November is Mystery Science Theatre 3000 remake month for Lost in Translation, where the column looks at some of the movies featured on MST3K and see where they failed and how to remake better. This week, The Crawling Hand, featured during MST3K‘s first season on Comedy Channel.
Originally released in 1963, during the Space Race portion of the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Horror movies look at what’s happening and make events go wrong on the worst way possible. The first lunar landing, the Apollo 11 mission, was still six years away, so no one knew what could happen on the moon’s surface. This opens the door for horror movies to imagine whatever they want happening in the cold, dark depths of space.
The Crawling Hand begins with a lunar mission going wrong in the worst way possible. The astronaut on board the returning capsule has been out of communications for far too long with dwindling oxygen. When he finally does appear, looking gaunt and haunted, he begs mission control Steve Curan (Peter Breck) to hit the rocket’s self-destruct. With great reluctance, Curan does so.
When a rocket is blown to bits, bits of rocket tends to land on the ground. A young couple, Paul Lawrence (Rod Lauren) and foreign student Marta Farnstrom (Sirry Steffen) are at a secluded beach and spot one of those bits, the astronaut’s arm. With the romantic interlude shattered, the two leave, but Paul, being a medical student, notes the arm. As the young lovers drive away, the arm twitches.
Paul returns later to retrieve the arm and take it to the room he rents from Mrs. Hotchkiss. When no one is looking, the arm starts crawling around, the hand dragging the rest of the appendage. The hand is possessed by a murderous alien, somehow, and finds its first victim, Mrs. Hotchkiss. Paul discovers the body and calls for the police. Sheriff Townsend (Alan Hale, Jr, a year before landing the role of the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island) arrives to take notes, examine the crime scene, and start the investigation. After calling the coroner, he leaves to follow up on his questioning.
The hand is not satisfied with just one victim. Paul nearly becomes the next and is strangled, but instead of killing him, the hand infects him with the murderous spirit. The coroner arrives and finds the pick up to be a two-fer. Paul recovers in the coroner’s wagon beside Mrs. Hotchkiss’ body. He escapes and returns to his room.
The film becomes a fight between Paul and the alien within on controlling or succumbing to the murderous impulses. Paul becomes the Sheriff’s prime suspect after several attempted murders. Curan and his colleague, Dr. Weitzberg (Kent Taylor), arrive after hearing of some of goings on and tracking debris from the rocket’s explosion. The scientists have made the connection but, in order to prevent a panic in the general public, are keeping their hypothesis to themselves.
Paul has also come to a similar conclusion. He grabs the arm and makes a run to the town’s junkyard. The police are hot on his heels, but arrive too late to see the hand disappear into the piles of junk after it escapes Paul. The danger of the hand ends by the paws of two hungry cats, releasing Paul from the alien’s influence.
The biggest issue the movie has is budget. To quote Joel, “You can tell it’s a low budget movie because they can’t wreck the cars.” Throwing money at a problem isn’t always a solution, unless the problem is insufficient money. The Crawling Hand is a B-movie. There is potential, but budget limitations creates restrictions. The biggest restriction is special effects. Mission control is a meeting room, not the banks of computers and operators monitoring 24/7 that NASA regularly shows. The crawling hand is closer to Thing from The Addams Family than a creeping threat. Jump scares and hands pulling open gates and doors get used to build tension.
The start of the movie lingers on mission control longer than needed, especially considering the 89 minute running time. A shorter introduction at mission control, done by actually showing what’s going on, gives more time to the rest of the movie’s run time to build up tension. Again, part of this is budget; if the movie can’t damage a car, forget about blowing up a (model) rocket. The scientists are almost in their own movie, separate from Paul’s problems until they come in to save Paul’s bacon.
The ending has a serious problem. Cats eat away the muscle of the hand. That’s more, “We’re running out of budget,” than a proper ending. It takes away from the characters the audience has been following from the beginning. A Deus ex cattus that comes from nowhere. It’s not satisfying. Paul, Sheriff Townsend, Curan, any of these three stopping the hand would make the ending decent. A random cat that was never shown before? That’s more an ass-pull.
The general plot works, though. Something in space causing people to re-enact The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While the film doesn’t reference the Robert Louis Stevenson story at all, and has its own approach, the two are similar. The main difference is that the change is caused by an external stimulus. For a horror movie, the key will be the build up to Paul’s first on-screen murder attempt. The hand needs to be a factor, being the title character. The effects budget for the hand needs to allow for it to lurk in scenes.
As for characters, the scientists need to either be limited to the initial scene setting up the arrival of the hand on the beach or be a presence throughout. They can’t disappear for half of the movie and reappear out of nowhere. Paul and Sheriff Townsend are needed. Paul’s love interest is almost an afterthought, used to show how far gone Paul is and what makes him fight back. A trope for the era, it won’t fly today.
