Saturday, January 3, 2015

Bing Crosby Presents "Stranded In Space"--No Kidding!

Set your clocks so you won't miss one thrilling moment of "Stranded in Space" (AKA "The Stranger")!

A hail and hearty hello to you and yours, movie lovers.

The subject of today's article is a justifiably obscure, supremely nutty TV movie that features a man on the run, a Big Brother totalitarian government, a planet where everybody is left-handed and an edict banning all open air concerts...produced by crooner, actor and orange juice promoter Bing Crosby(!?)

Ladies and gentleman, I give you "Stranded in Space"!

Made as a (failed) TV pilot in 1973, "Stranded in Space" (AKA "The Stranger") piqued my interest after reading about it in my MST3K bible, The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide.

See, Frank Conniff (TV's Frank) claimed that "Stranded in Space" was "the forgotten MST3K experiment". Unlike other flicks featured on the show, nobody ever wrote about it or asked about it; it had no fan following at all.

Conniff blamed this on "Stranded in Space"s relentless tone of blah "mediocrity", which he described
 "Houston, we have a problem. This movie sucks.": Astronaught Neil Stryker (Glenn Corbett) before trouble strikes.

 "As neither bad enough to stand out nor good enough to watch. It was just there." 

After sampling "Stranded in Space" myself, I would amend that statement. "Stranded in Space" isn't "just there." Rather, to quote Gertrude Stein, "there is no there there."

It begins like this. Astronaut Neil Stryker (Glenn Corbett) is orbiting space (in a capsule the size of a chew toy) with two other cohorts. One fly-boy is a newly married groom anxious to get back to Earth to resume his honeymoon. There is some vague problem going on, but Cape Canaveral isn't too worried, so the crew decides to relax. Then suddenly the camera starts shaking, the crew begins wigging out and the screen goes fuzzy...

Next we're at a hospital, where Stryker is holed up in his room, surrounded by lots of flower arrangements. He's been denied visitors, phone calls, newspapers, TV, even windows. Kindly Dr. Revere (Tim O'Connor) tries to reassure his patient that everything is peachy and he'll be home in no time. Yet...Stryker doesn't believe him. What's going on?

Turns out, Stryker crash landed on Terra, a planet that is like an impostor fragrance: it looks and smells like Earth-- but isn't Earth! Even more disturbing: Terra is run by an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-pervasive totalitarian government called The Perfect Order. Citizens are subject to constant monitoring and must follow a strict diet of dry conformity. Religion is outlawed, as are open-air concerts, everybody dresses in bland polyester separates and hooch is on the outs.

On the plus side, there is no poverty or unemployment, the streets are spotless and health care is free.

It all comes at a terrible price, of course. There is no personal freedom or freedom of thought. Folks who challenge The Perfect Order's orders are routinely rounded up and sent to the dreaded "Ward E", where they are subject to torture and/or brainwashing and later returned "rehabilitated" to society. If Ward E should fail, the trouble makers are snuffed.

"Is this on every station?" The Perfect Order spies on everybody on Terra.

How did The Perfect Order come to be? Well, "Stranded in Space" is kinda wishy-washy about that, to tell you the truth. It seems after a horrific war, the people of Terra wanted a society free of strife and conflict and somehow The Perfect Order was happy to oblige. It's been in power for, like, 35 years, and although people don't laugh and enjoy themselves as much as they use to (according to one old feller), The Perfect Order is thoroughly entrenched on Terra.

As with any all-powerful regime, The Perfect Order has devoted followers who rise up through its ranks via their complete toadying servitude to The Man. In "Stranded in Space", the pinched-faced, pompadoured Cameron Mitchell personifies this type of apparatchik. As George Bennett, Mitchell believes in The Perfect Order with all his heart and is convinced that Neil Stryker is a threat to Terra's way of life. That's why he wants the jet jockey dead...after Dr. Revere finishes probing his mind, of course.

Neil, no dummy, realizes something is very, very wrong and manages to bust out of the hospital. He stumbles around Terra trying to find someone who will help, but not rat him out to The Perfect Order's enforcers, who strut around in black turtle-necks and grey sport-coats. It's during these jaunts that Neil realizes that Terra has three moons, the people are left-handed, the only cars around are Chrysler's and that most people know someone who ran afoul of The Perfect Order and then "disappeared."

Now, you might think from my review that "Stranded in Space" seems kinda intriguing.

You would be wrong. Very, very wrong.

Despite elements that recall "The Fugitive" and the cult 1960's British series "The Prisoner", TV's Frank is right: there is nothing NOTHING! memorable about this movie.

Watching this flick is like being stuck in an endless city council meting where they relentlessly ponder zoning regulations and keep forgetting to break for lunch.

