Thursday, December 29, 2016

"Less Than a Man...And More Than a Man" - The Demon (1981) - Part 2 of 3

This is Part 2 of our discussion of the gritty South African slasher film The Demon. You can read Part 1 here.

So far, we have followed the grieving parents of a young girl kidnapped by a mysterious black-clad man as they hired the psychic Colonel Carson, played by Cameron Mitchell. We have also followed preschool teacher Mary, who is being stalked by the same black-clad man.

Colonel Carson continues his psychic investigation by sniffing around--again literally, as he is grasping and inhaling from an article of the girl's clothing that is probably best left unidentified.

"She's high," he says. "High up. She's floating." He can't be certain whether she is alive or dead. But she is probably dead.

The girl's clothing allows him to psychically connect with her abductor/probable killer. He sees that he is looking down on a crowd, and he is feeling good.

"If only we knew what he looked like," the girl's father, Mr. Parker, says. The colonel pulls some drawings out of a leather case.

The sketches are detailed but they are missing one part that might be considered important. "The face just doesn't come to me," Colonel Carson explains before he imparts the mysterious knowledge that "he's less than a man...and more than a man....much more."

The colonel has also sketched a building that he feels is associated with the abductor. Mr. Parker asks if he can keep the drawings.

When preschool lets out, American schoolteacher Mary sits meditating with her charming South African cousin, who also works at the school. Mary's cousin, though only 18, has a date with a man named Dean. Mary is suspicious that Dean is involved in something unsavory, but she allows her cousin to go on the date.

On the date, Mary's cousin Jo, drunk on French wine and lobster thermidor, allows Dean to drive her to his apartment in a skyscraper. Looking fetching in her purple, blue, and green striped poncho, Jo flirts with Dean--the actor is an enticing combination of Anthony Perkins and Adrian Zmed--while he explains his family is wealthy. She fends off his advances, and then agrees to go out with him again.

The next day at school, Mary looks out the window and sees the black-clad man, now maskless.

The film next spends what might be considered more time than necessary detailing Jo's courtship with Dean, including their difficulties deciding on their next date. Dean sets up a photography studio in his apartment to take photos of Jo while she psychoanalyzes him.

At night in an alley, a confusing scene occurs. Two women see the black-clad man and convince a group of four men to beat him up. Needless to say, the four men are unsuccessful. The black-clad man uses his razor-tipped brass knuckles to kill all of them.

The same night, Mary receives a phone call. The caller only breathes raspily. There is a knock at the door. It is Mary's neighbor with a long story, delivered breathlessly but charmingly, about why he came over: "Chippy's been making a devil of a row, hackles up and all. Janet thought she saw someone prowling around under your trees. I went out to have a look but he vanished. Then about half an hour later, Chippy started up again. This time I thought I saw someone. Again, he vanished. Anyway, I thought I'd come over to see if you girls were all right. Any trouble, I'll be right over...with the old .38 special."

Back in the house, the phone, despite sitting in focus in the foreground, fails to ring.

When Mary returns to bed, we watch as the door opens silently and a black-clad figure enters the bedroom. It turns out to be Jo who, in time-honored cinematic tradition, climbs into Mary's bed to tell her about her date tonight. But Jo sits there silently, so Mary tells her about the mysterious caller and Chippy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Parker has been searching the city for the building in Colonel Carson's psychic sketches. He finds one that looks similar, so he makes note of the one apartment in the building with a light on, then enters the unlocked building. Negotiating a series of staircases, Parker finds the lighted apartment.

He pulls a gun and opens the unlocked door.

Parker is suddenly assaulted by the black-clad man, who appears to have superhuman strength. Parker is killed. The black-clad man carries the body to another room in the building.

The Parkers' story comes to a tragic end. Mr. Parker has been killed, and then his daughter's skeleton is found high in a tree. Only Mrs. Parker remains. Colonel Carson visits her home, and Mrs. Parker berates him, even suggesting that Carson might be the abductor and murderer.

The colonel responds by saying, "The time of the demon--our demon--is drawing close."

Surprisingly, Mrs. Parker pulls a gun on Carson. In her charming accent, she says, "Did your extrasensory perception prepare you for this?"

She shoots him in the forehead, killing him [spoiler]. (Perhaps she deduced that Colonel Carson was the one who pocketed her late daughter's necklace earlier.)

Thus ends another of Cameron Mitchell's fine performances.

In his apartment, the black-clad killer sits in a chair and rips up pictures of women in bikinis. Then he washes his featureless mask in the sink.

The film then intercuts two romantic dates, as Jo and Dean spend time at Mary and Jo's house, while Mary and her date Bob go to Bob's place. Both couples end up in bed almost immediately. Then, suddenly, Jo and Dean are skinny-dipping in a swimming pool, where Dean proposes and Jo accepts.

After they get dressed, Dean gets in his car to leave, but he is strangled by the black-clad man from the back seat. The man wraps Dean's head in plastic and suffocates him.

