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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Good Ideas Poorly Executed, Vol. 2: Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

First things first.  I need to just state something for the record, up front, in full disclosure so there are no misunderstandings between you, the reader, and me, the writer.

I genuinely love Plan 9 From Outer Space.  Not in an ironic way.  I love it the way Linus loves his blanket. I’m not about to say it’s on the level of The Godfather or Gone With The Wind.  I’m just saying that I truly don’t believe it deserves the title of Worst Movie Ever Made, nor do I think that it’s an inherently bad film. However, I freely concede that it’s not for everyone and it’s a far, far cry from being something the masses would enjoy.

That said, I'd like to prove to you that at the root of Plan 9 is not just a good idea, but a great idea.  Here we go.

The Pitch:  Aliens bring the dead back to life in order to conquer the Earth.  It can’t miss!

The Budget:  $60,000.  Seriously.  I’m not making a snide joke here.  The actual budget was $60,000 for this movie.  To put things in perspective, the movie I Married A Monster From Outer Space came out a year earlier and the budget was $175,000.  Before we go further, let that roll around in your head a bit.  Say what you will about this movie or its infamous director Ed Wood, but he did two things that the majority of you reading this will never, ever do. 

1.   He got a movie made and in theaters for one third of what it cost a major studio to bring a film to the big screen. 

2.  He made a movie that we are still talking about almost sixty years later.

Suck on that, haters!

The Result:  Okay, the result is not the greatest, but let’s talk about the idea first because at its root, it’s a friggin’ doozy.  The idea behind this is that aliens want to invade the Earth.  They monitor us long enough to figure out that we’re a war-like people and instead of dirtying their own hands, they employ Plan 9.  That plan is to raise the recently deceased to overrun the living, thus clearing the planet for the aliens to inhabit. 

That’s a pretty ingenious idea if you think about it.  The dead outnumber the living by a wide margin and if all of the preserved bodies buried six feet down were raised up and given the order to kill the living, we’d be screwed.  Imagine the horror and drama of focusing your attention on a small band of people trying to fend off the undead hordes, only to find that the worst (alien invaders) is yet to come.

This is a TITANIC idea!  Unfortunately, like the ship itself, it hit an iceberg.

That iceberg was named Ed Wood.  While he came up with the idea, his ambition and enthusiasm were light years stronger than his talent and ability when it came to movie making.  Wood loved film.  That’s apparent in all of his movies.  However he just didn’t have the talent to make good ones.  Thus Plan 9 From Outer Space suffers from a number of problems.

First, there’s the acting.  It’s pretty atrocious all around with the exception of Maila Nurmi (playing Vampira).  Her role was silent (at her request… she famously hated the small bit of dialogue Wood wrote for her and insisted on playing the role silently).  Her creepy walk, blank stare and otherworldly physique (could her waist be cinched up any more and not actually cut her in half?) make her a highlight.  Pull her out though and the acting is rote at best and mostly just horrible.  

Now, some of that could be due to the writing.  The script is overwritten to the point of hilarity.  Much has been said about how awful the dialogue is but for those who haven’t seen it, I’d like to give you my favorite three quotes from this film.  I can’t tell you how much hearing these puts a smile on my face.

Quote 1:  Greetings, my friend.  We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.  And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.

Quote 2:  But one thing’s sure.  Inspector Clay is dead.  Murdered.  And somebody’s responsible.

Quote 3:  Then they attacked a town, a small town I’ll admit, but nevertheless a town of people, people who died.

I’m not lying when I say that right now I'm smiling ear to ear just writing those quotes.  There is a simple brilliance to them that fills me with genuine joy.   

Let’s put aside the writing and the acting for a moment though.  Let’s look at the actual moviemaking itself.  

What’s wrong with that?  Well, let’s see.  There are the gravestones that wobble like the cardboard props they are when someone bumps them.  

There’s the fact that Bela Lugosi died a few days into filming and Wood cast a dentist to replace him.  That wouldn’t have been an issue if the dentist had looked like Lugosi but he didn’t.  Wood just had him cover his face with a cape when he was on camera.  

