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Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot
Wednesday, August 24, 2005
This Tape Will Self-Destruct In Five Seconds

Why hasn't Paramount released any MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE episodes on DVD yet? Don't they like money?

If you only know MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE through the two Tom Cruise movies, you're probably asking, "Who gives a shit? MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE sucks." And it's true--the movies do suck, and they have nothing to do with MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. The first film at least borrowed Lalo Schifrin's famous theme and a few other gimmicks, but pretty much ignored everything that was unique and exciting about the television series. The exception is the bravura sequence in which Cruise dangles upside down in a top-secret computer lab to steal some data. Director Brian DePalma wisely played it without music or dialogue, and it's a wonderful piece of thriller filmmaking. It's too bad he didn't--or couldn't (he reportedly butted heads with his boss, producer Cruise, on several occasions)--do more of it. The sequel, directed by John Woo, is a piece of shit, one of the dullest craptaculars I've seen in a long time. And it has even less to do with the TV series than the first film.

No, if you haven't seen the TV show, you're missing one of the medium's great adventures.

M:I aired on CBS from 1966-1973, a healthy seven-season run. It originally starred Steven Hill as Dan Briggs, the head of the Impossible Missions Force, a government group that engaged in espionage of the highest priority. Their missions were so dangerous that they were warned before each one that if any of them were killed or captured, "the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions."

Hill was an intense, intelligent and extremely skilled stage actor who was a favorite of M:I creator Bruce Geller, though not of CBS. Hill also turned out to be troublesome and difficult, and was dumped after one season. You undoubtedly know him from his long association with LAW & ORDER, where he played curmudgeonly District Attorney Adam Schiff for more than a decade.

Geller replaced Hill with Peter Graves, a rugged, handsome, dependable leading man who had bounced around Hollywood for a decade and a half. Despite a memorable role in Billy Wilder's STALAG 17, he was probably best known as the star of several 1950's science fiction movies, including Roger Corman's memorable IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, Bert I. Gordon's schlocky BEGINNING OF THE END about giant cockroaches, and KILLERS FROM SPACE, directed by Billy's less-talented brother W. Lee Wilder.

Graves became M:I's most prominent icon, so much so that hardly anyone remembers anymore that Hill was ever on the show. He went on to do a memorable role in AIRPLANE and to host A&E's BIOGRAPHY, but it will be MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE leading his obituary when he one day passes on.

Graves played Jim Phelps, the IMF mastermind who thought up each episode's intricate mission. Also starring were Martin Landau, still a busy character actor who won an Oscar for playing Bela Lugosi in ED WOOD, as Rollin Hand, a magician and master of disguise; Landau's wife Barbara Bain, a University of Illinois graduate, as model Cinnamon Carter; Greg Morris as Barney, a brilliant electronics and explosives expert during an era when blacks were still rarely shown as intelligent; and Indianapolis' Peter Lupus as Willy, a strongman.

Each episode found the M:I gang perpetrating an outlandishly complex caper or con job on an unsuspecting mobster, killer or foreign dictator. In the early years, the series mainly concentrated on overseas espionage, and part of the fun was learning what made-up Communist country was the setting each week. The show never had Soviet or Red Chinese or Cuban villains; they were always from a spot on the globe entirely invented by MISSION's writers, with a language to match. It couldn't be English, but it had to be recognizable to American viewers, so you always saw signs that read "gaz" for gasoline or "verbaton" for Do Not Enter or something like that. The series eventually moved away from international missions to battling organized crime in America, which was probably cheaper, since the show shot everything in Southern California. MISSION had the run of the Paramount backlot, which had jungles, castles, cathedrals, prison camps...anyplace an international crime-fighting unit might need to go. It also gave the cast a chance to speak in silly accents. Hearing Peter Lupus speak English with a Czech accent is one of TV's great unsung pleasures.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was, and remains, one of television's best-written shows. The plots were so intricate that they had to be virtually airtight to be believable. They were often outlandish and sometimes relied on a handy deux es machina, but the shows were so slick and polished that you could usually buy whatever craziness the writers dished out.

For example, in "The Photographer", the M:I gang had to retrieve a secret code being transmitted by an American fashion photographer and traitor (Anthony Zerbe) to his Commie bosses from his underground bomb shelter. To do so, Phelps concocted an audacious plan to convince Zerbe that nuclear missiles had bombed the U.S. and that World War III was underway. So the good guys substituted Zerbe's bullets for paintballs, faked their own deaths, fed him faked radio broadcasts, and even built a miniature 360-degree diorama and slipped it around his periscope, so when Zerbe peeked topside, all he saw was burned-out scenery.

In another episode, the M:I group kidnapped gangster William Shatner, gave him "temporary" plastic surgery to make him look 30 years younger, and built a ten-square-block replica of the neighborhood he lived in as a child. It was all to get him to lead them to a hiding place, and the plan was that, when he woke up, he'd be convinced the last 30 years were just a dream. Yeah, it's ridiculous, but you either go with the flow or you don't, and by the time that episode aired, M:I had already done about 150 of them, and viewers were willing to cut them some slack. The most complex episode, "The Mind of Stefan Miklos", was perhaps too complicated, even for the sophisticated MISSION audience. A recent article in the NEW YORK TIMES suggested that today's TV shows and audiences are smarter than they've ever been. Anyone who has ever watched both MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and FEAR FACTOR knows that's complete idiocy.

Landau and Bain left the series after a salary dispute and several Emmy nominations (Bain won three in a row). Their replacement was Leonard Nimoy, who, months earlier, had completed a three-year run as Mr. Spock on STAR TREK just a couple of stages over on the Paramount lot. Nimoy played nimble-fingered makeup expert Paris for a couple of years. Also popping up as regulars for a year or two were Lesley Ann Warren, Lynda Day George, Barbara Anderson and Sam Elliott, mustacheless as a doctor named Doug. The show also managed to attract nearly every major TV actor of the era as guest stars, including Robert Conrad, Pernell Roberts, William Shatner, Robert Reed, Joan Collins, Arthur Hill, Edward Asner, Darren McGavin, Martin Sheen and so many others. Hell, I know Monte Markham must have been on at least once.

