Film Festival Highlight 2016

Windy City 2016 Film Schedule

This year we commemorate the 90th birthday of Amazing Stories, the first pulp magazine dedicated solely to science fiction (or, as founding publisher Hugo Gernsback called it, “scientifiction”). Additionally, we’re celebrating the other SF pulps as well. This year’s film program, therefore, is comprised of motion pictures—and one TV episode—adapted from stories first published in Amazing and other rough-paper magazines of its kind.

Although science fiction in movies goes back almost to the beginning of the medium (with an early standout being Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon in 1902), relatively few films were inspired by the early Amazing and its competitors. Chronologically speaking, the first was Universal’s 1939 serial Buck Rogers, nominally based on Philip Francis Nowlan’s “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” (from Amazing‘s August 1928 issue) but taking more from the Buck Rogers comic strip written by Nowlan and drawn by Dick Calkins.

As it happens, the best films adapted from SF pulp yarns are common, so of necessity our lineup boasts several of those familiar classics. But we’ve salted the program with some lesser-known examples of the genre as well, and we’re confident that most of our attendees will find below at least a couple they haven’t seen before.

FRIDAY

12:00 pm — The Thing (1982) 100 mins. Adapted from “Who Goes There?” (Astounding Science Fiction, August 1938) by Don A. Stuart [John W. Campbell]. The first screen adaptation of Campbell’s classic tale, The Thing from Another World (1951), took very little from the story but was enormously successful, kicking off the Fifties cycle of alien-visitor movies. Halloween director John Carpenter lobbied every studio in Hollywood to get this remake green-lighted, then assembled a top-flight cast of familiar character actors—including Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat, and Richard Masure, to name a few—in support of top-billed Kurt Russell. Although the 1951 Thing is by far the better movie, we’ve chosen this version because it’s more faithful to Campbell’s yarn, although deviating in significant ways. Carpenter generates plenty of suspense, and the special effects (in those pre-CGI days of 1982) are quite good, especially Rob Bottin’s special make-up and creature designs.

02:00 pm — Nightfall (2000) 82 mins. Adapted from “Nightfall” (Astounding Science Fiction, September 1941) by Isaac Asimov. Considered by many to be the greatest science-fiction story of all time, this Asimov classic was a long time getting to the screen. A 1988 version came and went without much notice; the one we’re running was filmed in India and released direct to video in 2000. David Carradine, Jennifer Burns, Winsome Brown, and Joseph Hodge head the cast. The story’s premise—a far-away planet’s six suns begin to fade, gripping the superstitious population with fear of the cataclysm to follow—is transferred intact to the film, but director Gwyneth Gibby has a take that some fans will find heretical. See it and decide for yourself.

03:30 pm — The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) 92 mins. Adapted from “Farewell to the Master” (Astounding Science Fiction, October 1940) by Harry Bates. Devotees of this movie don’t see it as “only” science fiction; to them Day transcends the genre and offers a deeper, more universal message. At that, it’s hard to consider this Robert Wise-directed version anything but a masterpiece, although we wish that screenwriter Edmund H. North had included the pulp yarn’s surprise twist ending. There probably isn’t a baby boomer alive who doesn’t recognize the immortal line, “Gort! Klaatu — barada — nikto.” And Michael Rennie’s sober, modulated performance goes a long way toward neutralizing the film’s camp potential. Some 65 years after it’s initial theatrical release, The Day the Earth Stood Still retains every iota of the appeal that made it a huge success. Of the 2008 remake starring Keanu Reeves we will not speak here.

Immediately Following Auction — I, Robot (1964) 51 mins. Adapted from “I, Robot” (Amazing Stories, January 1939) by Eando Binder. This early episode of The Outer Limits is more thoughtful and substantive than the monster-of-the-week installments that followed. An updated version of Binder’s first Adam Link story, it loses something by not being told from the robot’s point of view but succeeds on its own terms. Howard Da Silva takes center stage as the cynical lawyer hired to defend Adam, accused of murdering his creator Dr. Link. Leonard Nimoy, soon to become an SF icon as Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock, is quietly effective as the reporter who befriends Link’s daughter. The teleplay by Robert C. Dennis (himself a former pulp writer) jettisons Binder’s original ending but substitutes one far more poignant and ironic.

SATURDAY

10:00 am — The Last Mimzy (2007) 90 mins. Adapted from “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” (Astounding Science Fiction, February 1943) by Lewis Padgett [Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore]. Anyone seeing this film today without having read the Kuttner-Moore story could be forgiven for thinking it a rip-off of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., but Henry and Catherine came up with the idea first—by a four-decade margin, at that. Chris O’Neil and Rhiannon Leigh Wryn give winning performances as siblings whose lives are turned upside down when they find a box of strange objects on the beach outside their summer home. What appears to be a stuffed rabbit exerts surprising influence over both of them. Rainn Wilson (The Office) cleverly plays the boy’s eccentric science teacher, while Timothy Hutton and Joely Richardson are effective as the confused and increasingly concerned parents. The screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost) and Toby Emmerich (Frequency) does justice to the original story and Robert Shaye’s direction is appropriately measured.