Then there’s the UFO’s themselves.  They were plastic models that kids could buy at a dimestore at the time.  He dangled them from strings and set them on fire during the finale.  

There are the scars that move around on Tor Johnson's face if you watch closely.  Wood shot multiple days with Johnson and since the scars were made from spirit gum and collodian, the scars had to be moved around in order to avoid irritating Johnson's skin.  Continuity errors, be damned!

And that's really just the tip of the iceberg.  I could write an entire column on the production issues alone.

So yeah, we had a perfect storm going here:  Bad acting, bad script and bad production.

To Watch or Not To Watch:  This is easy.  You HAVE to watch Plan 9 From Outer Space.  I will defend this movie until the very end because at its core, it was a good idea AND… that trifecta of defectiveness actually works in the movie’s favor.  I’ve had more fun watching this movie with friends and family than most comedies.  Sure, the laughter was inadvertent, but laughter is laughter and Ed Wood touched on a very specific nerve here.  If you haven’t seen Plan 9, then stop reading this, get a few friends together and kick back for an awesome time.  You won’t be disappointed.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Southern California Vol. 16 - The Lost Canals of Venice

When I first moved out to California on my own, I’d heard of Venice Beach but never visited before.  While I was in the military, I was generally stuck in Long Beach with no transportation and to be honest, SoCal’s public transit system is one of the worst.  So imagine my surprise when a fellow bandmate took me there for the first time and I discovered that it was exactly like I pictured a crazy California beach scene should be.

There were firebreathers putting on shows, jugglers, fortune tellers, dance skaters, weightlifters pumping iron right next to the sand and you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting someone playing a guitar, drum or even a full sized piano.  Hell, there were (and still are) weekend drum circles every Saturday and Sunday! It was (and still is) an amazing place.  Sure, it’s seedy in places and can feel a little dangerous, but all of the best places are, aren’t they?

My only disappointment these days is that the Venice Beach Freakshow closed down in April of last year.  If you don’t know about it, check out Freakshow on AMC.  

It’s available on Hulu and is a reality show that lasted a couple of seasons and focused on the lives of the performers who worked there.  It was one of our favorite places on the boardwalk and I can tell you first hand that not only are the Ray’s lovely people but the performers were all amazing to hang out with.  Keep your fingers crossed that they find a new location nearby soon.

However, I’m not writing about Venice Beach to talk about the boardwalk area.  I want to talk about the original vision for the place which is much different than what it turned out to be.  Venice was originally founded as a beach resort.  It was the brainchild of a millionaire named Abbot Kinney.  He’d made his fortune in Tobacco and in 1904, he started building what he called “Venice of America”.  

A year later, he opened it on July 4.  By that time, he had dug literally miles of canals in order to drain the marshes that made up most of the land.  All of the architecture had a Venetian theme.  When he opened the doors to the public, there was a 1,200 foot long pier (with attractions), a dance hall, an auditorium and even a restaurant on a ship connected to the pier.  Within five years, the pier (named Kinney Pier) had become more amusement oriented with rides and attractions like an aquarium, rides and games.  Many people came for the beach though.  It’s still one of the best around and Kinney supplied cottages for those looking to rent for a long weekend. 

The most interesting thing about Venice Beach to me though is still the canals.  As I mentioned above, Kinney had dug literally miles of canals in order to bolster the Venice, Italy theme.  Visitors could take gondola rides through them and it was one of the bigger draws of its day.  However in 1926, all that changed.  Venice was officially annexed by Los Angeles and the city decided that rather than keep things as they were, Venice needed to modernize some.  Therefore, they declared their intention to do away with many of the canals and pave over them to create more streets and thoroughfares. 

By this time, there were permanent residents who had purchased homes along the canals.  The last thing they wanted were streets when they were living in the “Venice of America”.  The whole thing was settled after a three year court battle and guess who won?

