Thursday, August 22, 2019

Damnation Alley

(1977) Directed by Jack Smight; Written by: Lukas Heller and Alan Sharp; Based on the novella by Roger Zelazny; Starring: George Peppard, Jan Michael Vincent, Paul Winfield, Dominique Sanda and Jackie Earle Haley; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: **½
“There used to be more of us, now there’s less. All the dead are dead, and the living are dying. That goes for you as well.” – Man (Robert Donner)

“How did I feel about it? Well, I felt we did the best we could with the technology that was available…But was I happy? I don’t think we realized the potential from the book in the script because of the problems involved, but today we could do it, and do it well.” – Jerome Zeitman (co-producer)

Post-apocalyptic movies share a strong relationship with road movies, where danger and discovery lie around every corner. The open road represents endless possibilities and the promise of freedom. The Mad Max films entrenched the post-apocalyptic road movie in filmgoers’ collective consciousness, but before Max Rockatansky tore down the highway in his V8 Interceptor, Denton and Tanner traversed the dusty, peril-strewn road known as “Damnation Alley” in their Landmaster. For their adaptation, screenwriters Lukas Heller and Alan Sharp did away with much of Roger Zelazny’s anti-establishment novella, while retaining the basic concept of driving across a transformed American landscape.

Damnation Alley begins on a somber note, with global thermonuclear war. A large portion of enemy missiles, presumably from the U.S.S.R., are destroyed, but not enough to prevent most of the United States from becoming a wasteland. The opposing country is dealt an equally devastating blow, with the combined atomic explosions knocking the Earth off its axis. The planet plunges into climactic upheaval, with massive changes to the weather and large areas left uninhabitable. A California missile base manages to avoid obliteration, along with its staff, and for a time they continue to maintain the semblance of normalcy. When the base is destroyed in an accident, the survivors set off toward Albany, New York, where life might still exist.

Unlike the original story, which placed nihilistic antihero Tanner front and center, the film focuses on two leads, Tanner* (Jan Michael Vincent) and Denton (George Peppard). Compared to his literary counterpart, Tanner is toned down considerably. Instead of an anti-establishment criminal with oppositional defiant disorder, Tanner is presented as a former Air Force officer, who has a problem with taking orders. The character in the original story was an antihero, living outside society’s norms, with a violent and sadistic streak. He only accepts the mission because he’ll be granted a pardon from his crimes (much closer to Snake Plissken in John Carpenter’s 1981 film, Escape from New York).
 Denton (George Peppard) is given a much more prominent role in the movie. He appears briefly in the original story, to present the stakes to Tanner, but quickly steps aside. In the cinematic version, it’s Denton who stays in charge. The screenplay adds additional characters to the mix. The most notable addition is Paul Winfield as Keegan. Like Tanner, military life doesn’t quite suit him. He’s an artist at heart, and the most likable character of the bunch. Along their journey, they’re joined by Janice (Dominque Sanda), a would-be Las Vegas lounge singer, and Billy (Jackie Earle Haley), a scrappy orphaned teenager with a penchant for rock throwing.

* Fun Fact: In a 2011 interview, stunt coordinator/effects designer Dean Jeffries stated that Steve McQueen was considering a role (presumably Tanner), but the studio wouldn’t pay his $2 million price tag.

Few would dispute that the real star of Damnation Alley is the hulking Landmaster all-terrain vehicle designed by Dean Jeffries. It’s built to dish out punishment as well as take it,* armed to the teeth with rockets and machine guns, and a unique configuration of four three-tire pods, to tackle the ever-changing topography. Although the Landmaster** doesn’t match the vehicle’s description in the book, it’s close enough to the point that any objections would seem like nitpicking.

* Another Fun Fact: Only one full-scale Landmaster was built for the film. According to producer Paul Maslansky, despite its rugged appearance, the vehicle wasn’t capable of traveling more than 10 miles without breaking down. It was also supposed to have amphibious capabilities, but Maslansky commented that it “sunk like a rock” in Flathead Lake in Kalispel, Montana, and had to be dragged out.  

