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for

April 2006

 

This edition of Video Cheese is brought
to you through the generosity of
Jabootu's Official Sponsor
for the month of April 2006.
the honorable


Mr. Eric
Balzer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raquel!
(TV special; 1970)

 

For quite a few years now I’ve been an advocate of the idea that the only vast untapped source remaining for the bad entertainment lover is TV programming of the ‘60s through the ‘80s. This intends a wide array of ludicrous TV movies, horrible series pilots and short-lived programs, and hundreds of inane specials. Raquel! is a prime example of the latter, being a showcase for pneumatic movie sexpot Raquel Welch.

We open with Raquel, in a field, hamming it up—oh, ain’t we having fun!!—over a reel-to-reel tape deck (presumably the one recording the sound for her special). She’s dressed in…well…. Hmm. A cleavage-baring white sleeved bathing suit, featuring long hanging fringe from the arms, a domino navel cut-out, and adorned with gold patterns, a gold metal headband and thigh high white boots. "Filmed on location," an announcer booms, "in London, Paris, Acapulco, Mexico City, Big Sur, Sun Valley, Yucatan and Los Angeles!" Translation: ‘Well, folks, this special might lack mightily in all entertainment categories, but we sure spent a hell of a lot of money making it!

We then have a montage of ‘behind the scene’ production shots—several of them obviously staged and strenuously wacky—as the reedy voice of Our Star herself is heard singing "The Games People Play." As Ms. Welch strains to mug and camp it up for the camera, it’s clear that she was the earlier (and admittedly massively less vulgar) Jenny McCarthy. Soon the credits begin, and our saliva glands start working overtime as names like Tom Jones, John Wayne and Bob Hope cross the screen.

We then cut (presumably this was after a commercial break during the original telecast) to a shot up at the crown of a leafless tree, whereupon Ms. Welch’s thin rendition of California Dreaming begins. "All the leaves are brown," she warbles, as we stare up at the almost entirely denuded branches. The sky we see is gray, though, I’ve got to give them that.

The fact that Ms. Welch is attempting to assay her second song in under two minutes can only fill the viewer with trepidation. This is especially true since she clearly can barely handle tunes clearly chosen for their easy singability. This is emphasized by the fact that the tempo of even "California Dreaming" has been slowed way down. This was quite apparently intended to allow Ms. Welch ample time to timidly shift from one note to another, in the manner of a quivering senior citizen gripping the safely rail as she timidly works her way down a flight of stairs.

Soon the scenery reveals that this is the portion of the show shot in "Paris!" We follow a finely coifed and elegantly attired Ms. Welch as she strolls mordantly past all the de rigueur tourist attractions whilst wistfully thinking of Ol’ Californee. It’s a tough job, I guess, but somebody’s got to do it.

The ear is struck (in several ways, actually), meanwhile, when we hear that the lyrics have been altered. For example, during the section of the song after the singer enters a church (the shot here has a magnificent cathedral in the background—get it?!) and the line is "And I got down on my knees, and I began to pray," Ms. Welch instead inexplicably sings, "Oh, my mind was so at ease, and I recalled the day." And it proceeds on like that from there. I can only assume that someone on the production staff harbored a terrible grudge against John and Michelle Phillips.

Oh, and did I mention the arrangement of his introspective song’s music is orchestral and features incessant, pounding horns? Yeah, it’s awesome. Then we get a brief, ostensibly groovy LSD trip-esque segue to Ms. Welch gyrating to a spacey bongo beat (!), wearing what appears to be a swimsuit converted into a costume for a community college production of the movie Barbarella. (In case you’re wondering, though, Ms. Welch does move her arms as she ‘dances.’)

The camera then pulls back to reveal a pair of male backup dancers so inept, and clad in costumes so bizarre—imagine an even gayer-looking hero from a ‘60s Japanese space opera like Invasion of the Neptune Men—that they call to remind nothing so much as the Juul Haalmeyer Dancers from SCTV. As for Our Star, let’s just say that Ms. Welch’s dancing reveals her to be a true triple threat, in that it is fully as skillful as her singing and acting.

Soon the three are cavorting around and atop a series of gigantic expressionistic statues, or whatever they call them. Lest this all not seem ‘trippy’ enough, several of the shots are filmed at a Dutch angle. Battlefield Earth, you are avenged!

You know, as this goes on… I can’t even pretend I’m describing it properly. It’s one of those things so insane that you really begin wondering if it were the work of space aliens. Still, if you ever want a sure-fire party DVD, this should suffice. Just make sure there’s plenty of beer on hand.

And then—I swear!!!—we get another trippy segue and cut back to Paris for the climax of the "California Dreaming" number!! WTF?!!!!

Then we cut to a montage of clips featuring Raquel speaking to varied hordes of reporters. This is accompanied by her rendition of "Everybody’s Talking at Me." Get it? Oh wait, no I don’t, because she’s the one talking to them, you friggin’ morons!

It was at this point, by the way, that I realized there would be little or no respite between her musical ‘numbers.’ I think those numbers must all be pi, actually, because they seem to go on forever.

Under her rendition, we hear her answer press queries, with responses that range from the introspective ("I like to read [pause] and ride horses [pause] and to swim…") to the, er, humorous. When one unctuous Brit newshawk tells her she looks stunning despite her recent arrival following a long journey, she quips, "Oh [pause] flattery will get you everywhere!" Ha-HA!! Anyway, you know those hilariously witty press conferences the young Beatles gave early in their career?

This isn’t like those.

Nor does Ms. Welch shun controversy, as when she fearlessly informs a gaggle of French reporters, "In Paris [pause] I feel somewhat attracted to it, because I was married here. I would like to make a picture here, so I can live here for a while, because I like it very much." However, no matter how glorious, it seems, no one place could ever hope to hold her attention for long. "I really like to travel," she reflects. "I’m really am glad that I have been able to visit different countries and see [pause] different people and places."

Asked to describe her personality, Ms. Welch responds, "Sometimes I feel paradoxical, you know, I feel two-sided. I feel like an extrovert sometimes and an introvert other times." Sadly, she doesn’t get into the whole issue of whether she sometimes feels like a nut, and sometimes she don’t. Of her acting career, she explains, "I came at a funny time. In films it was a [pause] nebulous period. And I don’t think they knew what to call me, so they, put, you know, ‘sex symbol.’" Well, yes, the ‘funny time’ thing, and the huge breasts.

During all this, they cut in footage of Ms. Welch walking down a beach and through fields and such in solitude as she seeks to escape all those people talkin’ at her. Or…that she’s talking at. Whatever. At one point she is shown walking down the beach in front of the setting sun ["I’m going where the sun keep shining…", although, admittedly, not through any pouring rain], and in the foreground we see a large ‘X’ made up of two crossed logs. At this exact juncture I would have paid fifty bucks to see her stumble across the shattered remnants of the Statue of Liberty.

Now that we have gotten to know Ms. Welch as deeply, as intimately, as any of our own close, personal friends, it’s time to move on the guest stars. We thus cut to a medium shot of Ms. Welch, clad in a loose, white, vaguely hippyish dress and clasping a handful of flowers to her bosom as she addresses the camera. She notes that she had once been referred to as a "female John Wayne." She explains, "At first I protested. But on second thought, I think it’s pretty difficult to fill his boots." Here the camera pulls back, and under the now visibly crotch-high mini dress she’s wearing cowboy boots. (Cue obvious ‘laugh track’ guffaws.)

AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Oh, my sides.

This is all, naturally enough, a segue to meeting the man himself. As Raquel ‘comically’ clumps around in her boots, the Duke steps forward, clad in white slacks, a dress shirt open at the collar, and a blue blazer with some sort of crest on the breast. "I think every man in the United States would punch me in the nose if I didn’t say you had a nice leg for a boot," he drawls. Well, yes, obviously.

Raquel requests his help, explaining that she can’t ride a horse.  In response, Wayne notes he has a horse that has never been ridden. "Maybe you two could start together," he quips. We cut to the pair approaching a corral, and both are now dressed in ‘Western’ clothes, complete with gun belts. Ms. Welch, it must be said, could certainly fill out a tight shirt. So could Wayne, for that matter—especially around the gut, at this stage of his life—but the effect is quite different. Still, it must be said that even in his ‘60s, Wayne was a big, imposing dude.

Seeing a (patently stock footage) wildly bucking bronco, Raquel gasps, "Is that the horse?!" (Cue Laugh Track.) A jocular Wayne instead leads her towards a more timid animal. However, with this bit of hilarity accomplished--the thing where she sees the wild horse--she suddenly decides to forget the whole riding lesson*.  Instead, she mentions her unfamiliarity with a six shooter. This leads to further ‘comedy' as Wayne demonstrates his proficiency with a revolver, followed by a clip from the famous showdown scene from True Grit.

[*Making the joke even more pointless, Ms. Welch did, in fact, know how to ride a horse.  Just a few year prior to this she had starred in Bandolero!, a Western with James Stewart and Dean Martin. Moreover, she's seen riding a horse later in this very show.]

Raquel, who apparently suffers from ADD, now shifts gears again and reveals that she knows about Wayne’s soft side, too. And yes, this is all as choppy as it sounds here. So we segue to some footage shot at a Mexican orphanage that apparently Wayne had something to do with. Wayne and Raquel meet and interact with the hundreds of kids (as an instrumental version of "Wouldn’t It Be Loverly" [!!] plays in the background!).

I have to say, this must have been a thrill to the children. I’m not sure the world currently has a star was universally well-known and revered as Wayne was back in 1970, and this was also the end of an era in which movie stars like Wayne were still seen as being larger than life. Anyway, the kids are adorable, and maybe the scene is a trifle exploitative, but given the smiles on the kids’ faces, it’s hard to take much offense. Wayne and Raquel narrate the footage, and it must be said, Ms. Welch’s commentary doesn’t exactly burnish her reputation as a deep, introspective thinker.

That done, the two say their goodbyes to each other and Raquel rides off on a horse. As we’ll see, Wayne comes off the best of the guest stars, probably because he wisely avoided more than a token scene of interaction with Our Raquel.

We cut to a helicopter shot of a skier going down a snow-covered mountain, as Ms. Welch’s rendition of Helen Reddy’s "Peaceful." This accompanies footage of Raquel riding a T-bar and skiing and such, with some of the footage shot in slow-motion, perhaps in an attempt to make her look more proficient at the sport than she really was. In fact, as things progress, I notice that she is often shot in silhouette against the sun and in other such fashions that we generally can’t see her face as she executes various skiing maneuvers. I’m not saying anything. I’m just saying. After a few minutes of this—just scintillating stuff—we get a montage of professional skiers falling and crashing and such. Why? I guess because it’s ‘funny’? I mean, it’s not, but I can’t figure out any other justification for it.

Well, that was an exciting five minutes.

Then we cut to Raquel, dressed vaguely like Yentil-in-boy’s-guise with her hair pinned up under a cap, singing "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" whilst ‘dancing’ in front of a series of huge, spectacular fountains. Seriously, twenty minutes in and she’s ‘sung’ half a dozen tunes already. Who decided Ms. Welch’s strongest suit would be performing a wide selection of the day’s hottest pop hits? I mean, you know things have gone awry when instead of the busty movie star headlining the special, the viewer is going, "Hey, show us more of the fountains! Those things are amazing!"

We cut to a castle or something. Dressed in an outfit that vaguely looks like something from a very bad Sinbad movie—followed by a montage of her in a dozen other costumes--Ms. Welch is now performing "Here Comes the Sun." Really? Maybe I can stare into it, be blinded and spare myself the remaining half hour of this thing. That particular short number finished, we immediately go into a rendition of "Good Morning, Starshine." Wow, it’s a theme!

I should stipulate that Ms. Welch, aside from occasionally straining a bit here or there to hit a certain note, is not a bad singer. The thing is, though, that’s she’s just…adequate. (Even having said that, one must assume her vocals were given a good bit of electronic scrubbing in the mixing booth.) So why base an entire special on her singing one song after another, especially when she’s not in any way known for her singing?* Obviously they thought flying around the world for spectacular setting to put behind her songs would help distract us from noticing all this. However, that just serves, ultimately, to show how weird the whole thing is.

[*As Proofreader Bill Leary suggests, "I'm not sure how you'd have capitalized on her actual talents. I suppose a series of quick costume changes and leaping into and climbing out of swimming pools might have worked.  And for a real change up, she could have climbed in and jumped out!" And he's right. Ms. Welch was never really known for any particular talent other than that of looking spectacular.]

We then cut to a far more elaborate dance number taking place at an Aztec pyramid. If I’m not mistaken, this is set at the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacan. Surrounded by dancers in hilariously elaborate costumes representing the signs of the Zodiac, this is the setting for Ms. Welch to sign and frug her way through a particularly unctuous rendition of "Age of Aquarius / Let the Sun Shine." Given the Aztec ruins, I’d have said "You’ve Gotta Have Heart" would have been more appropriate, but anyway.

During the latter half of the song, we see folks in authentic Aztec priest garb and such performing ceremonial dances (albeit no human sacrifices). As a background to Ms. Welch singing "Let the Sun Shine." Blech. It’s here, by the way, that Ms. Welch is again seen in the fringed white bathing suit & boots combo we saw at the beginning of the show.

It’s also here that we notice the director’s penchant for shooting stuff as framed through a pair of spread legs in the foreground. Gee, that’s original. In any case, this is by far the show’s most elaborate production number, and hence clearly the funniest. Meanwhile, being surrounded by several dozen strenuously dancing performers in colorful native garb does little to divert our awareness that the star at the center of the entire fandango is going little more than the Mashed Potato.

When this is eventually over, we cut from an Aztec pyramid directly to an Olde English Castle. Here we see Ms. Welch attired like a cast member of the musical Camelot, complete with a long train trailing behind her dress. Hilariously, as we see her walk before this edifice in long shot, she begins her next number by speaking the first several lines in a hysterically bad ‘English’ accent. Indeed, I guess it’s not a song, it’s a reading of the opening portion of Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott. (!!) In the manner of this very special, let me reword Lord Tennyson’s poem to reveal my own thinking on the matter:


And up and down my eyebrows go,
List’ning as Ms. Welch does blow
and besmirth Tennyson’s prose,
So please lady, Shad’up.


Her reading ends with her, still in her princess dress, sitting on a park bench with London Bridge behind her. At her side is a young Tom Jones, attired in a trench coat. Hilarity ensues as Raquel finishes her reading and snaps shut the book she was supposedly reading from.

