June 30, 2019

They Did the Bash, They Did the Monster Bash...

For a relatively serious sci-fi/horror fan, I’ve attended a meager handful of conventions over the years. My very first was a comics convention in New York City in the early ‘70s. I was in high school, still not driving, and a good friend and I took a Greyhound bus (?!) on our own to the Big Apple. (I still can’t believe my parents let that happen. On second thought, I wasn’t the most pleasant teenager -- perhaps they were hoping I wouldn’t return...)

The comic artist “gods” Bernie Wrightson (Swamp Thing) and Jim Steranko (Nick Fury) were guests of honor. I was heavily into comics and science fiction at the time (even editing a short-lived fanzine), but I was most impressed with the movies they screened at the con. I remember being blown away by Hammer’s Five Million Years to Earth (aka Quatermass and the Pit, 1967) and Karel Zeman’s wonderful, visually striking fantasy film The Outrageous Baron Munchausen (1962; sadly, almost completely forgotten today).

This was a watershed moment for me, as I would gradually wander away from comics and literary science fiction to renew a deep and abiding love of movies. I was the prototypical monster kid of the 1960s, watching every creature feature I could possibly dial in on the old black and white TV, and worshipping at the Church of the Universal Monster.

Poster - House of the Gorgon (2019)
The ‘70s was a time for discovering Hammer’s glorious reenvisionings of the classic monsters, and of course, falling in love (as only a nerdy young fan can) with the likes of Caroline Munro, Veronica Carlson, and Martine Beswick.

Speaking of Hammer’s scream queens, I was intrigued by this year’s program at Creepy Classics’ Monster Bash (Mars, PA, June 21 - 23, 2019). I had seen ads for the conference in Filmfax over the years, and its focus on classic horror and sci-fi, along with fascinating guests of honor (e.g., Julie Adams of Creature from the Black Lagoon fame, who passed away last year), had me itching to attend. But geography and life’s usual busyness prevented me from making plans -- until now.

This year’s Bash brought together two famous Hammer actresses, Veronica Carlson (Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) and Martine Beswick (One Million Years B.C., Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde), along with Dracula A.D. 1972 alum Christopher Neame to the U.S. premier of low-budget auteur Joshua Kennedy’s Hammer homage House of the Gorgon (2019).

Kennedy, who started making feature-length films in his teens, has been friends with all three and managed with luck and pluck to get them (along with Caroline Munro, who unfortunately was unable to attend) to appear in the film.

Veronica Carlson at Monster Bash 2019
The still glamorous Veronica Carlson at her Q&A.
The screening room was jam-packed for the premier on Saturday night. The organizers wisely arranged for a second showing the same night for late comers who weren’t able to squeeze in. Shot in a little over a week, House of the Gorgon is a deeply affectionate tribute to the inimitable Hammer style, with special emphasis on Hammer’s classic The Gorgon (1964) with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Barbara Shelley.

House features not one but two Gorgon sisters, played with zest and sly humor by Munro and Beswick. Carlson, looking years younger than her age, plays the mother of a young woman (Georgina Dugdale) engaged to be married to the eccentric master of the house (Kennedy). Christopher Neame is also very effective as the glum, frightened village priest -- a character type that appeared numerous times in Hammer films.

While the digital photography and the variable acting among the less experienced cast members somewhat betray the film’s very low budget, it’s hard not to like such a meticulously and lovingly crafted tribute.

Martine Beswick at Monster Bash 2019
Martine Beswick receives flowers and applause.
The Gothic setting, the costumes, the formal, language, the ubiquitous tavern with baleful, superstitious locals, and of course the presence of the four Hammer veterans, had me smiling from the first frame.

Other horror film references, some subtle and some not-so-subtle, range from the paintings of past nefarious movie characters lining the mansion’s staircase, to the bust of veteran Hammer character actor Michael Ripper that turns up in the local tavern.

Aside from being a great tribute, the story holds up pretty well on its own. Kennedy also has a definite talent for setting up and lighting a very effective, atmospheric scene. One in particular, where the victim, taking a bath, sees her attacker upside down from her perspective and imbued with an otherworldly light, delivers an authentic shudder.

House of the Gorgon received a thunderous ovation from the appreciative audience, and I was rooted to the spot, almost as if I had been turned to stone, at the sight of the three Hammer legends on stage with their 20-something director.

Other Monster Bash Highlights:

In her Q&A, Beverly Washburn, veteran of innumerable films and TV shows (Star Trek OS, Boris Karloff’s Thriller, and cult favorite Spider Baby among them), talked about her experiences on the set of Spider Baby. She described Lon Chaney Jr. as a darling. It was well known by that time that he was an alcoholic, but his drinking never affected the production. She confirmed that his tears during the famous soliloquy were real and heart-felt.

Beverly Washburn at Monster Bash 2019
Beverly Washburn with conference organizer Ron Adams.

Author Frank Dello Stritto gave a very funny and engaging talk on the history of Universal’s last great monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Frank is the author of a new novel, Carl Denham’s Giant Monsters, which picks up on the monster hunter’s life after the events of King Kong. Riffing on that theme and with tongue firmly in cheek, he expounded on what happened to various characters from the Creature movies after their encounters with the Gillman, using stills from the actors’ subsequent films.

Still - Whit Bissell in I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957)
According to Dello Stritto, Dr. Thompson, the character played by
Whit Bissell in Creature from the Black Lagoon, never completely
recovered from the wounds he received from the Gillman. Here he's
seen with his twin brother (driving).

Film historian Greg Mank, author of the new biography Laird Cregar: A Hollywood Tragedy, gave a very moving talk on the hugely talented and haunted actor
who almost literally was killed by type-casting and mistreatment by his studio. A respected veteran of mostly costume dramas, in 1944 Cregar became notorious for his effective and menacing role as Jack the Ripper in The Lodger. Unfortunately, it immediately became evident that the studio would henceforth typecast him in Gothic monster roles. Cregar was a very large man, and in his desperation to slim down to a more “matinee idol” appearance, he went on a crash diet that eventually led to a heart attack and death at a very young age. Mank also told a fascinating story of he and his wife years ago trying to find Cregar’s grave at Hollywood’s Forest Lawn cemetery, with a series of misadventures leading them to half-believe Cregar’s spirit was playing tricks on them.

At 89 years of age, Ricou Browning is the last living classic Universal monster, having portrayed the Gillman in the underwater scenes in all three Creature movies. In his Q&A he addressed the recent controversy over a new book, The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, which asserts that Patrick was instrumental in creating the Creature costume, but was shunted aside and not given credit by Hollywood’s male patriarchy. Ricou asserted that during production of the first Creature film, he only saw Patrick twice, and only briefly each time. She appeared and watched for a short time while he was being fitted for the suit in Hollywood. Then on location, she put some finishing touches on the suit before Browning got in the water. Jack Kevan and Chris Mueller have been traditionally cited as the designers of the Creature suit.

Ricou Browning at Monster Bash 2019
Ricou Browning at the Q&A with his daughter (left) and
author Tom Weaver (far right).

