Archive for Flash Gordon

The Monday Matinee, episode 12: The End of Murania

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Radio, Science with tags , , , , , , on July 3, 2017 by dcairns

It was over too soon! All really terrible things must come to an end. So, for the last time, the oddly stressful theme music plays, and we get a confusing recap of fragments of the previous instalments. For the first time, the Cowboy Comedy Sidekicks (CCSs) rate a mention, since they were directly responsible for last week’s cliffhanger ~

Also, a misplaced apostrophe. Now read on.

The two nitwits manage to get Murania’s central control room malfunctioning, then throw themselves down a trapdoor which leads to where Gene Autry is getting his head disintegrated (see last week — it’s complicated). This bit of narrative retro-fitting ought to allow for a rescue, though given these nitwits’ past form, Gene might easily wind up even more disintegrated than he would have been naturally. He’s already A BIT disintegrated — he’s making a pained face and tugging at his kerchief as if overheated — that’s the first sign that you may be being disintegrated. If you have those symptoms, see a doctor.

The sidekicks drag Gene from the death ray, taking care to expose themselves to it thoroughly in the process, which surprisingly causes them no distress whatsoever, almost as if it were merely a spotlight.

Queen Tika enters, brought by two guards who had intended to disintegrate her. The CCSs immediately attack the guards in the best Iraqi style, taking off their boots and striking the unbelievers about the head.

“We must get Her Majesty back to the Control Room,” opines Gene, the second he recovers. It’s the kind of thing one feels he WOULD say in such a situation — testament to the skills of the serial’s writing staff, Wallace McDonald, Gerald Gerachty, H Freedman, John Rathmell and Ernest Schaeffer. He doesn’t look a bit disintegrated, although I guess he might be completely hollowed out on the inside. It’s hard to tell. I’m going to study Gene’s performance closely in search of suggestions that this may be the case.

The villainous Argo enters, with his pestilential science gang, and Gene promptly targets them with their own disintegrator ray, which was still ON last we saw. The burly baritone somehow backs his foes into a corner with the unwieldy weapon, and everybody legs it. Now we get to find out if Queen Tika is as good at running as she is at watching television. Let me tell you, the two talents are not always found in one person.

But we never do find out, as the serial uncharacteristically cuts from the chase, leaving the bad guys locked in the disintegrator room (their cunning escape plan: face the locked metal door and shove each other). The CCSs deal with the “heavily armed” guards at the control room (two pasty guys with spears) by shoving robots at them, leading to a strange, cramped, irritating fight. Everybody looks really hot and bothered. Although, oddly, the guards don’t notice the robots until they’re quite literally about three inches away. This makes for intense, close-quarters action.

Muranian myrmidons do seem oddly myopic. Once in the throne room, the CCSs push their dumb robots clatteringly right past a patrolling guard who doesn’t notice anything until he reaches the far wall and turns around. Then Gene fells him with a gigantic punch, flubs his line (“Hurry, we’ll… get to the control room.”) and the Control Room is gained! Queen Tika immediately wants to watch television. She discovers that Argo’s rebels are melting the door with the Disintegrator Atom Smashing Machine. The impudent dogs!

Argo, impatient at the slow rate of door disintegration, turns the volume up, impatient of Rab’s panicky warnings that his Smashing Machine might get “out of control again.” Again? He’s right to be cautious, it seems — the big ray gun immediately starts wobbling randomly around the room, forcing the rebel scientists to run about like headless chickens. “Turn it off! Turn it off!” yells Rab. “Turn it off! Turn it — off!” Nobody thinks to unplug it. Everybody dies. Although they don’t disintegrate, that I can see.

“It will eat its way through the empire!” declares Queen Tika. She suggests Gene gets out, and he suggests she come too. “To the mad world above?” she sneers, regally, harping on her favourite theme. “It would be a living death!” Still nobody thinks of maybe unplugging the Smashing Machine. Queen Tika seems tickled to death about the prospect of being disintegrated along with her people. “It is better than an invasion from the surface world.” Seemingly she’s fixated on the idea that on the surface she would be forced to drive race cars or bum cigarettes. (The fact that she would be unable to breathe seems like a more sound reason for staying below ground.) Still, one notices that the Queen’s role in her plan consists entirely of watching television again.

