Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Big Video Wednesday - Frankenstein

Continuing to revisit 50's live sci-fi TV. But before that, I have been planning for quite some time to do the old Batman serials for Movie Monday, only to find out today that damn Lileks beat me to it. Oh well, I'll do my own version in more depth later.

So today's Tales of Tomorrow episode is "Frankenstein," yet another twist on the classic tale starring Lon Chaney Jr. and John Newland (no idea if he is related to Marv Newland), and another illustration of the perils of live TV.

The story opens in Frankenstein's castle, or I should say, the castle Frankenstein is using for his experiments. He apparently doesn't have an ancestral castle of his own, so he's using a summer rental or something. The set isn't bad, and makes good use of the soundstage space, although it's obvious that the stone textures are painted on, especially the flagstones that are only drawn in outlines on the floor. There's one corridor that looks pretty impressive on first sight, but that's mainly due to a forced perspective mural that doesn't look nearly as good when they shoot it later from the wrong angle.

Frankenstein is having dinner with fiancee Elizabeth and her father, as well as his young "cousin" William. Frankenstein talks about how the man of the future will be gigantic and strong and blah-blah-blah-mad-scientist-cakes. Meanwhile, young William has constructed his own monstrosity from the fruit bowl.

Ooh, foreshadowing! And also maybe symbolism (what would a fruity man signify in the 50's?)! High school English FTW!

So Elizabeth and her father leave, and Frankenstein heads down to his lab where he has already built a monster. He turns on his machinery and brings the creature to life. Yow, it's Larry Talbot!

It's not a bad make-up, and for some reason, his eyes gleam really strangely at his initial appearance. The creature freaks out, but Frankenstein calms him down and straps him to the table again. But the moment he leaves, the creature breaks free and roams the castle.

The old butler and maid speculate about Frankenstein's experiments, then flirt and giggle when suddenly the creature appears. The butler tries to fend him off with a chair, but the monster takes it away from him.

In fact, this episode has a legendary behind the scenes story. Apparently, Chaney was an alcoholic and had gotten pretty sauced before the episode was performed. In fact, so the story goes, he was so out of it that he didn't realize they were live and thought they were only in another dress rehearsal. So for instance, in this scene, his blocking is rather tentative and he mugs the camera a couple of times. When the butler comes at him with a chair, Chaney takes it from him, then sets it down on the floor while looking at the camera and muttering something (which may be a reminder to himself to break the chair when they shoot the "actual episode").

The monster stumbles through the halls until he runs across little William's room. William is riding his rocking horse while playing with a wooden sword. The kid playing William, alone among the cast, has a really thick New York accent. "Up an' at 'em and show 'em no quatta!"

The monster wants to play at first, but William, like all young Frankensteins since the book was written, is a little asshole and says, "Let go, yer dumb an' ugly! Yeah, that's what ya are, yer ugly!" The monster looks in the mirror and realizes the kid was right in an orgy of emoting. Then he runs away.

The maid is happily dusting, apparently having forgotten her encounter with the monster all of three minutes ago, when the monster reappears. And once again, Chaney didn't know they were live. He picks up the chair...

sets it down...

mimes picking it up...

then mimes smashing it.

The maid has no idea how to react to this shit on live TV.

The monster kills her before she can blab to anyone how he fucked up this scene.

Cutaway to commercial, during which somebody apparently tells Chaney they're live, because he doesn't do this crap in the second half of the episode (the mid-show commercial segment has apparently been cut out of the Hulu version).

When we return, Frankenstein and the butler kneel over the corpse of the dead maid. In a bit of unconscious expression, Frankenstein absentmindedly points his rifle at his own head. Probably wishing he could kill himself so he could get off this damn show.

Frankenstein vows to kill the monster, but before he can hunt the monster down, it attacks. Frankenstein holds the monster off with a scrap of burning paper and exhorts the butler to shoot the monster "in the chest." Shots ring out, but we never see who fires them. Then the monster rips the bars off a large window to use for a weapon, but it's too late.

Umm, that's not his chest, dude. The monster cries out in humiliation at having his balls shot off and falls through the window. But even though the dialogue refers to a 200-foot fall to the water below, we clearly see Chaney hit a curtain just outside the window, then fall to the floor, where his feet kick up.