** Personal Note: I have fond memories of seeing the Landmaster parked next to the 101 freeway near Universal City, where it was a fixture for many years, before being sold to a collector.  

The film falls short in its depiction of the mutant creatures Tanner and Denton encounter along the way. In one scene, Tanner evades giant scorpions while riding his dirtbike on sand dunes. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to see the scorpions aren’t occupying the same three-dimensional space. Any tension from the scene is undermined by the arachnids’ transparent appearance, recalling the giant lobster scene from Teenagers from Outer Space (1959). Another pivotal scene with mutant creatures involved thousands of killer cockroaches. To the filmmakers’ credit, 300 Madagascar hissing cockroaches were imported. They were augmented, however, with 5-6,000 fake cockroaches, pulled along on a mat to appear as if they were attacking en masse.

The film’s plot follows a dubious course. In the original story, it’s a race against time because Tanner is transporting a vaccine that will eradicate a plague that’s ravaging Boston. In the film, Tanner and Denton are going to Albany, New York, to see if anyone’s left alive. Without the plague as a plot point, there’s no sense of urgency to reach Albany. (SPOILER ALERT) Adding to the script’s poor choices is the Polyanna ending, which suggests there are idyllic pockets of Americana left untouched by the cataclysm, and that the ruined climate would correct itself (contradicting a line of dialogue spoken by Billy earlier in the film).

In his commentary, co-producer Paul Maslansky admitted he didn’t read the book and didn’t care for science fiction in general (not exactly a good basis for overseeing the production). He also conceded that the results were a “B” effort, and the film could have been handled better today. Despite these concerns, Damnation Alley is a competent, if unremarkable film, featuring some decent performances, a few nice bits of dialogue, the aforementioned Landmaster, and a good score by Jerry Goldsmith. If you want to see the movie that Damnation Alley should have been, you’re better off watching Escape from New York. The original material begs for a remake, although the irony is that a more faithful adaptation might appear to those unfamiliar with Zelazny’s story, as a rip-off of John Carpenter’s film.

Monday, August 12, 2019

A Boy and His Dog

(1975) Written and directed by L.Q. Jones; Based on a novella by Harlan Ellison; Starring: Don Johnson, Susanne Benton, Jason Robards, Tim McIntire and Hal Baylor; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Rating: ****

“I’m getting the hell out of here. I wanna see Blood again. I wanna get in a good straightforward fight with some son of a bitch over a can of beans. I gotta get back in the dirt so I feel clean!” – Vic (Don Johnson)

“The picture gives you a choice. The choice: Do you live above ground with these people, or do you live below ground in Topeka?” – L.Q. Jones (from Shout Factory Blu-ray commentary)

Prior to A Boy and His Dog, most cinematic depictions of future society imagined an idealistic, gleaming city. More often than not, there was something explicitly dystopian, but the future civilization appeared as if it had been freshly unwrapped. In L.Q. Jones’ film, based on a novella by Harlan Ellison, all the gloves are off, depicting a bleak, inhospitable Earth, left barren after a global nuclear war. When Ellison failed to produce a complete screenplay, Jones took the chore upon himself – the results are quite faithful to the original story. Even the notoriously cantankerous Ellison, who bristled at previous attempts to adapt one of his favorite stories,* was generally pleased with the results (read on for a couple of notable exceptions).

* Fun Fact #1: Before being produced as an independent production, Ellison’s story was considered by three major studios. According to L.Q. Jones, one of the studios wanted Don Siegel to direct.

Vic and Blood roam the post-apocalyptic landscape in a buddy movie like no other. They enjoy a symbiosis of sorts, communicating without words and keeping each other company. Blood the dog (played by Tiger and voiced by Tim McIntire), bioengineered for super intelligence and telepathic communication,* can detect trouble from far away. Vic (Don Johnson),** on the other hand, relies on his brute strength to keep them safe. They scour the land for sustenance, while avoiding vicious warlords and deadly radioactive mutants called “screamers.” One evening, while taking in an old movie, Blood spots a woman disguised as a “rover,” (the term for scavengers like Vic, who roam the surface). Quilla June (Susanne Benton), a resident of the “downunder” (an underground city) is introduced into their dyad, enticing Vic with sex. Vic is taken off his guard when she whacks him over the head, but leaves a souvenir behind – a card key. Despite Blood’s admonitions that it’s little more than a ruse, Vic decides to pursue her, descending into the subterranean city of Topeka.

