Train Wrecks: My Favorite Stinkers (part two)

The Cool Ones (1967). Directed by Gene Nelson. Written by Nelson, Joyce Geller, Robert Kaufman.

Nothing ages more quickly and more embarrassingly than a movie or TV show which had worked so hard to be cool in its time. You disagree? Feathered hair, big lapels. Oh, God – mullets! You gonna honestly tell me that stuff still works for you as anything but a laugh-getter?

Lead times for some movies are so long, some crazes burn out between the pitch meeting and opening weekend. Roller disco was dying (if not dead) by the time Roller Boogie (1979) and Xanudu (1980) hit theaters, and did anybody still care about The Village People when Can’t Stop the Music (1980) had movie-goers wishing they could?

The only thing even more embarrassing is a movie that’s lethally uncool even before the first frame of film runs through the camera, not because it’s late to the party, but because the people behind the camera are so phenomenally clueless. That in mind, there may not be a more grossly mis-titled movie to come out of the 1960s; The Cool Ones was about as cool – even then — as bowties and high-button shoes.

Roddy McDowall (you can tell he’s supposed to be cool because he wears frock-length jackets, has long hair even though it’s in that cute, unthreatening early-60s Beatles bob, and wears tinted wire-rimmed glasses) is a manipulative music producer trying to engineer a boy-girl duet into stardom by getting them on a Hullabaloo-like TV show (look up Hullabaloo; you’ll get a kick out of it – it makes American Bandstand look cutting edge) so they can score big with the kids.

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And that’s the rub with this clunker: “the kids.” If you were around in those days, this flick’s image of “the kids” would have had you wondering what drugs Warner Bros.’ geriatric execs were on. The boys are wearing button-down short-sleeved shirts and loafers and have haircuts that make Marine recruits look shaggy. The girls are even neater. There’s not a pair of jeans to be seen let alone sneakers.

The killer is The Cool Ones came out in 1967. The Beatles had already gone all stringy-haired and psychedelic with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” The Who had implied what the oldsters could do to themselves in “My Generation,” The Doors’ Jim Morrison had been busted for indecency and a couple of The Rolling Stones were dealing with drug charges. We had Cream (“Sunshine of Your Love”), Deep Purple (“Hush”), Creedence Clearwater Revival (“Proud Mary”), Jefferson Airplane (“White Rabbit”), The Byrds (“Eight Miles High”). But The Cool Ones gives us some dweeb off the set of Ozzie & Harriett singing the Sinatra-esque “This Town” and thinks it’s hip. Next to that, the Beach Boys seem like acid rock (I take that back – by 1967, the Beach Boys had already tripped in “Good Vibrations”).

 

I have to admit I’ve only seen The Cool Ones once, having stumbled across it recently on Turner Classics Movies, but it’s now among my pet stinkers list. Why? Because I was there, folks. I may have only been 12, but I had eyes, I had ears, and this ain’t the way it was. Not even close. That’s what I love about The Cool Ones; it’s so spectacularly detached from the very audience it was trying to reach, and from the time of which it was trying to be a part. It’s like watching some midlife crisis case pull on his shag toupe and gold chains, and squeeze into a little red roadster next to a girl young enough to be his daughter. Maybe granddaughter. It’s not cool; it’s laughably pathetic.

Invaders from Mars (1953). Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written by Richard Blake and an uncredited John Tucker Battle.

There are people who think Invaders is classic sci fi. There are others who think it’s just another bit of run-of-the-mill corny 50s flying saucer schlock. And there’s still others who think it’s both. I’m in that last bunch.

That’s the thing about Invaders; it stands as visual and conceptual brilliance colliding head-on with old school sci fi goofiness…only you sometimes wonder if the goofiness isn’t a carefully orchestrated part of the brilliance.

Young David (Jimmy Hunt), son of a rocket scientist, is awakened one night by a thunderstorm. Through his bedroom window, he sees a flying saucer disappear into the sand pit behind his house. Thereafter, everyone who strays out into the sand pit – including his parents – disappears into the ground, then later appears acting oddly, taken over – little David figures out – by whatever is under the sand. A very nice lady from the health department (Helena Carter) dressed all in angelic white takes David under her wing and comes to believe he’s not just paranoid. They hook up with a local astronomer (Arthur Franz) who babbles on about some theory about Martians who use “mu-tants” (that’s how they say it in the movie) to do their manual labor. Eventually, the trio gets the Army to believe David’s story about a buried spaceship. There’s a lot of running back and forth by soldiers and mu-tants in a maze of tunnels under the sand pit, the soldiers blow up the flying saucer at which point David wakes up to find it’s all been a dream. But now there’s another thunderstorm and damned if David doesn’t see – in a repeat of the opening scenes – a flying saucer bury itself in the sand pit behind his house.

