Sunday, June 30, 2019

Family Pictures (Lighthouse Pictures, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime movies consisted of a “world premiere” of one of their “Book to Screen” adaptations — their promos have made it sound as if nobody before them had ever thought of making a movie based on a book — called Family Pictures and based on a novel by Jane Green. I’d never heard of her before Lifetime started filming her books, but she’s apparently a best-selling romance fiction writer, born in Great Britain in 1968. It’s not clear from her Wikipedia page just when she moved to the U.S., but she lives here now in Westport, Connecticut with her second husband, Ian Warburg of the Warburg banking family. Green’s Wikipedia page lists 23 published novels and claims her books have sold a total of 10 million copies, making her a solidly successful writer but not exactly a superstar. I first heard of her when Lifetime showed a TV-movie called Tempting Fate that she published in 2014, about a woman who, bitter because her husband had a vasectomy without telling her, has a one-night stand (a one-afternoon stand, actually) with a computer gazillionaire who hired her for a decorating project just to get in her pants, and ends up with one of those “infallible pregnancies at single contacts” David O. Selznick ridiculed in his production notes on Gone With the Wind. (For me the most unintentionally entertaining part of this movie was when the heroine’s daughter, whom she had with her husband before he got his tubes tied because he didn’t want any more kids, chewed her out and told mom, “You suck!” I wanted to yell back at the screen, “Lady, if you’d just sucked, you wouldn’t be in this predicament!”)

Family Pictures is a more unusual story premise than Tempting Fate (incidentally it’s based on one of Green’s novels that’s had different titles in her native country and her adopted one: the U.K. edition was called The Accidental Husband) — though it’s still one Lifetime has done before — though, at least as adapted by screenwriter Ilene Rosenzweig for this film, its plot depends on jaw-dropping coincidences and far-fetched gimmicks. Maggie Hathaway (Elisabeth Röhm from the later stages of Law and Order, top-billed) is the super status-conscious wife of businessman Mark Hathaway (Matt Passmore, who’s hunky enough we’re almost sure from the get-go will turn out to be a villain). They live in Connecticut (as, remember, does the real Jane Green) and as the film begins she’s preparing a big garden-party fundraiser she’s hoping will steal the thunder of her principal status rival, Ruthie Dunbar (Courtney Richter). Meanwhile, at the other end of the country in Los Angeles, Sylvia Hathaway (Justina Machado) is having arguments with her husband Mark Hathaway (Matt Passmore — yep, he is a villain!) over whether they should allow their daughter Eve (Larissa Alberquerque) to move across country to attend New York University or stay in town and go to one of the big colleges in L.A. With dad out of town on one of his frequent “business trips” — the way he’s maintained his bigamous existence for so long is he pretends to be super-busy maintaining his and their lifestyle(s), though Maggie is the one with the big house and the expensive cars while Sylvia is living in a beachfront shack — Sylvia gives Eve permission to go to New York for a pre-admission party to get to know her future schoolmates. Along the way we’re also told that both Maggie and Eve are recovering alcoholics and Eve is getting restive because Maggie keeps insisting she go to rehab every time she has a relapse. Got that? This is going to be important!

Eve flies to New York and attends the party, where she hooks up with Mark’s and Maggie’s daughter Grace (Natalie Sharp) and instantly strikes up a friendship with her with no knowledge whatever that they are (half-)sisters. Unfortunately, she also falls off the wagon big-time and Grace takes charge of her, insisting that she go to their home back in Connecticut to sleep off all the Jell-O shots she had at the party. The two sisters sleep in the same bed (no, nothing kinky happens between them — this is Lifetime, after all!) and when she comes to the next morning Eve sees a photo of Mark, Maggie, Grace and Grace’s younger brother Buck (Grayson Maxwell Gurnsey) on the wall, recognizes Mark immediately and says, “What is my dad doing in your family picture?” So the jig that Mark has carefully maintained for a decade — since we later learn from a flashback that Eve is not Mark’s biological daughter, that one day Sylvia took Eve to the beach and got plastered, Eve swam out too far and nearly drowned, Mark saved her and that’s how he and Sylvia met —unravels all too quickly. Later Sylvia comes to visit Maggie at her big home in Connecticut after a repo man has visited her and taken Mark’s motorcycle and asked her about a Mercedes and a Porsche registered under Mark’s name — yes, in addition to being a bigamist Mark is also an embezzler and a fraudster, he’s run out of money (or at least cut off both wives) and he’s wanted by the FBI. Mark hears Sylvia coming to visit him and Maggie, and he collects his laptop and bolts for parts unknown — though eventually he ends up at Sylvia’s place in California and apparently the two have one more hot night of sex together before Maggie turns up, saying she’s used up her last frequent-flyer miles to get there, and chews out Sylvia for shielding their no-good-man and letting him spend the night.

The repo guys seize just about everything both Mrs. Mark Hathaways own and all that’s left to them are some household items they raise money on via an estate sale (which embarrasses the hell out of Maggie because it means confessing to her 1-percenter former friends that she’s no longer one of them) and a dilapidated mountain cabin in upstate New York that, having nowhere else to go, Maggie moves into with her son Buck. The living room is decorated with a hideous portrait of Maggie, commissioned by her husband, that makes her look like a cross between a Stepford wife and a V. C. Andrews character (by coincidence — or maybe not — many of Lifetime’s house promos for this show were pushing a five-part mini-series they’re going to start airing July 27 based on one of Andrews’ typical five-novel cycles, Heaven). Maggie also gets a job as waitress at a local café — she gets a big speech to the effect that the whole reason she went after Mark in the first place was that her mom had waitressed to support them as a single parent, and she was determined never to go back to that sort of proletarian existence — and she’s cruised by the hot, sexy cook Quinn (James Pizzinato), who offers her food in exchange for a date and ultimately fucks her in the cab of his pickup in this movie’s only soft-core porn sex scene. It’s also established that Maggie let Mark handle all the couple’s finances because she was intimidated by all those numbers, but after Mark fled she took an Internet course in accounting and was able to learn from the records of Mark’s company that he actually took out $3 million in assets before leaving both her and Sylvia (and their kids) out to dry financially — but where is it?

The finale takes place at that deserted mountain cabin, where Maggie and Sylvia are trying to figure out where Mark hid all that money and Sylvia is taunting Maggie about that horrible portrait of her. She goads Maggie into destroying the portrait by slashing it with a kitchen knife — and, wouldn’t you know it, all $3 million is there behind the painting, in cash. Remember this is a story concocted by an author in her mid-40’s whose husband is an investment banker; wouldn’t it have occurred to either Mr. or Mrs. Warburg that modern-day embezzlers don’t make withdrawals in cash and stash the proceeds in physical locations? They set up shell companies through which they open accounts in Switzerland or the Bahamas and deposit their ill-gotten gains electronically. (I can think of one previous movie in which three women teamed up to regain the money stolen from them by a no-good man who was the ex-husband of one of them, the current husband of another and the fiancé of the third, who learned enough computer hacking skills to steal back the money their guy had stolen from them.) Maggie and Sylvia plan to grab the money and split it three ways with Mark, but when he shows up with sinister intent they decide to keep it for themselves and pay off Mark with a few token bundles of cash — and if he complains they’ll call the police and, of course, if that happens none of them will get the money because it will be confiscated as the proceeds of crime. So it ends with the wronged wives seemingly set for life and the man who wronged them in the wind again.

It’s probably just as well for the wives in this one, especially Sylvia, that Jane Green didn’t go as far as Michael Feifer did in the last Lifetime movie about bigamy (at least the last one I can recall), His Secret Family, in which the bigamist was at least savvy enough to use two different names and he was a pharmaceutical salesman who, when he started losing business, responded by deciding that wife number two and their child had become needless expenses and he would downsize by killing them. (Feifer also twisted the knife even more by having the second wife’s daughter have leukemia which only a bone-marrow transplant from her dad can cure.) Family Pictures, befitting its origins in a book by an at least semi-respectable novelist, is a good deal less gory than your average Lifetime movie and relies for its entertainment much more on situations than thrills. That’s a good thing, and the film is also relatively well acted by the leads — Röhm is an especially welcome sight since she’s mostly stayed mired in series TV since the end of her stint on Law and Order (as one of the assistant district attorneys Jack McCoy, Sam Waterston’s character, was both mentoring and having affairs with — in the relatively tolerant early 2000’s Dick Wolf and his writers and show runners could get away with this but today the #MeToo movement would hang them out to dry and demand the character’s head for a “sin” like that!) — and decently staged by director Manu Boyer. It’s just that there are way too many plot holes, from the speed with which Mark Hathaway’s carefully constructed life suddenly unravels to that business with him withdrawing the money in cash and stashing it in a space way too small to hold $3 million, for this film to be as satisfying as it could have been.

