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November 7, 2006

Yeah, I know. I’m still running behind, so let’s get right to the reviews.

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In 1986, Hearst Entertainment (parent company of King Features) and TV animation house Marvel Productions, teamed up to produce 65 episodes of a new syndicated animated adventure series featuring three of Hearst’s longest-running and best-known newspaper comic strip heroes: Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician, and The Phantom. The series also promoted Mandrake’s African manservant/bodyguard, Lothar, to full-hero status, and gave each of the four leads a teenaged child (in bachelor Mandrake’s case, an adopted one). Together, they battled Gordon’s arch-nemesis, Ming the Merciless, as he attempted to conquer the Earth.

That series makes its DVD debut with BCI Eclipse’s DEFENDERS OF THE EARTH: THE COMPLETE SERIES, VOL. 1, which includes the first 33 episodes on five discs.

Unfortunately, despite a very talented crew and a great premise (and a nifty theme song penned by Stan Lee), the show suffers from uninspired or illogical scripts and extremely crude animation. In the style of other 80’s syndicated adventure cartoons, violence is limited to ray blasts against robots (Ming’s Ice Robots, in this case), and each episode must deliver a moral. Two story points in particular that annoyed me: in the first episode, Flash Gordon’s unnamed wife (presumably Dale Arden) is killed by Ming, and her brain patterns somehow imbedded in a crystal, which son Rick Gordon uses as the core personality for the team’s super computer. Aside from wondering what would make her mind suitable for such a purpose, it seemed odd to me that neither Flash nor Rick seem at all disturbed by this. Secondly, the Phantom, who is repeatedly referred to as being an African hero, has the mystical ability to call upon the “strength of ten tigers,” and does so at least once in each episode. Now, it’s been years since junior high, but as I recall, there are no tigers in Africa!

Regardless of the quality of the show itself, BCI’s DVD set, from their Ink and Paint label, is great. The first half of the series (33 episodes) is presented on 5 discs. Presented in the original full-screen TV aspect ratio, the picture quality is generally good, although the source material itself is occasionally littered with dirt and debris inherent in pre-digital era animation. As with BCI’s other recent animation releases like HE-MAN and SHE-RA, the set includes extensive bonus material, as well.

There are video interviews with several of the creators of the show, commentary tracks on two episodes, a short presentation “pilot” created to sell the series, numerous image galleries and bio/trivia text features, and 2 collectible art cards with illustrations by Mike Allred and Rafael Kayanan. There’s supposed to be the first episode of the 70’s FLASH GORDON cartoon on there, too, but I couldn’t seem to find it.

While I can’t really recommend the show to anyone, if you’re a fan of the show from the 80’s or a diehard collector of Flash Gordon, Phantom or Mandrake material, you may want to pick it up. The set is a first-class production all the way.

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Another animated series based on a long-running comic strip comes to DVD courtesy of Classic Media, with THE DICK TRACY SHOW: THE COMPLETE ANIMATED SERIES (1961). The four-disc set includes all 130 5-minute episodes. Unfortunately, as bad as DEFENDERS OF THE EARTH may be, THE DICK TRACY SHOW is far worse.

Designed to be run as segments of locally produced kiddie shows, each episode begins with Dick Tracy at his desk, getting an assignment from his superiors. But, instead of rushing out to apprehend the perpetrators, he uses his two-way wrist radio to assign one of his operatives to the case, instead. That’s right – Dick Tracy almost never leaves his desk. And who are the operatives he sends out to do his job for him? Well, there’s Japanese agent Joe Jitsu, Mexican op Go-Go Gomez and Irish beat cop, Heap O’ Callory… some of the most offensive racial stereotypes ever seen in TV animation.

The animation itself is about as static and stilted as it can be, and the five-minute stories don’t have much time to get complicated. Aside from Tracy’s cameos, the only other link to the famous comic strip is the use of some of its more colorful criminals – Flattop, Mumbles, Pruneface – reduced here to bumbling idiots. It’s not pretty.

And neither are the discs. While Classic Media has gone all out with the packaging – a beautiful hardback case with four single-sided discs and free comic book – the cartoons themselves really show their age, with severely faded colors and minor damage throughout.

For Dick Tracy completists only.

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Two previously released Disney live-action sci-fi favorites from the Seventies have just been paired up in the ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN/RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN – 2 MOVIE COLLECTION (1975/1978).