It's amazing that M:I lasted as long as it did, even though the ratings were very high. It was a very expensive show to do, since so much of it was set outdoors and in different locations. There was only one permanent set--Phelps' apartment, where Jim laid out the mission each week. It was also heavily quoted, parodied and paid homage to everywhere from GET SMART to MAD magazine. The opening tape scenes, where Graves received his mission in spoken-word form each week, spawned such catchphrases as "Your mission, should you choose to accept it..." and "This recording will self-destruct in ten seconds." Even those who never saw M:I will likely recognize these lines.

In addition to its actors, the individual most closely identified with M:I must be Lalo Schifrin, the Argentine-born jazz composer who wrote the opening theme, one of TV's most memorable. Penned in a wonky 5/4 time signature, it was intended by Schifrin to be part of the pilot's underscore, but Geller loved it so much that he made it the series' theme. Again, even those who don't know where the music is from certainly recognize the piece when they hear it. It kicks off each episode with a feeling of urgency and excitement in a way that today's TV dramas, which typically flash dozens of names over scenes instead of using a title sequence.

The bad news is that Cruise is hard at work on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, a sequel that absolutely nobody wants to see. Ask yourself this: have you ever heard anybody say, "Those MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movies really kick ass"?

The good news, potentially, is that Paramount will use the tie-in opportunity as a reason to release the M:I TV show on DVD. Chances are they'll skip the Graves-less first season and begin with Season Two. I can live with that, as long as I can start building a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE DVD collection as soon as possible.

Posted by Marty at 11:27 PM CDT
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Monday, August 22, 2005
James Booth, R.I.P.
Now Playing: DEEP SPACE
Actor James Booth has passed away in Essex at age 77. Booth was an extremely distinguished British actor with roles on stage and in major films like ZULU and THE JAZZ SINGER. So distinguished, in fact, that it's difficult to imagine such a man also being a screenwriter of Michael Dudikoff movies, but he was. Two of Dudikoff's best films for Cannon, AVENGING FORCE and AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION, were penned by Booth, who also played Dudikoff's suspicious CIA contact in AVENGING FORCE and later appeared with him in AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION.

In Booth's honor, I watched another of his late-career films tonight. DEEP SPACE is an Earth-set ALIEN ripoff, shot in seven weeks on an alleged budget of $1.5 million by director Fred Olen Ray. Ray had just made THE TOMB for Trans World Entertainment, and eagerly jumped right back in bed with them for DEEP SPACE.

Booth's role is a small one, and was probably performed in a single day. As sinister government scientist Forsythe, he's responsible for a spaceship containing a slimy monster and its two eggs that crashes near Los Angeles. The toothy Charles Napier plays a typically unorthodox movie detective assigned by by-the-book boss Bo Svenson (Buford Pusser in the WALKING TALL sequels) to investigate the bloody murders of a pair of teenagers. Napier and partner Ron Glass (BARNEY MILLER) encounter interference from the U.S. government, while Napier simultaneously receives mysterious phone calls from psychic Julie Newmar (Catwoman!) and quality sack time with sexy policewoman Ann Turkel (HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP). The killings are being perpetrated by a trio of slimy monsters with tentacles and big teeth that were developed by the Defense Department to use against our enemies, but are now on the loose in Los Angeles

None of this is very original, but it's all done with good humor. Ray tosses in enough tongue-in-cheek action (Napier serenades his date by playing bagpipes!), gore and recognizable character actors like Anthony Eisley (JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF TIME) and Michael Forest (BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE) to make DEEP SPACE an OK time-passer. The screenplay by Ray and T.L. Lankford could have used a few new twists; Newmar's role seems to have only been added because the writers couldn't figure out any other way to wrap up the plot.

It's cool to see Napier play the lead for once. He tosses off some one-liners ("I'm gonna kick some monster ass!"), gets all gored up while whaling his opponent with a chainsaw, and even gets to make out with Ann Turkel.

Posted by Marty at 11:20 PM CDT
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Sunday, August 21, 2005
Unknown Subject
Now Playing: UNSUB
It's almost a cliche to say that something was "ahead of its time", but I think it's actually true of UNSUB, an NBC crime drama that aired only eight times before its quick cancellation in the spring of 1989. The best way to describe UNSUB quickly is that it was C.S.I. meets MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE with more humor. If this show had debuted a couple of seasons ago, it would fit it nicely with the networks' steady stream of plot-oriented cop shows that focus on bloody crime scenes and up-to-date technology over characterization.

Stephen J. Cannell was the executive producer of UNSUB, which is a bit of a surprise, considering it's not very much like a typical Cannell series. His biggest hits, like THE A-TEAM, THE ROCKFORD FILES and THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, were nearly as much comedy as drama and relied on a talented light cast to yuk its way through fluffy plots. UNSUB was quite different, a dark police procedural about a special branch of the Justice Department that jetted all over the United States investigating serial killings. Michael Mann's film MANHUNTER was clearly a major inspiration for the series. I think MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE may have been too, since a typical episode opens with the characters, each of whom a specialist in some arcane crime-fighting procedure, sitting around the table being briefed by their boss before traveling cross-country to start the case.

David Soul, who spent much of the 1980's on NBC starring in CASABLANCA, THE YELLOW ROSE and IN THE LINE OF DUTY: THE F.B.I. MURDERS, starred as John Westley Grayson, "Westy" to his friends. Like C.S.I.'s William Petersen, Soul was an experienced actor (best known as one-half of STARSKY & HUTCH) with enough gravitas to believably head up an elite crimefighting unit. Other cast members included Kent McCord, another longtime TV star from ADAM-12, as a forensics expert who was a whiz with a microscope; the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh as the crusty, old-school ex-cop; Joe Maruzzo as the profiler; Jennifer Hetrick as the psychologist; and Richard Kind, later a familiar face from SPIN CITY.

Like C.S.I., which premiered over a decade later, UNSUB focused on bizarre killers with deep psychological problems. But unlike the more recent program, UNSUB stuck to just one case per episode and did a better job of letting its actors breathe, finding a scene or two occasionally to allow them to develop their characters, unlike the all-work caricatures in Petersen's troop.

