Lucy (2014), directed by Luc Besson

Lucy_(2014_film)_poster♦♦

Based on an idea that amuses neuroscientists — that human beings use only ten percent of their brain — this violent fantasy follows Scarlett Johansson as Lucy, a student forced by a Korean drug lord (Choi Min-sik) to carry a new narcotic in her abdomen that, when it is accidentally released into her system, begins to awaken the supposedly dormant 90% of her gray matter.  Along with her ever-increasing powers of the mind comes the knowledge that she will soon die if she doesn’t get more of the drug, a mission the drug lord is determined to thwart.  Besson includes a few funny metaphorical asides by way of cuts to the animal kingdom, which, along with the gun-play and car crashes, are meant to divert us from the absurdity of the characters and story.  Morgan Freeman, for instance, plays a scientist whose childish daydreams of expanded brain-use are treated as respectable scientific theories; meanwhile, Lucy’s incredible new intelligence includes a convenient black hole in the area of her battle with the drug lord.  Lucy’s self-absorption is understandable, but her amoral anarchism is not.  For mavens of mayhem only.

Hell House (1971) by Richard Matheson

HellHouse♦♦♦♦

When physicist Lionel Barrett asks for a list of phenomena observed in the Belasco house, popularly known as Hell House, it contains about a hundred alphabetical entries, of which the following are the P’s:

“…Paraffin molds; Parakinesis; Paramnesia; Paresthesia; Percussion; Phantasmata; Poltergeist phenomena; Possession; Precognition; Presentiment; Prevision; Pseudopods; Psychic photography; Psychic rods; Psychic sounds; Psychic touches; Psychic winds; Psychokinesis; Psychometry…”

This is, clearly, one badass house. Barrett is the nominal leader of a small group of investigators hired by Rolf Deutsch, its dying owner, whose mission is to establish conclusively whether or not there is survival after death. Barrett doesn’t think so; Florence Tanner, a mental medium, disagrees; and Ben Fisher, a physical medium and the only sane survivor of a previous investigation years before, agrees with Florence — but he’s there less to prove anything to Deutsch than to avenge his previous failure. Edith, Barrett’s seemingly timid wife, is along for the ride.

It’s a wild ride, to be sure. This is not a book that skimps on its supernatural manifestations. Spirit guides, poltergeist activity, possession, teleplasmic extrusions — the list, like the one Barrett receives at the beginning of the book, goes on and on. You want action? You’ve found it.

To Matheson’s credit, it isn’t, however, mindless mayhem. He doesn’t toss a ghost in the house and figure anything goes. Matheson weaves together the personalities of his investigators with the sordid history of the Belasco house to create a believable framework for all the insanity.

Belasco, we learn early, was a man pulled from the pages of something by the Marquis de Sade. He established his house as a haven for depravity, debauchery, and criminality. Torturers and victims alike were tormented beyond endurance; any or all of them could be haunting the house.  Indeed, when the house was finally opened by police, everyone (except Belasco himself) was found dead.

Capturing particular psychologies isn’t one of Matheson’s gifts, but he’s more effective with personalities. Miss Tanner, the touchy-feely spiritualist, sees the house as a groundbreaking case of multiple haunting. She believes she is contacted by one of the spirits, a man not as cruel as the others who desperately wants to be free. She, of course, is desperate to help him. Fisher, remembering his earlier experience, advises her not to open up so much to the forces in the house, but then he is afraid to open up at all. Barrett, meanwhile, has his own ideas about all of this, and spends much of his time constructing a machine that he says will neutralize the house in a matter of minutes. Edith, as an “outsider,” is caught between the confidence of her husband and the evidence of her own eyes. Each of the characters gets more than one nasty surprise as the story progresses.

One of the unusual aspects of this story is that all of Matheson’s characters are good, intelligent people, doing their best in their own ways to deal with the house, and none of them is entirely right or wrong. It’s true that the final revelation is, psychologically, weak, but otherwise the story has a satisfying resolution.

And the build-up is very good, establishing the characters and their internal conflicts, as well as the house itself, which includes a spooky steam room and a profane chapel. Matheson did his homework regarding spiritualism, and Florence’s “sittings” owe much to the history of well-known spiritualists. The research — and the inclusion of Barrett, the scientist, as a main character — keep the book grounded in the real world, even as Matheson uses the house to twist that reality in an evolution of the characters’ various theories.

I can also tell you this: not all of these characters will survive. Which seems fitting for a place called Hell House.

