JULY 1999


Hillary Brooke
Remembered best as the loving Mom-turned-alien pawn in the original classic "Invaders From Mars," actress Hillary Brooke is dead at 84. Though she made her initial mark as the icy, blond "other woman" in dozens of B films, many will remember her recurring role as, ostensibly, herself in "The Abbott & Costello Show." She also played the part of Roberta Townsend opposite Gale Storm in the TV series "My Little Margie," which ran from 1952-55. "Invaders From Mars" has gone on to be one of cult-filmdom's inarguable classics, and Brooke's chilly performance as the housewife whose brain is overtaken by Martians is solid and convincing. Sadly, like the majority of her "Invaders From Mars" co-stars, Ms. Brooke rarely gave interviews or attended film conventions.

DeForest Kelley
Best known to untold legions of "Star Trek" fans as the cantankerous Dr. "Bones" McCoy, actor DeForest Kelley is dead at 79. He had been hospitalized at the Motion Picture and Television Country Home for some time. There are hundreds of "Star Trek" web sites, forums and periodicals capable of recounting Kelley's contribution to that cultural phenonomena. As far as his film work is concerned, prior to broaching the "final frontier," Kelley appeared in dozens of B films, often as a heavy, and narrowly lost the lead in "This Gun For Hire" to another newcomer, Alan Ladd. His TV credits include "Science Fiction Theater," "Perry Mason," "Route 66," "Have Gun, Will Travel," and many others. Kelley is survived by his wife of 55 years, Carolyn.

George E. Turner
Respected author, illustrator and film scholar George E. Turner is dead at 73. Turner served as editor of American Cinematographer magazine from 1985-91 and was known as one of the most knowledgable writers on film making. Beginning his career as a magazine cartoonist, he later produced special effects for the classic "Zorro" TV series, as well as several films. Among his his many books on films and film making are "Human Monsters," "The Cinema of Adventure, Romance & Terror" and "The Making of King Kong." He frequently collaborated with author Michael H. Price. Their revised edition of "Forgotten Horrors" was only recently republished by Midnight Marquee Press. George was also kind enough to contribute to The Astoundng B Monster. His expertise will be sorely missed.

A pair of under-budgeted, endearing oldies highlight the video mix this time out. But lest you get the impression that we're favoring the aged and obscure over the metal and mayhem of more recent vintage, we've tossed in a Trek epic, a derivative tale of marauding robots, and a bonafide Oscar nominee.

There is such a pervasive and volatile "Trekkie-bias" dominating the genre-film world that it is pretty much impossible to write an objective review of anything Star Trek-related. You're bound to offend someone who prefers Picard to Kirk, or loves the way Levar Burton looks in his Fram oil filter eyewear. Notwithstanding, the reviewer must forge ahead.

Admit it Trek fans, this latest addition to the franchise is paper-thin. Its a big-screen movie with a small-screen look. Its time-honored 'quest for the fountain of youth' plotline is predictable at every turn and its action sequences are muddled and unappealing. There are one or two wistful innovations (the regenerative properties of the planet the crew visits have temporarily restored Burton's eyesight, and Patrick Stewart finds romance with a youthful-looking woman 100 years his senior), and the collusion between a villainous alien race and Picard's commanding officers is a nice hitch. But by-and-large, it's a padded episode of the "Next Generation" series.

As directed by actor Jonathan Frakes (who makes screen time for a romantic dalliance or two for his character), the chase scenes and shootouts are darn-near impossible to comprehend -- who's chasing who, who got blown up? Worse still, the series' chief asset, its appealing cast, is under-exploited. This installment's guest-alien is played by Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham. As a despotic space guy plagued with a degenerative disease that causes blood to spurt out of his face from time to time, he chews the scenery right down to the marrow.

I like the basic premise of an innocent people occupying a health-spa planet that everyone covets, but there's just not enough substance to the notion to sustain a feature-length picture. Given the confusing action-segments, the fleeting appearances of some series regulars and the cheap, TV-movie feel of the proceedings, its easy to get the impression that producers are losing interest in continuing the big screen series based on their cash cow "Enterprise."