Their best episode was a two-parter titled "And the Dead Shall Rise to Condemn Thee", which found the UNSUB cast investigating the disappearance of two young black women who were last seen in the company of a charismatic black preacher, played by the late Jason Bernard, one of those actors you immediately recognize from dozens of films and TV shows. Soul's Westy, the son of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, had to confront his own rough childhood and religious guilt in his quest to prove Bernard's guilt in two murders.

An earlier episode, "Clean Slate", guest-starred a young Kevin Spacey in a dual role: an obsessive-complusive bomber and his twin brother, dying of cancer. An accidental bonus for C.S.I. fans is a guest shot in the first episode by Paul Guilfoyle, who plays Captain Brass on the CBS series, as a mother-dominated killer.

Since only eight episodes appear to have been filmed, UNSUB was never syndicated and is unlikely to be released on DVD. I believe Cannell owns the rights to UNSUB, so the ball is in his court. I suppose if there's an audience for DVD box sets of THE COMMISH and SILK STALKINGS, there might be one for UNSUB, the original Crime Scene Investigators.

Posted by Marty at 10:19 PM CDT
Updated: Monday, August 22, 2005 7:58 AM CDT
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Friday, August 19, 2005
Watch Out For Snakes
DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY was one of 20th Century Fox’s biggest moneymakers of 1974. Peter Fonda, already a counterculture icon from the biker films THE WILD ANGELS and EASY RIDER, starred as a rebellious holdup man racing an army of cops to the border in his souped-up ‘69 Dodge Charger, burning rubber and breaking laws all the way. Deftly directed by John Hough, who went on to make two successful WITCH MOUNTAIN films for Disney, “DIRTY CRAZY” (as Fonda calls it in his interview on the Anchor Bay DVD) was an unpretentious, gear-crunching car-chase movie that cleaned up in drive-in theaters all across the country.

Needless to say, the suits at Fox were eager to find another drive-in flick for Fonda, preferably one that could stick him behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. Along came writers Wes Bishop and Lee Frost, who had made names from themselves during the 1960’s as makers of “roughies”--basically softcore sex films with violent overtones--but had since moved towards more mainstream exploitation fare, most notably THE THING WITH TWO HEADS, a ridiculous melding of mad-scientist and car-crash genres that starred Oscar-winning actor Ray Milland (THE LOST WEEKEND) as a wealthy, terminally ill bigot whose head is transplanted onto the shoulder of a black convict played by former L.A. Ram Rosey Grier. Their script, RACE WITH THE DEVIL, was a similarly structured mixture of horror and action, and Fox lured Fonda to the film by hiring as his co-star the great character actor Warren Oates. Fonda and Oates were good friends, having worked together on Fonda’s directorial debut, 1971’s THE HIRED HAND.

Fonda and Oates play Roger and Frank, a couple of motocross racers traveling across Texas in a huge motor home, accompanied by their wives, Kelly (Lara Parker) and Alice (Loretta Swit, then starring on M*A*S*H). Their bucolic vacation is interrupted during its first night, when the two men witness a Satanic ritual occurring near their campsite. They’re shocked to see a masked man, surrounded by chanting acolytes, sacrifice a nude woman, and are forced to go on the run when the devil worshippers discover their presence.

This leads to the film’s first of several suspenseful scenes, as the panicky campers get their RV stuck in a mudhole trying to escape and struggle to dig their way clear as crazed men in white robes chase after them on foot. The vacationers head straight to the local sheriff (R.G. Armstrong), who pooh-poohs the notion of Satan worshippers in his community, even when confronted with the bloody scene of the crime. And no wonder, since it appears that the sheriff--and nearly everyone else the travelers meet along their dusty route--is one of them.

RACE WITH THE DEVIL was directed by Jack Starrett, a solid action director perhaps better known as a character actor who specialized in tough guys (his most prominent role is that of the cruel deputy Galt who brutalizes Sylvester Stallone in FIRST BLOOD). Starrett was a late-in-the-game replacement for Lee Frost, when Fox became disenchanted by the original director’s first two weeks of footage. Starrett’s CLEOPATRA JONES and SLAUGHTER were major blaxploitation hits, and his brilliant crime drama THE GRAVY TRAIN, from a screenplay co-written by Terrence Malick (THE THIN RED LINE), remains sadly unavailable on home video in any format.

Starrett’s approach to RACE WITH THE DEVIL is a disquieting one, interjecting post-Watergate paranoia into a slam-bang action movie loaded with fantastic stunts. Texture is added by the cool dichotomy between the victims, couched in a 35-foot RV armed with the latest creature comforts, and their pursuers, primitive zealots able to scare the bejeezus out of them through their faceless omnipresence.

Adding to the suspense are Fonda’s and Oates’ Everymen portrayals. We know Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds could have kicked those Satan worshippers back to San Antone with their eyes closed, but using “regular guys” like Fonda and Oates puts the audience into their shoes and brings the horror closer to home. It also helps that Starrett shoots the action without the use of process shots or trick photography, which makes the danger look more realistic; Fonda even battles a real rattlesnake at one point!

Like DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY, RACE WITH THE DEVIL is often remembered today for its similarly downbeat ending, which isn’t the most logical way to go, but is unquestionably vivid. It was also a huge hit, cementing Fonda’s status as one of the most dependable B-level leading men of the 1970’s.

Posted by Marty at 5:59 PM CDT
Updated: Friday, August 19, 2005 5:59 PM CDT
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Monday, August 15, 2005
Take Me In, Tender Woman
Make sure you pick up this week's issue of The Hub to read my piece on RACE WITH THE DEVIL. It was apparently trimmed a bit to squeeze into the space, but I'll run the unexpurgated version right here next week.