The Crawling Hand has potential, but to fulfill the potential, it needs a proper budget, some adjustment in focus, and a far more satisfying ending. It did deserve its time in the MST3K spotlight, but only because it could have been much more than it was.
Two weeks back, Lost in Translation reviewed The Raven, a film “suggested by” the poem of the same name by Edgar Allen Poe starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. While the movie is a showcase of horror, especially with Lugosi’s portrayal of a man who took a flying leap off the precipice of sanity, it really didn’t have much to do with “The Raven” other than set dressing and an odd interpretive dance number. The film itself is well worth watching, so changing it might break some delicate balances.
Instead, the proposal is to change the “suggested by” from just “The Raven” to “inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe.” The movie pulls in from many of Poe’s work, “The Pit and the Pendulum” being the most obvious, and a twist on “A Cask of Amontillado” with the sliding walls. The idea is less focused on any one of Poe’s works. A quick look at Wikipedia and the list of Poe’s works and collections show that he published mainly in newspapers and magazines. The best title may for the film may come from Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, but that may not have the draw that “The Raven” does. The goal is managing audience expectations; the film uses Poe’s works for inspiration and mood, so that needs to remain.
Remaking The Raven will require a deft touch and the right cast. Modern technology can make or break the remake. Today’s makeup skills have improved since 1935, thanks to new materials and techniques. While impressive for the time, Karloff’s fake eye after Bateman is subjected to Dr. Vollin’s tender care looks, well, fake in close ups. Today, makeup and prosthetics can have the eye look and behave as a real eye.
However, the temptation to go overboard has to be fought. The Raven works as horror because of what lies beneath the surface. Vollin appears as a respectable surgeon up until the point where the facade shatters. Until that happens, the horror has to be kept simmering beneath, not out in the open. The tone of Poe’s works can act as a guideline here. The Raven doesn’t have to be effects heavy. Good use of lighting and background music can help scenes feel off kilter.
What may also help is lengthening the film. The Raven ran just over an hour, a length not seen in today’s films. Today, films are at least ninety minutes long, and some can run up to three hours, though those are rare. An extra thirty minutes can help build up the obsession Vollin has for Jean and set up the deathtraps at the end. Lingering shots over Vollin’s bookshelves showing key works, including Poe’s, to hint at what’s to come at the end.
The climax is where the danger lies in a remake. The temptation to go all action works against the story. Sure, there are deathtraps, but they work on the idea of an awaited death that steadily creeps closer and closer. Rushing the ending removes the tension. In the 1935 film, what stops Vollin is his own madness; he is the cause of his own downfall through his torment of Bateman, Having Jean be the instrument takes away much of Bateman’s torture and Vollin’s narcissism. Jean, too, is a victim, but not one that Vollin wants to torture right away like he does with her father and with Bateman.
Last piece to work out is the title. Again, The Raven was merely suggested by “The Raven”, and while it does include the poem in a couple of scenes, it’s more the raven as a symbol of death that gets used by Vollin. However, to get the audience in the proper frame of mind to enjoy the remake, the title needs to invoke Poe. As discussed above, Poe published his works singly, but Grotesque and Arabesque may just work, especially if Jean remains a dancer in the remake.
Improving a work like The Raven is difficult. The film is a study of one man’s madness and how he takes it out on others, with Bela Lugosi delivering a brilliant role as Vollin. Remaking the film would take a delicate touch, even with the modern techniques available now, and one wrong note could sour the entire movie.
A couple months back, Lost in Translation reviewed the first season of The Expanse based on the series by James SA Corey. The first book of the series, Leviathan Wakes, is a mighty tome on its own, resulting in the first season covering only half of it. Instead of trying to push the entire book into the first season and rushing the story line, the studio focused on the pace, allowing the horror lurking beneath the surface to build much like it did in the novel. The end of the first season was a natural break point with a satisfying conclusion with not everything wrapped up.
This review is going to cover just to the end of Levianthan Wakes. The second season of The Expanse wraps up the book by the seventh epsiode, leading into the next book augmented with information from short stories in the setting and dealing with the fallout from the events in the first book. The first seven episodes of the season wrap up the book.
The latter half of Leviathan Wakes switches from hard SF and film noir to horror and first contact. A molecule, called “protomatter”, has been discovered and a corporation is doing everything it can to keep the discovery under wraps until they find a way to monetize it. Earth and Mars are on the brink of a war that will affect the Belt and beyond even if Belters take no part in it. Miller finds Julie Mao, dead. Then things get worse.