But he's not dead. No, it's far from over. Elizabeth and her father have returned, and Victor confesses all to her. But their discussion is interrupted by the screams of the creature returning. Frankenstein figures out that the only thing that can kill the monster is the electricity that brought him to life. So he concocts a brilliant plan.

The plan is this: women and children first. First to meet the monster, that is. He sends Elizabeth and William to lure the monster to the lab, while he and the other men beat feet to safety.

Very brave, guys.

So the monster is electrocuted and all is well.

Okay, not all. Because when the camera cuts away to the announcer, we see the director's hand in the shot for a moment, then hear random bashing and crashing off-camera. But finally it's over.

If you want to see the whole thing for yourself, here it is.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Movie Monday - God Told Me To

So Saturday night, I was visiting friends, and we had a bad movie night. Watched "Night of the Lepus," the only horror movie ever made (as far as I know) that featured giant carnivorous rabbits as the Monster Du Jour. And when we were discussing bad movies to watch on a future night, I remembered "God Told Me To." Nobody else had heard of it, nor were they very enthusiastic, so I decided to inflict it on you here, instead. I would warn you that it's spoileriffic, but the movie is over thirty years old. It's already spoiled.

"God Told Me To" was made in 1975 by Larry Cohen, the...unique auteur behind such films as "Q" (featuring a giant pterodactyl-type monster terrorizing a city) "The Stuff" (featuring killer yogurt), and "It's Alive" (featuring a killer baby).

The opening credits make you think this is a TV movie, with their low-budget graphics, plus crediting Deborah Raffin as "Guest Star." I mean, I understand the concept of Guest Star in a TV show, where you have the regular cast and some celebrity who gets pulled in for one episode is a "guest," but in a theatrical feature, what does Guest Star even mean, other than "this person wanted special billing and we couldn't figure out anything better?" So later on when it becomes really obvious that this was not made for TV, it's a bit of a shock.

The movie opens with a sniper perched on a water tower atop a building in downtown Manhattan. As he shoots, we see several people engaged in the Bullet Ballet...

Heroic Cop Tony Lo Bianco climbs up the tower to try to talk the sniper down. He asks why the guy shot all those people, and the guy says, "God told me to" before jumping off the tower and falling to his death.

This is very disturbing to Our Hero, because he's a very devout Catholic. I mean, devout enough to go to Mass every day and devout enough to refuse to divorce his wife (played by freakshow Sandy Dennis, who shows her affection by checking the temperature of his chin), but not devout enough to keep from shacking up with Guest Star Deborah Raffin.

Lo Bianco takes a moment to pray at the Church of the Almighty Dollar--okay, it's not exactly a dollar sign, but it looks close enough to one that it made me do a double take--then heads off to interview other people who have committed random murders. They all tell him that God told them to, right before they die.

And then, the police station receives an anonymous tip that there will be a random shooting during the St. Patrick's Day Parade, and that the shooter will be a cop. "He has willed it," says the tipster.

Then starts the parade, and guess who's in it?

That's right, Andy Kaufman in his first screen appearance. Notice the cop on the left mugging the camera. Apparently Cohen and his crew crashed the real parade for some guerrilla filmmaking. You see lots of mugging during this scene, and ironically, it's the cops doing it.

Lo Bianco runs to the parade route to try to stop the shooting, even though there are, you know, hundreds of cops there already. Unfortunately, his big wall of hair creates so much wind resistance, he can't get there in time. So it's left to one of LoBianco's co-stars to do what so many of us wished we could do later, during the girl wrestling days--shoot Andy Kaufman.

As Lo Bianco continues to investigate, it turns out that each of the murderers was seen with a mysterious someone, a blond hippie with no face (that is, no one can remember his face). At least, I think that's what's going on. There are several scenes where the music drowns out the conversations between characters, so it's hard to follow at times. Lo Bianco tracks the hippie down, but is attacked by woman with a knife. Turns out, she's the hippie's mother. And she was a virgin when she gave birth. Because she claims she became pregnant after being abducted by aliens (wha?). At least, that's what Doctor Atom Man says.

Mason Adams was the voice of the Atom Man in the Superman radio episodes I posted previously. And now the city starts going a little crazy. People are demonstrating in the streets. A pimp murders a dirty cop and writes "God" on the wall in his blood to throw off the investigation. And a mysterious Jedi Council holds a meeting; they are apparently disciples of the Hippie With No Face. They decide something must be done about Lo Bianco.