Speaking of Peter Fonda, what kind of B-movie star would he be without at least one killer-snake movie on his resume? 1982's SPASMS is a looney-tunes Canadian horror movie with Toronto very unconvincingly standing in for San Diego (!) and Oliver Reed equally unconvincingly standing in for a good actor. How much of this comes from the source material, a novel called DEATH BITE, I don't know, but the story concerns big game hunter Reed's obsession with bagging a giant serpent god from Hell that he encountered on a trip to New Guinea seven years earlier that crippled him and killed his brother. He now maintains a psychic link with the snake that psychiatrist Fonda claims is caused by a virus that was spread in the snake's venom. Reed has the snake captured and shipped to California, where it escapes, killing a nude woman taking a shower (of course) and many more people, including legendary Canuck character actor Al Waxman as Crowley, hired by a local snake worshipping cult to snatch the serpent and deliver it to their "church"

To call Reed's performance "unrestrained" is an understatement, and I ain't buying Fonda's shrink credentials either. Dick Smith provides some bubbling bladder effects, but the snake itself is wonderfully phony-looking. It appears director William Fruet ran out of either time or money to shoot the climax, which barely registers and is over before you know it. Kerrie Keane, fresh off THE INCUBUS, and Angus MacInnes from STRANGE BREW are also in it. Tangerine Dream performs the closing theme. SPASMS garnered a bit of notoriety during its original U.S. release, thanks to the juicy stills of Waxman's lumpy demise that surfaced in FANGORIA. It's not really a very good movie, and, in fact, it isn't even the best killer-snake movie Oliver Reed made in 1982. Make sure you seek out Blue Underground's nice DVD of VENOM, in which Reed plays the chauffeur of a London family who masterminds the kidnapping of their young son and finds his gang trapped inside their house along with a vicious black mamba. Now that's high concept, folks.

Posted by Marty at 11:09 PM CDT
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Sunday, August 14, 2005
Brain And Brain, What Is Brain?

“Spock’s Brain” is simultaneously one of the greatest and one of the worst STAR TREK episodes. Penned by a very good writer, Gene L. Coon (who sought to hide his participation behind his nom de plume of “Lee Cronin”) and directed by the dependable Marc Daniels, who made more STAR TREKs than any other director besides Joseph Pevney, “Spock’s Brain” was chosen by NBC to lead off the series’ third season--a season that nearly didn’t happen. The network had actually cancelled STAR TREK after its second year because of low ratings, but a massive letter-writing campaign and vocal fan outcry lured NBC into bringing the show back. The downside is that NBC only renewed TREK with a drastically slashed budget and in a killer 9:00pm timeslot on Friday nights, a time when few of TREK’s young, upscale audience would be home to watch (the days before VCRs and TiVOs).

STAR TREK’s budget was low enough, as those who like to mock its visual effects have noticed, but it seems as though the show’s writing budget took a major hit. Scripts no longer came from the likes of celebrated science fiction authors like Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon, and stronger directors like Pevney and Joseph Sargent who were able to rein in the performances of a cast prone to hamminess gave way to hacks like David Alexander and Herb Wallerstein, whose episodes were mostly wretched.

Their shows were not bad in a good way either, although there is fun to be had in watching Shatner play an insane woman inside Captain Kirk’s body in “Turnabout Intruder”. “Spock’s Brain”, on the other hand, is one of the most entertaining hours of STAR TREK you will ever see. Its ridiculous premise, silly dialogue, wonky science and blatant plotholes aside, the episode also gives us appearances by the entire cast, a couple of fight scenes, beautiful scantily-clad women, some funny-looking props, and one of the show’s patented indoor/outdoor sets. In other words, the best and the worst TREK has to offer.

The U.S.S. Enterprise is cruising along through space at warp speed, just minding its own business, when another spacecraft pops up on the bridge’s viewscreen. While engineer Scott (James Doohan) is marveling at its advanced technology, a hot chick in knee-high boots appears out of nowhere on the bridge. A couple of security guys rush to help out, but the purple-clad hottie pushes a few buttons on her wrist remote, and knocks out everyone on the ship. For some reason, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) collapses head first in his captain’s chair with his buttocks thrust towards the audience.

When everyone awakens (and, by the way, Kirk is always the first to come to), an urgent plea from Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) brings Kirk to Sickbay, where he discovers the prone body of his Vulcan first officer, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy).

Kirk: “Is he dead?”
McCoy: “He’s worse than dead.”
Kirk: “Come on, Bones, what’s the mystery?!”
McCoy: “His brain is gone.”

That’s right--somehow the space hottie has managed to steal Spock’s brain (a great drinking game would be to chug every time someone utters the phrase “Spock’s brain”) without even shaving his head. His “incredible Vulcan physique” remains alive on life-support, but only for 24 hours, which gives Kirk less than a day to find Spock’s brain and put it back inside his head. During the entire scene, Scotty, who for some reason followed Kirk to Sickbay from the bridge, stands around saying and doing absolutely nothing. Maybe Doohan was getting paid by the scene and called Marc Daniels for a favor, I don’t know. At any rate, it’s funny to watch Kelley and Shatner having this serious conversation about Spock’s brain while Doohan stands around with a shocked look on his face like he’d like to say something, but has nothing to contribute. Kirk leaves the meeting by demanding that McCoy and Scotty get Spock ready to travel, although he doesn’t know where to.

The Enterprise crew finds an unusual ion trail and deduces that it must have been left behind by the spaceship that apparently carried the purple-wearing space hottie in go-go boots. Sulu follows it at Warp 6. Also, STAR TREK’s special effects crew discovered the art of rear-projection technology this season. It used to be that whatever was shown on the main bridge viewscreen was matted in later over a blue screen, so no actor could stand in front of it. With rear-projection, they could, so Shatner wanders back and forth in front of it several times, just to show off the new effect. It does give the director a new camera angle to exploit, which was necessary after two seasons of shooting scenes on that tiny bridge set.

Eventually, the gang tracks the ion trail to one of three inhabited planets in the Sigma Draconis system. Using what information they have about each, none of them has a civilization capable of space travel. Kirk makes a guess, and a landing party beams down to a cold planet surface. The party consists of Kirk, Scotty, Ensign Chekov (Walter Koenig) and a couple of red-shirt security guards. Believe it or not, both red-shirts survive the episode. No drinking will be done on their behalf. The whole party ends up skirmishing with a bunch of cavemen who throw foam rocks at them. Kirk phasers them (on stun), and questions one of them, who doesn’t know what a woman is, but tells them about The Others--”givers of pain and delight.” Chekov finds a nearby cave stocked with food and an electric eye beam--aha, a trap!