Jo is in the house alone. There is a knock at the door. She opens it to see the killer standing there. He punches her and she flies backward, somersaulting to the carpet. Following his usual procedure, he picks her up and carries her through the house.

We hear Jo scream behind a closed door.

Could this be the end of Mary's cousin Jo? The answer is yes. What will happen next? We will have to wait for the thrilling conclusion in Part 3 of our discussion of The Demon.

Monday, December 26, 2016

"This Must Look Like Witchcraft" - The Demon (1981) - Part 1 of 3

Our next classic is a gritty slasher movie from the early 1980s, The Demon. Even without seeing the film, it clearly has the markings of a high-quality cinematic experience. First, it has the word “demon” in the title, potentially putting it on the level of classics we have discussed such as Demon Wind, Demon Seed, and Night of the Demon. Second, it stars Cameron Mitchell, only one year after his groundbreaking performance in The Nightmare Never Ends.

Predictably, the respected critics of your universe regard The Demon as less than a classic. On IMDB, BillyBC writes, “The soundtrack is very loud and erratic and people are always screaming, which makes sleeping straight through this often-dull movie pretty difficult. It ends rather abruptly.” Also on IMDB, matoolz2 writes, “It quickly becomes a disjointed mess as it jumps completely away from it`s beginning plot. I kept getting the sense that they started a movie and after getting so far into it they decided the plot was`nt working so they scrapped their original idea and went for something else but left in the footage they had already shot.” On Rotten Tomatoes, Julian Toepfer writes, “Not only is it shot for cents on the dollar, uncreative, horribly scripted and acted, and ludicrously stupid, but its flat out boring.”

Contrary to these uninformed "opinions," with their inconsistent uses of the word "its," The Demon is  in fact a tightly scripted suspense film showcasing another brilliant Cameron Mitchell performance.

The film opens with a mundane nighttime scene, distinguished only by charming South African accents, that is suddenly punctuated by a shocking home invasion. A woman and her daughter are attacked in their home, the mother left with a plastic bag over her head and the daughter kidnapped and carried into the forest screaming. This is intercut with waves crashing against rocks. Back in the forest, we hear something ripping in the night.

Search parties accompanied by multiple helicopters fail to find the abducted daughter.

At night, a friendly man in a pickup truck stops to pick up a typical hitchhiker sitting alone in front of an abandoned gas station. The hitchhiker wears black leather, black gloves, and what appears to be a set of brass knuckles with sharp points. And he carries a heavy suitcase.

"You're lucky I came along," the friendly driver says in his charming South African accent to the shadowy hitchhiker. "Not much traffic along this road at night."

The hitchhiker says nothing. The driver, an actor, goes on and on about how verbose he tends to be while the hitchhiker adjusts his knife-edged brass knuckles.

In this tense driving sequence, the film astutely plays on our expectations, knowing we have seen many films in which hitchhiking scenarios turn out poorly. The audience wonders who is dangerous in this scenario, the whistling mustache-wearing driver or the black-clad hitchhiker with the deadly weapon? It is nearly impossible to guess.

We find out soon enough--the hitchhiker attacks the driver, forcing the pickup off the road. The hitchhiker wraps the man's head in clear plastic and steals his wallet.

Waves crash against rocks.

Back at the scene of the home invasion, we are introduced to Colonel Bill Carson, U.S. Marines, retired, played by the estimable Cameron Mitchell. The parents of the kidnapped girl are desperate. It has been over two months without a sign of their daughter. They have called Colonel Carson because, like most high-ranking military officers, he is also a skilled psychic.

"I'll give you everything I've got," says the father, "if you can find this monster."

"I'm not a kind of medicine man, a mystic," says Colonel Carson. "I'm just someone who's been gifted with ESP--extra...sensory perception."

As the girl's mother weeps, Colonel Carson grabs her head. It is a mark of Mr. Mitchell's skill as an actor that we cannot be certain whether he is using his ESP powers or simply holding her head more tightly, and for a longer span of time, than social convention would dictate.

Continuing to elaborate on his psychic powers, the colonel explains, "Sometimes I...just sniff around, sometimes I get pictures in my mind. Pictures of places, people." He asks to see the kidnapped girl Emily's room, but when the father begins to direct him, the colonel brushes him off, whispering simply, "I know."

Thus starts an acting tour de force, an extended scene of Mr. Mitchell investigating Emily's room in which he commands the screen for approximately 10 minutes all by himself, leaving the audience breathless.

In the girl's room, the colonel starts touching things, including an unusually large doll and a music box.

He takes a silver necklace from the music box and pockets it. Then he sits on the girl's bed, which apparently makes it difficult for him to breathe. He has a quick vision from the point of view of the abductor, but it unfortunately provides no clues.

The colonel then uses another tool in his arsenal of tricks, grabbing Emily's pillow and sniffing deeply. When he said he sniffs around, he clearly meant it literally.