Well, the City of Los Angeles of course.  A small area of canals remain and since they were renovated in the early 1990’s, they’ve become a tourist attraction again.  You can walk along the sidewalks, cross the footbridges and generally enjoy the scenery, even though there are no longer gondolas to take you around.

As for those canals that were filled in, the next time you’re in Venice take a look at your phone map and imagine the way it used to be.  To give you an idea, here’s a list from Wikipedia of the former canals and their new street names.

Coral Canal – now Main St.
Cabrillo Canal – now Cabrillo Ave.
Venus Canal – now San Juan Ave.
Lion Canal – now Windward Ave.
Altair Canal – now Altair St.
Aldebaren Canal – now Market St.
Grand Canal – now Grand Blvd.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Crossdressing, South Africa and How America Forgot about Queen

If you’ve been checking in here over the last several weeks, you’ve seen a lot of articles about rock concept albums and weird places to visit in Southern California.  Today, I want to keep the focus on music, but this time it’s not connected to any ongoing series.  It’s a post about Queen and I’m doing it specifically for Lisanne Harrington, but I hope you all enjoy it as well.

I’m a casual fan of Queen.  When I was hitting the age where rock music was starting to help me define who I was, Queen was already kind of out of fashion.  All the hard rocking guitars of their early stuff had given way to faux rockabilly and disco beats.  I like most of the hits and I totally get the genius and talent of Freddy Mercury as a frontman, but I never fell head over heels for them which is how I missed this tidbit.

See, originally I was going to write about rock music’s role in breaking down taboos and rearranging cultural norms and to do that, I was going to tell you a quick story about high school, Billy Squier and Queen.  Then I stumbled on something that I hadn’t heard before and a few rabbit holes later, I’m staring at this page trying to figure out how to work it all in.

Most people think of Queen as a staple of rock and roll, universally loved and accepted everywhere.  After all, their songs “We Are The Champions” and “We Will Rock You” have permeated pop culture so much that kids sing them without even knowing where they came from.  Most people don’t realize that American audiences turned their back on Queen when they were arguably at the height of their powers and the reason mostly had to do with their image. 

Queen had a string of huge hits worldwide from 1975 – 1981, including “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”.   They’d also been a favorite of hard rock fans due to songs like “Stone Cold Crazy” and Brian May’s guitar heroics.  Even early on, there had always been rumors that the band’s lead singer, Freddy Mercury, was gay, but he’d never publicly acknowledged it (and wouldn’t for years).  It didn’t seem to matter to most fans, but on the cover of their album The Game, Mercury changed his image.  

Gone were the long hair and silk outfits.  In their place was short hair and leather.  Mercury wasn’t coming out publicly in words, but visually he wasn’t hiding anymore.  That rubbed American audiences the wrong way.  As Queen toured the States, Mercury became the target of some pretty bitter fans who didn’t really want to confront their own feelings about sexuality.  Instead, they saw fit to throw disposable razor blades at him during shows (this actually happened) as if to say, “Just end it already.” 

But Queen always followed their own muse and even as album sales in the U.S. lagged, the band stuck by their singer.   In a particularly defiant moment, the band shot a video for the song “I Want to Break Free” completely in drag.  It was a single off their new album called The Works.  Basically the message they were sending was, “If you can’t find this fun and funny, then we really don’t give a damn if you buy our record or not.”  You can see the video below.

For any other band, that would have been the final nail in the coffin, and as far as most people at the time were concerned, it was.  At my high school, it was really uncool to like them and if you happened to be playing their cassette in your jam box after football practice, there was a chance you’d get punched just on principle.  Queen had trouble with sales in the States and didn’t even properly tour the U.S. with the album.  Instead, they enjoyed their popularity in other countries and wrote off America for the next two years.