Before they trip the trap to tangle with The Others, Kirk orders Dr. McCoy to beam down from the Enterprise with a surprise guest: Zombie Spock! That’s right--it’s a completely brainless, emotionless Spock, wearing bizarre metal headgear that I guess was designed by the geniuses that are Bones and Scotty and is operated by the ten-button remote control in McCoy’s hand. So it’s a radio-controlled Zombie Spock. Now available from Team Losi as a ready-to-run.

A few clicks of the remote, and Zombie Spock enters the cave, along with Kirk, Scotty and McCoy (Chekov and the red-shirts stay outside, warming themselves by a phaser-heated rock). The trap turns the whole cave into an elevator, which plummets, according to the apparent speed and length of their trip, several thousand feet underground. The door opens to reveal another space hottie in boots. She isn’t wearing purple, though, and phaser-happy Kirk stuns her into submission. Questioning her is useless--she doesn’t know jackshit about anything. Not just about Spock’s brain, but anything, not even the meaning of the word “him.” She only knows the crew is “not Morg or Eymorg.” Heck, I knew that much.

At this point, Zombie Spock begins to talk. Well, not really, but Scotty has somehow managed to pull in Spock’s voice over his communicator. Yep, somehow the disembodied brain is able to figure the communicator’s radio frequency and speak in Spock’s normal voice. Just go with it. Spock doesn’t know where the hell he is or why he’s there, so the boys trample on, just to run into…her. The space hottie who stole Spock’s brain! And she’s got a couple of big dudes in bad costumes with her. She quickly grabs her wrist remote again and sends the landing party, except Zombie Spock, to their knees. Kirk is, as always, the last to succumb and will be the first to wake up. Star’s privilege.

They awaken in a big conference room, somehow balanced on stools and wearing large belts with round buckles around their waists. An interrogation scene commences, with Kirk getting more and more pissed off, demanding to know where Spock’s brain is, and the space hottie, who appears to be the leader of the underground society, shaking her head in a cute but frustrating way, her simple mind unable to grasp the concept of Spock, his brain or anything else, for that matter. We finally learn that her name is Kara. She’s played by actress Marj Dusay, a very busy television actress then and now who acts today in daytime soaps.

Kara’s blathering finally elicits something Kirk can use, her reference to “the Controller”. Shatner’s acting is great here, as he tries to fool Kara into believing suddenly, after all his hard talk about Spock’s brain, that they have come to meet the Controller. Kara calls bullshit and knocks them out again. I guess the belts are used to knock them out using Kara’s wrist remote, but since she was able to knock out 430 Enterprise crewmen who were not wearing belts, I have no idea why the belts are necessary.

Kirk, McCoy and Scott wake up (Kirk first, of course) to discover the women gone and their phasers and communicators guarded by those two big dudes. They kick their guards’ asses…well, actually Kirk does. The manly captain handles one, while Bones and Scotty tag-team the other. Even though they are trained Federation soldiers, they aren’t enough to handle one brainless dude, so when Kirk finishes off his man, using his patented Flying Leg Kick and Two-Fisted Blow to the Back of the Neck techniques copied by kids everywhere, he handles theirs too.

Off they go, RC Zombie Spock clicking along beside them, to find Spock’s brain, which is apparently being used to, um, control everything. Scotty somehow zeros in on the brain, and they follow the readings to a room containing the Controller. Somehow, Kara is already in there and hits the zapper button on her wrist remote. The three men tumble to the ground again. This is hilarious, since it’s obvious that Shatner demanded to be the last to fall, but Doohan is still struggling to stay up behind him, and you just know the two actors were whispering to each other while the cameras were rolling during the scene:

Shatner: “Fall down, Doohan, I’m the star here.”
Doohan: “Screw you, Shatner, I’m tired of your bullshit.”

Finally, Doohan gets tired of dragging the scene out and falls to the ground, while Kirk grabs the Zombie Spock control, hits one of the unmarked buttons, and commands Zombie Spock to walk over to Kara and press a button on her control (she has only three buttons!), causing their belts to pop off. Only three buttons, and one of them exclusively removes the belts. Okay.

Here’s where they figure out that they’re basically in the boiler room and Spock’s brain is operating all the electricity, water, life-support, etc. Kara pleads with them not to take the Controller, because then her people will all die. Kirk is all, screw that, how do I get Spock outta there? She points towards a large, glass, bubble-headed old-fashioned hair dryer and calls it The Teacher. Put on the Teacher and you’ll learn all you need to about stealing brains and stuff. Kirk makes her put it on, and, presto, she’s smart now. Smart enough to yank a phaser out of her skirt. How it got there and why, we don’t know. I don’t think even Gene Coon knew. All I know is that she’s got a phaser--set to kill--aimed right at Kirk’s gut, which is about three inches away. Scotty, standing three inches to the side and a master of battlefield tactics, lets out an overly melodramatic moan, distracting Kara and allowing Kirk to grab the phaser. McCoy puts the Teacher on, figuring it will give him the medical knowledge necessary to put a brain back inside a Vulcan head without marring the hair on it. “Of course…a child could do it,” a slightly maddened-looking McCoy mutters.

Now McCoy is furiously operating on Zombie Spock, whose head is sticking through a hole in a partition. Why a surgical table and instruments are readily available in the boiler room, I don’t know. McCoy is operating like a madman, fast, precise, until…

Scotty: “Captain Kirk, he’s…forgetting!”

The Teacher starts to wear off, and McCoy starts freaking out. “All the ganglia, nerves, a million of them…what am I supposed to do?” Captain Kirk knows. He orders Bones to reconnect Spock’s vocal cords. Spock, I guess, already knows advanced brain surgery, so while he’s lying on the table with his head split wide open, he starts telling McCoy what to do. Put that there, attach that there, mmm, yeah, that’s perfect, thanks. That this is not the stupidest part of the episode says a hell of a lot about “Spock’s Brain”.

Spock sits up, hair unmussed, and starts babbling nonsense about the technical aspects of running the ladies’ room plumbing with his brain and all else that has occurred. The brilliant freeze-frame parody endings on POLICE SQUAD will pop into your head, as Kirk, McCoy and Scotty laugh at Spock’s clueless utterings, and Shatner ad-libs an out-of-character gag by grabbing the remote control from Kelley and dramatically cranking it in a humorous effort to shut Spock up. Meanwhile, Kara and Her Space Hotties are left without a Controller to heat and operate their elaborate underground society (that we see only three or four members of), so now they have to move to the surface and freeze their asses off with the illiterate cavemen up there. Thanks a lot, Kirk, you jagoff.