For more information on future Monster Bashes and related events
, see the conference news page.

June 10, 2019

The Rad, Mad Art of the B-movie Poster

Movie posters have a lot of hard work to do: they have to catch the wandering eye, instantly convey something intriguing about the film to the potential movie goer, and accomplish all this with static 2D images and text in fixed dimensions.

Occasionally in the pursuit of mundane commerce, movie posters accomplish something else -- they become art. Sometimes, very valuable art. In 2017, a rare version of a poster for Bela Lugosi’s 1931 Dracula fetched a record $525,800 at auction. Interestingly, 2 out of the 3 previous record holders were horror movie posters, including Lon Chaney’s lost film London After Midnight (1927; $478,000) and Boris Karloff’s The Mummy (1932; $453,000).

Which makes sense, as the best horror movies, springing as the do from enduring fables and folklore, stand the test of time much better than conventional dramas that reflect ever-changing social mores and fads. Like the movies themselves, the posters are still in high demand decades after they were issued.

I’m not a collector of physical posters (thankfully, or I might not have been able to retire when I did), but I look up poster images all the time for the blog. The ones below are some of my very favorite finds, posters (actually, half sheets) that, for me, approach the ideal intersection of commerce and art. (Or, if you think calling these posters art is too much of a stretch, think of it as design and technique that grabs your eyeballs and won’t let go…)

Without further ado, here is the first installment, in alphabetical order, of the Films From Beyond B-movie half-sheet Hall of Fame. (Click on an image to enlarge.)

Poster - 13 Ghosts (1960)
In William Castle's 13 Ghosts (1960), it's hard to keep track of all
the specters without a scorecard. I like the "Ghost-viewer" inset,
which advertises the special "Illusion-O" viewer that theater
audiences received. Looking through the red filter enhanced
the ghostly images, while the blue filter faded them out.

Poster - Attack of the Puppet People (1958)
This striking poster is distinguished by the heightened realism of the
ferocious dog and the counter-action of the puppet people. (1958)

Poster - The Brain Eaters (1958)
I haven't seen this movie in many years, but my guess is that nothing
like this appeared in it. Is the unfortunate woman a victim,
a monster, or both? Pretty grisly stuff for the '50s. (1958)

Poster - Donovan's Brain (1953)
This is brutal in its simplicity. Look away, lest you too
be driven to madness... and muuurrrrderrr! (1953)

Poster - It Came From Outer Space (1953)
I like this for a couple of things: the mix of light and shadow makes the
characters in the main part of the poster "pop" like a 3D image; and the
insets at the bottom depicting movie highlights are themselves mini 3D
screens with the action spilling out into the audience. (1953)

Poster - The Lair of the White Worm (1988)
The archaic mosaic snake overlaid on the photo-realistic monster
woman nicely captures the film's theme of modern characters
menaced by ancient evil. (1988)

Poster - The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Prince Prospero's face made up of writhing figures straight out
of Dante's Inferno is enough to make your skin crawl! (1964)

Monster on the Campus (1958)
The hideous hairy horror looms over a pair of terrified college students as
sensational headlines splash against a blood-red sky. Great stuff! (1958)

Poster - The Mummy (1959)
I love how the constable's flashlight beam pierces right through
the shambling mummy's bandages. Plus, it features cartoon
film highlights on the right edge. (1959)

Poster - Not of This Earth (1957)
The photo-realistic depiction of abject fear juxtaposed with a
cartoonish alien creature makes for a very arresting and
memorable image. (1957)

Poster - World Without End (1956)
This is one of the craziest posters from the '50s, with its combination
of abstract imagery and traditional art depicting film highlights.
What is that colossal cubist figure doing shoving a clock the size
of the earth at a needle-nosed spaceship? Who knows? (1956)

May 28, 2019

She Blinded Me with Science: Women Scientists and Doctors in ‘50s Sci-fi Films

We don’t normally think of the 1950s as a time of women’s empowerment. After World War II, Rosie the Riveter was given her pink slip and told to go home and have babies. Popular magazines were full of advice to single women on catching a man -- a 1958 McCall’s article, “129 Ways to Get a Husband,” suggested, among other things, reading obituaries to find eligible widowers or having your car break down in “strategic places.” (!!)

Rosie the Riveter
"Thanks for all your help Rosie. Go ahead and
clock out -- your last check is in the mail."
On TV, it was a time of Father Knows Best and the saintly stay-at-home mom exemplified by June in Leave It to Beaver. In the movies, working women were often depicted as lost souls to be pitied rather than strong role models to be emulated. Across the popular culture landscape, motherhood was extolled as a woman’s greatest fulfillment.

An interesting exception to the rule was the B sci-fi movie. Capable, courageous female scientists and doctors popped up time and again to help battle giant radioactive monsters or menaces from outer space.

Undoubtedly, the presence of women in lead roles added a romantic angle that had potential appeal for adult audiences. The women spent almost as much time fending off the awkward advances of their male colleagues as battling monsters (more on that below).

Perhaps too, their presence was a subtle acknowledgement that while men got us into this atom age radioactive mess, women were needed to help get us out of it. Whatever the motives, conscious or unconscious, these unassuming films went against the cultural grain and set the stage for the normalization of women’s achievement outside of home and family.

The following list of profiles in B movie courage only scratches the surface of strong female characters in ‘50s sci-fi. This time around I’ve limited it to women scientists and doctors with key roles -- even at that, it’s a selective list. Not included are the pioneering female astronauts, or, for that matter, the “ordinary” single women, wives and mothers who faced extraordinary sci-fi threats. I’ll take those up in future posts.

Along with each character’s resume and screen accomplishments, I’ve included a “cringe moment.” This was the ‘50s after all, and being subjected to chauvinistic acts and comments was the price women paid for inclusion in the monster fighters’ club. These vignettes serve to illustrate how far we’ve come, at least as far as the depiction of “normal” male-female relations in popular culture is concerned.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Name: Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond)

Paul Hubschmid and Paula Raymond in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
"Hey mister, I've got a bone to pick with you!"
Resume: Hunter is an assistant to Prof. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), world-renowned paleontologist, and an accomplished scientist in her own right.

Biggest screen moment: Nuclear scientist Tom Nesbitt (Paul Hubschmid) approaches Elson and Hunter with a wild story of seeing a huge prehistoric creature unleashed by a polar atomic test. Elson is completely dismissive, but Lee keeps an open mind, showing Nesbitt illustrations of dinosaurs to try to identify what he saw. After a fishing trawler is capsized by what witnesses insist was a sea serpent, Lee suggests they show the set of pictures to one of the survivors in a sort of creature line-up. When the sailor picks the same dinosaur as Nesbitt, Elson becomes convinced, and they arrange an expedition to track down the monster.

