June 27, 2023

That ‘70s Sci-Fi TV Movie #4: The Astronaut

DVD cover art - The Astronaut (1972)
Now Playing:
The Astronaut (1972)

Pros: Good, affecting performances by Monte Markham and Susan Clark as two lonely people caught up in a government conspiracy
Cons: The rationale for the conspiracy and its incompetent execution strain credulity

Back in 2019, a YouGov poll commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing found that 20% of respondents believed that it was definitely or probably true that the landing was faked. Such skepticism has existed almost since the moment Neil Armstrong took that “one small step” on the lunar surface, but many were dismayed that 50 years on, the endlessly debunked theory still had traction.

In 1977 the conspiracy theory reached its entertainment apogee with Capricorn One, about NASA officials secretly scrapping a mission to Mars when defects in the spacecraft are discovered, but staging a landing in order to ensure further program funding. When an investigative reporter (Elliott Gould) starts snooping around, and the empty returning capsule burns up in the atmosphere on re-entry, the fake mission’s astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O.J. Simpson) realize they have become a liability the agency will have to deal with in order to keep its secrets.

A full five years before Capricorn One (and while the Apollo program was still sending men to the moon), a TV movie, The Astronaut, featured yet another convoluted government plot to snow the public.

In this one, the heads of the Mars mission at the U.S. Department of Space (renamed perhaps to spare the feelings of real-life NASA administrators) implement a back-up plan when the first man on Mars, Col. Brice Randolph, mysteriously dies during an EVA on the surface (they’re able to cut the video feed before the public can figure out what’s going on).

In order to buy time to find the cause of the astronaut’s death and prevent the President from shutting down the program altogether, the administrators implement a back-up plan: find a double for Randolph, sneak him into the spacecraft when it splashes down with the surviving astronaut, pretend the mission was a success, parade the double around for the benefit of the public, stage a boating accident in which “Randolph” goes permanently missing, and finally, give the double a new face and a new life. (Whew! I think I’d just take the “win” of having successfully landed an astronaut on Mars, acknowledge that there are many dangerous unknowns in spaceflight, and wait for a new president who is more pro-space program. But then, that would make for a very dull movie.)

They find a look-alike, Eddie Reese (Monte Markham), who is a disgraced ex-pilot who ejected from a jet that crashed and killed three people on the ground, and has been wandering from job to job ever since. As the spacecraft with the surviving astronaut heads home, Reese’s face is altered to be identical to Randolph’s (“We have the technology!”), and from tapes, he learns to talk, walk and act like Randolph.

Publicity still - Monte Markham in The Astronaut (TV movie, 1972)
"We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was..."
Oops, wrong TV show!

As if that weren’t enough disbelief to suspend, the mission head honcho Kurt Anderson (Jackie Cooper), delays telling Randolph's wife Gail (Susan Clark) the bad news, as she has recently had a miscarriage and is emotionally vulnerable. So, once the plan is put into effect and the mission is publicly celebrated as a success, Anderson sends Reese/Randolph home to Gail, much to Reese’s extreme discomfort. (!?)

The Astronaut indulges in the old Hollywood fantasy that plastic surgery can create a double so exact that (s)he can fool even people who know them intimately. I’m prepared to accept that you could put one over on the public whose only exposure to the celebrity was through grainy TV broadcasts and newspaper photos (this was 1972 after all), but fooling a wife who knows all her husband’s moles and various other (ahem) idiosyncrasies … I don’t think so.

And then there’s the idea of rushing plan B into action based on the certainty that the program will be toast once the news of Randolph’s death breaks. A couple of times Anderson talks about “buying time” until they can figure out what killed the Colonel, as if the moment it became public knowledge funds would be completely cut off (and as if the senior Congresspeople whose districts benefited from the space program wouldn’t have a say in it). This seems to be a very naive view of how government works.