The corporation turns Eros into a radioactive experiment with protomatter, dooming anyone who can’t escape. Holden and Miller have to fight their way to the Rocinante and pick up a near-lethal level of radiation that can’t be handwaved away. Ultimately, the decision is made to destroy Eros before it can reach Earth, though even hitting it with a spaceship on a high-G burn doesn’t go easy. It comes down to a disgraced cop on his final case to save Earth.
Season two of The Expanse continues with the increased viewpoints beyond just Miller and Holden. We’re shown what is going on in the halls of power on Earth, the troops on the ground on Mars, the people waiting in the Belt. Everything still hinges on Holden and Miller, though. Decisions get made to set Eros up for destruction. There is a lot of action in the latter half of the book, and describing action takes more time than just showing it on screen. A raid that takes a few chapters can be done in one episode with no loss of story. Each medium has its strengths and drawbacks, and a visual medium can handle a visual element far better than text.
The pacing does pick up, but that follows from the novel. The protomatter’s secret is revealed; it is extraterrestrial and capable of transforming a living organism into a form it needs. And Eros is filled with it and heading to Earth. The pacing of the series accelerates like an object falling due to gravity, and the payoff is the same as in the novel.
The Expanse continues to pull in from other stories in the series to flesh out what’s happening, keeping the storytelling more or less linear, with a few exceptions in shown in flashbacks. The series also works at making it easy to tell who is from where, from distinctive hairstyles to slang and lingo to even tattoos. The series brings the setting alive despite the limitations of being filmed in a gravity well.
Poetry, like songs, aren’t adapted to other media often, not like prose or serial art. The goal of a poem is more about emotion than narrative, though there are poems that are stories. Such poems, though, are limited by length. Like songs, it can be a stretch to expand a poem from what is written to fill a time slot. Some studios have tried, though. What helps is using a well-known poem, such as Edgar Allen Poe’s works.
Poe’s “The Raven” is a staple in high school, serving as an introduction to mood and tone while not being so esoteric to turn students away. The moodiness of “The Raven” allows for dramatic reading, with readers being able to set their own interpretation of the words. The poem is told from the view of a man who is suffering from grief and possibly more and wanting salvation, only to torture himself when a raven enters his home and says just one word, “Nevermore.”
Universal had a number of successes with horror movies, including Dracula with Bela Lugosi and Frankenstein with Boris Karloff, both released in 1931. Lugosi and Karloff became draws for audiences, so Universal teamed them up, first in The Black Cat, based on Poe’s short story of the same name, and then in 1935 with The Raven.
The Raven starred Lugosi as Dr. Richard Vollin, Karloff as Edmond Bateman, Irene Ware as the dancer Jean Thatcher, Samuel S. Hinds as her father Judge Thatcher, and Lester Matthews as her beau Jerry Halden. While Karloff had top billing, the movie is really Lugosi’s. His Vollin provides the plot for the film. The catch of the movie, though, is that it is “suggested by” Poe’s “The Raven”. The film warns audiences that the adaptation might not be faithful.
The poem guides the movie, though. The film begins with Jean driving and failing to make a turn to a detour, leaving her injured. Only one doctor has the knowledge and skill to help her, Dr. Vollin, but he’s left his career. Judge Thatcher manages to convince him to go to the hospital, where Vollin begins his obsession over Jean.
The surgery is a success and Jean is able to get to her next performance, an interpretation of “The Raven” with her as the bird. Vollin’s obsession grows, though, and he hatches a plot when Bateman arrives at his doorstep wanting surgery to change his appearance. What no one suspects is that Vollin has a second obsession, torture. To escape his torture, he needs to torture someone else. Batemen is his first victim, becoming disfigured after surgery. Vollin makes an offer to Bateman – become his hands in what he has planned, and he will remove the disfigurement. Batement agrees.
Vollin invites Jean, her father, her beau, and their friends for an evening’s soiree. During this time, Vollin puts his plot to action. Bateman grabs the Judge, taking him down to a deathtrap straight from Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”. It’s only when Jean and Jerry are trapped in a sliding room trap that Bateman acts, releasing the trapped couple and throwing Vollin in.
The Raven uses the poem for mood, the idea of obsession and of self-torture. Vollin is a tragic character, but by his own hand. He sets up his own demise, a very Poe-like approach. But the closest the film gets to adapting the poem is the interpretive dance sequence. Vollin does recite a few lines of the poem, and he uses a raven as his symbol. A doctor using a symbol of death isn’t reassuring, and it does foreshadow what will happen.
With the film being “suggested by”, there is no Lenore. However, if the poem is included in the movie, can there be a Lenore? There’s no one by that name, but Jean fills the role for Vollin. Even going metaphorically get be a stretch, though. The Raven is more inspired by “The Raven” and other works of Edgar Allen Poe than a proper adaptation. In that light, the film works. There is the horror and dangers of obsession, a theme Poe touches on in several works. As an adaptation, however, The Raven misses the mark.