When the parents enter the room to find the colonel sniffing and futilely ripping the pillowcase, Carson apologizes and feels the need to explain yet again his psychic methods. "This must look like witchcraft to you, but sometimes I get feelings. Vibes, as the kids would call them." He needs to absorb more of the environment before he can discern more useful information.

We cut to a preschool and meet the teacher Mary, who bears some resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, though perhaps more to the platinum-haired Ginger in the animated versions of Gilligan's Island. She is singing a charming South African children's song with the charming South African kids:

Fish and chips and vinegar,
Pepper, pepper, pepper, salt.
Don't throw your trash in my backyard
My backyard
My backyard.
Don't throw your trash in my backyard
My backyard
My backyard's full.
One bottle pop, two bottle pops, three bottle pops, four bottle pops, five bottle pops...

As she sings, Mary looks out the window to see the figure of a man that appears and disappears.

On a rocky beach, Colonel Carson has a vision about the kidnapper that revolves around a white mask, girly pictures from the 1950s, and pushups.

In the city, schoolteacher Mary makes a bee-line for a clothes shop, grabs a shirt without looking at it, and heads straight into a dressing room. Undressing, she sees the black-clad man in the mirror, but when she turns around nobody is there. The salesgirl slides open the curtain. Unapologetic about catching Mary topless, the salesgirl asks if she likes the dress.

After a fun-filled trip to Boobs Disco, Mary walks home with her friend.

After they separate, Mary's friend encounters the black-clad man, who now wears a bright white mask. Mary's friend runs awkwardly down the street. The black-clad man runs equally awkwardly after her. When he catches her, he picks her up and carries her back into the shadows, where he proceeds to tear off her clothes to the sound of paper being torn.

But it appears she is in luck. A motorcycle appears at the end of the alley and drives toward the scene of the crime. Unfortunately, the motorcyclist drives past the black-clad man, who knocks the rider off his bike with a quick swipe, causing the bike to explode.

The girl runs away and the motorcyclist grabs his helmet. The black-clad attacker is nowhere to be seen.

I don't believe my heart can take any more suspense at this time, so thus ends Part 1 of our discussion of The Demon. Stay tuned for Part 2.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

"You'll Have to Use Pure Illogic" - R.O.T.O.R. (1987) - Part 3 of 3

This is Part 3 of our discussion of 1987's R.O.T.O.R. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Previously, we watched as rancher/scientist/police captain Dr. Coldyron explained the development of the R.O.T.O.R. project, a police android capable of cleaning the streets of human scum, though it will not be ready for deployment for at least a decade. Unfortunately, the android was activated early, escaped, broke into its own police locker to find its uniform and helmet, and stole its own personalized motorcycle. Now it is chasing an innocent woman named Sony across the Texas highways.

Sony takes refuge in a trucker's semi, only to watch R.O.T.O.R. shoot the trucker, who has committed no apparent crime, in cold blood. In seconds, Dr. Coldyron comes to the rescue, shooting the android multiple times to surprisingly good effect. Coldyron is also able to momentarily paralyze his creation by showing him what appears to be a small yellow tape measure.

Sony gets back in her car and drives away, and R.O.T.O.R. gives chase on its motorcycle. Coldyron takes advantage of the fact that everyone in Texas uses a C.B. radio to contact Sony and tell her to keep driving until he can get help. And he also needs Sony to serve as bait, a plan to which she has, again possibly unwisely, no objection. He tells her to drive to a fishing camp on Lake Dallas, where they can confront the android.

After setting his plan in motion, Coldyron leaves a phone message for Dr. Steele in Houston. He informs Steele that R.O.T.O.R. has escaped and he will meet her at the Dallas airport.

A few hours later, we watch as the android recharges itself at a garage by using jumper cables and a pickup truck battery, the electricity rendered in beautiful shades of copper and green.

Dr. Steele's plane arrives at the Dallas airport, accompanied for unknown reasons with an arrival message for an unrelated flight from Los Angeles. Next we witness the film's gripping and justly famous airport arrival sequence as passengers exit the ramp. Finally, Dr. Steele, a female bodybuilder/scientist with a hairstyle similar to that of the feline object of Pepe Le Pew's affections, emerges from the plane and meets Dr. Coldyron.

Driving Dr. Steele in his car, Coldyron says, "He's out there. We made him, and he's doing what we made him for."

"In science," Dr. Steele says, "there's no room for human error. There's no place for it in law. We built the perfect lawman, one who could walk into the streets of blood, the cities of fire, the...the edge of destruction, and function perfectly again and again."

Coldyron holds up the small tape measure. In reality it is the deactivation key, the only thing that can stop R.O.T.O.R.

After an extended sequence where they park and check into the Lincoln Hotel, Coldyron and Steele, who cuts a dashing figure with her multicolored hairstyle, resolve to go get the android.


Coldyron reasons that R.O.T.O.R. is programming itself because something has happened to the self-learning alloy from which it is made.

