Category Archives: Movies

And the triffids shall inherit the Earth! One book, one movie

Until I rewatched it for Alien Visitors, I had no idea the 1963’s DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS was in color. But before I talk about that, I want to talk about the book it’s based on, which I read for the first time this week.

John Wyndham’s DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (yes, the Midwich Cuckoos guy) is set in the near future (of 1951) marked by orbiting satellite weapons (a popular worry of that era, figuring in both The Space Children and Invaders from Mars) and by triffids. ambulatory carnivorous plants. Their origin is unknown — the thinking is some kind of Soviet experiment — but while vicious, they’re easy enough to manage and the oil they produce is incredibly useful in industry (I’m not sure if it’s purely industrial or also used to replace cooking oil). Our protagonist, Bill, is a biologist who works with triffids. Having recently been splashed with triffid venom he went into the hospital temporarily blind. In a very effective opening, Bill notices the hospital is silent. Nobody moving, no nurses rushing up and down the corridors. Something’s wrong. There’s no traffic noise outside.

It turns out Bill got a lucky break: the light from the meteors burning up has stricken everyone who watched the meteors blind (Bill later speculates this is actually the result of an orbiting satellite weapon). With the vast majority of Brits (and the world) now blind, society collapses. Bill meets up with Josella, a young novelist notorious for her racy first book and together they navigate the increasingly nasty environment. People are looting, killing, raping or trying to launch a new society as a dictatorship. Bill feels torn between the impulse to help the blind and the realization he can’t keep them alive long; all he’ll be doing is making it harder for himself and Josella to survive. The triffids further complicate things. They were easy enough for sighted individuals to manage — fire is obviously effective — but now? They’re cutting loose from the triffid farms, reproducing rapidly and killing.

The triffids are the coolest thing in the book. They come across as (possibly) intelligent but extremely alien, both physically and in whatever passes for their mind. There are lots of them, their poison sting can kill a human easily but shooting and stabbing don’t do much good against them. And unlike the film, they’re not hamstrung by special effects. The human threat is much more conventional, familiar from lots and lots of post-apocalypse stories, before and after this book. It’s serviceable though.

The worst part of the book, like Cuckoos, is the sexism. Josella and Bill fall in with one group of survivors that declares that every woman who joins their group will have to bear children (men can earn their keep by labor, but not women), Josella assures Bill it’s no problem. All women want to be mothers, just like the women of Midwich didn’t mind being impregnated by aliens without their consent. That’s just what they’re like.

While it’s a much less irritating point, even though one group includes a busload of pre-meteor blind people, it never occurs to Wyndham they’d have good advice for the formerly sighted on how to deal with the crisis.

THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1963) simplifies things by having triffids dropped on the Earth by the same meteor shower that blinds everyone. Howard Keel as the hero recovers his sight in time to find, as in the book, chaos, panicked blind mobs and suicides; accompanied by a young girl he rescues, he sets off to find some sort of safe haven. People are a threat, but the triffids here are worse. Meanwhile a married pair of scientists in an old lighthouse besieged by triffids work desperately to find a solution.

This is a fun film, but suffers from me seeing it right after the book; for all its faults, the book is better. The movie is much more conventional, a straight 1950s monster film, right down to the heroic triffid-fighting scientists and a solution out of H.G. Wells — seawater kills triffids! Earth is saved! The book ends with confidence we’ll reach that point eventually, but it’ll be a long time. Here we end with the menace effectively finished, and a lot more sighted survivors than in Wyndham. I actually find that more plausible, but it also lacks some of the drama.

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Hard times and San Francisco cops: Movies and TV

Following sex, lies and videotape I wanted to watch Steven Soderbergh’s sophomore feature, Kafka, but it’s not available (and apparently never has been) on U.S.-compatible DVD. So I jumped to film #3, 1993’s KING OF THE HILL, a really amazing kids’ eye view of the Depression. Jesse Bradford is the protagonist, living with his impoverished family in a hotel (it’s really remarkable how much of this resonated with the 21st century), coping with snobbish classmates and bullying cops and making friends such as bootlegger’s assistant Adrien Brody pretty classmate Katherine Heigl and former rich dude Spaulding Grey. Then his brother goes off to another branch of the family, his mom goes to a sanitarium and dad Jeroen Krabbe becomes a traveling salesman; how will Bradford cope when he’s the only one there and the hotel can’t wait to evict him for non-payment of rent. Good but grim — I kept thinking the eucatastrophic ending would turn it to be a set-up, but no (I’m okay with happy ending, just surprised). With Lauryn Hill as an elevator operator, Amber Benson as an epileptic and Elizabeth McGovern as a sex worker. “That was when guys like me used dollar bills to light our cigars.”