Killer Grandma (Reel One Entertainment, Fell to Earth Films, Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Family Portraits Lifetime showed a movie called Killer Grandma — which when I first saw it in the TV listings I thought I’d already seen. It turned out I was confusing it with Psycho Granny, though the premises are similar and Lifetime’s program suppliers, Reel One Entertainment and Fell to Earth Films, shot this one under the working title Killer In-Law (by coincidence — or maybe not — Lifetime also aired a film called Psycho In-Law and another called Psycho Brother-in-Law). The film opens with a prologue in which a woman, Yvonne Hutcherson (Jodi Lynn Thomas) in a house with a pool is alone except for her two kids, seven-year-old Tom (O’Neill Monahan) and four-year-old Meghan (unidentified in the cast list, though I suspect the child actress cast later as her niece — more on that later — also played her). Yvonne had solemnly instructed her kids not to play in the pool, but Meghan dared her brother to go in with her, and when she started drowning Tom was too panicked and too immature to save her, while Mom arrived too late. The film flashes forward almost 20 years to the Westlake mental institution, where Yvonne — now older and played by Nana Visitor, with severely short grey hair and a rail-thin bod that has obviously escaped the usual, shall we say, “expansion” that comes with age — is being given a discharge interview by her therapist, a tall Black woman with a similarly short haircut, who reminds her (and tells us) that she was well enough to leave two years earlier but she decided to stay on at Westlake and help her fellow patients, sort of like Jane Eyre becoming a teacher at Lowood School after she graduated there. Yvonne makes a bee-line to the city where her son Tom, now an adult and using the name “Ferriday” (why do the mother and son have different last names? Maybe we were supposed to believe he was adopted after his dad had previously died and his mom went crazy over the death of his sister, and “Ferriday” is his adoptive parents’ name — though the script by Nick Barzini and the film’s director, Danny J. Boyle,[1] doesn’t say this or give us any clue as to how or where Tom spent the rest of his childhood), is living with his wife Melissa (Kelly Sullivan, top-billed) and their daughter Annie (Violet Hicks).

Yvonne is determined to ingratiate herself with her son and daughter-in-law and worm their way into their house so she can ultimately kidnap Annie and use her to replace her late daughter Meghan, whose death she blames on Tom. We then find out what these people do for a living — Tom is an architect who has just got a potentially career-making commission from the city where they’re living to design a new public day-care center (and there’s a marvelously chilling scene in which he’s at his worktable working with his scale models of what the buildings in the center will look like, and mom ridicules him for still playing with toys), and Melissa makes handcrafted jewelry and sells it on line. She’s got a number of helpers, including her business partner Courtney Little (Jessica Blackmore) — who’s shown shooting pictures of her for the business’s Web site — and Yvonne’s most direct competitor, nanny Kendra (Jesi Mandagaran). Melissa loves Kendra and trusts her totally with Annie, but that’s no problem: showing surprisingly good hacker skills for someone who was in a mental institution during most of the development of the Internet, Yvonne discovers Kendra’s address online, goes to her home and clubs her to death. Then Yvonne talks the Ferridays in to letting her stay with them and look after Annie during the day while they’re both too busy to do so (though, mind you, they’re both working from home). At first, in the manner of the usual Lifetime mother-in-law/sister/brother/uncle/aunt/nanny/neighbor/teacher/counselor/gardener/maintenance man/whatever from hell, Yvonne couldn’t be more ingratiating, but her “cover” starts to slip when, out alone with Annie, Yvonne buys her dinner at a fast-food outlet in defiance of Melissa’s edict that she wants her daughter to eat healthily. Then Yvonne is looking after Annie and Courtney’s daughter Penelope (Milan Aguilera), who are playing by — you guessed it — the pool (it seems as if Tom either never left the house where he grew up or he found another one remarkably like it). Only Yvonne has a freak-out, bursts out of the kitchen with a knife in her hand, threatens the kids if they play in the pool, and for good measure calls Annie “Meghan.” Courtney, who’s there to look after her daughter, captures all this on video with her digital camera and uploads it onto her computer, then threatens to send Melissa the clip to convince her that her mother-in-law is really not a fit person to be left around their daughters — only, though she’s white, she meets the fate usually reserved for the heroine’s African-American best friend who stumbles onto the truth about the villain’s plot but gets killed for her pains.

The finale occurs at the surprisingly large and nice house Yvonne has somehow acquired for herself and outfitted so she and Annie can live there together, just the two of them, as soon as she dispatches those inconvenient parents of hers. Yvonne has already knocked Tom down a flight of stairs, though he ends up hospitalized instead of dead, and at the end she picks Annie up from school and kidnaps her, taking her to the house she’s outfitted with a room for Annie that’s an exact duplicate of Meghan’s, down to Meghan’s old toys which Yvonne carefully preserved. She’s even had Annie wear an old black dress of Meghan’s, with a large white collar that when she has it on makes her look like a cross between a Salem witch and what the kid from The Omen would have looked like if he’d been a girl instead of a boy. Only Melissa figures out where Yvonne has taken Annie and goes to confront her. Things don’t go so well for Our Heroine at first — Yvonne surprises her and once again has a large kitchen knife in her hand with which she attacks Melissa and apparently draws blood — but at the end Melissa overpowers Yvonne, stabs her in the chest with her own knife, and gets away with Annie. At the end Melissa, Tom and Annie are reunited as a family — but Yvonne is also still alive, back at the mental hospital and still being looked after by the same African-American therapist who was so spectacularly unsuccessful with her in the first time. Oh, and did I tell you that along the way Yvonne has revealed to both Tom and Meghan that Tom’s dad didn’t just die in an “accident,” but she killed him with a blow to the back of the head with a baseball bat just as he was getting ready to leave her?

The direction by the “other” Danny Boyle and the script he wrote with Nick Barzini are coherent enough we’re not supposed to suspend disbelief through the wild coincidences and happenstances that drove the plot of Family Pictures, but what really saves Killer Grandma and gives it whatever entertainment value it has is the superb performance by Nana Visitor in the title role. One reviewer compared her to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the horror films they made in the early 1960’s (jointly in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and severally, Davis in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Crawford in Strait-Jacket), and the praise is high but well earned even though tall, leggy, rail-thin Visitor looks less like Davis or Crawford than Anthony Perkins in the drag scenes in Psycho. She’s totally in command of her role, ingratiating and relatively normal when the script calls for her to appear so and vividly controlling in the Big Moments — and at the same time she doesn’t lapse into the raving madness so many actors of both (mainstream) genders fall into when called on to impersonate psychos. (I find from her list of previous credits that Visitor was in one of my all-time favorite Lifetime movies, Mini’s First Time from 2006, though in my comments on it I didn’t mention her role as the school principal in that delightful black comedy about a teenage girl who seduces her stepfather, then frames him for the murder of her mom and ends up as her high-school class’s valedictorian by arranging an “accident” for the boy who was supposed to have that honor.) She’s been on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and most of her credits are on series TV, but she is certainly an electrifying screen presence here and I have to give special acknowledgment to anyone who’d name her son after the great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt!

[1] — Obviously using his middle initial so he doesn’t get confused with the other Danny Boyle, the Academy Award-winning director of Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, Steve Jobs and the recently released Yesterday, an odd fantasy in which only one person in the world remembers the Beatles.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

She Demons (Astor Pictures, Screencraft Enterprises, 1957, released 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles and I a movie at 10 p.m., She Demons, one of Richard Cunha’s late-1950’s productions from Astor Pictures and Screencraft Enterprises. I had downloaded this from and burned it to a DVD along with two other 1950’s cheapies Charles and I had recently seen at one of the Vintage Sci-Fi screenings, Phantom from Space and Killers from Space, and I hadn’t had much hope for it — not only did the title indicate a likely bad movie but everything about it on said its only entertainment value was as camp. But the presence of Richard Cunha as director and co-writer (with H. E. Barrie, almost certainly no relation to the creator of Peter Pan!) gave me at least some hope since the other Cunha films I’ve seen, Frankenstein’s Daughter and Missile to the Moon (a 1958 remake of 1953’s Cat Women on the Moon and a significantly superior film to its predecessor, though still pretty trashy), had managed to put at least a few engagingly fresh spins on the clichés. So did She Demons (listed on as being from 1958 even though the copyright date is 1957), even though this time Cunha the director got saddled by Cunha the co-writer with a plot so ridiculous it seems like he and Barrie put all the clichés into a Mixmaster and assembled them in whatever order the machine spat them out. Let’s see if I have this right: the movie opens with stock footage of a hurricane in Florida (I think) and then we cut to a TV studio where a newscaster (Hank Simms, playing himself) is announcing that this is the worst storm in decades and expressing concern for the well-being of a multimillionaire’s yacht that is carrying his daughter, Jerrie Turner (Irish McCalla, coming from a stint of about a year as the star of a TV series called Sheena, Queen of the Jungle — somehow Charles neglected to joke that she had siblings called Scotch McCalla and Welsh McCalla) along with crew members Fred Maklin (Tod Griffin, not much in the acting department but fun to look at, especially since he spends a lot of the early reels shirtless), Sammy Ching (Victor Sen Yung, the only cast member either Charles or I had heard of before and who oddly looks about the same as he did in the Sidney Toler Charlie Chan movies even though this was almost two decades later and one would have expected more visible signs of age) and Kris Kamana (Charles Opunui, who I’m assuming from that name and his appearance was a native Hawai’ian).

