Asylum (1972)

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(Also released as House of Crazies)

Dr. Martin (Robert Powell, The Asphyx) arrives at Dunsmoor Asylum to interview for a position as a senior houseman.  The interview was set up by Dr. B. Starr, but Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee, And Now the Screaming Starts) meets Dr. Martin and tells him that Dr. Starr has gone mad and is now a patient in Dunsmoor.  Dr. Rutherford proposes a test for Dr. Martin—if he can go upstairs and determine which patient is Dr. Starr, the position of senior houseman is his.  The one catch is that Dr. Starr has had a complete break with reality and has assumed a new identity.  Feeling confident that he can still figure out which patient is Dr. Starr, Dr. Martin heads upstairs to meet the patients.  Each patient that he meets has a strange story to tell, which is then shown in flashback.

This fifth anthology (or portmanteau, to use an even fancier-sounding word) film from Amicus is one of my favorites.  I don’t want to give away too much about the plot of each of the stories, because this is one of those films that I feel works best when you know very little about it.  (Of course, that didn’t stop various plot points from being plastered all over the poster when the film was reissued in 1979 as House of Crazies.)  Still, if you’re a fan of Robert Bloch, you probably know the plots of these stories, as they were all based on short stories of his that had originally been published in Weird Tales, one of the most influential magazines in the history of horror, science fiction, and fantasy .  The first story, “Frozen Fear,” was originally published in 1946; the second story, “The Weird Tailor,” showed up in the magazine in 1950 (and was later adapted for Boris Karloff’s television show Thriller); the third story, “Lucy Comes to Stay,” came out in 1952; and the last tale, “Mannikins of Horror,” is the oldest, having first been published in 1939.  The stories have since been anthologized and re-anthologized, so if you’re an avid reader of horror tales, you’ve probably encountered one or more of them in print at some point.

As always, Amicus pulled together a great cast.  This time around, in addition to the previously-mentioned Robert Powell and Patrick Magee, on board for the fun are Barbara Parkins (The Mephisto Waltz), Peter Cushing (The Curse of Frankenstein), Barry Morse (The Changeling), Britt Ekland (The Wicker Man), Charlotte Rampling (Zardoz), and Herbert Lom (Murders in the Rue Morgue), among many others.  The film was directed by Roy Ward Baker, whom you may recognize as the director of And Now the Screaming Starts, a film I wrote about a few dozen posts back.  That film was made immediately following Asylum, and you’ll note that several of Asylum’s key actors and a good portion of the crew moved with Baker to the next film. 

I gushed about my love for Amicus’s films in that post about And Now the Screaming Starts, and that love goes double for their anthology films.  I saw one or two of them theatrically, but I ended up first catching most of them on the CBS Late Movie, as I did this one about eighteen months after it was in theaters.  However, by that point I already knew what I was in for, as I’d stumbled across the paperback movie tie-in novel and bought it in the interim.  Here’s the cover:

I loved the novelization, and I particularly loved the cover.  I found myself staring at the painting on that cover a lot.  With the hatchet, and the rat, and the big spooky house with all the bats flying around it, I found that cover to be wonderfully evocative, even if there was neither a bat nor a rat to be found in the film…so it tided me over quite nicely until I finally saw the film.  Even though I knew what was coming due to having read the book, the first two stories still scared me quite a bit.  But I loved it.

When the video revolution hit, one of the first dozen or so VHS tapes that I bought was a copy of Asylum.  I didn’t actually seek it out; I had gone shopping with friends in a nearby larger city, and we happened to stumble upon a rack of VHS tapes.  This was in the days when most tapes were unaffordable, so we were quite surprised to see this movie on sale for only $15, surrounded by other films that we would soon come to know as public-domain eyesores.  I snatched up a copy and tried to convince my movie-loving friend to grab another, different tape, but he wanted Asylum as well, so we both bought copies that day.  Here’s what the front of that tape box looked like:

Interglobal VHS release

(By the way, that cover scan comes from the ever-so-wonderful VHS Collector website [].  You might as well bookmark that link now.)

The tape itself wasn’t of the best quality, but I was fascinated to find that it was apparently from Canada, or at least the print that they’d used to transfer the film to tape was.  Here’re the opening logos from that tape, courtesy of YouTube and user LogicSmash:

At around the same time, I saw an ad announcing that Nostalgia Merchant had also released Asylum on VHS, but their tape retailed for nearly $60, so I was happy with my fairly-crappy Interglobal copy.  Here’s what THAT VHS cover looked like:

Nostalgia Merchant VHS release

My tape of Asylum finally died, but by the time it did, Prism had released a version which was much more affordable (it seems that I got it for about the same price as my Interglobal copy), so that was my final VHS copy.  And, for the sake of completeness, here’s what THAT cover looked like, again from the VHS Collector collection:

Prism VHS release

Of course, these days I watch it on my DVD from Dark Sky films, and I’m debating buying Severin’s Blu-ray edition.  Yes, I love the film enough to have bought it three times already and to contemplate buying it a fourth time. 

If you’ve never seen the film, I doubt that it will actually scare you, here at a nearly 50-year remove from when it first came out.  But then again, it might give you at least a shiver or two.  It also contains one of my favorite lines from any horror film (I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s said right after the clean-up of the first murder in the film), so that’s got to be worth something, I reckon.  Either way, I wholeheartedly recommend Asylum, the fifth anthology film from Amicus, and one of the best. 

Here’s the trailer from YouTube, but be warned—it does contain a few spoilers for the film:

And, luckily for us, the entire film has been uploaded to YouTube for our viewing pleasure.  Remember to watch it quickly lest it be removed for copyright reasons:

Up next: Love slaves of Satan tortured to blood-dripping death!

