F: First Man Into Space (1959)

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FirstmanintospaceposterIf you remember last year, while reviewing The Quatermass Xperiment, I referred to it as a “ground zero movie”, the direct ancestor of movies like this one. A mere two years later, once more a guy goes into space and comes back changed, and people die and popcorn gets bought.

Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards) is your stereotypical go-for-broke hot dog hardcore test pilot in the Navy. How much of a hardcore is he? In the plentiful stock footage, he is always represented by Chuck Yeager, that’s how hardcore he is.

Dan keeps pushing his rocket planes to go farther and farther, much to the chagrin of his more strait-laced brother Chuck (the ever-reliable Marshall Thompson). Dan, in fact, pushes his new plane past radio contact, 250 miles into space itself (title fulfillment: 100%!), encounters a weird cloud of meteor dust, and crashes back to Earth. Chuck and his crew find a strangely changed rocket plane: the dust has coated the entire vehicle, including the interior, with a hard, armor-like coating.

first-man-into-space-1It’s not too long before the murders start happening. Starting with cattle on the ranch where the rocket crashed, to a nurse at a blood bank, then a truck driver. Whatever it is that’s killing people and drinking blood, it can drive a car.

Whatever it is, of course, is Dan, also coated with the meteor dust, causing his hands to become bludgeons coated with the equivalent of diamond dust. His body has somehow adapted to live in space, and he is suffocating in Earth’s thick atmosphere. He’s been lashing out in survival mode, trying to get to his trusted mentor, Dr. Von Essen (Carl Jaffe) at the base, and the high altitude simulation chamber where he can breathe and deliver necessary exposition.

Man, talk about needing a spoiler alert on a lobby card

Man, talk about needing a spoiler alert on a lobby card

First Man Into Space, like the previous year’s Fiend Without a Face (also starring Thompson) is a fairly intelligent sci-fi monster movie produced by Richard Gordon, who was trying to establish a British movie company much like AIP in America. The original script, Satellite of Blood by Wyott Ordung, was in fact offered to AIP and turned down. Probably the most remarkable thing about the movie is that it is set in New Mexico, but was, in fact, filmed in Hampstead Heath, England, which explains some of the uncharacteristically wet exterior shots.

First Man Into Space is almost always going to wind up compared to the thematically similar Quatermass Xperiment, and suffer in that comparison. We perversely see too much and yet not enough of the monster – that actually is Edwards in that suit, and he could only wear it safely a few minutes at a time. There is precious little mystery and no pathos until the very end – there is just a bulletproof monsta on the loose. Eek! The development of the story feels a bit extended – the movie opens with another test flight that Dan pushes too far and crashes even before the flight that transforms him. But once that flight occurs, the movie steps forward at a steady pace, and was a fine waste of an afternoon in my youth. It doesn’t have the more bizarre aspects of Gordon’s other sci-fi flicks, like the aforementioned Fiend or The Atomic Submarine, but it has its own monster movie charms.

Buy First Man Into Space on Amazon

Getting Bookish

Well, this past month has been rather trying, hasn’t it?

In the Top 3 for the Google Image Search "This Year Sucks".

In the Top 3 for the Google Image Search “This Year Sucks”.

Oh, all right, this entire year thus far isn’t going to win any Good Citizenship Awards, but that’s speaking on a national, nay, global level. I’m actually just talking about the only level that I can speak on with any authority whatsoever, and that is the personal level.

My son turned 18 this year. He graduated high school as the Valedictorian. He is attending a good college in August on an academic scholarship. All these are awesome achievements for a kid the regular school establishment wanted held back for a year and more because of his dyslexia. I am justifiably proud of him. I also had to track down music and make a synchronized slide show for him and his graduating class. Of eight.

Oh yeah, he’s the reason my wife created a private school for children with learning disabilities. That’s eight kids who would have dropped through the cracks. Eight kids who might not have graduated high school at all. Several of them, like my son, are going to some pretty high-powered colleges. On academic scholarships.

This is because my wife is awesome.

Any achievement I want to claim for myself looks pretty paltry after that, but it’s all I got. I did pull some remarkable stuff – for me, anyway – while I wasn’t scanning photos and cursing the vagaries of projection systems. The Great Villain Blogathon, which necessitated watching and writing up six movies. The Blood Bath Box Set, which required watching four even though all four were basically the same movie.

In the Top 3 Google Image Search for "Me and Everybody I Know".

In the Top 3 Google Image Search for “Me and Everybody I Know”.

Now here we are in Summer, and I find myself in the financial doldrums as I cast about for another writing contract or another part-time job or gee maybe a full-time job whattaya think are the chances I’m only 59 years old. Some things have to give. One of those was the overpriced-yet-still-somehow-unreliable-anyway home broadband.

My son thinks it’s the end of the world. Too much of his beloved gaming requires the Internet. This is cold turkey before you head off to college, my boy, I tell him. It will hurt less when you head off to Academic Land. He doesn’t believe me. Neither do I, really.