If you never saw these perennial Disney favorites before, here’s the basics: two blond pre-teen orphans with mysterious mental abilities (including telepathy and telekinesis), Tony (Ike Eisenmann) and Tia (Kim Richards), search for the truth about their origins while trying to elude various criminals intent on exploiting the kids’ powers. In the first film, millionaire Ray Milland (X- THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES) is after the kids, while in the second, Christopher Lee (HORROR OF DRACULA) and Bette Davis (BURNT OFFERINGS) have their greedy hearts set on controlling Tony’s TK talents.

Directed by John Hough (THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE), both films feature primitive 70’s special effects and a certain flat, TV look, yet the stories and characters are still quite engaging, both for nostalgic adults and young children. My niece and nephew, despite being raised on today’s flashy FX-heavy fantasy flicks and video games, loved the movies, watching them so many times my sister begged me to take the disc back.

Disney’s double feature disc is pretty bare-bones, but does offer both films in crystal sharp widescreen (1.78:1 and 1:75:1) anamorphic transfers. The original soundtracks have been remixed in Dolby 5.1 Surround.

Good stuff.

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BCI Eclipse, having had some success with Filmation’s animated offerings, is starting to dip into the studio’s live action Saturday morning fare, beginning with the only-in-the-Seventies post-Apocalyptic actioner, ARK II – THE COMPLETE SERIES (1976).

Set in the 25th Century, after the world has been devastated by pollution and war, three multi-cultural young scientists (Terry Lester, Jean Marie Hon, and Jose Flores) and their talking chimp, Adam, roam the post-Apocalyptic wasteland in a super-advanced RV, bringing the benefits of science and good morals to the primitive remnants of humanity. That’s right – it’s DAMNATION ALLEY for adolescents!

Surprisingly, the show holds up pretty well. Despite the low budget, the production values are quite good, and the Ark and its accessories are pretty impressive gadgets, even today. The earnest young cast manages to play their underwritten roles with conviction, and, thankfully, the chimpanzee is never all that annoying. Scripts range from quite good to insultingly bad, but are usually somewhere in the middle, and despite the grim setting, the stories all offer hope and a solid moral lesson. Fortunately, these “lessons” are not as heavy handed as in later Filmation shows, and are delivered without the usual sledgehammer tactics. Guest stars include Jonathan Harris, Malachi Throne, Geoffrey Lewis, Jim Backus and a teenaged Helen Hunt.

BCI has placed all 15 episodes on 4 discs. Unfortunately, the transfers are not very impressive. Presented in their original full-screen TV aspect ratio, the source material is faded and grainy, although relatively free of damage or debris. Still, considering that the show is nearly 30 years old, and was probably shot on a budget of $100 bucks an episode, we’re probably lucky the episodes look as good as they do.

As with their animated Filmation releases, ARK II – THE COMPLETE SERIES, comes with an bunch of bonus features, including audio commentaries on two episodes, a full-length “Making Of” documentary, several photo and art galleries, and all 15 scripts, plus the series bible, on DVD-ROM.

Ultimately, ARK II is good kid’s show and a relatively decent example of 70’s TV sci-fi, and I really enjoyed watching these episodes again. If it’s a fond memory from your childhood, you may want to pick it up, despite the less-than-reference-quality transfers.

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Universal’s excellent science fiction series continues along with BATTLESTAR GALACTICA SEASON 2.5 (2006), as our rag-tag fleet of human survivors discover a second surviving Battlestar, the Pegasus, which offers the desperate Colonials hope that they can finally turn the tables on their Cylon pursuers.

Of course, in the grim GALACTICA universe, that just isn’t the way things work.

The commander of the Pegasus (Michelle Forbes) just might be a homicidal psycho, there’s continuing political unrest in the fleet, the Cylon prisoner is about to give birth, the President (Mary McDonnell) is dying of cancer, the black market is out of control, there are Cylon moles in the fleet… and the Colonials may have just found a planet they can call home. Maybe.

Ronald E. Moore’s “re-imagining” of the Seventies space adventure series remains one of television’s top dramas, with a powerful cast and challenging, grown-up scripts that take the show to a dramatic level far above pretty much anything else in the genre. Loaded with political and social allegory (as the best sci-fi always is), BATTLESTAR GALACTICA should be required viewing for anyone who enjoys good television.

SEASON 2.5 presents the second half of the second season on DVD, with stunning 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers and pounding Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound. Each episode is accompanied by an audio commentary (podcast) by producer Moore, deleted scenes and more. The set also includes Moore’s video blogs, several featurettes, and an extended version of the midseason episode, “Pegasus.”

