Friday, August 1, 2014

Killer Tomates! Wild Strawberries! Giant Grasshoppers! It's "The Beginning Of The End"!

 Size does matter in Bert I. Gordon's grasshopper epic "The Beginning of the End".

Say, movie lovers, I have a question for you: How do you feel about genetically modified food? You know, food grown from seeds that scientists have dickered around with in the lab?

Some folks see GMF as a clever way to feed the world. Others fear unforeseen side effects.

Me? I tend to side with those who urge caution. Why? Is it because I am a vegan? A back to nature type? A foodie?

None of thee above. It's because I am a Junk Cinema lover--and I have seen Bert I. Gordon's "The Beginning of the End", which dared to show way back in 1957 that GMF was a VERY BAD IDEA.

It all begins innocently enough. A teenage couple in lover's lane are happily making out in a spiffy convertible. They come up for air and the girl suddenly screams. A few seconds later, a pair of cops out on patrol find their car twisted into a heap and the teenagers are nowhere to be found.

After that shocking discovery comes another even more shocking discovery: The entire town of Ludlow, Illinois (pop. 150) is destroyed! Ruined! There is not a single soul left!

 "Hey, Mare! Get Lou Grant on the line!" Hot-shot reporter Audrey Ames works her beat.
Next we are introduced to spunky girl reporter/photographer Audrey Ames (Peggy Castle), who works for "National Wire Service." She's en route to another assignment when she comes upon a detour. What gives? When the military won't let her through, Audrey smells a cover-up.
Turns out the town of Ludlow (pop.150) has been destroyed and there are no survivors. But you already knew that, right? Well, Audrey doesn't buy it, telling the C.O. in charge, "A town of 150 people just doesn't vanish!"
Because all spunky girl reporter/photographers are, well, spunky, Audrey decides to do some investigating on her own. Her nose for news leads her to a pre-"Mission: Impossible" Peter Graves, who plays Ed Wainwright, a scientist for the Department of Agriculture. Ed is using atomic energy to grow fruits and veggies. Huge fruits and veggies. I mean, his apples are the size of a Dodge Dart.
Hmm. Could there be a connection this atomic powered produce and the events at Ludlow?
Audrey, Ed and his loyal assistant Frank (who lost his hearing in a radiation accident) travel the back roads to Ludlow. Poking around, the trio discovers the grass has been chewed to bits. Then they hear a strange clicking sound. Suddenly a grasshopper the size of a skyscraper hops on screen and eats Frank! Audrey and Ed drive off in horror.

"Peek-A-Boo! I see you!" Ill-fated Frank has a close encounter with a giant grasshopper.

At military HQ, Peter and Peggy try to convince pug-faced Col. Sturgeon (Thomas B. Henry) that danger is imminent. In vain. The military brass doesn't buy the idea of king sized grasshoppers turning the great state of Illinois into their personal salad bar of doom. But after Graves accompanies a platoon on maneuvers, opinions quickly change. Despite tons of guns and ammo, the gigantic grasshoppers devour half the company. Suddenly death by grasshoppers is a very real possibility.

How did this happen? Well, it turns out some grasshoppers got into Ed's super atomic plant food. They then hippity-hopped over to a grain silo, where the bugs chowed down with abandon. The more they ate, the bigger the bugs got until they burst out of the silo. Now the size of freight trains, the grasshoppers proceed to munch the hapless citizens of Ludlow into oblivion. Oh, the humanity!

With the fate of the entire human race at stake, what's to be done? The military, naturally, wants to go in with guns a-blazin'. Failing that, they want to bring in the nukes. Nukes! Ed, on the other hand, argues for a more scientific approach. Audrey, never in the same outfit twice, stands by Ed. She does that for the rest of the flick. Literally. She never moves.

As the clock ticks away and all of Chicago hangs in the balance, Ed finally comes up with a solution: he makes a recording of the grasshoppers mating call (I bet you didn't know that the bigger the bug, the hornier they are. Well, it's true.). With this siren song playing, the grasshoppers are then lured into Lake Michigan, where they quickly drown. The world safe at last, everybody breathes a sigh of relief...oh, what's this? Ed isn't so sure the danger has passed. Could other insects have eaten the super duper plant food? Could other insects and bugs and stuff be growing at a super sized rate as we speak?

On that cheerful note, "The Beginning of the End" concludes its broadcast day. Good luck and God bless.

Now, experienced Junk Cinema lovers will note that the fate of the gigantic grasshoppers in this flick mirrors the fate of the killer bees in Irwin Allen's notorious "The Swarm" (1978). In that flick, bee expert Michael Caine (!) lures the nasty little buzzers into the Gulf of Mexico with the sound of the Queen Bee's mating call (you knew bees were total sex maniacs, right? Well, they are.). After the bees dived in head first into the drink, the scientists then poured OIL on them and SET THE GULF ON FIRE! Green Peace must have had a fit.