Using pure logic, Dr. Steele reasons that "to combat pure will, you'll have to use pure illogic." Coldyron will have to allow himself to fail and use his failure against the android, because its brain matrix is based on Coldyron's lower brain functions.

On another stretch of Texas highway, Sony is still driving fast, roughly nine hours after being told by Coldyron to drive to Lake Dallas. R.O.T.O.R. is still chasing her but in a stroke of luck the android drives off a cliff.

Concerned, Sony gets out of her car to make sure the android is neutralized. At the bottom of the cliff, R.O.T.O.R. stirs. Sony, again showing somewhat questionable instincts, runs into the forest instead of getting back into her car.

When she reaches the lakeside, she steals a boat but forgets to untie it. R.O.T.O.R grabs the line and pulls the little boat back to shore. "I am R.O.T.O.R.," it says. "You are guilty." It points its gun at her head, but Dr. Steele arrives and shoots the android. She attacks it and there is a short fight in the shallow lake, after which the android drags Dr. Steele to the shore. She continues fighting it while Coldyron rescues Sony.

The thrilling fight continues for several minutes, an expert showcase of action filmmaking including judo moves and horn-honking, which again incapacitated the android, who eventually stumbles into a rope trap--but the ropes are primer cord, which explodes when the android discharges electricity!

The massive explosion destroys the android cop.

We cut back to the interrogation room, where Coldyron has finished telling his incredible story. (It is unfortunate for the viewer that he does not relate what occurred between the android's explosion and the beginning of the film with a battered Coldyron emerging from the forest with an unconscious Sony and stopping the Mercedes. This would undoubtedly have been a high point of the story, but perhaps it would be better left to a sequel.)

His fantastic story finished, Coldyron saunters out of the interrogation room, leaving the detectives in awe, and heads across the parking lot toward his car.

Shockingly, however, we see Coldyron gunned down by a man in an overcoat with a rifle. It might take us a moment to recognize the gunman as Division Commander Earl Buglar from earlier in the film. "Justice served," the man says. "C.O.D." We are left to imagine what the acronym stands for, proving that this film is thought-provoking, if nothing else.

In a neat twist, we are introduced to Coldyron's nephew, a college student who inherits everything from his uncle. The nephew continues the R.O.T.O.R. project with R.O.T.O.R. II--unfortunately not a produced sequel but in fact the next generation police android, which now looks like Dr. Steele instead of the late Dr. Coldyron.

R.O.T.O.R. is both an exciting vision of the future of law enforcement and a sophisticated critique of the predictions of earlier science fiction cinema about law and order, such as RoboCop and The Terminator. Many of these films satirize the actions of law enforcement or exaggerate them to make them ridiculous. R.O.T.O.R., however, is true to its Texas roots in that it truly respects police work and does not fall prey to the easy temptations of "satire." The unstoppable android's creator, Coldyron, is above reproach, the epitome of the morally straight rancher/scientist/policeman with exactly zero character flaws. The downfall of the R.O.T.O.R. project is bureaucratic haste in letting it loose, and the resulting lack of mercy in its artificial intelligence. Coldyron, in fact, foresaw these flaws, but was prevented from addressing them due to his dismissal from the department.

R.O.T.O.R. is also exciting in its hard-science vision of near-future technology. The android's abilities cannot be too far off, what with all the technological advances in hardware and software we see every day, such as exploding tablets and apps that train your brain to play memory games. How much more advanced is R.O.T.O.R.'s time vision, a property of its computer brain that allows it to stand in any location and view what occurred in that location's recent past? And how much more advanced is the android's ability to transform from a mechanical skeletal structure into a mustachioed motorcycle cop complete with uniform and helmet? Not much more advanced, clearly.


In the end, R.O.T.O.R. succeeds almost effortlessly as a thought-provoking, action-packed work of speculative cinema due to the clever script by Cullen Blaine and Budd Lewis, and to the efficient, fast-paced direction by Blaine. Its wonderful innovations--the multiple opening scenes triggering the start of the story, the colorful hard-boiled but technologically savvy dialogue, the enjoyable story interludes advertising local Dallas restaurants and hotels--all combine into one of the finest action films of the 1980s. Avoiding the crudely satiric clumsiness of RoboCop and the bare bones cheapness of The Terminator, R.O.T.O.R. is the science fiction/action hybrid that finally showed these kinds of films in a positive light.

Monday, December 19, 2016

"I Don't Like It Even More" - R.O.T.O.R. (1987) - Part 2 of 3

This is Part 2 of our discussion of 1987's R.O.T.O.R. You can read Part 1 here.

Previously, we watched as rancher/scientist/police captain Dr. Coldyron explained the development of the R.O.T.O.R. project, a police android capable of cleaning the streets of human scum, though it will not be ready for deployment for at least a decade.