Entertaining shots of melting Murania! Only Gene and his two idiots think of using the elevator — everyone else is fleeing straight into the holocaust, apart from the robots who merely plod doggedly towards it.

Gene and his pals join up with Frankie and Betsy, and they find exactly the right number of horses in the Muranian stables. But then they remember all the other horses, and rescue them. The Muranian PEOPLE can go whistle. All this is shown to us on Queen Tika’s television, making it TWICE AS EXCITING.

Queen Tika staggers regally over to the big knife switch that opens the garage door to the surface, then ascends to her throne one last time as her world literally crumbles around her, a moment that could have been powerfully moving were it not totally obscured by smoke. Finally, the melting models (a cheap optical effect) are replaced by a melting Queen, and the disintegrator at last disintegrates itself.

And with one bound our heroes are free, having contributed substantially to the destruction of an entire civilisation. “But it was worth it,” says Frankie, “I learned a lot of new scientific things.” Betsy is upbeat: “I’m going back to Murania someday, and see what’s left,” she beams. The disgusting ghoul. “I’m afraid there isn’t very much left of the city,” says Gene, dampening her youthful spirits, “But we’ll probably find enough radium to make us all rich.”

When Mike Hodges made his FLASH GORDON, he saw it as a slight satire of American interventionist foreign policy, which never quite convinced me as a valid allegory. But had he instead made THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, he’d have had a pretty solid footing, it seems to me.

Until now, the serial had seemed in danger of neglecting its subplot about the tricky Professor Beetson and his cronies, and Gene’s false murder rap, and his radio show, but now these come to the fore with a truly heroic sense of anticlimax. Gene blows up a city then sorts out his legal difficulties! I suppose we’ll end with him reordering his record collection.

Meanwhile… in a cavern… in a canyon… excavating for a mine… Professor Beetson deals with a labour dispute from his miners. The excitement just keeps building! But it actually does, since rather than going through some kind of ombudsman, he opts to shoot them down like dogs. You could do that then, before they introduced all this red tape. trump is going to bring this kind of thing back, and everyone will be happier.

Gene finds one of the dying men and attends to the poor fellow, shaking him violently by the collar. “Who shot yuh? Yuh might as well tell me!” he says, compassionately. Mistaking these words for the supreme unction, the bullet-ridden miner promptly expires.

Meanwhile — will Gene make it back in time to do his radio broadcast? Given that he’s now a radium millionaire, we probably shouldn’t be concerned, but we are EXTREMELY concerned — this obviously matters more than the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muranians.

The broadcast is a typically exciting one — Gene attempts to reveal Beetson’s perfidies live on air, and gets his hat shot off. Exciting chase! Song! Punch-up! That’s like the four food groups of western entertainment. Beetson incriminates himself on an imitation Muranian television screen cobbled together by Frankie Darro ina  spare forty seconds, and this is witnessed by the sheriff.

Gene “plays us out” (what does that MEAN?) with his moronic “owls go hoo” song which I now realise concerns Noah’s ark. A clear thematic bond is f0rmed with the survivors of a lost civilisation whom this serial has so ably extirpated. Then Gene does some yodeling, which doesn’t seem to connect to the main premise as neatly, and the thing is over.

 

The Sunday Intertitle: Interzone

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2015 by dcairns

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I was almost despairing of finding an intertitle in a seventies sci-fi film — because that’s the kind of thing I spend my time worrying about (as opposed to, say nuclear war, overpopulation or the collapse of social order) but then I found Elio Petri’s TODO MODO, a vaguely science-fictional doomsday wallow from 1976. Petri’s THE TENTH VICTIM is a hip and zippy pop-art spree of a film, but this one, despite being set in a reinforced concrete bunker designed by the great Dante Ferreti, or perhaps partly because of that, is a bit turgid and airless. Even exciting actors (Mastroianni, Volonte, Melato) and Petri’s snaky camera moves can’t quite bring it to life. But it earns its place in a mini-entry about the various films I’ve looked at but am not devoting big pieces to.

