With its countless laser battles, genocidal subtext, a hallucinatory ending that suggests someone drank the water in the “It’s a Small World” ride, and that immortal scene where a big evil robot gets all teppan-yaki with Tony Perkins, it’s hard to believe that The Black Hole was a Disney release. Scandalous back in 1979 because it was Disney’s first PG film, the end result is an odd duck of a movie that endears as much as it invites guffaws. When I was a child, this movie, believe it or not, meant more to me than Star Wars.
We have the space explorers of the U.S.S. Palomino, led by Capt. Dan Holland (Robert Forster, allowed not only a lead role but the chance to blow up robots, save buxom astrophysicists, and to retain more dignity than in Supernova). He’s joined by First Officer Charles Pizer (Joseph Bottoms, who gets to yell a lot and use the H-word), science man Dr. Alex Durant (Perkins, who invests his performance with the kind of queeny subtext that must have delighted Vito Russo), science woman Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux from Where the Boys Are, Jackson County Jail, and Devil Dog: the Hound of Hell), and ship’s journalist Harry Booth (the incomparable Ernest Borgnine, the man who taught the language of love to Ethel Merman). They’ve been in space for a while with their trusty robot V.I.N.C.E.N.T., a rather literate anthropomorphized barrel who speaks with Roddy McDowell’s voice.
They’re on a collision course with that staple of Westerns and horror films, the abandoned outpost, which here is a derelict space station called U.S.S. Cygnus. It’s big, it’s creepy, and darned if it doesn’t have a renegade scientist on board named Reinhardt (Schell), along with a big red evil ginsu-robot and two subordinate robot classes. The sentries are burgundy and have really bad leg joints; the humanoids have mirrored faceplates and long flowing robes. The humanoids also sometimes limp and have funerals (hint). Yes, Reinhardt is an insane megalomaniac and murderer, and he has this really disturbing medical center where humans go in but humanoid robots come out.
So it’s good people and robots versus bad guy and robots, with lots of “Vweep”y laser battles and a great deal of nonsense. Disney’s new disc of the film is a weird case of two steps forward, one step back. While the set has its plusesthe gorgeous ’Scope photography is now anamorphically enhanced, and there’s a comprehensive 16-minute interview with matte-paintings director Harrison Ellenshawthe film’s overture has been stripped of the classy starfield it ran with in theaters and on the previous Anchor Bay disc, replaced with a cheap-looking font that says “The Black Hole - Overture.” I guess it was chosen by whomever decided to mess with the cover art, bringing a planet into the equation when one does not appear in the film. Regardless, the new disc is worth checking out for anyone with fond memories of this ’70s sci-fi shocker.
♦ One of the greatest trends in DVD marketing is the double-feature disc, pairing two related films on one disc at a discount to the consumer. Granted, there are a lot of crappy discs that fit this description. But MGM’s “Midnite Movies” line and Anchor Bay’s “Drive-In Double Feature” discs have brought heaps of nearly forgotten gems out of the vaults in pairs, as though some deliciously demented Noah had tried to find just the right sci-fi and horror titles for his ark. Now Warner Bros. follows this approach with a gorgeous presentation of two early-’60s cult items.
1960 was a year strictly not to be fucked with when it came to horror, exploitation and art films. L’Avventura, Black Sunday, Peeping Tom, Psycho, Breathless, Beat Girleach represents something twisted in modern society, offering enduring visions of what chaos looks like to cultures and nations all around the world. To that list I would add a small British film by Wolf Rilla: Village of the Damned, an elegant shocker about telepathic Aryan terror at four feet off the ground.
In no way diminished by John Carpenter’s dunderheaded mid-’90s remake, Village is British horror at its most restrained and visceral, adapted from a John Wyndham novel about a town where all the women give birth at once to blond-haired, pale-eyed alien spawn. These Nazi tots destabilize everything around them, not with force beams or cosmic rays, but by controlling the minds and bodies of those around them. Those freaky eyes are the giveaway, of course, but what can be done...they’re only children.
That debate comes into play in the 1963 sequel, Anton Leader’s Children of the Damned, which eschews the delirious “who will save us from these children?” arguments of the first film (which Simpsons fans should rightly recognize as “The Bloodening”) for political and philosophical debate. And despite screenwriter John Briley’s protestations to the contrary on the commentary track, the movie gives us a rarity of 1960s cinemaa well-adjusted gay couplein its heroes, Colonel Lewellin (Ian Hendry) and Doctor Neville (Alan Badel).