They end up shipwrecked on a deserted island and for a while it’s The Admirable Crichton meets Gilligan’s Island as Irish McCalla delivers quite an effective performance as the spoiled rich bitch who keeps complaining about the facilities, or lack thereof, and the fact that while the male crew members salvaged the radio from the yacht they didn’t save any of her beauty gear. They keep walking around the island in search of prehistoric life, and they keep passing the same two prop boulders which Charles predicted, correctly, we’d get to know really well. Alas, our castaways realize they’re not alone on the island when first they see footprints and then Kris gets killed by two spears in his back that look like giant toothpicks turning him into an hors d’oeuvre. They get to watch a bunch of native — though they look white — girls doing a ceremonial dance and wonder which is going to be sacrificed to Kong — oops, wrong movie (though the score music director Nicholas Carras wrote, or dug up, for this sequence sounds an awful lot like the “Aboriginal Sacrifice Dance” Max Steiner composed for the original King Kong) — only soon after we’ve seen them au naturel the girls start turning up in hideous makeups that make them look like animated tikis. Obviously director Cunha and his makeup person, Carlie Taylor, intended this to be scary, but they look both too gross and too ridiculous to be frightening. There is one cool scene in which the women devour a large, white-haired man who’s been menacing Our Hero Maklin and getting the upper hand in their screen brawls — Maklin lures him into the She Demons’ cage and they have at him.

Our intrepid castaways also get a gun held on them by a man in full black-leather Nazi drag, and it turns out the island is the redoubt of Nazi mad scientist and Mengele-style human experimenter Col. Karl Osler (Rudolph Anders, who seems to have got his idea of how to play a Nazi from Conrad Veidt in Casablanca). It seems that he’s discovered an inexhaustible energy source from the lava inside the earth’s core and he’s using it to restore the beauty of his wife Mona (Leni Tana), whose face got burned with acid in an accident in his lab. He’s developed a way to transfer the genetic energy — what he calls “Character X” — from hot, hunky women to his disfigured wife (sort of like what Bela Lugosi was trying to do in The Corpse Vanishes and Voodoo Man, and as atrocious as those movies were the resemblance was close enough I found myself wishing that Lugosi had still been alive when this film was cast so he could have played Anders’ role), though she’s still wearing Mummy-like bandages and they end up looking like She Demons. At one point Jerrie Turner (ya remember Jerrie Turner?) gets kidnapped by the Evil Doctor and he asks her a series of interrogatory questions to which she gives evasive non-answers that suggest that were she alive today she’d be a good candidate for a job in the Trump administration (blonde bimbo who’s hot, spoiled and can’t answer a simple question? Check!). Meanwhile being on the island alone with her hunky co-lead has brought her down to earth and made her fall in love with him. Eventually their plans to escape the island are facilitated by Mona, who’s tired of all the lives her husband is destroying just to make her look beautiful again and who gives Jerrie keys to escape the bamboo jail in which Osler is keeping Maklin and Sammy, along with a gun and the location of a rowboat.

While all this is happening both we and the castaways (who got the information from their ship’s radio before it was smashed to smithereens by the baddies) have been aware that the U.S. Air Force, thinking the island is uninhabited, are planning to drop atom bombs on it to test them. In the end the Air Force is the deus ex machina that wipes out Osler and his wife (he gets a picturesque exit being burned to death by his own lava), along with all the guards in his private army (who are so dementedly incompetent we figure this must be where Col. Klink’s staff from Hogan’s Heroes ended up after the war), while our three intrepid explorers find their way to the rowboat Mona directed them to and row away from the island, reasonably confident that a Navy ship there to observe the results of the bomb test (ya remember the bomb test?) will rescue them. She Demons has its good aspects — notably finely honed cinematography by Meredith Nicholson (the photography is clear, bright and occasionally atmospheric — unlike a lot of “B”’s from the period, at least you can tell what’s going on) and a quite powerful performance by Irish McCalla. It’s one of those scripts in which an actress is called upon to play multiple emotions without much in the way of helping her transform from one to the next, but McCalla nails all the aspects of her character in a way that should have marked her for biggers and betters (instead she did a few more roles, mostly guest shots on TV, and retired from acting in 1963 to marry Patrick Horgan, though they divorced in 1989, before she finally died in 2002). It’s just that, as with Cunha’s other films Frankenstein’s Daughter and Missile to the Moon, the good aspects of She Demons get subsumed among the risible and tacky ones!

Monday, June 24, 2019

I Almost Married a Serial Killer (Formula Features/Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The most telling aspect of last night’s Lifetime “premiere” movie, I Almost Married a Serial Killer, was that the production company that made it for Lifetime distribution had the spookily appropriate name “Formula Features,” since the film hewed incredibly closely to the usual Lifetime formulae. At first I had thought the film would be about a woman who was courted by a serial killer and fell in love with him and agreed to marry him with no idea of what he did outside their relationship — I was even thinking of jokes like, “I thought everything was wonderful until I saw what he put on our wedding registry and it was all guns, knives and poisons” — but instead of that set of Lifetime clichés it turned out to be the set of Lifetime clichés in which the heroine, Camille (Krista Allen), barely escapes the clutches of the serial killer in the opening act (for someone who’s supposed to be experienced in murder he’s certainly bad enough at it the woman has an unbelievably easy time escaping!). She testifies against him at his trial and the judge announces she’s going to impose eight consecutive life sentences on him, once for each victim the police have been able to identify and charge him with, with no possibility of parole. Then she receives word from the FBI that he’s escaped from prison — like the real escapees from New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility Lifetime previously dramatized in the film New York Prison Break, he did so by sexually seducing a female guard and getting her to help him — and until he’s re-arrested the FBI is going to insist that Camille and her daughter Violet (Avra Friedman)[1] go into witness protection and relocate from their original home in Philadelphia to the decidedly fictional community of Willowbrook, California.

Violet is especially upset with this because she’s about to complete her senior year in high school and naturally doesn’t want to be uprooted from her community and cut off overnight from all her friends, and Camille is equally upset because her father is in a nursing home and she quite naturally wants to be around when he croaks. But they go, and in the meantime the serial killer Camille almost married, Rafael DuPont (Jeremy John Wells), visits a plastic surgeon and has his appearance so dramatically reconstructed that when he emerges he’s played by an entirely different actor —more on that later. Then he shoots the plastic surgeon and burns down his chinic in hopes that he won’t be traced. Meanwhile, Camille and her daughter find a large black-and-white dog on the street and use the phone number on his collar to trace him back to his owner, Brian (Louis Mandylor), creating a classic meet-cute in which Brian and Emily Collins (Camille’s cover identity in witness protection) will start dating and ultimately fall in love. The FBI continues to search for “The Hunter,” as he calls himself, and his profile is that he first has to get his female victims to fall in love with him so he can kill them as a sort of sick consummation — though it’s ambiguous in Naomi L. Selfman’s script, directed and photographed by Nadeem Soumah, whether he actually has to have sex with the woman before he can kill her. In her new identity Emily nèe Camille finds herself being stalked by a mysterious stranger in a black hoodie (not another mysterious stranger in a black hoodie!) who breaks into her home, only Brian drives him away. She reports the crime to the local police and get him arrested, but he’s able to talk them into releasing him by saying he’s not the mysterious “Hunter” but is merely Colin (Adamo Palladino), a journalist trying to expose him, get him arrested and promote the book he intends to write about “the Hunter.” 

Then [spoiler alert!] we get a shot of Brian walking through his home and opening a closet on whose walls he’s posted clippings of news articles about “the Hunter,” thereby paralleling the similar shot we saw in the first act and thus revealing to us that Brian is really “the Hunter” and he’s going to romance Camille so he can have a second shot at her. No, it’s not that surprising a “twist,” especially to a hardened Lifetime-movie watcher like me, and I found myself so resentful of the “cheat” Formula Features’ casting people, uncredited on, pulled by casting two separate actors as DuPont pre-op and post-op it was hard for me to enjoy the rest of the movie after absorbing such a preposterous gimmick. (What they needed was an actor with the extraordinary talent of Lon Chaney, Sr. in being able to concoct so many makeups for himself he could appear as two dramatically different-looking people in the same movie — but Chaney, Sr. died in 1930 and there haven’t been that many actors who’ve developed that skill since. Another option would have been what writer-director Delmer Daves did in the 1947 Bogart-Bacall vehicle Dark Passage: show all the scenes of DuPont pre-op from his point of view so we never got to see, except in an insert close-up of a still photo, what he looked like pre-op.) Camille and her daughter have an argument over a camping trip the girl wants to go on — at first Camille says no but then the FBI agents, who by now not only are aware DuPont changed his appearance via plastic surgery but even have a pencil sketch, based on the eyewitness testimony of a Black motel manager who remembers seeing DuPont check out, of what he looks like now — advise Camille that her daughter will actually be safer away from her house and in the company of a lot of other people. So she agrees to let her daughter go, but in the meantime she’s missed the ride that was supposed to take her to camp and Brian offers to drive her there. 