"The Stranger": Glenn Corbett grits his teeth...and forget to act.

Or, to put it another way, I've had more fun waiting in line at the DMV than I had watching "Stranded in Space". And I watched this movie voluntarily! I had to go the DMV!

"Stranded in Space" breaks the cardinal rule of Junk Cinema: it's unlovable.

The hero? Neil Stryker seems more like he's suffering from hemorrhoids than a hunted man on a creepy planet yearning to go home.

His love interest? Dr. Bettina Cooke (Sharon Acker) is as blah as her drab pants suit. She only comes alive when she slaps Stryker's puss.

The villain? Cameron Mitchell's pompadoured hair is scarier than he is.

The scariest thing about The Perfect Order's army of enforcers is they all appear to shop at Dad and Lad. Yuck!

When "Stranded in Space" ends its broadcast day and poor Neil's attempt to escape ends with him finding refuge with a family on a camping trip (don't ask), you could care less. The damn thing is finally over, praise the Lord!

So what have we learned from this experience, kiddies?

That a planet can exists on the other side of the sun and no one will ever notice.

That an entire planet of left-handed people will still drive on the right side of the street.

That pairing a turtle-neck with a blazer is dumb.

That Chrysler Plymouth's are the official cars of Terra. In fact, they are the only cars on Terra.

Cutting back on alcohol consumption is a fine goal, but banning concerts in the park? That's nuts! What are people suppose to do for fun?

Until next time movie lovers, SAVE THE MOVIES!

TV's Frank (Frank Conniff) was 100% right about "Stranded in Space": It Stinks!

Monday, December 29, 2014

It's "The Giant Spider Invasion"! Or Director Bill Rebane Strikes Again!

Run for your life! It's artwork from "The Giant Spider Invasion!"

Welcome, movie lovers.

Oh my God! Look up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's...a golf ball from outer space? A giant splinter from outer space? Well, whatever the hell it is, it's speeding (moderately) towards Earth! And it crash lands in rural Wisconsin! And it brings forth...a bunch of rocks? And nesting inside those rocks are...spiders?

Thus begins "The Giant Spider Invasion" (1975), a low-budget howler lovingly conceived, co-written, produced and directed by Bill Rebane, the man who gave us "Monster A Go-Go" (see my review "Monster A Go-Go' I One Go-Go Gone Flick").

How can we ever thank him?

The many, many hilarious delights of "The Giant Spider Invasion" begins with its stellar cast, a group of actors who are familiar faces from 1960's TV. These actors were never stars, yet they never embarrassed themselves, either...until they reported for work on this flick.

First up is Alan "Skipper" Hale, Jr. as the jovial Sheriff Jones. He is ably supported by Barbara "Della Street" Hale as Dr. Jenny Langer, a local scientist and devoted pant-suit wearer. Next we have Robert Easton as filthy redneck farmer Dan Kester, who is miserably married to Leslie Parrish, his consistently soused spouse, Ev.

An unexplained "meteor shower", meanwhile, brings in Steve Brodie as NASA big-wig Dr. J. R. Vance, who uses this opportunity to begin a tepid flirtation with Jenny. Finally, we have cub reporter Dave Perkins, played by Kevin Brodie, son of Steve.

Alan Hale, Jr. yucks it up as jovial Sheriff Jones.

Leslie Parrish drinks it up as lush Ev.

Robert Easton sweats it up as Dan.

All these folks converge in a small, rural Wisconsin town where everybody knows your name. One typical small town Saturday night finds a hell-fire-and-brimstone preacher (who looks like an unhinged Bruce Dern) headlining a revival meeting, while Dan sneaks off to an assignation with bombshell waitress Helga (Christine Schmidtmer), just as Dave picks up Ev's younger sister Terry for a night of sweet necking.

Then there is a crash, an explosion, a freaky light show and a violent wind storm in rapid succession. The point of impact is the Kester farm, but the bickering Dan and Ev don't check things out until mornin'.

What they find is a crater the size of a swimming pool. And dead cattle. Hideously slaughtered dead cattle. And rocks. Weird space rocks. Little do Ev and Dan realize, those rocks carry space spiders, the shock troops for a giant alien spider invasion...which takes its own sweet time to get going.

Instead, viewers are treated to a low rent "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?" bicker-fest, as Dan insults Ev ("You're so dumb, you wouldn't know rabbit turds from Rice Krispies!"), Ev insults Dan right back ("The only way I know you're alive is when I hear you flush the toilet!") and the crackers' mistaken impression that the sparkly rocks lining the inside of the space rocks are "real diamonds."

