Thursday, October 29, 2015

October Scares Retro TV Movie: Frankenstein: The True Story

There have been many versions of Mary Shelley's classic novel, Frankenstein, but one of my favorites is the British/American co-production, Frankenstein: The True Story. In this retelling of the story, Victor Frankenstein (who's training to be a doctor) loses his faith after his brother drowns. He vows to learn to create life & resurrect the dead, and achieve the power of God himself. Working with the brilliant scientist Henry Clerval, Victor attempts to re-animate dead flesh & limbs, and the two achieve amazing results. But Clerval dies suddenly, and Victor is forced to continue his work alone. He sacrifices his personal life (including his relationship with his fiance) in pursuit of his goals. When his creature is born, Victor is elated by his success...at first. But then Clerval's former mentor, the scheming Dr. Polidori, arrives, and forces him to do further experiments. As the story continues, Polidori gets Victor to help him create a "bride" for the monster, and a series of murderous events is put into motion, culminating in a final confrontation between Victor & the monster.  

The intriguing difference this time out is that the "monster" is an intelligent being who starts out looking handsome, and degenerates into a nightmarish creature. Victor & his creation are friends at first, but things soon take a turn for the worse. Along the way, there are some memorable moments, including one involving the monsters's bride that has stuck in my mind ever since I first saw the film back in 1973. It originally aired on NBC as a two part mini-series, though a shorter, feature-length version of the movie was released overseas. If you're a fan of the Universal or Hammer films interpretations of the story, you'll find a lot to enjoy in this film. Frankenstein: The True Story is a handsomely produced, well written (by Christopher Isherwood & Don Bachardy) & directed (by Jack Smight) version of the classic tale. The phenomenal cast includes David McCallum, James Mason, Jane Seymour, Leonard Whiting and Michael Sarrazin. There are also cameos by Tom Baker, John Gielgud and Agnes Moorehead. The two-part version of the movie is available on DVD, and is recommended viewing for your Halloween fright fest. Here's a link to some scenes from the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fx83SjnHxBo.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

October Scares Retro Movie: The Sentinel

Did you know the doorway to Hell was located in New York City? No, we're not talking about the plot of Ghostbusters (1984). Let's take a look at the 1977 thriller The Sentinel. Released toward the end of the occult movie cycle which began with films like Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973), the movie tells the story of fashion model Alison Parker, who moves into an apartment in a converted brownstone. She's a distraught young woman who has survived a suicide attempt. The other occupants of the building all act strangely, including an eccentric old man named Charles, who keeps trying to ingratiate himself with her, and insert himself into her life. Weird and disturbing events begin to swirl around Alison; she sleepwalks, has intense nightmares and flashbacks to her suicide attempt. When she complains about the constant noise her neighbors are making, she discovers there really aren't any other people in the building except herself and a blind priest named Father Halliran, who lives on the top floor. But what is causing these odd disturbances?

Cristina Raines in The Sentinel
Alison's boyfriend Michael does some research on the building, and makes a startling discovery. The house is owned by the Catholic Church, and has an odd history. But who is Father Halliran? Is he trying to help Alison or harm her? And what about Michael? A cop keeps visiting Alison and telling her Michael may have been involved in the death of his wife. As the secrets of the building come to light, and the evil forces that are haunting her reveal themselves, Alison's true role in these events becomes clear. One thing is for certain; she has a very important part to play, and her life will never be the same. The Sentinel is perhaps not the best of the 1970s wave of satanic-themed horror tales, but it has some frightening & eerie moments. Directed by Michael Winner (best known for his work on several Charles Bronson films) the movie has what they used to call an "all star" cast, including Burgess Meredith, John Carradine, Ava Gardner, Eli Wallach, Beverly D'Angelo, Chris Sarandon and Cristina Raines as Alison. You can also spot Jerry Ohrbach, Christopher Walken & Jeff Goldblum in minor roles.