Biggest cringe moment: When Nesbitt and Hunter are alone discussing what he might have seen, he awkwardly tries to flirt with her:
  “Funny, a girl like you, a paleontologist…”
  “What’s wrong with paleontology?”
  “Classifying old bones…”
  “Old bones? If we didn’t study the past, you wouldn’t know anything about the atom. Dr. Elson says the future is a reflection of the past…”

Additional notes: After her role in Beast, Paula dived into TV, guesting on dozens of shows, including One Step Beyond, Perry Mason and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  She also appeared in two of the more obscure B sci-fi films of the ‘60s, The Flight that Disappeared (1961), and Hand of Death (1962; with John Agar).

Them! (1954)
Name: Dr. Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon)

Resume: Along with her father, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn), Pat is part of a scientific team sent by the Dept. of Agriculture to help the authorities in New Mexico investigate a series of mysterious deaths in the desert near the White Sands atomic test area.

Joan Weldon in Them! (1954)
"I told them it was a bad idea to have a picnic
out here in the middle of nowhere!"
Biggest screen moment: When they find the underground nest of giant ants, special agent Robert Graham (James Arness) and State Trooper Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) launch phosphorus grenades at the nest to drive them underground, and then lob poison gas canisters after them. To make sure all the ants are dead, someone has to rappel down into the nest to check. Pat insists on going with them. When Graham states emphatically that “it’s no place for you or any other woman,” she is equally emphatic:
  “Look Bob, there’s no time to give you a fast course on insect pathology, so let’s stop all the talk and get on with it!”
  Her presence is indeed crucial, as she discovers that two young queen ants hatched and flew away before the nest was bombed. If they're not found and dealt with, it could be the beginning of the end for humanity.

Biggest cringe moment: Arriving in New Mexico on a military transport plane, Pat’s dress gets caught as she climbs down the ladder from the cockpit, revealing some leg. Standing on the tarmac, Graham and Peterson are ogling her.
  Peterson: “She’s some doctor, huh?”
  Graham: “Yeah, if she’s the kind that takes care of sick people, I think I’ll get a fever real quick.”

Additional notes: After Them!, Joan (who is still alive as of this post), acted in only a relative handful of movies and TV shows before retiring in the late ‘50s.

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
Name: Prof. Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue)

Faith Domergue and Kenneth Tobey in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
Prof. Joyce inspects the lab equipment as Pete makes his move.
Resume: Joyce is the head of the marine biology dept. at The Southeastern Institute of Oceanography, and in the words of her screen colleague, Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis), the “outstanding authority on marine biology” in the country.

Biggest screen moment: Joyce and Carter are brought in by the Navy to examine a huge piece of irradiated tissue that was caught on the fins of an atomic sub during a mysterious encounter in the middle of the Pacific ocean. After extensive examination, the team concludes that it came from an octopus, but one so huge as to be beyond belief. Their theory is borne out as ships begin disappearing and a man on a beach is crushed by some enigmatic thing. After there is no doubt about the threat from the colossal octopus, Joyce, Carter and Cmdr. Pete Matthews (Kenneth Tobey) head up a task force to deal with the threat. When depth charges fail to kill the beast, it emerges from the depths to wrap its tentacles around the Golden Gate Bridge. In the situation room, Joyce calmly and authoritatively tells a Navy Captain to go to red alert.

Biggest cringe moment: Earlier, when the scientists are still trying to determine the source of the tissue, Matthews corners Joyce in the lab. She responds by egging him on:
  “When you’re driving that atomic submarine of yours, do you have much time for romance?”
  “Even if I did have the time, where would I find the opportunity? You know, women aren’t allowed aboard a submarine.”
  “Poor boy, I thought the Navy was equipped for every contingency…”

Additional notes: In addition to It Came from Beneath the Sea, Faith starred in 3 other sci-fi movies released in 1955: Cult of the Cobra, The Atomic Man, and most memorably, This Island Earth (in which she also played a scientist).

From Hell It Came (1957)
Name: Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver)

John McNamara and Tina Carver in From Hell It Came (1957)
"Hmmm, I can't tell for sure, but I think part of the
problem is that knife sticking out of its chest."
Resume: Mason (no relation to Perry) is a member of a medical team sent by the “International Foundation” to a group of South Seas islands to investigate health hazards caused by atomic testing, and to treat the sick natives.

Biggest screen moment: With the help of colleagues Dr. William Arnold (Tod Andrews) and Prof. Clark (John McNamara), Mason digs up an unearthly, weirdly human-looking tree that has suddenly sprouted near their encampment. The natives warn them that it is the dreaded Tabanga, which has grown from the body of a young native man unjustly accused of murdering his own father, and executed by authority of the local witch doctor. A ceremonial knife is buried in the monster where its heart should be.
  Back at the lab, Terry finds the monster has a pulse, but it’s weakening. Disregarding Arnold’s suggestion to let it die, she makes an executive decision to stimulate its heart (?) with an experimental serum of her own making -- a decision she will soon regret.

Biggest cringe moment: Arnold is mad about the good doctor Mason, and wants to make her his wife and take her back to civilization. He pleads with her:
  “Terry, will you stop being a doctor first and a woman second? Let your emotions rule you, not your intellect.”
  “Bill, I live by my intellect and my reason. If I let my emotions run away, I wouldn’t be any good in my work.”
  Undeterred, Bill embraces her and they kiss. He asks her if she loves him.
  “I don’t love you.”
  “Then why did you kiss me back?”
  “I don’t know, my metabolism… it’s unconscious, involuntary…”

Additional notes: The same year as From Hell It Came was released, Tina also appeared in The Man Who Turned to Stone, about a group of scientists who stay young by draining the life out of unsuspecting women.

The Giant Claw (1957)
Name: Dr. Sally Caldwell (Mara Corday)

Mara Corday and Jeff Morrow in The Giant Claw (1957)
Sally and Mitch go alien bird hunting.
Resume: Caldwell is a mathematician and systems analyst who, at the beginning of the movie, is working with electronics engineer and test pilot Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow) to calibrate new polar-based military radar systems and detect blind spots.

Biggest screen moment: When Mitch sees a UFO “as big as a battleship” shoot past his plane, no one believes him because the thing didn’t show up on radar. However, as more planes start crashing and reports come flooding in, it’s apparent that something big and dangerous is cruising the skies over North America.
  Sally comes up with an idea to check photographs from weather balloons, and sure enough, a huge, buzzard-like bird shows up in a batch. After analyzing one of the monster's feathers found in the wreckage of a plane, physicist Karol Noymann (Edgar Barrier) concludes that the creature is from another galaxy, and has an anti-matter shield around it that makes it impervious to all weapons. (!!)
  Caldwell uses her math expertise to help figure out a way to negate the shield. But her biggest “bad ass” moment comes when she and MacAfee discover the alien bird’s nest in a remote part of French Canada. There’s an egg in the nest, and they have to destroy it before another space buzzard hatches to terrorize the world. She picks up a rifle and aims. When MacAfee gives her a quizzical side-glance, she says matter-of-factly, “I’m from Montana…”

Biggest cringe moment: After they both survive a mid-air collision with the Giant Claw, MacAfee and Caldwell are called back to Washington. On the red-eye flight back east, MacAfee suddenly leans over and kisses her as she’s trying to get some shuteye. Caldwell is unusually composed:
  Caldwell: “Where did that come from?”
  MacAfee: “Left field maybe.”
  Caldwell: “I like baseball… Speaking of baseball and left field, somebody warned me you made up your own rules.”
  MacAfee: “Whoever said that is no friend of mine.”
  Caldwell: “But he’s a friend of mine.”

