Thursday, March 29, 2012

Culture Shock 03.29.12: Returning to a deliriously bad 'Frankenstein Island' movie

The "Frankenstein Island" wrap party didn't go as planned.

It's surprising that a movie set on a scenic island populated almost entirely by attractive young women wearing only leopard-print bikinis could be this bad. It has so much going for it.

But in this case, the movie is "Frankenstein Island," which while made in 1981, would have seemed cheap, tacky and hopelessly outdated in 1951.

Just imagine how it seems 30 years later.

Actually, you don't have to imagine. "Frankenstein Island" is back, this time as the latest video-on-demand offering from Rifftrax, the post-"Mystery Science Theater 3000" movie-riffing project of MST3K alums Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, who were the show's movie-mocking leads during its Sci-Fi Channel years.

Originally conceived to riff on recent Hollywood films, Rifftrax has devoted a bit more attention in the past year to vintage B-movies that would have been perfect targets for MST3K. Recent Rifftrax titles include 1978's "Buffalo Rider" (think "Grizzly Adams" without a plot) and "Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe" (1990), starring former pro wrestler and future conspiracy theorist Jesse "The Body" Ventura as a bounty hunter from outer space.

The most unintentionally hilarious of the bunch is "Frankenstein Island," but that just means Mike, Kevin and Bill have even more material to work with.

The writer/director responsible for "Frankenstein Island" is Jerry Warren, whose 1966 movie "The Wild World of Batwoman" is one of the strangest films ever to get the MST3K treatment. In fact, "Frankenstein Island" is full of past MST3K offenders.

Katherine Victor ("The Wild World of Batwoman") plays Sheila Frankenstein, who is carrying on her grandfather's work, whatever that was, because in this movie it's something way less straightforward than reanimating corpses. She's joined by veteran character actor Cameron Mitchell ("Space Mutiny"), who seems to have been paid for one day of work and spent all of it in a cage.

Also on hand is Steve Brodie, who appeared in "The Wild World of Batwoman" and "The Giant Spider Invasion."

Tain Bodkin, who had a small part as an apocalyptic preacher in "The Giant Spider Invasion," shows up, too. In his first scene, he does an impression of a fire-and-brimstone preacher for no apparent reason other than to remind us of his earlier role.

What viewers in 1981 made of that is a mystery.

Finally there's horror icon John Carradine, who at this point in his career was crippled with arthritis and taking small roles in terrible movies. He portrays the disembodied spirit of Dr. Frankenstein, a part that probably took half a day to shoot and didn't require him to be on set with the other actors.

The plot goes something like this.

A hot-air balloon crashes on a remote island, stranding four men and their dog. But they're not alone. There's a tribe of women in leopard-print bikinis who spend all of their free time dancing and carrying logs. The rest of their time they spend trying to avoid capture by a few slovenly thugs who kidnap them for Sheila Frankenstein's experiments, which have something to do with reviving her 200-year-old husband Dr. Van Helsing. (Try not to think about that.)

Or maybe Sheila is trying to turn people into werewolves. I'm really not sure.

Anyway, the props literally look like dollar-store Halloween accessories, which they literally are, and Carradine seems confused whenever he appears, which is exactly how this movie left me.

It's a deliriously bad film, and Mike and the guys are in top form making fun of it.

You can download "Frankenstein Island" for $9.99 at

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Culture Shock 03.22.12: Before 'Hunger Games,' there was 'Battle Royale'

Stop me if you've heard this before.

An authoritarian government takes children from their homes, drops them in an isolated setting and forces them to fight to the death until only one survives.

That's the plot of "The Hunger Games" — based on Suzanne Collins' best-selling young-adult novel of the same name — which opens Friday in theaters nationwide.

It's also the plot of "Battle Royale," a controversial film that became a blockbuster in Japan more than a decade ago but is only now reaching our shores — officially, anyway.

Until now, Americans — even Netflix — had to rely on imported DVDs from Asia and the United Kingdom.

Nevertheless, "Battle Royale" has a small, but loyal, following in the U.S., despite not getting an official release here until this week, when Anchor Bay Entertainment issued "Battle Royale" on Blu-ray and DVD in order to capitalize on the "Hunger Games" hype.