Screenshot - Jackie Cooper and John S. Ragin in The Astronaut (TV movie, 1972)
Mission head Kurt Anderson (Jackie Cooper, left) contemplates saying goodbye
to his pension if word gets out.


Shaky premise or not, the movie builds to a very effective (and affecting) crisis when Gail recovers enough from the loss of her baby to discover that her husband is not her husband. The movie suggests that it’s not so much minute physical differences that betray the imposter (although at one point, while Eddie and Gail are holding hands, Gail remarks that his hands seem somehow smaller… okay people, get your minds out of the gutter!).

Gail tells Eddie that she knew he couldn’t be Randolph, because he's been too kind and gentle with her. It seems the Colonel was, like a good military man and astronaut, all about the work, and to add insult to injury had spent most of the marriage belittling Gail’s hopes and dreams, including her desire for a family.

In an irony of ironies, the space program, like some behemoth fairy godmother, has sent Gail a tender, caring version of her husband at the time of her greatest need. And Reese, who has been shunned by society for a moment of tragic weakness, has found a reason to live in Gail.

Screenshot - Susan Clark in The Astronaut (TV movie, 1972)
Gail (Susan Clark) starts to figure out this man is not her husband.

When the couple inform the higher-ups that Gail is in on the plot, Anderson graciously agrees to let the two disappear together in the boating accident. But complications ensue when Eddie and Gail find out that by going ahead with the plan, lives will be put in danger (and that’s all the spoilers you’re going to get).

Susan Clark is wonderful as a woman who, on the verge of a breakdown, recovers her equanimity and self-respect under the most unusual of circumstances. Trained at the London’s prestigious Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts, Clark secured a contract with Universal Studios in the mid-’60s, eventually playing opposite the likes of Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff (1968), Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda in Madigan (1968), and Robert Redford in Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969).

Television dominated in the ‘70s, which saw her in such high profile TV movie roles as Babe (1976; playing the golfing legend “Babe” Zaharias) and the title role of Amelia Earhart the following year. Two years before The Astronaut, she co-starred with Eric Braeden in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), the sci-fi classic about artificial intelligence run-amok (timelier than ever!).

In The Astronaut, Monte Markham has the singular challenge of being an actor playing a disgraced pilot pretending to be an astronaut. Now in his late 80s, Markham has done it all, with multitudinous acting, producing and directing credits. He even started his own production company in the early ‘90s.

Monte’s big break came as the lead in the TV comedy The Second Hundred Years (1967-68) playing a man who is revived after spending decades in accidental suspended animation. After that he parlayed his stolid, “Everyman” presence into dozens upon dozens of movie and TV roles in every genre. And like the Energizer Bunny, he’s still going, with IMDb listing acting credits as recent as this year, and as if that’s not enough, 5 upcoming projects.

Screenshot - Monte Markham and Susan Clark in The Astronaut (TV movie, 1972)
"To be Brice Randolph or not to be Brice Randolph, that is the question..."

Where to find it: Streaming (low-res and soft-looking copy, but watchable)

June 20, 2023

That ‘70s Sci-Fi TV Movie #3: Night Slaves

Advertising art - Night Slaves (1970)
Now Playing:
Night Slaves (1970)

Pros: Establishes an eerie, mysterious atmosphere in the first half; Solid cast headed by James Franciscus and Lee Grant
Cons: Reveal comes too early in the film and dissipates the suspense

James Franciscus plays Clay Howard, a business owner who is tired of the rat race and sells his share of the business to his partner. Shortly afterward he is involved in a car accident in which two people are killed and he is seriously injured, requiring a steel plate for his damaged skull.

Wracked with guilt, Clay takes off on a road trip with his wife Marjorie (Lee Grant), where they wind up at a bed and breakfast in a sleepy (in more ways than one) rural California town. That night, waking up from a nightmare, he goes to the window for some fresh air, where he sees crowds of people being herded onto trucks on the street below. He is startled to find his wife gone, and a mysterious girl (Tisha Sterling) sitting in the room, grinning from ear to ear. When the girl tells Clay that his wife is among those being loaded onto the trucks, he rushes downstairs to find out what’s going on. Marj seems to be in a trance, and when he tries to get her to come back with him, he’s yanked off the truck by one of the “handlers.”