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Dante Ferretti and Mariangela Melato remind us of the Mike Hodges FLASH GORDON, of course, a film which, like THE BED SITTING ROOM, could be said to sum up everything about the preceding decade while also anticipating everything about the decade to come.

In TODO MODO, officials from church and state are gathered underground as an epidemic begins to spread across the country — we could situate this in our future history books between THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and TWELVE MONKEYS. Funny how these films can link up.

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This setting in Tarkovsky’s STALKER suggests some connection with PHASE VI — Lynn Frederick must be lurking just under that powdery sand, wearing an enticingly thin top. The heroines in both STALKER and SOLARIS freak out on the floor while wearing similarly revealing garb.

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Bra-less-ness, of course, was a big seventies phenomenon, and it’s understandable that science fiction filmmakers assumed that things would carry on in that general direction. John Boorman, in ZARDOZ, went as far as to imagine Future Man clad in only bandoliers, thigh boots and nappies, a natural extrapolation of seventies fashion.

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Here’s Nigel Davenport, more sensibly dressed. Why is he concealing his hand? It must surely be crawling with ants, as in PHASE IV, but this is THE MIND OF MR SOAMES, made four years earlier. Terence Stamp plays a man whose been in a coma since birth but is brought to consciousness by Robert Vaughan and then educated by the unsympathetic Davenport. Quite an interesting piece, despite its basic impossibility. Stamp’s child-like performance is affecting, and it’s a very unusual piece to have come out of Amicus Productions. A predatory TV camera crew hang around filming the unfolding tragedy (and contributing to it) — reminiscent of Peter Watkins’ glum futuristic mockumentaries THE WAR GAME, PRIVILEGE, THE GLADIATORS and PUNISHMENT PARK, but TV director Alan Cooke doesn’t use them as a narrative device in that way.

One of the TV crew is played by Christopher Timothy, famed for seventies vet show All Creatures Great and Small. His co-star in that, Carol Drinkwater, plays a nurse in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, another film about Bad Education.

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Note also the b&w production design, even in the nursery set — Mike Hodges must have liked this, as he appropriated the look for the haunting THE TERMINAL MAN, a ruthlessly colour-coordinated vision of Los Angeles. Even the operating room looks similar, with its hexagonal viewing gallery. I’d always assumed that, like Boorman, he was under the influence of inveterate park-painter Antonioni. While SOAMES is an intriguing curate’s egg, TERMINAL MAN is a despairing masterwork, and a far more interesting take on Michael Crichton than the JURASSIC PARK series we’re all assailed with today.

(Remember when JP first came out — weren’t we all struck by the fact that the author of WESTWORLD had done it all again only with dinosaurs? Had he lived longer, surely he’d have gotten around to writing a botanical garden where the monkey puzzle trees go on a rampage.)

We watched Red Shift, a TV play written by novelist Alan Garner and directed by Edinburgh man John MacKenzie. A very odd piece of work, shifting about over a thousand years of history in one small geographical spot in Cheshire, and hinting at psychic links across the centuries. And there’s James Hazeldine, star of BBC Scotland’s The Omega Factor, which dealt with psychic phenomena and freaked me out as a kid — saw it again years back, and it’s very disappointing — and there’s Hazeldine again in THE MEDUSA TOUCH, being defended in court by Richard Burton.

Red Shift’s best bit is the first shift, when an oddly-written but basically social-realist family drama is abruptly interrupted by a savage battle between Romans and Britons, the most startling transition I’ve ever seen in a TV play. We were also pleased to see Leslie Dunlop (that nice nurse in THE ELEPHANT MAN) and Stella Tanner, who also turned up in sci-fi kids’ series The Changes, and in Spike Milligan’s unique take on the Daleks ~

The Changes manages a more nuanced take on multicultural Britain, featuring an extended family of Sikhs as major characters. The concept freely adapted from novels by Peter Dickinson, is unique and wondrous — one day, the whole population of Britain starts smashing their machinery, driven by a sudden conviction that the stuff is evil. As if a Luddite meme had been downloaded into every brain. The series then follows the adventures of a teenage girl in an England that’s been sent back to medieval standards.