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The Astro-Zombies (1968)

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John Carradine stars in this pitiful excuse for a horror film as Dr. DeMarco, a guy who is working on creating “astro-men,” which are essentially dead guys souped-up with plastic innards and computer-chips implanted in their brains who run off solar power…because, why not?  One of his creations, due to having the brain of a criminal, is loose and committing murders, mutilating the bodies of its victims and stealing organs.  Meanwhile, ever-inebriated Wendell Corey heads up a task force of some kind of governmental secret agents who are trying to track down DeMarco, and Tura Satana (playing a character named Satana) is a foreign agent also trying to find DeMarco to get her hands on the astro-man plans.  The three factions come together at the very end of the film for a slam-bang finale, but not before 85 minutes of sheer tedium have passed.

The writer and director of this dumpster fire of a film is a guy named Ted V. Mikels, who was born as Theodore Vincent Mikacevich in Minnesota in 1929.  He later moved to Oregon and shot his first film, Strike Me Deadly, there.  Ted arrived in Hollywood in the mid-1960s, where (while working mainly as a cinematographer on films such as Day of the Nightmare, The Hostage, and Catalina Caper), he continued to write and direct his own films, a couple of which he made in partnership with Wayne Rogers, later one of the stars of the TV show M*A*S*H.  The first of these two films is entitled Dr. Sex, and if you’re curious about it, it’s been uploaded to the Internet Archive for free viewing.  (As you can probably guess, a movie named Dr. Sex is not safe for work, so be forewarned.)  The second was The Astro-Zombies.  Ted went on to carve out a niche for himself in Hollywood, making really, really low budget movies (with such charming titles as Blood Orgy of the She-Devils and The Corpse Grinders), with a lot of enthusiasm but precious few other positive attributes.  Of course, most of them are reviewed in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, which also means that I’ll be discussing them here as I work my way through the book.  And speaking of that, Michael Weldon, in the Encyclopedia, called The Astro-Zombies “[o]ne of the all-time worst.”  I certainly have to agree with him on that. 

All of this is not to say that The Astro-Zombies is totally devoid of interest; any film featuring Tura Satana, star of Russ Meyers’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (which is, purportedly, director John Waters’s favorite movie) is worth watching as far as I’m concerned simply because she’s in it.  I also like the two laboratory sets in the film—even though the labs are both devoted to creating synthetic organs for “astro-men,” they both seem to contain mainly beakers of colored fluids, many of which are bubbling and/or smoking for no good reason.  The laboratory of the “good” scientist, Dr. DeMarco’s former partner Dr. Petrovich, includes a “Visible Man” model which Dr. Petrovich seems to actually be using as a design tool for the spare parts he’s attempting to make.  If this model were life-sized, it might be kind of impressive…but it’s only about a foot tall and sits on his desk.  Here’s a picture of one of these models.  I really, really wanted one of these when I was in third grade or so:

There’s also some obvious cost-cutting going on in Satana’s apartment, as evidenced when she tells her two henchmen to get rid of a dead body and they take it out of the apartment through a wall made of drapes.  There’s no door, no windows–just some drapes that they leave through.  I’m still trying to figure out how that would work in actuality.  I would think that all sorts of critters would be wandering in under the curtains.

In probably my favorite scene, one of the government agents (who has a really weird accent, by the way) has escorted one of Dr. Petrovich’s lab assistants to her apartment, as it’s very late at night and there are Astro-Zombies about.  While there, the lights go out, so he goes outside and downstairs to check the fuse box, which totally thwarts him.  I think that Ted V. was trying to milk some suspense here, as it’s pretty obvious that the girl is going to get Astro-Zombied, but it comes off like the agent has never seen a fuse box in his life and is trying to figure it out as one would a Sudoku puzzle.  He finally gets the bad fuse replaced right about the time the lab assistant starts screaming, but at least now he can fight the Astro-Zombie in the light.  The capper to the scene, however, is that the Astro-Zombie’s power pack gets knocked off in the scuffle*, so to have enough energy to make it back to Dr. DeMarco’s lab, he grabs a convenient flashlight and holds it to the photoelectric sensors in his forehead—ALL THE WAY HOME.  I like that the scene has both the ingenuity to come up with such a novel (and useful) way of powering the Astro-Zombies and the delirious stupidity of having a guy in a rubber mask run around for a good length of time holding a flashlight to his forehead. 

*Note to future Astro-Zombie designers—rig up an INTERNAL power source.  You’re welcome.

To sum things up: The Astro-Zombies is not a good movie, but the last ten minutes or so are relatively entertaining, if you can make it that far.  You know that you’ll want to see it, especially after watching the trailer:

And for even more fun, here’s the 60-second radio spot for the film!:

Now for something super-special: In the late ‘80s, Jonathan Ross hosted two series of shows for Channel 4 in England called The Incredibly Strange Film Show and Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show.  Each episode of these series was devoted to one or two filmmakers who trafficked in exploitation cinema.  One of those episodes was devoted to Ted V. Mikels, and now you can watch pretty much the whole episode here.  It’s a fascinating portrait of a true Hollywood oddball, and it also features a nice interview with Tura Satana:

And I know that there are bound to be those of you who are champing at the bit (and some of you who might even be chomping at the bit) to watch the full feature, so here it is, courtesy (as is often the case) of Daily Motion and those genre enthusiasts, Film Gorillas:

Oh, and just one more thing:  If you find that, against all odds, you like The Astro-Zombies and want to know more about what happened to them, Ted V. made three (!) sequels to the film.  The first of these, Mark of the Astro-Zombies, appeared in 2004, 36 years (!!) after the original.  It was followed by Astro Zombies: M3 – Cloned in 2010, and Astro Zombies: M4 – Invaders from Cyberspace in 2012.  I’ve linked each of the titles of the sequels to their uploads on YouTube, so if you feel like taking a gander at ‘em, have at it.

Up next: You have nothing to lose but your mind!

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The Astounding She-Monster (1958)

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As a geologist and his dog walk home to the cabin in which they live after a long day of doing rock-related stuff, they notice what appears to be a meteorite crash to Earth behind a nearby mountain.  At roughly the same time, a car carrying a trio of kidnappers and their socialite abductee are heading away from the scene of the abduction.  As they flee, the appearance of what seems to be a naked woman in the road ahead causes the driver to lose control of the car and crash it.  Their car undriveable, they take off on foot to try to find a place to hole up for the night.  Of course, they find the geologist in his cabin and force their way in.  As they make plans to stay for the night, it becomes apparent that there’s something otherworldly outside in the dark that wants to get up close and personal with them.  While the alien being outside picks them off one by one, killing them with a mere touch, they desperately try to come up with a plan for survival.

