Thursday, March 30, 2017

Cult-TV Movie Review: Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby (1976)

Well -- look indeed -- at what has happened here.

Basically, a brilliant, disturbing horror film about a woman who feels she doesn’t control her own life has been transformed into a cheap-jack, shlocky 1970’s horror TV-movie.

Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby aired originally on ABC, on October 29, 1976, and attempted to continue the story of Rosemary and her son, Adrian/Andy. But the effort is mostly forgotten by modern audiences.

At the very least, this telefilm isn’t often considered a worthy heir to the 1968 film.

If you’re like me, however, you may have -- at times -- wished for a sequel to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). That film ended with several important questions unanswered. 

For example: what would Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) do next, having mothered the Anti-Christ? 

Would she kill her child, or would she raise him, and attempt to impart some humanity to him via her maternal drive? Or would Rosemary simply steal the child and run away, attempting to escape the Coven run by the Castavets?

And what of the boy? Would he follow the path of nature (following in his father’s footsteps), or the path of nurture (represented by his Mom?)

Ira Levin, author of the novel, Rosemary’s Baby, wrote a sequel to his story in 1997 called Son of Rosemary, to offer some answers.

And then you have this TV movie, which dramatizes a different story all together.

Neither sequel quite lives up to the feelings of sheer paranoia and helplessness transmitted in the original Polanski film. The core problem with Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby is that it blatantly lacks the artistry of its predecessor, and -- because of its low-budget -- can’t take advantage of the inherently intriguing aspects of the story. Wouldn't you like to see what a grown up Anti-Christ can do to his enemies?

I know I would.

In the case of this film, however, Andrew/Adrian causes a few road accidents, and that's about it.

So if we “look” at “what’s happened” to Rosemary’s Baby, we can see that the source material has been degraded in virtually all regards. 

“They want to be turned on by the far out.”

Rosemary Woodhouse (Patti Duke Astin) cares of her young son, eight-year old Andrew -- the Anti-Christ, -- under the watchful eyes of the Coven, led by Minnie Castavet (Ruth Gordon) and her husband, Roman (Ray Milland).

The boy is sensitive and, boasts the capacity to do both good, and evil. Seeing that -- at least to some extent -- Andrew possesses free will, Rosemary flees the coven with him.  Unfortunately, one of his first acts outside the Coven’s care is to murder a group of children who torment him.

Meanwhile, the Castavets use Rosemary’s ex-husband, movie star Guy Woodhouse (George Maharis) to track the fugitives down, and re-capture the boy.  In Nevada, Rosemary ends up trapped on a bus while a hooker named Marjean (Tina Louise) now in league with the Coven, raises the boy in her absence

The years pass, and Andrew becomes a young man. He has only one friend, a drop-out from divinity school named Peter (David Huffman). Andrew is into music, but is often in trouble with law too. As his 21st birthday, the Coven plans a ritual in which -- if Andrew is evil enough -- Satan will take his body and soul, and become manifest on Earth.

That doesn’t happen, however, and sometime later, an amnesiac Andrew tells his story to a nurse (Donna Mills).  Although Andrew doesn’t know it, she is the grand-daughter of the Castavets. She seduces Andrew so she can carry his seed -- the seed of the Anti-Christ -- to term.

“Win a few, lose a few…”

Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby is, most intriguing, perhaps, for its unusual three part structure.  Each of the three pieces of the film are titled like the Bible, with a specific person’s name (think: The Book of Ruth, The Book of Joshua, etc).

In this case, we get The Book of Rosemary first, then the Book of Adrian, and finally, the Book of Andrew. The obvioius inference here is that we are reading/watching/learning from the Evil Holy Book, (well-after Roman’s Year One, no doubt…), and that it’s a mirror image of The Bible.  Light has had its day (2000 years), and now Darkness, and its messiah, shall have its span.

The down-side of the intriguing structure involves character and time.  We don't spend enough time with Rosemary to get effectively re-acquainted with her. And we don't meet Andrew/Adrian as an adult until the second act.

Beyond the original structural conceit, this TV movie sadly has very little to recommend it, alas. The only cast member from the Polanski film who returns is Ruth Gordon, playing quirky Minnie Castavet.  All the other replacements are mostly inferior selections

Ray Milland is much more overtly sinister in the role of Roman Castavet than quirky Sydney Blackmer was, in the 1968 version for instance.  The result is that a level of nuance is lost, and the character seems more cartoon-like in this iteration.  There's menace, but no subtlety to the menace.

Patti Duke Astin doesn’t connect well as Rosemary, either, playing mostly hysteria and panic. Her best moment as Rosemary involves the story she tells to her son, about a prince who has two fathers. Her dramatic line reading (which recurs in the epilogue) is, at least, soulful.  Frankly, Patti Duke Astin isn't in the telefilm long enough to make the role her own, and successfully erase the memory of Mia Farrow.