Tom: "Beautiful, Raquel, beautiful."
Raquel: "Thank you, Tom."
Tom: "And the poetry wasn’t bad, either!"


Raquel says that if she really were the Queen, she’d request a performance from her guest star.  Sure enough, we cut to a tuxedoed Mr. Jones singing something called, "I, Who Have Nothing" in a gorgeous old cathedral. I guess he didn’t want to waste one of his popular songs on this stupid special, and I can’t really blame him. This is shot with him looking up at Princess Raquel up on a balcony, and Tom doesn’t spare the overwrought facial expressions as he toils his way through the song. Eventually the action accompanying this, as Tom and Raquel circle each other in various ways (including while seated on a rotating loveseat) becomes pretty comical.

Mr. Jones ends his song and Queen Raquel, up in her balcony, applauds her minstrel. Her clapping hands then segue to those of an enthusiastically clapping crowd at a nightclub. (Bravo! Auteur! Auteur!) This leads into a sequence of Mr. Jones and Ms. Welch performing a medley of ‘50s soul and rock ‘n’ roll songs, including "Lucille," "Slipin ‘n Slidin," "Tutti Frutti," "Good Golly Miss Molly" and others besides.

Presumably they chose songs somewhat inappropriate for Mr. Jones so that Ms. Welch’s deficiencies would seem less pronounced. If so, this gambit fails miserably. Ms. Welch’s brief vocals on Tutti Frutti are especially wince-inducing, and putting her up alongside an actual, professional singer proves a predictably disastrous idea.

Cut to another montage, as we hear Ms. Welch burble her way through "The Sounds of Silence." This is probably her worst solo number in the special. Meanwhile, the visuals of her waking along on a beach in a voluminous silk gown are less than edifying. Moreover, if the earlier tendency to be overly concrete in visualizing whatever song lyrics Ms. Welch was singing, here they go to the other extreme, and the results are downright mystifying. As Paul Simon’s lyrics describe seeing a huge crowd ("ten thousand people, maybe more") in a soulless urban setting, we see extended footage of a half dozen of horses grazing in a bucolic pasture. Hilariously, this ends when a madly grinning Ms. Welch, her gown spread open like huge batwings as she spreads her arms wide, chases the horses off by running at them. She then is seen chasing after them astride a white stallion.

Uhm, OK.

This segues to what appears to be Ms. Welch arriving in a fake Western town upon the same horse, still in her gown. However, as she gallops past the camera, behind her are revealed to be Ms. Welch and guest star Bob Hope. Both are again dressed in cowboy togs. In Hope’s case this includes a gigantic cowboy hat. It’s funny, because it’s bigger than a normal hat. See?

I should note that fans of Mr. Hope’s movie work of particularly the ‘40s always cringe a bit when we see his TV work of this period. His countless TV specials and guest appearances have not…aged well, to put it mildly. Hopefully his tremendously funny early film acting, including the first half dozen Road pictures, will not be forgotten in lieu of his generally painful television work in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Ms. Welch begins what will obviously be a very painful ‘comic’ interlude by adopting a very bad ‘western’ accent. "If I were you," she informs Cowboy Hope, "I wouldn’t come messing around these here parts." We cut to the predictable Bob Hope Severe Punch Line Close-Up (Hope obviously being a big enough star to dictate how he was shot), as featured in his dozens of TV specials. "That’s because you ain’t haven’t seen them there parts from this here angle," he leers, ogling her chest. Cue Patent Laugh Track Guffaws. This punch line is so lame that I can only assume it was originally meant to read "them there hills" rather than "them there parts," but it got toned down because it was so racy.

This goes on for a while, but I’ll spare you. It’s says something, though, that the comedy featured here is so bad that it almost has you wishing for another song. On the other hand, that’s sort of like a guy being eaten by army ants wishing a hungry lion would show up instead. In this case, of course, the fact is that we can expect both the army ants and the lion.

And sure enough, we soon segue to a montage of purportedly humorous gags accompanying the stars’ duet performance of the Beatles’ "Rocky Racoon." This features Hope in the guise of a number of cowboys, including a villain in (what else) black clothes and a big black mustache.

The heroic cowboy, meanwhile, is Mr. Hope dressed in a Daniel Boone buckskin jacket and raccoon cap. The hijinx here include Buckskin Bob blowing into his powder horn and then lying down in the dirt street and playing marbles. Because, you know, it’s funny. It must be, from the conniptions of the laugh track. For my part, however, it seemed like something from the worst episode of The Monkees ever.

Meanwhile, an appropriately costumed Ms. Welch does a simply excruciating Mae West impression. Presumably this was an homage to Ms. Welch’s co-star in the legendarily calamitous Myra Breckenridge, which had come out this same year. If so, she wasn’t doing Ms. West any favors.

The sets for the ‘story’ that accompanies the song are all abstract (and thus cheap, to boot), and the whole thing is awful beyond my humble ability to delineate. It’s a jaw-dropper, that’s for sure, and the fact that the whole thing runs quite nearly five interminable minutes doesn’t help much. There is an interesting contrast between the slyly satiric intent of the Beatles’ lyrics, however, being coupled with such hoary vaudeville shtick. Like Otto Preminger’s Skidoo, it’s a fascinating display of some old-timers desperately trying to seem ‘hip’ without having the vaguest idea of what ‘hip’ is.

Thankfully, this proves the show’s last act, and so we cut to Ms. Welch thanking us for watching. Then we get more ‘candid’ and wacky behind the scene footage, again accompanied by Ms. Welch’s performance of "The Games People Play." The best thing here is seeing clips from stuff that didn’t make it into the show. Heaven knows what this ‘not good enough’ material could have possibly been like.

Raquel!’ is available on DVD at a too pricey $20, so anyone wishing to seek it out may just wish to rent it from Netflix. I love this type of material, but there’s a lot of it sitting around in the various network vaults. I’d prefer to see a box set of assorted specials with the price per pop a little more reasonable. When Warners is offering scads of movie box sets featuring nine or ten movies and a profusion of extra features for around $40, twenty dollars for 45 minutes of even prime camp is a tad too dear.

Eventually, I expect that a lack of sales on this item will see the price drop to under $10, at which time I’ll probably pick it up.

 

 

 

 

The Mystery of the Red Orchid
a.k.a. Das Rätsel der roten Orchidee (1962)

 

No DVD company has yet laid claim to the West German ‘krimi’ movies of the’60s, but nevertheless they continue to trickle out. Public domain cheapie firm Alpha Video has a couple of them available, including The Phantom of Soho, with presentations about what you’d expect discs running three or four bucks. On the other end of the spectrum, the up and coming cult imprint Dark Skies has released a very nice and colorful edition of The College Girl Murders.

Somewhere in the middle is Fred Olen Ray’s company, Retromedia. Last year they released a non-spectacular yet serviceable double bill of the ‘60s remake of Dead Eyes of London and the non-krimi Barbara Steele flick The Ghost. Now they have followed up with a ‘Scream Theater’ twin feature of The Monster of London City and The Mystery of the Red Orchid.

Loosely adapted, as always, from the novels of Edgar Wallace, The Mystery of the Red Orchid is at best an average example of the breed, although it is entertaining enough. Standard krimi elements, such as a healthy serving of goofy plot twists hilariously bizarre dialogue are readily on display. Said comic dialogue, presumably, is the result of the English redubbing of German language films adapted from an Englishman’s books.