Then he takes a route she doesn’t recognize and has a flat tire along the way — and we’re sure he’s going to kill the daughter, but in the end the daughter shows up at camp safely and Camille finds her there when Brian urges her to go to the campsite, collect her daughter and drive with him to a deserted mountain cabin (not another Lifetime movie whose climax takes place in a deserted mountain cabin!) owned by a friend of his. There he intends to go through with his seduction and ultimately murder of Camille, but she catches on finally when she sees the engagement ring Brian offers when he proposes to her, and it’s exactly the same ring DuPont gave her the night he tried to kill her. Of course he tries to kill her once she’s accepted his proposal and declared that she loves him — he’s also drugged the daughter and for a while I was wondering if he was going to rape the daughter and kill both of them, ramping up the sick, kinky thrill he gets from his actions, but he leaves the daughter alone (thank goodness for microscopic mercies!) and when he tries to kill Camille, she manages to get his knife away from him and stab him with it instead. There isn’t anything really wrong with I Almost Married a Serial Killer but there isn’t much right about it, either: one has to wonder about what there is in Camille’s character that makes her fall for the same sicko creep twice in the same movie, but writer Selfman couldn’t care less about that. There’s also only the dimmest idea what Camille does for a living; there’s an opening sequence showing her lecturing to a class about writing mystery fiction (which led me to wonder whether it was going to end with a Seven Keys to Baldpate-style denouement in which the entire movie would turn out to be the plot of her new mystery novel!), but the idea that she could have studied crime enough to be able to write about it makes it even harder to believe that she could be so naïve as to fall for DuPont’s dubious charms once, let alone twice. As I said as I started this review, the most remarkable thing about it is that the producers called their studio “Formula Features,” thereby making it obvious and proclaiming to the world that they were just going to exploit Lifetime’s usual formulae, not try to do anything creative with them!

[1] — She’s called “Ashley” on the cast list but has a different name in the actual movie — that sometimes happens when the filmmakers have changed a character name at the last minute.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger: Beyond the Moon (Roland Reed Productions, Official Films, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi film screening ( selections were seven episodes of a short-lived (1954) TV series called Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, which despite the expected flaws of cheap black-and-white TV shows of the time — sets that look like they were made of cardboard, props that look like plastic, substandard acting and special effects that are something of a joke — turned out to have a surprising level of appeal. Part of the appeal of Rocky Jones today is as camp, but thanks to director Hollingsworth Morse and writers William Wilson and Fritz Blocki the shows at least hold one’s interest: they’re suspenseful and, thanks to the half-hour format, they’re action-packed and they move. Rocky Jones: Space Ranger is ahead of its time in at least one respect: most of its episodes were parts of longer stories, anticipating the Great God Serial that seems to rule most episodic television today. I remember being startled when I heard a fan at one of the ConDor conventions say he didn’t like the original late-1960’s Star Trek because there were no continuing stories, no serial endings, no “story arcs” — instead each individual episode was a discrete unit and only the characters continued over from one episode to the next. That’s one of the things I like about the original Star Trek and other TV shows of its vintage: that one can watch an individual episode no matter where it fits in the sequence, and it will still make sense; also, one can miss an episode without having to worry that when you return to the show the story lines will have moved so much it won’t make sense anymore. The seven episodes shown last night were the opening three, a sequence originally called “Beyond the Curtain of Space” but eventually edited to form a feature-length film for theatrical distribution called Beyond the Moon (though how much theatrical distribution they got from what was obviously three TV series episodes spliced together I have no idea).

These introduced the central characters of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger: Rocky Jones himself (Richard Crane), intrepid and fearless commander of the Orbit Lab spacecraft; his second-in-command, Winky (Scotty Beckett), the seemingly obligatory stupid comic-relief character who seems like puberty has just cut in on him (in one sequence he uses the Orbit Lab’s video system to spy on various women taking showers — I wondered if he’d grow up to run for whatever they called the head of state in the Rocky Jones universe and explain his mistreatment of women by saying, “When you’re a Space Ranger, they’ll let you do anything”); a woman navigator and translator, Vena Ray (Sally Mansfield), whose outfit — a chiffon mini-skirt and matching top with straps across her chest and a cape that hangs over her back — looks like it would have come from Victoria’s Secret if it had existed yet — and a typically obnoxious movie 10-year-old brat named Bobby (Robert Lyden), who’s so tall that in his two-shots with Vena he comes up at least to her neck. Fortunately, Bobby isn’t in much of Beyond the Moon because he’s been captured by the soldiers of the planet Ophicius along with his uncle, Professor Newton (Maurice Cass). Rocky and his crew work for a federation of planets that supposedly spans the entire universe, but when we finally got to see a meeting of the federation’s ambassadors all of them came from planets in  our familiar solar system (I spotted signs reading “Mercury,” “Venus,” “Jupiter,” “Saturn” and “Neptune”) and Ophicius is its sworn enemy. Ophicius is ruled by a “suzereine” or whatever the female spelling is by Queen Cleolanta (Patsy Parsons), a take-no-nonsense baddie who seems to have been mashed up from equal parts Margaret Dumont and Margaret Hamilton — though considerably younger and hotter than either. Writer Wilson seems to have got her character largely from Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson) in the Flash Gordon serials, the evil but also horny woman who seemed undecided whether she wanted to fuck the hunky Earthling hero or kill him. (I’m also amused that Cleolanta’s name seems itself to be a mashup of Cleopatra and the medicine Mylanta.)

Most of the first third of Beyond the Moon is taken up with a lot of sexist insults thrown by Rocky in Vena’s direction — I kept wanting to see her slap his silly face in and then report him to whatever council the federation has to deal with sexual harassment (this being the 1950’s, probably none) — along with a heavy dose of Cold War propaganda that actually gives this story much of its interest. Rocky Jones and his crew are going to Ophicius to rescue Professor Newton, who’s been brainwashed and forced to work on developing infernal machines for the bad guys to use in conquering Earth (didn’t the Flash Gordon writers pull that one, too?), as well as creepy little Bobby. To get away with landing on Ophicius, they’re going to pretend that their spacecraft has a disabled engine and under the interplanetary treaties the Ophicians will have to give them permission to land and stay there long enough to make the repairs. Only the Ophicians know all the real plans of the good guys because they have an agent spying on Space Ranger Central and relaying all their plans to Cleolanta. The agent is Space Ranger Griff (Leonard Penn), and he works directly under the head of the Space Rangers, Secretary Drake (Charles Meredith), from whose office he periodically calls Ophicius on a radio using a microphone that, like all the good guys’ mikes, looks like a cucumber (or, if you’re kinky, a butt plug). Obviously we’re supposed to think of Ophicius as the Soviet Union (or the Communist world in general) and Griff as a counterpart to all the Soviet espionage agents, both real and framed, regularly being exposed in the American media at the time.

When Our Heroes get to Ophicius, Cleolanta rejects the advice of her courtiers that they just kill Rocky Jones; instead she invites him to her office and subjects him to the brainwashing machine — a set of lights on her wall that looks like a modernistic lamp — and nearly brings him under her spell. She does succeed in brainwashing Bobby, at least briefly — as obnoxious as I generally find movie kids, particularly the ones from the 1930’s to the 1990’s (when the horrid cutesie-poo example of Shirley Temple finally started to wear off and filmmakers eked out more freedom in the way they depicted children), Robert Lyden turns in some surprisingly good acting when he physically and morally wrestles with himself as the Ophician brainwashing and his real nature fight it out in his consciousness. (It seems he might have modeled his performance under Ophician influence on Skippy Homeier’s playing in the 1944 film Tomorrow, the World!, about a German-American kid who comes to the U.S. at 11 after having been raised as a Nazi, and the professor — played by Fredric March — who tries to get him back to the decent side of his character he showed in the U.S. before he went back to Germany and grew up under the Nazis.) Of course it all ends as we expect it to — the good guys shoot down the Ophician spacecraft that try to shoot them down, and they make it back to Earth with one of Cleolanta’s men as captive, while the dastardly Ophician spy Griff gets arrested and he and the Ophician are bound over for trial. Though Rocky Jones, Space Ranger has its moments of silliness (more than “moments,” if you asked most of the Vintage Sci-Fi attendees), the topical Cold War references actually gave it a bit of dramatic depth even though they don’t reflect my politics at all.

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger: Escape Into Space (Roland Reed Productions, Official Films, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards the next Rocky Jones, Space Ranger episode was — fortunately — a one-off, “Escape Into Space,” in which the baddies were just common Earth criminals and not interplanetary stand-ins for the Soviet Union. It was originally aired May 1, 1954, and though once again Hollingsworth Morse was the director and Warren Wilson the writer, this time they eschewed Cold War parallels and told a simple story of crook Truck Harmon (Frank Wilcox), who’s just held up something or other (we’re never told just what). He and his sidekick, Lawson (played by Sheb Wooley, four years before he recorded a novelty song called “The Purple People Eater,” a spoof of “B” science-fiction movies, and had a surprise hit which gave him his 15 minutes of fame), are carrying the loot in four suitcases and Harmon tells Lawson and us that if he can just get away from Earth to a planet that has no extradition treaty with the Space Rangers’ federation, he’ll be set for life. To make their escape, they steal a spacecraft (inexplicably already on the launching pad, ready to go — incidentally the producers of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger did the location work for what was supposed to represent their spaceport at an electrical power station, complete with giant Tesla coils that were supposed to warm up the spacecraft so it could launch — all those Tesla fans out there, at least those who know he was a Hungarian-born electrical physicist before he was an electric car, should be pleased!) and head off towards a local planet.

