Category Archives: 1970s

Collectible of the Week: Buck Rogers Laserscope Fighter (Mego; 1979)

In 1979, the post-Star Wars, Glen Larson version of Buck Rogers took the sci-fi world by storm.  I was nine year old at the time, and both the feature film and the follow-up TV series on NBC were right up my alley. 

The franchise starred Gil Gerard as Buck, Erin Gray as Colonel Wilma Deering, and Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala.  The tone of the enterprise was cheeky and knowing, and the special effects, for their day, were absolutely stellar.  Down to the sexy opening credits, the film version played like James Bond in the future, or in space, perhaps.

Accordingly, I was thrilled when I began to see toys from Mego lining the shelves at Toys R Us.  Among the first of these was a spaceship toy with a design you never saw featured on-screen: the “Laserscope fighter.” 

This sharp-nosed space fighter “with simulated lasers and explosions” featured a cockpit for the 3.5 inch Buck Rogers figures.  But more interestingly, it possessed a rear-mounted view screen through which you could track, target, and incinerate enemies.

The box explains: “Look through the view-screen and line up your target, press the switches – see and hear the lasers fire – the target will appear to explode right before your very eyes!”

Also according to the box legend, this Buck Rogers Laserscope fighter featured:

·         Laserscope viewscreen
·         Twin stub wing handles
·         Telescopic focus control
·         Realistic laser sounds
·         Swing-open cockpit
·         Fits any Buck Rogers figure.

Of course, I must confess that when I was generously given the Laserscope fighter as a gift, I was a bit disappointed because I really wanted the Buck Rogers star fighter, a craft which was featured on the show and boasted an infinitely cooler design aesthetic. 

But once I actually got the star fighter for the Christmas of 1980, I could enjoy the Laserscope fighter as a kind of “alternate” ship for the intrepid Buck.  The fighter sort of fit with the universe of the TV series, because Buck often ended up going undercover for the Earth Directorate, flying ships of various designs.  So it was kind of cool to be able to play out that scenario with a ship other than an “official” one.

Also, if I understand my toy history right, the “Laserscope fighter” was also released in Europe, but as a toy from a different Mego license: The Black Hole (1979).  

Of course, the design of the ship doesn’t fit that particular franchise any more than it resembles something you saw on Buck Rogers


Theme Song of the Week: Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected (1977)

Cult-TV Blogging: Ghost Story: "The Dead We Leave Behind" (September 15, 1972)

What if the TV set could control what we watch? 

That’s the bizarre question host Winston Essex (Sebastian Cabot) asks in “The Dead We Leave Behind, the second episode of the William Castle-produced horror anthology Ghost Story (1972).

In this tale, a forest ranger/sheriff named Elliot Brent (Jason Robards) lives in the mountains and grows increasingly irritated with his wife, Joanna (Stella Stevens).  She is bored with life in the country and spends all day, every day, watching television.  Worse, when she leaves the house at all, it’s only for sexual liaisons with local men.

When Joanna finally works up the nerve to leave Elliot for good, the spouses violently argue and Joanna is killed in a fall.  Rather than inform the authorities of the incident, Elliot moves her corpse to a garden shed.

But now when Elliott turns on her beloved television again, he sees Joanna there…still arguing with him, still tauntinghim.  After he kills one of Joanna’s lovers, Elliot’s visions on the boob tube grow even more disturbing.  He sees his victims’ bodies rising from the ground…and heading towards his house.

Then he hears a pounding at the front door, and knows that the dead have come for him…

Anchored by a superb, surly performance by Jason Robards, “The Dead We Leave Behind” is a provocative and scary installment of this program.  In fact, it forecasts much of the oeuvre of horror maestro Stephen King. 

For instance, a key component of this tale by Richard Matheson and Robert Specht is a local legend – spelled out in dialogue — which insists that all dead bodies must be buried before winter comes, before the ground freezes.  If corpses aren’t buried in time, they will come back to life wrong; possessed of both “life and death.”  