Dr. Coldyron ends the scientific meeting with an invitation. "Twenty-five years from now, if you come back next fall, you'll see the only thing that stands between humanity and itself." The meeting over, Dr. Coldyron is approached by his assistant, who has a message for him. Coldyron needs to explain his project to Division Commander Earl Buglar downtown by phone. Buglar starts off in a no-nonsense way: "Let's not spar with the social amenities, Coldyron, and say we did. Now down to business." Buglar is angry at Coldyron because Buglar had to lie to a Senator and tell him the project is ahead of schedule. They have 60 days to complete the R.O.T.O.R. project, but Coldyron needs more time. The commander threatens to fire him but Coldyron has the perfect comeback: "You fire me and I'll make more noise than two skeletons makin' love in a tin coffin, brother."

This eloquent threat works and the commander backs off, but Coldyron decides to quit anyway. The project is put into the hands of Coldyron's second-in-command, Dr. Houghtaling, who commiserates with Willard, the wisecracking robot in the officer's cap.

In the lab, a jive-talking American Indian with the traditional native name of Shoeboogie flirts with a blonde scientist and combs his hair with a switchblade, a practice that results in the accidental triggering of an electrical circuit.


Elsewhere, through a series of plot complications too intricate to detail, Dr. Coldyron runs an errand to pick up some charcoal at the gas station near his farm. Outside the convenience store, Coldyron grows suspicious of some young punks--possibly also dope dealers or another form of society's scum--who walked inside. Coldyron convinces the getaway driver to drive away by showing him his gun, then knocks one man unconscious with the pistol wrapped in a newspaper. In the parking lot, Coldyron shoots one punk who took a woman hostage, but when the last of the punks emerges from the convenience store, the woman--a confused expression on her face the entire time--kicks her abductor repeatedly until he is subdued. (Note: We never see this woman again.)

After the police arrive, a detective gives Coldyron his gun. "Don't use that next time," the detective says. "Hank and his boys don't like pickin' up bodies with a pooper scooper."

Coldyron replies, "I don't like it even more."

Back at the lab, the R.O.T.O.R. Project, no longer a skeletal metal frame but an android that could pass for human male, complete with a bushy mustache, breaks out of its chamber, steals a motorcycle cop's leather outfit, and steals its own custom monogrammed motorcycle.

Walking through the police station's parking garage, the android rudely bumps into an officer, after which the officer gives an impassioned soliloquy to the audience: "Spit and polish academy snot! God save us all!"

Houghtaling and Willard are aware something is wrong because every battery in the lab has been drained. Deciding to leave their eclectic, mint collection of 1970s video display terminals, they investigate the source of the trouble, just missing a message that appears on one screen: "R.O.T.O.R. Activated."

Not content to simply present a chase narrative like the inferior Terminator series, the filmmakers of R.O.T.O.R. add interest by introducing new characters with a fully developed storyline. Sony (occasionally called Sonya) and her fiancé are driving through the night. Sony wants to get a job after their honeymoon but her fiancé says it would be embarrassing if his wife worked. Unsurprisingly, he also feels that weddings are pagan rituals for sacrificing virgins, and they are expensive as well. He makes a deal with Sony that, if they elope tonight, he will help her find a job. To clinch the deal, they head for the nearest IHOP.

But their excessive speed has drawn the attention of R.O.T.O.R., still posing as a motorcycle cop. The android pulls the car over. Sony is suspicious: "A police officer? This far out of town?"

When the man attempts to bribe Officer R.O.T.O.R., the android shoots him in the head. In the car, Sony stumbles against the horn, revealing Officer R.O.T.O.R.'s weakness: a car horn. The robot grabs its helmet, nearly paralyzed by the blaring sound.

Taking advantage of the machine's paralysis, Sony speeds away. Officer R.O.T.O.R., moving quite slowly, eventually gives chase.

For unclear reasons, however, Sony stops her car and reaches into her purse to get her license and registration. The android reaches into the car and grabs at her in a Frankensteinian manner, but again she escapes by speeding away, dragging the robot outside the car until it is thrown off into the dark.

Back home, Dr. Coldyron is informed via beeper that a murder victim was found clutching a police nametag with Coldyron's name on it. Coldyron instructs the police to ignore the fact, and they agree. He heads back to his lab in Dallas to investigate. When he finds out R.O.T.O.R. has escaped, he makes a series of phone calls informing people that the android will stop at nothing to perform its prime directive: to judge and execute. "It's like a chainsaw set on frappe."

Sony drives to a gas station and uses a phone booth to report that she is being chased by a murderous motorcycle cop. Despite pleading with the officer on the line that she cannot go anywhere because the rogue motorcycle cop is after her, she hangs up and drives away. Unfortunately for Sony, the android catches her trail, being able, like most androids, to see through time.

When Sony stops at a roadside diner for coffee, we hear a loud blast and the sounds of bricks crumbling as the filmmakers suggest through audio effects that the android has forced his way through a wall. "Hey," says a short order cook," you can't come in here like 'at!" The cook grabs a knife and attacks the android, to little effect. The android presses the bucktoothed cook's face against the grill.