Additional notes: Mara Corday’s other sci-fi role in 1957 was in The Black Scorpion. She teamed up with Richard Denning, playing an American geologist, to battle giant scorpions freed from their underground lair by a series of earthquakes.

May 13, 2019

The X-Man meets the Puppetoons

Poster - The Power (1968)
Now Playing: The Power (1968)

Pros: Features an interesting cast of veteran character actors and B movie regulars; Ambitiously tries to marry the sci-fi and suspense-thriller genres.
Cons: Slow stretches and plot holes dissipate the suspense somewhat.
“Do we humans harbor within us vast mental powers beyond our imagination? Are some of us gifted with psychic abilities far beyond the norm, and if so what does that mean for us as a society? Whether one believes in extra sensory perception, mental powers, or any of the phenomena that go with them, some governments of the world have certainly at some point or another taken notice to entertain the idea. After all, wouldn’t such amazing abilities be useful for warfare or intelligence gathering? Governments around the world have long sought to try and harness the untapped powers of the human mind to mixed results…” (Brent Swancer, “Bizarre Government Experiments and Strange Psychic Powers,” Mysteriousuniverse.org, Nov. 17, 2017)
In his fascinating article for the Mysterious Universe website, Brent Swancer details a kind of international arms race that few Americans are aware of -- the race to harness psychic abilities for national security purposes. In the 1970s, U.S. authorities became concerned about Soviet research into these areas, and thus was born the Stargate Project, which recruited psychics to, among other things, surveil human targets and facilities through “remote viewing.”

Before the unit was shut down in the mid-90s, it also experimented with less benign applications of psychic powers, including the possibility of slowing or even stopping a heartbeat with the mind alone. The project was profiled in a 2004 book by Jon Ronson, The Men Who Stare at Goats, which was adapted into a movie starring George Clooney in 2009.

Stopping a person’s vital bodily functions through telekinesis is at the heart (pun intended) of producer George Pal’s The Power. Based on the 1959 science fiction novel by Frank M. Robinson, the film opens at a research facility specializing in space medicine (in this case, a government sponsored institute, not the military).

Arthur Nordlund (Michael Rennie) has been sent from Washington to liaise with a group of scientists conducting research into the limits of human endurance. Their research is crucial to ensuring the health and safety astronauts on long space missions. The head of the committee, Prof. Jim Tanner (George Hamilton) takes Nordlund on a tour of the facility, where he sees one volunteer in scuba gear lying at the bottom of a water tank, and another being subjected to intense heat.

Michael Rennie and George Hamilton in The Power (1968)
Prof. Tanner shows Nordlund his patented body tanning method.
Nordlund attends a meeting of the full committee, which is comprised of experts in all disciplines related to human performance: Dr. Margery Lansing (Suzanne Pleshette) is a geneticist, Prof. Talbot Scott (Earl Holliman) is a biologist, chain-smoking Carl Melnicker (Nehemiah Persoff) is a physicist, and Prof. Norman Van Zandt (Richard Carlson) heads up the institute.

There is a lot of brainpower on the committee, but the members are startled when the token social scientist in the group, anthropologist Henry Hallson (Arthur O’Connell), announces in alarmed tones that, based on anonymous questionnaires and tests he’s given to his fellow committee members, one of the group has an IQ that is “off the charts,” and possesses “a force of intellect far beyond anything known on the earth today.”

When Nordlund asks if that could include paranormal or telekinetic mental powers, Hallson responds in the affirmative. Nordlund proposes a test for the committee to take right then and there, to see if the super-man (or woman) among them will reveal him/herself. Melnicker works up a makeshift pinwheel with a pencil and piece of paper and sets it in the middle of the table. If there is a telekinetic mutant among them, it should be no problem for the person to set the paper spinning through just the force of mind.

After a couple of abortive attempts, the group around the table all stare intently at the pinwheel, and sure enough, the paper begins turning by itself as ominous music swells.

Testing for telekinetic powers at the committee meeting
Scientists at America's elite space research institute play Spin the Paper.

The scientists are spooked at the thought that a telekinetic-capable superhuman is walking among them. Things take a much darker turn when Tanner and Lansing discover Hallson dead in the cabin of the institute’s experimental centrifuge. Alerted by Hallson’s wife (Yvonne De Carlo) that he had not come home, the two had gone to the institute looking for the professor, only to discover the centrifuge whirling around at top speed. Mysteriously, the emergency kill switch didn’t work, and by the time they managed to cut power to the entire facility, Hallson was dead, crushed by the tremendous G forces generated by the contraption.

The only clue that Tanner finds among Hallson’s effects is a name, Adam Hart, scribbled on a piece of paper. Tanner immediately becomes a prime suspect in Hallson’s death when his widow inexplicably tells the police she did not call Tanner to check in on her husband. The hot water he’s in gets even hotter when the police inspector (Gary Merrill) informs him that there is no record of his attending any of the universities listed on his resume.

Mystified and alarmed, Tanner decides to do some investigating himself. When he learns that Adam Hart was a childhood friend of Hallson’s, he drives out to the remote desert town that was Hallson’s boyhood home. Things get even weirder when Hallson’s father and other town members give wildly different descriptions of Adam Hart’s physical appearance.

Another boyhood friend of Hallson’s and Hart’s, Bruce (Aldo Ray), tells Tanner that he has something to show him that will reveal much more about the mystery man. When Bruce drives him out to the middle of the desert, Tanner senses that something’s off, and jumps out of the jeep. He seeks shelter in a patch of scrub brush and palm trees, but then quickly realizes he’s smack in the middle of an Air Force gunnery range -- and a squadron of jets is firing live rockets at him. He manages to light some brush on fire to get attention and the pilots abort the exercise.

Tanner (George Hamilton) runs from strafing air force jets
George Hamilton hopes with all his heart that
his film doesn't bomb at the box office.
When Bruce later admits that Hart had commanded him to kill anyone looking into his past, Tanner gets a healthy appreciation of the extent of the man's powers. Once back home, Tanner not only has to deal with a faceless psychic superman who apparently wants him dead, but also with his paranoid colleagues who think he might be the superpsychic killer.

As a sci-fi-based psychological/suspense thriller, The Power is an interesting product of its time. The idea of a genetic mutant masquerading as a government scientist and playing with normal humans like a cat toying with a mouse, seems emblematic, if in an unconscious way, of an era of mind-expanding psychedelic drugs and distrust of government authorities over the Vietnam war. (A couple of years before, Star Trek had featured a similar “monster” in the form of Charlie X, an orphaned human teenager who had learned fearsome telekinetic powers from the aliens who raised him.)