The book cover that glared at me from the Science Fiction Book Club flyers forever.

The book cover that glared at me from the Science Fiction Book Club flyers forever.

Watching ten movies (and that’s not counting the five at the last Crapfest) in a rush has taken the blush off the rose of movie-watching. So I’ve been using the time which was normally spent being distracted by social media to re-visit my older passion, reading. I’ve read something like nine books in the past week. This is, really, something I should have been doing all along but there wasn’t time. I was too busy being distracted. How could I call myself a science fiction fan when I’d never read isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy? I’ll probably finish that this evening. I’m enjoying it but I’m surprised that an acknowledged classic breaks so many rules; almost all the action takes place offstage, in defiance of everything I’ve ever been told. It is a tale composed of conversations, literally a story of ideas.

This brings us to the odd announcement that next week will probably be a book review. Oh, don’t look at me like that, it’s a book about movies, and it’s been quite interesting. But it’s also so dense I’ve only managed a chapter a night.

Hey, Alex Proyas! Whatever happened to this movie?

Hey, Alex Proyas! Whatever happened to this movie?

It turns out that over the years I’ve squirreled away a ton of e-books on my hard drive, and it’s pretty satisfying to finally give those the once-over. The aforementioned Foundation Trilogy. Finally read Harry Harrison’s Deathworld. I’d read Robert Heinlein’s The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag in my youth, and didn’t remember the first thing about it (I now realize there was a reason for that). I’ve read several of Basil Copper’s Sherlock Holmes pastiches about Solar Pons (a name which, while unlikely, has the appropriate number of syllables), who is even more of a condescending dick than Holmes, and I find the mysteries are rather transparent when they aren’t outright copies of other writers. Yet I cannot stop reading the things. They are the damned Pringles of detective fiction.

Back when Remo looked like Daniel Craig.

Back when Remo looked like Daniel Craig.

And most surprisingly, I have a number of The Destroyer novels, or as you might better know them, the basis for Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. About the time I ran out of Doc Savage novels in my teen years, these came along, like The Executioner but with kung fu and ridiculous 70s casual sex and even more ridiculous 70s casual racism. These were always very fast reads, and I re-read the first three in the same number of non-consecutive nights. The most amazing thing to me is that it took the writing team of Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy three outings to realize how essential the character of Chiun, the aged Korean master assassin, was to the success of the series. How when he was promoted from a background character to a full partner, the odd master/pupil father/son dynamic elevated it from stupid action porn to something actually interesting. Still stupid, admittedly, but interesting. The Destroyer went on to have a downright silly number of entries. Don’t ask me how many, I don’t have access to Google right now.

I’m telling myself that this is actually essential stuff to be doing. That my own writing had become rather unsatisfactory to me of late. That I had done too much writing by committee for the contract work, and I need to start writing for myself again, and to do that, I needed to get back in touch with what worked for me, way back then, when I was writing every night instead of being questionably clever on Twitter.

God knows I have the time now.

After the Rubble, Some More Rubble

Special thanks to all of you who followed my meandering blog after the Criterion Blogathon. Hi, how have you been?

I’ve been busy.

For all you new folks, here’s the story on yours truly: like a good modern American, I am working three part-time jobs at once, and holding down a writing contract (which ended last month, but due to the vicissitudes of the project, I am still writing on it, because that is how I roll). One of those jobs is acting; therefore, December is a busy month for me. Business parties, and all that.

Usually around Thanksgiving I post a ha-ha, here we go again, see you in January post, but thaaaaat didn’t happen, sorry. Stress about the money from that contract evaporating this month was a major culprit, but work ramping up for the holidays was another.

In the coming week, I will 1) videotape a holiday concert for my day job; 2) edit it and another concert into two stories for our Holiday Magazine show; 3) run audio for a School Board meeting remote broadcast using equipment so aged and failing that I refer to it as “cosplaying Apollo 13“; 4) act in four shows, three of which are for private parties.

All of this is leading up to a non-optional two week vacation without pay at the end of the month (a major reason all work is so hectic this time of year). I’ve run the numbers, and I think I’m okay, but I admit to a good degree of twitchiness and foreboding.

Because I am a good modern American.

Movie talk will resume soon. Have some safe, happy holidays, people. We could all use some.

Z: Zombie (1979)

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“When you do an A-Z horror movie challenge, you’re likely going to end up with zombies.”

– Tim Lehnerer, probably

zombie posterWell, this is about the most blatant personification of that statement, isn’t it? No second word, no number, no nothing. Just: ZOMBIE.

Yeah, I’ll stop you right there, because you’re about to inform poor ignorant me that this actually does have a number, it’s really called Zombie 2 because it was a sequel to Dawn of the Dead which was a big hit in Europe but it was called Zombie there and shouldn’t you know more about horror movies before you try writing about them?