Dramatically, the mustachioed murderbot enters the diner to search for Sony. He stands still for about a minute, then moves slowly through the place, showing off his custom R.O.T.O.R. motorcycle helmet.

Perhaps unwisely, Sony chooses not to run away until R.O.T.O.R. Is right beside her. Fortunately, the android is distracted by three ineffectual patrons who pick a fight with it. These overconfident patrons are quickly dispatched by the machine.

We have come to the end of Part 2 of our discussion of R.O.T.O.R. Stay tuned for Part 3.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

"High-Crotched Federales" - R.O.T.O.R. (1987) - Part 1 of 3

We next discuss a classic of the science fiction/action genre, 1987's R.O.T.O.R. While the critics of your universe look down their noses at science fiction/action films, those in my universe are a lot more enlightened, looking down their noses at only about 95% of them. R.O.T.O.R., I am happy to announce, has earned its place near the top of the other 5%. It represents the perfect blend of thrills, chases, humor, and female bodybuilders/scientists.

As ever, the critics of your primitive universe fail to understand the rollercoaster pacing and the powerful cautionary message of R.O.T.O.R. Your celebrated critic Iama5yrold, for example, calls this film the worst movie he or she has ever seen, and writes, "Richard Gesswein is the worst leading man ever to grace the silver screen." Such hyperbole is, I assure you, quite unearned.  Another of your IMDB critics, gridiron, believes the film was "made by people who simply didn't have the talent or the budget to make something even halfway decent." Additionally, BigGuy writes, "The dialogue is terribly delivered (the best delivery is from the comic-relief robot!), terribly written (contrived, preachy, and generally painful)." These protestations are simply untrue (though the comic-relief robot is, it must be admitted, a highly talented thespian). I must address these ridiculous and wholly incorrect judgments and defend this classic film, the original man vs. mechanical monster story.

The film opens in a wonderfully straightforward manner, with scrolling text identifying a problem (murder, rape, robbery, and arson) and a solution (R.O.T.O.R., being of course the familiar acronym for Robotic Officer Tactical Operation Research).

More is explained in the next text frame for those viewers with enough patience to read it all. From the first line, in any case, it appears to be a mission statement of some kind.

After the "reading" phase of the film is completed, we follow the point of view of a radio helicopter pilot flying over the wide-open highways of Dallas, Texas. Cleverly, the filmmakers imply the radio reporter might be an unreliable narrator, as he describes heavy traffic and backups. (This is the first of the film's many opening scenes, an intriguing innovation in cinematic storytelling.)

But enough of the radio reporter. Next we follow a Mercedes driving along a rural highway toward a lake.  (This is the second of the film's opening scenes.) We hear the voices of the people inside--a man and a woman ready for a weekend of relaxation--until there is the sound of a massive explosion. "Paul," the woman asks, "What's that?"

The unsuspecting couple is suddenly thrust into a confusing and dangerous situation.

From the side of the road, what appears to be a werewolf carries a body into the street. Paul gets out of the car.

A reverse angle, however, reveals that the werewolf is an injured man and the body is an injured woman. The injured man flashes his badge--he is a police officer.

But another man, this one carrying a shotgun, steps out of the shadows and accuses the injured man of killing a motorcycle cop.

Paul is nothing if not level-headed. He takes the corded 1980s car phone out of the Mercedes and calls 911. "What's the nature of your problem, sir?" the dispatcher asks.

"I think there's been a murder."

Later, the police have cordoned off the area and have taken one of the men--it is not clear which one--into custody.

We return to the lights of Dallas and follow a police car through the streets. (This is the third of the film's opening scenes.) Now we get a voiceover from Barrett Coldyron (pronounced "cold iron"), a self-described leader in the field of police robotics. He had a simple, noble goal: "To make the streets of the city a little safer, where gangs of punks, dope dealers, and the rest of society's scum could be effectively controlled and hopefully eradicated." What could be more noble than eradicating punks, and others as well?

"A controlled army of police robots could stop the slaughter of the hundreds of policemen who sacrificed their lives every year in the protection of those they serve. But how do you stop a killing machine gone bee-serk, with only a go button and no compassion?" Indeed, that is the age-old question.

Coldyron is eventually revealed to be the injured, werewolf-like man from earlier, taken into custody and driven back into the city. In the back of the police car, Coldyron continues his narration aloud: "There's still another chance. Maybe it can be done. Just maybe."

Next begins the film's celebrated interrogation scene, one of the greatest, though briefest, examples of the staple of the police procedural and one that turns our expectations on their respective ears. 

"You know that this is an unofficial debriefing," a detective says. "Officially not an arrest questioning. Then please state so for the record, Doctor. Unofficially."

The other detective adds, "Officially."

"Officially," the first detective clarifies. 

Coldyron calls his superiors in the police force "high-crotched federales" and fiddles with a gold lighter. Then he launches into his flashback (the fourth and final of the film's opening scenes), in which Dr. Coldyron is revealed to be a cattle farmer as well as a police robotics expert. 