The World Wide Web is an equalizer when it comes to entertainment. While major studios have money to throw into marketing, word of mouth can be more effecting online. It shouldn’t be surprising that web series have become popular the way TV series and films have. Rooster Teeth began as a machinima producer with Red vs Blue, using Halo: Combat Evolved to tell the story of the forces defending a strategic box canyon. Rooster Teeth’s latest hit is RWBY, with season seven coming this November.
RWBY, pronounced “Ruby”, follows four students at the Beacon Academy on the world of Remnant – Ruby, Weiss, Blake, and Yang. Team RWBY learns how to work as a team and with their classmates, including Team JNPR (“Juniper”), with the goal of becoming Huntresses to fight off the Grimm, monsters out of fairy tales that roam the lands of Remnant endangering the inhabitants. Created by Monty Oum, the series has action, comedy, and drama in equal portions, sometimes intermingling. The series uses fairy tales, myths, and legends for inspiration, tweaking them for the story and setting.
Season one sees Team RWBY as fresh students at the Beacon Academy. As the series progresses, they discover the larger world around them, including criminal organizations, the White Fang (a Faunus terrorist group), and different types of Grimm. The Grimm, though, do attack Beacon, causing it to fall and leaving Team RWBY working to clean up.
The Fall of Beacon is where the novel, RWBY After the Fall, by EC Myers, picks up. Instead of following Team RWBY, as the series does, After the Fall chronicles a different team, Team CFVY (“Coffee”), composed of leader and fashion plate Coco Adel, rabbit Faunus Velvet Scarletina, blind but crafty Fox Alistair, and burly yet gentle Yatsuhaishi Daishi. It’s not just Beacon having problems with the Grimm after the Fall of Beacon. All of Remnant is being overrun and Huntresses and Huntsmen are needed, even if they haven’t completed their education.
While the focus is on Team CFVY, Team RWBY shows up in flashbacks that show CFVY trying to come together. Coco, Fox, Velvet, and Yatsu are distinct characters, with their own motives and personalities. They are sent to the continent of Vacua, a land of desert and Fox’s home, where the inhabitants keep on the move. With the Grimm around, life gets difficult. Worse, a group of refugees being protected by CFVY are inflicted by mood bombs, pushing negative emotions to the point of in-fighting and drawing the Grimm to them. Adding to the problem are Bertilak and Carmine, experienced Huntsmen protecting Edward and Gus who have their own mission.
Team CFVY is pushed to their limits as they try to deal with everything, the refugees, the Huntsmen and their charges, and the Grimm. The only haven may lie on the coast, but getting there is one challenge after another. The team has to dig deep into their personal reserves to be the heroes they were training to be.
After the Fall may be the first tie-in novel based on a web series, an indication of the evolution of where audiences find their entertainment. The novel also branches off from the main series, showing what is happening beyond the exploits of Team RWBY. The world of Remnant gets a little bigger with After the Fall. By moving to another continent, there’s no chance of derailing the main plot, a risk if the original series is still ongoing. An episodic series, like Star Trek: The Next Generation, doesn’t run that risk. RWBY, though, isn’t episodic. Each episode builds off the previous and towards the next. The separation is needed.
At the same time, the draw is Team RWBY. They’re the stars. The series is named after them. The need to appear. The cameos may or may not be enough, depending on the reader. However, by putting the focus on Team CFVY, the novel presents several new lenses to view Team RWBY. The setting allows for and has even presented other teams, such as Team JNPR. There is room for more teams. Team CFVY is believable as attendees at Beacon.
The writing is solid. EC Meyers presents the story with a light touch, making for a quick but deep read. He has the mix of action, drama, and comedy that RWBY has. Coco, Fox, Velvet, and Yastu may be a year older than Ruby, Weiss, Blake, and Yang, but they still have a lot to learn, especially from each other. There’s hints of what lies in the future for Team CFVY, but only if they can survive their challenges.
Taking an animated series and translating it to a text-based medium takes a deft touch. EC Meyers pulled off the trick by remembering the source and making sure that the characters fit in the setting. RWBY‘s first tie-in novel brings the setting to life, expanding it through the eyes of a new team.
Fast food is highly competitive. So many options for the person who just wants to have a quick, inexpensive meal. Each fast food chain has its own way of getting attention, from mascots to sponsorships to tie-ins to other mainstream media. Burger King had three XBox/XBox 360 video games. Arby’s has its anime-aware Twitter account. KFC produced a dating sim featuring the Colonel. McDonald’s has its ubiquitous nature. So what is a chain like Wendy’s supposed to do?
Would you believe a tabletop role-playing game?