 "This is a bug hunt, man! A bug hunt!" The military goes great guns after the grasshoppers.

I also feel it is my duty to ask if drowning gigantic grasshoppers who gulped down some atomic plant food (and their killer bee buddies) is really such a good idea. I mean, wouldn't the bugs pollute the water? And wouldn't setting fire to the Gulf of Mexico be a bit, oh, dangerous environmentally? I'm just asking, mind you; I don't have a better solution. I am just, well, concerned.

Moving right along, Bert I. Gordon wasn't the only one warning folks about the dangers of rouge bugs and evil plants. If you happened to watch "Lost in Space" way back when, you would know that "Space Family Robinson" encountered no less than three episodes about evil plants: "Attack of the Monster Plants", "The Space Croppers" (which featured Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge, no less) and "The Great Vegetable Rebellion" where the whole family was turned into plant people. Meanwhile, over on the set of "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea", a mad scientist forced his twin to make evil plants and vicious sea weed during the "Plant Man" episode in 1967.

Film-maker Bert I. Gordon became known as "Mr. B.I.G." because of A) his initials and B) his fondness for super-sized subject matter. Bet I. has dealt with giant people ("The Amazing Colossal Man" and its sequel "War of the Colossal Beast"), giant rats ("Food of the Gods"), and giant ants in "Empire of the Ants"--which starred a pre-"Dynasty" Joan Collins battling cheap special effects with only one costume change. In this dilly, the ants grow to the size of Buicks after sampling a bit too much of the illegally dumped toxic waste some corporate baddies dumped in the sea. After they mutate, the ants take over a tiny town and enslave the human residents. In her autobiography, Joan admitted she did "Empire of the Ants" because her family needed the money; shortly after film wrapped, poor Joan went on unemployment.

This just proves my point that Junk Cinema is not merely entertaining; it's also educational. After watching "The Beginning of the End", who would believe that GMF is a good idea? The message of the film is loud and clear: Don't fool with Mother Nature! Use natural fertilizer! Grow your own produce! And keep nuclear by-products away from the bugs, for heaven's sake!

Until next time, save the movies!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Fly Me To "Project Moonbase"

Now boarding for "Project Moonbase"(1953)!

Ah, greetings and salutations, movie lovers.

The subject of today's discourse takes place in the future (1970, to be exact) and features a female person of the lady sex in charge of an important mission to the moon.

We've come a long way, baby?

Well, not quite.

See, the flick which showcases our ground-breaking female boss heroine--"Project Moonbase" (1953)--also takes every opportunity it can to belittle its protagonist, making it clear that lady persons have no place in the space race.

Col. Briteis  (Donna Martell) reports for duty. All the men at SPACOM insist on calling her "Col. Bright Eyes".

This premise might be easier to tolerate if the men in "Project Moonbase" weren't A) a total dinks, B) pompous jerks or C) total dinks who are also pompous jerks
The fun begins when we learn SPACOM, which runs our space program, is preparing an important mission to the moon. This vitally important mission is being organized by one Gen. "Pappy" Greene, played with irritating smugness by Hayden Rorke of "I Dream of Jeannie" fame

Little does the general know, a team of super crafty spies are planning to sabotage the operation.
Why? The movie never says. We are also kept in the dark as to who these spies are (Commies? Maoists? Freelance Anarchists?) and who they are in bed with (SMERSH? K.A.O.S? F.O.W.L? SPECTRE? Z.O.W.I.E?).

Never the less, these meanies are a dapper, highly organized bunch who wear three-piece suits and operate out of a tastefully furnished high rise. Their evil plan to sabotage the moon mission involves replacing one of SPACOM's space cadets with a double.

How will they do this? Well, first, they tap into SPACOM's phones and learn one Dr. Wernher (Larry Johns) will be tagging along. Next, the baddies open their meticulously kept files and pull out the composite card of an operative who looks just like Dr. Wernher! Finally, they kidnap the real Dr. and replace him with the fake one! The whole thing takes about 10 minutes.

The sophisticated baddies in "Project Moonbase" easily get their man

Frankly, I was impressed.

Meanwhile, over at SPACOM, we learn that Maj. Bill Moore (Ross Ford) has been assigned as second-in-command to Col. Briteis (Donna Mitchell)--much to his chagrin. See, Bill use to think Col. "Bright Eyes" (as all the men insist on calling her) was "a good kid" until she started getting promoted and stuff; then he soured on her. However, it's clear that Maj. Moore is simply miffed that a chick out ranks him.