The character of Guy Woodhouse -- who peddled his wife's flesh to the devil -- undergoes a major development in this film, essentially redeeming himself in the last act, but the teleplay provides George Maharis no key moment to explore the motivations behind this change of heart.  One moment Guy is killing an innocent (Peter) in service of the Coven, and the next he is seeking to murder the Castavets’ grand-daughter, the new receptacle/vessel for the Anti-Christ. Why the change of heart?

Of all the performances, Stephen McHattie’s -- as Andrew -- fares best, perhaps because he musn't contend with invidious comparisons to other actors in famous roles. McHattie does a solid job of excavating Andrew’s central conflict, and choice.  Andrew is a man who is lost, and uncertain of which road to take.

It’s just a shame that McHattie must undergo a scene here in which he is made-up to look like a mime, and then undergo a seductive kind of dance (on the night of his birthday) in white pancake make-up. It’s impossible to escape how strange the slow-motion casino dance sequence in mime make-up is, even forty years later.  I readily admit I don't know much about devil worship, but I wager that mime make-up isn't an essential ingredient.

The movie has other problems too. First, Rosemary gives birth in 1969, or thereabouts, and so Andrew can’t turn 18 or 21, until the late 1980's or early 1990's. 

However, there is no visual indication of time passing at all. The whole movie -- which encompasses decades -- is set in the seventies, at least in terms of fashion, cars, hair-cuts, and so forth. And folks who were elderly in 1968 -- Castavets -- look exactly the same in what would be the mid 1990's.  A deal with the Devil, I guess?

Another, perhaps larger problem, is that Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby features no elaborate death scenes or set-pieces.  The whole thing is such a low-budget, low-intensity affair that the most response is boredom. The movie is slow-going, with very little to recommend it in terms of meaningful action.  Now, I am currently reviewing all of these TV-movies because they prove, on many occasions, that imagination can trump budgetary concerns.  But this telefilm doesn't find any creative visuals or symbolism with which to vet its tale.

In 1976, just a few months before this TV movie aired, a new horror franchise about the Anti-Christ was dawning.  It began with Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976).  This sequel to the Polanski classic feels very much like as thought it is trying to cash in on the popularity of that film. The Omen, however, was renowned for its graphic violence and death scenes.  This movie may feature the Anti-Christ, but he doesn’t use his powers very often, except to kill bikers and bullies. He's an under-whelming presence.

To treat the rich, layered world of Rosemary Woodhouse -- so memorably imagined by Polanski and Levin -- as just another devilish cash cow to compete with The Omen is, perhaps, the ultimate betrayal of Rosemary’s Baby’s legacy.

ABC Friday Night Promo: Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby (1976)

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A View to a Kill Champagne (Bollinger)

A View to a Kill Drinking Glass

Video Game of the Week: A View to a Kill (Angelsoft)

A View to a Kill Spy Sun Glasses (Imperial)

A View to a Kill Deluxe Talking Storybook

Pop Art: A View to a Kill (1985) Storybook

Theme Song of the Week: A View to A Kill (1985; Duran Duran)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Spock's Brain" (September 20, 1968)

Stardate: 5431.4

An ion-drive powered alien spaceship intercepts the U.S.S Enterprise, and deposits one life-form on the bridge. This strange woman, Kara (Marj Dusay), incapacitates the crew, rendering everyone unconscious.

When the crew awakes, a startling discovery is made. The interloper stole Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy’s) brain. Now, Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) suggests he can only keep the half-Vulcan alive for 24 hours without Spock’s brain.

But Captain Kirk (William Shatner) insists that in that 24 hours, he will recover that missing brain.  

To start, the Enterprise follows the spaceship’s ion trail to the Sigma Draconis system.

There, on the sixth planet, humanoid Morgs (men) and Eymorgs (women) live apart. The men are primitive and live together on the icy surface, fearful of the eymorgs; the “givers of pain and delight.”

Beneath the surface, the women live in a subterranean technological society; all their needs for survival met by a computer.

There, underground, Kirk learns, that Spock’s brain is being used to power and regulate the entire complex.  Now Kirk must negotiate for the return of Spock’s brain, but even if he succeeds, the surgery is impossible by current standards.

Fortunately, a device called the Teacher holds the answer…if only McCoy can avail himself of it, and then remember the knowledge.

It will come as no surprise to readers when I note that “Spock’s Brain” is considered the very worst episode of the original Star Trek (1966-1969).  Many words, sentences, and paragraphs have been devoted to this installment’s many flaws.

However, I disagree with that assertion that “Spock’s Brain” is the worst episode of the series for a few reasons, though I acknowledge it is, indeed, a very bad episode.

But there are at least two stories which are worse. 

My two selections for worst episode of Star Trek are actually “And the Children Shall Lead,” which is hobbled by a dreadfully-stilted central performance from attorney Melvin Belli and a humorless, unsavory plot-line (the corruption of children), and “Requiem for Methuselah,” which features an unbelievable (and utterly unconvincing) love-story for Captain Kirk.

But “Spock’s Brain?”