However, the film struggles somewhat under the weight of its ambitious premise. In the original novel, the protagonist’s investigations gradually uncover the mutant’s backstory and the extent of his powers. The movie’s 108 minute runtime doesn’t afford this luxury, so the viewer has to use his/her imagination to fill in plot holes and inconsistencies. For example, if Hallson’s boyhood friend Adam Hart is the culprit, how can he hide out at institute in plain sight, so to speak, without Hallson recognizing him? (The inability of Adam Hart’s hometown neighbors to agree on what he looked like is perhaps a clue.)

As the cat-and-mouse game begins in earnest, Tanner witnesses all sorts manifestations of the faceless Hart’s powers. At a crosswalk on a busy city street, Tanner watches as the Don’t Walk pedestrian sign suddenly morphs into an ominous message - “Don’t Run.” In another George Pal-esque scene, the weary Tanner stops momentarily at a toy store window, where to his amazement, a squad of tin soldiers become animated, line up, and shoot their toy guns at him. (This was a knowing wink to Pal’s early career as the creator and animator of stop-motion “Puppetoons” -- many of them depicting classic fairy tales -- that he did in the 1940s.)

The tin soldier sequence in The Power (1968)
Attack of the Puppetoons!
The game becomes potentially deadlier as Tanner stumbles aboard a kids’ merry-go-round at a downtown galleria. Before he knows it, the merry-go-round is whipping around at such great speed that Tanner’s facial muscles are pushed back by the G-forces, echoing the deadly centrifuge ride that killed Hallson earlier on. It’s a nice touch, having these seemingly innocent children’s amusements turned into weapons by the remorseless psi-chopath. Another nice touch is the overlay of a beating heart on the soundtrack as Hart hones in on his prey. It’s an eerie reminder that he can stop a human heart with just his mind.

Against the backdrop of these incredible powers, it’s perhaps a stretch when Tanner, on the run and with Lansing and the physicist Melnicker in tow, decides that the safest hiding place is among the teeming crowds of the big city. They crash a salesmen’s convention at a hotel, and additionally, Tanner warns his colleagues not to sleep. A scene in which they nervously keep watch as the clueless conventioneers dance awkwardly at an after hours party goes on way too long, especially for a scene that doesn’t make much sense. From what we (and Tanner) know of Hart, it should be no problem for him to get to the hapless scientists, regardless of whether they're asleep or awake, or in a big crowd or by themselves.

Some of the film’s logical lapses are explained by the twist ending, but not all. However, the end is punctuated by an hallucinatory, psychedelic montage that allows Pal to indulge in more of his beloved stop-motion animation.

Tanner (George Hamilton) is roasted in The Power's climatic psychedlic montage.
"Holy smokes! I turned the tanning bed up way too high!"

Many of the film’s production staff and cast were no strangers to sci-fi. The Power was the next to last feature film produced by Pal, whose resume was brimming with such classics as When Worlds Collide (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), and The Time Machine (1960), among others. Director Byron Haskin had previously helmed War of the Worlds and Conquest of Space (1955) for Pal, and Robinson Crusoe on Mars in 1964.

Richard Carlson was a sci-fi fixture, having appeared in such classics as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953) and It Came from Outer Space (1953); he had even directed his own sci-fi feature, Riders to the Stars (1954) around the same time as those films.

Earl Holliman had the distinction of appearing in the one of the all-time great sci-fi films, Forbidden Planet (1956), as well as the inaugural episode of The Twilight Zone TV series in 1959. And of course, Michael Rennie will be forever known as Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

Veteran character actors Arthur O’Connell, Nehemiah Persoff, Yvonne DeCarlo, Gary Merrill and Aldo Ray are also welcome familiar faces, but the small roles don’t take advantage of their respective talents.

Suzanne Pleshette as Dr. Margery Lansing in The Power (1968)
Dr. Lansing suddenly remembers that
she left the oven on at home.
Leads George Hamilton and Suzanne Pleshette do a credible job looking attractive and registering shock and horror at the appropriate points. Even at this relatively early stage of his career, everyone’s favorite Crispy Colonel was exhibiting the beginnings of the preternatural tan that was to become his signature.

One of the biggest “stars” of The Power is the atmospheric musical score by 3-time Oscar winner Miklós Rózsa. The main theme features a cimbalom, a kind of dulcimer that is played by striking strings with light hammers. The result is eerie and otherworldly. I remember getting a little chill hearing it the first time, and it worked its magic again with the latest viewing.

The Power is one of George Pal’s forgotten sci-fi features. It has minimal special effects, relying instead on generating suspense via a mysterious unseen menace. It has slow moments and logic lapses, but it’s worth looking up for its unique story, good cast, and great score.

Where to find it: Purchase the Warner Archive DVD at fine online outlets like Oldies.com.

May 1, 2019

Stream and Stream Again: Special May Day Edition

Spring is here. There’s a better than even chance that the sun is shining where you are; nature is blooming (time to stock up on the allergy meds); and at least for a brief moment, hope and renewal (along with pollen) waft on warm breezes.

We don’t really do May Day here in the States, what with its commie-hippie-fertility-tree-worshipping vibe that’s so at odds with our dog-eat-dog capitalism. Elsewhere, the old Soviet military parades are gone, but much of the world still recognizes it as International Workers Day, where workers of the world unite to binge on Game of Thrones and the latest Marvel blockbusters. There are even a few odd Europeans and Brits left who celebrate by dressing up and dancing around the maypole.

The maypole scene from The Wicker Man (1973)
"Okay kids, enough of this fresh air, let's go binge on
episodes of Sabrina the Teenage Witch!"
We’ve dispensed with the old Pagan maypole streamers in favor of net streams, but the dance is still the same -- we frolic around the great megalithic entertainment monolith, tied to it by our multiple streams, forever chasing after that elusive content that’s just one more subscription away.

Many of us have cut the cable and satellite TV cords, only to become entangled in a new Gordian knot of subscription streaming services. The cost of each by itself is reasonable, but put all of them together to get your Star Trek Discovery here, Game of Thrones there, and the Marvel Comics Universe behind the Disney paywall, and suddenly you’ve become nostalgic for the old cable bill.

Of course it all makes sense from the corporate monolith’s perspective. Why sell or rent your precious commodity one at a time when you can rope your customers into ongoing, monthly payments? Corporate suits are burning the midnight oil thinking of new recurring ways to separate us from our money: razors, clothes, food, you name it. “I’m sorry sir, that apple is not for individual sale, but I’d be happy to sign you up for our Apple of the Month Club.”

While the Fruit of the Month Club may be an easy pass, they really have us by the short hairs when it comes to our pop culture addictions. Disney is the new 800 pound gorilla in the streaming wars, pulling their content from other platforms to offer exclusively on their own service. The announced $6.99 per month cost is low compared to Netflix and other services, but it will be interesting to see if that price holds once they corral all their hottest properties -- Star Wars, the MCU, Pixar, etc. -- behind their paywall.

