Short takes: ‘The Iron Giant,’ ‘13 Ghosts’ and ‘Ad Astra’

April 27, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 27, 2020

The 1999 animated feature The Iron Giant is a science-fiction story set in the late 1950s in Rockwell, a quiet coastal village in Maine. The night after an immense robot plunges into the ocean during a major storm, it’s discovered and then rescued by a smart, lonely boy with the unlikely name of Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal).

The pair strike up a friendship, but this is the height of the Cold War, and foreigners — be they Russians, robots or extraterrestrials (let alone extraterrestrial robots) — are not looked upon kindly. When a haughty federal agent named Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) comes nosing around the farm where Hogarth lives with his mom, Annie (Jennifer Aniston), Hogarth is forced into an uneasy alliance with Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.), the beatnik artist who runs the local scrapyard.

The movie is loosely adapted from The Iron Man: A Story in Five Nights, a bedtime tale that Ted Hughes devised for his children and published in 1968. (The British poet, who died in 1998, is credited as a consultant on the film.)

I hadn’t seen The Iron Giant until this week, but I was well aware of its sterling reputation through cultural osmosis. (Twitter deserves most of the credit or blame.) Happily, the movie is every bit as good as its reputation. Screenwriter Tim McCanlies, the writer-director of Secondhand Lions, and director Brad Bird, who’s given a “screen story” credit, have an obvious fondness for the visual aesthetic and popular culture of the late ’50s. Hogarth watches a hilariously cheesy B-movie on TV and later brings the robot, voiced by Vin Diesel, a pile of bedtime reading that includes copies of Superman and The Spirit comic books.

The Iron Giant was a tremendous debut for Bird, the writer-director whose second feature, 2004’s The Incredibles, is a lively send-up of comic-book superheros. In addition to the animated features Ratatouille (2007) and The Incredibles 2 (2018), both of which he wrote and directed, Bird helmed a pair of live-action movies: The enjoyable Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011), which gave him a chance to show off his enthusiasm for gadgets and clever action sequences, and the mediocre Tomorrowland (2015), which displays much of the same affinities for technology, pop culture and 1950s aesthetics as The Iron Giant and The Incredibles.

Iron Giant is streaming for free on Roku.

Bird was born in 1957, and I have a sneaking suspicion that he saw more than one William Castle movie while he was growing up. Castle directed his first feature film, The Chance of a Lifetime, in 1943, and soon added another. He helmed four movies in 1944 and an additional two in 1945. By the end of 1950, he had 15 directorial outings to his credit, three of which included the phrase “Crime Doctor” in their names.

Castle, who was born in New York City in 1914 with the name William Schloss, began specializing in Westerns in the ’50s, making The Gun that Won the West and Duel on the Mississippi, to pick two colorful titles from 1955. But his oeuvre took yet another turn in 1958. That year Macabre, his first independent production, kicked off a horror phase that would dominate the rest of Castle’s career. His final movie was the puppet-themed horror movie Shanks, which came out in 1974, some three years before his death.

13 Ghosts, from 1960, is a deeply silly horror film that shows off one of Castle’s trademarks: A penchant for gimmicks. The Zorba family — dad Cyrus (Donald Woods), mom Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp), 20something daughter Medea (Jo Morrow) and 10-or-so-year-old son Buck (Charles Herbert) — have pennies in their bank account and no furniture to their name when Cyrus inherits his mysterious uncle’s mansion. Since the reclusive Dr. Zorba happened to be living nearby in Los Angeles, the museum curator quickly moves into the shabbily maintained estate, despite warnings from attorney Benjamen Rush (Martin Milner) and housekeeper Elaine Zacharides (Margaret Hamlton) that the place is haunted.

The warnings prove to be correct. On the family’s first night at the house, there’s an unsettling session with a ouija board. Soon, paranormal phenomena are cropping up all over the place — the kitchen, the basement, an upstairs bedroom and a strange hidden chamber. After a few nights, the Zorbas are eager to get out of the house, notwithstanding their strained finances and Dr. Zorba’s restrictive inheritance provisions. Even so, a few of the characters remain eager to get their hands on the hoard of cash that Cyrus’s late uncle is rumored to have secreted somewhere in the mansion…

The movie’s gimmick involves a strange pair of spectacles, bequeathed by Dr. Zorba to his nephew, that enable the wearer to view ghosts. Whenever a character dons the ridiculous-looking contraption, the black-and-white film is suffused with a blue tint and a title encourages watchers to look through a filter that was distributed to theater audiences. When these episodes end, the movie switches back to regular black and white and another title prompts viewers to put down their filters. (No filter was needed for the video version I watched.)