The Astounding She-Monster, which was originally released as the bottom half of a double-bill with Roger Corman’s The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent,  is a pretty cut-rate production.  It boasts one set, has a cast of nine (plus the dog), and cost less than $20,000 to make.  The special effects aren’t all that special, the sound mixing is atrocious, and it takes what feels like forever to get up to speed.  However, once one gets past the opening narrations (indeed, there is a prologue that features one narrator, and, once the events of the film’s actual story start, a different narrator comes on to explain what’s happening on screen and make catty comments about the well-to-do) and actual dialogue begins to happen, the film picks up quite a bit. 

For such a seemingly-inconsequential film, a lot of myths and legends have sprung up around it.  One of the rumors that has been going around is that Edward D. Wood, Jr., the director of Plan 9 from Outer Space (and often referred to as the worst director in the history of motion pictures, a claim which can be refuted just by watching anything ever directed by David L. Hewitt and/or Jerry Warren), had a hand in writing it.  There’s nothing really concrete to substantiate this claim, other than the fact that Ronnie Ashcroft, The Astounding She-Monster’s director, and Wood knew each other socially, and that the narration that occurs over the kidnapping of the socialite has a Woodian ring to it. 

And then there’s the rumor that the actress who played the titular (heh heh) role in the film, Shirley Kilpatrick, later changed her name to Shirley Stoler and appeared in such films as The Honeymoon Killers, Seven Beauties, and The Deer Hunter, and went on appear on television in such shows as Charlie’s Angels, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and a couple of soap operas.  I feel that most people will admit to seeing a certain facial resemblance between the two actresses, but, again, no one has turned up a scintilla of evidence to prove that the two actresses are the same person, while there seems to be plenty of evidence that suggests that they were, in fact, two different people.  Judge for yourself:

Overall, I find the film to be moderately entertaining, with a dream logic to it that does sort of make it feel like a nightmare from which the characters can’t wake up.  (Note how many times they escape the cabin, only to wind up right back there; it happens over and over again.)  Tim Lucas, the editor of the late, lamented Video Watchdog, has talked at length about his lifelong fascination with the film.  If you follow the link in the previous sentence, you can read a post he made about his first exposure to it.  Apparently, a lot of other people find it to be memorable, for whatever personal reason(s) that they have, as well—if you do an online search for reviews of the film, you’ll find enough written about it to keep you busy reading for days.  No matter if you find it to be the worst film that you’ve ever seen or a strangely fascinating relic from a time when new low-budget science fiction films were showing up weekly at drive-ins across the nation, it’s different enough to warrant at least one watch from anyone interested enough in this type of film to be reading this blog.

Here’s the rather beat-up trailer from YouTube:

And here’s the full feature from Daily Motion:

Up next: Terror stalks the streets as a scientist’s human transplantation experiment runs amok!

The Astounding She-Monster is an American International Pictures (AIP) release.

Number of AIP films reviewed so far: 14

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Assignment Terror (1970)

Mexican Lobby Card

(Originally released as El Hombre Que Vino del Ummo; also released as Dracula vs. Frankenstein, Dracula Jagt Frankenstein, Operacion Terror, and Los Monstruos del Terror)

Michael Rennie, star of the über-classic (at least among science fiction fans) The Day the Earth Stood Still, portrays another alien in today’s film that’s up for discussion, Assignment Terror.  Before I get into discussing the film itself, I have to note that, being somewhat a grammarian, I’m not fond of that title; it’s lacking a relatively-important colon, as far as I’m concerned.  As it stands, it sounds much more about a student’s fear of having to do a book report than an alien race’s rather lame plot to take over the world by “exploiting to the full the superstitions prevalent among the Earth creatures,” as some of the opening dialogue of the film explains.

And that’s what the story’s about–Rennie, as an alien from the planet Ummo, has been sent to Earth along with a lot of other Ummo natives (Ummonites?  Ummorians?) to get the planet ready for conquest.  You see, Ummo’s sun is dying, causing the planet’s inhabitants to slowly freeze.  Since the scientists of Ummo haven’t figured out how to make an artificial sun yet, they’ve got to find another planet similar to theirs to move to.  Earth fits the bill; thus, the secret invasion.  For some reason, though, the success of the colonization depends on Rennie meeting his objective first.  To this end, he and two other Ummo beings (who have possessed the bodies of two dead doctors) start seeking out monsters.  They find a Dracula wannabe at a German fairground; they steal the body of a werewolf, Waldemar Daninsky, and bring him back to life; they go to Egypt to round up a mummy; and, lastly, they reanimate the movie’s knock-off Frankenstein monster (the “Farancksalan” monster), who reminds me a bit of Phil Hartman as the monster from Saturday Night Live.  And then the monsters act up for a while (as monsters are wont to do), and the invaders from Ummo’s plans for the conquest of Earth go straight into the toilet.

This monster mash-up was written by Spanish horror star Paul Naschy as the follow-up to a couple of other films in which he starred as the werewolf Waldemar Daninsky.  He continued to play the character for years, eventually making around a dozen films featuring Daninsky.  Be on the lookout for Naschy’s name in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film; he was amazingly prolific, especially in the 1970s.  Also on board for the monster mayhem in this film are Karin Dor, who was all over the place in the ‘60s (including popping up in a James Bond film and a Hitchcock picture), and Patty Sheppard, who co-starred with Naschy in the next Daninsky film, The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman, as the titular bloodsucker.  She’s always struck me as being attractive but just a bit odd-looking, kind of like Samantha Eggar, whom she resembles.

