it's unlikely that I'll be grappling with these kinds of safety issues (my biggest challenge will be making sure that all that hot coffee I swill stays in the mug instead of ending up in my lap or on my keyboard), it was certainly an entertaining and educational way to wrap up the orientation. It never ceases to amaze me the ingenuity that human beings bring to cutting corners so that they can grab an extra cup of joe or a quick smoke behind the dumpster.

Speaking of ingenuity and lots of corner cutting, the B movies featured on this blog couldn't have been made without those key ingredients. Lack of time, money and resources usually leads to suboptimal outcomes, but once in awhile, with talented people and the planets aligned just right, it can stimulate creativity and lead to something sublime. Val Lewton proved that you can often frighten audiences by not showing them in graphic detail the object of their fears (and save some time and a lot of money). But in the movie business, one area where you most definitely do not want to cut corners or fly by the seat of your pants is stunt work.

Unfortunately for many B productions of yore, the pressures to just get the thing in the can on time and on budget meant that directors who didn't know a pick point from a nose pick doubled as stunt coordinators, and unsuspecting actors who just wanted to get another picture on their resume suddenly found themselves risking their necks doing their own stunts. Fortunately, the guardian angels who look after fools and B movie crews apparently did double-duty, as there are many more close calls in the lore than actual tragedies.

So without further ado (and before I get carpal tunnel from typing too much), here are a few close calls from the annals of "make-it-up-as-you-go-along" B movie stunt work. And remember: Don't try this at home!

"That was a disastrous film to work on."

Actor Richard Devon
"I'm not getting paid enough for this crap!"
There are no two ways about it. Richard Devon, a fixture (especially as villains) in Roger Corman's early films, didn't particularly appreciate the King of the Bs. But then, if you'd witnessed Roger choosing to save a buck or two at the expense of his actors' safety, you might have been bitter too. In an interview with Tom Weaver, Devon talked about risking life and limb doing location shooting for The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957; aka The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent… whew!):
"That was a disastrous film to work on. It was as if Roger were really trying to short his skimpy shooting schedules, even more than what he had done. He was trying to beat his own record. He didn't want to waste a frame, nor did he spare anyone's feelings on the set. He was an absolute demon. As I said before, in his office he would purr like some wide-eyed kitten-- but he could be dangerous.

In one sequence in Viking Women I had to ride this horse through a small cave. It was like seventeen and half hands tall, and that's a tall horse. I was leading the other Grimaults [film characters] through the cave on this huge horse, and the sucker hung me up on a wall and damn near tore my kneecap off. As I recall,  there was never any nurse or first aid people on the set; Roger said 'uh huh' to my problem, and, 'Let's get on with it.'

Lobby card - The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent (1957)
[Speaking of shooting the Viking Women's voyage on location at a beach]. That was a condemned beach at Cabrillo. Nobody bothered to tell us it was condemned. They used to post signs when they condemned a beach; somebody had picked up the sign and threw it in the bushes, but I found it. And then we saw the water, and there was a tremendous undertow-- it was sort of scary. We were all down there on the day when Roger shot the scene where the Viking women launch their ship. If you recall the film, the rudder falls off the boat. Needless to say, that was not supposed to occur, but Roger is undaunted-- nothing stops Roger. They just kept going. The girl who swam after the boat was swimming to save her life, because of the undertow. She got to the boat, and they pulled her in."
[Tom Weaver, Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes: Interviews with  Actors, Directors, Producers and Writers of the 1940s through 1960s, McFarland, 1991]