Wendy’s made available a free RPG called Feast of Legends, where players are called by Queen Wendy, first of her name, breaker of fast food chains, defender of all things fresh, never frozen, ruler of the realm of Freshtovia since 1969, to defend the realm against the evils of the dark art of frozen beef and their practitioners. The land of Beef’s Keep have fractured over how to treat beef, with some siding with Creepingvale and the United Clown Nations and going with freezing.
Yes, the goal is to sell Wendy’s hamburgers and other foods with subtle and, at times, not so subtle jabs at the competition. Lurking beneath the marketing is a solid game mechanic that takes inspiration and cues from the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons since the turn of the millennium. The question becomes, can a fast food restaurant be adapted as a tabletop RPG?
Back a bit, I went through what is key for adapting a work to a tabletop RPG. The five points to watch for are:
1. Is there something for the players to do?
2. Can the players have the same impact on the setting as the main characters?
3. Does the plot of the original work allow for expansion?
4. Will the adapted game bring in something that a more generic game can’t?
5. Is the license available?
The last one is easy to answer. Wendy’s is the publisher, bypassing the need to get a license. Skips the middleman and gets the game out. The third question is the big one, though. The original has no plot. The original is a fast food restaurant. There is no plot, just a daily war between the folks behind the counter and the ravening mass of humanity determined to leave nothing in its wake but destruction, or, as they mass calls itself, customers. While the idea of playing the last stand of the unfortunates standing against the horde may be appealing, that’s not what Feast of Legends is about. It’s an epic fantasy based on the menu at Wendy’s. There’s going to be a lot of stretching of points here.
The RPG does give something for the players to do and not only are their characters having the same impact as the main ones, they are the leads. Queen Wendy needs brave souls to fight for Freshtovia, and given the number of competitors for the fast food dollar, there is room for expansion.
Mechanically, Feast of Legends is what is called a “fantasy heartbreaker“, a fantasy RPG that tries to be different from D&D but still relies heavily on the older game. What would be a liability, though, works in the favour of Feast. Leaning on what D&D has done makes it easier to get buy-in from players and an easier learning curve, even for rookies. This leaves room for developing the world itself, which is where Feast starts to shine.
Feast is a marketing tool. The game doesn’t shy away from that fact. Instead, it revels in it. Not only are the players working on Queen Wendy’s behalf, their opponents are from the competing fast food restaurants. The classes are reskinned as Orders, each one named after different parts of the menu, such as Order of the Beef, Order of the Chicken, and Order of the Sides. Each Order has its own sub-Order, named after specific items on the menu. There are special abilities that each Order gets, but, broadly speaking, the Order of the Chicken is the magical class, Order of the Beef the fighter class, and Order of the Sides the roguish class with a touch of magic.
The mechanics take advantage of being menu items. To encourage the players to eat off the Wendy’s menu, there are mechanical advantages depending on what’s being consumed. An added benefit is if the item being eaten matches the name of the character’s order, the player gets advantage on every roll made that night, rolling two twenty-sided dice and taking the better result. If a player decides to eat from a competitor, then woe be on the character as penalties apply. The worst may be from eating gas station food, a -2 to Intelligence all night.
The world of Beef’s Keep includes a map. Keeping with the hamburger theme, there are two mountain ranges, Top Bun Mountains and Bottom Bun Mountains. Freshtovia, Creepingvale, and the United Clown Nations aren’t the only realms; there’s also The Box, the Twin Cities of Carl, and the Temple of Panda. Other named features include Lake John Silver and Roast Beach. The greatest threat comes from the Deep Freeze, home of the Ice Jester and his United Clown Nations. The adventure that comes with the game has the players take on the Jester and his minions, Grumble, the Beef Burgler, and the Fry Fiends, to protect Freshtovia from being flash frozen.
The setting is very tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at Wendy’s competition. The game is not meant to be taken seriously, though the work that went into it was serious. The goal of the game is fun. There’s room to explore beyond the adventure. After all, Creepingvale is nearby with its creepy king with the paper crown, waiting to sneak his minions up to the border of Freshtovia when no one is looking.
Feast of Legends is a very loose adaptation of the Wendy’s menu and chain. As a tabletop RPG, there’s a few gaps, but not many. The artwork is on par with the larger RPG publishers. As an adaptation, well, it exists for marketing purposes, but there is a sense of fun that went into the game. Mechanically, the game is sound, and emphasizes the message the publisher wants to get across, “Eat at Wendy’s”. For its price, the game is far better than it has a right to be, but Wendy’s wanted something memorable for its audacity, not its drawbacks. The creators hit the right balance between game and marketing, making something that can be played and that people will want to try out.
While music covers are the main way to remake a song, the translation from song to film or TV is rare. Songs are typically short, covering a brief moment in time. However, some songs have been adapted. These songs usually have a narrative that can be expanded on to fill the time of a film.
