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Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Sci-Fi Boys and The Naked Monster

Director John Landis describes the Sci-Fi Boys as skinny little geek kids who were always wanting to make films when they were in school. Landis includes Steven Spielberg and George Lucas among this group, and judging by their current position, we’d have to concede that geekdom might not be an altogether bad thing. Surely it’s apparent that the geeks have taken over Hollywood, but that isn’t news. They’ve been in control for nearly thirty years, and you wonder if there’ll ever be an end to these multi-million dollar walks down memory lane. Seems Landis and his contemporaries really just want to pay homage to the pioneer monster-makers that influenced their childhoods, but yipes, this has been going on decades now --- what happens when future generations start paying their homage to these homage payers? Will the customers still be willing to pay? Recent erosion at the boxoffice would suggest a need for something new, but what can fans-to-filmmakers do but recycle? The Sci-Fi Boys is a DVD documentary that addresses the impact of fanta-pioneers (hey, have I just invented a new genre by-word?). Ackerman is chief among these, but there’s also Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury, and the late George Pal. Somehow Landis made the biggest impression on me. He’s the only interview subject wearing a suit. The others are casual, sometimes ultra-so. I guess that’s what happens when the geeks take over.

Ackerman used to wear suits too, back
when he was trying to gain mainstream respect for a movie genre critics had been blowing off for years. During the sixties in particular, FJA was a lone ambassador for the serious appreciation of science-fiction and horror, but all the thanks he got was in the form of letters written in ten-year old scrawl (mine included!). Those dark jackets and narrow ties were reassurance for the mothers of America that this was no disheveled pied piper leading their children to wreck and ruin. In fact, Ackerman cut a dashing figure and was similar in appearance if not temperament to another mustachioed notable, Vincent Price. The Ackerman images shown here illustrate the transition he made as the genre he championed gained in approval. On top, we see FJA delivering a scholarly overview of sci-fi’s history in an interview that was shot in 1970 (it’s an extra on the DVD). This well-groomed, professorial figure is determined to get respect for his passion, and despite his sometimes-pompous declamations; you really root for him to pull it off. As we now know, Ackerman’s vindication was still several years in the offing, but when it came, it was glorious. Within a decade, he’d go from a jack to a king. The bottom capture shows Ackerman after his side has won. It’s 1983, and he’s appearing on a talk segment commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of King Kong. Nobody (but FJA and his followers) cared less when Kong was thirty, or even forty, but this was a new day, a post- Star Wars day, and now Ackerman was riding high on a boxoffice rocket he and his magazine had helped launch. Endorsements from the very filmmakers responsible for these genre leviathans gave him cultural capital he'd not dreamed of when he did that 1970 interview. No more button-down for him --- open collars and leisure suits from now on! Forrest J. Ackerman is eighty-nine, going on ninety in November, and indisputably the grand old man of fandom. He collects honors the way his followers collect old Famous Monsters magazines, and The Sci-Fi Boys is a fitting and enjoyable tribute. It would be great to see him reach 100 and be feted again.

The Naked Monster is another of those homages, but this one’s different in that it spoofs sci-fi relics on one hand and pays tribute to their surviving cast members with the other (here's a still montage). Most of it was shot around 1984 when Airplane and its imitators were making fair game of old movie conventions, and scattershot parody was gaining ground as the fresh new formula for screen comedy. Now it’s twenty years later and this sort of humor’s been pretty much strip-mined, but producer-writer and co-director Ted Newsom has a real knack for the essential absurdity of his low-budget sci-fi prototypes, and laughs he gets are all the more impressive in view of the fact he shot this on Super 8mm (including video inserts) within a budget equivalent to contents of a very small piggy bank. Stock footage and library music was used. I really liked the overlay of familiar themes throughout, and fans can have themselves a visual Scrabble game trying to ID familiar shots from various trailers and public domain features. A real treat here is the parade of hallowed names from the fifties. Kenneth Tobey leads off, and there are cameos from John Agar, Lori Nelson, Gloria Talbott, and many others. Some of them don’t even appear to have left the house. Talbott does a telephone scene beneath a portrait of herself as a long ago ingenue. She would have been an interesting person to talk to, though for every one question she ever got about All That Heaven Allows or We’re No Angels, there must have been a hundred about I Married A Monster From Outer Space and The Cyclops. Newsom does a nice epilogue salute to these veteran players, most of whom have since passed on. Those who are still with us include leading lady Brinke Stevens and Linnea Quigley, two names familiar to me by virtue of each having appeared in close to a hundred low-budget horrors. These are staggering numbers compared with the comparatively few genre ventures their fifties forebears took on. Will Brinke (51) and Linnea (48) be called out of retirement someday for guest roles in some future fan homage to Cheerleader Massacre or Beach Babes From Beyond? It could be sooner than we think, as these two actresses have been around since at least the mid-seventies (you can get The Naked Monster HERE).


Blogger East Side said...

I never met any other "Famous Monsters of Filmland" readers 'til I was in my 20s. I guess we were all hiding when we were kids.

I attended Forry's memorbillia auction in New York in the '80s and got to pose for a picture with him -- taken with my 3-D camera. Not only did I get to buy some of his posters (at ridiculously low prices), my catalogue was autographed by Forry, Tom Savini, Zacherly and, of all people, Kenneth Anger (who looked like he could've been on a Rotary bowling team).

5:25 PM  

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