And here we have another shot of street life. This jumped out at me for a few reasons. Number one, down in the lower left, the green letters are the sign for a place called Weinerwald. I ate at the chain's restaurants in Europe in the summer of 1980. I'd never known they had opened any in the U.S., but they were apparently here briefly in the late '70s to early '80s. Lower center is an ad for Bulova Accutron watches. My dad sold those; they were electric watches which used a tuning fork to keep time; this was before the prevalence of quartz watches. At the bottom is a Flagg Bros. shoe store.

Up top, drink a refreshing Champale sparkling malt liquor. Or as this ad that came out at about the same time as the film says (see more Champale ads here)...


Lo Bianco finally meets the mysterious God-Hippie, who seems to think he's Jesus, what with the way he was born of a virgin and glows and has disciples and long hair and everything. But Lo Bianco meets him in a furnace room underground, which makes it seem as if the God-Hippie comes from a different place altogether.

And yes, just when you think it can't get weirder, it does. Lo Bianco tracks down his birth mother (he was adopted as a kid), and she turns out to be Sylvia Sidney, although she doesn't smoke through her throat in this movie.

Mom tells Lo Bianco how she was abducted by a spaceship that took her to the moon (just before it was blown out of orbit) where she was impregnated by a golden light. Okay, she doesn't say the bit about the moon; it's just that the movie uses footage from Space 1999 for the UFO.

And now the movie becomes a solid wall of discomfort as Mommy curses Lo Bianco for ever being born, and then the wife and mistress get together for a chat, and then Lo Bianco uses his newfound God-Hippie powers to make a pimp kill himself, culminating in a visit to the Slum of God for a final confrontation with the God-Hippie himself, who lifts his shirt to reveal his WHAT THE FUCK???!!!

Something happened after that, where Lo Bianco or his stuntman does this spastic crazy-leg wiggle down a hallway to simulate an earthquake or something, but who cares after that image?
And no, I won't tell you what it is.

It's not a good movie, necessarily, but it's certainly an unforgettable one, in some ways at least. It's memorably weird.

There is a special edition DVD out there with commentaries and stuff, but the movie is in public domain, so you should be able to find it pretty cheap or even free, if you're interested.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Pounding It Out, Day 27

I finally hit the wall, and in the weirdest possible place. I'm nearly to the end--only about 8,000 words to go--and instead of picking up momentum, I'm stopped dead. I'm not sure how to get from where I am to the climax.

It feels like I have overcomplicated what was a very simple storyline. In trying to set up my denouement, I've blocked myself from the climax preceding it. So I need to either work out a way to push through this quickly, or else scrap the last thousand or so words and take a different, simpler path.

Or do what I usually do and put the manuscript down for six months or so, then see if I feel like picking it up again. Crap.

Corinne Bohrer senses disaster.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Out of the Vault- Dragonring

When I think about the black-and-white boom of the 1980's, one company that leaps quickly to mind is Aircel. They published a fairly big slate of black-and-white books in the mid-80's--Samurai, Elflord, Warlock 5, Stark Future are the ones that leap immediately to mind--and their black-bordered covers made it easy to recognize an Aircel book on the racks. The reason I haven't covered any Aircel books so far, though, is that even though their books were memorable for the distinctive cover designs, they were forgettable in virtually every other way.

Take Dragonring by Guang Yap, for instance.

Dragonring was the story of Kohl Drake, an adventurer living in Hong Kong with boat captain Miles Corkin and his adopted son Yue'. In the first issue, Kohl is hired by a man named Raymond Wharfin (in a nod to Buckaroo Banzai) who was meant to be a caricature of Rodney Dangerfield, I think. Raymond has traveled to Hong Kong because he has inherited an island from a distant uncle (all the rest of his relatives have been killed, not that Raymond has noticed). The last boat he hired to take him to the island was attacked by strange zombie ninja creatures, so Raymond now wants to hire Kohl to take him to the island.

When they go to Miles's boat, they are attacked by the same creatures, but Kohl makes short work of them with his mad nunchuk skills, in a sequence which shows off Guang Yap's love of small panels depicting the action almost as a series of movie frame blow-ups.

However, nobody seems particularly freaked by the zombies. Yue' asks "Who were those guys," to which Raymond replies, "I thought my ex-wife sent them." Kohl never gives them a second thought, which is fine, because they're never mentioned again. Kohl says a brief goodbye to his girlfriend, Mai-Ling, then they steam off to the island, where Raymond is greeted by lawyer Carstairs and the island's Amazon inhabitants.