This one looks especially promising from the get-go, as it features krimi fixture Klaus Kinski, as well as a vacationing Christopher Lee. However, as buffs are aware, continental European film companies of the ‘60s typically shot the movies in German, and then whipped up an English language track for export prints after the shoot. Actors such as Lee generally considered this arrangement untenable, as in a way two separate performances were required—one on film, and a subsequent vocal one—for one acting fee.

Because of this, those actors prominent enough to get away with it refused to provide the English language vocal tracks, and this picture proves no exception. Sadly, therefore, the distinctive voices of both Kinski and Lee are noticeably absent from the English language dub, thus robbing us of much of the satisfaction their presence would normally provide. In a perfect world—and this is perhaps the lament of one spoiled by the better DVD companies—we’d get the German language tracks with English subtitling. This would allow us to enjoy hearing the actual voices of both Kinski and Lee. (The latter performed his lines in German during the shoot—I’d like to hear him speaking German with an American accent, actually.)

One of the sublime joys of these films, for me at least, is the laughably inauthentic ‘Britain’ in which the films are set. Here such matters are even more exaggerated, as the film actually begins in *ahem* "Chicago 1960." We open with a group of obvious gangsters—I mean, c’mon, it’s Chicago—having a card game in a hotel room. (This is all accompanied by one of the genre’s better trademarks, a jazzy score.) I have to say, I live in the suburbs of Chicago, and I found the architecture of the "Plaza Hotel" weirdly un-American.

The gangsters, members of "the O’Connor gang," are dressed and converse in a matter appropriate to a cheesy ‘30s Hollywood crime movie, all have gruff, cartoonish voices. Because, you know, they’re from Chicago. Following a mention of rival gangster Minelli, one fellow rasps, "Why isn’t ‘Gunner Steve’ here?" Another fellow, dubbed by an actor who sounds like he’s very vaguely doing John Wayne, quips, "He must have picked up a babe!" Wow, this American street argot is right on the nose!

Downstairs, we see the nattily dressed Gunner Steve (Kinski) approaching the hotel. However, he spots an arriving car, from which issues a party of Minelli’s men. Steve attempts to phone his comrades a warning, but it’s too late. Minelli’s men kick open the door and massacre them. (One of the killers is armed with a Schmeiser, that well known favorite submachine of the Chicago gangster set. What, they couldn’t dig up a prop Tommy Gun?)

We cut to a dockside cruise ship. Minelli is being deported, and is sent off by Captain Allerman of the FBI. Allerman is played by Lee, because of course when your primarily British-set film is being shot in West Germany, it only makes sense to import a prominent English actor to play an American. As noted, Lee’s voice is dubbed by an actor who doesn’t sound like him in the slightest. Noting that Italy is too small for him, Minelli vows to resettle elsewhere.

"London, one year later" a narrator informs us. A postman is delivering a letter to the house of Lord Arlington. He is met at the door by Parker, a woefully realized attempt at a P. G. Wodehouse sort of prissily comic sarcastic butler. Arlington asks Parker to read him the letter. This proves a blackmail note made up of (what else?) words clipped from an apparently wide array of newspapers and magazines, given the variety of fonts on exhibit. Parker’s recitation of the letter is supposedly humorous, although I only knew that because of the blaring ‘comedy’ music—waaaa-wha!—that accompanied his reading.

The note basically demands a huge sum, and threatens Arlington’s life should he not pay and/or contact the police. Arlington vows not to pay the money, and Parker concurs that there is no real danger. "In America, among the savages," he sniffs, "such a thing could happen. But among us in London, hmph." Following Parker’s advice, Arlington makes for Scotland Yard. Soon, however, he is found in his car outside the building, shot in the head and clutching the blackmail note.

We then cut to the home of the elderly Mr. Tanner, who is in his office with his incredibly hot secretary, Lillian. Soon Tanner’s friend Inspector Weston arrives. As is true of the heroes in all of these things, Weston is a bit of a skirthound, and obviously has an on-going flirtation thing going with Lillian. (Lucky him.) Weston’s arrival is followed by further painful hijinx involving Tanner’s absentmindedness. Weston also announces that he’s been transferred to the Yard’s Blackmail division.

At the Yard, Weston meets with Sir John (the head of Scotland Yard in all these movies) about the killing of Lord Arlington. "I can’t remember ever seeing such a vicious crime," another detective tuts. "No wonder," Weston replies, "they’re using American methods." Yeah, yeah. Continuing to theorize that the criminals are transported Americans, Weston suggests calling in his old friend Captain Allerman, who is coincidentally currently in London. Being all brash and stuff (to the annoyance of his stuffy colleague in the Blackmail squad), Weston has in fact already invited Allerman to the Yard, and now brings him inside.

Allerman looks at the note and pronounces it similar to the methods employed by the O’Connor crew, although he notes how O’Connor was killed, "blasted beyond all recognition." However, Gunner Steve is currently in London, as he has opened a tobacconist shop (!) there. Allerman soon drops by the store, where he and Gunner Steve warily dance around each other.

Meanwhile, they establish that Steve owns a talking Myna bird, which presumably will utter an important clue sometime later in the movie. [Future Ken: Nope. So why the bird?] Allerman produces a search warrant, intending to look for the scissors used to cut out the words from the newspapers (?!). Steve reacts by smirking, so Allerman doesn’t bother executing it. (So, an American was issued a warrant to search a British shop—and then doesn’t even bother to use it?) Again, it’s a real shame that the actors didn’t dub their performances for this, as it ruins a potentially very cool scene between Kinski and Lee.

We cut to Tanner’s house, where in a weird bit, the old man proposes to Lillian (who wouldn’t?) that they get married, and immediately. Tanner notes that he could die at any time, and wants to ensure her future, although he’s already made her his primary heir. Still, he has a nephew, and by getting married her claim to his estate would be unassailable. "What others may think…I don’t give a hoot!" he explains. Tanner has little regard for his nephew, telling Lillian, "While you’ve been taking care of me so well, he’s been chasing all over the world, looking for orchids." Ah, there you go. I foresee a particularly lethal orchid in our immediate future.

Then, proving that these films are expert at causing nearly unbearable audience unease, we find that Tanner’s new butler is none other than Odious Comic Relief Parker. I guess hoping we’d seen the back of him was too much. He comes bearing Tanner’s mail on a tray, and his crotchety employer ‘comically’ notes, "I don’t want my mail served to me on a plate, you fool!" In any case, Tanner’s sense of imminent death is confirmed when he, too, finds he has gotten a blackmail note. Like Arlington, he also refuses to pay.

Lillian alerts Weston at a café, hoping to avoid the killers finding out. They then discover they are being watched by a bearded man at another table. Rather than a member of the gang, however, this fellow proves, *sigh,* to be butler Parker in disguise. Waa-waa-waa! The comic butlers in these things often fancy themselves as amateur sleuths. (The actor playing Parker, Eddi Arent, appeared in a zillion of these Wallace adaptations, although in different roles. In 2002, a German TV network broadcast some new Edgar Wallace films, and Arent appeared in these as Sir John.)