If, like me, you don’t get Sci-Fi Channel, you owe it to yourself to follow BATTLESTAR GALACTICA on DVD. Hell, it’s even better than watching it on TV – no commercials!

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BCI Eclipse has recently unleashed upon an unsuspecting and unprepared public the science fiction spoof GALAXINA (1980) in a special “25th & 1/2 Anniversary Edition.”

I first read about this film – as with many others – in Starlog magazine when I was a teen, and ended up waiting 26 years to actually see it. The movie is known (by those who know of it at all) as being one of the very few film vehicles for actress Dorothy R. Stratten, the lovely Playboy Playmate and Bogdanovich protégé who was murdered by her husband shortly before the movie was released.

Unfortunately, GALAXINA is terrible; a remarkably unfunny comedy from William Sachs, the director of THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN (another movie I only know about from old Starlogs) and good old Crown International Pictures.

Strratten portrays the title character, the shapely android pilot of the intergalactic police cruiser Infinity. While she’s both beautiful and competent at her job, the rest of the crew are neither. Captain Cornelius Butt (Avery Schreiber, CAVEMAN) is an idiot, and his officers Thor (Stephan Macht, THE MONSTER SQUAD) and Buzz (J.D. Hinton) are almost as bad. But Galaxina and Thor nonetheless have feelings for one another, feelings they cannot act upon, because physical contact causes the android to short circuit. After a visit to an alien brothel, the crew of the Infinity is assigned to find a magical artifact, the Blue Star, and keep it out of the hands of the resident Darth Vader clone.

While there’s some potential in here, it’s almost completely squandered by director Sachs, who has no apparent sense of comedy timing whatsoever. The characters and humor are crude, the gags are cliché, and while Stratten is undeniably beautiful to look at, her role as a robot seems to stretch her limited emoting abilities. There are a couple of decent alien designs by Chris Walas (in particular, the “Rock Biter”), and a few jokes that almost work, but overall, the film remains notable only for its association with its tragic leading lady.

BCI’s classy 25th Anniversary Special Edition treats the film like a comedy masterpiece, however, with a sharp, clean 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. There’s also a boatload of bonus features. There’s a commentary track by director Sachs and actor Stephen Macht (God love ‘em, they still think this movie is funny!), another audio interview with Sachs, additional footage from the international version, the theatrical trailer, and four still galleries. DVD ROM features include the original script and shooting script, as well as reprints of the above-mentioned Starlog articles. Finally, there’s a 6-page booklet with stills and a biography of Stratten.

Once again, we’ve got a bad movie in a fantastic DVD package. Recommended only for people interested in the late Dorothy Stratten… or fans of Avery Schreiber. If there are any.

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New from VCI is the 50’S SCI-FI DOUBLE FEATURE: KING DINOSAUR/THE JUNGLE (1952/1955), which features two rare and offbeat flicks from the fab Fifties.

KING DINOSAUR is the simple tale of four astronauts (two male, two female) who journey to the planet Nova, which has recently wandered into our solar sytem and taken up residence. Via the magic of stock footage, our intrepid but bickering heroes arrive on Nova, which looks remarkably like L.A.’s Griffith park. There they encounter bears, lemurs, owls, snakes, and a transparent, optically enlarged insect. Soon, because the movie is called KING DINOSAUR, they travel to an island in the middle of a lake where they encounter giant gila monsters, baby crocodiles, monitor lizards, armadillos(!), and an iguana pretending to be a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The movie is only an hour long, but I fell asleep twice. Director Bert I. Gordon went on to direct such other classics as THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE and EMPIRE OF THE ANTS.

The companion feature on this digital double bill is William Berke’s THE JUNGLE, a 73 minute epic shot on location in the wilds of India. The American cast includes Marie Windsor (CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON), slick Ceasar Romero (TV’s Joker from the original BATMAN show) and beefy Rod Cameron. Together, they journey into the wilderness in search of prehistoric wooly mammoths (in India!). Slow and talky, with tons of travelogue-styled footage of natives and wild animals (including some gruesome shots of local fauna fighting to the death), THE JUNGLE is pretty much a snooze-fest, too.

KING DINOSAUR is presented in a sharp, B&W 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer culled from the original 35mm negative. Considering the shoestring budget, the movie looks great, with the exception of some of the older stock footage. THE JUNGLE is presented, for the first time on home video, in full-frame 1.33:1 format and color-tinted in sepia tone.

To make up for the tepid features, VCI has included a number of extras, including a text interview with THE JUNGLE star Marie Windsor, a bunch of still and poster galleries, trailers, and several text bios.