After several minutes listening to a coffee maker gurgle and drip into a mug with "Texas" printed above a long-horn steer, and another moment listening to a rooster crow as soon as an alarm clock turns from "4:59" to "5:00," we observe the appealingly William Katt-like Dr. Coldyron's morning routine.

The routine includes listening to a country/rock song called "What You Do to Me," ingesting a large number of medications with orange juice, and sharing a cup of coffee with a horse.

Later in the day, Coldyron shaves and talks to his girlfriend Penny via Charlie's Angels speakerphone. Then he makes the long drive into the city to his police lab, where a research scientist with a mop dances casually with a robot wearing a police hat.

In voiceover, Coldyron says, "Sometimes it's hard to tell the boys from the toys." (This is one of the only things in the film that actually does not make sense.)

Coldyron enters a conference room and starts a meeting with a recap. "We scientists are like degreed science fiction writers," he begins. A film is projected onto a screen, explaining the R.O.T.O.R. project. It is unclear who the other people in the room are but they ask a few questions. One identifies himself with the jumble of words, "Dr. Bryan, Wilson Institute of Hawthorne."

Coldyron continues, "Another scientist, a Dr. Steele out of Houston, developed a super-technology to construct a combat chassis out of an alloy, an unknown alloy simply given an obscure number." Based on this super-technology, the film shows a skeletal robot dancing, accomplished through advanced stop-motion animation. 

The others are impressed by the versatility of the robot in the film. Coldyron explains that it can do everything from karate to full field combat without using any motors or gears, all due to the unknown alloy. All it needs is a spark of electricity as a catalyst. "The metal itself has already been taught the aerobic movement by particular electrical impulse induced corresponding command. Then the molecules move the chassis into the remembered posture. The metal itself can learn, remember, and teach itself." Fascinating stuff!

A man in the room voices what the audience is thinking: "Well, who are we who create such a thing? Heroes and villains?"

"The only difference between heroes and villains," Dr. Coldyron articulates, "is the amount of compensation they take for their services."

With that profound statement about the nature of altruism, we end Part 1 of our discussion of the classic R.O.T.O.R. Stay tuned for Part 2.

Monday, December 12, 2016

"Sodden as Usual" - A Day of Judgment (1981) - Part 3 of 3

This is Part 3 of our discussion of 1981's A Day of Judgment, probably the most moralistic of the slasher films of that particular year. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Previously, in a small southern farming town, a black-cloaked, scythe-wielding figure has begun to punish the sinful townspeople.

We next return to the department store owner and his amorous clerk. The owner leaves on a trip to the city to look for an anniversary gift for his wife Ruby. The clerk, Kenneth, who was previously flirting shamelessly with Ruby, says he will take care of everything while the owner is away.

That night, Ruby, alone in her house, dances to Dixieland music, waiting for Kenneth to arrive. 

When Kenneth arrives, Ruby calls him a goose for no apparent reason and shows him the red nightgown she took from her husband's store. In a reversal of the audience's expectations, instead of going to bed together, they sit in the living room and have a long discussion about getting what they want in life. Ruby wants to stay in the small town because she is a big frog in a small pond. Kenneth says everything he wants is right here.

Suddenly Ruby's husband Harvey enters and finds them talking on the sofa. Harvey and Kenneth get into a fight. Harvey falls over the sofa onto the floor and dies.

"You murdered Harvey!" says Ruby.

"Murder? Don't you talk to me about murder," says Kenneth.

They drag the body to Harvey's convertible and Kenneth drives into the darkness. Then he stops and gets out and pushes the car forward. Through sound effects, we hear the car rolling across rocks, and then it explodes into a fireball. Kenneth and Ruby have made Harvey's death look like an accident.

The filmmakers cut to Mr. Sharpe, the banker, alone at Morgan's farm at night. He hears hoofbeats. "Horse and wagon," he says. "When will people learn that machinery is the answer?" He walks to the late farmer's icehouse, the only cold storage facility in the county. He opens the door.

Then something happens. He screams. The door closes and we see the silhouette of the deformed man and his scythe. The door locks.

Mr. Sharpe strikes a match and explores the inside of the structure.  Behind him we see the figure with the scythe, whose eyes are glowing red. Mr. Sharpe turns around and screams four times in quick succession.

Next, our attention moves back to Charlie, the alcoholic from the very beginning of the film who nearly ran over Reverend Cage on his way out of town. Alone in his house, Charlie talks to a picture of his ex-wife, explaining some kind of beef with a man named Sid Martin that is a bit difficult to understand but most likely involves marital infidelity. Charlie looks over at the sofa and sees his pistol.

He picks up the pistol and walks next door, where he enters a suburban house and finds a door inside marked "S. Martin, President." He rifles through a file cabinet, where he finds some blank typing paper. He starts typing something, but the audience is kept in suspense about what he is writing.