I was a big fan of MCMILLAN AND WIFE as a kid, when it was part of the rotating NBC Mystery Movie anthology show (best known now for giving us Columbo); the 1971-72 season is definitely flawed, but it’s still entertaining and Susan St. James as one of the leads reminds me why I had such a crush on her back in the day.

Rock Hudson plays Stuart McMillan, San Francisco defense attorney turned police commissioner; St. James is his wife Sally, socialite daughter of an eminent criminologist. Mysteries crop up — Mac’s old girlfriend is framed for murder, a phantom jewel thief loots a safe in the middle of a party, Sally unpacks a corpse when they’re moving into their new house — and Mac, with Sally’s occasional input, solves it.

Husband and wife detective teams are an old mystery tradition, and while Hudson’s stiff as an actor, St. James is charming enough to make up for it, plus we have supporting actors John Schuck (Enright, Mac’s right hand man) and Nancy Walker (Mildred, the housekeeper). The mystery content is uneven and the creators can’t seem to accept it’s a mystery show — the commissioner of police doesn’t have to chase down suspects every episode. Still, this was fun enough I’m glad I bought the DVD set.

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Suspicion and Doom: movies viewed

When I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s SUSPICION (1941) in college, I found the ending frustrating and unsatisfying to the point the whole movie fell apart. Rewatching, I see I was right about the end (spoilers will follow) but the film up to that point is very good. Joan Fontaine plays Lina, the spinsterish daughter of a wealthy family (I’m impressed she’s able to come off quite different from her Rebecca spinster — smarter and more confident, though just as frustrated with her current role in life) who meets, falls for and marries the charming Johnnie (Cary Grant).  Only after the wedding does Lina learn the downside: Johnnie’s a spendthrift who optimistically thought she had money enough to support them.

Johnnie doesn’t run out when he’s wrong, but he can’t stop spending money they don’t have, gambles compulsively and steals from his employer, lying to her all the while. Then Lina develops a suspicion that he’s found a solution: murder her for a life insurance payoff. She doesn’t want to believe it but after Johnnie’s best friend Nigel Bruce dies before reclaiming the money he loaned Johnnie for a failed investment scheme …

The original plot would have followed the novel Before the Fact: Lina lets Johnnie poison her but then he unwittingly mails a letter to Lina’s mother spelling out what he’s done. Justice will be served. However suicide was banned by the Production Code and RKO’s production head freaked out about Grant as a villain, even trying to cut out all the scenes that made him look bad (the 100-minute movie ended up 55 minutes before RKO put the footage back in). So we get an ending in which it turns out everything was in Lina’s head; Johnnie’s actually going to take the “honorable way out” and poison himself. She convinces him, instead, to come home, face the music and start over.

I’m sure that ending could have been made workable, but here it’s an unsatisfying anticlimax. Even if Johnnie’s not a murderer, he’s been a really bad husband — lying, irresponsible, selfish — and the ending doesn’t convince me he’s really changed. That said, it’s great looking and well acted, with Fontaine snagging an Oscar for her role. “I think I’m falling in love with you and I don’t quite like it.”

SUPERMAN DOOMSDAY (2007) was in my queue even before I started Alien Visitors (which will include a chapter on alien superheroes), though it won’t get more than a passing mention. The first in a line of DC Universe animated films, producer Bruce Timm deliberately broke with the DCAU in voice casting and visual style; Adam Baldwin plays Superman, who wages the fight of his life — and death — against the near-unstoppable alien juggernaut Doomsday, much to Lex Luthor’s horror (“Something I’ve dreamed of for years was taken away from me by an intergalactic soccer hooligan!”). After creating a Superman clone to serve as his proxy, Luthor feels better, but then the clone starts to develop ideas of its own … Some of the visuals didn’t work for me but overall very good; the fate of Toyman is a genuine shock. Anne Heche plays Lois, James Marsters voices Luthor and DCAU veteran Cree Summers plays Lex’s sidekick Mercy Graves.  “At least I get to kill Superman after all.”