Rocky Jones and his crew fire up their own spacecraft and give chase, eventually running into Truck on a nearby planet whose ruler, Zoravac (Walter Coy), is smart enough to tell Truck he’s persona non grata and order him to leave. Unfortunately, under the laws of space Truck can seek asylum and Rocky can’t do anything about it unless he can definitively prove Truck committed a crime in space. Truck did just that — on the way up to the planet he locked his partner Lawson in an airlock and let all the air out, suffocating him — but the trick is to prove it. Bobby works out a way: he rigs up a white handkerchief over a remote-controlled flying ball and scares the shit out of Vena Ray with it (she may be a capable navigator and interpreter, but under all those skills she’s just a scaredy-pants girl!), and, since Wilson has already told us that Truck is deeply superstitious, Rocky hits on the idea of using Bobby’s ghost-drone toy to frighten Truck into confessing, and all this will happen in a room Rocky has bugged so there’ll be a recording of it. Of course, the plan works (though I wasn’t sure Wilson wrote Truck enough of a confession to be usable in court against him — a halfway decent defense attorney could have argued that Rocky asked so many leading questions Truck’s confession wasn’t truly voluntary) and the universe is saved for niceness once again.

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger: Silver Needle in the Sky (Roland Reed Productions, Official Films, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The final three Rocky Jones: Space Ranger episodes we watched last night picked up on the story threat of Ophicius, Queen Cleolanta and her determined attempts to rule the universe. It was called Silver Needle in the Sky, which seems more than anything else to be a reference to the shape of Rocky’s spacecraft (and though its launches seem to have been done by animating either a cartoon drawing or a silhouette of it and double-printing them onto a process-screen background, there’s a quite cool effect of the ship landing on a space station — the station has a stand-up key in the middle that looks like the sort of thing you’d wind on a toy, and the spaceship inserts its long needle-nose into the hole of this pipe-like object and docks). Hollingsworth Morse was the director again, but this time the writer was someone named Fritz Blocki, though like Wilson he included obvious Cold War parallels into his script that actually gave the story a sense of weight and power it wouldn’t have had without them. This time Rocky Jones and crew are supposed to ferry the assembled diplomats of the federation that runs the Space Rangers onto the space station, which because it’s in neutral territory has been chosen as the site of the federation’s latest meeting. Only wicked ol’ Queen Cleolanta (who’s played by the finest actor of either gender in this piece, by far — as a portrait of implacable evil in a science-fiction woman monarch she certainly rivals Dorothy Christy as Queen Tika in Republic’s 1935 serial The Phantom Empire, which for sheer eclectic weirdness — a science-fiction Western musical featuring Gene Autry joining the battle for control of a high-tech underground metropolis called “The Scientific City of Murania” — deserves to be seen) is upset that she wasn’t invited to this conference and thereby sets out to sabotage it. 

She does this by sending an armed crew to take over the space station and hold the ambassadors as captives, making the demand that she will let them go only if the federation will exchange the two Ophician prisoners that are being held on Earth, awaiting trial for the crimes dramatized in Beyond the Moon. Secretary Drake (Charles Meredith) reluctantly agrees to the exchange provided it occurs on the space station rather than on Ophician soil, and that neither party is armed when the exchange occurs. The exchange goes forth as planned, only, wouldn’t you know it, those damned Russkies — oops, I mean Ophicians — double-cross Our Heroes by bringing guns and drawing them after the exchange is completed. They lock the diplomats into a room and set a three-hour time lock, only one of the Ophicians is determined not only to inconvenience those pesky federation guys but to kill them. He shuts off the control that generates air for the space station’s inhabitants to breathe, and it turns out that while the room where the air control is can be reached through an air vent, the vent is too small for an adult to go through it. Well, even if you’re not a graduate of Clichéd Screenwriting 101 you can guess what happens next: Bobby the bratty kid agrees to go and finds the room, turning the control for the space station’s air just in time — after Rocky got the vent open in the first place by fashioning a D.I.Y. screwdriver out of Vena’s lipstick (so the girl and the kid saved the day!). Cleolanta’s other big plan — to kidnap the scientist Dr. Hillary Tyson (Dayton Lummis) and bring him to Ophicius, presumably to brainwash him and get him to work on designing and building infernal machines for them to use in conquering Earth — only Dr. Tyson outsmarts them by taking a capsule out of his mouth, swallowing it and thereby committing suicide … except he hasn’t really committed suicide: the pill was just a knockout drug that put him in suspended animation for a few hours, thereby fooling the Ophicians into leaving him at the space station instead of taking him with them (one gets the impression that somehow he knew they were going to do that). 

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger would be just another disposable piece of 1950’s cheap science-fiction TV except that executive producer Roland Reed had the good sense to shoot it on film instead of doing it live — thereby a lot more episodes of it survive — and also Reed hired writers who gave at least a little weight and gravitas to their scripts by invoking Cold War parallels. It also helps that they got Patsy Parsons to play the lead villain, Queen Cleolanta: every time she appears, the power and authority she projects establish her as by far the best actor in the piece, of either gender or on either side. Around this time there were quite a few really good villainesses in superhero stories (including Carol Forman’s magnificent “Spider Lady” in the 1948 Columbia Superman serial, his debut in live action even though Columbia’s almost nonexistent special-effects budget had to turn Superman, played by Kirk Alyn, back into a cartoon whenever the scripts called on him to fly), but Patsy Parsons’ Queen Cleolanta is right there among the best of them. And in case you’re not yet tired of reading about Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, here’s what I had to say when Charles and I screened a few episodes in a sequence called “Crash of Moons” a few years ago (

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Special Report: Journey to Mars (44 Blue Productions, Fred Silverman Productions, Viacom, CBS, 1996)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars movie screening ( featured two surprisingly good “sleepers,” both made-for-TV movies from the 1990’s that in whole or part took the conceit of being presented as live journalistic reports of (fictitious) missions to Mars (an interesting, if rather obvious, inversion of the gimmick of Orson Welles’ famous 1938 broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which presented Wells’ story of a Martian invasion of Earth as if it were being reported by radio newscasters in real time). The first one, Special Report: Journey to Mars (1996), used the fake “newscast” gimmick throughout and was presented as a production of the “General News Network” (GNN), which was covering the first humanned mission to Mars in a craft called the Destiny that looked like a giant bathtub stopper in space. 

Written by Rasha Drachkovich (story) and Augustus Taylor (teleplay), and directed by Robert Mandel, Special Report: Journey to Mars alternated between several locations: the White House (U.S. President Elizabeth Richardson, played by Elizabeth Wilson, was elected in 2000 and has staked so much of the prestige of her administration on the success of the Destiny, which has been launched by the U.S. as part of a consortium with 17 other countries, that she’s expected to resign if the mission fails), NASA’s ground control, the spacecraft itself (one of the crew members, Ryan West [Judge Reinhold], is actually an embedded GNN reporter, though he speaks his dispatches from space sotto voce as if he’s afraid the other crew members will catch him talking to the media), a satellite GNN had orbited around Mars to catch shots of the spacecraft as it flies in, and the prison cell where anti-space travel activist Eric Altman (Richard Schiff) is being held after he and his fellow demonstrators were arrested following a hack of the GNN broadcast in which a mystery man with disguised voice claiming to be from Altman’s organization says that they have inserted malware into the spacecraft’s computer system that will prevent it from ever reaching Mars. 

