With a few exceptions scattered throughout the past hundred years or so of feature filmmaking, the French never really embraced the horror film. Instead, drawing from a literary tradition capped by the writing of Gaston Leroux and Victor Hugo, the French response to what we in the United States (and Britain, and Italy, and Japan, and…well, most of the world) define as horror was cinema fantastique. Certainly it had elements of horror, sometimes more overt than others, but more traditionally recognizable characteristics of horror were mixed into a dreamy mist that also included romance, science fiction, mystery, and melodrama all spun with a disregard for logical narrative structure and progression in favor of a dreamlike (or nightmare) quality. It did not matter if one scene connected to the next, or if there was a rational explanation for a particular image or action. That was not the point. The language of cinema is vast, figured directors working within this nebulous genre of cinema fantastique, and the idea that film has to conform to a particular structure or style or storytelling — or that it need tell any story at all — is tragically limiting. Of the many films that make up the body of cinema fantastique, few have developed an enduring reputation, good and bad, quite like Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage, aka Eyes without a Face.
Over on the Cultural Gutter, I’m writing about the musical science fiction spectacle Just Imagine. Vaudeville on Mars is a look at the similarities between the lavish 1930 Fox Studios production and the 1928 Soviet film Aelita, Queen of Mars; as well as a celebration of the outrageous costume and set design. All of which is really just a way of making myself feel better as I try to come to grips with the fact that human society at one time thought a movie this extravagant should be headlined by vaudeville funny man El Brendel.
Space: 1999 taught me two valuable lessons. The first is that space is depressing and best represented by the color taupe. The second is that, with few exceptions, aliens are jerks. At least in the first season, Space: 1999 captures malaise, chronic low-grade depression and inertia perfectly. Moon Base Alpha itself is unsteerable. It is filled with people who have survived mostly by evaluating their situation and accepting it. Charleton Heston would not last long on Alpha—he would blow up the moon when he attempted seize control of his destiny and the moon by attaching engines to it. As the moon exploded, Commander John Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell would silently turn to one another in a final affectless, unspoken admission of their love.
Over on The Cultural Gutter, I’m following up last month’s article about the Han Solo Adventures with …In a Galaxy Far, Far Away, a look at 1983’s Lando Calrissian Adventures, a trilogy of pulpy space adventures written by a mad libertarian futurist and full of Lando thinking about fine tailoring, fine women, fine cigars, fine gambling, and in his spare time, rescuing multiple advanced alien races from obliteration while foiling the best laid plans of an evil space sorcerer.
Other than the long wait since the end of season one, there was little in “The Metamorph,” the first episode of Space: 1999’s second season to clue you into just how much had gone wrong with the series, and how much more wrong was waiting on the horizon. Certainly, some things had changed. For starters, there’s a new theme song and someone must have found a box of colorful orange and blue jackets in a closet somewhere, because everyone has started wearing jackets. But you know how fashion trends are, and the sudden appearance of jackets is of no real concern (and I like to think inspired Jean-Luc Picard, who took five seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation before he found a jacket). Alphans have also started wearing ID badges with their name and photo on them because…in a confined space for years with three-hundred or people or so, I am sure it was awkward for Koenig to still not know “that one guy’s name.” So he issued the command for “Hello My Name Is” tags to save everyone discomfort at parties.
Over on the Cultural Gutter, I’m ringing in Yule, midwinter, and whatever other Pagan festivities we can dig up by writing about a topic I normally avoid. A Long Time Ago… Is the first of a two-part article celebrating the oddball pulpy adventures that served as the basis for the Star Wars Expanded Universe. This round, it’s Han Solo and Chewbacca in three nutty adventures from 1979.
This is the sort of movie that might spontaneously spawn during a Guitar Wolf concert. Well, this and Wild Zero of course– an oddly apt film to bring up, as the two films share rather a lot besides leather-clad rocker protagonists. It’s over-the-top, anarchic, and every frame is infused with the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll (if not actual rock ‘n’ roll; Redline‘s soundtrack is more thumping techno oriented). It also has a sweet, doe-eyed love story beneath all the engine revving and hair grease — and if you think that is somehow not in keeping with the tough, leather-clad exterior, you might not know many rockers. They are a sentimental lot at their core. Heck, Elvis wanted to be your teddy bear. And Roy Orbison! That dude was all about crying and being sad and taking advice from candy colored clowns we call the Sandman. One of my best experiences after moving to New York nigh those many decades ago was talking an autumn stroll through Tompkins Square Park past an older (than me, at the time) rockabilly couple with arms around one another, listening to The Penguins’ “Earth Angel” on a beat up old boom box. Modern rockabilly may be all about tattoo sleeves and volume, but even beneath that noise beats the heart of a romantic. And beneath all the leather, engine revving, and alien hustlers, Redline is most definitely a romantic and sentimental movie.
Over on The Cultural Gutter, I’m taking a look at one of my favorite sci-fi book series from my youth. Return of the Tripods chronicles my revisit as a man grown to John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy: The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire, which I first discovered when they were serialized as a comic strip in Boys’ Life magazine.
When I was young still and open of mind, my parents set me loose in the University of Kentucky bookstore with the understanding that I was allowed to choose for myself from the racks of tapes and books some manner of entertainment. As I perused the offerings with a diligent focus that can be mustered only by a seven-year-old with a serious decision to make, I contemplated my options. Not a book, I decided, even though there were several promising ones. But I wanted something in which I could indulge on the long car ride back to Centerfield, and I was not prone to car sickness except when I tried to read. So a cassette…but which one? I flipped through the racks, past recordings of old radio dramas. The Shadow? Maybe. Lights Out Theater? Even better. And then I found it. With nary a doubt in my mind as to the correctness of my decision, I took from the rack and presented triumphantly to my mother my choice of prize: a recording of Orson Welles’ legendary broadcast of The War of the Worlds on Halloween eve, 1938.
It’s a blue moon month for me over at The Cultural Gutter, and I get the honor of ushering in All Hallow’s Eve, scary sci-fi style. Something Kinda Funky looks at the time Buck Rogers, Wilma, and Twiki faced off against a nefarious Space Count Orlok in the classic Buck Rogers in the 25th Century episode, “Space Vampire.”