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Kids, teens, a jester and a maid: movies

INVADERS FROM MARS (1954) is one of the landmark Kids And Aliens films as the young protagonist discovers his parents, the police and the little girl he plays with have all been taken over by a sinister Martian ship. What makes it memorable is less the story than the striking visuals by William Cameron Menzies: everything is a little distorted and “off” for reasons that eventually become clear. Leif Erickson as the boy’s father gives a striking performance swinging from kindly, patient father to an abusive brute, though it doesn’t make much sense (everyone else is reduced to pod people-class emotionlessness so why is he so vicious?). Well worth seeing. “Could you disprove, for example that the Martians have bred a race of synthetic humanoids to save themselves from extinction?”

The same cannot be said for Tobe Hooper’s 1986 remake, INVADERS FROM MARS which follows the plot outline but misses the magic. Instead of Menzies’ eerie set designs, we get impressive but unimaginative F/X; instead of the dreamlike tone of the film, we get a somewhat more realistic story that lacks any power to move me. “You saw the bandages on the back of their neck!”

THE SPACE CHILDREN (1958) makes me think that family is a running element in Kids And Aliens films (Spielberg said that was the emotional heart of E.T. too). The core family in the film has been shaken by Dad uprooting them to move to an isolated military research station on the California coast where he’s working, uneasily, on a new nuclear super-weapon; the two boys think it looks like fun but Mom is decidedly unhappy. A neighboring family is worse off, as stepfather Russell Johnson is an abusive drunk. Enter an alien space brain that starts manipulating the kids and using them as conduits for its psi-power, wielding them against the project. As it turns out the alien’s a good guy (deactivating this and similar projects around the world will avert WW III), that makes this the anti-Village of the Damned, with the seemingly dangerous kids actually working on our side. Not well executed, but it has its moments. “What is this thing that’s come into our lives?”

PAJAMA PARTY (1964) was the first of AIP’s Beach Party movies not to star Frankie Avalon opposite Annette Funicello, with the male lead role going to the extremely bland Tommy Kirk. As the Martian spy Go-Go, Tommy’s mission is to study the American teenager before the Martians invade out of fear our crazy teens will inflict their behavior on the rest of the Solar System once we make it into space; this entangles him with Funicello and her swingin’ friends, dotty heiress Elsa Lanchester, and Jesse White whose mob is plotting to rip off Lanchester’s fortune. I like the Beach Party films but this one doesn’t work for me, and Buster Keaton in redface as White’s Native American sidekick has really not aged well. With Don Rickles and Dorothy Lamour in bit parts. “Show me a crazy teenager and in ten years I’ll show you a crazy adult.”

TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE (1959) makes Pajama Party look like Rebel Without a Cause. A young ET from the Supreme Race rebels against their cold, emotionless ways and runs off during a stop on Earth, meets an Earth teenager and falls in love. Then he discovers his people are planning to use Earth to graze their monstrous space-livestock and sets out to stop them. Stiff dialogue, wooden characters and being teenagers hardly makes a difference to anything. “It had a life — and that life you had to take to satisfy your endless hunger for killing!”

JOAN THE WOMAN (1917) was Cecil B. DeMille’s epic of the Maid of Orleans, here a Simple Country Lass played by opera singer Geraldine Farrar (well-known enough that a lot of critics balked at her in the film, and found her earthy for the innocent virgin she’s portraying). Inspired by God she frees her country from the English only to have king and church both betray her, as does the Englishman she loves. This is embedded in a frame of a WW I English soldier inspired to make the Supreme Sacrifice to redeem himself for his past life as Joan’s lover/betrayer. Shows DeMille had the touch even then, but at two hours this could have stood some cutting. “If every sword in France were broken, if every man were dead, there is still the God of Justice to free us from thy yoke!”

FAST & FURIOUS (2009) reunites Vin Diesel, Paul Walker (now improbably upgraded from cop to G-Man) and Jordana Brewster to get revenge (or in the case of Brewster, wring her hands over the crazy risks the men are taking) for the murder of Diesel’s sister Michelle Rodriguez by a drug kingpin. This was actually less engaging than the second film, with less visual flash and a more conventional action film plot; Gal Godot plays a race organizer and a Japanese character from Tokyo Drift gets retconned into the series in the opening flashback. “Are you one of those boys who prefers cars to women?”