In the morning, Charlie sits in his car when Sid arrives to go to work. Charlie explains more of the situation. Sid fired him because of Charlie's drinking, and Sid also stole Charlie's wife. Charlie, as clever as he is evil, holds Sid at gunpoint for a few minutes so Sid misses an important meeting.

After Charlie's ex-wife Grace steals the photo album from his one-room house--"You, sodden as usual, punched me through the door and then locked the door behind me," she says, explaining why she left him--Charlie vows he will not lose his wife to Sid Martin. He drives to Sid's office/house to taunt him. Sid has found out that Charlie typed a letter on company letterhead insulting an important client, so he runs to his car and a thrilling car chase ensues, set to a charming banjo score.

The chase ends when the sheriff pulls Sid over, while Charlie gets away. "You give him a call," the sheriff says. "Don't go chasing after him like some Barney Oldfield" (a topical reference in 1920 but perhaps out of date when the film was released in 1981).

The car chase is just one of a series of pranks and minor annoyances Charlie pulls off in an effort, apparently, to frustrate Sid.

Charlie's master plan culminates at the train station, where his ex-wife Grace is waiting for a train. Again in minimalist fashion, the station is represented by the corner of a room with a bench and the continuous sound of a train chugging on the soundtrack (the view would be forgiven for a first impression, based on the chugging sounds, that the station scene is meant to take place on a moving train).

Charlie kidnaps Grace and Sid and drives them into a field. Charlie murders Sid in cold blood.

"Charlie, if you're going to shoot me, at least give me time to pray," Grace pleads.

"You've wasted enough time on that stuff in your lifetime," Charlie's says, and he shoots her in the chest. "It's all I've ever wanted," he says. "Justice."

A thunderstorm rolls in as Charlie goes back to his car, having decided to do nothing with the bodies in the field.

But we have not yet resolved the story of Kenneth and Ruby. In Ruby's house, she sees a figure at the window. She and Kenneth cower as the shadow of the cloaked man with the scythe rises over them.

 They attempt to run upstairs, but the house suddenly bursts into flames in front of them.

At the same time in the field, Charlie is about to get into his car when the man with the scythe appears behind him. Charlie runs through the woods but the figure seems to be everywhere. Charlie shoots the figure but it does nothing. The figure raises his scythe and beheads Charlie.

The figure makes a beckoning motion and all the sinners who have died walk toward him single file (in reverse order of their deaths).

They approach a bright white light and a vision of the pearly gates, but heaven is not to be their fate. They see a rocky hell ahead of them, complete with screams and human skulls.

This vision goes on for seven minutes.

Finally, the film delivers its last fateful surprise. (If you do not want to know this shocking, powerful twist, please stop reading now. You have been warned.)

Everyone wakes up. It was all a dream.

Not only are the sinners alive, all those they have wronged are back to normal. The children and Doodles the goat return to Mrs. Fitch's flower garden. George's parents are still living in the gas station. Ruby goes back to her husband. 

All of the townspeople have learned to be happy about their wretched, wretched lives. And they all go to church to join the three ladies in black, and to meet the new minister, who, in another stinging twist, is wearing the black cloak and hat of the deformed scythe-wielding reaper.


The church is completely full. Is the film implying that everyone in town, including the children, though not Doodles, have had their own visions of sin and punishment? Yes, yes it is.

The End.

Before the end credits, over a shot of the steeple, the ten commandments roll.

A Day of Judgment is a masterpiece of narrative complexity with a strong moral message. That moral message is: Do not break the ten commandments or the grim reaper will come and get you. But it will all be a dream so if you go to church the next day you will be fine. What could be a more responsible message for a horror film?

Something that is often ignored when this film is discussed is the narrative complexity that weaves together the stories of the sinners into a believable portrait of life in this small southern town. A Day of Judgment could be called the Magnolia of 1980s slasher films. Characters such as the sheriff and the lawyer Greg Grigg interact with most of the individual stories. The filmmakers should be commended for keeping track of every storyline and plot point, and assembling them so professionally that the viewer feels like one of the sinful neighbors of this little town for nearly two hours.

If the film has a flaw, it is that all ten of the commandments are not broken. The experience would only be improved if one of the townspeople--say Missy, or Doodles the goat--were found carving graven images, or taking the Lord's name in vain, or worshipped another god, or another of the less memorable commandments. Such inclusiveness would make the film longer, of course, but this would only serve to make it more powerful and morally convincing.

In the end, the film's greatness is due primarily to its screenplay, and especially to Tom McIntyre's crackling dialogue. I only hope I have done a small part of the dialogue justice by quoting it above. Mr. McIntyre has a rare gift for communicating conflict with the perfect turn of phrase. It is a tragedy his name does not grace any other screenplays. Perhaps, however, it is enough to have given the world phrases as beautiful and evocative as "a mockery of order and beauty," "sodden as usual," "Mr. Big Britches," and of course the immortal "Broadway Boy."