Attack of the Puppet People (1958), directed by Bert I. Gordon

Attack_of_the_Puppet_People_Poster♦♦♦½

Lonely doll-maker (John Hoyt) uses his own invention to shrink people he likes to doll-size so that, unlike his wife, they can never leave him.  His latest victims — his pretty secretary (June Kenney) and her salesman fiance (John Agar) — have other plans.  Exemplary B-movie that earns a suspension of disbelief with unexpected moments, humor, and a creepy theme.  Underrated, but with an appreciative cult following.

The Running Man (1987), directed by Paul Michael Glaser

Running_Man_Theatrical_Poster♦♦♦½

The Running Man earns the right to switch on the No Thinking sign with Richard Dawson’s performance. Dawson, not Arnold Schwarznegger, holds the movie together, and he does it so pitch-perfectly that nit-picking seems like an exercise in masochism.

In fact, there’s less to complain about here than in Stephen King’s novel. King’s undefined and contradictory society becomes a police state; his self-destructively angry hero becomes a man falsely accused; and his game, in which innocent bystanders and policeman are targets, becomes a death-match between “criminals” and hired guns, played out in a derelict and empty part of the city. I won’t say it makes sense, exactly, but it makes a lot more sense than the book — just enough for us to be able to ignore it as we grab another handful of popcorn.

Schwarzenegger is Ben Richards, former cop and fall-guy for the government’s murder of scores of civilians during a food riot. His subsequent escape from prison is national news, bringing him to the attention of Damon Killian (Dawson), the host of “The Running Man,” a popular and sadistic television show. When recaptured, Ben is coerced into appearing as a contestant on the show.

Schwarzenegger has complained that director Paul Micheal Glaser “shot the movie like it was a television show, losing all the deeper themes.” That makes Glaser a hero in my book. “Deeper themes”? Give me a break. This movie doesn’t get any deeper than Ben’s double entendres just before or after he kills someone (“He had to split,” he says of a man he’s cut partially in half with a chainsaw).

As for the rest, it’s the television show that makes this movie fun. Dawson, whose 10-year run as host of The Family Feud had only recently ended, plays his evil twin with a fidelity no one else could have matched. Off-air, he’s an egotistical martinet, but on-air, he’s an affable master of audience manipulation. It would have been so easy to inject a smarminess in his portrayal as a wink to the audience that, really, game show hosts are beneath us, but Dawson plays Killian straight, and the movie is better for it. I think it succeeds because of it: if we questioned Killian, we’d question everything else.

Then it would have been no better than the book.

The Beast With a Million Eyes (1955), directed by David Kramarsky

beastwithmillioneyes

The exciting potential in the non-literal title (the alien “beast” usurps weak minds and exploits hate) is entirely squandered in a meandering, poorly paced story of a small date-farming family in the desert struggling against isolation and interstellar menace.  Lorna Thayer belittles her husband and admits she sometimes hates her daughter.  Teenager Dona Cole isn’t too happy when mom hacks up her (possessed) dog with an axe.  Husband Paul Birch figures out what’s going on seemingly by reading the screenwriter’s mind.  Well, at least the creepy mute handyman plasters his walls with girlie pictures.  Awful on every level.

The Running Man (1982) by Stephen King

running-man - book.jpg♦♦

Stephen King has said that he wrote The Running Man in a week. He didn’t mention whether it was during his sleep.

I’ve only read two of his Richard Bachman books (the other was Rage) and neither is good. This one, at least, isn’t as offensively bad as his first. It’s just silly, pointlessly angry, and full of cardboard.

Set in 2025, when white men are still called “honkeys” and people still ask if you can “dig it,” the story follows Ben Richards, an out of work revolutionary whose wife is a prostitute and whose 18-month-old baby is dying from pneumonia. Desperately needing money to buy medicine for the little tyke, Richards applies as a contestant for a popular game show called “The Running Man.” The show is a way of ridding society of some of its more undesirable elements. Contestants are given a 12-hour head start (if they live long enough, they can go anywhere in the world), then pursued by merciless Hunters. Every hour they stay alive nets them a hundred bucks, which in this society is a lot of dough. But the game, as Richards discovers, is rigged. Each contestant must record two 10-minute video clips a day and post them to the Games office, where the postmarks are used to locate the runner.

It’s unclear how or why “The Running Man” is a popular show. Though frowned upon, it isn’t against the rules for the runner to take out innocent bystanders. In our present age of reality shows, a stray anti-homosexual comment by a reality star can start a firestorm of controversy — let alone the murder of a cop or a civilian. Here, killing a cop is worth another hundred bucks. King, mired in the late sixties/early seventies, takes the hippie hatred of cops to a new level: everyone hates them, deriving entertainment from their deaths. Why anyone would want to be a cop in this society is another matter. The whole milieu is contradictory and self-serving.

