Saturday, April 25, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Secrets of Isis: "Dreams of Flight"



In “Dreams of Flight,” a braggart named Mark Dawson (Paul Hinckley) attempts to prevent a Mexican-American girl, Chela (Cynthia Aida) from flying her model plane in an upcoming celebration, Aeronautics Day. 

Chela’s brother, Raul (Fabian Gregory), meanwhile, doesn’t believe that girls can fly planes, or compete against boys in contests, and forbids her to participate in the festivities.

Mrs. Thomas (Joanna Cameron) intervenes with Raul, and he realizes he cannot stand in the way of his sister’s dream, especially since Mark is a racist and a jerk.  But when Raul is left to guard Chela’s plane, Mark steals it and runs away.

Raul gives chase to a construction site, but Isis’s powers are required to make certain both boys survive…




In The Secrets of Isis episode “Dreams of Flight,” a young woman, Chela, finds the path to her dreams blocked at every step by sexists and racist fellow-students (including her brother!), but ultimately gets to show her stuff…thanks to Isis.

Once again, it’s a little weird to consider how this Filmation series of the 1970s constantly addresses intercultural issues, gender issues, and the like, yet explores so little in terms of super-heroics. 

Most episodes of Isis are kind of bracing to watch because the conflicts are so issue-oriented (a boy doesn’t think a girl can fly a plane, for example).  There’s almost never a real criminal or bad guy to contend with, just anti-social issues or prejudices to combat  

And suddenly then a superhero appears -- reversing time or some such thing -- and nobody blinks an eye. Everyone just accept that Isis exists, operates nearby, and can magically achieve miracles. Yet she isn’t out there stopping fires in a nearby city, diverting tornadoes or ending wars or riots. 

No she’s helping high school students learn lessons in morality. 

What would the press say about such a person?  Local and national authorities?  “Gee, we love Isis.  We sure could have used her help during the hurricane, but she was busy teaching a kid not to judge a book by its cover.”

It’s just incredibly weird, and insular. 


I realize, of course, the series is aimed at children and that it aired on Saturday morning. It takes as its model, Adventures of Superman (1951-1958), but that series had a wider more realistic scope in the sense that viewers actually saw how the press reported the Man of Steel’s activities, or how the local police (and Inspector Henderson) viewed his exploits. As viewers we could contextualize Kal-El more fully and thoroughly.  The world of Isis is so small and closed-off that we don’t get this viewpoint.  We are limited basically, to a high school population.

“Dreams of Flight” loads on the social and intercultural issues -- racism, sexism, culture-based value-systems and so forth -- and ends with peace, understanding and friendship.  That’s a wonderful message to send children, but not exactly entertaining on its face.  The episode ends with the racist, Mark noting that he’s “really been a dope,” and Mrs. Thomas adding that “I guess we learned something today.”

It’s pro-social, for sure, and valuable for kids to see how people of different belief systems get along, but perhaps the most “fantastic” element of the series is the way that offenders (racists, sexists, etc.) turn around and forsake their beliefs, seeing the light.  Life is rarely that easy, or that simple. Changing a belief system is hard, and even the magic of Isis would have a tough time with it.



As far as Isis’s powers go, this week’s episode finds her levitating Mark from a high perch, and bringing him gently to the ground.  He thus gets the experience of flight, which he has longed dreamed about, and his life is saved at the same time.


Next week, season two of Isis starts with “Seeing-Eye Horse.”

Friday, April 24, 2015

Found Footage Friday: The Houses that October Built (2014)


In the found-footage film The Houses that October Built (2014), a group of adult friends rent an RV and go to touring the American Southwest in search of the most “extreme” haunted house experience they can find. 

The film count-downs the last five days to Halloween of 2013 as the RV’s occupants -- Brandy (Brandy Schaefer), Zack (Zack Andrews), Bobby (Bobby Roe) Mikey (Mikey Roe) and Jeff (Jeff Larson) -- visit The Haunt House in Caddo Mills, Texas, the Terrorplex, Phobia (on U.S. Highway 248), and even a “Zombie Evacuation Route” in Arkansas.

The thrill seekers meet their destiny, however, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana -- on Halloween night -- as they press their luck and encounter a cabal of “scare actors” who have taken their seasonal shtick too far.



