Monday, July 25, 2016

YouTube Finds :: Finding the Truth in the Lie of Christopher Miles' Alternative-3 (1977)

When the latest broadcast of the investigative TV program Science Report begins, the scholarly host, Tim Brinton, who kinda looks like Isaac Asimov's long lost brother, fills the viewer in on the topic for this week's episode: mounting suspicions and suppositions on the current and alarming brain-drain Great Britain has been suffering lately due to an abnormal spike in the untimely deaths or inexplicable disappearances of many prominent (and not so prominent) physicists, engineers, agronomists, astronomers, and others in related scientific fields.

Things then take on a sinister twinge when the program shifts focus from distraught family members to a Professor Ballantine, who "nervously" delivered a videotape to a colleague before he died in an "accident" but the tape appears to be blank, showing nothing but static. However, the investigative team (Brinton, Munroe, Hazell) of Science Report realizes the tape must be decoded first. And while that is being processed, the investigation continues, which uncovers a huge conspiracy between the Super-Powers that dates back to the late 1950s, which has now accelerated due to the converging factors of an unchecked population explosion and an imminent environmental collapse due to pollutants and dwindling or exhausted natural resources, meaning the Earth's ability to support life has been irrevocably compromised and an alternative means was needed to maintain the species.

Seeking answers, the team tracks down Dr. Carl Gerstein (Manner), who predicted this crisis way back in 1957 and offered three possible solutions: the first solution was a drastic reduction in population by dubious means; second, a series of vast underground bunkers to be populated by those best suited to rebuild once the environmental crisis has passed; and alternative three involved abandoning the Earth altogether by establishing a colony of essential personnel on Mars with the moon as a way station in between -- a plan that already appears to be in motion.

Several uncovered documents reveal the United States and the Soviet Union's space programs are far more advanced than public perception and had landed on the moon long before 1968. They even manage to get testimony of an eye-witness, Bob Grodin (Rimmer), a disgraced former Apollo astronaut, who was written off as a loony when he brought home tales of a secret base spotted on the dark side of the moon. So, yep, that's right. All those scientists and engineers who disappeared are no longer on the planet. And those that died were either involved in a staged death so they could leave with no questions asked or were bumped off to keep things a secret when they refused to go. And after several other leads and informants are chemically lobotomized or disappear without a trace, the episode ends with a bombshell; Ballantine's de-scrambled footage showing a successful joint NASA/RFSA manned landing on Mars in 1962, where something appears to have already beaten them there -- or has been there all along...

Back in October of 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater caused a huge case of the drizzles when many folks tuning in late failed to realize his Halloween treat of an updated version of War of the Worlds as a series of contemporary news bulletins was also a trick, with many listeners believing a real alien invasion had begun in Grover's Mill, and still serves as a landmark case study in blind panic and mass hysteria. Later, in July of 1950, Dimension X, an anthology radio program that "offered a variety of exciting tales of future technology, with a special focus on space exploration (-- including alien invasion), which often reflected contemporary anxieties about the dangers of technology" broadcast an episode called The Man in the Moon, where a Federal investigator unravels a series of transmissions from someone, a scientist, claiming that he and many others have been kidnapped and are currently being held on the moon by a cabal of Nazis who secretly colonized the moon in the late 1930s, who are now prepping to re-invade the Earth.

Both of those radio broadcasts seem to have influence on David Ambrose and Christopher Miles' Alternative-3 (1977), which was written and conceived as an elaborate April Fool's Day prank. Apparently, there really was a news serial called Science Report on the Norwich-based ITV Anglia, and this hoax was conceived and written to fit into that show's investigative format to give it more credibility and a verisimilitude punch-up like Welles' fake news broadcast. However, due to a labor strike, the production blew its broadcast date of April 1st and the program was then finally broadcast in late June. And despite the original host (Brinton) being the only non-actor in the show, confirmed by the closing credits (-- which also show Brian Eno provided the soundtrack), the broadcasters were soon swamped with calls by those duped and concerned citizens, demanding to know how much time they had until the world ended and how to get a ticket to Mars to see whatever the hell that was scrabbling in the dirt.