Unfortunately, they started to lose face at home and abroad thanks to a very stupid decision on the band’s part.  During that time, Queen decided to play a concert in Sun City, South Africa.  This was during apartheid and those who are old enough will remember there was a huge push in the music world to boycott the country.  Artists as diverse as Cyndi Lauper, U2 and Little Steven all banded together and created an organization called Artists Against Apartheid.  They urged Queen not to play the show, but once again the band followed their own muse.  They argued that they weren’t playing for the government.  They were playing for the people in South Africa who were everyday fans and deserved to hear their favorite band play.

It was a tone deaf response and it began to cost the band dearly.  The decision caused a huge rift between Queen and other popular acts of the time.   It also caused a row in the music tabloids and soon, Queen was feeling the heat in their home country as well. 


When Bob Geldof gathered the most popular U.K. artists at the time to do a charity single to feed starving people in Africa, he didn’t invite Queen.  He very publicly avoided them, basically stating that they were part of the problem.

This was like a slap in the face to Freddy Mercury.  He went on record as saying how disappointed he was and the band did their best to control the damage.  At this stage in most band’s careers, you read about the inevitable breakup and perhaps a partial reunion of two members under the old band name. 

Instead, something pretty magical happened:  Live Aid.

It was the world’s largest benefit concert.  It took place across two continents (three if you add the Australian version which aired six hours earlier than Live Aid officially kicked off).  Every major rock and pop music act on the planet ended up playing it.  The Who reunited for it, as did Black Sabbath.  Pop music giants played alongside blues and metal artists.  It wasn’t just an event, it was an EVENT!

Geldof decided to reach out to Queen despite his anger over the South Africa concerts.  Queen jumped at the chance and in one, short set that was broadcast live across two continents, Queen not only won back their old fans, they gained thousands of new ones.  It turned out to be the performance that solidified Queen as a rock band for the ages.  Watch the entire thing in the link below.

Freddy Mercury absolutely OWNS that crowd.  Brian May later called it, “The greatest day of our lives.”  He said that the band themselves played okay but Freddy Mercury took things to another level.  After the performance was over, Elton John rushed back to find them and declared, “You bastards!  You stole the show!”
It was the moment where sheer talent overcame the prejudice of image and forgave bad decisions.  

At my high school, nobody gave anyone crap for liking Queen after Live Aid.

Until next week, enjoy the links above and check out my Amazon author page where you can pick up my book The Wash.  It has absolutely nothing to do with Queen but you'll likely enjoy it anyway.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Southern California Vol. 15: The Wild Buffalo of Catalina Island

I’ve written about Catalina Island a few times on this blog.  Mostly I’ve mentioned it when talking about diving as it’s the home of some of the most beautiful diving spots around.  However, it’s also home to something kind of weird.

A herd of buffalo.

That’s right, there’s a herd of wild buffalo on a small island out in the Pacific Ocean. 
Now I know what you’re asking yourself.  How did they get there?  Were they grazing when a massive earthquake separated the island from the mainland and they’ve just existed all these years?  Perhaps they were picked up by aliens and deposited in the wrong place!
No, there’s a much simpler and obvious reason they’re on the island. 


In 1924, a Hollywood production company sent a film crew to Catalina Island to film a silent version of Zane Grey’s western The Vanishing American.  It was to be directed by George B. Seitz whose other film credits include The Black Secret and The Iron Claw.  It was to star Richard Dix who later would be nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Cimarron.  The costar was Lois Wilson who lived to age 93 and appeared in over 150 films.

Apparently no expense was to be spared because the budget allowed for the transport of a small herd of bison to the island for use in filming.  Once production wrapped though, the crew found it impossible to round up the herd to get them back to the mainland.  After some frustration, the decision was made to just leave them to fend for themselves.  Over the years they thrived.  At one point the herd was 600 strong but now it’s maintained at about 150 individuals.  They are periodically moved to the mainland and in some cases even transported to the Great Plains where their ancestors originated.

Here’s the kicker to this story.  If you watch The Vanishing American, can you guess what you don’t see?


Every scene that featured the buffalo was eventually cut from the final version of the film.  According to Jim Watson, a columnist for the Catalina Islander Newspaper, there’s not even any footage from the Catalina portion of the shoot in the final film at all.

