Monday, March 28, 2011

Movie Monday: The Black Hole

This week's Movie Monday subject is the cult classic(?) The Black Hole!

My informal rule for Movie Mondays was to only cover films I've never seen before. But when I was deciding what to recap this week, I remembered that while I have seen The Black Hole, its probably not been since I first saw it in the theaters as a wee lad.

I guess I was pretty into the movie, too--and that's not just my (quite possibly faulty, colored by nostalgia) memory talking. There's empirical evidence:
...that's me, age eight or nine, rocking a Black Hole t-shirt at our cabin in the Poconos. Our dog Patrick has other concerns.

So I thought it'd be fun to revisit a movie I haven't seen in at least thirty years, and see how--if--it holds up. So without further ado, The Black Hole!
In the year 2130, the spaceship Palamino is on its way back from a mission in deep space. The crew consists of Captain Holland (Robert Forster), Lt. Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), empath Dr. Kate MaCree (Yvette Mimieux), journalist Harry Booth (crusty homophobe Ernest Borgnine), and a robot assistant named V.I.N.C.E.N.T. (featuring the uncredited voice of Roddy McDowell).

The ship's sensors detect a nearby black hole; even more shocking is the existence of another spaceship which is somehow defying the black hole's enormous gravitational pull:
They determine the ship is the USS Cygnus, thought long-lost. Aboard the Cygnus was Dr. MaCree's father.

The Palomino is damaged by the black hole's gravity field, but it manages to reach the Cygnus, which suddenly comes roaring to life. Its at this point we get some, frankly, visually astonishing shots of this movie's ornate and sometimes downright beautiful architecture, involving some fantastic matte work:
The Cygnus' look is that of a futuristic Jules Verne; as if Captain Nemo was commanding a spaceship and not a sub. Indeed, the Cygnus' captain, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell) looks a bit like a Jules Verne character, and definitely has that patented Captain Nemo Crazy Look:
Reinhardt explains all his crew was killed when it encountered the black hole; and his entire crew is made up of robots he built himself, including the imposing Maximillian, who never seems too far from Reinhardt. Additionally on board is B.O.B., this ship's version of V.I.N.C.E.N.T., who seems unlike the rest, in that he hints that Reinhardt is not what he claims to be.

Reinhardt has been planning a trip into the black hole, convinced he and his ship can survive this ultimate feat of exploration. Everyone aboard the Palomino thinks this is completely crazy--except for Durant, who seems to quickly fall under Reinhardt's spell, becoming obsessed with the idea of traveling into a black hole.

B.O.B. tells the Palomino crew that Reinhardt's crew didn't die in a giant accident--rather, Reinhardt killed them all and used their bodies as hosts for his robots. V.I.N.C.E.N.T. relays this to Dr. MaCree, who in turn tells Durant, in a last gasp effort to get him back to the Palomino (scheduled to leave by Captain Holland, who is equally suspicious of Reinhardt).

Durant, snapped out of his spell, grabs a nearby robot servant, and beneath its face mask he sees:
...okay, maybe this is not the most shocking or gruesome make-up you've ever seen, but still pretty heady stuff for a Disney movie.

Durant and MaCree try to leave Reinhardt's bridge, but Maximillian steps in, whirling an arm made up of razor-sharp blades. It cuts through Durant's book of notes, right into Durant (Disney!), killing him instantly. Reinhardt orders MaCree to be taken down into the ship's hold and be brainwashed in anticipation of her transformation.

V.I.N.C.E.N.T informs Captain Holland of this, and he rescues MaCree while tussling with some of the robots, leaving one of them in the way of a laser:
Booth begins to panic, and takes off in the Palomino, leaving his shipmates behind. But Booth doesn't know how to control the ship, and it crashes into the Cygnus, killing him.

The crash also destroys the Cygnus' portside anti-gravity field, leaving the ship unbalanced. A meteor shower begins to hit the Cygnus, causing the entire bubble to collapse. With nothing to protect it, the black hole begins to pull the Cygnus apart.

Both Reinhardt and the Palomino survivors plan to use a small craft attached to the Cygnus, but a large piece of debris falls onto Reinhardt, trapping him. He calls out to Maximillian for help, while Holland, MaCree, and Pizer barely escape to the escape pod, dodging a massive fireball ripping its way through the ship:
These scenes look better, more real, than most of the last decade's worth of CGI-heavy SFX movies. How is that possible?