It’s been many years since I’ve seen Danny Kaye in THE COURT JESTER (1955) but the film has lost none of its charm. The Robin Hood-esque Black Fox has dedicated himself to removing usurper Cecil Parker from the English throne; Danny Kaye is a carnie who yearns to fight instead of just entertaining the Fox’s men. Opportunity arises when he gets to replace jester Giacamo (John Carradine) and slip into the castle alongside Glynis Johns (one of the Fox’s fighters) but things are complicated — like the fact Giacamo is an assassin hired by scheming Basil Rathbone to eliminate his rivals on the king’s council. With Angela Lansbury as a princess and Mildred Natwick as a witch, this is an absolute delight with Kaye at his flamboyant, comedic best. “Like you said — flowers to their widows.”

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I celebrate the recalibrate

So as I said a week ago, I’m trying to run my schedule much more tightly to ensure I get everything done. My first week went well. If I didn’t allocate my time as precisely as I’d hoped, I still got more done on the Questionable Minds final draft and the footnotes for Undead Sexist Cliches than I have the past few weeks. To break it down:

•I completed my usual quota of Leaf articles. There was a problem because one of the finished ones got wiped from the database but the editors took care of it so I’ll get paid for it. I greatly appreciate that.

•I got about halfway through Chapter Nine of Undead Sexist Cliches and I finished proofing the footnotes to Chapter One.

•I got several chapters done on Questionable Minds. Annoyingly, Word kept doing random, arbitrary things to my document (shifting the justification for the whole thing when I only wanted to center one line, for instance) so I put the whole thing back into Scrivener. Then I’ll export it to Word when it’s done and see if that works better.

•I watched several more movies for Alien Visitors and got a good start on the ETs and Children chapter. It’s a tough one as the range is much wider than the focus of the ET pregnancy chapter, which concentrates on the rape aspect. Kid/ET movies range from the sweetness of E.T. to the nightmarish Invaders From Mars to the goofy teenagers of Pajama Party. Still, I’ll get it worked out.

That’s pretty good given I had to devote Tuesday afternoon to multiple errands: library books back, doggy meds picked up, eye doctor appointment, checks to deposit. That way I can give myself a thorough cleansing once for all the trips.

I’ve also taken over as organizer of the local Shut Up and Write Durham! meetup which is currently virtual. Our first organizer had to move away; the second ran out of steam; now my fellow writer Allegra Gullino and I will try to run it together. I’m not sure I set up next Monday’s meeting right, as it’s not visible on the site (I have to go to the link for the specific meeting) but we’ll get it figured out.

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They are the Napoleon of the Public Domain, Watson!

All but the last 10 or so Sherlock Holmes stories are now out of copyright, so everything up to that point is public domain .. but not in the eyes of the Conan Doyle Estate. Several years ago they fought public domain on the grounds that the characters weren’t completely fleshed out and developed until the very end of the canon. Ergo, all post-Doyle portrayals of Holmes depend on every single story, so if some of them are still in copyright, all of them are. Even one as early as The Final Problem, illustrated below by Sidney Paget.

They lost on appeal. Judge Richard Posner argued that if the early and later Holmes and Watson are distinct from each other (due to the way the final stories fleshed out the characters) then there’s no issue with riffing on the Holmes of the earlier stories. If they’re not distinct, the later stories don’t add anything. QED.

But copyright holders are often a determined bunch. The estate is now suing Netflix for Enola Holmes and also author Nancy Springer for the books the film was based on. The argument is that Holmes in the film is in touch with his emotions in a way he wasn’t in the earlier tales, and also “he began to respect women.”

I strongly disagree about women. Holmes was always respectful towards them: he might not want one in his life besides Mrs. Hudson (fan canon about Irene Adler aside), but when his clients come to him, he’s courteous, respectful and protective of their interests. I don’t recall him ever condescending to them or not taking their concerns seriously. British writer Kit Whitfield once described him as an older brother for hire, taking care of things a young woman’s brother or father would normally handle for her.

That said, I have no idea how this will play out; I’m guessing Netflix wins, but I wouldn’t put money on it. Time will tell (I just came up with that phrase. I anticipate it going viral). And check out the Passive Voice copyright blog for some technical legal points such as the choice of venue (“PG doesn’t know how busy these New Mexico judges are, but expects none of them wished for a complex copyright lawsuit involving parties from all over the place to land on her/his docket.”)