Weston tells Lillian to keep Tanner inside, and that he’ll send over some men. Sure enough, two men show up and identify themselves as the cops, and although they sport suspicious accents, they are allowed inside. Out comes the Schmeiser (yeah, that would be inconspicuous under a coat) and Tanner is shot down before Lillian’s eyes. Being dastardly villains, moreover, they brutally leave Parker alive when they leave. Well, it was brutal for me, anyway.

That pretty much sets the stage, as myriad further deaths and horrible comic relief—aside from Parker, Minelli has a screechy wife with who he constantly bickers, etc.—and such follow.

The format of this film is different from most krimis, but in a clunky sense. Rather than there being a mysterious serial killer to uncover, this one basically functions (for most of the proceedings, anyway) as a gangster flick, as we eventually learn that both Minelli and O’Connor’s old crew are running parallel blackmailing networks. This leads to a gang war. More humorously, despite mention being made of how lucrative all this is, we never actually see anyone paying the blackmailers, but instead watch as a long line of blackmailees are bumped off, one after the other.

In the end, the ‘mystery’ is as to who is now running the O’Connor gang. A plethora of suspects are provided, including the orchid hunting nephew, Gunner Steve, and Allerman. I haven’t watched the rest of the movie yet (as I write this), but the latter is the most obvious suspect, in that he’s the least ‘obvious.’

Of course, the title of the movie suggests that it’s the suave nephew (as he’s the only one involved with orchids, which really have nothing to do with anything), so it would be pretty funny if it was. The fact that he represents a romantic rival for Weston implies that he’ll either become another victim or prove the murderer in any case.

Meanwhile, one prospective victim after another hires Parker to be their butler. You’d think after a while he’d get a reputation as a jinx. And that’s aside from his dubious skills at comedy. [Future Ken: In fact, he does gain such a reputation, as we eventually hear Parker whine that he’s now known as the "Death Butler." Even so, he still ends up getting hired again and again.]

After all the set-up, you just wait for the particularly funny moments, such as during the reading of the will when Lillian is announced to be Tanner’s sole heir and she gasps, "I don’t believe it!" I mean, other than having had Tanner tell her himself that this was the case, how would she have known?!

Somewhere in the middle, the film takes an unfortunate turn towards intentional comedy (which means, of course, that this section of the film is significantly less funny than the serious parts), before returning to a more suspenseful tone towards the end. Meanwhile, there are a few baroque deaths, of the sort that define the krimi genre, but in the end the gangster stuff just doesn’t mesh well with the genre’s normal concerns.

Mystery of the Red Orchids is ultimately a middling krimi—especially with neither Lee nor Kinski being used to full effect—and those new to such things should probably dip their toe in elsewhere, perhaps with The Phantom of Soho or The College Girl Murders. Still, it’s an entertaining enough lark to justify a rental.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tombs of the Blind Dead
(1971)

 

I’ve seen one or two of Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead series in the past, via some edited, dubbed, non-letterboxed, crappy EP-speed VHS tapes. Now, thanks to the good folks at Anchor Bay, I was able to rent the first of the four films, Tombs of the Blind Dead. Released as part of a five disc set, contained in a box shaped like a coffin, the DVD presents the film in all its widescreen glory, uncut and in its original language. And so now I feel fully qualified to say….they made four of these?

OK, maybe it’s not that surprising. I mean, I think there have been six or seven Leprechaun movies by now. And compared to any of those, La Noche Del Terror Ciego is a veritable classic. And it must be said that the Blind Dead themselves are pretty eerie and more than capable of inspiring a certain frisson. How unfortunate, then, that the overall film is so bleeding lethargic.

We open* with a white haired woman screaming in terror, and then quickly cut to a luxury seaside hotel in Lisbon. There, former boarding school chums Beth and Virginia meet by chance out by the swimming pool. (Which…just coincidentally, I'm sure…allows for our heroines to first be seen in some skimpy bikinis.) Virginia seems happy enough with the reunion initially—she, in fact, spots Beth first and calls to her—but quickly exhibits a more reticent expression when Virginia makes reference to their past together.

[*I’m reviewing the longer, original Spanish language cut of the movie, and thus relying on the DVD’s English subtitles. The disc also features the shorter, somewhat re-shuffled American cut of the movie. In most cases my preferences lean towards the original cuts of films. However, I will say that the fifteen minutes clipped from the Spanish cut definitely keeps the American version from dragging as much. Nonetheless, the English subtitles reveal that the American cut alters and simplifies a lot of the original movie’s character subtleties, such as they were.]

They quickly catch up. From what I can figure, Beth hails from Lisbon, while Virginia has just moved there recently and opened a business, which is making fashion mannequins. "Are you familiar with the Montreal warehouse in the outskirts?" she asks. "Next to the morgue?" Beth shudders. I have to admit, although European cities tend to be more intimate than American ones, I found it amusing that one would not only be expected to be acquainted with a specific warehouse on the edge of town, but would in fact be able to correlate its proximity to the town morgue.

Things aren’t helped when Beth introduces her boyfriend, rugged interior designer Roger. (His extremely ‘70s robe, sporting a huge collar and giant blue polka dots, remains easily the most horrifying thing in the movie.) Despite the fact that she had referred to their relationship as being "not serious"—a view he clearly shares—Beth becomes visibly jealous when he immediately evinces a strong attraction towards Virginia. He thus importunes Beth to join them on their planned camping trip to the country. Virginia tries to nix this idea, but Roger is adamant, and Beth ends up agreeing.

They meet up at the train station. Once aboard, Roger continues to flirt with Beth, causing an increasingly irate Virginia to stalk to the end of the car. Beth joins her, and we get a pretty sedate flashback, by today’s standards, anyway, revealing what has become obvious, that in school Beth kind of took sexual advantage of the younger, obviously naïve Virginia. (A comical note is struck by the flashback, however, by dint of the woefully unconvincing attempts to make the actresses look like younger versions of themselves.) Beth, we infer, has moved to Lisbon partly in the hopes of hooking back up with Virginia, but it’s clear the latter does not look back on things as fondly.
 


Beth returns to the car, and the agitated Virginia grabs her sleeping bag and jumps off the slow-moving train. The young conductor sees this and pleads with his engineer father to stop. The latter mutters darkly that she doesn’t know what she is getting into and continues on.

Virginia heads towards the nearby village of Berzano, but it proves to be long deserted. Long story short, she eventually beds down for the night. Eventually a ghostly church bell is heard, and perhaps a dozen of the titular Blind Dead rise from the village graveyard. They are Crusader-robed, skeletal figures who shuffle along in traditional zombie fashion. In this case, though, it is because they lack eyes. Which, you know, you may have figured out from the title.

They do, however, have horses. (??) These are in shrouds, and I don’t know if they are supposed to be zombie horses. My guess is yes, but that they couldn’t remotely pull off the special effects for something like that. In any case, after spending a good amount of time slooowly backing away from her undead pursuers, and running away only to pause and wait whenever she gets too far ahead of them, Virginia manages to jump atop one of their horses and ride away on it. (!!!!) However, the Dead follow along after her, and she eventually falls to their swords.

At this point the film takes a long and very weird diversion. Virginia’s mutilated body is taken to the Lisbon morgue for an autopsy. There Beth and Roger identify the body, to the grins of a very weird attendant who exhibits broad delight at the horror of his visitors. They leave, and for no apparent reason whatsoever, Virginia’s body, complete with autopsy scars, reanimates and kills the attendant. Here we do get a very nice and typically European visual, as the attendant’s pet frog is seen jumping around a pool of his owner’s blood.