If you follow this blog regularly, you know how much I enjoy and appreciate the found-footage horror movie format.  I have found that the format offers great possibilities, and also pointed readers to some remarkable recent examples, including Final Prayer (2015), The Taking of Deborah Logan (2013), and the kick-ass Exists (2014).

So it saddens me to observe that The Houses that October Built is one of the more underwhelming entries in the popular sub-genre.

The reasons for the film’s failure are myriad, alas.

In the first case, The Houses That October Built is egregiously padded (and lengthened) with documentary and news reel B-roll footage. These intrusive moments consist of interviews with real life haunted house patrons and scare actors.  The actual “movie” footage is interrupted often by this material, and the interruption fails to add to the mood of dread, or contribute anything meaningful to the developing narrative. 

I understand that the point here is to interview real “extreme” personalities, and thus explain how it is possible for people to get carried away, and become murderers instead of mere role players.  But the material is self-defeating. We know from the way that the evil clown posse carries itself in the actual body of the film that it is dangerous, and lapsing towards violence, not entertainment.  The documentary footage simply slows down momentum, and re-states what is abundantly plain: our main characters are in danger, and have crossed a line into horror.  So the doc/news footage gets the movie to a 90 minute running time, but at a high price in terms of momentum and pacing.

Similarly, some scenes just don’t succeed because of poor staging. For example, a creepy little girl in a porcelain mask enters the RV, at one point, and stands inside it with the twenty-something occupants.  She suddenly screams loudly and eerily. But because of the way the scene is shot and cut together, it is impossible to gauge the reaction of the movie’s protagonists.  They don’t exactly freak out.  They don’t exactly panic.  They just watch as the girl screams, and then we leave the scene.  In short, the entire moment feels poorly staged, and poorly integrated into the action.  The scene never has the quality of featuring a single organic moment. 


It plays great in the trailer, though.

The greatest problem with The Houses that October Built, however, may just be the climax.

The whole movie plays with the premise of scaring visitors at these sometimes shady attractions, and the idea that same scare actors may take that job description too far. Yet the film ends predictably and disappointingly without really playing effectively with this idea or its possibilities. In short, the movie could have ended like The Game (1997), but instead ends like nearly every other found-footage movie ever made.  

If another creative route had been taken, the film might have mimicked the audience’s experience while watching it.  We would have believe we are seeing one thing happen, when something else is happening entirely.  Given the is-it-real or is-it-staged aspect of such “extreme” haunted houses, it proves disappointing that The Houses That October Built doesn’t have more fun with its denouement, or more wit about it. 

Also, the point of the story seems to be that these extreme haunted houses can take a good thing -- getting scared -- over the edge into real physical danger.  If the main characters had experienced grief, violence, invasions of privacy and other terrors short of dying we would have been left in a position to better understand the debate.

Is it worth it to get the scare of your life if you have to be tossed on a bus, blind-folded, and buried alive for a while…but eventually rescued?

Different people -- with different attitudes towards thrill-seeking -- would draw the line in different places, no doubt. 

But the way the film ends now, there is no debate about the issue the film purportedly involves. It’s an open and shut case of abuse and murder, not a story about a shady line between entertainment and violence.


And, like the creepy girl scene previously mentioned, the denouement of The Houses That October Built is poorly constructed and edited.  The climax depends entirely on cutting between several victims as they enter different attractions, all holding cameras. 

Because the characters are actually filming the action and not on camera -- we can’t see them -- it becomes impossible and highly frustrating to guess what is happening to whom, and where they are.

The climax cuts repeatedly between three or four different perspectives, but every perspective looks the same, pretty much. This problem in visualization could have been ameliorated by sending two individuals to each location, so we would have a person on-screen guiding us through the horror, not just an (unseen) character behind the camera, filming their individual experience. We don’t know any of the film’s characters well enough (other than the single female, Brandy) to be able to tell, by their voice, who we are “with” as we go through the attraction.

Despite a frustrating conclusion, excessive padding with documentary footage, and scenes that don’t really hold together, there are moments in The Houses That October Built that impressed me with their patience and development of suspense.  Late in the film, for instance, there’s a scene on a dirt road, during blackest night, when a bus of scare actors -- dressed as creepy skeletons -- intercept the RV.  The atmosphere here is genuinely terrifying, and I also credit actors Brandy Schaefer and Mikey Roe, especially, with solid performances.  They prove likable and distinctive (whereas most of the characters of interchangeable), and seem genuinely and truly frightened by the journey they undertake.