Still in his pajamas, Clay wanders over to the Sheriff’s office, but finds the place completely deserted. The whole town seems to have been hauled off to some unknown destination in the middle of the night.

Screenshot - Clay (James Franciscus) wanders the deserted streets in Night Slaves (1971)
"They sure roll up the sidewalks early in this town!"

Clay collapses back into bed. When morning comes and Marj is back with no memory of the night’s events, Clay almost convinces himself it was a bad dream, until he notices that his wife’s dress is covered in burrs and her shoes are filthy.

Now in full investigator mode, Clay visits the Sheriff (Leslie Nielsen), who listens politely but skeptically. After snooping around some more, he finds one of the trucks that carted off the townspeople, and discovers that the tires and rims are covered in mud and the same burrs he found on his wife’s dress.

As he snoops around, he asks everyone he meets how they’re sleeping, to his wife’s great embarrassment. Rather than clearing out of town, Clay decides he has to get to the bottom of the mystery, and decides to stay for a few more days. Clay’s sudden obsession is not helping his marriage, which is already dangling by a thread. To add to the mystery, a nondescript townie (Andrew Prine) seems to have taken an interest in Clay and is shadowing him.

The next night, Clay is on guard in their room. When the trucks come again, Marj falls into a trance and Clay has to physically restrain her from joining the sleepwalking crowd. Men suddenly appear in the room and take Marj by force.

Clay runs after the truck but can't catch it. The girl appears again and starts talking cryptically to Clay about her being an “engineer” who isn't allowed to love or have children. Clay thinks she’s nuts until she shows him something that causes him to doubt his own sanity.

Screenshot - The townspeople are trucked off to parts unknown in Night Slaves (1970)
The townspeople are ready for the fall hayseed ride.

I first saw Night Slaves around the time of its debut, possibly the first broadcast or in the initial re-run (I was a big fan of ABC’s Movie of the Week). The concept of a whole town of sleep-walking residents being carted off in the middle of the night for some mysterious purpose was intriguing, to say the least.

Years later, possibly due to my own sleep problems, the story line popped into my head (although I had completely forgotten the movie’s title or who was in it). From time to time I would search the web to try to come up with the title, to no avail. Finally, a couple of years ago (and with a lot more time on my hands), I submitted what little I remembered of the plot to the experts on The Classic Horror Film Board, and sure enough, Night Slaves was the immediate reply. (Duh!)

As is often the case with these things, time has a way of stripping the luster off the elusive gems of your youth. It didn’t help that when I did get around to seeing it again, my only options at the time were blurry, muddy VHS transfers on YouTube and gray market DVD-R. (There are a couple of watchable copies on YouTube now.)


Night Slaves definitely draws its inspiration from an early ‘50s sci-fi movie that, if I were to name it, and you knew anything about the plot, would be an obvious spoiler. (Okay, I’ll give you a hint: Ray Bradbury is credited as a co-writer.)

The ‘50s movie maintained an uncanny, spooky atmosphere throughout the film, and had the means to create a sense of awe and wonder with the climactic reveal. On the other hand, Night Slaves’ paltry budget precluded the sort of special effects that gave its predecessor such visual and dramatic flair. Night Slaves only has its high concept to sustain it, and ends up sputtering to a less than awesome conclusion.

As I pointed out in my review of The Love War, TV movies of the ‘70s were cranked out like B movies of the studio era, with small budgets and tight schedules. Sci-fi and horror-themed TV projects had to make due with leftover sets, familiar, easily accessible locations, and the barest of effects budgets. So concept, characters and plot were everything, and in the right hands, a small budget TV movie could generate big chills.