Both films on the Warner’s double feature come anamorphically enhanced and presented in glorious black-and-white with commentary tracksauthor Steve Haberman on Village, screenwriter Briley on Children. Haberman’s commentary explores the global controversy the first film caused simply by dealing with an issue as shocking as pregnancy (or, as it was decried for almost three years, a “mockery of the virgin birth”). Every good collection needs at least one children-on-the-rampage film. This one gives you double the value.
♦ First, a warning: Columbia’s bargain-priced The Complete Gidget Collection is offered exclusively in pan-and-scan and with zero special featuresa criminal way to treat the cornerstone of Hollywood surf fantasy. Nevertheless, from the moment Yvonne Craig (the future Batgirl!) tells shy beach bunny Sandra Dee (playing Gidget!) to “peel, girl,” and reveal her ill-fitting bathing suit, it’s easy to see why the Gidget movies remain cult favorites.
Though not as flavorful or poignant as Frederick Kohner’s original novel or the 1965 Sally Field TV series, the three initial feature offerings1959’s Gidget, 1961’s Gidget Goes Hawaiian and 1963’s Gidget Goes To Romehave an open anxiety about sex and body image rare for teen films of the period. Whether played by Dee, Deborah Walley or Cindy Carol, Gidget is a complicated youngster: a straight-A student with an infatuation with the beach bum lifestyle and a desire to give her man what he wants, just short of gettin’ it on.
The first film is the brightest, with a soulful supporting turn by Cliff Robertson as Korean War vet and surfing philosopher The Big Kahuna. The second film is the one most like a lurid romance comic, as Hawaii-bound Gidget gets a bad reputation because of her boy-crazy ways. The Roman adventure is more about fashion and location, and suffers from an absence of beachscapes. The studio-buffed veneer of pre-MPAA ingénues tended to crack when they got wet, which is one of the reason why bikini Westerns stay so timeless. Damp teenagers looks the same now as they always havefull of promise to their own kind, and the source of sweet nostalgia for over-the-hillers.
♦ Neil Young’s 2003 concept album Greendale was hailed by many as a return to form for the sometimes brilliant, frequently uninspired proto-grunger, but apart from the torrent of lyrics from the usually terse Young, it struck this fan’s ears as dully repetitive and amelodic. Surprisingly, it works better as a movie. Shot on Super 8 with a cast of amateurs, Greendale (Sanctuary) the DVD is disarmingly literal, translating Young’s story of freedom-loving small-towners word-for-word and note-for-note.
The straight approach makes Young’s vision of the modern worldwar-torn, corrupt, and bereft of privacymuch clearer than it was on the record. The song cycle’s limitations are equally clear: the veteran rocker’s tendency toward thudding sprawl limits the number of songs he can include, which keeps the plot too curtailed for a sweeping “see how we are.” Still, Greendale’s handmade quality wins the day, as the foggy images enhance Young’s bracing, undisciplined howl.
♦ You Bet Your Life wasn’t much of a game show, but for fans of host Groucho Marx, it was sometimes a better vehicle for his quick wit and relentless innuendo than the actual Marx Brothers movies. Shout Factory does Marx fans a favor with the three-DVD set You Bet Your Life: The Best Episodes, which ranges across the show’s decade-long TV run to pick a representative sample of lively conversation and low stakes. Given the aloof riffing that Groucho excelled at on the movie screen, it’s odd to see him chatting up contestants with what appears to be genuine interest, even if he’s just grilling housewives in order to good-naturedly pick them apart.
You Bet Your Life typically filmed three times as much as necessary for a half-hour episode, so the producers could cut together Groucho’s best quips. The show has the illusion of looseness but is actually tight as a drum, with a little happy talk, a little quiz, and a lot of Groucho making ordinary American life seem wonderfully absurd. The DVD adds some mild “unfit to air” outtakes and samples of post-YBYL pilots that Groucho shot and shelved. Even there, in a less ideal format, the head Marx looks like he’s having as much fun hogging the camera as his audience has watching him. These discs are a cultural treasure.