The good news in all this is that the bison are actually good for the island instead of being a detriment like most invasive species.

There are tours that will take you to the islands’ interior and allow you to get a look at the bison for yourself.  I highly recommend you get out to Catalina at some point and spend the money to take a tour. It’s a fantastic place to visit whether you’re under water or above it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Good Ideas Poorly Executed Vol. 1: Laserblast (1977)

There are many things in life that people innately know are true. For instance, if you were to run with your head down at full speed into a brick wall, you will hurt your head. We don't need any scientific study to confirm this. As human beings, we already know that the result will be a headache at best and a concussion more likely.

In the world of film, there are also laws that cineastes know are inherently true. For instance, if you make a movie about lost love and set it in the Victorian era, you will likely get Oscar consideration, even if that movie stars Jimmy Fallon and Cloris Leachman as the leads. Conversely, if you make the most outstanding comedy in the history of film featuring performances that reduce audiences to tears from excessive laughter, you will not win Best Picture.

Another law is that the number of bad films released in any given year will outnumber the good films by at least two to one. Some years it's worse.  There are a small number of those bad films though that are based on good ideas; moments of inspiration where the writer tapped into that wellspring of creativity that flows around us every day and pulled out something genuinely unique. Then he took that genuinely inspired idea to a movie studio that showered him with praise for his insight and imagination and perhaps even paid him a small sum of money.

However somewhere in between that moment and the moment the final cut hits screens, something goes irreversibly, horribly wrong.   

This series is about those movies; the ones that started out as an idea with potential and ended up on the shit heap of cinema history.

Good Ideas Poorly Executed Volume 1:  Laserblast (1977) 

The Pitch:  It's like part Star Wars, part Dirty Harry! It can't miss!

The Budget:  Although no credible numbers could be found through my tireless fifteen minutes of digging around on the internet, the budget for Laserblast had to be negligible at best.  My theory is that the majority was spent on animating the aliens and spacecraft.  The remainder was spent on securing Roddy McDowall for a small cameo that could then be billed to draw in the unwitting (his name is misspelled in the credits).  The rest of the cast were paid in Cokes and Hostess Twinkies but were allowed to keep the bottles to turn in for recycling money.

The Result:  Laserblast is probably more well known as the movie featured on the last Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode in its Comedy Central run.  It's prime fodder for ridicule, but watching it without the help of Tom Servo and Crow, one can see that lying way down in the middle of this particular turdball, there is the kernal of a good idea. 

Tapping into both the awkward feeling of not being included and the nerd boy's love of all things Star Wars in 1977, Laserblast should have been the revenge film for every teenage outcast. Billy (who looks incredibly like Mark Hamill but is actually Kim Milford) is constantly hassled by the world.  He's picked on by school bullies.  He's hassled by The Man (local cops).  Even his girlfriend's senile grandfather verbally kicks his ass.  Plus, the first time we meet Billy, his mother is packing up to go to Acapulco for what can only be a swinger party. 

The guy can't win!  The only person who believes in him is his girlfriend Kathy played by Cheryl Smith.  She's the picture of 1970s natural beauty in this film.  Alas, it wouldn't be long before she would be slumming it in Revenge of the Cheerleaders.

I digress.

As we've firmly established, Billy's a loser.  Then, while randomly driving into the desert, he stumbles on a laser gun.  Yes, a laser gun from outer space.  Don't ask how it got there.  That's covered in the beginning but raises more questions than it answers. 

Suddenly, Billy's got power and a whole truckload of potential targets to unleash that power against.  Just writing this line, I'm getting excited at the possibilities.  How can this not be a formula for success?

Once you've asked yourself that question, rent Laserblast and watch it fall apart.  Here's a quick guide to what you can expect.

1.  None of the actors turn in performances worthy of anything beyond community theater.  Even Roddy McDowall is phoning it in.  This film features Eddie Deezen in his very first role and possibly the only one where he plays a bully instead of a nerd.  Also cashing their checks and leaving the set without looking back are veteran character actors Gianni Russo, Ron Masak and Dennis Burkley.