Again, another nice package of less-than-exciting films, but if you’re hooked on 50’s sci-fi, at least the disc is cheap.

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I first recall hearing about SUPER INFRAMAN (JUNG-GWOK CHIU-YAN, 1975) on an episode of Siskel & Ebert’s SNEAK PREVIEWS when the flick was released to U.S. drive-ins (as INFRA-MAN) back in the mid-Seventies. I vividly remember a brief clip of the titular hero battling a bunch of bad guys in monster suits, and that Gene Siskel was sneering at this goofily giddy Hong Kong super-hero flick, while Roger Ebert sang its praises. I knew I had to see it.

Unfortunately, if it ever played theatrically in Central Maine, I missed seeing the ads in the newspaper. If I had seen such an advertisement, I know I would have begged my mom to take me to see it. Fortunately for her, I never did.

When the home video boom came along some years later, I saw the Prism VHS pre-record of INFRA-MAN in pretty much every video store I walked into. But, oddly, I never bothered to rent it. You see, I’d grown up a bit since the film’s U.S. run in 1975-76, and I thought I was above such things. (This was around the same time that I turned my back on cartoons, too.) But, by the early 90’s, I was once again happily indulging my inner child, and when I came across a used copy of the tape for sale in a South Florida video store for about $5, I bought it, took it home, and gave it a screening.

Man, what fun!

The story begins when the mysterious Princess Dragon Mom appears and threatens the world with her army of monsters and skeleton-men. (“Greetings to you, Earthlings, I am Princess Dragon Mom. I have taken over this planet. Now I own the Earth and you’ll be my slaves for all eternity.”) In response to this awesome threat, the governments of Earth cede all authority to the smartest man in the world, Professor Chang, and his Science Patrol – a group of athletic young Asian men dressed in Vegas-era Elvis-styled uniforms (one of whom would soon go on to gain exploitation film fame as “Bruce Le!”). Professor Chang persuades one of his blindly obedient operatives (future HK superstar Danny Lee of MIGHTY PEKING MAN and John Woo’s THE KILLER) to submit to extensive operations which turn him into the “bionic” super-hero, Infra-Man.

With his stylin’ new suit of red and silver, AM-FM equipped helmet, and newfound powers of flight, super kung fu, bionic backflips and “thunderball” fists (it is not revealed whether these include goldfingers – ha! Get it?), the invincible Infra-Man is unleashed upon the monstrous minions of Princess Dragon Mom, who are – let’s face it – simply overmatched.

Call it the ultimate lazy Saturday afternoon veg-out flick. Ninety minutes of kung fu fightin’, rubber monsters, mad science, cheesy special effects, and swingin’ Seventies sci-fi schtick… I mean, seriously – what more could anyone possibly want from a movie?

Produced by Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio, home of hundreds of kung fu flicks, SUPER INFRAMAN was an attempt to duplicate the success of Japanese super-hero shows like ULTRAMAN and KAMEN RIDER, which all featured garishly-costumed heroes who battled rubber-suited monsters. Shaw Brothers even imported some Japanese talent to help whip up their creature costumes. Ultimately, though, it was the studio’s (and the country’s) only full-fledged attempt at the genre… and that’s a shame.

For, while it may have been an imitation of Japanese super-hero shows, the final film had a unique Hong Kong vibe and distinct identity of its own.

Image Entertainment (as part of their Shaw Brothers collection) has now released SUPER INFRAMAN on a really nice widescreen DVD. The print and transfer are virtually flawless, with bright colors and sharp details, and it’s even cooler looking in its proper “Shaw Scope” aspect ratio. The film is presented in its original Mandarin with subtitles… and in the wonderfully comic book-ish English dub, which, for once, is actually preferable, as the Mandarin dialogue – if the subtitles are accurate – is rather straight-forward and dry. The English track is much more fun, with over-the top dialogue and goofy voices for the monsters.

Extras include a bunch of trailers for other Shaw Brothers films (in Mandarin without subtitles), an image gallery, and informative liner notes by August Ragone and Damon Foster.

Highly recommended.

Next week, I’ll finally get to my Halloween horror suggestions, including FRANKENHOOKER, SLITHER, THE WOODS, THE LAST BROADCAST, two Boris Karloff collections, and THE GROOVIE GOOLIES. Better late than never, right?

Right?

C’mon… work with me here….

Comments about this column or DVD-related questions? Feel free to contact me at dvdlateshow@atomicpulp.com.

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