Anyway, the three crewmembers learn that the pod is programmed by Reinhardt to go into the black hole, and there's no way to stop it. They resign themselves to the fact they're about to die.

Meanwhile, Maxmillian and Reinhardt float into the black hole together, and when we see them again they have somehow merged like Reinhardt's lobotomized shipmates:
As the camera pans back, we see Maximillian standing atop some sort of rock formation, in what looks like a landscape from Hell itself: molten rock, fire, and smoke. It doesn't make a whole lot of logical sense, but its nonetheless a very creepy, weird final scene for the villain of the movie.

The film's final sequence is mostly sans dialogue, as Holland and his crew experience what seems like a trip through Hell then Heaven, only to emerge out the other side of the black hole, near what seems to be a habitable planet.

Its a very ambiguous ending, unusual for most sci-fi movies other than 2001 and very unusual when you consider this was a Disney film clearly meant to cash in on the post-Star Wars sci-fi craze.

Overall, I was pretty impressed with The Black Hole--its an ambitious film, both visually and thematically. It doesn't quite work as a rip-roaring sci-fi adventure: the action scenes are perfunctory and boringly staged, and the score is pretty lame, shocking that it came from music legend John Barry.

Many of the robot characters are too derivative of ones from Star Wars: V.I.N.C.E.N.T., the robot guards, and Maximillian are clearly meant to seem like R2-D2, the Stormtroopers, and Darth Vader, respectively. The laser gun battles are also very boringly staged: basically just long shots as the SFX team drops in little bolts of energy across the screen. And I never really bought Reinhardt was anything but a mad man: from his first scene, he's clearly cuckoo for cocoa-puffs, and Schell is basically playing every scene in the same, quietly crazy manner.

All that said, the film is still quite enjoyable: surprisingly intense and even a little nasty for a Disney movie, with visuals that are, as I said above, at times breathtaking. The model builders and matte artists did an amazing job on The Black Hole, and while the film does occasionally veer into Star Trek: The Motion Picture territory (i.e., too many shots of fancy SFX just for the sake of fancy SFX) for the most part the film keeps the story moving and doesn't let the sets overwhelm the movie.

I probably loved The Black Hole as a kid--the film is pretty damn good. No wonder I wanted a shirt!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Movie Monday: Robinson Crusoe On Mars

This week's Movie Monday subject is the underrated 1964 sci-fi adventure Robinson Crusoe on Mars!

I had never seen this film until the 90s, when it was released on a Criterion laser disc featuring some beautiful jacket art and some stills that made it look really interesting to me. Criterion didn't usually put their brand on "B" sci-fi films, so its inclusion told me there was something special about this film.
The film opens in a space ship as it orbits Mars. The first person we see and hear is none other than...Adam West!!
West plays astronaut Dan MacRedy, recording a mission log. Moments later we're introduced to his fellow astronaut, Christopher "Kit" Draper (Paul Mantee), as well as their quasi-mascot, a chimp named Mona.

In order to avoid a meteor, their ship uses all its fuel, leaving them stuck in orbit. Having no choice but to land on the Mars surface, they each depart, but McRedy is killed in a crash, leaving Draper all alone...the first--and only--man on Mars.

Right here the film is tweaking with our expectations: West is introduced first, and he's certainly the more typical leading man. You think he's going to be the main character, only to be killed off, a little dramatic sleight of hand Alien would use to great effectiveness in the next decade.
Draper learns to survive on the harsh Martian terrain. He determines how much air, food, and water he has left, recording a log for posterity. He figures he only has a few days worth of air left, even if he sleeps most of the time.

Strangely, Mona the monkey seems to not require food or water, disappearing for hours at a time. He follows her, seeing she has discovered an underground pond. With the additional realization that a particular type of rock, when burned, gives off oxygen,
Draper realizes he has the ability to stay alive for a while.

This film, directed by War of the Worlds' Byron Haskin, features some very beautiful images. Combining sets with matte paintings and back projection, some of the more quiet passages (like when
Draper wanders the surface of the planet) are visually striking:
Draper goes looking for McRedy, assuming he has landed somewhere else on the planet and is surviving as well. But when he finds McRedy's crashed ship, he finds his friend did not survive:
Now utterly alone, Draper starts to go a little mad, driven to fits of anger every time his "floating supermarket" (his ship, still in orbit) flies past.