Listen, troll (I would have to reply), if you were paying attention you would know that the movie is called Zombi 2 (no final e) and for some reason Zombies 2 in the international trailers and it was never a sequel to Dawn of the Dead and was, in fact, written several months before Dawn‘s European release but that was some nice low-hanging publicity fruit, wasn’t it, especially since this production company had a better lawyer than Dario Argento, and thus was paved the way for Zombie numbers 3-8 and every other crap Italian zombie film throughout eternity.

So there. Troll.

1279240863_Zombie_Flesh_Eaters_1979_1I saw Zombie in probably semi-ideal circumstances for me, which is to say I saw it on a double bill with Blood Beach at a drive-in on a warm Texas night (Zombie kept cropping up at drive-ins with different dance partners for several years). That was 35 years ago, and it was with some interest I put the Blue Underground blu-ray into the player for a return bout. (Movie Challenges like this are largely about making me watch movies I haven’t seen, but I do make an exception for anything I haven’t seen in 20 years, like The Quatermass XperimentZombie definitely qualified.)

So stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an apparently abandoned sailing ship drifts into New York Harbor, causing all sorts of traffic problems until the harbor patrol boards it and finds a) rotting food, b) a chewed-up hand, c) the fattest zombie you have ever seen. (Guillermo del Toro: “You just know he ate everybody else on the boat.”) After biting out one cop’s throat, Tubby is shot several times and falls into the bay.

zombie+flesh+eaters+ss+roomThese are the circumstances that bring together Anne (Tisa Farrow), the daughter of the owner of that boat, and Peter (Ian McCulloch), a reporter. They have a meet cute while searching the boat under the nose of a police guard, during which Peter finds an undelivered letter from Anne’s father, who is dying of some terrible disease on a Caribbean island called Matool.

Flying to St. Thomas, the only boat they can find to take them to Matool – “a cursed island” – are working vacationers Brian and Susan (Al Cliver and Auretta Gay) who are spending two months sailing the islands and doing underwater photography. This will become significant when Susan goes scuba diving to get the day’s pics within sight of Matool and runs into an underwater zombie, who, in one of the movie’s signature scenes, has a fistfight with a shark, and loses that fist.

shark-vs_zombie-1(One of the many interesting factoids on the disc’s extras is the Underwater Zombie and “Shark Trainer” is Ramón Bravo, an underwater photographer of no small repute, best known for Tinterero!)

So our four “Americans” make it to Matool but bend their propeller, meaning Brian and Susan can’t dump Anne and Peter there, as was their original intent. They meet up with the island’s physician, Doctor Menard (Richard Johnson) who is not only fighting some sort of plague, but is also trying to find a scientific explanation for the zombies that have been cropping up lately. One of the few island natives that has stayed faithful to the doctor (Dakar) fills us in that a new witch doctor has been getting everybody worked up, and they all gone to the island’s interior to bang on drums and wake the dead.

zombie3Which is all the explanation you’re going to get, so just ride with it. That’s okay, we came to see a movie whose poster was some rotten corpse with worms in its eyes and the slogan WE ARE GOING TO EAT YOU, and it has to be admitted that the movie in its last half gets down to that business with gusto.

This is generally pointed to as director Lucio Fulci’s first horror movie (if you don’t count some highly-regarded gialli). His output to this point had been all over the genre map, but this one pretty much locked him into the creepshow stuff for the 80s and 90s. Now what surprised me in this re-visit so many years later is how well-made this movie is. That projector trying to cut through the humid Texas night air and subsequent VHS releases in pan-and-scan did Zombie absolutely no favors. Fulci knows where to put his camera and how to get bang for his comparatively few bucks on the screen, and the blu-ray is an absolute revelation in that regard.

The low budget also necessitates a different look to the zombies, which helps the movie achieve its own identity. A reliance on clay instead of latex actually helps these revenants look like they just clawed their way out of the ground.

zombi-2-04I bet you thought I was going to talk about the splinter-through-the-eyeball scene (damage to eyeballs seems a particular motif for Fulci). Everybody talks about the splinter-through-the-eyeball scene. It’s still grueling, even when you know it’s coming, but another factoid dropped was Zombie played in Italy with an intermission, as was the custom, and I had forgotten the splinter-through-the-eyeball happens at the halfway point. Think about that being what you took out into the lobby with you.

They probably didn’t sell much gelato during that intermission.

Another thing which helped immensely with this re-visit: being able to turn on the original Italian language track with English subtitles. Fulci’s movies have had some of the worst English dub tracks I have ever had to endure, and subconsciously that drags down the perceived quality of the movie.

zombi4When I logged my re-watch of Zombie on Letterboxd, I knew that I had entered it earlier in my relationship with the site, but it was amusing to see that when I did so, I had rated the movie four stars out of five; I stand by that rating, but I don’t remember holding it in such high regard (due to washed-out projection and VHS dubs). So it is satisfying in that way that you see an old friend for the first time in years, and you say, “You look great!” and mean it.

Buy ZOMBIE on Amazon

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 23,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 9 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 10,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 17 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,000 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.