At first I thought this was going to be another example of a problem we’ve had a number of times with films shown at the Mars movie screenings — a great idea for a movie sabotaged by cheap production values and a budget too low to realize the filmmakers’ visions — but despite the visual tackiness and the rather amateurish acting (even though some actors with estimable reputations, like Reinhold, Keith Carradine as mission commander Eugene Slader, and Alfre Woodard as GNN anchor Tamara O’Neil, are in the cast), Special Report: Journey to Mars gains in power and force as the story progresses and becomes genuinely suspenseful. It seems that unknown people have deliberately sabotaged the Mars mission, not only by sneaking malware into its computer systems but by infecting Captain Slader with nanobots, molecule-sized machines that are slowly disintegrating his body from inside — leaving it touch-and-go as to whether he’ll retain enough memory and knowledge to complete the mission or his second-in-command, Russian cosmonaut Lt. Tanya Sadovoy (Diane Venora, who played Charlie Parker’s common-law wife Chan Richardson in Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece Bird and who, like co-star Forest Whitaker, deserved more of a career boost from that movie than she got), will have to take over the “con” à la The Caine Mutiny

Carradine’s performance as the man who’s all too aware of his predicament and the danger it’s putting his crew in anticipates his excellent acting as the President of the United States in the series Madam Secretary, particularly the episode in which he realized his mind was deteriorating and he might have to pass the power of the presidency, at least temporarily, to his vice-president. The script perfectly mocks the conventions of newscasting (even though there are some awfully long portions of dead air on the supposed GNN broadcast as the news staffers themselves are shocked by the developments) and in particular the God-awful human-interest profiles of the astronauts cut in at various points, reminiscent of those horrible profiles of Olympic athletes that clutter up the Olympic telecasts. The writers and director Mandel ramp up the suspense as it turns out the saboteurs are agents of an international corporate combine who lost the contract to build the Mars spacecraft to one of its competitors and decided to seek revenge by making common cause with Right-wing nationalist political parties in Europe to sabotage the spacecraft, ensure the mission’s failure, and bring down the Richardson administration in favor of a nationalist regime in the U.S. There’s even a character in a red baseball cap, though he’s supposed to be the head of NASA and therefore one of the good guys, Scott Berlin (Dean Jones, veteran of a ton of silly Disney movies in the early 1960’s, including one I have memories of — like a disease — called Moon Pilot, in which he played an astronaut seduced away from his moon mission by a female alien who hijacks his spacecraft and takes it to her home planet, which has seven moons), who for some reason gets drenched with a bucket of water when the Destiny successfully lands on the moon (though I still couldn’t resist the obvious talk-back joke when he appeared in a red ballcap: “Make NASA Great Again”). 

It turns out the malware on the computer was brought on board, inadvertently, by the GNN reporter, who accepted a piece of hardware made by the company that was trying to sabotage the mission; two of the astronauts, an American man and a British woman who’ve fallen in love with each other aboard the spacecraft, do a spacewalk to open the radar control manually because the malware has made it impossible for the computer to open it or land the ship; Lt. Sadovoy lands it herself after Slader has finally become too sick to do so; the countries of the world cheer the accomplishment (represented, of course, by stock footage of various countries’ real-life celebrations of other things); and we’re told that the miscreants who tried to sabotage the mission are being arrested. Special Report: Journey to Mars turned out to be a quite effective suspense piece that’s been held in cinematic limbo since its initial airing, which apparently had the second-lowest ratings of any TV-movie ever — a fate this surprisingly good film didn’t deserve despite the budget restrictions and the bits of tackiness that intruded because of the money the filmmakers had (or didn’t have) to spend.

Escape from Mars (Paramount Television, Credo Entertainment Group, 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Escape from Mars — a bit of a misnomer because the titular escape doesn’t actually happen until the last few minutes — turned out to be even better, written by Jim Henshaw and Peter Mohan and directed by Neill Fearnley. A 1999 production of Paramount Television, it posited that humans would fly the world’s first successful Mars mission in 2015 (in Special Journey it was 2005!) and that in this vision of the future the private sector funded the mission with the idea that they could turn a profit by mining the abundant supply of diamonds and other precious jewels on Mars. (Even if those jewels existed, flooding the market with a whole new supply of them from Mars would significantly and precipitously drive down their price — a bit of elementary Economics 101 that seems to have eluded Messrs. Henshaw and Mohan.) The complications on this one are a meteor shower that virtually destroys their spacecraft, the Sagan (naming it after the celebrity scientist Carl Sagan was a nice touch!), once it’s landed on Mars and they’re supposed to stay there 18 months and build a base of operations for a future colony, as well as some bizarre romantic complications that threaten for a while to turn this movie into Mars: The Soap Opera

The mission commander, John Rank (Peter Outerbridge), receives word just before the blast-off that his wife Stephanie (Tammy Isbell) is divorcing him — though he keeps that information from the private-sector bigwigs lest they decide he’s in too much emotional turmoil to fly the spacecraft and replace him. His second-in-command, Liz Poirer (Christine Elise), gets a last-minute sexual experience from her hot boyfriend back home whom she plans to marry after her return — only, in a nicely ironic touch, she makes it back but he doesn’t: he gets killed in a traffic accident on Earth and she receives word of this on Mars. We get a “plant” of the main intrigue when we’re told by one of the officials that Mars experiences meteor showers just like Earth does, only because Mars’s atmosphere is so thin they don’t burn up on entry and therefore they become lethal projectiles — and a series of meteors take out some of the Earth colonists’ structures and damage the Sagan so it’s touch-and-go whether they’ll have a flyable spacecraft for their escape from Mars. With better production values than Special Report and a more complete portrayal of the mission (though, in order to use stock footage of space shuttle launches, the makers of Escape from Mars made their ship look exactly like the shuttle — promoting a lot of “Goofs” posters on who pointed out that the shuttle’s own rocket motors can only steer it into Earth orbit and land it safely, not take off from a planet and overcome its gravity), Escape from Mars is an even tougher project, more suspenseful and more entertaining, and the finale (Commander Rank discovers both water and life on Mars even though he gives up his life doing so — and, as an ironic result, he facilitates the others’ escape now that they only have four people to fly off the planet and provide life-support for, not five) is especially moving. These are both films that deserve to be better known!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Lavender Scare (Full Exposure Films, PBS, 2017, released 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night, as part of their celebration of Queer Pride, PBS showed a fascinating documentary called The Lavender Scare, produced and directed by Josh Howard and with some familiar names to me (including former Zenger’s cover boy Kevin Jennings of GLAAD and Andrew Tobias, multi-millionaire financier and author of The Best Little Boy in the World, a memoir of growing up Gay which he signed with the name “John Reid”) on his production staff, based on a book of the same title by David Johnson which would be worth reading. The film apparently premiered in a theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village on June 7, 2019 (in a 77-minute version, longer than the one we got on TV), but according to was actually made two years earlier.
The story really begins in the 1930’s, when under the Franklin Roosevelt administration and its New Deal response to the 1929 Depression, the size of the federal government zoomed upward and Washington, D.C. attracted a lot of America’s best and brightest with the promise of making good livings and serving the public good. A lot of those people were Gay, Lesbian or whatever in the ridiculous alphabet-soup identifier our community now goes by (I’ve seen “LGBT,” “LGBTQ,” “LGBTQ+” and even “LGBTQQIAA” — the last came from the Queer student group at UCSD and means “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual and Allies” — the last being the current term of art for straight people who support Queer rights), and freed from the social and sexual constraints of their small towns and adrift in the big city, they found out that there were others like them, met, hooked up, formed relationships and did the other things adult humans do together regardless of their sexuality.
Then in 1941 the U.S. got involved in World War II and a lot of people who hadn’t necessarily known they were Queer before ended up in military service, rigidly segregated by sex, and being in single-sex environments brought out their natural inclinations and they started to act on them. (As late as the 1980’s and 1990’s Queers in the U.S. military were telling me when I interviewed them that they hadn’t realized they were Queer until they were in the single-sex environment of the military — the obvious comeback to the homophobes who asked people in the days of the military ban and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy which followed, “Why did you join the military when you knew we wouldn’t accept you?”)
But these advances were threatened and ultimately stopped by the highly repressive political, social and sexual climate of the Cold War and the so-called McCarthy era, which began an era of witchhunts not only against actual or suspected Communists (or liberals who could be framed as Communists, since part of the Right’s objective in the McCarthy era, as now, was to ensure themselves permanent dominance of American politics by demonizing their opponents and putting them “beyond the pale” of acceptable political discourse) but against Queers as well. In 1953 newly elected Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order banning all “homosexuals” from federal employment — no exceptions, no ifs, ands or buts.
Josh Howard’s narration, delivered by actress Glenn Close, is undecided as to whether President Eisenhower issued this order out of genuine conviction that Queer people constituted a security risk or to provide political cover to the Right of his party. But an earlier PBS documentary mentioned that when Eisenhower was supreme Allied military commander during World War II he had tried to issue a similar order to fire all Gay and Lesbian members of his immediate staff — and, in a rare display of courage, the woman he told to compile the list of Queers on his staff for him to fire said to him, “If you order me to make that list, my name will be the first on it.”