If you’re an admirer of King’s novel Pet Sematary (1983) as I most assuredly am, this set-up will seem abundantly familiar.

If you glance at a few other elements of “The Dead We Leave Behind” — such as an obnoxious, loud-mouthed wife (Creepshow [1982]), and a man’s slow descent into madness in an isolated location (The Shining [1977) — the King-like aspects appear even more pronounced. 

Nobody can know for certain, but I wonder if King was impressed with and inspired by this episode of Ghost Story, because in his 1981 book Danse Macabre (on page 249, in the chapter “The Glass Teat”) he writes enthusiastically of a Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected episode in which “a murderer sees his victim rise from the dead on his television set.”  

To the best of my knowledge, there’s no such episode in that particular series’ canon, which only consists of eight shows.  Furthermore, that description fits “The Dead We Leave Behind” perfectly.  Remember too, Ghost Story (1972) and Tales of the Unexpected (1977) were virtual contemporaries, as well as both hour-long network TV horror anthologies. Therefore, it’s easy to see how the two series might be confused.   The same thing happens all the time with The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. It’s all-too-easy to mis-remember one as the other.  Nobody’s perfect.  Believe me, I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes.

But if this indeed were the episode he wrote of, the insightful King would have been absolutely right to feel impressed with the creepy, unsettling qualities of “The Dead We Leave Behind.”  It’s well-shot, well-acted and anxiety-provoking.   

And from a certain perspective the tale could easily be interpreted as the story of a man losing his mind, responding to the sounds of his guilty conscience.  The episode doesn’t come flat out and state it, but it is strongly suggested that Elliot has killed Joanna’s lovers before, and made it look like am accident each time.  

We arrive in media res, then, as his grip on reality is already growing more tenuous.  The episode begins with Elliot having a dream involving the television, a dream that reveals his anger, and his connection with a dead man.

The powerful idea expressed here is one of inevitability.  The TV just won’t shut up, even after Elliot takes an axe to it.  He can’t escape the television, just as he can’t escape the fact that he has committed murder.  He has made a trap for himself, and very soon…it springs.  As viewers, we both desire to see Elliott escape his pre-ordained fate and face punishment for his bad deeds.

I’m a big fan of E.C.-styled stories such as “The Dead We Leave Behind,” ones where the scales of cosmic justice are righted, and we get a final closing shot (or comic book frame) that reveals how the bad have been punished.   In this case, Elliot’s corpse shares ground with Joanna and one of her lovers…all one big happy family…forever.  Yikes.

Next week on Ghost Story an episode as bad as this one is good: “The Concrete Captain.” 

Saturday Morning Flashback: Mystery Island (1977)

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Balloon" (December 4, 1976)

In this episode of the Filmation Saturday morning series Ark II, the crew runs smack into a society that, as a whole, suffers from xenophobia, a fear of outsiders or “foreigners.”  Captain Jonah’s (Terry Lester) initial log entry describes people who “refuse to have contact with the outside world.”

But from somewhere deep inside the isolationist village, someone is sending out distress messages tied to floating balloons…written in Greek.  After deciphering one message, the Ark II crew comes to understand that the very people who have so calculatingly cut themselves off from the rest of humanity are suffering from a terrible plague, one they can’t cure on their own.

The Ark II team finds the messenger — an old man working a printing press near “the place of the Iron Birds,” a destroyed air-field — and learns that this is indeed the case.  The messenger says: “We have a new enemy now…disease.”

While Ruth returns to the Ark II via hot air balloon to work on a cure for the new disease, Jonah attempts to convince the village’s leaders to “open” their hearts and minds to others.  Unfortunately, he and a young boy fall prey to the disease, and only reinforce the fear of strangers.  Now outsiders are disease carriers.

Meanwhile, Ruth and Samuel must clear a path to get the Ark II inside the village, and deliver inoculations to all the sick people.