Like "The Hunger Games," "Battle Royale" began as a novel, in this case by Koushun Takami. "Battle Royale" then inspired a manga adaptation, published in America in 15 volumes.

This English- language translation by American comic-book writer/illustrator Keith Giffen, upset some fans because it added a "reality television" element — absent in the Japanese version — that ended up prefiguring the reality-show element in "The Hunger Games."

But the similarities between "The Hunger Games" and "Battle Royale" really end there.

"The Hunger Games" is ultimately a PG-13 movie aimed at kids and starring a likable heroine with a silly name — actually, everyone in "The Hunger Games" has a silly name — who serves as a role model for girls everywhere.

"Battle Royale" is nihilistic, brutal, bloody, darkly satirical at times and, without giving too much away, the kind of movie in which any character you think of as a likable role model is going to end up dead, probably done in as much by their own naivete as anything else.

In the movie, which differs somewhat from the book, the Battle Royale program starts in response to a student strike.

It's an effort by the government to assert control over an increasingly rebellious youth population.

To that end, each year a class is sent to a remote island where its members must kill or be killed.

Apparently, Battle Royale is what happens when governments don't have wars to send their youths off to die in.

While some of the students break off into groups and try to cooperate with each other, they have to fend off attacks from above in the form of psychotic teacher Kitano and from within in the form of equally psycho classmates. Some of them, however, have a plan to fight back, provided they can hold off disaster long enough to carry it out.

Here's the twist: Unfettered death and mayhem perpetrated by teens on teens has never been so much fun. "Battle Royale" is sick and twisted entertainment for people who realize the whole idea of making children kill each other is sick and twisted.

So, you might as well roll with that.

"Battle Royale" is the master work of the late director Kinji Fukasaku, otherwise best known for the loopy, over-the-top sci-fi epics "Message from Space" and "The Green Slime," as well as the Japanese sequences of "Tora! Tora! Tora!"

And it stars the great comedian and actor "Beat" Takeshi Kitano in the deadly serious role of a former teacher who methodically ensures the 21 boys and 21 girls of class 3-B get down to the business of killing one another.

It all reaches absurdist heights.

But in the absurd is usually where you find the deepest truths.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Culture Shock 03.15.12: 'Dangerous' book sees everything in 'Shades of Grey'

"Fifty Shades of Grey" is also available in
a convenient paperback.
For all of the publishing industry's ups and downs as it adapts to an environment of e-books and the Internet, it's still rare for any single book to shake up the status quo on as many levels as has the new best-seller "Fifty Shades of Grey."

First, you see, "Fifty Shades of Grey" is not your typical best-seller.

Not that most best-sellers have especially impressive literary pedigrees, but "Fifty Shades of Grey" comes from a very lowly estate indeed. It began as fan fiction — and not just ordinary fan fiction, but "Twilight" fan fiction.

Fan fiction is itself a "gray" area — a shadowy world where mostly anonymous authors write mostly atrocious stories of legally suspect status featuring other writers' characters. The Internet is full of these stories, where sex scenes are plentiful, inventive and almost invariably bad. But no one makes money off fan fiction, and most professional authors are sensible enough to leave these besotted typists alone.

Then, sometimes, a fanfic writer or a particular work of fan fiction will gain a following.

That's what happened to British writer E.L. James, a former TV executive turned fanfic phenom. Her racy "Twilight"-based fan fiction became so popular she changed the characters and expanded the story into a novel — the first novel of a trilogy, actually.

It then took off, alighting atop the New York Times and Amazon e-book best-seller lists, which brings us to the second way "Fifty Shades of Grey" is helping change everything.

After becoming a very successful e-book — and having a small print run published by something called The Writer's Coffee Shop — "Fifty Shades of Grey" has been picked up by a major imprint, Vintage. It's scheduled for publication (again) on April 3 and, as I write, ranks No. 5 on Amazon's chart. This is the new way of things: publishers turning the self-published into the really published.

And, thirdly, this is all the more interesting given the book's content, which happens to involve bondage, sadomasochism and power exchange. The book is heir to "The Story of O" and that "Sleeping Beauty" trilogy Anne Rice wrote under the pen name A.N. Roquelaure — except, judging from the free sample I downloaded, nowhere near as well written. (But what does one expect of a novel that started as fan fiction based on another, badly written best-seller?) Maybe "Fifty Shades of Grey" is actually closest to the last several Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter novels that all of Laurell K. Hamilton's earliest fans love to complain about?