The Cultural Context

In 1953, sex between two partners of the same gender was illegal in every U.S. state. Homosexuality was defined as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the official guide of the psychiatric profession as to what constituted diseases of the mind. The very term “homosexual” had been coined by a Hungarian researcher in 1865 as a definition of a mental illness, and that had been considered a step forward since previously homosexuality had been defined as a sin against God that deserved the death penalty. Anyone caught having Gay sex or declaring him- or herself Gay risked not only imprisonment but social disgrace and unemployability. Anyone growing up and realizing their sexual attractions ran towards people of their own sex would hear nothing but a chorus of condemnation; the church would say they were immoral, science would say they were “sick,” the economy would say they shouldn’t be allowed to work and the law would say they were criminals.
And yet Queer people and their straight allies actually stuck their toes into the pool of activism in ways sometimes subtle and sometimes surprisingly bold. At the end of the 19th century German physician and sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld organized a group called the Scientific Humanitarian Committee and started a petition calling on the German government to repeal its laws against Gay sex. The first Queer rights group in the U.S., the Society for Human Rights, was founded in Chicago in 1924 by Henry Gerber, a German immigrant inspired by Hirschfeld’s example. “I had always bitterly felt the injustice with which my own American society accused the homosexual of ‘immoral acts,’” Gerber wrote. His organization lasted less than two years.
The continuous history of Queer rights activism in the U.S. began in 1950, when Harry Hay — who, more than any other single person, deserves the title of founder of the movement — and four of his friends held a private meeting in Los Angeles. The group they founded was called the Mattachine Society, after a tribe of traveling jesters in medieval Italy whom Hay had discovered in his researches and believed had been Gay. Hay and some of the other Mattachine founders had been members of the Communist Party and the Progressive Party, which ran former vice-president Henry A. Wallace for president in 1948 under a platform of reconciliation with the Soviet Union and an end to the Cold War. Hay adopted a secretive cell-like structure for Mattachine and scored an early victory when one of its founders, Dale Jennings, was arrested for crusing an undercover police officer in a restroom. Jennings challenged the charges in court and was acquitted.
Like much of the “official” history of America’s Queer rights movement, The Lavender Scare gives short shrift to Mattachine and denounces it as accommodationist and not radical enough. Part of that reputation was earned; in 1953, Hay and the founders were purged in a sort of internalized version of the Cold War, and the people who took over at the time largely adopted the mainstream psychiatric view that homosexuality was a mental illness. They pleaded for legalization and equal rights on the ground that Queer people, like people with physical disabilities, shouldn’t be discriminated against because they were sick. But, as John D’Emilio (who’s briefly interviewed in The Lavender Scare) pointed out in his book Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, his 1983 history of the pre-Stonewall Queer rights movement, visibility was a two-edged sword for the early Queer movement. Queer activists in the 1950’s realized they needed to be visible to overcome the prejudice against them — but that very visibility meant they risked being targeted for being arrested, fired and disgraced.

Kangaroo Courts and Gay Inquisitors

So when Eisenhower declared his intention to fire every last homosexual from the federal government, there was virtually no public opposition. The witch-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) is shown here in film clips joining the public denunciation of “perverts” and calling for their total elimination for federal employment. Eisenhower gave the task of ferreting them out to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and people interviewed in The Lavender Scare recalled the kangaroo-court nature of these “investigations.”
Pairs of FBI agents just showed up at their offices and called them in for interrogation on the spot. They were not allowed legal counsel or any sort of due process. They weren’t allowed even to know what information was being used as the basis of firing them, much less the chance to confront their accusers. Also, like witch-hunters everywhere, they hounded the people they targeted to give them more names and keep the witch-hunt going. Navy Captain Joan Cassidy recalled, “They said, ‘We have your friend in the next room, she’s already told us you are Gay. You give us the names of others and we’ll go easier on you.’” 
Ironically — and, oddly, unmentioned in The Lavender Scare — some of the officials carrying out the anti-Gay witchhunt in the federal government were Gay themselves. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his assistant, Clyde Tolson, were a deeply closeted Gay couple who lived together. Joe McCarthy’s chief of staff, Roy Cohn, was also a closeted Gay man who, after McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate in 1954 and died in 1957, became a legendary attorney in private practice in New York City. One of Cohn’s clients was a young real-estate developer named Donald Trump who had inherited a business building and renting properties in the outer boroughs of New York.
Cohn masterminded Trump’s ascension to Manhattan and became so important, powerful and influential that after his death from AIDS complications in 1987 — just months after the New York State Bar had disbarred him for ethics violations — that ever since Trump, frustrated when his later attorneys were either too incompetent or too ethical, has often asked rhetorically, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” So when Trump accuses Robert Mueller, his investigators and the Democrats on the House Judiciary, Intelligence and Oversight Committee of using “McCarthyite tactics” against him, bear in mind that it’s Trump who has the direct one-degree-of-separation connection to McCarthy himself.

Dr. Kameny Fights Back

Most of the government workers who were targeted by the Lavender Scare left government service in shame and tried as best they could to rebuild their lives. Some, including one diplomat profiled in The Lavender Scare, committed suicide. A few managed to keep their jobs. San Francisco postal worker Carl Rizzi, who performed part-time as a drag entertainer in a Gay bar, wasn’t fired because his supervisor stuck his own neck out and told the inquisitors that he knew Rizzi was Gay, but he was doing his job properly, so what was the problem? Captain Cassidy was able to stay in the service but decided to maintain a low profile and not apply for the promotions she probably deserved.
The man who stood out and not only organized a resistance to his own firing but began a movement against the policy was Dr. Franklin Kameny. Born in New York City, the son of Jewish immigrants, he decided at an early age to make astronomy his life’s work. After the war, he studied at Harvard University, where he earned a Master’s degree in 1949 and a Ph.D. in 1956. He got a teaching job at Georgetown University for a year and was then hired by the U.S. government. But Kameny’s government job lasted only a few months before he fell victim to the anti-Gay witchhunt; investigators dredged up an old case in San Francisco and used it as the pretext to fire him.
Rather than go gently into the not-good night of depression and disgrace, Kameny fought back. First he sued the government and lost when, after a three-year legal battle, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case. Then he started a Mattachine Society chapter in Washington, D.C. and made the group’s top priority to support other victims of the federal government’s anti-Queer policy. Along with his colleague Jack Nichols, Lesbian activist Barbara Gittings, and a few others, Kameny tried to move Mattachine back to a more confrontational stand. In 1963 the group began a drive to repeal Washington, D.C.’s anti-sodomy law — which finally passed in 1993, 30 years later.
In 1965 Kameny did something even more radical. He decided to mount public protests against the anti-Gay policy, picketing the White House on April 17, 1965. At first he was only able to recruit 12 people for his pickets, but the demonstrations eventually grew to about 100 — remember, at a time when being Gay or Lesbian was itself illegal. Kameny imposed a strict dress code on the protesters; the men on his picket line had to wear suits and ties, and the women had to wear dresses, pump shoes and makeup. Kameny’s logic was that to demand the right to work for the federal government, his activists had to look employable. One Lesbian who marched with him recalled on The Lavender Scare that she’d never before worn pumps in her life.
Kameny’s powerful story was told in The Lavender Scare mostly in his own words. He was extensively interviewed for various documentaries on the Queer rights movement and was ultimately invited to the White House by President Barack Obama. In 2010, a year before Kameny’s death, a short stretch of street in Washington, D.C. was named for him; The Lavender Scare contains footage of the renaming ceremony.
Josh Howard’s script for The Lavender Scare dates the end of the federal government’s anti-Queer witchhunt as 1995. Though president Jimmy Carter had issued an executive order as early as 1977 ending discrimination in federal hiring on the basis of sexual orientation, there was an important loophole in it. It did not end discrimination in the granting of security clearances.
Part of the justification for Eisenhower’s original order had been the possibility that Queer people in the government would be subject to blackmail by hostile foreign powers if their sexual orientation was revealed. No one in the social climate of 1953 was about to make the obvious (to us today) counter-argument that if you eliminated the legal penalties and social opprobrium attached to being Gay or Lesbian, that would also eliminate the potential for blackmail.
So, though after 1977 Queer people could still work in branches of the federal government that didn’t require clearance, it was not until 1995 that President Bill Clinton signed an executive order banning discrimination against Queer people in granting or maintaining security clearances. And, of course, the ban on Queer people serving in the U.S. military was not finally lifted until 2010, when a Democratic Congress passed, and Democratic President Barack Obama signed, the law repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy Clinton had been forced to settle on in 1993 when he tried to end anti-Queer discrimination in the U.S. military by executive order.

Vote for Democrats!

One important object lesson of The Lavender Scare is that, contrary to the ridiculous and factually unsustainable position of people in what I call the “alt-Left” — the ones who proclaim that “there’s no difference between the Republican and Democratic parties” — there are deep and profound differences between them, especially on Queer rights. It was a Republican President, Eisenhower, who imposed the ban on Queer people in the federal government in the first place, while Democratic Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama took it down step by step.
When the final credits of The Lavender Scare flashed that Dr. Frank Kameny had died on October 11, 2011, my immediate thought was, “At least he has been spared President Trump.” Under Trump and the Republicans in his administration, particularly his evangelical Christian vice-president Mike Pence, Obama’s executive orders protecting the rights of Transgender people have been reversed, as have been Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations banning anti-Queer discrimination in federal housing projects. Trump has also banned Transgender servicemembers from the U.S. military. One New Yorker report on the Presidential transition said that Mike Pence actually lobbied Trump to repeal the executive orders Carter and Clinton had issued ending discrimination against Queer people in federal employment, though thank goodness for small mercies that Trump hasn’t — not yet, anyway — gone that far.
So one lesson from The Lavender Scare is that it’s crucial that Queer people and their straight allies in the U.S. need to vote for Democrats and not waste their votes on at best powerless and at worst counterproductive alternative parties. The Democrats haven’t always been our friends, but the Republicans — especially today, with their heavy reliance on the votes of Right-wing evangelical Christians and moral reactionaries in general — are our relentless and implacable enemies.