As Beth and Roger continue to investigate Virginia’s death, their living dead friend is stalking Beth’s assistant at the manikin warehouse. (In a nice touch, the woman looks vaguely like Virginia. Although there’s nothing overt to suggest such a thing, we have to wonder if she and Beth are lovers.)

Living Dead Virginia lurks among the hanging manikins, because that’s all spooky and such. Meanwhile, a previously, if lamely, established neon sign bathes the storeroom with an intermittent red glow. Eventually, following a typically dragged out suspense sequence, the woman manages to set LD Virginia ablaze. Shockingly, the reanimated Virginia shrieks in agony as she’s consumed, which is sort of weird for a zombie. Assuming that’s what she was.

For their part, Roger and Beth find the Obligatory Academic who fills them in on the legend of the Blind Dead. They are the corpses of the storied Templar Knights, who returned from the Crusades with forbidden knowledge. Abandoning the Catholic Church (presumably this struck the film’s native Spanish audience as a bigger deal), they performed black magic rites, involving the slaughter of virgins—I must say, for the Middle Ages, the ‘virgin’ we see is surprisingly clean, fit and voluptuous (and, frankly, for the time period a little old)—and the subsequent drinking of their blood. In this they sought immortality, but eventually the Church caught up with them. The knights were hanged, and birds pecked out their eyes.

In an amazing coincidence, the detectives investigating Virginia’s murder show up and lay the crime at the feet of the Professor’s son Pedro, who just happens to be a small time smuggler whose gang lives in the area where she was killed. Their idea is that Albert is trying to use the legends of the Templar Knights to scare away visitors, a theory the detectives presumably formulated after watching an episode of Scooby Doo, Where Are You?

In the end, Beth, Roger, Pedro (who suffers from instant and copious sweat stains whenever he dons a shirt) and his slutty moll investigate the village, with predictable results. This payoff sequence isn’t bad, although it still involves a lot of characters very slowly backing away from the Blind Dead instead of just beating feet. The (comparatively) famous climax is surprisingly apocalyptic. And if the special effects used to realize the carnage are not going to cause Tom Savini to lose any sleep, like many European films things are a bit more hardhearted than they might have been in an American movie.

The Blind Dead, who though sightless can track their victims with an exaggerated sense of hearing, are admittedly a compelling and original creation. However, the series has a well remarked upon tendency towards lassitude. I’m not exactly someone who demands constant jolts from my horror movies, and in fact my tastes run towards mood and sustained suspense rather than bloodshed. Still, there’s a difference between establishing a spooky ambiance and just dragging things out, and that difference is well illustrated here. And from what I’m told, the pace doesn’t pick up any in the subsequent chapters.

The most evident indication of the film’s narrative lumpiness is its entire middle section, which features the weirdly unconnected and utterly unmotivated storyline involving Virginia becoming a murderous zombie. None of the other victims of the Dead come back to life in such a fashion, and the whole thing smacks of a desperate attempt to pad out the running time between the two major appearances of the Blind Dead. Indeed, after the attack on Virginia, the Dead are offscreen for over 40 minutes, although their final rampage is nice and long.

The mixing of sex with violence, while hardly a fault on this movie alone, is nonetheless a bit off putting. The ‘young’ Beth molests a marginally complacent Virginia in a scene that would probably seem more like borderline date rape were she a man, and Beth herself is later raped by Pedro, an act which is inevitably used as an excuse to expose the actress’ boobs for our edification.

In the end, the film is well made, with decent production values, and is certainly watchable if you can get past its essential languor. Still, it seems a lot longer than its near hour and forty minutes, and if the American version is simplified and pares down the gore and sexuality (the lesbian flashback is cut so short that it might have been actively confusing to the picture’s drive-in patrons), at least it hacks out a good fifteen minutes of pointless wandering around.

The disc features some slight but enjoyable extras, which can be accessed from the American version menu. (In a not especially ergonomic move, once you choose either the American or Spanish cut, you can’t get to the other version’s menu without restarting the DVD entirely.) The most hilarious of these is a short spoken prologue that attempts to link the movie with the then popular Planet of the Ape series. If this is a parody, it’s a brilliant one, because as insane as it is, it really isn’t much weirder than the ridiculous tagged-on prologue that turned a dubbed Paul Naschy werewolf movie into, as it was known here, Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror.

A title card reads "A cut version of Tombs of the Blind Dead was released in the U.S. under the title Revenge From Planet Ape in an effort to capitalize on the on the success of Planet of the Apes. The following prologue was added to make a dubious connection between the two films. It’s an excellent example of the lengths fly-by-night drive-in distributors would go to in order to exploit the film."

Then we get the revised opening, which includes some ludicrous narration over the opening credit footage. This asserts that "almost three thousands years ago," Man battled a society of "super-intelligent apes" for mastery of the Earth. Mankind won, and tortured the last remaining super-apes to death, by "piercing their eyes with a red hot poker." In response, the leader of the apes vowed to return from the dead and wreak their revenge on mankind, "before Man destroyed Earth himself." One can only assume that this outrageous idea was inspired by the fact that the sunken, noseless but bearded faces of the Blind Dead look very slightly simian in nature.

Again, this might be a bit of mischief on the part of the DVD makers, but if so, it’s a perfect piece of satire, in that it’s on the one hand utterly insane, and on the other quite believable.

Aside from the American trailer, we also get a gallary of fun print material, including promotional stills, posters and lobby cards from several countries and American newspaper ads. It’s quite humorous to see ads for Tombs of the Blind Dead alongside ones for such films as Billy Jack, The Sound of Music and the musical 1776. Notably, Tombs of the Blind Dead was apparently often double billed with the much harder Twitch of the Death Nerve, a Mario Bava movie that prefigured the slasher films of the ‘80s.

Also worth a look are the advertising flyers scream that the movie "MAKES NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD LOOK LIKE A KIDS’ PAJAMA PARTY!" and "MAKES MARK OF THE DEVIL [a quite gruesome film] LOOK LIKE A FAIRY TALE!" Hilariously, some of these flyers at the same time note not only the cut American version’s PG rating, but the line, "CHILDREN ADMITTED $1.00 ALL TIMES"! Even so, we also get to see the promotional customized ‘stomach distress bags’ that were handed out in an attempt to persuade potential viewers that the bowdlerized was hot stuff. Featuring advertising art from the movie, this warns "This VOMIT BAG and the PRICE of one ADMISSION will enable YOU to SEE…TOMB [sic!] OF THE BLIND DEAD MOST HORRIFYING FILM EVER MADE". (Ellipsis in the original.) The American materials, by the way, name the film simply The Blind Dead.

 

 

 

 

 

Ultimate Avengers
(2006)

 

 

Precautionary Note: The Geek Speak gets a little thick here, as I’ll be discussing several separate versions of a number of superheroes. For instance, there is:

  • The Captain America (and Iron Man, and Thor, etc.) of the regular Marvel Comics continuity. The Marvel Universe as we know it began in the early ‘60s with the first issue of the Fantastic Four. Soon it incorporated defunct characters from WWII era comics, such as Captain America and Namor the Submariner.