Of all the giant Spanish conquistador zombie movies ever made, this is the best. It's ultra-cheap and a little corny, but I've always held great affection for this film and it's great to see such a beautiful print of it moving into release.

It stars Edward Kemmer (Commander Buzz Corry of TV's "Space Patrol") as an intrepid anthropologist who comes across the remains of Vargas, a 16th-century Spanish explorer of northern California noted for his cruelty. All it takes is one errant bolt of lightning, and Vargas is revived and begins terrorizing the surrounding environs. Following a suspenseful pursuit through the Big Bear Lake region, the story is climaxed by a showdown in an abandoned mill (shades of "Frankenstein").

The cast is top-notch: Kemmer brings the same credibility and earnestness to the proceedings that he brought to the pioneering kid-vid "Space Patrol" earlier in the decade. As Kemmer's more experienced colleague, B-movie stalwart Morris Ankrum is on hand to display his entertaining brand of crusty dignity, and pretty Sally Fraser, an underrated and largely forgotten 1950s starlet, portrays Ankrum's daughter (and Kemmer's love interest).

The film is also noteworthy as one of the last projects for Universal Studios makeup legend Jack Pierce. After years of groundbreaking makeup creations (Karloff's "Frankenstein" monster being the most recognizable) Pierce was out of a job by the 1950s. Happily, he gets a special screen credit for designing the Vargas makeup, an inauspicious but endearing screen swan song.

The production was plagued by technical gaffs. It began snowing heavily during the filming of the climax, so fake snow had to be added to scenes already shot, and some patently phony-looking painted backdrops stand in for Big Bear on occasion. Even so, the production is invested with a good deal of energy. It was the first (and arguably best) film helmed by director Richard Cunha, who churned out four of the 50s best-known drive-in titles in quick succession; "Giant From the Unknown," "Missile to the Moon," "She Demons" and "Frankenstein's Daughter" all in '58 and '59.

Choppy, scratchy copies have been floating around for years, but this is the one to pick up on. Struck form the original negative, this print its crystal clear and hardly seems like the same film that haunted the late show of my youth.

PSYCHO (1998)
I suppose the first question that comes to mind is "why?" Didn't Hitchcock get it right? Is it supposed to be scarier in color? Is it more contemporary because they've added a scene of Norman Bates gratifying himself while spying on Marion Crane as she undresses?

This shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock's trendsetting film sparked outrage among horror purists, and not without justification. If ever a production sounded like a bad idea right out of the gate, it was this one. Even so, it's difficult to hate the film on an intrinsic level; it is literally a recreation of the classic -- the tracing of a masterpiece. Therefore, all of the shots and camera angles, the blocking and the pacing are near-perfect -- because they were planned that way by Hitchcock nearly 40 years ago. In addition, producers were wise to keep Bernard Herrman's seminal score in tact (though strangely, Danny Elfman gets a credit for adapting it).

In this version, as in the original, the film stands or falls based on its depiction of Norman, the knife-wielding mama's boy. On this score, Vince Vaughn is all wrong for the part. He comes off as entirely too competent, and certainly, anyone who looks so much like a movie star would have little trouble with the ladies. In contrast, Anthony Perkins was wiry, weasely and a trifle effeminate, qualities that communicated his vulnerability and volatility. (Significantly, neither actor matches the depiction of the slovenly Norman in Robert Bloch's novel).

The actors are quite good, particularly William H. Macy standing in for Martin Balsam as the ill-fated detective. Anne Heche tackles Janet Leigh's role as Marion Crane (no, the shower scene is NOT improved upon) and Julianne Moore assays Vera Miles' part as Marion's inquisitive sister. Supposedly, this was a pet project of director Gus Van Sant; green-lighting the project was perhaps his reward for the commercial success of films such as "Good Will Hunting." Well, he does a helluva of a Hitchcock impression, but in the end, it was a waste of his time and ours.