At one point, McRedy walks into
Draper's cave, leaving him overjoyed, not even questioning how this could have happened. When McRedy just stands there, completely silent, its only then that Draper realizes he's hallucinating.
Months pass, and during one of his walks he finds a rock sitting in an unnatural position. Under it is a skeleton's hand, wearing a black bracelet. Determining that this creature was murdered, Draper suddenly realizes he may not be so alone, ordering his orbiting ship to self-destruct to hide his presence.

Shortly thereafter, Draper sees a ship begin to land. At first thinking its a rescue ship, he's shocked to see its an alien ship, presiding over a pack of slaves who are being forced to mine. One of the slaves (Victor Lundin) escapes, and Draper takes him in:
By the bracelet he wears, Draper realizes just who this guy is. Naming him Friday (of course), Draper begins teaching his new friend English.

In a film filled with visual delight, its the appearance of Friday that, to me, is the only letdown: his costume is bare bones, looking like it was off the rack at the studio costume department. Maybe a little more visual punch would have been appropriate.

Anyway, Draper and Friday learn to like each other, and become friends. Friday even introduces Draper to air pills, which provide oxygen. Later, the alien ships (looking similar to the Martian invaders in War of the Worlds, a coincidence?) return, tracking Friday by his bracelet.

They blow up Draper's cave, forcing them to run through the canals of Mars, which aren't the safest of places:
Draper rescues Friday from the sort-of quicksand, and they eventually run all the way to Mars' ice caps, building a small shelter. While hidden from the alien ships, Draper manages to cut off Friday's bracelet. Just when things are looking up, a meteor crashes nearby, melting much of the ice caps.

But then, Draper sees a ship in the distance. When he hears a human voice over his radio, he realizes its a ship from Earth coming to rescue him!:
As Mars recedes in the distance, we reach...The End!

Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a lot of fun, filled with solid performances (one, really) and some gorgeous visuals. Like Cast Away decades later, it gambles that we'll want to follow just this one person for a long time, and actor Paul Mantee pulls it off. Why he didn't become a bigger star after this is a mystery to me (and kind of to him, too, as he mentions on the DVD commentary track)--an actor couldn't ask for a better showcase than a movie like this.

The film leaves a lot of things unanswered, which is also pretty atypical for 50s/60s sci-fi: who are these aliens, exactly? Where are they from? The fact that there isn't some giant space battle at the end is another example of this film being a bit different tonally than a lot of other sci-fi movies of the time.

I've watched Robinson Crusoe on Mars several times now, and I'm always charmed by its simple story and wonderful visuals. Definitely offbeat, it rewards sci-fi fans who want something a little different.

My original intention was to do profiles of several Mars-themed movies all in a row, but at one post a week that would tie Movie Monday up for months. So while I'm going to cover something else next week, pretty soon we'll be returning to the red planet!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Movie Monday: House of Long Shadows

For this week's Movie Monday is the 1983 almost-classic House of Long Shadows!

I say "almost classic" because, as we'll see, this films comes so close to be a completely winning, ghoulish good time of a movie: after all, its the first, last, and only film to have horror icons Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine all together.
The film opens on our main character: a top-selling mystery novelist named Kenneth Magee (Desi Arnaz Jr.) as he is being escorted around London on one of his book tours. Despite his fame and wealth--or maybe because of it--Magee seems bored and more than a little spoiled.

He has dinner with his publisher (Richard Todd) who challengers Magee to try something new (clearly, this movie is a fantasy). Magee boasts that if properly motivated, he could dash off a Wuthering Heights-esque classic potboiler in less than 24 hours. His publisher bets him $20K he can't, and offers to put Magee up in a remote castle so he'll have total solitude. Magee agrees to the bet.
Magee heads there on the proverbial dark and stormy night, running into a young couple at a bus station, as well as a mysterious figure who utters grim, tight-lipped warnings about Grisbane Manor.