The Blake/Battle script plays to a lot of prevalent post-WW II Cold War paranoias (invasion, infiltration, subversion) which get an additional spark when they mash up against more primal fears (isolation, alienation, some unseen thing pulling victims down into the underworld). And there’s that last, great twist that it’s all been a dream, but now it’s a dream turned real. Or is it? Is the dream just repeating itself?

That Mobius strip cleverness bumps up against stale dialogue, stock characters, and a hoot of an expository scene when David and his protecting angel social worker confab with Franz who spiels out a “theory” so detailed and off-the-wall it sounds like one of those theories you see in the newspapers the supermarket stocks by the check-out counter, laid out in the page across from the one about the Roswell autopsies and how they’re keeping Kennedy’s brain in a jar somewhere.

And then there’s this secret rocket project everybody knows about (including David) and that Franz easily drops in on with his observatory telescope.

But then consider this: sure, this all sounds dopey. But if a small kid were dreaming it, isn’t this the kind of thing he’d dream? That’s the thing about Invaders; it’s either being dumb, or cleverly dumb.

Which brings us to William Cameron Menzies. Although Menzies directed other films, he remains more renowned for his day job as one of the most influential set designers of his time. Menzies was the first guy to be credited as a “production designer” coordinating all the design components which contributed to the look of a film, and his two Oscars include one for Gone with the Wind (1939).

On Invaders, Menzies was working with an obviously slim budget. The movie is set-bound and padded out to its 80-minute running time (if that) by reusing the same few clips of stock military footage as well as all that soldier/mu-tant running around in the tunnel maze under the sand pit. Watch close: soldiers run right, then later, it’s the same clip only flipped to get the soldiers running left. Mu-tants run left, flip the clip, mu-tants run right.

And as for those mu-tants… The goggles and padded suits with the zipper visible in the back don’t cut it, not by a long shot. For one shot where Menzies had a squad of soldiers grapple with one of these supposedly over-sized goons, Menzies replaced his full-sized troopers with midgets which explains why their helmets suddenly cover their faces.

And let’s not forget that maze of tunnels. To get the right heat-bubble look, the tunnel sets were dressed with inflated condoms. But when the mu-tants go lumbering by, they create a breeze that sets the rubbers a-flutter.

Yet damned if something about it all isn’t…haunting. Menzies may not have been a great storyteller, but the guy had an eye.

The sets don’t always make sense…but then they do. One of the most oft-cited examples of Menzies’ mind-messing is a scene in a police station: tall doors at one end of a long, narrow hall, the desk sergeant at his high desk at the other, and stark blank walls between. It’s the world seen through the eyes of a little boy, of a dreaming little boy, and much of the film has that same, skewed, unsettling perspective.

Or take the sand pit set: a this-way-and-that-way sandy path between tufts of grass, lined by a few trees, running to the top of a low rise, a wood rail fence along one side, the path and fence disappearing into the sand at the top. Menzies, acting as his own production designer on the film, sculpts it as a stylized reality; looking natural yet so artfully put together, and so carefully framed in his camera, that the recurring image of that path to nowhere becomes one of the most memorable icons from the movie. When Tobe Hooper made his more lavish (and flat-out bad in an unfun way) 1983 remake, he knew that image was so deeply imprinted on fans of the original that it was used as the visual for the movie’s poster.

Invaders’ budget-forced shortcomings play into that same dream state quality: the constantly reused footage, the goofy-looking mu-tants and squads of soldiers purposelessly loping down endless tunnels. Like a bad dream, it never completely makes sense, yet seems all of a piece.

I saw Invaders from Mars as a kid. Even then, the zippered mu-tant costumes and bobbing condoms (“Look! Martian grapes!”) made me laugh. And yet images from that movie have never left me because they found resonance somewhere down deep inside where my own nightmares were created.

- Bill Mesce

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By Bill Mesce

Bill Mesce, Jr. is a produced screenwriter and playwright, and a published author of fiction and nonfiction, including Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema. He spent 27 years with pay-TV giant Home Box Office, and now teaches at several universities in his native New Jersey.

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