Another commendable moment of authentic terror sees an unseen voyeur creep into the RV by night, and film all the protagonists while they sleep.  This moment, like the one on that dirt road, are truly creeping.

I had the sense while watching The Houses That October Built that there was an effective horror movie in there somewhere trying to get out.  But just a few bad decisions -- involving the over-use of B-roll footage and a bad selection of shots at the climax, primarily -- had scuttled a promising effort.

Movie Trailer: The Houses that October Built (2014)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Ten Years Down...


What I looked like when I started blogging on April 23, 2005.


What I look like now.

I began blogging in this space on April 23, 2005. 

It's hard to believe that's ten full years -- and some 7,000 posts -- behind me.  

Time flies when you're having fun, I guess.

When I started this blog, I lived in another city, I was not yet a father (or a college professor, for that matter), and George W. Bush was our president. 

Star Trek was fading out on TV (Enterprise's cancellation was imminent), and the Star Wars prequels were coming to an end with the summer-time release of Revenge of the Sith (2005).

In terms of horror movies, found-footage films had not yet revitalized the genre, and we were still in the thick of the torture-porn age and seeing efforts such as (the incredible) Hostel (2005).

Back then, there was no Facebook for the public (though TheFacebook had been founded), and MySpace was huge.  

In 2005, I was writing Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), and prepping my web-series, The House Between (2007 - 2009) for production.

In the years since the blog started, I've also written The Rock and Roll Movie Encyclopedia, Music on Film: This is Spinal Tap, Music on Film: Purple Rain, Horror Films of the 1990s, Horror Films FAQ, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s, and Space:1999: The Whispering Sea. I've also become a regular columnist for Flashbak.

So a lot has changed, and a lot has stayed the same in the last ten years, I guess you could say.  

There have been many high points (the Chris Carter interview of 2009, Lance Henriksen Blogathon of 2011, and the totally unexpected [positive] response to my reviews of The X-Files: I Want to Believe [2008], Prometheus [2012], and Walkabout [1971] to name just a few).  

I'm trying to conjure up the bad stuff, or blog low-points, but I can't really summon any.  I suppose the lowest point of blogging here is, simply, cataloging those we lose.  

And losing Leonard Nimoy this year was the biggest gut punch of all.

So...how long will I continue to blog?

The short answer: Forever. (Or until Blogger turns out the lights, whichever comes first).

Actually, I'm just going to keep on trucking (or Trekking) until the (probably inevitable) moment when the blog starts losing its readership, and a new one doesn't show up. I'm already planning for Doctor Who's 100th Anniversary in 2063.

To all of you who have been here with me the whole time, part of the time, or even just arrived: thank you for visiting, and thank you for hanging around. 

Thank you for making this a great place to come to work every single day.  

Thank you for listening and reading as I sound off about my love and appreciation for horror, sci-fi, cult-television and everything in-between. You have made these last ten years an extraordinary, life-affirming experience. 

Now I gotta get back to work. 

This blog ain't gonna write itself.

Cult-Movie Review: The Naked Jungle (1954)



I had an English teacher in high school -- a very long time ago -- who insisted that my sophomore class read classic short-story after classic short-story. 

That teacher, Mrs. Pfaus, introduced me to Carl Stephenson’s classic work “Leiningen vs. The Ants,” and so today, some thirty years later, I want to officially thank her.  It’s one of my all-time favorite tales. I have never forgotten it, and I have read the story many times in the years since I was a student.

As you may know, the story of “Leiningen vs. The Ants” is an adventurous one set in the Brazilian rain forest at the turn of the last century.

There, a resourceful if inscrutable plantation owner named Leiningen must use his intelligence and cunning to defeat a swarm of army ants bound for his land. Much of the story focuses on the chess game between man and insect, as each vies for supremacy.

The short story, first published in Esquire in 1938, was adapted to film by sci-fi producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin as The Naked Jungle in 1954. Like the short story, the movie is (rightfully) considered something of a classic too. I introduced my eight year old son Joel to it this week because it has always been a personal favorite.

Unlike the literary tale,the George Pal film adds personal dimension to this remarkable man vs. nature narrative.  The main protagonist becomes not snarly, difficult Leiningen (Charlton Heston), but rather a sincere, independent mail order bride, Joanna Selby (Eleanor Parker), who comes to live with the plantation owner on his land.  During the course of the film, she must contend with a whole new world, a grave threat, and a man very much set in his ways.