To be honest, the film isn’t as much fun as I had hoped that it would be.  From the few accounts that I could find about the making of it, the film had a troubled production history due to financing issues, even though it was a multi-national co-production.  This may help to explain why the monsters aren’t put to good use, and why the whole thing feels rather tired.  The film went straight into a TV syndication package in the United States, bypassing theaters entirely.  Even though the film is sort of a letdown, I’m sure that it was quite the unexpected surprise for those who stumbled across it in a late-movie slot on TV in the early ‘70s.  It’s a film that seems almost designed to be viewed on late-night television, interrupted by commercials for discount tile and flooring warehouses and coat manufacturers. 

Since the film went directly to television in the United States, there was no American trailer created for it.  The film was released theatrically in Germany, however, so there’s a German trailer for it.  Here it is, from YouTube, bearing the film’s German title (Dracula Jagt Frankenstein, which is an odd retitling for the film, considering that neither of those characters technically appear in it) and subtitled in English:

Assignment Terror has been released fairly recently on a Region A Blu-ray put out by Scorpion Releasing; the transfer is bright, colorful, and in its original widescreen aspect ratio, and it features some good supplements for those who want to know more about the film and its creation.  However, if you just want to see it for some yucks, there are a couple of uploads of varying quality of the full film on YouTube.  Here’s one of them:

Up next: A creature from beyond the stars — evil…beautiful…DEADLY!

Assignment Terror (originally released as El Hombre Que Vino del Ummo; also released as Dracula Jagt Frankenstein, Dracula vs. Frankenstein, Los Monstruos del Terror, and Operacion Terror) is an American International Television (AIP-TV) release.

Number of AIP films reviewed so far: 13

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Assignment: Outer Space (1960)

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(Also released as Assignment – Outer Space and Space Men)

Dateline: December 17th, 2116.  Ray Peterson, reporter for the Interplanetary Chronicle of New York, is given a routine assignment to hitch a ride on spaceship BZ 88 to get to Galaxy M12 in order to report on “infra-radiation flux” occurring there.  Once he’s transferred to Space Station ZX 34, however, he becomes involved in a series of adventures that find him traveling first to Mars and then to Venus, and finally saving the Earth from total destruction. 

Boy, that sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it?  Unfortunately, the synopsis is fairly misleading as to the entertainment value of the film.  Michael Weldon in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film calls Assignment: Outer Space “pretty dull stuff.”  While I can’t disagree, I have to give the film at least some credit for playing things straight—there are no goofy space monsters anywhere in sight, and it gives off the vibe that it’s a serious science fiction film.  Of course, that doesn’t stop it from having the requisite mid-20th century sci-fi love triangle, but at least it’s a step up in quality from the shenanigans of The Angry Red Planet.  Unfortunately, it’s also not nearly as entertaining; maybe a giant bat-rat-spider-crab critter would have livened things up a little.

The film stars a bunch of actors that didn’t make much of a splash.  Ray Peterson is played by Rik Van Nutter (here billed as Rik Von Nutter), whose biggest claim to fame was probably his supporting turn in Thunderball; the love interest is played by Gabriella Farinon (here billed as Gaby Farinon), whose career high point occurred the same year as Assignment: Outer Space when she appeared in Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses; and appearing as Sullivan is Franco Fantasia (here billed as Frank Fantasia) , who had a fifty-two-year career in Italian films.  Probably the most interesting member of the cast is Archie Savage (here billed as…Archie Savage), who started as a dancer in the United States, eventually joining Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe (and appearing in, among many other things, the Broadway and film productions of South Pacific) before moving to Italy to appear in films. 

The film’s credited writer, Vassilij Petrov, was in actuality an Italian writer named Ennio De Concini.  You may never have heard of him before now, but he was the writer of some of the biggest Italian exports of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  He wrote or helped write Hercules (and its sequel, Hercules Unchained), Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and The Evil Eye, Sergio Leone’s first film, The Colossus of Rhodes, and Divorce—Italian Style, which won him and his two co-writers Oscars for its screenplay.  So,  yeah, he was kind of a big deal. 

Assignment: Outer Space’s director, credited in some prints as “Antony Daisies” and in others as “Anthony Dawson,” also often hid behind pseudonyms.  His real name was Antonio Margheriti, and he was responsible for films spanning several decades of Italian genre cinema.  Assignment: Outer Space was his first science fiction film, but it certainly wasn’t his last.  The next year he made Battle of the Worlds, and then a few years after that, he made four films back-to-back that are collectively known as the “Gamma One” series: The Wild, Wild Planet, The War of the Planets, War Between the Planets, and Snow Devils.  He was still making science fiction films twenty years later, with Yor, the Hunter from the Future getting a wide theatrical release in the United States in 1983.  However, sci-fi wasn’t the only genre that he dabbled in; he was also known for his stylish Gothic horror films as well.  He directed Horror Castle in 1963, and Castle of Blood and The Long Hair of Death in the next two years, these latter two starring Psychotronic favorite Barbara Steele.  He continued making genre fare well into the ‘70s, including trying his hand at a Disney clone (Mr. Superinvisible) that starred Dean Jones, star of a lot of Disney’s live-action comedies, a giallo (Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye), and even an entry into the Italian cannibal film sweepstakes, Cannibals in the Streets (a.k.a. Invasion of the Flesh Hunters).  He’s pretty important to the Italian exploitation industry and, as such, is important as a Psychotronic director.  He’ll be no stranger to this blog.

Assignment: Outer Space feels like a missed opportunity, in that it seems to have all of the ingredients to make a classic science fiction film, but they just don’t hang together well enough to make it an exciting movie.  It’s still worth seeing if you’re a science fiction fan, but it’s not going to linger in your thoughts for very long after you’ve watched it.

Here’s the trailer (from YouTube user “The Milmar Zone,” who seems like a nice-enough fella but, boy, does he put a lot of extra nonsense before, during, and after the trailer!), in case you want to check out the interplanetary action:

…and here’s the full feature at YouTube.  In its favor, it’s a widescreen print that has more picture info and better color than any other copy of the film that I’ve seen.  To its detriment, the focus is really wonky, with the picture going in and out of focus every few seconds throughout the entire feature:

If you can’t deal with the focus problem, the film is apparently in the public domain, so there are other copies floating around the Internet if you look for them.  Here’s a link to a fullscreen version on YouTube; it’s missing a goodly amount of picture info on the right side of the screen and the color has faded quite a bit, but at least watching it won’t make you feel slightly drunk. Also, don’t get excited because it appears to be thirty minutes longer than the widescreen version; the movie starts over after it finishes, for whatever reason:

Up next: Arm yourself with courage to enter the door of the dark world of horror and beyond!