Like with Welles broadcast, Alternative-3 triggered widespread outrage in the public and the media against ITV Anglia, who apologized and banned the episode from ever being rebroadcasted, which means trying to see it can be a bit of a chore. When I finally tracked it down on YouTube, the poor video quality and shoddy audio actually ads another layer of pseudo-realism to the fake credibility connived by Ambrose and Miles, who do a pretty good job of adding layer upon layer of fidgety interviewees, hidden camera footage, and series of outlandish facts with just enough plausibility to give the narrative more juice, topped off with a pretty effective staged Mars landing that I'm sure was shot in the same rock quarry as that one episode of Doctor Who. (Which one? All of them.) Anyhoo, I know it sucked me in pretty good as it played out, but then this spell was completely shattered when Shane Rimmer showed up as the kooky ex-astronaut, whose familiar mug can be seen in a couple of James Bond entries -- most notably, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). His performance was fine, mind you, he was just too familiar a face and short-circuited the whole thing for me.

So, yeah, Alternative-3 is a load of horse-puckey -- a very well staged and effectively executed and highly entertaining load of horse-puckey, but horse-puckey all the same. [See also Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (1998).] Despite all the non-proof being proved false or non-existent, to this very day some folks hold onto the notion that what was featured is real and is really happening -- there's even a "whistle-blowing" novel written to cash in on this bogus conspiracy, proving once again P.T. Barnum was right all along. And with such an intensive backlash, it would be nearly 15 years before any broadcaster in Britain would be brave enough to try something like this again. And Ghostwatch (1992) proved even more successful at duping the audience into believing it was all real and caused even more of a public shit-storm than Alternative-3 did. But that, Boils and Ghouls, is another YouTube tale for another day.

Alternative-3 (1977) Anglia Television / EP: John Woolf / P: John Rosenberg / AP: Bob Bell / D: Christopher Miles / W: David Ambrose, Christopher Miles / C: Richard Crafter, Ian Craig / E: Michael O'Halloran / M: Brian Eno / S: Tim Brinton, Gregory Munroe, Carol Hazell, Shane Rimmer, Richard Marner

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Good Reads :: The Unreality of Reality: When Cyber-Punk Went Noir in Kim Newman's The Night Mayor (1989)

When Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) came to a theater near you, it brought to mind a fantastic novel I’d read many moons ago that mined the same, lucid shared dream vein called The Night Mayor (1989); and so I tracked it down and gave it another read. And then I gave that copy away to spread the love. Cut to a few days ago, when the latest trip to the local broken spine yielded up another copy, which I snagged for a more permanent residence, as I thumbed through it, looking for favorite parts, I wound up just re-reading the whole thing again and quickly concluded that you all should probably read this, too.

OK, so tune-in and plug into this: In the not to distant future, since movies and TV are a thing of the past, people look to virtual reality, where a person can be projected into their own movie inside their own head, for their entertainment. Things go a bit awry when master criminal Truro Daine tries to make this unreality a reality, with himself in control of everything, and its up to two cyber-sleuths, Susan Bishopric and Tom Tunney, to tune-in to his wavelength and put the kibosh on his nefarious schemes.

Author Kim Newman is a huge film buff and has written several reference books on said subject matter. The Night Mayor was his fictional debut and it’s a real treat for his fellow film fanatics. See, Newman’s master-criminal bases his cyber-kingdom on the shadowy, rain-soaked streets and neon-lights of vintage hard-boiled Hollywood noir movies of the 1940s, and it’s populated with several familiar characters, scenarios, actors and femme fatales of the same era -- Bogart, Powell, Robinson, Bennett and Tierney -- one of them being Daine in disguise. Which is why the authorities bring in Tunney, an outside expert on the genre (-- a surrogate for Newman, perhaps?), to help the lead cyber-detective Bishopric smoke him out.

And with this all being based in a Matrix-style virtual reality anything goes, right? And when our heroes start tweaking things a bit, movie-genres start to get cross-pollinated -- and if you think Lon Chaney Jr. showing up and sprouting whiskers in the middle of all this is wild, just wait until you see what comes stomping out of the harbor. Of course knowledge of vintage films will help your enjoyment of this book but even a cursory film fan will recognize most of the cameos, winks and nods in Newman’s book. The science part of the equation takes a bit to slog through but it’s well worth it to get the fiction. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Favorites :: Inks and Paints :: Spotlight on the Master of Disaster, Walter Molino.