Even with its attractive entry price, I won’t be signing up for Disney’s streaming channel anytime soon. Because I’m a cheap old coot, I’m trying to hold the line at my outrageously expensive internet plan and the two streaming behemoths I’ve had for years now, Netflix (which just raised its rates again, daggummit!) and Amazon Prime.

Soviet leaders review a Victory Day parade, circa 1960s
The CEOs of Disney, Netflix, Amazon and Comcast wave approvingly
as their weapons of mass distraction parade by the reviewing stand.
Of course, Netflix has been moving in recent years from an emphasis on theatrical movies to original content and TV. I’ve sampled some of their original stuff, and overall it’s pretty mediocre. Every time they hike their rates I think about dropping it, but it has some shows my wife and I like, so I grin and bear it (yeah Netflix, you’re smiling now, but one more price hike, and you’ll be sorry!)

Amazon Prime is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates -- you never know what you’re going to get. B movie fans like myself can have quite a bit fun browsing through its catalog. Right now my watchlist is teeming with titles that are good candidates for the blog: Attack of the Mushroom People, Blood of the Vampire, Cry of the Banshee, Fire Maidens of Outer Space, Frankenstein’s Daughter, Invisible Invaders, Pharaoh’s Curse… it’s an embarrassment of B riches (or for some, just an embarrassment). Some of those licenses will expire, and other vintage Bs will take their place. The biggest downside is the queasy feeling I sometimes get paying dues to the online empire of the world’s richest, greediest man.

At least I summoned up the fortitude some time ago to cut the cable TV cord. We’d been bouncing between cable and satellite for years, shelling out for frequent rate hikes, tolerating poor signals and even poorer customer service, and marvelling, like millions before us, that there could be so many channels and so little to watch.

When we moved to a larger metro area, we finally cut and ran. I invested in an indoor digital antenna and a DVR for over-the-air broadcasts. In our location, the setup brings in not only the usual network channels and local news, but dozens of other channels as well. Fortunately for my interests, many of these are retro channels, including MeTV (with the beloved Svengoolie on Saturday nights), the Movies! channel, Comet, Decades, This-TV and many more. (A small downside is that occasionally the antenna needs to be adjusted to optimize the signal for certain channels. I have it hanging from a curtain rod, where it’s easy to move it back and forth to clear up the signal.)

The Citadel from Game of Thrones
Public libraries are a beacon of hope for all
those oppressed by high entertainment bills.
Another huge free resource is the local public library system. Again, living in a large city helps tremendously. Among all the branches, they get almost every title that anyone would want to watch on DVD, including blockbusters, foreign and independent films, and TV. If your local branch doesn’t carry it, you just put a hold on the title and it usually shows up within a couple days. We recently caught up with Game of Thrones by binging on library copies.

A big “secret” that people are finally discovering is that many libraries offer robust, free streaming services. Hoopla, a big player in the public library market, offers popular feature films and documentaries to stream, along with online courses and ebooks. Typically, each library card holder gets a limited number of views per month (but hey, it’s free!).

Our system also offers Kanopy, which has also been big in the higher education streaming market. Kanopy has a rich catalog of independent, foreign, classic and documentary films. For a relatively high-brow service, it also carries a surprising number of classic and B horror and sci-fi films. For example, my current Kanopy watchlist includes I Married a Monster from Outer Space, The Blood Beast Terror (with Peter Cushing), the Eurohorror classic Night of the Devils, and Sudden Fear (with Joan Crawford and Jack Palance). Like Hoopla, it’s a certain-number-of-views per month deal.

So, there are alternatives to selling your first born and your right arm for access to the movies and shows you love. Check out the local OTA broadcast situation and your local library. You may be able to stream and stream again without your wallet screaming “Uncle!”

April 17, 2019

Independent Filmmaking the Fred Olen Ray Way, Part Two: An Interview with Actor Jesse Dabson

Last post I profiled low budget filmmaker Fred Olen Ray and his extremely varied output, from his ‘80s and ‘90s knock-offs of popular sci-fi and action films to his current specialty, Hallmark Channel-style romantic TV movies.

Fred’s early path to success was to take box office-proven sci-fi concepts, enlist veteran name actors on the downswing of their careers, mix in young actors eager to work, and borrow as much as possible from other productions -- sets, props, costumes, etc. -- to keep costs low.

One of those eager young actors was Jesse Dabson, who at the time had just two movies on his resume when he went to work for Ray on Deep Space (1988). Jesse would work again with Ray on Alienator (1990), a Terminator clone featuring an impressive list of veteran actors (Jan-Michael Vincent, John Phillip Law, Robert Clarke, Leo Gordon and Robert Quarry), and a female cyborg terminator played by bodybuilder Teagan Clive.

Jesse Dabson and Dawn Wildsmith in Alienator (1990)
Benny (Jesse Dabson) gets a well-deserved rest after
a long night of battling the Alienator.
In Alienator, Jesse plays Benny, the brainy member of a group of vacationing college kids who, while driving their camper through the woods, accidentally hit a weird drifter (Ross Hagen). They enlist the aid of a park ranger (Law) to get him medical attention, but little do they know that the stranger is an intergalactic fugitive who is being hunted down by a unstoppable, deadly cyborg. When the Alienator shows up to menace the space renegade and his newfound earthling friends, Benny has to grow up fast and find his inner-hero.

Since Alienator, Jesse has appeared in a diverse array of movies and TV. He had a major recurring role in the 1990 TV series Elvis, co-starred with Susan Griffiths in the TV movie Marilyn and Me (1991), and has appeared in such shows as The Golden Girls and Beverly Hills 90210, among others. Most recently, he’s guested in two episodes of Chicago P.D.

In an exclusive Films From Beyond interview, Jesse talks about getting into acting, and his work on the sets of Deep Space and Alienator.

How did you become interested in acting?

I was always a bit of a ham and have one of those personalities that thrives on attention. I can remember as far back as childhood watching Creature Features on WGN in Chicago when we visited my Grandparents and wanting to be in those movies. I did a few plays in High School for something to do; small town Pecatonica Illinois didn't have a lot of diversions. However, it was my Freshman year of college at Knox College the bug bit hard. I was playing football and the ADD kicked in and I auditioned for a play fall term, got cast in the lead and proceeded to do a play every semester for the next 4 years. Of course it was supposed to be training for going to law school because I was majoring in Economics, but I soon picked up Theater as a second major and graduated with a BA in Economics and Theater.

Your first movie credit according to IMDb is The Hanoi Hilton (1987), a drama about U.S. POWs in a North Vietnamese prison camp. How did you get the part? What were the biggest challenges for you on your first movie set?