11:30 am — Four Sided Triangle (1953) 81 mins. Adapted from “The 4-Sided Triangle” (Amazing Stories, November 1939) by William F. Temple. An early production of Britain’s legendary Hammer Films, this interesting version of William Temple’s Amazing Stories novelette was co-written and directed by Terence Fisher, the prolific filmmaker responsible for Hammer’s horror output during the Fifties and Sixties. The bizarre but simple plot revolves around a reproducing machine invented by best pals Bill (Stephen Murray) and Robin (John Van Eyssen) with an assist from their childhood friend Lena (Barbara Payton), whom both men love. When Lena married Robin, the heartbroken Bill throws caution to the wind by using the device to duplicate her—if he can’t have the original he’ll settle for an identical copy. But the experiment does not turn out as planned. Payton’s real-life story gives Four Sided Triangle a chilling resonance: She too was part of an ill-fated romantic triangle, with actors Franchot Tone and Tom Neal nearly killing each other over her. Her subsequent trip to England for this film—an attempt to rejuvenate her sagging career—was followed by a descent into lawlessness and prostitution. She died in 1967, just 39 years old, from heart and liver failure.

01:00 pm — This Island Earth (1955) 87 mins. Adapted from “The Alien Machine” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1949) and other “Cal Meacham” novelettes by Raymond F. Jones. This Island Earth has become synonymous with SF at its most campy and cheesy. The jokesters of Mystery Science Theater lampooned it mercilessly, and pop-culture aficionados invariably mention it with a smirk and a chuckle. But the picture was no laughing matter to Universal-International Pictures, which spent $800,000 on the project, which consumed more than two years from writing of script to preparation of final cut. And it was so successful that producer William Alland spent considerable time developing a sequel to be titled Aliens in the Skies; it was rejected by studio brass worried about the bigger budget it required. The Franklin Coen-George Callahan screenplay for Earth is faithful to the flavor of Jones’ novelettes, with Rex Reason well cast as electronic engineer Cal Meacham, one of many prominent scientists recruited by a man named Exeter (Jeff Morrow) to collaborate on a mysterious project in an isolated facility.

02:30 pm — When Worlds Collide (1951) 83 mins. Adapted from “When Worlds Collide” (Blue Book, September 1932-February 1933) by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. Paramount Pictures bought the screen rights to the Balmer-Wylie story shortly after it was serialized in Blue Book. Staff writers developed it for director Cecil B. DeMille, then casting about for his latest screen epic. But their failure to come up with a satisfactory script, coupled with front-office concerns about the cost and complexity of the special effects needed, forced a shelving of the project. In 1950 producer George Pal, looking for a follow-up to his wildly successful Destination Moon, dusted off When Worlds Collide. Although he couldn’t stint on the special effects without hurting the picture’s credibility, Pal kept production costs down by casting minor actors in lead roles and relying on stock footage wherever possible. Hollywood’s burgeoning interest in all things science-fictional made his million-dollar investment feasible, and the picture was successful. It remains one of the most enjoyable SF films of the decade.

04:00 pm — She Devil (1957) 77 mins. Adapted from “The Adaptive Ultimate” (Astounding Stories, November 1935) by John Jessel [Stanley G. Weinbaum]. In the Weinbaum story—published under a pseudonym because he had another yarn in the same issue of Astounding—a dying young woman is treated with a miraculous serum that cures her disease and gives her the ability to adapt her metabolism to any other illness or injury. The science is a little dodgy but the premise undeniably fascinating. Producer-director Kurt Neumann gathered together his most talented collaborators on Sol Lesser’s Tarzan movies (screenwriter Carroll Young, cinematographer Karl Struss, and music composer Paul Sawtell) to bring Weinbaum’s vision to the screen. Femme fatale Mari Blanchard, one of the most beautiful actresses working in the Fifties, is ideally cast as the unfortunate woman. Albert Dekker and Maverick co-star Jack Kelly play the scientists who treat her with their experimental formula. It’s a “B” movie, to be sure, but lots of fun.

Immediately After Auction — Planet Outlaws (1939/53) 66 mins. Adapted from “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” (Amazing Stories, August 1928) by Philip Francis Nowlan. This is the seldom-seen feature version of Universal’s 1939 Buck Rogers serial, which as noted above takes little from Nowlan’s Amazing Stories novella and more from Buck’s comic-strip adventures (including chief villain “Killer” Kane). The basic situation is the same: Buck falls into a state of suspended animation, sleeps for five centuries, and awakens to find his countrymen waging a guerrilla war against their conquerors. The serial replaced a proposed Flash Gordon chapter play but retained its leading man, Olympic swimming champion Larry “Buster” Crabbe. Planet Outlaws was compiled by writer/director Harry J. Revier, who added footage and narration recasting the story as an anti-Communist allegory! Its theatrical release was spotty, although distributor Sherman S. Krellberg—who had also acquired rights to the Flash Gordon trilogy and other Universal serials—frequently ran it in the New York City theaters he owned. Picture patrons strolling down the fabled 42nd Street saw Planet Outlaws on theater marquees well into the 1960s!

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