When it came to depicting panic, peril, worst case scenarios or outright disaster, I don't think anybody did it better than Italian artist, Walter Molino (Reggio Emilia). His career began as a fumetti artist but all the art presented here are from his cover illustrations for La Domenica del Corriere, a Sunday supplement tabloid that was notorious for a salacious and gruesome streak, epitomized by the cover art, which was always high on the action and melodrama -- and body count.

With a sense of ferocity and the ability to capture that crucible moment just past the point of no return, Molino took over as chief illustrator in 1941 and stayed on until the paper folded in 1989. And they weren't all "natural" or "man-made" disasters either:

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Just plug Molino into a Google image search and then enjoy the rest of your harrowing day.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Like Father, Like Son When it Comes to Losing Your Head -- and Hand. And a Foot :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Edward L. Bernds' Return of the Fly (1959)

Our sequel today picks up fifteen years after the events of its originator at the graveside service of Helene Delambre, who never really recovered after assisting her scientist husband’s suicide when he placed his head and hand into a hydraulic press after his experiments in matter transportation went staggeringly awry, where his atoms were mixed with a fly, turning him into a monster. Only Helene, his brother, Francois (Price), and the Chief Inspector knew the real truth, with the Inspector being responsible for the murder of the other half of this failed experiment, trapped in a spider’s web, crushing the pitiful creature with a rock before a spider pounced. But now their son, Philippe (Halsey), demands and gets the truth as to what really happened to his father and what haunted his mother so badly all these years that drove the woman to her grave.

And once his uncle spills the beans, the son is soon determined to perfect his father’s machine. At first, Francois wants no part of this but soon comes around, mostly to make sure Philippe doesn’t make the same critical mistakes his father did. Moving all the machinery to the basement of the old ancestral mansion, using his father’s notes, Philippe, Francois, and Phillipe’s assistant, Ronald Holmes (Frankham), soon have the transporter rebuilt and fired up and successfully disintegrate and reintegrate several varmints. Too bad for all involved that Holmes is acting under an alias, is a wanted man for murder, and is currently engaging in some industrial espionage.

And after his assistant uses the contraption to destroy the body of one of Scotland Yard’s finest, Phillipe sniffs out his true intentions before he can cash-out. Unfortunately for Philippe, this confrontation does not go his way at all and he winds up in the transporter, too. Also, Holmes tosses a fly in there with him because, basically, his former boss suffers from a severe case of pteronarcophobia, and two, he’s seen what the transporter can do when two different test-subjects get zapped at the same time (-- the cop and a hamster), and three, he’s just that big of an asshole. Francois arrives too late to stop this and takes a bullet while Holmes escapes, but he does manage to trip the switches for the reintegration process and comes face to face with his worst nightmare come true...

After squandering a ton of money converting their projection booths to accommodate 3-D stereoscopic films, a fad that barely lasted for six months, most theater owners were either skeptical or downright hostile when Darryl F. Zanuck asked them to now widen their screens for his newly unveiled CinemaScope process in late 1953. However, having learned a harsh lesson over the non-standardization of the 3-D free-for-all, Zanuck promised more consistency to appease exhibitors, promising a steady supply of product in this new widescreen format.

To do this, the mogul’s 20th Century Fox struck a deal to make the lenses and equipment for CinemaScope readily available to other studios; and Fox even went so far as to bring in Robert L. Lippert to produce a series of B-Pictures shot in the same widescreen process. And so together, they formed Regal Pictures in 1956, which landed Lippert a seven year commision to make 20 pictures per year, each shot in seven to ten days with a budget of $100,000. Though one should note that Zanuck hedged the deal, not allowing his new B-Unit to smirch the reputation of his A-product, which is why things like Stagecoach to Fury (1956), Kronos (1957), and Hell on Devil’s Island (1957) were all shot in “Regalscope."

Fox and Zanuck never were ones for genre pictures and seldom dabbled in horror and sci-fi [-- the only real monster movie I can think of is The Undying Monster (1942),  which is pretty great if you've never seen it], which makes their production of The Fly (1958) a bit of an anomaly, especially after the big-budgeted flops of This Island Earth (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956) for rival studios, Universal and MGM. But even though this A-picture was shot in CinemaScope and color, the production cost was fairly low when compared to those other examples ($350,000) and The Fly proved to be a huge a hit for the studio and became one of its biggest money-makers of the year. And perhaps slightly embarrassed by this, but not embarrassed enough to not cash-in, when a sequel proved to be in order, the studio quickly distanced itself and turned the franchise over to Lippert.