Magee ignores all this, arriving at the manor ready to work. But he finds the place isn't quite so uninhabited: living there is a woman named Victoria (Sheila Keith) and her uncle, Lord Grisbane (John Carradine):
Apparently Lord Grisbane and Victoria have been taking care of the place for decades, but they won't quite say why such a vast, empty manor needs such devoted housekeeping. Magee sets down to work, but the interruptions are just starting: there's a knock at the door, and on the other side of it is Lord Grisbane's son Sebastian (Peter Cushing):

Soon after Lord Grisbane's other son, Lionel, arrives, played by Vincent Price:

(I wonder how Carradine, who was only six years older than Price and eight more than Cushing, felt about playing the father of his fellow boogeymen. Considering some of the utter garbage Carradine appeared in, maybe he was just happy for the work)

Anyway, more people arrive--this place is like Grand Central Station--like Magee's publisher's assistant, sent there to scare Magee out of staying and working on the book, as well as a potential buyer of the property, a creepy guy named Corrigan (Christopher Lee):
One of the main problems of the movie becomes very evident at this point: we've finally got Carradine, Cushing, Lee, and Price together, but we're already forty minutes into a 100-minute movie. So much time was wasted on set-up and the vain attempt to make Desi Arnaz Jr. a leading man.

Anyway, the Grisbane brothers reveal why they are here: to release their other brother, Roderick, who has been imprisoned in the manor for over forty years. Apparently Roderick killed a young girl when he was 14 and the family dealt with it by imprisoning him.

But when they go to Roderick's cell, they find...its empty!
They decide to call the police (oh, now they do it!), but the phone is dead. Then it all goes to hell: Lord Grisbane dies of a heart attack, Victoria is found strangled, and the tires of everyone's cars are slashed.

The young couple Magee met at the bus station have also arrived, only for them to be killed: the young woman washes her face with what turns out to be acid, in a fairly gruesome sequence:
The young man is killed by drinking poison punch, leaving the remaining group to search the hidden passageways of the castle to find and kill Roderick.

Sebastian is killed after he gets separated from the group and ends up hung by the neck. Corrigan reveals he is, in fact, long lost brother Roderick, killing Lionel and then going after Magee:
Sebastian is killed after he gets separated from the group and ends up hung by the neck. Corrigan reveals he is, in fact, long lost brother Roderick, killing Lionel and then going after Magee.

Magee manages to knock Corrigan down the stairs (Desi Arnaz beating Christopher Lee in a fight? Sure), seemingly ending this whole nightmare. But then something happens--which I will not reveal here, though it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out--that shocks Magee:
This scene of Arnaz digesting what's really been going on seems to be about five minutes long.

In the end, Magee wins the bet by writing a new book, one that, this time, he's really proud of:
...The End!

The idea of putting these four horror icons into one movie is great, and the plot, while not great, is serviceable enough to be carried by these legends. Ironically, other than the acid scene, this movie isn't very gory: relying more on shadows (long ones, yes) and creepy noises, director Pete Walker makes this movie more of a throwback to the haunted house horror thrillers of the 1930s--right at the time when mainstream horror was hitting its apogee of blood and gore.

So all those elements work, and the movie gets a lot of mileage just by having Lee, Price, and Cushing all the in same shot several times--its just a real kick seeing these guys all together.

But like I said above, it takes too damn long to get them all together, and Desi Arnaz Jr. is just not enough of an actor to fill the space while we're waiting for the creepy guys to show up. He acquits himself well enough, but in retrospect it seems so odd the movie didn't cast someone more familiar and comfortable with horror, someone who doesn't stick out like a severed sore thumb in a film like this.

And while it remains a big missed opportunity, House of Long Shadows is still a lot of fun if you're an old-school horror fan.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Movie Monday: 7 Faces of Dr. Lao

For this week's newly-christened Movie Monday is the 1964 George Pal curio 7 Faces of Dr. Lao!

If you've never seen this film but are at all familiar with the fanciful work of George Pal, you may think you have an idea what this movie is. I can confidently say you're wrong.

Right from the get-go, when see our first glimpse of Dr. Lao (Tony Randall), we get an idea of what kind of movie we might be in for: Dr. Lao lights his pipe, using nothing more than his thumb:
Dr. Lao, aboard his donkey and carrying a fishbowl (we'll get to that in a minute), wobbles into the old west Arizona town of Abalone and we get a series of charming opening credits:
Some of the local townfolk find Lao a strange sight...and sound. When you first hear Randall's "ah sooo" stereotypical Asian accent, you kind of cringe, thinking this is going to be a reprise of Mickey Rooney's...un-nuanced, let's say--character from Breakfast at Tiffany's. But soon we'll see nothing in this movie--nothing--is what it first seems.

In fact, the movie comments on Randall's role right off: one of the townsfolk refers to Lao as "a Jap." Another one says, "Naw, he's Chinese." When asked how he knows that, the guy replies, "'Cause I ain't stupid."