Night Slaves sets up a spooky atmosphere in its first half, but mitigates it to an extent with a soap-opera-ish love triangle involving Clay, Marjorie and the crazy girl. And then there’s the reveal that comes way too early in the film, further dissipating the suspense.

Screenshot - Tisha Sterling and James Franciscus in Night Slaves (1970)
Clay can't believe there's no Starbucks in town.

But don’t let that deter you too much. Night Slaves’ plot is sneakily subversive, especially considering that it was broadcast at the height of Cesar Chavez’s national fame leading the United Farm Workers on behalf of exploited migrant workers. In that context, Night Slaves jolts with its depiction of middle-class white people being herded onto trucks and hauled off to do some mysterious involuntary labor.

David Deal, in his book Television Fright Films of the 1970s, also appreciated the film’s counter-culture message, but from another angle:

“It is significant that Clay Howard wants to escape the slavery of materialism only to discover a people unknowingly enslaved to a much more devious master. It is also significant that he is immune from this slavery, explained by the metal plate in his head, but which could also be construed as his improved mindset.” [David Deal, Television Fright Films of the 1970s, McFarland, 2007, p. 109]

James Franciscus was a constant presence on TV from the late ‘50s through the ‘70s. His first recurring role was as a police detective on the gritty urban crime drama The Naked City (1959 - 1961). Through the ‘60s he did mostly guest appearances on shows like Wagon Train, The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His career peaked in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with appearances in several feature films including The Valley of Gwangi (1969), Marooned (1969) and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), and a starring role as a blind private investigator in the short-lived TV series Longstreet (1971-72).

Trained in the theater, Lee Grant’s first break-out role came in Detective Story (1951; starring Kirk Douglas), for which she earned a best supporting actress Academy Award nomination (she would later go on to win the award for Shampoo in 1975). Unfortunately her career suffered a setback when she was caught up in the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist, but by the mid-60s she was back, winning an Emmy for her role in the hugely popular TV show Peyton Place (1966-67). In addition to Night Slaves, Grant appeared with James Franciscus in Marooned, playing an astronaut’s wife.

Screenshot - Lee Grant and James Franciscus in Night Slaves (1970)
Marj and Clay ponder what they're going to say in their Yelp review.

Director Ted Post was already a 20-year veteran when he made Night Slaves. Post directed episodes for some of the most beloved, classic series of all-time, including Perry Mason, Route 66, Wagon Train, Rawhide, The Twilight Zone and Columbo. Just after Night Slaves he directed Bing Crosby in Dr. Cook’s Garden, a TV movie cult favorite. His feature films include Hang ‘Em High and Magnum Force (with Clint Eastwood), and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (with James Franciscus).

Where to find it: Streaming

June 8, 2023

The Art and Craft of Horror: Monsterpalooza 2023

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Monsterpalooza is the monster mother of all West Coast horror conventions, attracting thousands of fans each spring with innumerable exhibits, dealers, make-up demonstrations, panels and celebrities ready for autograph signing and/or photo ops. (A smaller version, Son of Monsterpalooza, takes place in the fall.)

Eliot Brodsky, a native New Yorker, brought the show to Burbank, CA in 2009, where it became an instant hit. Brodsky, a makeup and special effects aficionado, wanted to highlight the amazing work of FX artists in Hollywood’s backyard, where so much movie magic takes place:

“I just felt the only way it could be successful is if it was dropped right into California, in the backyards of all the major FX shops. I’d give the FX shops some time to shine in the light a bit and show what they do, what goes behind creating these monsters. You have obviously the main FX shops, then you have the group of artists who go from shop to shop based on productions. I wanted those guys to be in the spotlight as much as the FX shops. We gained support from the artists because they’ve never been allowed to show off what they can do. And there was no way they could come to the East Coast. So, I just bit the bullet and pulled it together from across the country.” [Ryan Turek, “Meet Monsterpalooza’s Eliot Brodsky,” ComingSoon.net, March 10, 2010]

In 2016 the event moved to the Pasadena Convention Center, where it’s been held ever since. Monsterpalooza has been on my bucket list for a long time. Right before the pandemic in 2019 I had the good fortune to attend the Monster Bash convention in Mars, PA, highlighted by the participation of Hammer stars Veronica Carlson (now unfortunately deceased), Martine Beswick and Christopher Neame (see my write-up of the convention here).