Actor Jesse Dabson
Jesse Dabson today.
Not only was that the first movie I did, that was the first movie audition I ever had. I met a Casting Director named Perry Bullington who worked at Cannon Films and was a Northwestern Grad. Back in the day there were "showcases" where you could pay a small fee to do a monologue or a scene and the organizers of the showcases would invite Casting Directors to come view them. It was sort of pay for play and has since been discontinued as a practice, but I viewed it as a ticket to get to know "people in the biz" because basically I didn't know anybody in Southern Calforinia except the bartenders and other waiters at the restaurant that I was working in. So Perry sees me in this show case, I don't remember what I did, but he sees on my Resume that I attended Northwestern for Grad school. I must have made an impression on him beyond the resume because the next thing you know I am driving up to Cannon studios and auditioning for this movie. I, of course, don't know the first thing about that whole process, so when it's my turn, I stride into the room, walk around the table, shake Lionel Chetwyn's hand and proceed to do three different versions of the sides, with commentary about the approach to the part blah blah, like I am auditioning for my college professor, wind things up and walk out. Perry comes dashing down the hall yelling "What the hell was that?" And the next day I got a call telling me I got the part. Sometimes its good to not know what you don't know.

You first worked for Fred Olen Ray on Deep Space (1988). How did you get that part?

I met Fred through some friends. He never had any money to do his movies. He shot very fast and was a genius at cobbling crap together and talking people into financing his projects. 1988 I think was the year of the writers strike so there wasn't a whole lot going on and Fred contacted me about making this movie over the course of about 5 days outside of LA near where he was renting a home. Fred always had great cigars, good booze and was a riot to work with so when he called, I went.

Your next role for Fred was in Alienator (1990), as Benny, the brainy member of a group of college kids threatened by the alien-cyborg assassin. At this point in his career, Fred was known for doing low budget knock-offs of sci-fi hits (Alien, The Terminator) with name actors who were in the twilight of their careers. What sorts of things about a Fred Olen Ray production stand out for you, as opposed to the other movie work you have done?

He had as much fun as you can have directing. He shot fast and furious, wasn't afraid to change stuff on the fly. It was all just run and gun and he would let you improvise if you had a decent idea. He was also a very bright guy and knew his film history so he told great stories. During Alienator he was dating or married to Dawn Wildsmith, I believe she was a wiccan at the time and the canyon we shot in was where her Coven met. To this day, I'm not sure we actually had permission.

In Alienator, you worked directly with veteran actors John Phillip Law, Leo Gordon and Ross Hagen. What was that like? Any other members of the cast who were especially fun or interesting to work with?

Teagan Clive as the Alientator (1990)
The Alienator sets the fashion scene ablaze with her no-cost outfit.
John Phillip Law was very funny and I enjoyed his stories about Barbarella. I don't remember a ton about Ross or Leo other than they came and went and were there for a paycheck. Old School. None of us ended up being drinking buddies. I do remember Gary Graver the Cinematographer also shot porn and those were some interesting conversations.

What did you think of the idea of a Terminator knock-off, but featuring a female bodybuilder instead of a male? The Alienator costume is unique to say the least. Did Teagan Clive have fun with the role?

I honestly don't remember Fred telling me what the movie was about when he called me. He said, you want a job? I said sure and the next thing you know we are shooting. I'm not sure Fred ever had the whole thing planned out when he started.

That costume was cobbled together from stuff Fred got for free or borrowed. He was a master at that kind of thing. When Teagan showed up on the set, let's just say she didn't look quite like the bodybuilder picture she submitted and there were some alterations.

What have been your most gratifying roles?

Definitely the first one in the Hanoi Hilton, playing Scotty Moore in Elvis the series and at this stage of game usually the last one I did because I'm happy to still be doing it.

April 11, 2019

Independent Filmmaking the Fred Olen Ray Way: Alienator (Part One)

Poster - Alienator (1990)
Now Playing: Alienator (1990)

Pros: Cast features an intriguing selection of action and horror stars of the past; The concept of a female cyborg assassin is a nice twist.
Cons:Several of the veteran actors are wasted; Too many storylines and character backstories slow down the action.

For over 40 years, Fred Olen Ray has been living the fantasy. A big horror & sci-fi movie fan in his youth, Fred, like many of us boomer “monster kids,” tried making his own movies on 8mm. Then in his early 20s, he landed a gig at a Florida TV station where he discovered an old 16mm camera and some unused film. Scraping together a few hundred bucks with the help of a friend, he made his first feature, The Brain Leeches (1978), featuring a “supreme alien intelligence” made out of tinfoil and manipulated like a puppet, and rubber ants purchased at the local dime store.

Although it was admittedly “dreadful,” the experience of getting a full-length movie in the can inspired him to keep going, and to this day he hasn’t stopped. In the intervening years he’s done it all -- producing, distributing, directing, writing, special effects and makeup, cinematography… you name it.

The range of films he’s directed -- over 150 and counting -- is similarly impressive (although the one constant is that none have been big budget productions). Fred started out in the ‘80s doing very low budget sci-fi, horror and action, gradually moved to softcore comedies in the ‘90s and 2000s (e.g., Girl with the Sex-Ray Eyes, 2007), and today is mainly cranking out made-for-TV romance movies (e.g., A Christmas in Royal Fashion, 2018).

Fred Olen Ray poses with some of his more memorable creations.
Over the years, Fred Olen Ray would get
many more films "in the can." cc
In his book The New Poverty Row: Independent Filmmakers as Distributors (McFarland, 2006), Ray talks frankly about the hard lessons he learned starting out, handing off his films to distributors with questionable ethics and accounting practices, and ending up empty-handed for all his trouble. In one egregious case, after a year out on the theatrical circuit, the distributor of one of Ray’s early films, Scalps (1983), reported back that instead of a payout, the filmmaker owed the distributor $30k (on a film that only cost $15k to make!) (New Poverty Row, p. 179)

After getting burned, Ray decided that he would either work for hire and get paid upfront, or control the distribution rights as much as possible. He would end up doing both under the banner of American Independent Productions, Inc., formed in 1985.

Like his predecessor from the previous generation, King of the B’s Roger Corman, Ray learned how to beg, borrow or steal (make that maximize) resources to keep the cameras rolling and keep costs way, way down. Fred’s women’s-prison-breakout flick set in space, Star Slammer (aka Prison Ship, 1986) is a perfect example:
“As in other films we cannibalized our fellow filmmakers to get this one together. Some costumes came from Metalstorm and Galaxy of Terror; we used Dean Jeffries’ Logan’s Run land rover; the monster from Ted Bohus’ Deadly Spawn was shipped in from New Jersey; and the spaceship footage was culled from several films including TV’s Buck Rogers, Carpenter’s Dark Star, and Battle Beyond the Stars. The picture certainly had a big look for its meager budget, but even after all these intervening years I have yet to see any of my profit participation money. This was yet another lesson in the film distribution game.” (New Poverty Row, pp. 182-83)
Maximizing resources to make pictures quickly and cheaply is one thing, but even the cheapest film needs paying customers to turn a profit (if only to line the pockets of shady distributors). Ray realized from the get-go that in order to make his low-budget films stand out from all the other product out there, he needed recognizable actors to goose the marketing.

Through his work at the TV station, Ray met Buster Crabbe, famous for his portrayal of Flash Gordon in the 1930s serials and for his work in countless westerns in the ‘40s, and enticed him with a decent wad of cash ($2k out of a total budget of around $12k) to appear in The Alien Dead (1980). Even though Crabbe had been out of the limelight for decades (and only worked one day on the set), his participation was a game changer.