Many good episodes were to come in STAR TREK’s third (and final) season, but few as entertaining as “Spock’s Brain”.

Posted by Marty at 1:00 PM CDT
Updated: Sunday, August 14, 2005 1:04 PM CDT
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Wednesday, August 10, 2005
Wizard Of Speed And Time

Well, I think I may be sufficiently rested enough from Wizard World Weekend that I can write semi-coherently about it. Wandering around looking at comics for three days is more wearying than you might think.

Wizard World Chicago is the 2nd largest annual comic book convention in the United States (world?). I’ve been attending pretty regularly with my brother Bub and our childhood friend Mitch for…I don’t even remember how many years. Since the early ‘90s, I believe, when it was called the Chicago Comic Con. WIZARD magazine bought it a few years ago and renamed it Wizard World. It’s now Wizard World Chicago (WW), since WIZARD has begun sponsoring similar shows in cities like Boston. I’ve only missed two or three during that time, and it’s easily one of my favorite weekends of the year, particularly because it gives this homebody a chance to travel and get away from Champaign-Urbana, as I so rarely do.

This year, we had a fourth member, an amiable fellow known as Jimmy the Buddha. At least, that’s his Xbox live handle that he uses when he participates with Bub and Mitch in their Monday night online Halo 2 gatherings. We all booked rooms at the Hyatt, which adjoins the Stephens Center in Rosemont, Illinois that houses WW, and looked forward to three days of comics. Mmmm…comics.

I spent Thursday night with Mitch and his family in LeRoy in anticipation of Friday’s early start. Bub, who drove up from St. Louis and spent the night at our dad’s house, arrived not long after the Buddha, and after a quick Big Breakfast at the local McDonald’s, we were on the road.

The show opened at 9am, but we got there around 10:30 or so. I tried to hold off buying as long as I could in anticipation of the Sunday discounts, but not long after I began browsing, I found someone with several boxes of “12 comics for $5”. I quickly picked up 48 beat-up, unbagged but readable comics for $20. I think I’m a rarity at WW, in that I’m looking for quantity over quality. While I am attempting to collect DC’s entire run of 100-Page Super-Spectaculars of the 1970’s (I have almost all the non-romance issues), as well as their 48-page and 52-page issues, I really go there looking for as many cheap comics as I can find. I’m not interesting in mint copies or in investments. I just want to read these books and put them away. I also can’t bring myself to read most comics produced after 1984 or so. They just don’t interest me, and I’m not very familiar with today’s crop of artists and writers. Give me Denny O’Neil or Roy Thomas over Brian Michael Bendis any day. I’ll even take Gerry Conway over Bendis.

This year is the first time we all took cell phones, which made it handy whenever one of us became separated from the rest, which is easy to do in that crowd. I saw a lot of people there with babies and small children; I have no idea how they manage to hang on to them there. In general, I’m anti-cell phone, but they are certainly handy and tailor-made for something like a large convention.

WW has three sections: the promotional end, which consists of booths representing various companies, like DC Comics, Marvel, Playstation, Lions Gate, Moonstone and other companies selling comics, toys, games, movies, etc. The other end is Artists Alley, where long tables are manned by various independent artists and writers selling their own wares. Sometimes they aren’t involved in comics at all; Artists Alley is also where you’ll occasionally find models selling photos of themselves or B-movie personalities like Ken Foree (DAWN OF THE DEAD) and Tom Savini (FRIDAY THE 13TH) selling photos. Neither attended this year—in fact, I saw no movie personalities on Artists Alley this year—but there were some stars in attendance on the other side of the hall, including SUPERMAN’s Lois Lane, Margot Kidder; wrestler Mick Foley; SHAZAM star Jackson Bostwick; Mercedes McNab from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER; and Sam Jones, who starred in 1980’s FLASH GORDON. Buddha got an autograph from and a photo with Jones, who turned out to be a boisterous but friendly chap with a hard-sell approach.

The center section is the largest—that’s where all the comics are. Comics make up at least 75% of the seller booths. The others range from movie memorabilia and bootleg DVDs to swords and toys. Comics dealers range in their product too. Some are the big-shot expensive high-grade dealers, the ones with nice copies of AMAZING FANTASY #15 or BATMAN #1 to sell for thousands of dollars. I tend to gravitate towards the dealers with Silver Age and Bronze Age books on sale for 40-60% off. Since I assume these books’ prices have been jacked up in the first place, I figure I’m getting more or less a fair deal.

Dinner was at Spaghetti Warehouse on Friday night, and then a late night of screwing around, reading comics, laughing and making fun of the idiots we grew up with in Mansfield followed.

Saturday began with the Hyatt’s breakfast buffet and two plates filled with eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, oatmeal, cereal, fruit…whatever the hell you wanted. Also on Saturday, we were joined by Kevin, another childhood friend of Bub, Mitch and me (and my annual B-Fest partner), and Tolemite, making his first WW appearance. You can read Toler's account on his blog, but suffice to say he had a great time looking at comics, scoping chicks (I was impressed with the tall, leggy, slightly bucktoothed brunette in the sexy Little Red Riding Hood costume who went ga-ga over Toler’s Clutch T-shirt) and meeting one of his idols, artist Geof Darrow, who collaborated with Frank Miller on the HARD BOILED series, among others. Toler also went out to dinner with us at Maggiano’s, where we tackled the largest helpings of spaghetti and meatballs known to man and failed to conquer them.