Frontline, June 18, 2019 (originally aired November 20, 2018): “Documenting Hate: New American Nazis” (WGBH/PBS, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After The Lavender Scare KPBS ran a Frontine episode called “Documenting Hate: New American Nazis,” a follow-up to a 2018 special produced by Richard Rowley and written and reported by A. C. Thompson on neo-Nazi activists in the U.S. in general and one particularly nasty group in particular: the “Atomwaffen” (German for “nuclear weapons”), a Florida-based group of about 60 “made” members (like the Mafia, the Atomwaffen requires you to commit some sort of crime — the more brutal, the better) and a few hundred “initiates” who claim some sort of affiliation with the group, keep up with it via its Internet presence, and are ready and willing to commit terrorism to promote the group’s goal of an all-white America.
“New American Nazis” was made by Rowley and Thompson as a follow-up to their earlier Frontline show about the 2017 confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia between white supremacist demonstrators and anti-racist counter-protesters, one of whom was killed when a driver from the white supremacist camp deliberately ran her down with his car. This was the incident of which President Trump famously said “there were good people on both sides — on both sides,” and this, along with his opposition to immigrants and proclamation of a “new American nationalism,” has made Trump an unlikely hero to America’s white supremacists despite his Jewish son-in-law and friendship with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The organizers of Atomwaffen had a very different idea of how to run a white supremacist movement from the people who staged the protests at Charlottesville. According to “John,” a former affiliate of Atomwaffen Thompson interviewed, the Charlottesville actions led to a rise in the number of people expressing interest in joining Atomwaffen. “C-ville had a huge part in that, of the influx, applying in, asking in because they're like, ‘Oh, C-ville, wow, this didn’t work. Huge rallies don't work.’ All that happens is people get arrested, people lose jobs, and you get put on some FBI watch list.” According to “John,” Atomwaffen’s alternative strategy was to “go underground” and organize individuals to commit acts of terrorism.
Atomwaffen’s inspiration came from a white supremacist author and editor named James Mason — not to be confused with the late British actor whose closest connection with Nazism was playing Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in a 1952 biopic, The Desert Fox. The American James Mason edited a neo-Nazi newsletter called Siege in the 1980’s and the members of Atomwaffen followed his strategic guidelines. “There's a huge passage in Siege about terrorism — dropping out of the system so that you can conduct lone-wolf activity,” the pseudonymous “John” explained. “The group followed James Mason’s Siege like a Bible. It was like a Bible to them. It’s the handbook on how to operate.”
What Mason came up with for a strategic and tactical guideline is the so-called “leaderless cell” model of organization. It’s a system that has been used by other groups, both in the U.S. and worldwide. Al-Qaeda adopted it after the U.S. toppled their allies, the Taliban, from power in Afghanistan. ISIS used it from the start, though it also relied on a more conventional guerrilla-war strategy. It’s also been used by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF) in the U.S. to advance environmentalism and animal rights, though strictly speaking those groups are saboteurs rather than terrorists. They destroy property but, unlike white supremacists or Muslim radicals, carefully plan their actions to avoid taking human or animal life.
Though the leaderless-cell model of organization predates the Internet, the Internet’s existence has facilitated it. Many of the actions attributed to ISIS have been carried out by people totally unknown to the group’s leaders in Iraq and Syria. They simply post onto the group’s Web site, proclaim their allegiance to it, and announce what they’re going to do and how it fits into ISIS’s ideology. Likewise, ELF and ALF function as Web sites to which people can post, attribute their actions, and explain how they advance the causes of environmentalism or animal rights. Atomwaffen appears to be a bit more centralized than that, but it still draws the distinction between “members” who take orders from a central authority and “initiates” who mount free-lance actions on behalf of the group and its white supremacist ideology.
Atomwaffen first registered on law enforcement’s radar in 2015 when police in Tampa, Florida arrested 18-year-old Devon Arthurs for killing two of his three roommates, 22-year-old Jeremy Himmelman and 18-year-old Andrew Oneschuck. Arthurs told police that he and his victims had been part of a new neo-Nazi terror group organized by their fourth roommate, Brandon Russell. Arthurs demanded to talk to an FBI agent and explain what Russell was up to. The four met as teenagers in Junior ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) classes in school — establishing a running theme through the show: how neo-Nazis and other white supremacists are infiltrating the U.S. armed forces and essentially letting the federal government train them in how to fight the U.S. government.
Devon Arthurs told police he had killed Himmelman and Oneschuck because, though he shared their white supremacist beliefs, what they and Russell were planning was too much for him. “Atomwaffen Division is a, is a terrorist organization,” Arthurs explained to the Tampa police who’d arrested him. “It's a neo-Nazi organization that I was a part of. But the things that they were planning were horrible. They were planning bombings and stuff like that on, on countless people. They were planning to kill civilian life.” Arthurs said the specific targets the Atomwaffen members discussed were “power lines, nuclear reactors [and] synagogues.”
Indeed, Thompson began and ended his program with coverage of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. Though there’s no evidence that the alleged shooter in Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers, was a member or affiliate of Atomwaffen, he left behind a manifesto explaining his actions in similar white-supremacist terms. Among Atomwaffen’s other heroes are Charles Manson (the show describes the group making a sort of pilgrimage to the cave in Death Valley where Manson told his followers they would wait out the apocalyptic race war he allegedly committed his murders to spark), Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and Dylann Roof, who killed nine Black parishioners at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. “There could be another Dylann Roof in Atomwaffen,” defector “John” warned Thompson.
“It’s unclear what the authorities did in response to Arthurs’ plea to investigate Atomwaffen,” Thompson said — though the FBI did arrest Russell and he’s currently in prison. “The FBI won’t talk to me about its handling of the case. But here’s what I do know: Atomwaffen continued to operate and its violence didn’t end. Seven months later in Virginia, Atomwaffen follower Nick Giampa allegedly killed his ex-girlfriend’s parents. They had objected to his Nazi views. Giampa has yet to stand trial. But the 17-year-old appeared to be fascinated with Atomwaffen. His social media accounts were full of its propaganda.
“Weeks later, in California, Sam Woodward was arrested for allegedly killing Blaze Bernstein, a Gay Jewish college student. Shortly after the arrest, I published a story identifying Woodward as a member of Atomwaffen. Woodward has pleaded not guilty. But in a cache of confidential chat logs I obtained, Atomwaffen celebrated the slaying. They referred to Woodward as a ‘one-man Gay Jew wrecking crew.’”
Arthurs also told authorities that Atomwaffen and similar white supremacist groups have infiltrated the U.S. military and enlisted more than once in order to learn military strategies and tactics. They’ve also helped themselves to weapons, explosives and other service materials in order to wage their own private war. And, in a frightening possibility even Thompson and Rowley didn’t explore, the ability of Atomwaffen and other white supremacists to infiltrate the U.S. military — and what the reporters describe as the military’s slipshot and desultory policy towards getting rid of them — raises the possibility that they could stage a military coup, especially if a U.S. President who’s either a white supremacist himself or a sympathizer wants to set aside the Constitution and make himself a fascist dictator.
What’s more, many white supremacists believe that in Donald Trump they have exactly that sort of President. After 15 years of public silence, James Mason, Atomwaffen’s guru, agreed to give an interview to Thompson in which he said, “With Trump winning that election by surprise, and it was a surprise, I now believe anything could be possible.” After decades of attacking the U.S. as run by what they called a “Zionist-Occupied Government,” America’s white-supremacist whites see Trump as a new hope. Mason cited Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and added, “In order to make America great again, you’d have to make America white again.” (Ironically, that echoed the criticism by Trump’s Democratic opponent in 2016, Hillary Clinton, who said “Make America Great Again” was code for “Make America White Again.”)
The result of white supremacist violence, as well as mass shootings committed by others, is that America is slowly turning into an armed camp. The Frontline episode ends with Brad Orsini, an ex-FBI agent hired by the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh as their security director in the wake of the Tree of Life massacre, describing preparations for their weekly services similar to those a military unit undertakes before a battle: “We have put casualty bags in each one of our synagogues and schools. There's tourniquets. There are compression pads. There's wound-packing material.”
It’s somewhat ironic that San Diego’s PBS affiliate, KPBS, ran the Frontline episode “Documenting Hate: New American Nazis” right after the film The Lavender Scare. Both are, in a sense, about small, tight-knit groups of people who came together to fight what they consider evil and injustice. The difference is that the people who stuck their necks out for the rights of Queer people to work in the federal government were seeking to expand the rights of Americans as citizens and human beings, while the white supremacists profiled in “New American Nazis” are seeking to contract rights and remake the U.S. as either an all-white country or one in which Jews, people of color, Queers and others on their hate list are treated as what Adolf Hitler called Untermenschen — literally “below human.”
Organization and commitment are value-neutral: the same tactics people like Frank Kameny used to break the power of homophobia over American society in general and the federal government in particular can be used by people like Brandon Russell to carry out a hate-filled agenda in which only people like him are regarded as “real Americans.” With the U.S. military now a volunteer service that directly involves only about 1 percent of the American population, the real danger of people like Russell and Atomwaffen is the possibility that they might build a secret center of power within the U.S. military and ultimately turn it from an institution protecting the U.S. Constitution to one really out to destroy it and install a white-supremacist dictatorship in its place.