Not ostensibly a science fiction or a horror film, but nonetheless, "Gods and Monsters" is a significant acknowledgment of an important genre-film figure. This fictionalized depiction of the final days in the life of director James Whale ("Frankenstein," "The Invisible Man") surprised many fans by getting made in the first place. They were astounded when this small film received Oscar nominations! (Ian McKellan is quite good as Whale, as is Lynn Redgrave as his cantankerous housekeeper, but ultimately, neither was awarded a statuette).

It's a good movie, well acted, well paced, nostalgic in all the right places with a clever mix of scenes, real and recreated, from Whale's best film, "Bride of Frankenstein." But you have to wonder why the folks behind the film thought anyone would give a hoot about James Whale. Sure, horror buffs like myself thought it was interesting, but certainly not the guy who plunks down eight bucks to see "Armageddon." Further, why fictionalize Whale's relationship with a brawny handyman (well played by Brendan Fraser), his homosexuality, his shunning of Hollywood and decent into senility? Wasn't his real life tragic enough without the dramatic enhancements? While it's open to conjecture what Whale actually went through toward the end of his life, is it ever a good idea to fabricate events in the lives of historical figures?

The script is good in general, with many of the most incisive scenes going to Redgrave. McKellan brings the right mix of dignity and haught to his role as the embittered director, but key scenes depicting physical encounters with Fraser as McKellan comes to grips with his inner demons are muddled and maddeningly inconclusive.

Those caveats aside, I thinks it's terrific that this unpretentious little film about a Hollywood figure who enjoyed a less than auspicious career raised so many eyebrows. It's well worth seeing and may spark a desire to go back and watch the classic Whale films that once haunted the late-night airwaves.

It's been a long time since moviegoers were this innocent. There's an endearing naiveté about this earnestly-acted film that will either bore you or make you long for a time when we believed that science could accomplish anything.

The film makes little attempt to disguise that fact that it lifts its premise from "Journey to the Center of the Earth." It's team of dedicated scientists (does anyone remember when scientists were lauded for more than just the invention of Viagra?) sees the earth's core as the only safe haven from the growing dangers of surface dwelling. They design an auger-nosed, earth-boring tank (actually a pretty nifty gadget considering the film's low budget) and take the plunge.

The crackerjack miniatures are by Jack Rabin and Irving Block. While many of the models appear obvious by today's standards, keep in mind that these guys helped blaze the trail, attempting audacious depiction's of impossible events on a minuscule budget.

This dumb, noisy movie is the latest project of director Stuart Gordon who made a lot of noise initially with his quirky and innovative "Re-Animator" some years back. Subsequent films of Gordon's ("Robot Jox," "Castle Freak") failed to live up to "Re-Animator's" promise and "Space Truckers" is no exception.

Somehow, this coy and derivative sci-fier managed to attract a cast that's a cut above the direct-to-video norm. Dennis Hopper walks through his role as a crusty cargo driver, hauling freight along the space lanes of the distant future. Stephen Dorff is the young apprentice trucker whose thrown into cahoots with him due to some unforeseen circumstances, and Debi Mazar is the barmaid they fight over. Charles Dance goes way over the top as a Nazi-looking, half-cyborg-half-pirate guy (try and picture that) and even TV's George Wendt finds time to embarrass himself as a surly truck dispatcher.

The film is all about Hopper and company unknowingly hauling a shipment of killer robots -- and that's about all the plot there is. Admittedly, some of the robot effects and spaceship models are impressive diversions. Incidentally, many of you will be glad to hear that country music is sounding just the same in the year 2196! ("Big wheels of rubber gonna rub her off my mind," goes one plaintive refrain).


Michael F. Blake, whose books are available through Vestal Press or at http://www.amazon.com

Scott Essman, scottessman@yahoo.com

Harris Lentz III, whose books are available at http://www.mcfarlandpub.com

Bob Madison, whose books are available at http://www.amazon.com

Bryan Senn, whose books are available at http://www.mcfarlandpub.com and at http://www.midmar.com/books.html

Tom Weaver, whose books are available at http://www.mcfarlandpub.com and at http://www.midmar.com/books.html

PARTING BLURB "The coolest monster shindig of chicks and chills!" -- The Beach Girls and the Monster

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