Sunday was more of the same—more wandering, more comic-buying, more people-watching, more girl-scoping. You may not believe it, but there are a lot of attractive women at WW. Granted, many of them are models who are paid to be there, such as the stunning Hulk girls at the Marvel booth or the petite redhead in the Red Sonya chainmail bikini. But a lot of them are just regular women looking at comics. You also find a lot of people who come dressed in costumes. My favorite was the short, fat, bald guy dressed as Robin who wore glasses, so had his mask pulled up onto his forehead. There were also a fat Darth Vader and a fat Dr. Doom. Lotta fat people at WW, including the four of us, who were stunned to learn that the free Avengers T-shirts some cute girls handed out to us were large-sized. The percentage of men at WW who can wear a Large T-shirt is pretty small and certainly doesn’t include us. We saw men and women dressed as Batman, Scarlet Witch, Supergirl, the Ghostbusters, Nightwing… What I wonder about is when I see the same people wearing the same costume all three days. Those suits have gotta be a little ripe by Sunday.

I managed to return home to Champaign about 10pm on Sunday, several hundred dollars lighter, but with a two-foot stack of comic books, several magazines, three trade paperbacks, a couple of good Italian meals, some eight-dollar cheeseburgers and a few $2.25 Pepsis to show for it. Getting out of bed for work on Monday was a major chore, and I was pretty useless all day. I could barely hold my eyes open, and I ended up taking a two-hour nap within minutes of arriving home from work that night.

I was sleepy again on Tuesday, but managed to wake up enough to entertain some impromptu guests. Chicken and I watched 1957’s ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, a Roger Corman movie released by Allied Artists. A group of scientists, including Russell Johnson, later the Professor on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, visits the island site of atomic bomb tests to investigate the disappearance of an earlier scientific expedition. Wouldn’t ya know—and of course you would, just read the title—they were eaten by giant crabs. Even better, they’re Highlander giant crabs that take their victims’ Quickening by absorbing the memories and personalities of the brains they eat and taunting their next victims by speaking in the voices of their friends. It was fun to see Johnson stranded on an island and struggling to fix a radio, and the dopey-looking crabs, which were built and operated by actors Beach Dickerson and Ed Nelson, are pretty fun. It’s only 62 minutes long, and uses familiar Southern California locations like Bronson Caverns and Leo Carrillo Beach. Released on a double bill with NOT OF THIS EARTH, also directed by Corman, ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS made a lot of money for Allied Artists and is really an entertaining little picture with fast-paced direction and an amusing script. If you’re the kind of snob who thinks fake-looking bigass crabs are not your cup o’ tea, then pass it up, but I like it.

We followed up ATTACK with “Spock’s Brain”, an amazing episode of STAR TREK, and “The Photographer”, a second-season MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. I plan to do posts of both in the future, but I’ll say that “Spock’s Brain” manages simultaneously to be among the best and the worst TREK episodes. “The Photographer” is typical M:I, as the IMF team fools Commie spy Anthony Zerbe into believing World War III has taken place outside his bomb shelter by pelting him with fake radio broadcasts, pumping heat down his air vent, and slipping an elaborate 360-degree miniature landscape around his periscope. Hey, you either buy into the outlandish M:I stories or you don’t. It ran for seven seasons, so many of us did.

Be sure to keep scrolling to read the piece on DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY that I penned for The Hub’s current issue. I had a good time writing it, and I’m doing another for next week’s edition. Let me know what you think of it.

Posted by Marty at 3:57 PM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, August 10, 2005 11:11 PM CDT
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Tuesday, August 9, 2005
Nothing Can Stop Us Now
Now Playing: "Spock's Brain"
As the optimism and oplulence of the flower-power Sixties crumbled seemingly overnight into the dubiosity and paranoia of the Watergate-era Seventies, Hollywood’s concept of what constituted a hero underwent enormous change. The white-hat virtuousness typified by John Wayne was out. Our new “good guys” were often barely more scrupulous as the heavies. Sure, popular fiction had always had its share of anti-heroes--Robin Hood, for instance--but the new breed didn’t necessarily care who they robbed, and they certainly didn’t give the loot away.

Heroes didn’t get much more “anti” than in DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY, which overcame a meager plot and wafer-thin characters to become one of 20th Century Fox’s leading moneymakers of 1974. Compared to today’s bloated action blockbusters, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY almost seems like an anti-movie. No visual effects, no attempts to homogenize or sugarcoat its characters, not even a musical score designed to slather emotional keywords over the storyline. The only music heard are songs played over the credits and source music emanating from a car radio.

Directed by John Hough, a British TV vet (THE AVENGERS) who made a truckload of money for Fox with 1973’s efficient shocker THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY also has the distinction of being shot 100% “real”. Not an inch of film was shot using process photography, special effects, undercranking or any other cinematic trick to make the car chases appear faster or more exciting. The supercharged automobiles and helicopters that squeal, burn, leap and smash their way through DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY’s high-octane story traveled at speed of 100 mph or more, and were often driven by the movie’s star, Peter Fonda.

Fonda, who graduated to become one of Hollywood’s most interesting character actors in films like ULEE'S GOLD (which earned him an Academy Award nomination) and THE LIMEY, was extremely popular at the time with young audiences, many of whom sported THE WILD ANGELS and EASY RIDER posters on their wall. His gift was projecting a uniquely narcissistic type of cool, a way of telling the world--and, more apropos, The Man--to screw off, while still maintaining the audience’s trust. Even when Fonda was playing a Grade-A jackass, his fans responded in droves.

Fonda plays Larry Rayder, a disillusioned NASCAR driver who teams up with his alcoholic mechanic, Deke (Adam Roarke, another graduate from AIP biker flicks), to rob a supermarket (Roddy McDowall plays the manager, unbilled) and outrace the cops to the border. You get the sense that, for Larry, the robbery isn’t so much about the dough, but about recapturing the exhilaration and danger he used to feel on the racetrack. They pull off a perfect heist, except for one thing: unwanted tag-along Mary (Susan George), Larry’s one-nighter who forces herself along on the escape simply because she has nothing better to do.

In pursuit of the trio is trooper Everett Franklin, an obsessive, relentless lawman portrayed by Vic Morrow, who was almost exclusively a television actor, but with the power and magnetism of a film star. His performance is DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY’s best, in that Franklin is just as anti-establishment in his manner and dress as the rebels he’s chasing. His boss calls him on the carpet for sporting long hair and sideburns and refusing to carry a gun and a badge. Franklin may be the only “redneck sheriff” of the era not to despise hippies; after all, in many ways, he’s one of them. But he does hate lawbreakers, and there seems to be very little he won’t do to capture one.