Well, it’s extremely low-brow, and yet it manages never to bore. It’s Star Trek, just Star Trek on a really dumb, superficial level. It is juvenilia, and most episodes of the series are never even in the same solar system as juvenilia.  On the other hand, it would be difficult for me to deny that “Spock’s Brain” moves at a faster-clip than last week’s episode, “Assignment: Earth.”

But this episode is so distinctive, so memorable, in its utter weirdness and wrongness, that it’s easy to see why people remember it as the worst. Once you’ve watched it, you’re not likely to forget it.

In fact, even twenty years after its first airing “Spock’s Brain “was being recalled and parodied, which proves, if nothing else, the story’s utter uniqueness, or hapless charm. It may be bad, but somehow this  badness has stood the test of time, and people feel affectionate towards it.

I’ve never met a Star Trek fan, by contrast, who feels affectionate towards “And the Children Shall Lead.”

Look at this clip from The Wonder Years (1988-1993), for example, to get a sense of how the imagery and sound effects of “Spock’s Brain” worked their way into the pop culture:

So why does “Spock’s Brain” fail…so colorfully?

Well, for one thing, I have a theory about William Shatner and his acting style, and it goes like this: The worse that the material is that he must contend with, the more Shatners invests, emotionally, and even in terms of his energy level.  It’s as if he’s facing a mountain he must climb. He steels himself, and gives it everything -- EVERYTHING -- he can, so as to breathe life into it.

Here -- given a patently absurd teleplay -- Shatner simply over-invests to the point of near-insanity, hoping to pull off the drama.  He makes Kirk bitchy and obsessed, and single-minded to the nth degree. I actually commend him for his efforts, but Shatner’s performance contributes, finally, to the feeling that the episode has adopted some weird, hyperbolic, hysterical tenor.

And DeForest Kelley faces a similar problem. He goes from dead-pan seriousness to over-the-top bug-eyed, failing to modulate his performance effectively from scene to scene. One minute he’s asking (seriously) the (awful) question: “In the whole galaxy, where are you going to look for Spock’s brain?” with utter solemnity. And in the next he is marveling, wide-eyed, that a child could complete the brain surgery.

Understand, please, that I love both these actors, and don’t intend to insult them. They were faced with a crappy script, and had to figure out some way to make it sing. They made choices, according to their particular gifts, and yet those choices don’t, ultimately, work towards the story’s success.

Instead, they make the story feel campy.

Finally, the marvelous Leonard Nimoy often grants a weak Star Trek story some facet of dignity. He is someone who underplays a scene to perfection, and restrains his emotions brilliantly. Here, Nimoy is reduced to the level of a walking piece of furniture. Mindless, but ever-present.  And no, it doesn’t seem terribly dignified.

The actual mechanics of the story are baffling too.  Spock’s brain is stolen, and re-inserted into his skull, and yet -- in neither instance -- is his head shaved, his skin cut.  The idea of high-tech brain surgery might have worked a bit better if we had a constant physical reminder of what Spock endured, physically.  We don’t.

Or, the stolen brain concept might have worked had we been given the information that the brain had been “beamed” out, rather than cut out. This would be in keeping with Trek technology, and also permitted us to understand why Spock’s hair was not cut off.  But it seems ridiculous for the man to go through two brain surgeries in an hour-long episode, and never have even one hair out-of-place.

And don’t even get me started on the idea of Spock leading Bones through brain surgery, once his voice box is reconnected. 

For one thing, this help from Spock diminishes the dignity of Dr. McCoy, who should be able to get through a surgery without the verbal instructions of his patient.

And for another thing, it diminishes Spock too, making him seem invincible. He can actually give a doctor instructions for reattaching his brain.  That feels very….cartoon-ish.

The episode is sloppy too. Sigma Draconis VI is twice called Sigma Draconis VII by principal cast members, for example. This is not a small detail in a system of many planets, right?

All of these problems suggest that “Spock’s Brain” is a train wreck.

Yet it is a train-wreck, as I’ve intimated above, that you can’t stop watching, that you can’t quite turn your back on. The episode is dynamic in terms of its color, its movement, even its eye-brow raising hysteria.

It’s unforgettable, really.  These qualities make it odd, but they don’t make it the very worst Star Trek.

The silliest episode? Perhaps so.

The most over-the-top in terms of acting? Indeed.

The most ill-conceived?  No argument. 

“Spock’s Brain” should have never gotten past the idea stage in the first place. But beyond that, it should never have been slated as the premiere for the third season, either. 

As a kid, I first saw the series in local affiliate reruns, so I never had to see “Spock’s Brain” as a premiere and suffer that sinking feeling that things were taking a turn for the worse.  Instead, I merely saw it as a bizarre and not very good episode. I can only imagine what dedicated fans felt, tuning in to a new season and seeing…this.

I would suggest that my reading is correct, however.  This is a bad episode, sure.

But others are worse, in part because they simply aren’t as gonzo-nuts and flat-out unforgettable as “Spock’s Brain” remains.

Next week: “The Enterprise Incident.”