Whereas Monster Bash is smaller, more intimate and focuses on the classic monsters, Monsterpalooza is big, brash and in-your-face, teeming with hordes of fans mixing it up with make-up and FX artists, modelers, crafts people, vendors, actors, writers, podcasters and various industry insiders. While the emphasis is more on horror from the ‘80s on, there are still a good many hold outs (like myself) that show up wearing classic monster t-shirts.

This year’s Monsterpalooza was held on June 2 - 4. I was greatly impressed by the age range of the attendees -- from infants in strollers to old codgers like me and everything in between. If just half the kids I saw there grow up to be die hard horror fans, the genre has a long life ahead of it. 

Monsterpalooza 2023 - Werewolf costume
An escapee from the exhibit halls at Monsterpalooza.

Panels and presentations

Given Monsterpalooza’s emphasis on FX, naturally many of the presentations featured well-known artists.

Mike Elizalde grew up watching the Universal monsters on TV, which propelled him into a life-long fascination with monster-making. After a stint in the Navy, he began submitting his portfolio to various studios. But it was a chance encounter that resulted in his first job; he was working as an air conditioning repairman, driving around looking for an address, when he happened to notice life-sized creature molds and appliances in an alleyway from an nearby FX shop. He submitted pictures of his designs to the shop and was hired the next day.

From that point on he worked in almost every facet of FX, from sculpting and mold making to animatronics, and learned under some of the greats like Stan Winston and Rick Baker. Along with his wife, he opened up his own shop, Spectral Motion, in 2002, which has become not only an acknowledged leader in practical effects, but has developed sophisticated animatronics for events and theme parks all over the world.

In recent years Mike has been a frequent collaborator with Guillermo del Toro, whom he met on the set of Blade II. Elizalde went on to do make-up and effects for del Toro’s Hellboy movies, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and the Cabinet of Curiosities series.

Elizalde also talked about creating the robot for the recent Lost in Space streaming series, and the challenge of honoring the original beloved TV character while updating it and giving it a personality of its own. 

Author's photo - Mike Elizalde being honored at Monsterpalooza 2023
FX artist Mike Elizalde (right) being honored at Monsterpalooza; the presenter is actor Doug Jones.

Justin Raleigh is an award-winning makeup and effects artist who recently won an Oscar and a BAFTA award for his makeup work on The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021). Like Mike Elizalde, Justin was fascinated with creatures and makeup from an early age, and collected as many Halloween makeup books as he could get his hands on.

His first professional experience was doing beauty makeup for his girlfriend’s mom, who was a fashion photographer. This was invaluable in terms of learning the chemistry and materials, as well as working with living, breathing subjects other than himself.

Justin echoed Elizalde in saying that the best effects school is diving in and doing the work, and learning everything you can from experienced pros; their paths were very similar, working for many of the same shops and people in the early going.

Raleigh started Fractured FX, Inc. in 2010, and has gone on to do makeup effects for the Insidious film series, The Conjuring, American Horror Story, Aquaman, and the recent Westworld series, as well as mainstream dramas like Tammy Faye.

Justin addressed the differences between doing creature makeups straight out of the imagination, vs. likeness or aging makeup, where the end product needs to be a completely believable human being. He said that audiences will immediately sense when a likeness or aging makeup is somewhat off, so it’s all the more challenging to come up with something that viewers don’t give a second thought to.

Although practical effects are in more demand than ever, artists like Raleigh use the latest digital technologies such as 3D printing to scale up to the demands of films and TV series.