In addition to being a plus for a film’s marketing, the ability to secure the services of a “name” actor -- no matter how old or out of the game -- bolstered the filmmaker’s legitimacy in the eyes of potential investors. Ray made the leap very early on and never looked back. His films of the 1980s and ‘90s in particular are a collective who’s who of actors in the downswings of their careers.

Poster - Commando Squad (1987)
Another early lesson was to take popular movie/pop culture trends and mix ‘em up just enough to distinguish your stuff from the rest of the pack. If sexy-women-in-prison is all the rage, mix it up and set in in outer space (Star Slammers). If Arnold Schwarzenegger can wrack up ticket sales as a special forces Commando (1985) going rogue to save a loved one, then bend genders and have ex-Playboy centerfold Kathy Shower lead a Commando Squad (1987) to save her boyfriend. At the same time, keep yourself interested by adding your own quirky style and humor to the mix:
“My feeling has always been that these films have been done before and all you can hope to do is give the audience something a little bit different that makes your tired concept a bit more entertaining. I have always leaned toward an offbeat sense of humor and self-mockery that tries to say ‘Yeah, I know you’ve seen it all before and better, but check this out…,’ and I’ll do something weird or funny.” (New Poverty Row, p. 182)
While not the best or the quirkiest of Fred’s output from the period, Alienator (1990), is a good object lesson from the Ray Film School of Hard Knockoffs. It took a popular title (The Terminator, 1984) and added a unique spin to it. It featured not just one, but a whole gaggle of name actors -- a couple of former matinee idols in Jan-Michael Vincent and John Phillip Law, and several veteran character actors in Robert Clarke, Leo Gordon and Robert Quarry. To top it off, it was released at a time when anticipation was building for the Terminator sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which hit theaters the next year.

For a low-budget quickie with a 93 minute running time, Alienator is very ambitious, with spaceships, laser cannons, a female bodybuilder dressed like a wild post-apocalyptic punk rocker, and a large mix of veteran and young actors running around in multiple storylines.

Ross Hagen as Kol in Alienator (1990)
Kol channels his inner-Luke Skywalker as he makes his escape.
The main story features Kol (Ross Hagen), a member of a humanoid alien race and rebellion leader who has been captured and sent to a remote prison planet to be executed. While the guards are distracted by the execution of another rebel, Kol manages to break free, steal a ship and crash land it in the woods of a California state park.

The prison commander (played by Jan Michael-Vincent in permanent snarl-mode) unleashes the Alienator (Teagan Clive) to track down and eliminate the fugitive. As a remorseless cyborg, she is programmed to let nothing stand in the way of her objective. Unfortunately, unwitting earthlings in the form of a group of vacationing college students (Jesse Dabson, Dyana Ortelli, Dawn Wildsmith, Richard Wiley), a park ranger (John Phillip Law), an alcoholic country doctor (Robert Quarry), two backwoods good ol’ boys (Fox Harris, Hoke Howell), and an ex-military survivalist (Leo Gordon) all get in her way and are forced to fight for their lives.

All well and good, but the film’s pace suffers as it tries to cram in all the characters and their exposition in between action sequences. As the Alienator lumbers around in pursuit of Kol, we see the comic relief backwoods boys ineptly trying to evade the ranger as they set animal traps on public land; the brainy college kid Benny (Dabson) gets his moment as he exalts about taking part in “man’s greatest historical encounter”; and we even get a bit of history of the tough-as-nails survivalist, Col. Coburn (Gordon) as he distributes his cache of weapons to the survivors of the alien assault.

Ross Hagen and Jesse Dabson in Alienator (1990)
Kol and Benny binge-watch Game of Thrones as they wait
for the Alienator to show up.
And that’s just what’s happening on earth. Yet another storyline, set on the prison station, plays out intermittently even after Kol has made his escape. Veteran B actor Robert Clarke plays Lund, a sort of space-based bureaucrat whose anti-capital punishment views are a thorn in the side of the prison ship commander. The prison side drama is vaguely reminiscent of Star Wars in its space Empire vs. feisty rebels backstory, and it (kind of) gets tied in with the earth-based action in a head-scratching “twist” ending, but it’s tedious nonetheless and could easily be jettisoned.

Ray’s lineup of veteran actors is impressive, but one movie can hardly do justice to all of the characters. Robert Quarry of Count Yorga fame is wasted in little more than a cameo -- he gets a brief scene talking on the telephone, then is promptly set on fire when he encounters the Alienator.

The Alienator herself is either inspired or laughable depending on your taste. The bodybuilder Ray hired for the role, Teagan Clive, is certainly impressive, giving even Schwarzenegger a run for his money in terms of sheer physicality. Her getup is fine (acknowledging that this is a very subjective call) -- it’s both cheesy and formidable-looking, what with the platinum wig, silver half-mask, chrome “hubcaps” covering her chest, and the huge laser weapon she wears on one arm.

Leo Gordon and John Phillip Law in Alienator (1990)
Coburn and Ranger Armstrong practice
skeet shooting with a surplus landmine.
Ray pays tongue-in-cheek homage to the original Terminator, when the cyborg stops in the woods to get her bearings. A doe wanders into the clearing, and at first we subjectively see the Alienator training her bionic crosshairs on the animal. When the digital read-out processes the data and delivers the verdict “non-hostile,” she relaxes. The doe walks over to the cyborg, who reaches out and pets it. I can see Ray smiling over that bit of “Bambi meets Alienator” business.

The Alienator doesn’t really become a proper menace until late in the film, when she confronts Kol and his new earth friends at Col. Coburn’s cabin, and is introduced to good ol’ American firepower in the form of guns, crossbows and even a surplus landmine. Nothing seems to faze her though. In one amusing scene, she pauses with the cyborg-equivalent of a perplexed look, reaches around the back of her head and pulls out a hunting arrow.

Teagan Clive as the Alienator (1990)
"As soon as I finish this assignment I need to turn myself in
for my 50 million mile check-up and an oil change..."
For all its faults, Alienator is still an interesting exercise in low, low budget sci-fi filmmaking, having been made near the cusp of the new era of CGI-driven blockbusters. Jurassic Park was released just a few years later, and its amazing computer-generated dinosaurs would spell extinction for Ray’s brand of low-budget sci-fi thrills. Digital bits and bytes effectively swept away the rented warehouses doubling as spaceship interiors, the borrowed spaceship models, the recycled costumes, and the optical effects and stop-motion creatures that were Ray’s early stock-in-trade.

Fred adeptly pivoted from cheap action pictures to softcore to Hallmark Channel-style romance, and is apparently doing quite well. Along the way, he gave audiences something “a little bit different” for pennies on the dollar. Here at Films From Beyond, where we treasure “different” and “low budget,” we salute him for it.

Coming soon! Don’t miss part two for an exclusive interview with Jesse Dabson, “Benny” from Alienator and a veteran of movies and TV.

Where to find it: Alienator is on Blu-ray or DVD from Shout Factory