* Fun Fact #2: Ellison angrily objected to one studio’s suggestion that they would make the dog’s mouth move.

** Fun Fact #3: In the original story, Vic was 15 years old, which would be problematic, considering the events that take place in the film. In the film, he’s approximately 18 (Johnson was 25 at the time the film was shot).

A Boy and His Dog reinforces how cheap human life has become, distilled to its bare essentials. Strength and subjugation are the new paradigm. Survival takes precedence over respect, with social progress sliding back a century. Women have become second-class citizens* – a commodity to be used and discarded. Sex is something to be enjoyed by men and endured by women. Quilla June provides a sharp counterargument to the new norm (a point made abundantly clear in the original story). Her forthright demeanor and assertiveness frighten Vic, who’s accustomed to taking what he wants, when he wants it.  

* Fun Fact #4: One of the more troubling aspects for the film, according to Ellison, were some misogynistic comments, spoken by Blood in the original cut. Ellison raised the $1,500 necessary to change some of the words.

The underground society of Topeka values preservation of the status quo above all else. The residents with mime-painted faces and rosy cheeks put on a façade of cheerfulness amidst the oppressive, sterile environment. They’re safe from the chaos above, trapped in a stagnant Norman Rockwell-inspired bubble. The city is a bastardized vision of Americana, featuring Sousa music playing incessantly over loudspeakers, a barbershop quartet, and picnics in the park. Free thought or dissent is shunned, in a world that Anthony from the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life” might have endorsed. Their version of progress is for the resident women to produce viable offspring, with some help from Vic. A Boy and His Dog presents two extremes: a choice between anarchy and fascism. On the surface, the closest things to government are roving gangs and warlords. In Topeka, there is the illusion of peace, which comes at the expense of personal freedom. Given the choice, many of us would probably take our chances topside.

* Fun Fact #5: The Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex stands in for the upper levels of the subterranean city. The complex appeared several years previously in Ice Station Zebra (1968).

The film takes a dim view of humanity. It’s no accident that the most noble creature in the film is a dog. By far, the smartest, most rational character is Blood*/** He’s a good deal smarter than Vic, who admits he wouldn’t last very long without the skills of his canine companion. The thread that consistently links all the humans in A Boy and His Dog is their amorality. Vic isn’t particularly likable, but we root for him, nonetheless. He’s a package deal with Blood. Blood, on the other hand, serves as his conscience, attempting to keep him from stepping too far out of line. Quilla June operates predominately out of self-interest. It’s only when her goals converge with Vic that they reach anything resembling cooperation. Down in Topeka, Lou Craddock (Jason Robards) heads an elite group of town leaders, who impassively cast judgment on the city’s residents, making life or death decisions like they’re handing out traffic tickets. If anyone becomes too much of a problem, they’re sent to the farm (a euphemism for execution).

* Fun Fact #6: According to Jones, Tiger, the animal actor, was almost nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance as Blood.

** Fun Fact #7: In order to make Blood appear more ferocious in one scene, the filmmakers used false teeth, much to the dog’s disdain.

A Boy and his Dog features an unconventional dynamic, in which the canine is clearly in charge. The last line of the film ends on a sardonic note, punctuated by a twisted last line (Ellison objected, but was overruled by Jones). The film provides a grim reminder that love doesn’t necessarily conquer all, but self-preservation reigns supreme. A Boy and His Dog is one of the highlights of 1970s science fiction films (in a decade distinguished by many notable examples), and a must-see for enthusiasts of post-apocalyptic films.

* On a side note, if you have the Shout Factory disc in your clutches, I recommend watching the supplemental conversation between Jones and Ellison, playfully bickering about their artistic differences. It’s 50 minutes well spent.