Anyway, Lao heads for the office of the local paper, which is a tiny, shambolic enterprise, with a printing press on its last legs and only one reporter and one editor...the same guy, the strapping and idealistic Ed Cunningham (John Ericson).

Before Lao can talk to Cunningham and his partner Tim (Noah Beery Jr.), more urgent business is attended to, in the form of Clint Stark (Arthur O'Connell), a super-rich businessman who's been busy trying to buy up the town, house by house, acre by acre. He's not thrilled with Cunningham's latest editorial, suggesting people not sell their home to the highest bidder.
He and his two goons try and lean on our two newspapermen, to no effect...for now.

After they leave, Lao (who has been quietly watching all this drama) says he wants to buy an ad promoting his circus. At first Cunningham aims low, suggesting just a single column ad. He is thrilled when Lao wants to buy two full pages, and doesn't blink when he's told its costs fifty bucks. In fact, his pockets seem to be filled with currency, of all types. He pays and leaves, but not before Cunningham asks where he's from.

Lao gives him the name of a small village in China, which Cunningham looks up at the local library, run by the widow Angela Benedict (a ravishing Barbara Eden). He makes what seems like his daily play for Angela, but she's having none of it. Cunningham's research shows that the town Lao mentioned has been non-existent for centuries...what's going on here?

That night, the town has a meeting about whether to sell the whole of the town to Stark. Angela makes an impassioned speech against, but is shouted down by the crowd when Stark makes a slimy yet smooth sales pitch, acting as though he's doing them all a favor taking their soon-to-be-worthless land (the town is facing a water supply problem) from them.

Cunningham brings someone to argue for his side, an Indian whose ancestors lived on the land long before Abelone was founded. It doesn't do much; in fact, after the meeting, Stark's goons try to rough the Indian up. Luckily Lao steps in, using what can't be anything other than superpower-like abilities: he freezes both thugs in their tracks, knocking one of them down with a puff of smoke:

The next morning, Cunningham visits Lao, and sees no less than The Abominable Snowman knocking in tent poles!:

Whoever did the designs for Star Trek's "Mugato" character, I can only assume they saw this movie.

After he/it scampers off, Cunningham talks to Lao, trying to figure out who he is and why he's come. Lao is evasive, but charmingly so. Cunningham notices mid-stream Lao has lost his accent, now speaking perfect English. Lao responds by slipping right back into this thick accent.
Before he leaves, he also meets an old man who claims to be no less than Merlin (Randall again, in superb old age make-up). Merlin appears in a puff of smoke, and disappears the same way.

Later that day, Angela's young son Mike (Kevin Tate) meets Dr. Lao as he is putting up show posters (by spitting out nails, perfectly shooting them onto the corners of the paper) and they instantly like each other: Lao asks Mike "My specialty is wisdom. Do you know what wisdom is?" Mike answers, "No, sir", to which Lao replies, "A wise answer."

That night, Lao's circus opens, and he promises the crowd things sights have never seen before. One of the attractions is Apollonius the Fortune Teller (Randall again), who is visited by busy-body Mrs. Cassin (Lee Patrick), one of the people so eager to sell to Stark.
She asks whether she will ever love again, or be rich, but Apollonius doesn't quite give her the answers she wants: he quietly states that none of the things she wants from life will happen, and the rest of her life will be "A tedious collection of hours full of useless vanities." She will grow "older, but not wiser." And when she dies, she will be "buried, and forgotten."

Mrs. Cassin bursts into tears and storms out, and something interesting happens, almost too quickly to notice: alone in the tent, you figure that Lao/Apollonius (are they two separate people?) was just having a dig at her because she's kind of rotten person. But when we see Apollonius alone, he keeps the same dour, depressed demeanor--this isn't an act!
Lao directs Angela to the tent marked "Pan, The God of Joy", and waiting for her really is the Pan of legend (Randall, of course)--horns, hoofs, and all. He begins to play his tune for her, which is weird, but okay. But then when he spins around, he transforms:
...yes, now Pan has become Cunningham, the man Angela won't allow herself to like. As Pan plays his song, dancing ever more madly, Angela quite clearly becomes sexually aroused--a lot:
In a moment of pretty startling sexuality for a 1964 film (directed by a man known for family entertainment), Angela rips open the collar of her blouse, rubbing her neck as her face begins to sweat. If you can put aside the silly context--i.e, a guy in Pan make-up--this is quite a sensual scene. It builds up to a fevered pace, and just as Pan plants one on Angela, some other customers come in, ending the fun.