Who are they? Never comes up. They just appear in the background of a couple of panels, but we never find out anything about them. Oh, and you can tell it's the 80's, because some of the Amazons are wearing leg warmers with their armor.

That night, Kohl is walking around the island, unable to sleep. He saw an old man at a distance who looked familiar, but Kohl can't remember who he is. The old man appears with a back full of arrows and gives Kohl a mysterious ring before dying. Who is he? We never find out, and Kohl never gives him another thought in the issues that follow.

Next day, Yue' heads off to a swimming hole while Kohl and Wharfin head to a meeting with the lawyer. Kohl isn't in the least disturbed by the murder he witnessed last night, because he doesn't mention it to anybody, neither to ask questions of the Amazons nor to warn his friends that something is up. Of course, they knew it might be dangerous when they got attacked on the boat, but nobody seems to remember that either.

At the swimming hole, Yue' befriends a kid named Alex, while Kohl passes a few words with the leader of the Amazons in a hallway. Yue' and Alex are nearly killed by a tentacled monster under the water, but they don't bother to mention it to any of the other kids swimming there, so one of the others gets eaten. Bygones.

Later, Alex and Yue' ooh and aah while watching a cool thunderstorm outside, tentacle monster conveniently forgotten. And Kohl has another brief conversation with the Amazon leader, who has developed a name all of a sudden and calls Kohl "my love." Where did that come from? What about poor Mai-Ling, pining away for Kohl back in Hong Kong and never mentioned again? Who cares, because Yue' is screaming about a monster that just kidnapped Alex. Kohl grabs a sword off a suit of armor and runs into the next room. A monster attacks, and Kohl cuts off its paw. It flees into a secret passage and Kohl follows the trail.

Meanwhile, lawyer Carstairs appears and pulls a gun on Yue' and the Amazon. You see, this was all a plot between Carstairs and the high priest (who?) to kill off Wharfin, so ownership of the island would fall to Carstairs as executor of the estate. Peril!

Kohl enters a cave with a lake. He dives into the water, kills the tentacle monster and surfaces in another chamber. Alex is tied spread-eagled on a stone altar, and the hooded figure of the high priest is preparing to sacrifice him to some demon or other. Kohl appears, kills the monster and knocks the high priest down a pit. Happy ending!

But what about Carstairs holding Yue' and the Amazon Cassandra at gunpoint? Wharfin tells us the next day that Carstairs fled when he heard more guards coming and has completely disappeared. Kohl, Yue' and Miles (who stayed on the boat the whole time) prepare to leave the island, along with Alex, who has decided to see the outside world or something. He's an orphan, so nobody on the island apparently cares whether he stays or goes. He's their own little white Hadji! Kohl and Cassandra share a passionate kiss, and Kohl says he'll call. Yeah, right. Playa!

So you can see why the book was forgettable. The characters were complete ciphers. There were a few attempts at comic relief and "personality," but basic storytelling elements were abandoned by the roadside. Nothing that happened in one scene seemed to have any real bearing on what happened in the next scene. The characters all bumbled through the story cluelessly, and what seemed like major story threads were introduced and never heard from again.

And yet...

I bought the entire 6-issue run of the original series and three more issues after the book switched to color. Why?

Guang Yap's artwork, I think. His illustrations had a unique quality, combining Neal Adams-style linework and layouts with subtle ink washes reminiscent of Alfredo Alcala's work in the Warren and Marvel black-and-white mags. There was a unique tonality to the linework that almost made it look as if it were reproduced from the original pencils rather than being inked.

I kept hoping that Yap's stoytelling would evolve to become worthy of the artwork. But it never happened. As each issue passed, we would get hints that there was some overall arc being told, but scene-by-scene and issue-by-issue, the story made no sense. Maybe I kept buying the series because I couldn't remember how bad it had been each previous month. Maybe it was that forgettable.

Reading through the series today, the other thing that really leaps out at me (and maybe it's only because I remembered reading about some controversy on this point regarding Barry Blair, who is credited as co-penciler on several issues) is the fact that Alex and Yue' never wear pants. I mean, not once in the entire series.

They spend six issues in short shorts and loincloths, except for the scene when Alex is first introduced, when he's wearing nothing at all, because the native kids on the island are skinny-dipping.