One funny segment has Ben helped out by what passes for the book’s only really sympathetic character, Bradley, a young black man and gang-member who tells him how the upper classes are systematically polluting the poor workforce with toxic air which they themselves are able to filter out with nose-plugs. No mouth-breathers over the poverty line, I suppose. And no one smart enough to realize that murdering your workforce is probably a bad idea, unless you want to do the work yourself. I don’t think King ever tells us the name of Bradley’s gang, but we can figure it out from the way they get all their information: they’re the dreaded and feared Library Gang. (Bradley’s mom is a hoot. She has no trouble pronouncing “carcinogens,” but “pooberty” gives her fits.)

This is a race for Ben’s life (and the life of his daughter); it should be exciting. Like Rage, though, King substitutes an amorphous anger for anything truly stirring. That might work for teenagers, but adults can see through it all too easily. Ben’s own anger is so self-defeating, for example, that he tends to get himself fired for insubordination rather than sucking it up to (a) keep his wife off the streets and (b) provide for his daughter. We’re not supposed to hold him accountable for this, though, because he’s a “righteous” man (another favorite word of King’s that actually doesn’t appear here so far as I can remember). He fights for justice, if not the American way.

It all leads to a comic book ending, with lots of blood and wet, hanging entrails. If that’s your thing, you may get a kick out of it.

To paraphrase King himself, two examples of the humorless thudding tract school of horror writing are his own Rage and The Running Man.

Rampage (1987), directed by William Friedkin

Rampage_ver2♦♦½

Thriller and courtroom drama about a whackjob who savagely kills five people and the prosecutor who, theoretically conflicted, argues in favor of the death penalty.  Based on the book by William P. Wood and “inspired by” true events — the case of serial killer Richard Chase.  Friedkin (who produced, wrote, and directed the film) provides no easy answers, yet fails to provide much in the way of food for thought, either, despite tackling both the death penalty and legal insanity.  Alex McArthur handles the “innocence” of insanity quite well (he’s certainly a cheerful maniac) and Michael Biehn is good as the prosecutor; the script, however, never allows either of them to dig very deeply into their characters or the issues surrounding them.  Which is just as well, as the ending undercuts their differing psychologies anyway.  Originally released in Europe with a different ending; re-cut and modified for US release by Friedkin after studio bankruptcy left the movie stranded on the shelf for five years.  Less violent than you might expect:  the really horrible stuff occurs off-screen.

After Worlds Collide (1934) by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer

afterworldscollide♦♦♦♦

Perhaps because this novel originally appeared as a magazine serial, it is more of a page-turner than its predecessor. Then, too, cliffhangers were harder to come by in a book that assured us of the end of the world practically from page one. Here, the story is all about the survivors of Earth trying to make a new planet their home.

That planet is Bronson Beta, once the Earth-sized moon of Bronson Alpha. Bronson Alpha, if you recall, was a planet about the size of Neptune that smashed into Earth, utterly destroying it. The collision nudged Bronson Beta out of its orbit, but it was captured by the Sun in an elliptical orbit that, according to the best calculations, would take it nearly as far out in space as Mars and nearly as close to the sun as Venus. That means very cold winters and scorching summers. When the little band from Earth lands, Beta is on its way out.

But the coming cold isn’t their only worry. For one thing, their leader, Dr. Hendron, is showing the strain of his frenzied work to save at least a small portion of humanity. For another, Bronson Beta was previously inhabited, and its domed cities — still powered by some unknown energy — hint at the possibility of surviving natives, who might not take to human interlopers. Most worrisome of all, though, is that theirs was not the only ship from Earth to make it to Bronson Beta. At least one other made it, filled with “Asiatics” mostly (Russians and Japanese), with a few Germans thrown in for good measure, whose intent is to make Bronson Beta their own.

It’s hard to top Armageddon. But the really interesting thing about this sequel is that Wylie and Balmer don’t have to. When Worlds Collide focused so closely on the destructiveness of nature that they were left with an ideal “out” for this book: the destructiveness of mankind. As ludicrous as is the idea of a few hundred people on the surface of a planet the size of Earth making war on each other, it is, sadly, quite believable and, given the circumstances, all but inevitable. The circumstances being, that never will a better opportunity arise for world domination.