Interestingly, during their talks, both Raleigh and Elizalde brought up the huge elephant that is starting to appear in a lot of people’s rooms -- namely AI. It seems like overnight, we’re being told that AI either will come for everybody’s jobs and make humanity obsolete, or it will generate a new productive renaissance that will immeasurably improve the quality of life.

Both expressed some skepticism that AI will become a big factor for them at least in the short term, but it says something that they are thinking about its eventual effect on their highly specialized, highly creative profession.

Author's photo - Interview with makeup artist Justin Raleigh at Monsterpalooza 2023
Interview with Oscar winning makeup artist Justin Raleigh (right).

The Halloween Society was started by a group of super-fans who were interested in the art of mask making and were inspired by the Don Post Studios, which produced, among other things, the meticulously-crafted over-the-head masks of the Universal monsters that were advertised in the back pages of magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland.

Writer Ron Magid was joined by actor Paul Clemens and director/producer Rich Correll in reminiscing about the heyday of the Society, from its humble origins putting out a xeroxed fanzine for fellow mask enthusiasts, to the group deciding to make masks themselves, to becoming an international phenomenon.

Ron told a great story about the aftermath of a Halloween party, when he left a mangled corpse prop that had been used in The Beast Within (1982) in the backseat of his car outside of his residence. A passing jogger saw the very realistic and very gory prop and called the cops. Ron avoided a ticket by letting the responding officer put the prop in the backseat of his police cruiser for a “photo op.”

Ron mentioned a forthcoming book delving into the history of the club, The Halloween Society Unmasked, which will be out later this year.

Author photo - Halloween Society masks on display
Halloween Society masks on display: Peter Lorre, Mad Love; Bela Lugosi, Dracula; Fredric March, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Lon Chaney, London After Midnight

Speaking of new books, last year writer/director/photographer Julian David Stone came out with It’s Alive!, a fictionalized account of the making of Universal’s original Frankenstein. He gave a very interesting talk about the origins of the studio, including Carl Laemmle Sr.’s meteoric rise from owning a Nickelodeon theater in the Midwest to founding a major Hollywood studio.

Laemmle made his son the head of Universal’s film production when Carl Jr. was only in his early 20s. Junior bucked the conventional wisdom that Depression-era America would only go for light comedies and musicals, scoring a hit with Bela Lugosi as Dracula in 1931.

Frankenstein with Boris Karloff would become an even greater hit, but there were hurdles along the way. Most horror fans know that Robert Florey and Bela Lugosi were set to direct and star in Frankenstein respectively, but were eventually replaced when Laemmle Sr. offered James Whale any Universal project for his next directing job, and Whale chose Frankenstein. To this day, stories differ as to whether Lugosi was canned due to poor screen tests or he rejected the part because it had no speaking lines. Whale spotted struggling actor Boris on the lot, sized him up as an intriguing prospective monster, and the rest is history.

Wanting a name actor to ensure box office success, the Laemmles tried to hire Leslie Howard (of later Gone With the Wind fame) to be Dr. Frankenstein, but the actor had other commitments. When Whale suggested his friend Colin Clive, the last important casting piece fell into place.

What many don’t realize is that, as the date for initial shooting neared, Laemmle Sr. started to get cold feet over two relatively unknown actors heading the picture. As late as two weeks before filming, the Laemmles were still undecided over whether to bring back Lugosi or forge ahead with Karloff.

This last-minute uncertainty was a major inspiration for Stone to write about the making of a film that immortalized Mary Shelley's creature and made the horror genre what it is today.

Author photo - life-sized Frankenstein monster display in the Monsterpalooza museum
It's alive and lurking in the Monsterpalooza Museum!

More Monsterpalooza Museum exhibits:

Author photo - Monsterpalooza Museum exhibit, Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

Author photo - Monsterpalooza Museum exhibit, Creepshow (1982)
Creepshow (1982)

Author photo - Monsterpalooza Museum, Invaders from Mars (1953)
Invaders from Mars (1953)

Author photo - Monsterpalooza Museum exhibit, Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)