It helps that Barbara Eden--just a few years away from I Dream of Genie--simply looks fabulous here. I can tell you, if this part had been played by, say, Julie Newmar or Yvonne Craig, this might be my favorite movie scene of all time.

Embarrassed, Angela hurriedly departs, passing Stark who wanders into the Giant Snake tent. Inside the tent is, yes, a giant snake, but its more than that:
The snake explains that this circus is like a mirror, showing you things that are there but that you might not want to see. The snake explains to Snark that they have similar views of the world. Snark boasts that while his reptilian doppleganger is in a cage, and he is free to walk about. The snake points out that he has his own cages, as well: some within, some without. Stark's henchmen arrive telling him news about the newspaper, and they depart, leaving the snake laughing sarcastically.

Randall provides the voice of the snake, and, par for the course for this movie, doesn't do what you'd expect: he doesn't do a slithery, snake-like voice, hissing his Ss. Instead, he takes a sort of nerdy, condescending tone, making it, to me, really kinda creepy. Pal's stop-motion effects--and the fact that the snake has a human face--make the whole effect a tad unsettling.

Merlin performs his magic act, and even though he performs amazing feats (filling the stage with flowers, transmuting objects), the minute he can't (won't?) pull off the trick a snotty young girl wants, they mock the old man and wander away. The only one left is young Mike, who is charmed by Merlin.

He climbs the stage, calling Merlin "The greatest magician I ever saw", which reduces the master to happy tears. He embraces the boy in thanks, a genuinely touching scene, but also leaves one wondering: is this an act? Clearly Lao can really do all this, so why did he fail to please the crowd when he had the chance?

Lao shows off a tiny catfish in a fishbowl (the one that rode in on the donkey), and claims it can transform into a giant, raging sea monster when it encounters oxygen. The crowd doesn't believe this is anything harmless little guppy when Lao refuses to show them what would happen if the catfish is taken out of the bowl.

They wander off into Medusa's tent, which is set up with mirrors, that way no one directly looks into her gaze, thereby turning themselves into stone. And we see for ourselves that this truly is Medusa, snakes-for-hair and all:
Unbelievably, this is also Randall, almost unrecognizable. And pretty transgressive, too: sure, men wore drag in movies all the time, and it was almost always played for laughs. But this is a male actor playing a woman, for "real."

One of the crowd, an old crone named Mrs. Lindquist (Minerva Urecal) doesn't believe any of this and looks Medusa in the eyes. Well, she was warned: she turns to stone on the spot, via a simple but totally winning effect:
Mrs. Lindquist's stone body is dragged out of the tent, and Merlin transforms her back to flesh and blood. The crowd is relieved, leaving Merlin to remind everyone what a good magician he is. The show ends for the night, and Lao asks everyone to return tomorrow night for the final acts.

In the middle of the night, young Mike returns, asking for a job with the circus. He tries some sleight of hand and some juggling, which he isn't very good at--though Lao praises him profusely.

Mike is disappointed he can't join the circus, but Lao lets him on a little piece of wisdom, in the film's best scene: "
Mike, let me tell you something. The whole world is a circus if you know how to look at it. The way the sun goes down when you're tired, comes up when you want to be on the move. That's real magic. The way a leaf grows. The song of the birds. The way the desert looks at night, with the moon embracing it. Oh, my boy, that's...that's circus enough for anyone. Every time you watch a rainbow and feel wonder in your heart. Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel, there in your hand. Every time you stop and think, 'I'm alive, and being alive is fantastic!' Every time such a thing happens, you're part of the Circus of Dr. Lao."

When Mike says he doesn't understand, Lao cheerfully admits, "Neither do I!", jumping over Mike's head (in one unbroken shot) and dancing a jig, with Mike joining in:
That same night, we see Angela can't sleep: something has been stirred in her, and she stares out into the night, more than a little...overheated.

Also going on across town, Cunningham and Tim discover their newspaper office ransacked, its machinery broken and trashed. Cunningham, sure this was Stark's work, goes off to get drunk.

But the next morning, when they return, they see all the equipment has been magically replaced or fixed, good as new. They get right to work on that morning's edition. Cunningham is so overjoyed he hand delivers the paper to Stark's house, leaving him and his henchmen dumbfounded as to how everything got fixed so fast.