This time out, though, Lost in Translation will look at the movie Convoy, adapted from the song written by Bill Fries and Chip Davis and performed by Fries as CW McCall. When “Convoy” hit the airwaves in 1975, citizen’s band, or CB, radio was becoming popular. Long-distance truckers adopted the technology, giving them the ability to talk to someone while on the road, giving each other tips and warnings along the way. For someone driving across country alone, CB radio provided a connection to others, much like social media today does. Also like today’s social media, CB radio had its own jargon and codes. The song “Convoy” uses the lingo, giving a trucking feel.
The song itself is about a convoy of long-haul trucks led by the narrator, Rubber Duck, crossing the country, LA to New York, while police try to stop them. The reasons aren’t given, but more trucks join up as the convoy crosses the US. There’s some ribbing, mostly to Pig-Pen and his cargo of hogs, and one driver carrying dynamite. The police escalate, bringing in the Illinois National Guard’s tanks. There’s a conflict, not explained, but something to build on. “Convoy” peaked on Billboard’s Hot Country charts, so, naturally, someone saw a way to build off it.
The Seventies saw a move away from the traditional Western and even the spaghetti Western. Audiences were ready for something different yet the same. The “outlaw trucker” genre, best exemplified by 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, slipped into the role of the Western, though briefly, riding on country music about long-haul drivers like “Convoy”. Using the song as the basis for a movie made sense at the time.
In 1978, Convoy appeared on the silver screen, directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Kris Kristofferson as the Rubber Duck, Ali MacGraw as Melissa, Franklyn Ajaye as Spider Mike, Burt Young as Love Machine/Pig-Pen, Madge Sinclair as Widow Woman, and Earnest Borgnine as “Dirty” Lyle Wallace. The film was the second-to-last one that Peckinpah would direct.
The movie opens in the Arizona desert with the Rubber Duck in his Mack hauling a tank trailer being baited by Melissa in a Jaguar. The fun ends when a deputy sheriff pulls them both over after being run off the road by them. Melissa races off, leaving the Duck back on the road on his own. He’s soon joined by Love Machine and Spider Mike, who gives the former the new handle Pig Pen because of the load of hogs he’s hauling. Spider Mike is trying to earn money to help pay for the baby his wife about to give birth to. While they’re rolling down the highway, they hear over the CB that the road is clear of smokeys. Turns out, the news is coming from Sheriff “Dirty” Lyle Wallace, a corrupt cop who doesn’t like truckers. He manages to get $70 from each of the drivers before they move on. Turns out, there’s a history between Wallace and the Duck, one that the movie doesn’t expand on. Neither care much for the other, though the Duck is more willing to stay out of Wallace’s hair if given a chance.
At a truck stop, while the Duck is getting a birthday present from one of the waitresses (Cassie Yates), Wallace shows up to check license plates to see if any are expired or about to expire. Pig Pen and Spider Mike use the stop’s CB radio to taunt Wallace, leading to the Sheriff coming into the stop. He easily finds Spider Mike and provokes the black man into attacking. A full-on brawl breaks out as all the truckers in the stop take advantage to get some payback against the Sheriff and his deputies. One of the waitresses calls the Duck back over the radio, in time to join the fray. The result – all the truckers plus Melissa on the run, trying to make their way to the Arizona-New Mexico state line, Dirty Lyle in pursuit but delayed, and a huge mess for the truck stop owner to deal with.
As the chase continues through New Mexico, more truckers join the convoy. Melissa asks why the Duck is leading the trucks. Duck replies that he’s not leading, they’re just following. The reasons for why the other truckers are in the convoy vary. Some, like Spider Mike, are tired of the corruption and racism of the police. Others are in it because they disagree with the then-new national speed limit of 55 mph, imposed in 1974 in response to the oil embargo by OPEC nations. And some were there for the thrills and the chance to kick some ass. The only thing all the drivers in the convoy had was they wanted to keep moving, the one thing a convoy does.
The news of the convoy spreads throughout the state. The public’s reaction supports the drivers and their “cause”. The Governor, spurred by aides who see a political opportunity, provides the truckers a place to stop for the night so he can talk with the Duck. Spider Mike, though, has to leave the convoy; news arrives that his wife is about to give birth. His route, though, takes him into Texas, where black men, let alone black truckers, are not safe.
Once the convoy stops for the night, the truckers and followers take the time to shower and rest. The Governor (Seymour Cassel) finally tracks down Rubber Duck to try to make a deal. The Duck, though, is independant. He’s not the leader; his goal is to just get away from Wallace. The Governor tries to work out a deal, but news comes over the radio that Spider Mike has been arrested in Alvarez, Texas and beaten. The Duck puts Pig-Pen in charge of the negotiations, then leaves.