Assignment: Outer Space (also released as Assignment – Outer Space and Space Men) is an American International Pictures (AIP) release.

Number of AIP films reviewed so far: 12

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Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

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John Carpenter had always wanted to make a western.  He’d loved them since he was a child, growing up watching the films of John Ford and Howard Hawks.  In fact, it was his love of westerns that made him want to be a filmmaker.  The first film that he had worked on that received a theatrical release, the short film “The Resurrection of Broncho Billy,” was a sort of modern-day fantasy western.  But by the mid-‘70s, he knew that westerns had lost most of their box-office appeal, and he also knew that making westerns entailed dealing with the inherent problems (such as cleaning up after horses) that went with them.  No, making a western in the classic style wasn’t an option for John Carpenter.

After the cult success of his student-film-turned-feature Dark Star, Carpenter decided to do a budget-friendly modern update of one of his favorite films, Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, as his next project.  He wrote the film quickly, titling the script The Anderson Alamo.  In the script, Anderson is a Los Angeles ghetto that has a gang problem.  After the police kill some of the Street Thunder gang’s members, the gang’s leaders decide to declare war on the police.  At the same time, one of the police precincts in Anderson is in the process of moving to a new building and is operating with a skeleton crew for its last night in its current location.  There’s also a bus ferrying some inmates from one prison to another, but when one of the inmates gets ill, they have to make a stop at the nearest precinct, which just happens to be the one closing down.  And in one more plot strand, a father and his young daughter get lost in Anderson while on an errand. After the father ends up killing one of the gang leaders, he heads to the nearest police station for protection, and, of course, it’s that very same precinct. 

These plot machinations may sound terribly contrived, but Carpenter pulls them off beautifully in the film, keeping things moving at a rapid clip so that the audience doesn’t have time to question the plot details.  By the midway point of the movie, all of the main characters are inside the police building, the gang shows up, and the siege of the precinct begins. 

One of the strongest aspects of Assault on Precinct 13 is its cast.  Darwin Joston, who plays Napoleon Wilson, one of the inmates on the bus which had to stop at the police station, was a neighbor of John Carpenter.  In fact, Carpenter wrote the role with Joston in mind for it.  Joston didn’t make many features, but most of them are psychotronic in nature.  If I’m remembering the story correctly, Joston was in an acting workshop with Austin Stoker, who plays Lt. Ethan Bishop, and he was responsible for introducing Stoker to John Carpenter.  Austin Stoker is also no stranger to the Psychotronic Encyclopedia, having starred or been featured in Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Horror High, and Abby before appearing in Assault on Precinct 13.  He and Joston later went on to be in 1982’s Time Walker together.  Nancy Loomis and Charles Cyphers show up in the cast (as they did in Carpenter’s next film), and Henry Brandon, Scar in John Ford’s The Searchers, puts in a cameo appearance as a police station desk clerk.

If you’re looking for them, the Howard Hawks influences can be seen everywhere in the film, from Napoleon Wilson’s asking everyone he meets for a cigarette, to one of the characters being named Leigh after one of Hawks’s favorite writers, Leigh Brackett (Carpenter took this one step further in Halloween, when he named Charles Cypher’s character Sherriff Leigh Bracket.), to Carpenter crediting the editing of the film (which he did himself) to “John T. Chance,” which was John Wayne’s character’s name in Rio Bravo.  However, the film also shows other influences, recalling films as disparate as Night of the Living Dead and Once Upon a Time in the West.

Carpenter also composed and performed the score for Assault on Precinct 13, something that he’s done on the majority of his films.  It’s another one of his minimalist scores, with a very distinctive synthesizer riff that was based on both the score to Dirty Harry and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”  It WILL get stuck in your head, so be prepared for the earworminess of it.  Check it out:

Assault on Precinct 13 was released to an indifferent American public in 1976, playing inner-city grindhouses and drive-ins.  It made practically no splash at all here in the States; however, it fared much better in England.  Carpenter was so thankful to its British distributor, Michael Myers, for making the film a success there that he named the killer in Halloween after him.  Another happy coincidence that occurred due to the film’s British release is that Donald Pleasance, who played the iconic Dr. Loomis role in Halloween, took that job because his daughter had seen Assault on Precinct 13 in London and had loved it. 

If you’ve seen the film, you may have noticed that I’ve not discussed what is perhaps the film’s most infamous scene.  I’ve done this on purpose; if you’ve never seen Assault on Precinct 13, do yourself a favor and avoid searching for info about the film until after you’ve seen it.  If you HAVE seen the film, however, know that the film was going to be given an X rating if that scene wasn’t taken out; however, the film’s distributor took the scene out of the rating board’s print to secure its R rating, but kept it in all of the release prints.  It’s still pretty shocking, all these years and thousands of movies later.  

Oh, just one more thing.  If you watch the film closely, you’ll discover that the building that’s under siege has signage that refers to it as Precinct 14, not Precinct 13.  However, the film’s distributor thought that thirteen was a much more dangerous-sounding number than fourteen, and so the title was changed.  No matter what it’s called or where it’s actually set, Assault on Precinct 13 is classic John Carpenter, and it’s worth seeing whether you’re familiar with his work or not.  If you’ve never seen a John Carpenter film (I realize that it’s unlikely, but these are strange times that we live in), this is a great place to start.  Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite to see it, again or for the first time:

Up next: Terror awaits…in the murky mists of outer space!

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The Asphyx (1972)

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In the mid-1870s, Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) spends his free time dabbling in the new-ish art of photography and meeting with the fellow members of the Psychical Research Society.  His two interests meet in some photographs that he and other members of the Psychical Research Society have taken of people at the moments of their deaths that show a dark smudge near each of their heads.  The conclusion that they reach is that these smudges are the souls of the people leaving their bodies. 