The shift in the story’s focus might sound questionable to some, but it actually works wonders in terms of improving and illuminating the source material. Although readers of the story may miss the meticulous details of Leiningen’s brilliant counter-punches against the ants (using decoys, bridges, and moats, for example), they gain something else entirely: a movie-long comparison between human and insect intelligence. 

The late movie critic, Bosley Crowther (1905 – 1981) -- writing in the New York Times -- observed that the film actually features two wars: Leiningen vs. the Ants, and Leiningen vs. his Vanity.  This insight helps one understand well the value of the central love story.  Leiningen is a man and leader who -- through his rigid determination -- has actually re-shaped the harsh and dangerous landscape to his desires and specifications. 

Yet, despite this accomplishment, he is bound by human flaws such as insecurity, and an inferiority complex.  He can't overcome his own biases and foibles.  His stubborn nature, his single-mindedness makes him unfit to adapt. It doesn't serve him in a way that makes him happy.

The ants -- working as a relentless, perfectly coordinated army -- have no time or energy for such personal crises. They eat and march, eat and march, and afford no wasted movement for concepts such as self or individuality. They succeed by their single-mindedness and their communal goals, whereas humans can't say the same.

In the end, The Naked Jungle observes, the ants may be relentless and coordinated, but a human who loves, -- and who is inspired -- can still find the wherewithal to defeat them.



“In the jungle, man is just another animal.”

In the year 1901, Joanna Selby (Parker) of New Orleans agrees to be the bride of a plantation owner Christopher Leiningen (Heston) in the South American jungle. 

A long way from civilization,” Leiningen has spent his entire adulthood beating back nature, creating a world where he wields “the power of a king.”  He has over 400 laborers on his estate, and answers to no one. 

But he’s lonely and isolated, hence his decision to marry.

Joanna’s first meeting with Christopher does not go well, however. He is surly and demanding, and is alarmed to discover that Joanna is a widow…meaning that she has been with another man.  Refusing to take “used” or “second-hand” goods, he orders Joanna to return to America on the next available boat.

But before she can do so, a local commissioner (William Conrad) reports to Leiningen of a terror headed directly toward the plantation: soldier ants, or Marabunta

It has been twenty-seven years since these insects last went on the march, and the commissioner describes the invading troops as “forty square miles of agonizing death.”

Although others plan to evacuate and flee the ants, Leiningen plans instead for war, to defend the land he carved out of the wild. 

And he finds, to his surprise, that he needs Joanna at his side.

Not just to convince his laborers that they must remain and fight, but to advise him and provide counsel as he takes on the battle of his life.



“The jungle is corrosive.  It swallows up everything.”

The first factor, perhaps, to understand about The Naked Jungle is that it doesn’t mirror modern socio-political or cultural viewpoints. It is a product of its time, and, furthermore, it depicts a period in history that isn't exactly known for its sense of social justice.

In particular, The Naked Jungle is historically accurate in the sense that it concerns a Western white man of 1901 using indigenous people as laborers on his South American plantation. The workers aren’t exactly slaves, but they aren’t exactly free men, either. The movie makes no effort to argue for or against this colonial social set-up. So I suppose some contemporary viewers might take offense at the depiction of the natives as frightened, superstitious people in need of rescue by a white, messianic, paternal figure (the perfectly-cast Heston).  

But I would argue, in this case, however, it is not necessary to apply modern belief systems to a story set in a period when colonialism was, for better or worse, a part of human life.

In terms of modern appeal, The Naked Jungle does much better with its understanding of sex issues, and sex roles. The main character -- the first character we meet -- is Joanna, and she is a fully-dimensional, heroic character.  


Because the film commences with her first visit to South America, we identify with Joanna.  Like her, we have never traveled these rivers, walked these lands, seen these plantations, or met the local people. It is all new to us, and like her, we experience both culture shock and empathy. She thus functions strongly as the audience's surrogate, helping us to understand how things work in Leinengen's world.   

Importantly, Joanna is no shrinking violet, and throughout the film she goes toe-to-toe with Leiningen without ever seeming mean or hostile. Indeed, the audience is firmly on her side from moment one. For example, Joanna defines herself as an explorer on a search or quest.  After the death of her husband, she wanted something different from life, and so undertook this adventure to another continent.  In doing so, she has been forthright, honest, courageous, and determined.