The next morning, the Duck is outside Alvarez, watching the town to see what the town’s Sheriff (Jorge Russek) and Wallace have planned. Pig-Pen, though, figured out what the Duck was going to do, so brought along the original truckers running from the brawl at the trick stop with him. Instead of being outnumbered, the Duck has reinforcements, and the local Sheriff bails on seeing the trucks coming into his town.
The Duck breaks Spider Mike out of jail. Wallace was expecting the Duck to come alone, as did the Duck. The final confrontation the two had been building up to had been postponed. The truckers leave Lyle in Spider Mike’s jail cell, then make the decision to run for the Mexican border. After what they did in Alvarez, there’s no way they’d be allowed to walk away. With the Duck at the front door, they put the pedal to the metal.
However, a school bus stop separates the Duck from the rest of the convoy, a stop that may have been worked out by Wallace and the local police. The Duck is alone, with only Melissa in his truck. Wallace, however, has the Texas National Guard with him, complete with anti-riot tank. He gives the order – shoot to kill. The Duck throws Melissa out of his truck and makes his last run to the bridge and into the line of fire as Wallace opens up with a heavy machine gun. Stray shots hit the Duck’s tank trailer, causing it to explode.
The movie took what could be called a novelty song and turned it serious. It was an action movie, not a comedy, and stripped away some of the romance of the long-haul trucker. There wasn’t anyone on the side of the angels, with the truckers playing fast and loose with legalities and the police just armed thugs with authority. What does happen, though, is the conflict builds to the explosive climax. The Duck and Dirty Lyle are two sides of the same coin, independant, stubborn, and neither a leader nor a follower.
The film takes liberties with the song, but with Fries and Davis on board for the music, the lyrics could be changed for the purposes of the movie. The original song had an unexplained conflict; Convoy takes the cops versus truckers theme and gives the conflict a flashpoint and a resolution. While the movie may appear to have the Duck die at the bears’ hands, he does have one last trick to pull to come out ahead.
Convoy could have gone the novelty route; with a lighter hand it would have been a comedy. Peckinpah manages to work in some social commentary and provides a harder look at the life of long-haul truckers, removing the romance much like later Westerns did for that genre. It’s an odd combination, but the movie does build on the song. The truckers are flouting the law, the cops are overreacting, and a tank does show up.
Songs may not always provide much to build on, but with “Convoy”, there’s enough story to expand into a feature film. Convoy takes the song and gives it life and background.
Today, superheroes are huge. Blockbuster movies breaking records, TV series, video games, toys, the works. However, there was a time when superheroes were oddities, not mainstream, at least outside comic books, when the idea of a superhero having a TV series was unusual. In 1990, The Flash debuted on CBS, an attempt to bring one of the leading DC characters to a larger audience.
Let’s start, though, with a look at the character. The original Flash debuted in Flash Comics #1, published January 1940. Created by Gardiner Fox and Harry Lampert, the original Flash was Jay Garrick, college athlete. During comics’ Silver Age, Barry Allen took up the mantle, meeting Jay Garrick and creating the idea of multiverses in DC’s continuity. Wally West, Barry’s nephew, took over as the Flash in 1986 and Barry’s grandson Bart picked up the family tradition in 2006.
Along the way, no matter the incarnation, the Flash picked up a Rogues Gallery that, unlike those of fellow DC heroes Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, worked together and had a code of conduct that included no killing. The Rogues include Captain Cold, Mirror Master, Captain Boomerang, and the Trickster. Gorilla Grodd first appeared in the pages of The Flash #106, April/May 1959.
The Flash wound up being the cheerful one compared to his contemporaries, easy enough to do when one of them is Batman. His power is superspeed, capable of running at close to the speed of light. As a result, he has time to perform superspeed tricks to nab criminals and fight his Rogues. The Flash is “the fastest man alive“.
Barry Allen gained his powers after being struck by lightning and thrown into chemicals in his crime lab. His day job is a crime lab analyst for the Central City Police Department, giving him a way to get involved in any number of unusual crimes. Such a setup makes for an easy way to adapt a superhero into a pokice procedural.
The 1990 TV series works as one, though with the twist that the investigator is a superhero. Starring John Wesley Shipp as the Flash, the series lasted one season, running twenty-two episodes. The series was ambitious, bringing a comic book aesthetic to living rooms. The series debuted a year after Tim Burton’s Batman was in theatres. Danny Elfman, formerly of Oingo Boingo and responsible for the theme music for Batman also wrote the theme for The Flash.