Unfortunately, the other brass at SPACOM are even less evolved. Gen. Greene is especially nasty. He flatly tells Col. Briteis that "if (Maj. Moore) had weighed 90 pounds instead of 180, he'd be a colonel and a public hero!" Then the general tells Briteis to "pipe down!" and "shut up!" while accuses her of being "too big for her britches".

When the female colonel stands up for herself, Gen Greene gets ever madder, barking, "One, colonels don't say 'no' to generals! Two, you're not super woman, you're a spoiled brat! Three, anymore guff out of you and I'll turn you over my knee and spank you!"--all of which makes Gen. Greene even more of a hysterical sexist pig than Rush Limbaugh (quite a feat when you think about it).

After that little vignette, Briteis, Moore and the fake Dr. Wernher prepare for blast-off. They slip into their official SPACOM space wear, which consist of  Izod t-shirts, short-shorts and Ugg boots, topped off by a swim cap. This makes the astronauts appear less like experienced space travelers and more like the senior staff at Camp Kok-A-Mungah. The interior of their space ship, meanwhile, includes elevated lawn chairs and lots of flashing buttons.

Our space cadets settle down for their space flight.

Whizzing through space, Maj. Moore begins to suspect that Dr. W is a fake: he claims to be from Brooklyn, yet has never heard of the Brooklyn Dodgers! A fight soon breaks out and Col Briteis is conked out cold and the ship heads off course. The colonel decides they must land on the moon, which seems sensible enough, except they haven't packed enough provisions and could starve to death before help arrives. Oh, and they have lost radio contact with HQ.

Faced with these upsets, Col. Briteis goes "all female"; in other words, she becomes a teary, jittery mess, wailing to Maj. Moore, "Bill, I muffed it!" Seeing the colonel revert to Helpless Female 101, Moore urges his superior to "take it easy" and to "go powder your nose" while he, Mr. Manly Man, takes over.

Resuming radio contact with SPACOM, Gen. Greene is glad the crew landed safely on the moon and apprehended the spy (who later dies, but don't worry about it). Supplies, meanwhile, will soon be on their way. However, SPACOM won't be able to rescue the astronauts for a couple of months; something about logistics.

However, there is a larger problem brewing.

Because Maj. Moore is a boy and Col. Briteis is a girl and both are single and they are on the moon with out a proper chaperone, SPACOM is worried, very worried, about...appearances. After all, how many data checks can two astronauts run before they start getting bored and lonely...and horny? And what about the folks back on Earth? How can the parents of America tell their kids with a straight face that a man and a woman who are unrelated can live on the moon and nothing fishy is going to transpire? After all, SPACOM doesn't want to be seen as promoting "free love"! This is the space program, not "Temptation Island"!
He's a smug big lug: Hayden Roarke as General Greene.

Besides, the President of the United States has gotten wind of the situation and is demanding our two space cadets get married--pronto!

If this sounds nutty (and it is), you won't believe what happens next: Col. Briteis agrees to marry Maj. Moore--but not before he's promoted to Brigadier General!! After all, a wife can't out rank her husband, can she?

Thus, "Project Moonbase" ends with Briteis and Moore getting hitched. Gen. Greene even stands in for the bride's father at HQ. Our happy (space) campers then have a big fat smooch before the President of the United States--an elderly woman with pearls--beams them a "congratulations from the White House" message.

All's well that ends well?

I bet once SPACOM gets the lead out and Briteis and Moore get back to terra firma, their first order of business will be to head over to Nevada and get a quickie divorce--especially if their petition for an annulment is denied. After all, you can't expect a shot-gun marriage to last when one of the participants (i.e. Bill) is a dink.

Col.Briteis and Maj. Moore's touching wedding photo.

To say "Project Moonbase" is sexist is like saying Nancy Grace gets a bit shrill at times.

The message of the film seems to be that in the future women will assume positions of authority, but once they assume those positions, they will completely muck them up because, well, they are women, so maybe women shouldn't assume positions of authority in the first place.

Or something like that.

However, when you factor in the cheesy sets (borrowed from "Cat Women of the Moon", also released in 1953), the goofy costumes (Ugg boots, really?) and the hysterical acting in addition to "Project Moonbase"s anti-woman bias, you have one weird, wild, warped, wacky flick.

In short, a perfect example of Junk Cinema at its finest!

The female president of the United States congratulates our heroes on their forced marriage in space.
Until next time, save the movies!

P.S. If you are a fan of '60's spy movies, you probably recognized that SMERSH and SPECTRE are from James Bond; K.A.O.S is from "Get Smart"; F.O.W.L is from Darkwing Duck and Z.O.W.I.E is from the "Our Man Flint" movies.