Like the first book, the authors mix their themes very well. Rebuilding, exploration and discovery, conflict, and romance — there’s always something going on. I could quibble. I could say the Bronson Betans aren’t as “alien” as they should have been; that the exploration of their cities isn’t nearly as intriguing as, for example, the exploration of the alien ship in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama. But that’s what it would be — quibbling. Clarke, after all, had an entire book to talk about one thing; for Wylie and Balmer, it’s but one piece of a much larger puzzle.

It’s a fun adventure and an exciting story and, if it has a flaw, it is that it isn’t, in the end, also a little scary. Without spoiling anything (I hope), let me just say that if you aren’t afraid to wipe Earth out of the cosmos in one book, you shouldn’t be afraid to make your characters work a little harder to make a home of their new planet.

This is a great companion for When Worlds Collide, with all the characters from the first book and even some of the jealousies: Tony, for instance, still wrestles with Eve’s feelings for the rugged and handsome David Ransdall. It also features a few new additions to the cast, far and away the best of whom is Marian Jackson, about whom it is said, “The girl might be mentally a moron; but morons…had their points.” Indeed they do. Hers is a small role, but one of critical importance, and the story always livens up when she’s present.

Under Eighteen (1931), directed by Archie Mayo

Under_18♦♦♦♦

Riveting pre-Code romantic comedy-drama starring barely-18-year-old Marian Marsh as Margie, whose girlish dreams of marriage are assaulted by life on the poorer side of the big city and shattered when her older sister announces she wants a divorce.  “I’ve made up my mind,” Margie says, “that any time I hand myself to a man for life, it’s cash on delivery” — a sentiment that doesn’t sit well with love-struck boyfriend Jimmy (Regis Toomey), but finds favor with rich playboy Raymond (Warren William).  Rife with unpunished immorality and snappy dialogue.  Grim and fascinating, yet also funny and fast-paced.

Soylent Green (1973), directed by Richard Fleischer

Soylent_green♦♦♦♦½

I guess it’s something about the early 70s and The Omega Man. The Omega Man is the 1971 Charlton Heston version of everybody’s favorite Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend. Everybody except me. I didn’t particularly care for the novel, and I didn’t much like The Omega Man either. Somehow, I guess, that soured me on early 70s science fiction, so, for example, I never watched Silent Running (until recently) and Soylent Green (until yesterday). But I really liked Silent Running and Soylent Green is just terrific. What else have I missed?

I’m taking Wikipedia’s word for it that the film is “loosely” based on Harry Harrison’s novel Make Room! Make Room! I’ve never read it, and in fact I’d forgotten it was the basis for this movie until I saw it mentioned in the credits. So no comparisons for this one.

This is a dystopian story set in 2022 when the Earth is so overcrowded that dead bodies — even murder victims — are picked up by the Sanitation Department. Apartments are scarce, but apartment house stairwells overflow with sleeping men and women. Certain enterprising women find comfortable lodgings as “furniture” for wealthier men. And food, of course, is a major concern.

Solving the food problem is the Soylent Corporation, which produces wafers made from plankton. Even that, however, seems to be running low. Then a high-ranking member of the Soylent board is murdered and New York City Detective Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) is assigned the case. Scoping the crime scene for clues (and anything he can steal for his own use), Thorn is convinced that the victim, who put up no struggle, wasn’t so much murdered as assassinated, and that he both knew it was coming and accepted it. The question is why, when he had so much to live for: a beautiful daughter, a luxurious apartment, real produce and even beef.

The victim was a man who knew too much and couldn’t handle it. You probably already know his secret (as I did), but I won’t spoil it for those who don’t. Even though — and this is significant — knowing doesn’t spoil the experience at all.

Why? Because this film builds its world with great confidence; it doesn’t ask you to believe, it dares you not to. It doesn’t hide itself in darkness and it highlights the little things — like a hot shower or a good meal — that make a world believable. This extends even to the psychology of its characters. One scene has Thorn beating up a suspect who tells him he’s too smart to hit a cop. But when Thorn smacks his girlfriend, he changes his mind. Better still is a very poignant yet exciting scene set in an assisted suicide center, with gorgeous classical music from Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Grieg playing on the soundtrack. It is, really, the signature scene of the film, for it shows us what has been lost to this future world while suggesting that it’s about to get a whole lot worse.

Edward G. Robinson, in his last film role, plays Sol Roth, Thorn’s “book.” He’s the educated research arm of the team (Thorn, of course, is the muscle), old enough to remember the days before strawberries cost $150 a jar. He’s very good, and the film scores again for making this team a real one. It’s not the usual good cop/crazy cop kind of thing; it’s legwork and knowledge, working together (rather like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, only with more action). Neither one alone could have solved the case.

A movie of surprising depth and swagger, Soylent Green is top-drawer, classic science fiction.