One day while Sir Hugo is taking movies of his bride-to-be and his adult children, an accident occurs that kills his fiancée and his eldest son.  While watching the film of the accident, he and his adopted son Giles (Robert Powell) notice the black smudge again…yet, in motion, it appears to be moving toward the victim, not away from him.  As luck would have it, a public hanging is announced, and Sir Hugo is asked to take photographs of it to help the efforts of a reform group dedicated to ending capital punishment.  As the condemned man is just about to be hung, Sir Hugo turns on his spotlight to light the scene, and a creature shows up in the circle of light.  The man is hung, but he doesn’t appear to die until Sir Hugo turns off his spotlight a few seconds later.   

Armed with photographic evidence of a what the ancient Greeks called an asphyx, or spirit of death, Sir Hugo and Giles embark upon a series of experiments to try to capture an asphyx.  They succeed in capturing the asphyx of a guinea pig and then realize that, if its spirit of death can’t get to it, the guinea pig can never die.  Of course, on the heels of that finding comes Sir Hugo’s realization that if he were able to capture his own asphyx, he could gain immortality. 

The Asphyx came out right at the end of the British gothic horror cycle that Hammer Films had kicked off fifteen years earlier.  Unfortunately, audience tastes had changed a lot by 1972, and there really wasn’t much of an audience for this type of picture.  It’s too bad that this film fell through the cracks, because it has a wonderful cast and looks sumptuous.  It was shot by Freddie Young in Todd-AO 35; Young had shot (and won Academy Awards for) David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Ryan’s Daughter.  The lighting in the film, especially in Sir Hugo’s laboratory/darkroom, is especially gorgeous.  The David Lean connections don’t end with Young, however; director Peter Newbrook had been the second-unit director on Lawrence of Arabia (and camera operator on The Bridge on the River Kwai), and production designer John Stoll had been the art director on Lawrence of Arabia.  I cite all of this to show that The Asphyx wasn’t a backyard production made by what Stephen King refers to as “morons with cameras,” but was a well-mounted production populated with professionals of the highest caliber both in front of and behind the camera.

Of course, the only question that really matters is, “Is The Asphyx any good?”  I happen to like the film a lot, but then again, I’m awfully forgiving of a film’s errors if I feel that its creators were trying their best to make a quality product.  For instance, I can forgive the plot device of Sir Hugo having invented a movie camera a full twenty years before one actually appeared.  I can also forgive (but have a little more trouble doing it) that, in the footage of the accident that kills his son, Sir Hugo goes from a long shot to a close-up without moving the camera.  For the plot to work, for the film to show evidence of an asphyx approaching the doomed man, he HAD to be in close-up.  That slip-up bothers me much more than the movie camera being there to begin with, but, again, I can understand the rationale behind it.  Since I’ve wandered into things about the film that I don’t particularly cotton to, however, I should mention Robert Stephens’s old-age makeup at the very end of the film.  It’s atrocious.  There’s no other adjective for it; it looks more like a paper mâché mask than an actual person’s face.  But, again, as it’s only in the film for a brief sequence, I can let it slide. 

These quibbles aside, I think that The Asphyx is an exemplary horror film, if one that’s decidedly on the more cerebral end of the spectrum.  If you don’t have to have a murder by power tool every ten minutes in the horror films that you watch, you should check it out.  Here’s the trailer, courtesy of YouTube, to pique your interest:

If you want to watch the entire film, you’ve got two choices: the film was originally released in the US with a running time of 99 minutes, but in the UK it was released in a truncated version with a running time of 86 minutes.  All of the VHS releases in the US were the full, uncut feature, as was the first DVD release way back in 1997.  However, when the film came out on Blu-ray via Redemption/Kino Lorber, only the shorter version was offered in HD; the longer version was recreated using the shorter HD version with SD inserts from what looks like the 1997 DVD version.  I guess that the disc’s producers either couldn’t find a decent US release print to scan in HD to use to rebuild the longer version, or they didn’t have the money to do a proper HD scan and used the DVD as an easy way out.  Hopefully, one day we’ll get a fully-restored copy of the longer version of the film, but until then we have no choice but to make do with the compromised hybrid version of it on the Blu-ray.  If you’re not bothered by watching the shorter version, it’s on YouTube at the moment:

As always, I have to issue my warning about watching it as soon as possible on the chance that it’s forced to be taken down due to copyright infringement. 

Up next:  A white-hot night of hate!

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Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

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Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) has just gotten married.  This fact, in and of itself, wouldn’t be so surprising, except that Mortimer is a bit of a New York City celebrity due to his being a popular drama critic and, in his words, a “symbol of bachelorhood.”  Not only is Mortimer a dyed-in-the-wool bachelor, he’s even written books (as in, more than one) decrying the practice of marriage, including one called Marriage, A Fraud and a Failure

Before they can go on their honeymoon to Niagara Falls, he and his new bride Elaine (a quite-fetching Priscilla Lane) take a taxi to get her luggage from the house she shares with her father, the Reverend Dr. Harper.  A small cemetery separates her house from Mortimer’s family home, so while she retrieves her luggage, he goes inside to tell his elderly aunts Abby and Martha, who raised him, and his older brother Teddy, who thinks that he’s Theodore Roosevelt, the former President of the United States, that he’s just gotten married.  While there, he discovers the dead body of a man hidden in a window seat, and he further finds out that his dear, gentle aunts are responsible for poisoning the man.  (He tells them at one point, “You can’t do things like that…it’s not only against the law, but it’s wrong!”)  Of course, he comes unglued, thinking that they’ll all go to prison once the police find out, so he hatches a plan to have Teddy committed to the Happy Dale Sanitarium and then pinning the murders on him once he’s already been committed so that he won’t have to go to jail.  After Mortimer leaves the house to start the process of having Teddy committed, Mortimer’s other brother, Jonathan (who “used to cut worms in two—with his teeth”), shows up, with his cohort Dr. Einstein in tow.  And then everything spirals way, way out of control.