Where to find it:
Available on DVD


The She-Creature Meets The Three Stooges

Paul Blaisdell, monster-maker
Paul Blaisdell in his She-Creature suit.
Tragically unheralded makeup and effects artist Paul Blaisdell created some of the most memorable and outrageous B movie creatures ever to slither, stalk or stomp across a drive-in movie screen. He was a genius at taking a handful of cheap materials, locking himself in his garage, and delivering the goods just in the nick of time to satisfy the pickiest, most time-pressed director. Predictably, many of his creations were featured in, you guessed it, Roger Corman's '50s sci-fi flicks. If it was a creature suit, Paul usually wore it himself, which from time to time was his undoing. Biographer Randy Palmer relates some Three-Stooges-like miscues on the set of The She-Creature (1956):
"For the scene in which the creature smashes into Johnny's (Paul Dubov) apartment, the crew had prepared a specially scored door made of balsa wood that would come apart easily in sections. The only problem was that it was so delicately fitted together that if anyone brushed up against it the whole thing came tumbling down. Since there was just the one door (there was never enough money in the budget to do these kinds of things twice), someone had the foresight to protect the breakaway prop by reinforcing it with plywood from the opposite side. When it was time for Blaisdell to knock the hell out of the door, no one remembered that it had been reinforced. … When [director] Cahn called 'Action,' Blaisdell raised a creature claw and smashed at the door, but the rubber-coated pine costume just bounced off. Blaisdell hit the door with such force he was knocked backward and fell on the creature's tail. There was so much latex and foam in the tail it almost bounced back up. ...

Lobby card - The She-Creature (1956)
The climatic appearance of the monster was filmed on location at Paradise Cove near Los Angeles. This was the only time in the film the monster would actually be seen emerging from the waves, and Eddie Cahn wanted it to look impressive.
'Get out in the water, Paul,' Cahn told Blaisdell. 'Way out.'
Blaisdell walked into the surf and turned around.
'Farther!' Cahn yelled.
Blaisdell backed up a few paces.
'No, no! Get really far out! Farther! Get out up to your waist!'
By the time Paul reached the point where Cahn was happy with what he saw, Blaisdell had become a mere dot in the camera lens. Cahn had set everything up as a wide-angle long-shot, but Blaisdell didn't know that. Besides, he had other things to worry about. The costume was acting just like a big sponge. The foam rubber was saturated with so much sea water he could barely move. … The water-logged suit of foam rubber felt like it weighed a ton. Every time Paul pushed forward the outgoing ocean current pushed him back. So he started lunging through the water. It was the only way he could make any progress. … As it turned out, Blaisdell suffered through the oceanic acrobatics all for naught. The image of the monster lumbering out of the ocean had been shot from so far away that nobody could tell what it was, and most of the footage ended up on the cutting room floor."
[Randy Palmer, Paul Blaisdell: Monster Maker, McFarland, 1997]

Where to find it:
Available on DVD


"Are you wearing underwear?"

John "J.J." Johnson, Cheap Tricks and Class Acts, McFarland, 1996
Writer, producer, director and all-around B movie entrepreneur Bert I. Gordon (aka Mr. B.I.G.) was notorious for his obsession with all things gigantic in such films as The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), The Cyclops (1957) and The Food of the Gods (1976). In Attack of the Puppet People (1958), he turned giantism on its head by featuring a group of unsuspecting people shrunk down to doll size by a mad scientist. In an interview originally published in Filmfax magazine (and reprinted in John "J.J." Johnson's Cheap Tricks and Class Acts), Puppet People cast member Ken Miller relates one of the funniest and scariest moments in all of Mr. B.I.G.'s long line of B productions:
Lobby card - Attack of the Puppet People (1958)
"The most horrendous physical thing I've ever had to do was on that movie during the scene where I climb up the door to peer through the keyhole. Well, that climb was 50 feet up to the top of the soundstage and I was using a thick rubber rope tied to the giant doorknob at the top. When I was about halfway up, the doorknob started to come off. ... They weren't recording sound in the scene so I yelled down, 'The damned doorknob's coming off!' and the director yelled back, 'Keep going, it looks great!' Then, to make matters worse, my pants, which felt like they'd been glued on, started to split at the crotch. So I yelled, 'My pants are starting to rip' and Bert yelled back, 'Are you wearing underwear? Then keep going!' I got to the top of the rope and held on to the doorknob as two grips reached around and grabbed me. Just as they pulled me up, the doorknob came completely off, it was that close. And the pants just ripped right up my ass. Thankfully, it doesn't show in the film. The next day I couldn't move, I had used muscles in my body that I had never used before. They had to shoot around me while I went in for some physical therapy."
[John "J.J." Johnson, Cheap Tricks and Class Acts: Special Effects, Makeup and Stunts from the Films of the Fantastic Fifties, McFarland, 1996]

Where to find it:
Available on DVD