And I understand that it was the 80's, so short-shorts were cool...

and I also understand that they are probably more prevalent in Asia than in America, but at some point, I just wanted to scream at Kohl, "Get those kids some pants!" Jeez.

Oh yeah, what was up with the ring, you ask? We found out in issue 1 of the color series (which would make it issue 7 in continuity) that the ring contained the spirit of some evil dragon or something. It played hardly any role at all in the first six issues.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Pounding It Out, Day 25

Not a lot to add today, since I just updated progress yesterday. I'm still grinding it out, staying pretty close to pace. Past the 40,000 word mark now.

The one big thing is, back on day 8, I had mentioned a twist I'd come up with for the ending that I was debating whether to use or not. Today, I started setting up the groundwork for that twist in the text (in one sense, you could say that I've been setting up the groundwork for the entire book, but it gets sort of specific now). In fact, what I'm doing now may help me bring direction to the entire third act and make that final denouement seem less like a twist ending and more like something inevitable (although still ironic and maybe even funny, which, given what has happened in the last 90 pages I've written, might seem inappropriate).

We'll see what happens. If nothing else, I'll have something unusual to show people at parties.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Pounding It Out, Day 24

It's funny. Two days ago, I was engaged and energized. Felt like I was picking up momentum. Then yesterday, I finally finished Part Two, and now here I am feeling like I'm in a void.

I know where the book needs to go. It's just that, having come down off the intensity of the final scene of Act Two, I need some emotional space to regroup. But I can't let that translate into a work stoppage, or else the whole thing goes down in flames.

I know why I'm reluctant. I have very little structure for Act Three, I have basically three major scenes planned, but I'm starting to feel ambivalent about them all. One's too small. One's really hard to pull off. And the third one (which is the first one chronologically) I have no idea how to write without killing off my main character. I need a clever plan, but I'm exhausted from two nights in a row with very little sleep. I'm all out of clever.

And this is how I get blocked. I'm like those wussified parents who try counting to three to get their kids to obey. "One...two...two-and-a-half...two-and-three-quarters...don't make me get to three!" Truth is, the parent's afraid to get to three because there is nothing to back up the threat. So they're desperate not to get to that point and come up empty.

I'm like that when writing. I can feel that I haven't got the problem solved long before I get there. So I slow down, trying not to get there, because when I get there, I'll have nothing. I've got some transitional stuff I need to write before I get to that first big problem scene, but if I write it all now, I'll get there too soon empty-handed.

So I play computer games and read and watch TV and wash dishes and run errands. Anything to put off that reckoning.

I ended yesterday only about 300 words off pace, so the situation is in no way dire. But I can feel that inner surrender coming on again, and I've got to find a way to push it off for at least one more day. If I can push it back one day at a time for seven more days (including today), then I'll be done.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Big Video Wednesday - Verdict From Space

Okay, for this episode (the first), "Verdict From Space," they don't use the above title card. In fact, the entire title sequence with the gloved hand throwing the Switch of Doom had apparently not been conceived yet. There's just a bare title card, followed by an immediate pitch for Kreisler watch bands.

Wait, let me back up. I said last week that the Science Fiction League of America seemed to have something to do with noted science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon. Well, I figured if that was true, they'd lead off with the big name, and sure enough...

There are no credits on the show. With the exception of the "star," Lon McCallister, no one is credited at all. It makes you realize just how much you take the conventions for granted when they're gone.

So yeah, no cool opening, no credits. However, imdb does credit Theodore Sturgeon as writing this episode, so I guess I'll believe it.

The story itself is not great, but better than some later episodes I saw. Lon McCallister plays a basement inventor who has built a special supercharged blowtorch. He is on trial for the murder of a noted professor of archaeology. As McCallister flashes back on the story, the scientist comes to him asking for help. He needs the super-blowtorch to open a metal door to a certain cave, which contains a machine that is over a million years old. McCallister agrees to go, and they head off for Painted Rock National Park.

I'm not making fun of the show's production values. It was low budget and performed live on a soundstage. At this point in TV's history, it was half radio and half live theater, so why not use painted flats for rocks if the audience would accept it?