Cunningham finds Lao, thanking him for what he's sure he did. Lao pretends not to know what Cunningham is talking about, busy as he is pulling a fish out of a river that doesn't exist.

That night, Cunningham and Angela meet up at the circus, but this time its different: she seems receptive to Cunningham's entreaties, and when he reveals how he sees her, they walk arm in arm into the main ring of the circus.

Meanwhile, Stark goes to visit Apollonius, who tells Stark of a grim future, even if his plan to buy the town goes through. Stark is stunned when Apollonius seems to know his secret: that a railroad is planned to run near the town, making the land worth a fortune. Stark, unnerved, departs.

The main event of the night--which the whole town attends--starts with a procession of everyone we've seen so far: Medusa, the Snowman, the snake, Merlin, and Apollonius. But the good cheer ends when Lao shows them all a vision he calls "The Fall of the City", which is a real-life, live-action parable about the greed that led to the fall of Atlantis:
Using scenes from his previous film, Atlantis The Lost Continent (a cost-saving measure Roger Corman would have been impressed by), Pal splices in new scenes featuring a Stark-like Atlantean whose short-sightedness led to the destruction of all they had built.

The crowd, at first entertained by what seems to be just a story, soon grows quiet (here we get a cameo by Randall, in his only scene not covered in make-up):

The show now over, the lights dim, and the entire crowd finds itself in the town hall, read to decide whether to allow Stark to buy up the rest of the town. In a switch from what Cunningham and Angela expected, everyone is now against the purchase...something even Stark is now okay with, having realized the error of his ways. He thanks Lao--who is there--for showing him the proverbial light.

Back at her house, Cunningham and Angela share their first kiss. Meanwhile, Stark's henchmen, drunk and angry over their boss' change of heart, decide to return to Lao's circus--in the middle of a raging windstorm--and begin to smash it to bits.

In their carelessness, they free the catfish from its bowl, and it does what Lao said it would: become a giant sea monster!
The catfish sea monster attacks the two drunk roughnecks, pulled off very effectively: many shots are in shadow. Clearly that was at least to hide the effects (when one of the guys is in the creature's mouth, he becomes a stop-motion effect as well), but it also leaves more to the imagination, and it works.

One of the henchmen is presumably devoured, and then things get even weirder:
I'm not exactly sure what this effect means, exactly, but what the hell, it looks cool and scary and odd. The guy on the receiving end of it feels the same way.

Dr. Lao gets out a box labeled Rain-Making Machine (patent pending) and by re-equalizing the moisture in the air, he shrinks the catfish back down to size, scooping it out of a puddle.

The next day, Dr. Lao leaves town, with Mike chasing after him, Shane-style. Cunningham and Angela are now together, and Mike's juggling has magically gotten a lot better--he balances three balls in the air flawlessly as Dr. Lao waves goodbye:
sg Dr. Lao heads off into the sunset, he literally fades from view. Is he real? Did all this really just happen? I guess we'll never know, because this is...The End.

Looking back over this post, I realize I went long--really long, longer than I think any other review I've done so far. Perhaps I should have edited this down a bit (okay, maybe a lot) but I love this movie so much I can't help but want to go on and on about it (mission accomplished!).

Its a really one of a kind movie--smart and silly, tender but sarcastic, visually resplendent but at times subtle. To those who only knew of Tony Randall as Felix Unger, seeing him in a role like this could seem strange, if not completely ridiculous: seven different roles, including a woman?

Dr. Lao on paper seems like a perfect role for Peter Sellers, and indeed he was Pal's first choice. But as brilliant as Sellers was, in retrospect I'm glad it went to Randall: he has a warmness that Sellers, to me, couldn't really quite pull off: I can't picture him doing the big "life is a circus" scene with Mike and not adding some twinge of sarcasm to it.

Elements of this movie later surfaced in two of my all-time favorite things: Ethan Hawke quotes the "tedious collection of hours" speech in Before Sunrise (my favorite movie, ever), and Joel Hodgson quotes and name-checks the movie in his final episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (one of my all-time favorite TV shows). While the movie was considered a flop at the time, obviously it was influential to those who saw it and went on to make movies and TV of their own.

7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a really unique movie-going experience; a wonderful, delicate fantasy with something to say and a warm, tenderhearted way of doing it.

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