But she meets a man who, because of his own failings, can’t accept her or these particular qualities. The movie tip-toes around the issue in a 1950s sort-of-way, but The Naked Jungle is very much about a man who has no experience with women. 

Leiningen is a virgin -- and Joanna is not -- and so he can’t stand the fact that his would-be wife has more experience than he does. In short, he is fearful and suspicious because Joanna knows more about love-making. She has an advantage over him, in this terrain.  He may know the Rio Negro, or the lands of South America, but she understands male-female interaction. She understands something he does not.


Importantly, Joanna does nothing to make Leiningen feel bad or inadequate about this issue.  It’s his own problem, his own vanity, that causes the character crisis.  He can’t accept that anyone -- even a spouse -- could know more about something than he might. Thus the naked jungle of the title is the one that the ants devour and leave bare, but also the naked jungle of sexual relationships.  Leinengen feels inadequate, and he has nowhere he can hide that feeling.  He takes out his anger on Joanna.

Christopher couches his insecurities in discussions, insultingly, of "used goods."  He has a piano, for instance, that he brought up the river and was never played before Joanna touched it.  He wants a wife like that.  One who arrives…unused.  

But as we scratch the surface of Leiningen’s fears, we see that what truly scares him is the possibility that he might not know as much about sex as his wife does. How can he be the big man -- the king of the jungle -- when he knows so little?

The movie makes us ponder Leiningen’s stubbornness. For years -- decades perhaps -- this stubbornness has been the very thing that has kept him alive.  It has been the thing that has kept him going when sane, normal men would have abandoned the land. But Leinengen was stubborn and obtuse, and he has built an Empire because of those qualities.

Of course, it would benefit Leinengen immensely to give up his stubbornness -- the strong tree bends, rather than breaking, after all -- since Joanna is a remarkable person, and someone who is his equal in terms of intelligence and determination.  He is sad and feels empty not because he is strong...but because he is lonely. He needs a companion.  But The Naked Jungle’s point is that stubbornness, and indeed vanity, are human traits; ones that may not always benefit us in the long run.


And in strong contrast to the humans in the film loom the ants, the Marabunta.  

With them, it’s all for one, and one for all. When they cannot cross a river, for example, they team up and carry leaves to the river's edge, using the plants as transportation, as rafts.  And when they decide on a goal or a path, nothing can stand in their way. There is no contemplation of a single ant's needs, or individual flaws.

Oppositely, it’s clear that Leiningen -- at least in matters of the heart -- stands in his own way. His own stubbornness makes it impossible for him to see Joanna for the remarkable individual that she is.  He is, at times, dangerously close to becoming a fool.

But the lesson Leiningen learns from Joanna is that he must not be trapped by an all-or-nothing world view.  For example: either Joanna is how he imagined she would be, or she is worthless.  Leiningen comes to see this is not so; that the world need not be reduced to such a binary choice. And in the last hour of the war with the ants, he realizes that he can still beat them, but that he must give up the valley that he reclaimed from the river to do so.

He floods the river, destroys his crop, but still has a base upon which to rebuild. "I'm giving back everything I took," he declares.  "Now, we fight."


The Naked Jungle is only about 95 minutes long. The first hour or so is all character-building as Joanna and Leiningen dance suspiciously around each other.  But the last 30 minutes consists of non-stop ant attacks and a special effect showcase (using matte paintings and other tools of the 1950s) to depict the onslaught of the insects. 





For me, the mix is not antiquated or old fashioned, as you might expect, but just about right on a human scale. By the time that we reach the last act and the pitched battle with the soldier ants, you will feel completely invested in the outcome. The movie features characters you care about.

And the action scenes don’t disappoint, either, unless you’ve become accustomed to CGI impossibilities.  Furthermore, the film develops an escalating sense of suspense a little at a time.  For a long while, the ants aren't seen at all.  Then, we see their handiwork, in terms of corpses and strip-mined fields.  

But the creepiest scene of all involves no ants on screen at all...only silence.  Leiningen and Joanna emerge from a tent in the jungle because it has gone creepily, totally silent outside. All the wild life is gone.

The Marabunta are on the march, and the silence of the jungle is downright unsettling.

In turns romantic, scary, and spectacular, The Naked Jungle is one of those great classic (old?) Hollywood movies that more people should seek out.  

Movie Trailer: The Naked Jungle (1954)