2.  Although they're supposed to be in high school, none of the main actors look less than 27 years old.  Also, I'm almost positive Billy was cast simply because he looks like Mark Hamill.  The Star Wars fixations are not something I dreamed up either.  In one scene, Billy uses the laser gun to blow up a Star Wars advertisement on a billboard.  The filmmakers were overtly aiming to draw in the Star Wars crowd and missed completely.

3.  The acting aside, the editing is shoddy with continuity errors being some of the more fun things to look for.  Is the necklace on? Off? On again?

Want to play a game?  Take a shot of your favorite alcoholic beverage every time Billy's monster makeup only extends to his neck.  You'll likely not make it to the final 15 minutes before blacking out.

4.  The film itself looks so washed out and brown that it resembles a 1970s Super 8 home movie.  That's not me exaggerating. 

5.  Then there's the script.  It's filled with plot holes and characters doing stupid things.  Not just normal we're-in-a-horror-movie-and-have-to-do-stupid-things stupid things.  I'm talking REALLY stupid things.  The most glaring of which is Billy actually picking up the laser gun in the first place.  To put it in perspective, he discovers it when it randomly makes his Coke bottle explode (thus robbing him of a nickel of salary).

Laserblast is horrible.  It's got so much going against it that it's a wonder it found its way to DVD.  The only saving grace is the animation of the aliens.  They're done old school Harryhausen-style and are definitely worth noting even if they do look like sentient turtles sans shells.

To Watch or Not To Watch... That Is the Question:

I hate to say it, but I'd recommend passing on all but the MST3K version (if you can find it).  There's not enough good here to recommend sitting through 90 minutes.  Realize when you read that sentence that I'm the guy who loved Frankenstein Vs. The Space Monster, Plan 9 From Outer Space and countless other low budget horror films. 

Yep.  It's that bad.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Southern California Vol. 14 - The Santiago Canyon Road Bat Bridge

So this one is short and sweet.  About a month ago, I wrote a post about Black Star Canyon and the creepy trail and ghost stories associated with it.  It's a strange place for sure, especially since it feels miles away from civilization, yet sits smack in the middle of Orange County.

Let's say that you don't want to dodge squatters wielding shotguns or hurling rocks at you.  Let's say that you don't even want to entertain the thought of ghostly crying voices while you're on a hike.  Let's just say you want to drive somewhere, park your car and see something cool without even having to get out.

Well, I’ve got just the thing for you.  It’s actually a bridge (to nowhere in particular) that crosses the road near Irvine Lake.  It was built to help with traffic temporarily while construction went on nearby.  Once the work was completed, it was about to be demolished when people noticed that it had become a haven for a colony of Mexican free-tailed bats. 

Instead of destroying it, Orange County supervisor Bill Campbell was able to get the bridge labeled as a permanent bat roost.  Between 1,000 and 2,000 bats make their home under the bridge during the summer months as they make their migration south.  They wedge themselves up in the seams you can see in the picture below.

As you can tell from my pictures, I was there off-season.  However you can tell you're in the right place by looking for the stain on the road under the overpass.  If the bats are there, that stain will be much fresher and you need to make sure you're watching how long you linger beneath them.

The bridge itself is now part of the trail system so there's an opportunity there to be on top of the bridge and watch as bats fly out on their nightly hunt.  It's not as spectacular as the bat bridges you've probably seen on TV in places like Austin, Texas, but it's still pretty cool and this colony of bats does the local farmers a lot of good.  Local scientists estimate that the colony eats about thirty pounds of insects per night.  Those are not bad numbers at all! 

You can check it out for yourself pretty easily as the bridge is the only one on Santiago Canyon Road between Irvine Lake and Cook's Corner.  It's actually only a couple of miles from the turnoff to Black Star Canyon Rd. as you're heading in the direction of Irvine Lake. 

So this summer, why not head out there and give the bats some love?