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Sherlock Holmes’ sister and other women of destiny

Stranger Things’ Millie Bobbie Brown is ENOLA HOLMES (2020), the teenage sister we never knew Sherlock Holmes (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft had. When mom Helena Bonham Carter disappears and Enola’s brothers seem disinterested in investigating, Enola sets out, counting on the training she’s received from Mom — everything from deduction to combat — to get her past any obstacles. She succeeds, of course, and in the process saves a young nobleman who’s been targeted for death. Based on a series of kids’ books by Nancy Springer, this is fun, and Brown is delightful but Cavill is too bland and too laid-back as Sherlock (not to mention he doesn’t smoke!). Mycroft is simply the requisite stuffy relative determined to make Enola conform to gender standards and eventually marry well (I’ve spent more than a few minutes thinking how I’d rewrite the brothers so they’d be more canonical without stealing the spotlight). So a mixed bag for me, but I’m in a minority. “Look for what’s there, not for what you want to be there.”

WHAT’S UP DOC? (1972) is one of those favorite films I’ve rewatched countless times, enjoying Barbra Streisand getting Ryan O’Neal to buy her a radio, Madolyn Kahn counting to five, Kenneth Mars cheating, Sorrell Booke using his charm and Jonathan Hillerman recommending O’Neal not hang out in the hotel lobby. This time I bought the DVD rather than rewatch my old off-air version, so I got to enjoy Peter Bogdanovich’s discussion of the film on the commentary track: Warner Brothers had offered him the chance to do a drama with Streisand but he’d pushed for a screwball comedy instead, though keeping the idea of Streisand as a brainy polymath. After he and two writers developed the initial script, they turned it over to Get Smart co-creator Buck Henry, who considerably complicated the script (instead of three identical travel bags they had four) but for the better. Always a pleasure. “This man is in unauthorized possession of secret government … underwear.”

THE STRANGER WITHIN (1974) is an excellent SF horror film with a Richard Matheson script that wouldn’t have been out of place on the Twilight Zone (except too much talk of sex, I guess). Barbara Eden is thrilled to discover she’s pregnant, but she and husband George Grizzard are less thrilled when it turns out that no, his vasectomy of three years ago did not fail. Eden insists she hasn’t been with another man, and everyone wants to believe her but … And why is she over-salting all her food, drinking literally gallons of coffee and reading everything she can get her hands on? Could it be that the baby is Not What It Seems?

Yep, it’s another alien pregnancy film, with artificial insemination, like Village of the Damned, taking place through an alien ray beam. While the script gets a little repetitious (Eden keeps going to the hospital for an abortion, the fetus keeps stopping her), Eden’s bizarre behavior creates a sense of something truly alien inside her. However once again the rape aspects get hand-waved. David Doyle (playing a hypnotherapist) declares at one point that there’s no reason to assume the aliens aren’t doing something good, as if Eden being impregnated without her consent and then mind-controlled isn’t the teensiest bit objectionable (you’d think her husband, at least, would have made that point). Overall, though, a good film. “I know what you’re thinking — but there is no other man.”

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Alien pregnancy, sexism and rape. Some thoughts

Reading The Midwich Cuckoos last month was to have the story fresh in mind when I watched the various film adaptations, which I have now done. I’ve also caught a couple of other movies dealing with Alien Pregnancy, which will be one of the chapters of my book, so this post is kind of a rough draft for some of my thoughts.

What’s striking is how little agency women have in any of them, though that was true of the Wyndham novel too. In the 1960 Village of the Damned, we see very little of the women, focusing on the men sitting in the Midwich pub and sulking about their women’s inexplicable condition. The scene where the women are all told the news as a group to preclude any slut-shaming or gossip is absent; MGM’s big concern was to avoid the topic of pregnancy (the film never uses the word) given concerns the script parodies the Immaculate Conception. All the action falls to the men; the women suffer and we see Anthea try to reach out to her son, but that’s about it.

Things are marginally better in the 1995 John Carpenter remake. There is a group announcement but it’s part of federal scientist Kirstie Alley’s scheme to prevent abortions by paying the mothers to give birth. We see more of the women’s plight, though they’re still as passive as they are troubled; Jill (Linda Kozlowski) has some agency but only to protect her son, the one cuckoo capable of emotion. And by 1995 the movie could have followed Wyndham and included a lesbian couple among the ill-fated parents (Wyndham doesn’t spell it out, but it’s obvious).