The spectral phenomena revealed herein are mildly spooky at best and ridiculous at worst. An animal trainer and his lion belong squarely in the latter category: Castle shows us a supposedly headless trainer in a bulky-shouldered outfit that is obviously concealing an actor’s actual head attempt to place the character’s missing head inside the big cat’s mouth. This is as silly on film as it reads on the page, I assure you.

I can’t speak to how novel or thrilling 13 Ghosts might have seemed six decades ago, but even to this fraidy cat, the movie is weak sauce. I enjoyed it, yes, but more as cheesy good fun than horror.

13 Ghosts is streaming for free on Plex.

John G. Hemry’s 2013 anthology Ad Astra is an uneven collection of 11 stories, none of them connected to the 2019 movie of the same name starring Brad Pitt and scripted by Ethan Gross and James Gray. The strongest piece in the volume is the opener, “Lady Be Good,” named after the tramp freighter on which it is set.

The captain of Lady Be Good is enjoying a permanent mental vacation, the ship is struggling to make enough money to afford much-needed repairs, the crew is sketchy and the flight plan and cargo manifest are both rather dubious. What’s more, Lady Be Good encounters a shipwreck while undertaking an ill-starred voyage that will land the crew directly in a war zone. It all adds up to a pretty exciting adventure, even if the notes of humor in the 2006 story are overly broad.

I originally encountered Hemry’s 2003 tale “Section Seven” in Galactic Empires, a 2017 anthology edited by Neil Clarke. In a far future where humanity inhabits many very distant worlds, how can society retain cohesion? Main character Gordon Foster, a member of a shadowy Federation organization called Section Seven, is dedicated to enforcing certain industrial and technical standards in order to guarantee compatibility. The job wouldn’t necessarily be interesting, but Foster goes about it with the clandestine tradecraft of a secret agent. Along with “Lady Be Good,” this is one of the more fully realized works in the collection.

To a lesser extent, I also enjoyed the volume’s final entry, “The Bookseller of Bastet” (2008), a first-person story narrated by an Earth native who is trying to negotiate a truce between clashing religious factions on the human colony world Bastet. Unfortunately, like a lot of Hemry’s work, it favors broad strokes over nuance. Still, there’s something poignant about the title character. Aaron D’abu steadily pursues his quaint vocation on a far-future planet even though few people have any use for printed reading matter.

Hemry addresses an interesting issue in “Down the Rabbit Hole” (2001), in which the pilot of an experimental spaceship struggles with the physical sensations of faster-than-light travel. “Odysseus” (1999) describes a crew’s chance encounter with a lifeless starship that they happen to run across in the gaping void between stars. It builds an appealing atmosphere but arrives at a very pat ending that I did not find satisfying.

“Generation Gap” (2002) asks what might happen if the inhabitants of a colonization ship were too hidebound to fulfill their mission. Its description of a voyage gone off the rails is not unlike the endless journey in Frank M. Robinson’s The Dark Beyond the Stars, although sadly lacks the depth and intrigue of that terrific 1991 novel. “Kyrie Eleison” (2006) describes a struggling colony world settled by descendants of a wrecked starship.

“As You Know, Bob” (2007) is basically fodder for science-fiction and fantasy genre insiders; it shows different versions of the opening pages of a story that an author revises based on feedback from a literary agent. “One Small Spin” (1997) and “Standards of Success” (2005) both lampoon the aversion to risk and antipathy to perceptions of failure that are inherent to bureaucracy. Both involve missions to Mars; one features robotic explorers and another has humans that are treated like robots. I found this trio to be the least engaging in the volume.

Hemry, a former naval officer, has published work, evidently including some if not all of the stories in Ad Astra, under the pen name Jack Campbell.

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