By 1959, Lippert had dumped the Regal moniker and rechristened his unit as Associated Producers Incorporated (API). And to pull off this mandated sequel, Return of the Fly (1959), he turned to the two men who had produced Space Master X-7 (1958), which had served as the equally successful bottom bill for The Fly, producer Bernard Glasser and director Edward Bernds. I got into the history of these two when I wrote up Space Master X-7 a while back, so feel free to check that out. Anyhoo, with orders to use the still standing sets from the first film to help save costs (-- the film would still be shot in CinemaScope but would be filmed in black and white, just like it's co-feature, Roy Del Ruth's The Alligator People), meaning another rare feat when Lippert’s B-unit would be allowed to actually shoot on Fox’s back lot, Bernds got to work on the script, which proved interesting enough to coax Vincent Price back into the fold. (Though most of those “interesting” moments wound up cut out, much to the star’s chagrin.)

As for the main character, Glasser cast Brett Halsey. Halsey seemed to be cursed with bad timing throughout his Hollywood career. He got signed at Universal but barely made a scratch before the studio was bought out by MCA, which cut staff and purged all contract players in 1958 [Some folks might recognize him as one of the two teens who get killed in Revenge of the Creature (1955). He was the one who didn’t get fast-balled into a palm tree.] He landed on his feet at American International, where he headlined the likes of High School Hellcats (1958) and Submarine Seahawk (1959). And then, after starring in Return of the Fly, he got signed by Fox to a multi-year contract. But then this was voided, too, after the whole Cleopatra (1963) debacle, which nearly bankrupted the studio. The actor would have much better luck abroad, working with the likes of Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci.

Halsey does fine as Phillipe, but he really isn’t in the film all that much. His pasted-on head on the tiny fly almost had as much screen-time as the real actor did. And after his transformation, stuntman Ed Wolff, a former circus giant, took over as the Human Fly breaks out of the lab, is merrily chased around the hills by the cops for a spell, and then spends the rest of the movie tracking down and killing those who double-crossed him. All the while, Francois, the Inspector (Sutton), and Phillipe longtime girlfriend, Cecilia (De Metz), manage to capture the Fly Human and hope the Human Fly can be herded back to the lab where they think they can, hopefully, reverse the process.

Apparently, Glasser and Bernds wanted to insert footage from The Fly to pad out the sequel and fill-in the backstory but Fox nixed this, feeling the color footage wouldn’t mesh with the rest of the film, leaving it to Price to get us all up to speed with a massive plot dump at the beginning.

I had never seen this sequel before but from all the photos and stills I had seen over the years I felt the monster design and mask for Return of the Fly looked so much better than the original. And while I still think it looks better in theory, in action, oh, great googily-moogily; it's so huge the poor stuntman ensconced inside can barely keep his balance as he runs around. And watch as Wolff keeps reaching for it, to steady it, as the encephalitic contraption constantly wobbles and teeters around and threatens to topple him. 

Apparently, the giant had little stamina as well, which also hampered efforts to give the plodding chase scene any real juice. The inflatable proboscis of the Human Fly was a nice touch, and they really could've had something there if the size of the whole apparatus was halved. Also sad to report that the fly with the human head F/X might be even worse than the original.

However, I freely admit when the bad guy, played beautifully by Frankham, sends the cop through the transmitter, turning him into were-hamster, and he steps on the hamster with the human hands, thaaaaat kinda freaked me out a bit as the thing stubbornly refused to die. Beyond that, Return of the Fly is a bit too paint by the numbers to really generate any real amperage. Not all that terrible, but no more than serviceable as far as sequels go.

Return of the Fly (1959) Associated Producers (API) :: 20th Century Fox Film Corporation / P: Bernard Glasser / D: Edward Bernds / W: Edward Bernds, George Langelaan (story) / C: Brydon Baker / E: Richard C. Meyer / M: Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter / S: Vincent Price, Brett Halsey, David Frankham, Danielle De Metz, John Sutton
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