Women’s agency is also lacking in I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958) and it’s 1998 remake, I Married a Monster. The films involve aliens who need to reproduce with human females — all their females dead in the first, a badly shallow gene pool in the second — by impersonating our menfolk, and also seizing positions of responsibility so the female protagonist (Gloria Talbot in the first film) can’t call outside town for help, nor find any men she can trust. Eventually she and her doctor find a clue: expectant fathers in the first (the aliens can’t interbreed yet) and men drinking in the second (the aliens can’t tolerate alcohol).

As Keep Watching the Skies (the definitive book on 1950s SF films) points out, they could have found humans much more easily — all the women in both towns are human, so why not recruit them? I know that goes against the grain for a 1950s film, but certainly by 1998 it wouldn’t be so outlandish. Of course even though the 1998 aliens apparently have their own females, they don’t think of using them to interbreed with human men, either (I can think of easy explanations but the film just takes it as a given).

Then of course there’s the rape overtones of these alien impregnation plotlines; in I Married A Monster From Outer Space the aliens intend to conquer the planet and then use our women as breeding stock; the Midwich Cuckoos plot isn’t exactly rape but it’s creepily close. The movies rarely acknowledge this or how much trauma might be caused, as opposed to shame and guilt; the 1995 Village shows some of the mothers in torment, but mostly because their offspring are so creepy. Kirstie Alley’s scientist quips about the impregnation that “first they knocked them out, then they knocked them up” but that’s as far as it goes. The dismal 1999 film The Astronaut’s Wife comes closest: pod-person Johnny Depp forces himself on Charlize Theron, who’s increasingly horrified to realize what’s happening; at the climax Depp sneers that not only did he kill her husband “I fucked his wife!” then proceeds to gaslight her, telling her he’s the source of everything good in her life (“I’m the one who gave her a reason to breathe.”). Though the ending is the alien body-jumping into her so she delivers her twins anyway.

I do find myself wondering if with modern I/V technology we couldn’t work out an entente with the aliens: some donated eggs, use their tech and ours to create artificial wombs and presto, no need for rape. Or if it would be possible to do this plot effectively with alien women seducing our men. Could it be made scary even though the men obviously won’t have to go through what the women do?

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From Tudor England to alien/human miscegenation; movies

C\Charles Laughton netted an Oscar for Alexander Korda’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (1935) which skips over Catherine of Aragon (the opening text tells us “She wasn’t interesting as she was a respectable woman.”) to start on the day of Anne’s (Merle Oberon) execution for adultery, leaving the king free to remarry (“If you want to be happy, marry a stupid woman.”) before moving on to Elsa Lanchester as the smart but sexually naive Anne of Cleves, Binnie Barnes as True Love Katherine Howard (who’s shown being involved with the king even during Anne Boleyn’s tenure, though torn between Henry Tudor and Robert Donat) before finally settling down with Everley Gregg as nagging widow Catherine Parr. This is about as faithful to history as Six: The Musical, but fun, with Laughton pulling off the role of Henry as a guy who wants True Love almost as much as he wants an heir. “Love is drunkenness when you’re young; at my age, it’s wisdom.”

The Russian documentary SPACE DOGS (2019) is a frustrating failure in which about one-third deals with Laika, the Russian stray dog turned cosmonaut, and the program that launched her, two-thirds to cinema verité footage of modern Moscow strays which lacks any point or interest. I got interested in this because the description talked about the ghost of Laika walking the streets of Moscow but while that may be a genuine Russian legend, it’s not part of the movie. “After weeks in stifling darkness, only a few dogs returned to Earth alive.”

Now, moving on to movies for Alien Visitors (some more thoughts later this week).  VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) does a remarkably good job adapting The Midwich Cuckoos, though the opening makes no sense: the aliens apparently impregnate the women by some kind of energy beam rather than physically so why do they need to put everyone to sleep (apparently getting graphic about what was happening made everyone uncomfortable)? This focuses primarily on the family unit of affable scientist George Sanders who’s thrilled he’s put a bun in wife Barbara Shelley’s oven; even when it turns out to be creepy Martin Stephens, Sanders hopes the child’s intelligence can be made a force for good. Despite its flaws (which I’ll discuss in more detail in the book), a first-rate movie all around. “A great deal has been said about the power of these children but nothing about the nature of that power.”

CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1964) claims to be a sequel but feels more like a reboot: six super-intelligent mute children with telepathic abilities show up in London where their various governments scheme to exploit their genius for the Cold War, but the kids have other ideas… This has some bright moments, such as one character pointing out even if the kids are homo superior (though given the unlikelihood of six parthenogenetic mutant births by chance, I assume it’s still aliens at work) that doesn’t mean they’re going to turn genocidal, but mostly it’s a muddled mess; the kids are supposed to be friendly but pressured (government uses force, they use force) but in the opening their leader sends his shrewish mother walking into traffic almost to her death — how is he a good guy? And why do they coerce one woman into serving as their voice when it turns out they can speak after all? “Suppose all they want to be is poets, or lovers or tramps?”

Charlize Theron is THE ASTRONAUT’S WIFE (1999) who begins to suspect that during the two minutes hubby Johnny Depp was cut off from Earth Something Happened — but that plot is buried by the slow pace and tedious detail with far too slow a build. The presence of Joe Morton and Blair Brown can’t save this one. “That’s what they taught us at NASA — always have a backup system.”

I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE (1958) has Gloria Talbot realize that hubby Tom Tryon is no longer the man she fell in love with, then discover it’s because he’s been replaced by an alien invader testing whether his womanless race can reproduce using human females. Sexist (I get into that in the upcoming post) but certainly effective, despite some cliches (Tryon’s race are emotionless but with her he’s beginning to understand love!). “I know where we can find men — human men!”

I MARRIED A MONSTER (1998) is all around a much inferior production, following the plot with slight changes but without any sense of style or inspiration, or really any good reason to be a remake.

John Carpenter’s VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1995) is a better remake but not a particularly good remake: inferior actors, particularly among the children (nobody with Stephens’ creepy presence), more graphic violence and several changes that either make no sense (why does one of the kids kill her mother early on?) or don’t work (one of the kids develops emotions).

I was surprised by the things it doesn’t change from the first film — why not go back to the novel and establish the aliens are physically there impregnating women, for instance (the closest we get is Christopher Reeve hearing Strange Whispering before the Dayout), or include the lesbian couple shown in the book? This version does give more time to the women (though the woman who gets the largest role is the one who saves her son) but most of the other changes, such as David developing emotions, are bad ones (and why does Mara kill her mother? I find myself wondering if that reflects the opening of CHILDREN). This also suffers from the lack of Martin Stephens who can pull off the Evil Kid roles. “First they knocked them out, then they knocked them up.”

Despite it’s title, SCHOOL OF THE DAMNED (2019) has no connection with Wyndham or with aliens — the kids here are government-created psis using their powers to impose Order on a British grammar school (presumably as a test run for something bigger). Adequate acting, confusing, meandering plot and excess gore, so I don’t recommend it. “I tried to stop the deaths — I’m thinking of the bigger picture.”

THE ASTRONAUT’S WIFE (1999) stars Charlize Theron as yes, an astronaut’s wife worrying husband Johnny Depp has changed since coming back from a space trip where NASA briefly lost contact. And slowly — very, very, very, very slowly — the movie gets around to revealing just how much he’s changed. A dull drama, though Theron gives a solid performance (Depp’s Southern accent is annoying); Blair Brown and Joe Morton have supporting roles.“I’m the one who gave you a reason to breathe.”

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Doctor Who: Jodie Whittaker has lived before!

Fair warning, this post on the 2020 season of Doctor Who contains massive spoilers for the main story arc of Jodie Whittaker’s second season. It has a great twist midway through but culminates in a reveal that fails to satisfy.The series opens with the two-part story Skyfall, in which Prime Minister Stephen Frye and spymaster O (Sacha Dawan) ask the Doctor and her companions to stop an alien threat involving a tech entrepreneur and his search engine. With UNIT and Torchwood gone, they’ve got nobody else; the British government has also stopped believing alien invasions are even real, which makes no sense (even in the new series, we’ve had several). Fighting the uninspired threat (we’re way past the point where Big Tech violating our privacy is a shcoking reveal), the Doctor discovers O is the latest regeneration of the Master, a smirking, mocking psycho reminiscent of John Simms’s Master from a few seasons back. The Master reveals everything the Doctor knows about Gallifrey is wrong (never a good sign for me) and that their world is built on the lie of … the Timeless Child! What does that mean? Stay tuned.