So McCallister and the scientist find the cave, break in, and find the machine. The scientist has somehow figured out that the machine's function is to record seismic events on a wire somehow, and he can read the markings with a magnifying glass. He then demonstrates by showing McCallister the marks for the destruction of Pompeii, the San Francisco earthquake, and the detonation of the first atomic bomb, as well as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. God, I know this is the crucial scene to understanding the entire story, but it doesn't work on so many levels that it makes my head spin.

McCallister notices a second machine in the cave that he thinks is a transmitter of some kind, but the "brilliant" scientist tells him it doesn't matter, only the recording machine matters. Dope. Suddenly, the machine records a new event, like an atomic explosion but bigger. The transmitter suddenly comes to life, then both machines self-destruct. McCallister manages to make it out with the professor, but unfortunately, the professor has come down with a severe case of shoe polish on his face and dies.

Back in the courtroom, McCallister is found guilty, then gives an impassioned speech where he finally reveals that the machine must have been put here by aliens to signal them when a particular event happens, that event being the detonation of a hydrogen bomb, a "super-atomic" explosion. Since having the H-bomb means that fusion-powered spaceships are just around the corner, the aliens put their version of a smoke detector on Earth to let them know when they needed to destroy us. "They're coming! I don't know when they're coming, but they're coming!" McCallister says in a rambling monologue that seems half-improv, half-scripted on cue cards as the judge and lawyers look up at a strange noise. McCallister runs to the window and shouts, "Look! Up there in the sky!"

Alas, it's neither bird nor plane nor even frog. It's thousands of spaceships, conveniently arriving at the end of McCallister's monologue.

And now comes a moment of unscripted brilliance. As everyone in the courtroom runs to the window to see the aliens coming to blow them up real good, McCallister walks back into the courtroom. And maybe it's just me, but as the camera is pulling in for a close-up, I could swear a devious little smile flickers across his face for a couple of moments.

Because he set this all up. How do you get away with murder? By concocting a cock-and-bull story about some self-destructing alien machine killing your victim, and you make it convincing by arranging the invasion of Earth by thousands of flying saucers. Oh my God, the man is Keyser Soze crossed with Captain Sternn. I can just see him telling his lawyer, "Take it easy, Charlie. I've got an angle."

But all he says is "The sky is full of ships" and then we fade out. After a final pitch for Kreisler, we get another classic example of early TV half-improv:

Next week, our Tales of Tomorrow show is called "Blunder." A great blunder, where there is a scientist who is working on a blunder which may bring death to us all.

And the really bad thing about this one, he's the announcer. He's off camera. He should be working from a script. It's not as if this was new; they'd been working from scripts in radio for years. Srsly.

If you want to watch the full episode, here it is.

Oh, and one more thing before I forget: in the Kreisler ads, we're told that the price includes federal tax.

Was there a federal sales tax back then, or is this something else?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pounding It Out, Day 22

I know, you're probably getting tired of the constant updates, but I'm doing this as much for my own future edification as for any curiosity you may have about the progress of the book.

I dropped off pace by around a thousand words yesterday, but then I got the scenes I needed kind of figured out, and between midnight and 3 p.m. today got myself almost caught up. I need another 500 words today to stay right on pace.

Plot-wise, I'll be wrapping up Act Two either today or tomorrow, so that's pretty much right on schedule as well. I had thought I would have a lot more crowded plot between the halfway point and here, but it hasn't turned out that way, and I think it's pretty much all right as it is. I still haven't figured out what I'm going to do fill the space from here to the end. I have a couple of scene ideas, but only a couple. So between now and the end of the week, I'm going to need to sit down and do some serious plotting. But once I get that done, I'm pretty much rocket-fueled for the final push.

The best part for me, right now, is that I seem to have gotten past that crisis-of-confidence point, where I was feeling totally lost and thinking I was just one day away from sputtering to a complete halt, and am now starting to feel kind of energized and enthusiastic again. One week and a wake-up...

Monday, September 21, 2009

Movie Monday - Pulgasari

So looking through my stock of obscure movies, I fell across this North Korean monster movie. Yes, North Korean. The story of how the movie was made is fascinating, and retold in dozens of places on-line (here, for instance). Long story short, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il kidnapped one of South Korea's leading actresses and her director husband and forced them to make movies for him (understandable, since NK is Latveria). They escaped captivity and received asylum in the United States while "Pulgasari" was in production in 1985.

My Korean-English dictionary defines pulgasari as "starfish; an asteroid." But in this movie, he's more like the Golem of Prague crossed with Godzilla.