That’s all the plot Hough needs to get this movie going. More than half of the 92-minute running time is dedicated to the spectacular car chases and stunts that made DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY’s reputation as one of the all-time great drive-in flicks. The realization that the leading actors are actually driving the cars at eye-blurring speeds gives the action a level of verisimilitude lacking in today’s CGI-laden features. An unintentional side-effect results from the shots of Morrow inside a helicopter that’s chasing Larry’s cherry ’69 Dodge Charger. The chopper is flying down tree-lined roads literally inches from the roof of the Charger, and it’s impossible not to watch these scenes, as thrilling as they are, and not be reminded of the part a helicopter played in Morrow’s tragic death in 1982.

I’d be remiss in discussing DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY without mentioning the nihilistic ending, which has become one of the most famous “twists” in cult cinema history and definitely played a major role in the film’s everlasting popularity among car buffs and “heads” looking for the Next Big Thing in Existential Cinema. What is Hough trying to say? Who cares, man? The car stunts are far out.

Posted by Marty at 11:45 PM CDT
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Thursday, August 4, 2005
All-Star Break
I'll be taking a few days off from blogging to attend the annual Wizard World Chicago convention. It's something I do just about every year, along with my brother and our childhood friend, and it never fails to be a good time. Three days of comics, comics and comics, with a bit of movies, TV and even wrestling thrown in.

I've been taking it easy this vacation. I've gotten out a lot less than I had expected or hoped to, but I have been enjoying just doing nothing. The first day, I managed to do all my laundry, which is a rarity for me. I mean all of it--whites, darks, towels, sheets, everything. Not a shred of dirty laundry in the hamper or anywhere else. I've also managed to watch a few movies and discard several videotapes by dubbing their contents to DVD-R. In the process, I've managed to find a few gems I've forgotten about, like a tape filled with STAR TREK episodes from WCEE-TV in Mt. Vernon. It isn't the TREK shows that are important, but the WCEE (or C-13) broadcasts. C-13 is one of the worst TV stations I've ever seen. Their signal was murky and streaked, and their TREK and M*A*S*H reruns were terrible prints, all faded and cracked. Their locally produced promos and commercials were cheap-looking, and they broadcast the worst local newscast I can imagine. It was worse than the student newscasts I used to work on when I was in college, and we were just unpaid student staffers.

I also found a tape of THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. reruns I recorded during Stefanie Powers' birthday on TNT. One episode, which I've never seen, guest-starred Boris Karloff--in drag!--as the villain and MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. star Robert Vaughn crossing over as Napoleon Solo. I also found the Sci-Fi Channel's original broadcast of the "Spock's Brain" episode of STAR TREK. I should do a future post about "Spock's Brain", one of the show's most notorious and most hilarious episodes. The Sci-Fi Channel made a big deal about broadcasting STAR TREK several years back, since they were airing uncut episodes, not the syndicated versions that were missing several minutes of footage to provide more time for commercials. Sci-Fi aired the episodes uncut all right, but in 90-minute time slots with an overwhelming number of commercial breaks. Whereas each episode was originally constructed with a teaser and four acts, Sci-Fi cut them up into ten different acts! So they were airing commercials about every six or seven minutes. Ridiculous.

Big John Matuszak (6’8”) was already dead from AIDS by the time his big film break, 1989's ONE MAN FORCE, was released by James Glickenhaus’ company. “Tooz”, a former Oakland Raider, had plenty of acting roles under his belt, including THE ICE PIRATES and a regular gig on 1ST AND TEN, but this was his first time as a leading man. His gonzo acting style, coupled with some wild stunts and chase scenes coordinated by Spiro Razatos, provides this minor action picture with the ingredients for a good time. Badass L.A. cop Jake Swan (Matuszak) is pretty pissed when his partner (Sam Jones of FLASH GORDON) is killed in a raid gone bad. So pissed that he--literally--tears the city apart looking for the killers, causing so much mayhem that his boss (Ronny Cox of ROBOCOP) suspends him. Jake gets his P.I. license in order to make some dough on the side, and lands a case tracking a kidnapped rock star (Stacey Q). It goes without saying in a film like this that the two cases will eventually intersect. Tooz is pretty out of control, throwing refrigerators and Pepsi machines at the bad guys, and screaming his lines whenever Jake gets mad. Intimidating? You bet. Writer/producer/director Dale Trevillion’s script is nothing special--in fact, the “twist” at the end is such a cliche that it would only have been a twist if it hadn’t occurred--but there‘s an action scene every five minutes or so to keep you amused. Cult favorites Richard Lynch, Charles Napier, Sharon Farrell, Robert Tessier and Buck Flower lend their support.

Somebody at Full Moon Entertainment really loved giant robots. Either that or ROBOT JOX and CRASH AND BURN were just really successful. David Allen and Jim Danforth provide some nifty stop-motion visual effects in 1993's ROBOT WARS, a tame PG sci-fi movie about a hotshot robot pilot (Don Michael Paul, who went on to write HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN!) who transports passengers across the desert in a giant walking robot scorpion. It’s hijacked by a Chinese general (Danny Kamekona), so Paul and his reluctant love interest (Barbara Crampton) have to explore beneath the city to find an old, abandoned giant robot that was buried there decades before. The robot fighting doesn’t occur until the final reel. Up to that time, director Albert Band provides us with some fun FX, breezy performances and a sturdy score by David Arkenstone. I would just as soon as had more robot fighting though. Lippy Lisa Rinna is also in it as Barbara's horny pal. It’s only about 72 minutes long, and the Paramount tape includes an issue of Full Moon’s video magazine, VIDEOZONE, that includes trailers, a behind-the-scenes look at ROBOT WARS and Charlie Spradling (PUPPET MASTER II) modeling a Full Moon T-shirt.

Posted by Marty at 2:53 PM CDT
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Wednesday, August 3, 2005
Hmmm, Maybe He's Right
John Charles proposes this as the greatest title card ever. I can't say that he's wrong. From FRANKENSTEIN'S CASTLE OF FREAKS:

I wonder who would win a fight between Ook, the Neanderthal Man and Mac, the Security Guard.

Posted by Marty at 9:18 PM CDT
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