  • The Captain America of the discrete and more adult themed Ultimates universe, which was created several years ago. See below for more details.

  • The Cap of this movie, who is more or less a combination of the two.

  • In referring to these various versions, I’ll use the following prefixes: ‘RC’ for the ‘regular continuity,’ ‘UU’ for the Ultimates Universe, and ‘UA’ for the Ultimate Avengers movie version. If reading this has given you a headache, you might want to give this review a pass.

     

     

    It’s old news for the comic geek community, but a while ago Marvel hooked up with film distributor Lion’s Gate to produce a series of animated DTV movies based on the Marvel line-up. Ultimate Avengers is the first of these, with the remaining films due on more or less a quarterly basis. The RC Iron Man and Dr. Strange are supposedly coming soon, along with a second Ultimate Avengers movie.

    Such arrangements are a bit more problematic for Marvel than for its traditional rival DC Comics, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Warner Brothers media conglomerate. Since Marvel isn’t owned by a film studio, they’ve tended over the years to sell off the movie rights to their characters piecemeal. So Sony owns the movie rights to Spider-Man, another studio has Daredevil, another the Fantastic Four, etc.

    Of course, now that Marvel is going down this route, they can start reserving the rights to putting their characters in animated films, or something along those lines. However, as I understand it, the reason they were able to feature the entire roster of classic Avengers in this movie is because the film features the "Ultimate" Avengers. Apparently the Ultimates represent a legally discrete entity, and so Marvel has retained the film rights to the UU Cap, Hulk, Thor, and so on, even if the rights to the traditional versions of the characters are currently owned by a variety of studios.

    The Ultimate Universe, which has been around for maybe five or six years, is a self-contained and more adult-themed variation on the traditional Marvel universe. Aside from more sophisticated writing, it allowed writers to restart continuity from the beginning, and clear out forty-plus years of often deadweight plot occurrences. Thus Ultimate Spider-Man began afresh with a youthful Peter Parker being bitten by that radioactive spider. In this way they were able to pick and reinterpret the better parts of the traditional continuity, while dumping the more embarrassing ones.

    For instance, for several years the Peter Parker / Spider-Man featured in the regular universe books, readers eventually were told, was in fact a clone of the original Spider-Man. This lame device was akin to the time that a new season of the TV show Dallas began with the viewers being summarily informed that the entire previous season, one generally considered to be quite dreadful, had been in a fact a dream.

    This general problem issue has been a continuing issue for both Marvel and DC, and both companies have taken recurring and increasingly awkward steps to restart continuity in their regular universes. In fact, such revamps have become such a perennial event that it this sort of thing has been dubbed ‘retconning,’ for attempts to retroactively clear up especially problematic, conflicting or simply dumb pieces of continuity.

    In any case, this movie is again a retelling, but with a different emphasis, of the origin of The Avengers. Created back in 1964, the Avengers originally featured a ‘greatest heroes’ team that represented Marvel’s answer to DC’s Justice League of America. The team was subject to regular line-up changes, however, and by this point in time literally hundreds of Marvel superheroes (and more than a few villains) have been Avengers at one point or other.

    Our subject movie today, meanwhile, features not the traditional nor Ultimate version of the team, but rather an amalgam of the two. Ultimate Avengers proves an apt title, as the more hard-edged Ultimates are merged a bit with their RC counterparts. This allows the Ultimate’s probably R rating-worthy adventures to be softened down to a more family friendly PG-13.

    Thus the Ultimate Avengers Henry Pym, a.k.a. Giant Man, is a hotheaded jerk often seen arguing with his wife Janet, the Wasp. In The Ultimates comic books, meanwhile, Pym is literally physically abusive towards her, and at one point nearly kills her.

    The film opens during World War II, as Captain America joins a battalion of paratroopers they prepare to assault a heavily fortified Nazi fortress. Per the comics (and when I say this I’m referring to the Ultimates continuity, unless I say otherwise—sorry, I realize how confusing this must be for the non-geek), Cap’s uniform is more realistically military-oriented, with a traditional GI helmet in place of a cowl, for instance. However, in the movie he doesn’t carry a submachine gun, as he did in The Ultimates comics during the war flashbacks.

    I mean, c’mon, he was fighting the Nazis. The Ultimates Cap, it should be said, is a lot more hard edged than the regular continuity Cap, as the latter has been written since the early ‘60s.* (Although, it should be said, the Ultimates Cap is more in line with the way the character was originally presented back in the ‘40s, when the country was actually at war and a little jingoism was expected.) The Cap in the movie, however, is more along the lines of the regular version. This doesn’t cripple things, but is the first indication that the movie will be a bit more conventional and soft-toned than the Ultimates comics.

     

    [*The beauty of the revised Ultimates Cap is that although he’s been given a more realistic ‘40s sensibility, i.e., he’s more forthrightly jingoistic, and more confident in employing an appropriate level of violence—a John Wayne Captain America, as opposed to a Tom Cruise one—he’s still recognizably Cap. Thankfully, they’ve avoided painting him as a racist or a fascist. He’s still the one guy all the other heroes look up to.

    In my favorite Ultimates Captain American moment, he’s just barely holding back a terrified, very young but very powerful Spider-Man. Peter has been blackmailed into fighting alongside a group of supervillains who have discovered his identity and kidnapped his beloved Aunt May.

    However, she’s been rescued, as Cap informs Spider-Man in the middle of a major donnybrook between the Ultimates and the villains. An emotionally exhausted Peter, who obviously has been in some distress over this whole episode, shakily asks something like, "Really? I mean, is she really safe?" Cap just looks at him and softly says, "Son."

    If you know the character, what he’s really saying is, "Hey, kid, I’m Captain America. You’re not really asking me if I’m lying, are you?" That’s great writing, and I love the fact that the author trusted us to get what was going on without spelling it out. The Cap of few words is a lot more intuitively correct one.]
     

    On the other hand, the Ultimate Cap has been amped up a bit, power-wise. The RC Cap isn’t super-powered, but instead sort of a maximized human being. He’s as strong, fast, agile, etc., as a human is capable of being. However, to tie the characters together, the Ultimate universe Bruce Banner has become the Hulk (and a rather more murderous version of the character) in the course of trying to re-create the Super Soldier serum that turned a spindly polio victim named Steve Rogers into Captain America. Banner cut some corners, experimented on himself and…oops.

    In order to justify the de-gammafied UU Hulk’s incredible strength, the Super Soldier serum in the Ultimates Universe did in fact bestow superpowers upon Cap. I don’t know if they’ve ever quantified them, but I’d say the Ultimates Cap is nearly as strong and tough as, say, Spider-Man. This serves to allow Cap to trade blows with and actually survive being hit by the vastly more powerful Hulk, which otherwise is a fairly problematic issue. Although the UA Cap is in personality more like the RC version, he apparently retains the power levels and partial invulnerability of the UU one. (Seriously, did anybody follow that?)

    [Proofreader and comic book buff extraordinaire Carl Fink points out that at various short junctures in the Regular Universe continuity, Cap has been awarded superstrength. However, like when a hero's familiar costume is suddenly changed for now real reason, this was generally done by hack seeking to do "something new" with the character.  In these cases, the superstrength seemed entirely beside the point. In the Ultimates Universe, however, Cap's enhanced strength works because it has a reason. In a more 'realistic' universe, any character trading blows with the Hulk has to be at least somewhat stronger than human. As well, the UA Cap's heightened strength never supersedes who he is as a character, as it tended to do in the Regular Continuity. In those books he tended to just be another guy who could lift up a car.]