I watched this show religiously as a seven-year-old, though it strikes me that the rioting, madness and so on must have been a little disturbing. But somehow I missed the final episode. So I had to ask a friend at school what happened, and this is what he said: “There was a big stone that had been asleep for hundreds of years and then it woke up and there hadn’t been any machines when it went to sleep so it didn’t like them so it told everybody to smash them.”

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I liked the Big Stone Explanation of Everything but was never sure it was true — I also kind of liked the idea that he had just made it up. But it turns out to be EXACTLY TRUE (the BFI have kindly re-released the series). And here I am, forty years later, having entirely forgotten the kid who told me the story, but remembering the story he told. Says something about my priorities.

If women burned their bras in the seventies (which they didn’t — but in the mostly magnificent SLEEPER Woody Allen makes the worst joke of his career on this subject: “As you can see, it’s a very small fire,” a kind of perfect own-goal of a joke, proving that anti-feminist attitudes make you smug, stupid and obnoxious) the men really let it all hang out. Rip Torn allows little Rip to be fondled and addressed in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (more on that tomorrow), Terence Stamp is seen full-frontal in his coma in MR. SOAMES, and in SHOCK TREATMENT, a sort of Twilight Zone narrative about a predatory health farm, unsustainably extended to feature length, Alain Delon enjoys a nude romp in the sea. A cheerful note to end on.

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The Sunday Intertitle: It’s Chinatown

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 2, 2012 by dcairns

Episode 9, and there’s almost TOO MUCH to report!

Harry Houdini (as daring everyman hero Quentin Locke) escapes from beneath the elevator slowly — inexorably! — descending to crush him by a scientific use of the art of wriggling. Zita the lovesick secretary / bogus heiress, disguised as a boy, fails to help him, because she’s jealous of his love for heroine Marguerite Marsh ~

Harry rescues MM from the clutches of the Automaton, but it’s not long before she’s lured into another trap by Deluxe Dora, who pretends to have the cure to Marguerite’s father’s Laughing Madness (induced in Episode One).

Meanwhile, sinister forces are moving against Harry ~

Of course, the inscrutable Chinese would have to be in on it. Any conspiracy involving corrupt businessmen, street roughs, bogus heiresses, vamps, a robot and a fortune-telling crone, must obviously also have a Chinese element. And there’s also a mysterious Beard Guy, tottering about distractedly in aid of some future plot turn…

Co-director Harry Grossman made few films, at least according to the IMDb (records for early 1920s productions are likely incomplete) but he regularly worked with Marsh. His other favourite player was Charles Middleton, who achieved movie serial immortality as Ming of Mongo in FLASH GORDON and its sequels.

Grossman’s partner, Burton L. King (good name!) chalked up 141 credits in a little over twenty years (and some of these were lengthy serials like THE MASTER MYSTERY). He even managed a few talkies, although the sound discs for at least one of these are missing.

I can’t say I can tell that the serial (like most) had two directors. Grossman and King are efficient but anonymous. However, they deliver the required frenetic pace and broad-strokes performances, and the goofiness of the plotting keeps the show buoyant.

And now Harry’s in drag!

The scene is a sinister Chinese temple, where a certain gentleman from the Indies has delivered “the great torture,” a kind of wheeled garrote, of which Harry is the intended victim. And sure enough, by episode’s end, he is manacled to a partition, his throat encircled by a deadly noose, while the cackling Dacoit spins the wheel of death on the other side of the flimsy wall…

Can Harry’s windpipe withstand the assault? Will Marguerite escape her deeply religious but emotionally unavailable abductors, and will her father ever be cured of his Laughing Madness? Will Zita finally decide to be a sidekick or an evil vamp? Who is the beard guy, and will he vanish as abruptly as the fortune-telling crone? And whatever happened to the pharmacist who got conked on the head and disappeared?

Tune in next week and see how THE MASTER MYSTERY brazenly dodges most of the above questions ~