Maggie Gyllenhaal learns the "proper"
way to take a letter in the cult film
"Secretary," also starring James Spader.
Even the title, "Fifty Shades of Grey," evokes the name of James Spader's character, Mr. Grey, in the kinky S&M romance "Secretary."

So, this is where things get really fun, because now "Fifty Shades of Grey" is dangerous. (The word "disturbing" gets thrown around quite a lot.) And that leads to absurdist spectacles in which professional worriers fret on chat shows about the horrible, horrible things perfectly reasonable, adult women are reading of their own free will.

Does Dr. Drew Pinsky realize that he comes off like a sexist jerk when he goes on the "Today" show and worries about the erotic fantasies of women who read "Fifty Shades of Grey"? Probably not.

This one book, "Fifty Shades of Grey," demonstrates how a novel can, via new technology and publishing models, rise from a literary ghetto, elevate an obscure author to transatlantic fame and generate controversy with sensational — but actually quite common — subject matter.

Maybe I should have kept working on that trashy "X-Men" fanfic I started 10 years ago? I could be famous by now.

Probably not.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Culture Shock 03.08.12: McQuarrie brought Lucas' 'Star Wars' vision to life

Without Ralph McQuarrie there probably would be no "Star Wars." And if there were a "Star Wars" without him, it wouldn't look like the "Star Wars" we know.

McQuarrie, an illustrator and conceptual artist, painted the first visual depictions of George Lucas' galaxy of long, long ago and far, far away. When Lucas sought studio backing for "Star Wars," he used McQuarrie's paintings to sell skeptical movie executives on the film.

And when Lucas couldn't describe to his production designers and special effects technicians what he wanted, he let McQuarrie's illustrations do the talking.

"When words could not convey my ideas," Lucas said, "I could always point to one of Ralph's fabulous illustrations and say, 'Do it like this.' "

McQuarrie died Saturday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 82.

Soon after news of his death broke, the first tributes appeared on YouTube — sideshows of his paintings synchronized to selections from John Williams' "Star Wars" score, each one as good a reason to skirt copyright as any.

It was McQuarrie who designed the iconic look of Darth Vader, modeling Vader's helmet on those worn by samurai. And before any footage was shot, he had visualized the climactic attack on the Death Star.

Looking back at McQuarrie's earliest illustrations for "Star Wars," it's striking how similar they are to the finished film — and yet how different. There's a strangeness to some of those paintings. Maybe it's how C-3PO looks a lot like the robot from "Metropolis." And in the very earliest sketches, you get hints of a "Star Wars" that never was, a "Star Wars" Lucas still called "The Adventures of Luke Starkiller."

Others are reminiscent of the NASA concept art you used to find in books published in the 1960s and '70s, when it seemed like a future with daily space flights to huge spinning wheels in the sky was just around the corner. The similarity isn't accidental. Before he helped Lucas envision "Star Wars," McQuarrie was an aerospace illustrator for Boeing and an animator for CBS News' Apollo coverage.

McQuarrie's paintings gave "Star Wars" fans their first peek behind the scenes of the space saga. The illustrations appeared in some of the first official "Star Wars" magazines and were mixed in as inserts in packs of the first "Star Wars" trading cards.

To young fans back in 1977, it was a strange, new side of "Star Wars" we hadn't seen in theaters.

There is real power in McQuarrie's art. A painting for "The Empire Strikes Back" depicting Luke Skywalker running from his crashed snow speeder with an Imperial walker closing in the background manages to be just as menacing as anything in the movie itself.

McQuarrie worked on the original "Star Wars" trilogy as well as related projects like "Shadows of the Empire." But by the time Lucas was ready to make the prequel trilogy, McQuarrie was ready to bow out.

And maybe that's just as well, considering how the prequels turned out. Even he couldn't have saved them.

Besides "Star Wars," McQuarrie contributed to the original "Battlestar Galactica" and films like "E.T.," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." He designed a new USS Enterprise for the proposed "Star Trek: Phase II" TV series. And he won an Oscar for the special effects in "Cocoon."

We may never be sure what the future will look like, but we know what it's supposed to look like. It's supposed to look a lot like a Ralph McQuarrie painting.