Arsenic and Old Lace started life as a Broadway play written by Joseph Kesselring.  It opened in 1941 and was an immediate hit.  Director Frank Capra, who had only a few years earlier directed the film version of another Broadway hit, You Can’t Take It with You (which won the 1938 “Best Picture” Oscar™), was brought on board to direct.  The play was adapted by Philip and Julius Epstein, who, along with Howard Koch, won an Academy Award for adapting another play, this one unproduced, that eventually became the film Casablanca

Since the play was doing boffo business, the producers of it put a clause in the contract with Warner Brothers that stated that the studio couldn’t release the film of the play until after the play had ended its Broadway run, due to fears that the film version would hurt their box office receipts.  Because of this, the film was held up after shooting for over two years until the play finally ended its run in 1944.

There was also another deal that was made that affected the film much more than pushing back its release date: the producers wanted to cast the play’s four main actors in the film version.  The play’s producers eventually relented and loaned Warner Brothers three of the four actors from the play for the eight weeks that the film was scheduled to shoot: Josephine Hull (who played Aunt Abby), Jean Adair (Aunt Martha), and John Alexander (Teddy).  The one cast member who was requested that didn’t join the film’s cast was Boris Karloff.  In both the play and the film, the character of Jonathan keeps getting upset that people say that he looks like Boris Karloff.  The play’s coup was getting Boris Karloff himself to play that part on stage.  Because he was a popular movie star, he was the big draw for audiences to go see the play.  Now, depending on which source of the story you believe, either the producers refused to let Karloff out of his contract for the eight weeks that filming would take because it would destroy their box-office receipts (and upsetting Karloff mightily with their decision in the process), OR Karloff declined to make the film because he was an investor in the play and didn’t want to harm the play’s profits.  Whichever version of the story is true, Karloff didn’t join the film’s cast; he was replaced by Raymond Massey.  The film wasn’t without a horror film star, however, as Peter Lorre, then under contract to Warner Brothers, played the role of Dr. Einstein. 

Reviews were great for the film when it was eventually released, but Cary Grant apparently never liked the film.  He felt that his performance was one of the worst that he’d ever given, and he put most of the blame on director Frank Capra, who he said kept urging him to play his reaction shots bigger.  I find Cary Grant’s mugging to be, for the most part, hysterically funny, but I understand that it may have the opposite effect on a lot of people.  If you don’t usually like Cary Grant, then this isn’t the film that’s going to change your mind. 

There are still plenty of things to like about the film, even if you’re not a Grant fan.  He gets perhaps the film’s best line (“Insanity runs in my family…it practically gallops!”), but, for me, the funniest moment in the film is the childhood picture of Jonathan that’s briefly shown.  It’s a pause button-worthy moment.

You can get a pretty good idea of exactly how over the top Grant is in the film by watching the trailer, courtesy of Warner Brothers and YouTube:

The entire film isn’t available to stream for free (as far as I can tell), but it can be rented or bought from the usual suspects—iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, etc.  If you’re curious to see how Boris Karloff played the role of Jonathan, there’s a 1962 TV adaptation of the play starring Karloff, Tony Randall, Mildred Natwick, and Tom Bosley that’s available on Amazon Prime for free if you’re a subscriber.  Here’s the link:

Up next: More than a myth…more than a maybe!

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Around the World Under the Sea (1966)

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The world is being rocked by ever-more-frequent earthquakes, so a bunch of scientists get together and design an early warning system for earthquakes which will give authorities time to evacuate damage zones before the earthquakes actually strike.  The early warning system is comprised of a series of interconnected deep-sea monitors that have to be anchored into the ocean floor at the deepest parts of the sea, which means that only a highly-skilled team of scientists will be able to go about the business of setting up the monitors.  Enter Drs. Doug Standish and Craig Mosby, who are hand-chosen by the Vice-President of the United States to lead the team to rig up the network.  Once they’ve added an additional three scientists and an engineer to their team, they set off to plant the monitors in a whirlwind thirty days of danger and excitement, including encounters with deadly giant moray eels, jealousy, underwater volcanos, chess games, treasure, and guinea pigs…all taking place around the world, under the sea.

Sheer escapist entertainment, Around the World Under the Sea is a good-looking film, even if it’s as shallow as a wading pool.  The colorful widescreen photography looks just dandy, and the film moves at such a pace that there’s little time to be bored before the next possible catastrophe looms.  So what if the science isn’t exactly accurate?  Most of the kids in the audience didn’t care—they were there for the underwater thrills.

The cast of the film is serviceable, if not exactly noteworthy, with several of them either starring in or just coming off fairly popular TV shows.  This is the third film featuring Lloyd Bridges that’s been discussed so far on this blog (after Airplane! and Apache Woman); he was no stranger to the ocean, having been the star of Sea Hunt (also produced by this film’s producer, Ivan Tors) several years earlier.  Brian Kelly was in the midst of starring in Flipper, another Ivan Tors television production, and had most recently been seen on the big screen in Flipper’s New Adventure.  Shirley Eaton, who had achieved icon status in Goldfinger a few years before, had also starred in Ivan Tors’s Rhino! that same year.  David McCallum, right smack in the middle of a four-year run as Illya Kuryakin, the Russian secret agent on the enormously popular TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., plays a German scientist who has a running chess game with Keenan Wynn, who was pretty much everywhere in the ‘60s (including his turn as Alonzo P. Hawk in The Absent Minded Professor).  Marshall Thompson, who was just starting his run in Ivan Tor’s series Daktari, is in there as well.