Like its predecessors, “The Balloon” is a message-heavy installment of this Saturday morning series.  In “The Tank,” we met people who shunned machines because they believe machines caused war.  Here, we meet characters who refuse to deal with outsiders, because they fear attack from them.   In both cases, people have responded to a terrifying situation irrationally, by a blanket rule about the things they perceive caused them harm.

In real life, of course, America has witnessed periods of intense xenophobia over the last two centuries, not the least of which has been in the decade following the 9/11 terror attacks.  Yet the rampant fear associated with xenophobia is ultimately counter-productive, as this episode of a 70s kid show rightly points out.  If you close yourself off, you also close yourself down to certain options, to new solutions, and to improvements your life.  When you come from a closed place, everything – even learning – comes to a stop.  It’s not a healthy response to fear, even if it is, on some level, understandable. 

It’s very interesting that Ark II chooses to tell this particular story, about a place that has sealed itself off from the world and in its insularity faces extinction.  “By talking instead of fighting,” says Jonah “we can move forward.”

In terms of Ark II continuity and lore, this episode reveals that the Ark II can fire a focused beam from its fore section, but the beam is still defined as “a force field,” keeping in tune with the idea of self-defense and no aggressive weaponry.  Intriguingly, the force field is also quite a limited device.  In trying to move heavy stones from the vehicle’s path, the force field’s power grid short circuits…

Although “The Balloon” carries a laudable message, it plays, at this point, as fairly routine.  The series is in something of a rut, with tiny villages constantly being shown the error of their primitive ways by the Ark II team.  The civilizations of the week – battling superstition (“The Slaves”), xenophobia (“The Balloon”), cruelty to the weak (“The Rule”) and technophobia (“The Tank”) – are a bit too predictable and one-note at this point.  But the series is about to mix it up with some infusions of more science-fictional elements, from robots and suspended animation to telepathy, and that’s a good thing.

Next Week: “The Mind Group”

Cult-TV Blogging: Ghost Story: "The New House" (March 17, 1972)

Ghost Story/Circle of Fear(1972 – 1973) represents the TV collaboration of William Castle, the great 1950s exploitation showman responsible for “Emergo” and “Percepto,” and Richard Matheson, brilliant scribe of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Omega Man (1971), The Legend of Hell House (1971) and Somewhere in Time (1980), among others.

The TV series — a one-hour horror anthology — ran for just one season on NBC in the early 1970s, and starred (as host) actor Sebastian Cabot.  He played “Winston Essex,” the “old world aristocrat” and owner of the upscale hotel/bed-and-breakfast called Mansfield House.  

In each episode of Ghost Story, Mr. Essex would reveal an unusual and macabre story about his various guests.  This aspect – the host and his world – were dropped from the series entirely when it transitioned into Circle of Fear after fourteen hour-long episodes.

As Ghost Story geared up for broadcast, co-creator and producer William Castle wrote that it would involve “strange happenings” and “ordinary people,” and that his intentiion was “not merely to shock or scare, but to do it in a fun way. Like a ride on a roller coaster.  You scream and you laugh.” (John J. O’Connor, The New York Times: “Cabot in Ghost Story, A Chiller Series,” September 29, 1972, page 87).

Despite the promise of a good time, the series was not particularly well-received by critics, though this is hardly unexpected given the mainstream perception of the horror genre during that time period.  Time Magazine noted that “week after week, this is perhaps the silliest of all the silly hours on TV.” (December 18, 1972, page 67).  The New York Times reviewer, O’Connor, reported yawning “once or twice” during the series, and that “Sometimes the ghosts work.  More often they don’t.”

The pilot episode for Ghost Story, titled “The New House” (or “Pilot”) was based on the English author Elizabeth Walter’s story She Cries, and it aired originally not as part of the series proper, but earlier – on March 17, 1972 — as the first hour of a two-hour special entitled Double Play.  The second hour presented the pilot for the Trucker series Movin’ On.