A far more congenial couple is Dr. Langer and Dr. Vance. They "meet cute" at her observatory, where Dr. Vance says he has "an appointment with her father." When Jenny says her pa died "in 1962", Vance replies, "I'm sorry. So the appointment must be with your husband." Then Jenny coyly states that she's not married, which causes Vance to grin and say, "I'm not sorry." Finally, Jenny makes it clear that she is the visitor Dr. Vance has come to see. With the sexual tension ready to boil over, Jenny offers Dr. Vance some tea.

Dr. Vance (Steve Brodie) admires Dr. Langer (Barbara Hale) from afar.

Meet "Cousin Billy": He's even more repulsive than you think.

At the lab, the doctors scrutinize Jenny's data and try to figure out what it all means. "I've never seen such fouled out data in my whole life!" Dr. Vance declares. Then they head over to Dutch's Cafe, where the elite meet to eat, to confer with Sheriff Jones. They later decide to hire a helicopter to take photographs of the impact site and check out possible radiation levels.

Meanwhile, back at the Kester farm, the house is suddenly over run with spiders--so much so that marathon drinker Ev even manages to blend one into her Bloody Mary. Eww! That evening, the desperate housewife opens her top dresser drawer and is attacked by a mid-sized furry spider sock puppet. Shrieking like a dental drill (and clad in only a blouse and panties), Ev runs pell-mell into a dark, dank, dirty garage for safety...where a afghan with pop-eyes is thrown on top of her.

And that is the end of that.

Ev is just the first in a line of giant spider casualties. The odious "Cousin Billy" is next, after the alien spiders force him to drive into a garage that promptly explodes. (My guess is Cousin Billy's greasy hair caught fire.) Poor Terry (also scantily clad) is attacked by alien spiders in her bedroom. In fact, the ramshackle Kester house collapses under the weight of a giant spider with googly eyes, which was resting on their roof.

Perhaps the worst death belongs to redneck adulterer Dan. Out in the fields searching for more space rocks, he fails to notice the king-size spider puppet creeping along behind him. The alien spider pounces on Dan, crushes him to death and then proceeds to suck...perhaps inhale is a better word choice...the cheese-head through to put this tastefully...hinder.

Eww! Yet, oddly appropriate.

"He Died As He Lived": Dan meets an untimely end.

From that point on, "The Giant Spider Invasion" ramps into full monster movie mode. You know, stampeding hordes of horrified citizens; gun totin' yokels eager for battle; police officers trying to contain the crowds and/or begging for back-up; victims bleeding in the streets; eye witness accounts of the menacing horror ("You know that shark in 'Jaws'?" Sheriff Jones screams into his car phone, "Well, (this spider) makes it look like a goldfish!")--you know the drill.

Of course, the terrified screams of the movie's hapless extras MIGHT be more believable if the F/X weren't so laughable. Simply put, the giant spider causing all the trouble is actually a big, furry rug with huge ping-pong eyeballs and pipe cleaner legs draped over a VW Bug. In fact, when the "giant spider" crashes a county fair--and totally disrupts a Little League baseball game--it's clear that among the "fleeing residents" are about seven extras clearly dragging the critter along with ropes!

Indeed, director Rebane dubbed his movie "The Giant Spider Disaster" because of so many glitches behind the scenes.

For example, the movie makers envisioned a scene where a house would collapse when a "giant spider" hopped on its roof. Techs had a giant spider loaded on a crane; when they placed the bugger on the roof, a bulldozer was to simultaneously pull the house down. Unfortunately, when the spider landed on the roof, its "legs" stuck straight up in the air--and nearly impaled the the crew members inside! Even worse happened when director Rebane tried to stage a scene where a giant spider was suppose to burst into flames. First, the spider was covered in gun powder. Next, crew members in tree dropped a lit match on the critter. Nothing happened. A second match was dropped. Nothing happened again. Then, the book of matches was lit and tossed on the critter. Nothing. Frustrated, Rebane--who had the camera cranked up to a very fast fps to capture a 'slo-mo' effect--turned his camera off. Suddenly the giant spider burst into flames, burning the hair off the crew members and starting several brush fires too boot.

Vance and Jenny lose their footing (and their dignity) when surprised with a giant alien spider.

Made for the comparatively thrift price of $250,000, "The Giant Spider Invasion" was one of the top fifty grossing films of 1975. After running three times on the ABC network, the flick languished in obscurity until the fine folks at "MST3K" got a hold of it. The rest is bad movie history.

This is where I leave you, movie lovers. I can think of no better way to ring in 2015 than spending time with Della Street and the Skipper from "Gilligan's Island" as they battle giant sock puppets and a VW Bug draped in a furry afghan with ping-pong eyeballs in 100 degree heat in rural Wisconsin, can you?

Happy New Year, and of course, save the movies!