So you may be asking yourself…who IS this Ivan Tors?  Ivan Tors was a producer who started out in the early 1950s by making low-budget sci-fi films (such as The Magnetic Monster, Gog, and Riders to the Stars) before turning to producing a low-budget sci-fi TV show (Science Fiction Theater). He then set up shop in Florida and started making movies and (mostly) TV shows that were usually set on, in, or around the ocean, like the aforementioned Sea Hunt and Flipper.  He actually had a pretty fascinating career; if you’re so inclined, take a gander at this documentary about him from YouTube:

To further whet your appetite to see Around the World Under the Sea, here’s the trailer (or is it a sixty-second TV spot?) from YouTube:

There was also a soundtrack album released, for those of you who keep track of these things:

And, although I can’t embed it, here’s a pretty cool promotional film made by the Ivan Tors Studio around the time that Around the World Under the Sea was shooting to try to drum up outside business:

Alas, once again there’s no upload of the full feature anywhere that I can find on the Internet, although a DVD of the film can be purchased from the Warner Archive here.  I DID find this really cool silent footage of the effects house Projects Unlimited shooting some of the miniature submarine footage for Around the World Under the Sea, however, so maybe that’ll help make up for the lack of a full feature:

Up next: A Halloween tale of Brooklyn!

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Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)

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Along with Casablanca, Around the World in Eighty Days is one of only two Oscar ®-winners for Best Picture to garner a write-up in the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you should know that when an entry sticks out from the usual exploitation fare and seems to be an oddball choice for discussion, it’s usually because there’s a star involved with it who’s known primarily for his or her work in genre films.  That’s certainly the case with today’s film, as it features a cameo by…Peter Lorre.  As far as I can figure it, that’s why Around the World in Eighty Days is included in Weldon’s book.  I guess that one could also make a case for its inclusion because the source novel was written by Jules Verne, but if that were the case, In Search of the Castaways, Michael Strogoff, and a few others would also be included in the book…but they’re not.  So I’m sticking with my Peter Lorre assertion, which would be a great name for a band—The Peter Lorre Assertion—don’t you think?  But I digress.

I can’t believe that anyone reading this blog could be totally unaware of the plot of today’s film under discussion, especially since the whole plot, really, is right there in the title.  But for those of you who may have missed this film, or the version with Jackie Chan, or one of the animated adaptations, or even Michael Palin’s hugely entertaining BBC series in which he tried to duplicate the feat using only the types of transportation available in 1872, here’s the plot in fifty words or fewer:  In 1872, Mr. Phileas Fogg makes a £20,000 wager with some members of his gentlemen’s club that he can circumnavigate the globe in eighty days, and he and his manservant Passepartout spend the rest of the film attempting to win the bet.  Of course, they run into difficulties along the way; it wouldn’t be much fun if they just breezed through the trip, now would it?  The bet comes down to a race against the clock for Fogg to make it back to the gentlemen’s club exactly, to the minute, eighty days from when he left. 

You may be asking yourself, especially if you’re on the left side of The Pond, how much money IS £20,000, exactly?  Well, at the time that I’m writing this, it’s over $27,000, which is nothing to sneeze at.  Adjusted for inflation, however, it’s a good bit over half a million dollars.  Now THAT’s a wager. 

The film seems to be fairly faithful to the novel (which I’ll freely admit to never having read) if the online synopses of it that I checked are accurate.  And what a cast!  David Niven stars as Phileas Fogg, Cantinflas (we’ll get to him in a minute) plays Passepartout, Shirley MacLaine plays an Indian princess, and Robert Newton is the detective who’s following Fogg, as he believes that Fogg robbed a bank right before he set out on his trip.  I’m assuming that you know who David Niven and Shirley MacLaine are, but the other two names might be throwing you a bit. 

Cantinflas was, at the time of filming, one of the biggest comedy stars in the world, if not THE biggest.  Unless you were of Hispanic heritage, though, you may not have known who he was when the film came out.  Around the World in Eighty Days was his first American film, and almost his last.  He made one more English-language film, Pepe, a few years later, which tanked at the box office in spite of having almost as many cameo appearances by big Hollywood stars as Around the World in Eighty Days.  It was probably disappointing to him, but he went back to Mexico where he continued to be the country’s biggest star. 

Robert Newton was an English actor who had been a mainstay in British films for twenty years.  He played Long John Silver in Walt Disney’s Treasure Island in 1950, and Silver became a recurring character for him, as he also played the character in 1954’s Long John Silver and in a television series that was broadcast in 1956 and 1957, The Adventures of Long John Silver.  Newton died before Around the World in Eighty Days was released.

What many people who have seen the film tend to remember about Around the World in Eighty Days is the extensive list of actors who appear in cameo roles in the film.  According to the film’s promotional materials, there were forty-four stars who had cameos; without looking at the cast list, here are some of the actors that I recognized in the film: Peter Lorre, John Carradine, Marlene Dietrich, George Raft, Joe E. Brown, Buster Keaton, and Frank Sinatra.  There are lots more, obviously, and seeing if you can find them all is sort of like a really, really nerdy variation of Pokemon GO for old movie addicts. 

Michael Todd, the producer of Around the World in Eighty Days, was a Broadway producer who got the movie itch.  He was one of the founders of Cinerama, the curved-screen three-camera, three-projector process that was one of the earliest technical innovations to try to lure people away from their television sets in the 1950s.  He was never quite happy with the process, however, so he started a new company with American Optical, Todd-AO, which did essentially the same thing as Cinerama except with only one camera and one projector.  Some of the most popular “big” movies in Hollywood history were shot in Todd-AO, including Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Cleopatra, and The Sound of Music.  Speaking of Cleopatra, Michael Todd married that movie’s star, Elizabeth Taylor, in 1957, becoming her third husband (and she his third wife).  He is the only one of Taylor’s husbands that she didn’t divorce, as he died in a plane crash in 1958. 

As the late Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic movies, mentioned on the DVD release of the film, Michael Todd has the absolute best record as a producer in Hollywood.  Todd produced one film, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  You just can’t get any better than that.  Around the World in Eighty Days is a hugely enjoyable film that seems much shorter than its three-hour running time, and I recommend it whole-heartedly. 

If you’d like to get a taste of what the film’s like before you spend three hours watching it, here’s the 1983 reissue trailer from YouTube:

Around the World in Eighty Days doesn’t seem to be streaming for free anywhere on the Interwebs, but you can rent it from iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and the other usual places starting at $4 or so, and the digital file can be bought for $6 at most vendors.  Those aren’t bad prices for a three-hour trip around the world. 

Up next: A new height of adventure!

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