Orphan 55 has the TARDIS gang relax on the eponymous paradise planet, which like all SF resorts turns out to be more dangerous than it appears. The real secret here worked for me even though it’s corny as hell, and this was an enjoyable, fast-moving run-from-the-monsters story, though the character arcs for the guest cast were lacking. Next came Nikolai Tesla’s Night of Terror in which the cast become embroiled in a struggle between Tesla and alien invaders, with Edison kibbitzing, This one was competent, but very heavy on the Tesla-idolatry.

Then comes the twist. In Fugitive of the Judoon, the alien rhino-men show up in Gloucester hunting for someone. Local tour-guide Ruth (Jo Martin) has a husband who looks a little suspicious but it turns out she’s the target for some reason. The Doctor figures it out when they travel to Ruth’s family home and in her parents’ grave find … a Tardis. Not just a Tardis, but the Tardis. The Doctor’s target. Yet neither Ruth nor the Doctor remembers an incarnation as the other, so how is that possible? We end the episode without an answer. Oh, it also includes the return of John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, warning the Doctor that the Lone Cyberman is coming. Under no circumstances should he get what he wants!

Then comes another competent one, Praxeus; heavy on the environmental preaching but I like the supporting cast. Can You Hear Me? was very good, with some good backstory on Yaz and an entity from the same race as the First Doctor’s Celestial Toymaker. The Haunting of Villa Diodati has the Tardis team crash the night in Italy Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein, only to discover the night is not proceeding as it’s supposed to. Then the Lone Cyberman shows up, seeking the cyberium, a liquid metal supercomputer hidden in one of the bodies there. It embodies all the strategic knowledge of the Cybermen; in his time they’re defeated but now, things will turn around. I enjoyed this one but the Lone Cyberman’s visuals — he’s only partially converted — make him less intimidating despite his ruthlessness. And the Doctor’s Vulcan mind-meld powers here annoy me, though previous incarnations have shown equally implausible powers.

As the Doctor gives up the cyberium, she then has to travel to the future to stop The Ascension of the Cybermen, though the cyberium doesn’t really make much difference — it’s not as if the Lone Cybermen becomes a better strategist than previous iterations of his kind. Interspersed with this is a strange story about an Irish police officer who discovers he’s unkillable, then has his superiors wipe his memory (““Thank you for your service — a shame you won’t remember it.”). The Master shows up again, striking a deal with the Cybermen, even while mocking them (“You’re driven by hate and loathing for everything that you are — talk about your internal conflicts!”). His pitch: take the floating battleship stuffed with Cybermen to now-dead Gallifrey where they can rebuild themselves with immortal Time Lord bodies and conquer the universe. Quite aside from technical issues (the Cybermen accomplish the changeover impossibly fast) this doesn’t work anywhere near as well as it might, partly because the Master apparently has no agenda other than trolling the Doctor (Roger Delgado’s Master would be embarrassed).

And then there’s the reveal. It turns out that long before the era of the Time Lords, a Gallifreyan woman adopted an alien child, then discovered he regenerated every time he died. Studying him, she discovered how this worked and incorporated it into Gallifreyan DNA, though limiting the potentially infinite regenerations to twelve. The “timeless child” (why the episode is called Timeless Children I know not) then goes into service for Gallifrey’s intelligence division; upon retirement he gets a mindwipe to conceal some of the secrets he’s learned. And years later, he becomes William Hartnell, steals a Type 40 Tardis and a legend is born. Yep. The Doctor herself is the source of Gallifreyan immortality. And she has god knows how many incarnations she no longer remembers.

This is certainly a shocker in terms of the Doctor’s personal history, but in terms of a Dark Gallifrey Secret it’s not actually as Dark as the buildup indicated. It’s also confusing — is Ruth an incarnation post-Hartnell or did he have the Tardis all along and his memories are fake? For a lot of people, the reveal the Doctor has undisclosed incarnations wasn’t the problem but the reveal she is not just a Time Lord but the most special, most remarkable of all Time Lords. I have some sympathy for that view; I didn’t hate it that much but I didn’t care for it much either. The hook with Ruth intrigued me; the reveal fell flat.

But of course, I’ll be back whenever the pandemic lets us have more.

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