The pilot episode introduces Barry, the lab accident, and the loss of his brother, Jay (Tim Thomerson) to Nicholas Pike (Michael Nader), the leader of a biker gang trying to take over Central City. Thanks to Barry’s new powers and the help of Dr. Tina McGee (Amanda Pays), Pike is arrested. As the series continues, Barry figures out how to be creative with his superspeed as he takes on criminals, powered and unpowered. Some of his oppenants were created for the series, others, like the Trickster (Mark Hamill channeling Frank Gorshin’s Riddler from the 1996 Batman) and Captain Cold (Michael Champion). The villains, though, do keep up as they learn more about the Flash, finding ways to nullify or avoid his power.
Shipp has the charm to pull off being Barry. The Flash was never the dark defender of justice. Instead, he’s there with a quip, and Shipp carries this role off believably. The costume is padded, given the Flash a muscular look that can inhibit Shipp’s movements at times. The special effects are noticeable almost thirty years later, but do convey the Flash’s superspeed. When he’s running, he is a red blur.
As with other superhero adaptations, changes happened. Iris West (Paula Marshall) appeared only in the pilot and was written as travelling for her career in subsequent episodes. The series plays with a “will they or won’t they” with Barry and Tina, though later lets them be just friends without getting into the drama of the relationship. The Trickster gained a murderous streak, something that his comic counterpart didn’t have, at least for those outside the super-biz.
The look may be the most notable part of the series. It has an aesthetic similar to Batman: The Animated Series, which debuted two years later. The Flash has a mix of modern and classic, covering the years that Barry was the Flash in the comics. The cars are a mix of then-available models mixed with vehicles from the 50s and 60s. Adding to the comic book feel is the murals on walls all over Central City. Central City is a colourful city even before the Flash arrives. The series doesn’t go for shades of muted grey.
Helping with the comic feel is the use of recurring and returning characters. Officers Murphy (Biff Manard) and Bellows (Vito D’Ambrosio) appear at crime scenes that the Flash zips through. The Nightshade (Jason Bernard), Central City’s protector in the 50s, makes two appearances, as does Pike and the Trickster. Private investigator Megan Lockheart (Joyce Hyser) gets involved in a couple of the Flash’s adventures as both help and hindrance. There’s a feel that there’s a bigger world beyond just Barry.
The series also makes nods to what has come before. Streets and places are named after influences, including Carmine Infantino, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein. One street is named after Jay Garrick. The Flash is open about its origins and nature and doesn’t pretend to be anything else but a superhero police procedural.
The Flash may have been ahead of its time. The superhero boom is a product of the New Teens as special effects and CGI became more commonplace. Being the front runner means that building an audience is more difficult, especially when the show is placed up against two powerhourses, The Cosby Show and The Simpsons. The competition may have limited the audience for The Flash at a time when no one was looking at time-shifted viewing through videotape. As an adaptation, the series was ambitious, trying to bring a comic book look without going full camp, something some later series have been trying to duplicate. The Flash may not be accurate, but it does capture the tone of the character and his comic.
Two announcements got the hackles of fans riled up this past week. First, NBCUniversal announced a new Battlestar Galactica series for their new streaming service, Peacock. The other was a remake of The Princess Bride, via Variety.
Let’s start with the latter. Norman Lear, who produced The Princess Bride, is still active and has a vast library of works that he’s considering for remakes. The new One Day At a Time is just the beginning. However, Variety’s story says that there are people who want to remake the movie, not that there is a remake coming. However, the backlash already from the potential remake shows how fraught adaptation can be. The Princess Bride was released in 1987, over thirty years ago. Thirty years is about how long it used to be between remakes. The difference today is that the originals or most loved versions can be found on DVD, Blu-Ray, streaming, and reruns. The Princess Bride is also a beloved film; it touches the heart while being a fond parody of fantasy. When a fan wants to watch The Princess Bride, it’s not difficult to find the original and introduce new people to the movie. A remake doesn’t have a reason to exist.
Which brings us to the new Battlestar Galactica series. The most recent reboot series ran from 2004 to 2010, so not even out of recent memory. That series came about 25 years after the original first aired, again, a generation later. The 2004 series was a critical success, with tight writing and characters who were far too human. The problem is that a new /Galactica/ series is coming far too soon. The intended audience still remembers watching the 2004 series first run.
Between the two, though, other remakes slipped through the cracks, showing the fandom of The Princess Bride and Battlestar Galactica. Other series being remade for the Peacock streaming service include Saved By the Bell and Punky Brewster. Normal Lear is closer to a remake of Maude than a remake of The Princess Bride. The backlash about those three series being remade is non-existent. All three are at least thirty years old and not on a constant stream of reruns. Maybe the lesson here is to avoid the hugely popular series and movies when looking to remake something and go right for something that is known but not familiar. Doing so will give room to make adjustments for the progress of history.
No new column today. Feel free to explore past entries, including this post on expanded universes.