The story takes place in the 14th century. Pretty young Ami lives in Soundstage Village with her younger brother and her blacksmith father.

She is in love with heroic young Inde, who plans to run away to the mountains and join the Rebel Alliance. Also, he wears the Worst Wig Ever.

When government soldiers come to the village and confiscate all the iron farming implements and cooking utensils so they can be fashioned into weapons to fight the rebels, the old blacksmith defies them by giving the villagers their stuff back. He is then thrown into jail, where he fashions a small doll out of rice and with his dying breath begs the tiny creature to defend the farmers.

Yes, he made that out of rice, with his bare hands. And it's black because his hands were really, really dirty. Anyway, after he dies, Ami takes the doll home, where she accidentally pricks her finger with a sewing needle and drips blood on the doll. It immediately comes to life and starts eating all the needles. See, it's protecting her already.

Ami names the thing Pulgasari after an ancient legend. It eats metal and grows very quickly, looking and acting at first like Minira, Son of Godzilla. Soon, the governor sends more soldiers, who form a blockade around the rebels' mountain stronghold. The people suffer with much crying and whining. Dude, the whining is incredible. You've never heard grown people whine this incessantly in your life, outside of Democrats during the Bush administration. The starving rebels are soon reduced to butchering their horses and eating tree bark (which really happened in North Korea during lean years). But after Pulgasari saves Inde from execution by eating the headsman's sword, the rebels counterattack with the monster leading the charge, and soon the governor is overthrown.

Word of this outrage soon reaches the king (you know he's the king because he wears the most fabulous hats...)

who send his fiercest general to kill the monster and rout the rebels. Thus starts an amazing arms race, as the general tries burning Pulgasari in a huge bonfire (Pulgasari is not killed, just glows red hot, then boils the soldiers alive as they try to flee down the river on boats) and shoots him in the eye with primitive missiles, which just pisses him off. Then he comes up with the Digger Plan...

Which is not exactly what happened in my short story "Out of His League" in Daikaiju 3, but any excuse for a plug, right? They lure Pulgasari into a giant pit, then bury him with rocks while simultaneously performing an exorcism. Dude... I would say overkill, except that it doesn't work, so it's more like underkill. Finally, as the now-huge Pulgasari is attacking the palace, they shoot him with giant cannons to no avail. Pulgasari steps on the king. Happily ever after, right?

Wrong. Remember, the entire story started when the oppressive soldiers were confiscating all the iron implements. Well, now the people have a gigantic, immortal savior with an insatiable appetite for iron, which means not only do they lose all their implements again, but unlike with the soldiers, there's no chance to steal them back. The new boss is worse than the old boss.

So noble Ami, whose blood brought the monster to life, tricks Pulgasari into eating her so that he will be destroyed upon her death. So when Pulgasari dies, he collapses into a shower of hoes and woks, right?

Nope. The monster's gone, nobody has any tools for farming or cooking anymore, and the government has dissolved into total anarchy, leaving them easy prey for the Chinese or Japanese or Mongols. Man, this ending sucks.

In a way, the movie plays as Communist allegory: evil bourgeois government exploits the virtuous workers, who band together to overthrow their oppressors. But in a final twist that may have been a bit of subversion thrown in by the kidnapped South Koreans, the virtuous workers soon learn the perils of following a larger-than-life, inspiring leader, who turns out to be a voracious monster worse than the original oppressors.

But who cares about politics, right? The special effects were created by a team imported from Japan, who had worked on Toho's Godzilla films, so they look pretty decent. In fact, the man in the Pulgasari suit had also played Godzilla. Dude was typecast, man. Also, the big battle scenes are impressive for a limited budget film due to their thousands of extras (North Korean soldiers pressed into acting duty by their movie-loving Dear Leader).

So although "Pulgasari" is not necessarily a good movie, it is at least bad in fascinating ways, and holds up better than your average SyFy Original Picture. So there is that.

If you really want to see it for yourself, the whole thing is on Google Video here. When I tried to watch it (for screencaps, because I can't screencap VHS tapes), it downloaded very slowly, though, so I had to stop frequently to let it load. YMMV.

Oh, and a final footnote. Remember how I said the director fled to the U.S. for asylum? He then ended up rewriting the story for a sort-of American remake of "Pulgasari" titled "Galgameth." And now you know the rest of the story.