The movie is based on a novel by Jeffrey Konvitz, who also co-wrote the screenplay. If you're a fan of these types of films, it's worth a look. The location filming in New York City also adds to the film's overall effectiveness. I remember seeing it on late night TV back in the early 80s, and it definitely creeped me out. It's sort of a combination of the haunted house and demonic sub-genres of horror. The Sentinel would make perfect October/Halloween themed viewing. It's just been released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory with some extras: three different commentary tracks, including one by author Konvitz as well as one by star Raines, and another by director Winner. There's also a video interview with the film's assistant director, and some trailers & ad art galleries. Here's a link to the original trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMIssiMkt04.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Brief Reviews: New Solo Releases by Chris Cornell, Don Henley & Grace Potter

Chris Cornell – Higher Truth – The talented front man for Soundgarden & Audioslave recently released this stunning solo disc. After working with producer Timbaland on 2009’s electronica & pop influenced Scream, Cornell dials things back on Higher Truth. It’s a folk-leaning record that features his usual strong vocal performances, but in a more acoustic setting. The songs are about life, love, loss & redemption, and feature Cornell’s vivid & atmospheric lyrics. Some highlights include the melodic "Worried Moon," the mandolin tinged “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart,” the beautiful “Let Your Eyes Wander,” and a father’s touching ode to his daughter in “Only These Words.” Producer Brendan O’Brien plays on many of the tracks with Cornell, and has done a fabulous job crafting the sound of the album. This may be Cornell’s most assured solo work to date, and it’s a solid mix of his alternative rock strengths with a more quiet, ethereal feeling. Higher Truth is very much worth a listen.

Don Henley – Cass County - It shouldn’t be a surprise that Henley’s gone country on his first solo release in 15 years. The Eagles always had a touch of country in their sound, and Henley & Glenn Frey got their start backing Linda Ronstadt in her early days. On this new release, he reflects on growing older & the passage of time in our lives on songs like “Take A Picture Of This,” and “That Old Flame,” a duet with Martina McBride. In fact, there are many guest stars on the record including Jamey Johnson, Merle Haggard, and Dolly Parton. One of my favorite tracks is the opener, a solid cover of Tift Merritt’s “Bramble Rose,” that features Mick Jagger & Miranda Lambert. It’s an enjoyable, low-key album that will appeal to Henley’s fans, and might grab him a few new ones. It recently debuted at number one on the country charts.

Grace Potter – Midnight – I’m a huge fan of Potter’s work with her roots-oriented rock band The Nocturnals, with whom she’s recorded several fine albums. But she’s taken a sharp left turn towards pop on her solo debut. The music has a very produced, layered & radio ready feel, courtesy of producer Eric Valentine. Sadly, it sometimes push Potter's wonderful voice to the background. Tracks range from the bouncy “Alive Tonight” to the r&b flavored “Instigators,” & the destined for the Top 40 “Delirious.” That’s not to say these songs are bad, but it’s a very different sound for the soulful Potter, and may surprise longtime listeners. As the album winds down, we are treated beautiful ballad about loss entitled “Let You Go,” that sounds most akin to her previous work. Potter is stretching her muscles here, and trying something different. It will be interesting to see how the album (and the accompanying tour) is received by her loyal fans.

All three albums are now available online & in stores: Here are links to "Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart," by Chris Cornell, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpMfZPAc1kg, "Take A Picture of This," by Don Henley, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHTZwvgcGZQ, and Grace Potter's "Delirious," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cEKi_W4Vvg.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Get "Lost In Space" All Over Again!

For longtime TV science-fiction fans, there are the acknowledged classics: The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and the original Star Trek, to name a few. Then there are the classics of a different kind; the fun shows that bring out the kid in all of us, and a smile to our faces; the 1950s Superman series starring George Reeves, the 1960s Batman adventures with Adam West & Burt Ward, and of course, Lost in Space. The series, created & produced by Irwin Allen, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. To commemorate the event, Twentieth Century Fox has released a comprehensive Blu-ray box set of the series. Lost in Space, which originally aired on CBS from 1965-68, chronicled the adventures of the Robinsons, a family of space colonists, whose ship was bound for Alpha Centauri. The villainous Dr. Smith used the mission’s Robot to sabotage the ship, and the Jupiter 2 went off course. The family attempted to find their way back to their original heading, and survive in the far reaches of space. Conceived by writer-producer Allen as a space-age version of the Swiss Family Robinson, the original pilot was the most expensive show filmed for TV up to that time.