    Anyway, back to the movie, where Cap and some dog faces are preparing to assault that Nazi stronghold. Although one embittered G.I. sarcastically refers to Cap as "that poster boy," and considers him a fraud who "is gonna die just like the rest of us," he changes his tune when Cap smashes a plane into the fortress, clearing the way for the troops to successfully rush the place.

    Inside, Cap is shocked to learn that the nuclear missile the Nazis are preparing to fire is surrounded by some rather vicious looking green aliens, the Chitauri. Cap begins to fight an old Nazi foe, who himself proves to be a shapeshifting alien. The missile is fired, but Cap rides along with it. He manages to destroy the missile, but is thrown into the frigid ocean far below, presumably dead.

    With a short 68 minute running time, we move right on. It’s the modern day, and a futuristic sub is searching an underwater ice field. In command is General Nick Fury, the spymaster behind SHIELD, sort of a James Bond, top secret Homeland Security department / military branch. In the Ultimate Universe Fury sort of ties all the books together, and—as Peter Parker learned to his chagrin—in performing his job has uncovered the secret identity of most of the Ultimate superheroes*. One big difference in the Ultimate Universe is that the Avengers are formed by the government, and overseen by Fury.

    [* There’s no indication one way or the other as to whether Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, etc., exist in the UA movie universe. I’m assuming they do, but this isn’t established.]

    With Fury is scientist Betty Ross, the former girlfriend and current colleague of Bruce Banner. Their quest is quickly successful, as they discover the frozen corpse of Captain America. With this, they hope to finally crack the secret of the Super Soldiers formula. Back at headquarters, Banner is ecstatic. This version of Banner is a lot grungier than the normal one, probably due to the fact that he’s kept continuously drugged and imprisoned following an earlier, elliptically referred to rampage as the Hulk. Banner is obsessed with recreating the Super Soldier serum, both to save his reputation and, more unrealistically, to help win back Betty.

    Cap’s body is soon defrosted. However, it turns out that he’s not dead after all, but has been in a state of suspended animation. He fights his way out of the heavily secured facility, only to be disoriented by a New York cityscape far different than that he knew. Obviously adrift in the present day, he accepts Fury’s offer to join SHIELD.

    Meanwhile, the Chitauri have raised their heads again, and appear to be attempting to take over the world, directly this time. To cope with this threat, a reluctant Fury is ordered to assemble a team of the world’s known superheroes, including Iron Man (secretly billionaire industrialist and playboy Tony Stark); a Scandinavian who has declared himself to be Thor, the Norse god of storms; and Henry and Janet Pym, who respectively grows and shrinks as Giant Man and the Wasp. Also on hand is the beauteous Black Widow, Fury’s right hand and a former Soviet superspy.*

    [*Those who find the Widow’s fighting skills a bit exaggerated might want to give things a closer look. At one point Banner mentions there being twelve subjects for his Super Soldier serum experiments. Their faces appear on a nearby computer monitor, and if you look closely, one of them appears to be the Widow. So possibly she’s had her skills and physical capabilities augmented by the experiments, if not, presumably, to Captain America-type levels.]

    I don’t want to get into much more than that, plot wise. However, before things are over, we get a pretty fabulous battle between the Avengers and the Chitauri, followed by the team taking on a homicidally berserk Hulk. As a comic geek, I’ve got to say that this climatic part of the film is terrific stuff.

    The animation is about at a really good TV series level. I wouldn’t quite put it up against Batman: The Animated Series, which perhaps remains the benchmark for superhero cartoons, but it’s more than adequate.

    However, there are problematic elements. During most scenes, things like the motion of people walking look awkward. It seems likely that they reduced the frame rate (i.e., how many animated cells per second) for some scenes, so that they could pour more money and care into the big action sequences. Given their presumably limited budget, this was probably the correct decision. In a perfect world, however, this initial film will make enough money to allow for further improvements on the movies yet to come.

    The writing is good, but due to the short running time, things are kind of rushed. (On the other hand, it never hurts to leave people wanting more.) Cap is definitely the main character, and much of the characterization time goes to him and his attempts to find a place for himself in a world he can barely comprehend. His attempts to forge a cantankerous and often hot headed bunch of individuals into a team are also pretty well realized.

    Bruce Banner also gets a decent amount of time. There’s a quietly humorous scene where Cap stumbles across Banner’s work space, which is veritable shrine to Captain America. Banner unconvincingly attempts to pass this off as merely necessary to his work. However, it’s a good fix on Banner as a character. As a brilliant but scrawny, oft-bullied dweeb his entire life, who would Banner be more likely to idealize than national icon Captain America, a prototypical 98-pound weakling transformed by science into the pinnacle of physical perfection?

    Geeks, meanwhile, will also dig stuff like Fury presenting Cap with his trademark round shield, which here is indestructible because it’s been forged from Chitauri metal. Another fabulous sequence is the fight between Thor and the Hulk. You’ll know you’re a real nerd if, like me, you react with a big "Whoa!" at one particular part of this. Cap’s running interference with the Hulk to keep him from murdering his teammates is also great stuff, even if, unlike the Ultimate Cap of the comics, this Cap refrains from kicking the Hulk in the nuts.

    Everyone else sort of gets short shift. The Thor of the Ultimates comics is a Euro-style socialist and environmental activist, and altogether suspicious of American hegemony. Thus, at least in the comics, he doesn’t join the team, but instead fights alongside them when and as he chooses. (In the comics’ analogue battle with the Hulk, we only jumps in after blackmailing Washington into double America’s foreign aid budget.)

    Here Thor is instead a more hedonistic, sometimes comical figure, although we do see him confronting a whaling ship. The question of whether he really is a demigod, or instead just a super-powered nut, is a somewhat major issue in the Ultimates comics, but touched upon only briefly here. (This bit is actually taken from the original RC Avengers comics back in the ‘60s, since those Avengers, especially Iron Man, found Thor’s claims of semi-divinity to be a bit much.) From a preview included on the disc, it appears that Thor’s background will come more into play in the next Ultimate Avengers movie.

    For his part, Tony Stark is a playboy and nobody’s fool, and his alcoholism is hinted at but not directly established. (Meanwhile, a major plot about him in the comics isn’t mentioned here at all.) Hank Pym is, as noted before, a hot headed jerk prone to impulsiveness—a combination which doesn’t serve him well when he confronts the Hulk—who is insanely jealous regarding his long-suffering wife, the Wasp. As in the Ultimates comics, she is Asian, although she also has some secrets in the comics that don’t come into play here.
     


    Overall, the movie is solid if not spectacular, although still superior to most comic book adaptations. The writing is quite good, although not as provocative as that found in the Ultimates comic books. The animation ranges from serviceable to really quite decent. Ultimate Avengers definitely raises my hopes for the rest of the movies. Only time will tell whether it remains the best of the lot or instead, as you’d hope, continues to be improved upon.



     

    And lo, let readers give thanks
    to Jabootu Proofreaders

    Carl Fink
    &
    Bill Leary


    for their heroic efforts to make
    my text less headache inducing.





    -by Ken Begg