Jonny Quest: The Invisible Monster & Less is More

I’ve been recently re-watching the original Jonny Quest cartoons from the sixties.  I haven’t seen many of them since I was a kid, and some hold up fairly well, while others . . . ehhh.  There are more than a few dated and embarrassing ethnic stereotypes.

Anyway, one of my favorites is “The Invisible Monster”.  A scientist on an isolated tropical island accidentally creates an invisible energy creature.  The monster seeks out all energy around it and consumes it–including the energy in living bodies.  You only know it’s around by a weird, alien cry it makes and the burning footprints in the dirt.

This creepiness, by the way, is in what was intended as a kid’s show.  Adult themes are nothing new to JQ.  The creators (most prominently Doug Wildey, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera) intended it that way.  They succeed rather admirably in several episodes, including this one. 

The episode follows a fairly standard monster movie formula.  The protagonists (Doctor Quest, Race Bannon, Jonny Quest, Hadji and Bandit the dog) are radioed by the luckless scientist.  His creation kills him before he finishes explaining.  They rush to the island and discover the invisible monster.  Dr. Quest (being the prototypical heroic scientist) figures out what happened and comes up with a way to defeat it.

Despite a run time of only 25 minutes, the episode does an excellent job of building tension.  The monster isn’t seen until near the end, with only its destruction to portray it.  When finally seen, it’s not quite as frightening.  The animators did a decent job of creating an inhuman blob of energy, but it comes across more as an angry scoop of ice cream.  Limitations of animation budget.  Plus I assume they didn’t want to scare the crap out of the little nippers.

Even with these limitations, the episode scared me as a kid.  It was my first encounter with the “less is more” approach to horror and tension.  William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, one said that “Horror is watching something approach”.  A good summation of the concept here.  Something you don’t see is much worse than what you do.  Even when I encountered this in my youth, I realized the power it possessed.  Other ‘golden age’ examples are The Thing From Another World and Forbidden Planet.  Less is more.

A concept so simple that a children’s cartoon can encapsulate it.

Here’s a link to watch it online.  Enjoy.

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Island of Terror: A Nifty Horror Movie

Island of Terror scared the shit out of me when I was a kid.  In fact, I only made it through a few scenes before running to the other side of the house and hiding.  I didn’t remember the name for years.  Only with the advent of the internet could I track it down and watch it all the way through.  Even that took a lot of keyword searches.

This doesn’t make it a great movie.  It’s decent because of some atmospheric tricks, pacing and passable acting.  Honestly, I’ll watch anything with Peter Cushing–the man turns in a solid performance in every movie.  If Peter appeared in an insurance infomercial, I’d watch it. 

Terence Fisher is a veteran director of Hammer horror movies.  He turns in a decent showing with this, even with its flaws. 

The basic plot is familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with science fiction movies of the 50s.  Scientific researchers on a remote island accidentally create monsters.  Said monsters run amok.  Heroic scientists come to the rescue.  The monsters are unstoppable, until the heroes discover that one weakness.  Monsters are defeated.  Roll credits.

A rather unpleasant and unusual form of demise helps to sell the beasts.  Bodies start turning up with no bones left.  So they look like Silly Putty in clothes.  Slow reveals also help to maintain the tension during the first half.  Nobody gets a decent look at the critters until the halfway point.  You merely see their handiwork and hear creepy sounds.  I’ve seen better movie monsters, but then again I’ve also seen worse.

Turns out these nasties are “silicates”.  They’re composed of silicon and chow down on humans for the calcium in the bones.  The special effects team did their best to make them look like single-celled animals with flagellum.  Unfortunately, they come across a bit more like tortoises with tentacle heads.  I suspect they did the best they could with a limited budget.

The silicates are slow, but unstoppable.  The island’s single boat isn’t available, trapping everyone.  (This is a bit contrived.  How many island communities only have one boat?)  Like amoebas, the silicates divide to reproduce, growing at a geometric pace.  The breakthrough occurs when a silicate is found deadpoisoned by snacking on an irradiated test dog.  Being a 50s formula, one can expect radiation as a staple.

The scientists dose up a bunch of cattle with strontium-90 and feed them to the silicates.  All of the island survivors hole up in the town hall, hoping the strontium will work.  The silicates close in, followed by much screaming and panicking.  Until the creatures succumb.

We have the obligatory denouement, where the heroes talk about the dangers of science.  Then we have a: “If it hadn’t been an island, we couldn’t have stopped them.”  As it turns out, scientists in Tokyo were cooperating and performing identical experiments.  The movie ends with a Japanese scientist entering a lab after hearing creepy sounds.  Screams follow.

The movie did leave me with one or two questions.  One is the idea that an island community only has one boat.  Another is how do cancer researches end up accidentally creating silicon monsters?  Seems a rather roundabout method of research.

Despite its flaws, it’s enjoyable enough.  Check it out.

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Moment of Coolness: Xanadu Dancin’ Scene

Xanadu is a cheesy movie.  Make no mistake, this movie is a quintessential 80s cheese movie.  It oozes–nay, fountains–with cheese.

I still love it.

However, there is one scene in particular that stood out for me.  Rose a bit above the standard cheese.  It’s the “Dancin'” scene featuring The Tubes.  First off, the inclusion of The Tubes is a weird choice because, well, they’re a friggin’ weird-ass band.  Aside from the one single “She’s a Beauty”, they aren’t what you call a mainstream band.  They mostly fit comfortably in ‘cult’ status.

The rest of the music in the movie, by contrast, is very much mainstream for the eighties.  Not that I dislike ELO and Olivia Newton-John, but they’re not exactly edgy.  The Tubes, on the other hand, skate uncomfortably on the edge of pornography from time to time.

Plus, Gene Kelly is in this movie.  Yes, that Gene Kelly.  Dancin’ in the goddamn rain Gene Kelly.  In fact, this was essentially his last movie.  Old bastard could still dance, too, as he did a dancing scene with Olivia in the movie as well, which was also kinda cool.  Gene is not an actor one usually associates with anything the slightest bit ‘edgy’.

But I digress.

Anyway, the scene goes that the two characters Danny (Michael Beck of The Warriors ‘fame’) and Sonny (Gene Kelly) are out searching for the perfect spot for his new nightclub.  They find an old wrestling arena and look around it.  The two of them have two different images of the music for the club.  Sonny wants a Big Band, bandstand and a retro-forties look.  Danny wants a rock band in spandex and leather.  The two different bands appear in the darkness of the club as they’re individually described.

Then the scenes go back and forth from the Big Band to The Tubes, each doing different numbers.  Then, the two scenes ‘bump into’ one another and ‘merge’, both musically and physically.  the two sets slide into one another and the dancers and musicians sync up their songs.  This is all done with mechanical effects and choreography, long before CGI or anything close. 

The overall effect is . . . surprisingly good.  Still dated and cheesy, but not at all bad.  A very interesting use of compare/contrast that links up nicely.  It rises above the level of the movie quite nicely. 

Check it out.

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