Lost In Space starred Guy Williams as the group’s stalwart leader, John Robinson, June Lockhart as his wife Maureen, and as their children: Marta Kristen as Judy, Angela Cartwright as Penny and Bill Mumy as Will. The show also featured Mark Goddard as pilot Don West, Bob May (inside the suit) & Dick Tufeld (the voice) as the Robot, and Jonathan Harris as Smith. During the first season, our heroes crash landed on an unknown planet, and while repairing their ship, fought to survive the elements, and met a host of weird creatures & alien beings. The group also had to deal with the scheming, manipulative Smith, who seemed willing to sell them down the river to anyone or anything who might help him return to Earth. These early episodes, filmed in black & white, are some of the series’ best. The shows ended with cliffhangers that brought viewers back the following week to see the story’s resolution. That format remained in place for the series' first two seasons. For the third year, the cliffhangers were dropped in favor of a coming attractions trailer with scenes from the next week's episode.

As the show switched to color and moved into its second season, stories began to focus more on the trio of Dr. Smith, Will Robinson & the Robot, who were constantly getting into & out of trouble. Smith’s character became less of an evil, unsympathetic villain, and more of a comic foil, with many episodes centered on the character’s silly antics. The show still featured colorful sets, cool special effects & wild looking (often comedic) aliens. The fantasy elements (and the camp level) of the stories were amped up, reportedly to compete with ABC’s Batman. The same thing happened with Irwin Allen’s other series, Voyage To The Bottom of The Sea, which had shifted from the Cold War centered, espionage themed stories of its first season episodes to more fanciful tales in its later years. Lost in Space tried to pull the balance back toward some of the other characters in its third & final season, but those episodes were still a long way from the relatively serious shows of the first year. Still, there are some enjoyable outings throughout the run of the show, and it remains a fan favorite to this day. The cast is wonderful & the Robinsons are similar to other TV families of the era, likable & appealing. The show also had some talented (and familiar) guest stars, including Michael Rennie, Al Lewis, John Carradine, Warren Oates and a young Kurt Russell. Even the goofiest episodes have some effective moments; well, maybe not the infamous "The Great Vegetable Rebellion," which truly has to be seen to be believed.

The new Blu-ray set features all 83 episodes of the series presented in impressive high definition transfers. The black & white episodes look fantastic, and the color shows look very good as well. There are a plethora of extras, including cast commentaries (some of them boisterous & laugh-filled) on selected episodes, TV spots & effects footage, and the option to view several shows as they aired in the 1960s, complete with vintage commercials. Also featured is is a full length documentary on Irwin Allen’s career, The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen, originally produced for the Sci-Fi Channel, an episode of A&E’s Biography series focusing on Jonathan Harris, a Lost In Space animated TV special from 1973, and some current interviews with the surviving cast members. And you can also check out a couple of special treats: one is a table reading by cast members of Bill Mumy’s epilogue for the series, which he wrote to tie up the plotlines of the show; another is the longer version of the series unaired original pilot “No Place To Hide,” which did not feature Dr. Smith or the Robot – they were added to the series later, and joined the cast in the reworked debut episode, “The Reluctant Stowaway.”

This is the best home video presentation of the series thus far, and the extensive bonus features are truly worth viewing. Whether you watched the show during its original airings, or first saw it via syndicated reruns (as I did) indulge that young sci-fi fan inside you, and pick up this terrific release. I'm not going to review the individual episodes here, but if you 're a fan, you'll want to dig into the set and watch some of your favorites. For example, I enjoyed seeing some of the more straightforward adventure-themed episodes like "The Derelict" and "Invaders From The Fifth Dimension," but I also liked some of the more comedic stories like "A Visit To Hades" and "Revolt Of The Androids." By the way, here's a little trivia note: the theme music for the series was composed by the one & only John Williams, of Jaws & Star Wars fame. For fans of Lost In Space, this Blu-ray set is highly recommended. Follow this link to view a vintage trailer for the series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mok6sn3v3HM. The full details of this spectacular Blu-ray release can be found here: http://www.blu-ray.com/news/?id=16490. And remember "Warning! Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!"