Any kid who grew up in the sixties probably got their first taste of Science-Fiction and Horror from the Saturday night Fright Flicks which were endemic to local TV in that era. I lived in Ames, Iowa from 1963 to 1967 and our show was Grave’s End Manor which was hosted by a bald headed whack job named Malcolm and his hunchbacked, mute sidekick Claude. Eventually, they were joined by the Count of Dezmodat, a comic vampire and Claude’s girlfriend, Esmeralda. Luckily, this one clip of the boys in action yet remains.
These cats were fun to watch, but the best was the bizarre movies they introduced us to, so I’ve decided to make a list of these must see B classics. Among them are the Universal standards from the 1930s and 40s starring Karloff, Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr., but also a host of rarely seen later classics made on a shoestring budget that have defied the odds and lived on, in their monstrous afterlife, to become cult classics. Here are three of my favorites that have stood the test of time.
A diabolically over the top Christopher Lee performance, was there any other kind, mixed in with Donald Sutherland playing two roles as both a nose picking military fool and cross dressing as a mystic crone. And oh yeah, a heroic dwarf. Far out. It doesn’t get much better than this.
The television science-fiction series Lost In Space has suffered miserably by comparison to its contemporary sci-fi competitor Star Trek since both premiered in the mid 1960s. But is Lost In Space truly science-fiction? Certainly not of the caliber of Star Trek and more accurately probably belonging more to the genre of fantasy.
By thinking of Lost In Space as fantasy rather than science-fiction, the series begins to take on an entirely new shape. First of all, anyone who’s ever seen LIS has to admit that it’s entertaining. Has television ever seen a more classic triumvirate of characters than Dr. Smith, Will and the Robot? They are in effect Voltaire’s Pangloss, Candide and Cervantes Sancho Panza, the eternal travelers in search of adventure.
That it ever aspired to the lofty ideals of hard science-fiction is in fact questionable as Irwin Allen, the show’s producer, never let fact or fiction get in the way of telling a good story. If you trace the history of LIS you can see the arc. The initial pilot episode as filmed, sans Dr. Smith and the Robot, would actually have passed as boiler plate science-fiction, imaginative to a point with its Swiss Family Robinson concept in space, but it was ultimately considered too tame and predictable by CBS who convinced Allen to beef up the show with new characters.
As a result, Jonathan Harris’ Smith and the Bob May (guy inside the suit)/Dick Tufeld(the voice) Robot were added with some pretty spectacular special effects which were feature film quality from the pilot being distributed over a very entertaining five episode introduction to the series that was aired in the fall of 1965. At this juncture the sci-fi appellation still applied, to an extent. But once these episodes had aired, all bets were off as a bizarre series of characters began to appear and disappear with amazing regularity.
The first season of LIS did offer up quite a few sci-fi based episodes including Invaders From The Fifth Dimension featuring a phalanx of aliens who look like they stepped right out of an episode of the Outer Limits, the two part The Keeper guest-starring The Day The Earth Stood Still’s Michael Rennie and War Of The Robots with Forbidden Planet’s Robbie The Robot. But already a number of nicely done fantasy episodes were slipping in such as Magic Mirror with the ever entertaining Michael J. Pollard, His Majesty Smith in which Dr. Smith is chosen as sovereign of a race that chooses its most useless member as a sacrificial king, The Space Croppers guest starring a group of inevitable Space Hillbillies and All That Glitters with Hogan’s Heroes Werner Klemperer.
Season One closed with an episode rarely mentioned, but which deserves special attention. Follow The Leader is one of several season one episodes that featured only the regular cast with no guest stars. In the course of the episode Professor Robinson’s body is taken over by the spirit of a murderous alien who imprisons wife Maureen, daughter Judy and pilot Don West in a cave and then coerces Will and the remaining crew to prepare the Jupiter Two for lift off. The episode has a decidedly serious edge to it with Guy Williams giving perhaps the best performance of his career. The demon possessed character he plays can easily be seen as a stand-in for an alcohol or drug addicted personality, something that television was not dealing with in that era. The closing scene in which Williams intends to murder his son, Will, played by Billy Mumy, is both real and poignant as love triumphs over evil. Williams throwing the alien mask in which the demon resides into the abyss can be interpreted as the addict defeating his addiction. It’s an episode that transcends the series far and away, a masterful piece written by Barney Slater a regular contributor to LIS who wrote 22 episodes for the series. His credits included nearly every popular television series of the 1950s and 60s as well as the story for the feature film The Tin Star directed by Anthony Mann which featured Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins.
By season two the emphasis had shifted entirely to fantasy, not always successfully, but certainly with enthusiasm as the series went to color keeping in trend with the head to head competition on ABC of Batman. West Of Mars, in which Dr. Smith plays the dual roles of himself and an outer space Cowboy-Outlaw, was one of the more memorable episodes, Wild Adventure, the first appearance of Athena the Green Lady, Cave Of The Wizards guest-starring The Munsters’ Al Lewis and The Questing Beast in which Penny and Will are enlisted by a knight in search of a dragon-like beast round out the better episodes of the season. The Curse Of Cousin Smith allowed for a wonderful performance by veteran character actor Henry Jones as did Blast Off Into Space with Strother Martin. A number of poorly thought out episodes unfortunately made their way to film as well in the second season but even most of these are still good fun, especially for kids which isn’t a bad thing by any means.
The third and final season of Lost In Space was a hybrid of the first two, shifting uneasily between the sci-fi adventures of the first season and the straight up fantasy of the second. The season opening Condemned Of Space was an entertaining piece featuring an outer space jailbreak. Visit To A Hostile Planet saw our intrepid space heroes arriving in 1947 Wisconsin. Two Weeks In Space, (a send up perhaps of Irwin Shaw’s Two Weeks In Another Town), is a hoot of an episode in which Dr. Smith transforms the Jupiter Two into a resort hotel, which may also have been a homage to his stint on the Bill Dana Show a few years earlier. The Time Merchant, Fugitives In Space, Princess Of Space, The Promised Planet featuring the unforgettable Space Hippies replete with Dr. Smith in Beatles wig and Collision Of Planets in which a band of Space Bikers led by future Hill Street Blues Emmy winner Daniel J. Travanti round out some of the season’s better episodes.
But ultimately LIS staggered off into oblivion with a whimper and not a bang with the infamous The Great Vegetable Rebellion, which we have to admit is after all, hilarious. All in all, calling Lost In Space science-fiction is kind of like calling Car 54a Cop Show. They might have had guns and wore badges, but the boys of the 53rd Precinct were not exactly dealing with the world in the same ways as Hill and Renko of Hill Street Blues.
Take it for what it was, Lost In Space was fun. I was seven years old when the show first aired. I loved it then and I love it now. I no longer regard it as science-fiction, but I have to doff my hat to my seven year old self as I’ve come to the conclusion that I did have an unerring eye for good pure entertainment. Share this show with your kids and grandkids and you won’t go wrong.
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