In “The New House,” directed by John Llewelyn Moxey and adapted by Richard Matheson, the Travis family moves into its newly constructed modern home, which sits atop the peak of picturesque Pleasant Hill.  

When expectant Eileen Travis (Barbara Perkins) begins hearing ghostly noises at night, she grows convinced that the new home is haunted.  She soon visits a local historian, De Witt (Sam Jaffe), who tells her that her home is actually built over a two-hundred year old gallows, the very spot where a defiant, unrepentant thief, Thomasina Barrows (Allyn Ann McLerie) was hanged on March 2nd, 1779.  Upon her death, she swore to one day return…

Disturbed by her frequent night terrors, Eileen goes into labor and has a beautiful baby girl.  Things seem happy for a while, until a dark night when Mr. Travis (David Birney) can’t seem to get home from work, and Thomasina makes her ghostly presence known…

“The New House” is an effective horror tale that, in some ways, reflects the aesthetics of Rosemary’s Baby (1968).  Here we have another pregnant woman, spending her days alone, worrying about things.  And in that state of anxiety, she encounters the supernatural.  Of course, from the perspective of others, Eileen Travis seems unstable, and it’s easy to write  off that instability as a sign of her “condition.” 

In fairness, Mr. Travis is not evil, as Rosemary’s husband was in the classic Polanski film, but he’s not very useful to have about., either  He tries to patiently respond to his wife’s situation, but never cares enough to stay home from work, for instance.  Thus, Eileen’s feelings of isolation are powerfully-wrought in the episode.

Some of the visuals are nicely vetted too.  Eileen brings home a creepy statue at one point in the story, and when she hears ghostly singing inside the house at night, the visuals suggest the statue is, itself, vocalizing.  There are also some nice cockeyed pans across the exterior house, ones that suggest, in essence, that the house is off-balance, off-kilter.

The punctuation of all the horror comes when the ghost of Thomasina Barrows appears (in a thunderstorm, naturally), but we don’t see her face.  

Instead, we observe a shadowy, still figure in a long shot, at some distance from the camera.  The Travis’s maid actually speaks to her, believing she is speaking with Eileen, not a ghost.  It’s a creepy, creepy moment as you come to realize that the malevolent ghost is arranging to be alone in the house with Mrs. Travis and her innocent baby.

“The New House” also doesn’t fail in terms of commitment to the genre.  Something diabolical and awful happens at episode’s end regarding Thomasina’s encounter with Eileen and her daughter, and Ghost Story doesn’t back down from it.   Although I didn’t see the episode when it originally aired (I would have been three…) I can certainly imagine watching this pilot at night — in the dark — and being creeped the hell out.

In terms of series continuity, this first Ghost Story installment, introduces audiences to Winston Essex, the “host” of Mansfield House. He’s quite different from other series hosts, namely the macabre Alfred Hitchcock and the ironic Rod Serling.  Instead of taking on a tone of detachment or even black humor amusement, Essex exhibits concern and sympathy for the characters in his plays.  “I wish they weren’t going there,” he worries for the Travis family, off to their new home on Pleasant Hill.

Also, Essex describes himself as a “devious dinosaur” and discusses the incompatibility between Gothic tales and “the nuclear age.”  In a real sense, that’s the terrain Ghost Story wishes to tread.  

The series hopes to bridge the gap between modern reason and science, and our ancient, campfire fears of ghosts and goblins.  This idea recurs several times throughout the short-lived series, and I’ll be sure to bring it up again when it does.  

Importantly, “The New House” sets its horror inside a modern house, one that has never been lived in before.  It boasts all the modern conveniences of the 1970s, from telephones to dish washers.  And yet despite such comforts, something terrifying and ancient – from an age past – infiltrates the family’s life. 

“The New House” is well-written, scary, and effectively shot.  The story is solid, if not revolutionary.  In short, it’s a pretty good start for Ghost Story. Next week’s episode, however is a real humdinger, and a work of horror television genius: “The Dead We Leave Behind.”

Ghost Story (1972) Theme Song/Intro