Saturday, July 30, 2011

Out of Gas, Grass and Years

"Maybe we can cope with this by maintaining our sense of values"
- Ray Milland as Harry Baldwin in Panic in the Year Zero!

If there's one thing I've learned watching post-apocalyptic movies, it's that men are kind of dicks after a cataclysmic event. Not only that, but they always seem to reach for the nearest weapon faster than you can say 'gun-toting whacko'. OK, make that two things I've learned. My most recent education in male P/A buffoonery came courtesy of three films - The C.S. Drury just recently released, Empty, the 1962 Ray Milland film, Panic in the Year Zero! and the 1970 Cornel Wilde opus, No Blade of Grass. All three films feature male leads who feel the need to regress to Neanderthal-ism to survive the apocalypse while simultaneously casting things like honor, dignity and civilized behavior into the wind. Which could be the reason why these movies are so entertaining.

In Empty, Ashley C Williams (formerly a segment of The Human Centipede) plays Piper, a young, upper-class woman who goes on a camping trip with her somewhat less than upper-class boyfriend, Dell (Jon Carlo). While roughing it, Dell ruminates on how it wouldn't be so bad living in the wilderness which of course insures trouble of the ironic sort. Sure enough, upon returning to civilization, Dell and Piper discover that another gas crisis has struck, only this time, there's no reserves or rationing like in the 70's. It's all gone, America just doesn't have a drop of fuel left in its collective tank. From a conversation with her family in England, Piper discovers that our more eco-minded European friends are rumored to have a little gas left, but it's being strictly rationed and it looks like the US won't see any car-juice for a while. Not having enough gas to drive all the way home, Piper and Dell argue about what to do next, with Piper electing to move on to her father's vacant summer place, which is not too far off, but with Dell loathe to accept help from her dad and opting instead to take an over-priced room at a local bed and breakfast.

It appears early on that Dell suffers from a lack of a little something called 'self-esteem'. He doesn't want to stay at Piper's dad's, because he believes that her father doesn't think him good enough for Piper despite her assurances to the contrary. In fact, Dell is kind of a dick, and becomes an even bigger one as the crisis they find themselves in worsens. As the situation decays, Dell turns more and more into a caveman - a needy caveman who wants to be reassured about what a great guy he is. On the flip side, Piper seems to be handling things better despite being initially freaked out. Whereas Dell is in a continual state of pout and overreaction, Piper deals more pragmatically with their situation including getting advice from her dad which of course further pisses off the ever devolving Dell. The surprise ending seems quite logical given the events leading up to it, although I know some will cry foul or just hate it as a cheap storytelling trick.

Critically speaking, Empty is a good idea but with somewhat average execution. The shot on video look to the movie hurts it badly in places although Drury attempts to make up for this with some nice outdoor shots. The story was made a little implausible by the brief length of time it took for events to unfold, but that's a minor quibble. The acting is solid by Ashley Williams who reminds me a lot of Mia Kirshner, but Jon Carlo's character came off as seriously whiny and I was hoping he would magically change into Liev Schreiber at some point. I know he was supposed to be a douche, but there wasn't a lot of subtlety involved with his performance and it became grating at times. There was a nice, low-key score by Patrick Mottaz and Dylan Randall that added ambiance without ever getting melodramatic. The direction was simple and straight-forward with a lot of hand held and fixed shots which was fine for the small, mostly two-character story being told. The movie was more of a character study about Dell anyway than a comment on diminishing resources or the collapse of society or even the ensuing paranoia. As such it works and is interesting to a degree, but it seems kind of a modest goal to build a movie around.

score 6/10

I have a theory that if you never go camping, the apocalypse can't happen. In Panic in the Year Zero! the Baldwin family leaves their well-appointed, southern California, suburban home to go fishing, and no sooner make it into the hills, when WHAM! Los Angeles gets nuked. This movie and Empty aren't the only examples of this phenomena either. When Peter Graves and his kids from Where Have All the People Gone? come back from camping, they can use a Dust Buster to vacuum up what's left of humanity. But should you choose to ignore my theory and go camping anyway, be sure to take a backpack full of paranoia (and guns, lots of guns) for when the world inevitably ends.

Ray Milland, who also directed, stars in Panic in the Year Zero! as Harry Baldwin, an average middle class father with a wife (Jean Hagen), teenage son (Frankie Avalon) and teenage daughter (Mary Mitchel). One fine morning they decide to go camping (thus causing the apocalypse) around the hills of LA. Once in the hills they notice a flash of light in the rear-view that Harry initially believes is lightening. When he stops to check that the windows are closed on the trailer he's pulling, he sees the mushroom cloud over the LA basin. After starting back toward Los Angeles (!), Harry decides to turn around and head back to their original campsite. However, they have a need for extra supplies and some other things first, but only a limited amount of cash. Hmm, how will they solve that problem?

Ray Milland noooooo! Don't be a dick and rob the innocent hardware shop owner at gunpoint because you ran out of cash! Oh well, too late. And it's only the first in a string of felonies including arson, murder and other mayhem that Harry Baldwin will commit by the end of the movie. What's even more amazing is that he's the good guy in the film. But unlike Dell from Empty who is acting like a dick as compensation for his inadequacies, we understand Baldwin is doing all this bad stuff to help his family. It's a weird early 60's message which is to trust in authority (in this case paternal authority) as they are doing these unpleasant things for your benefit. Screw morality and civilization, papa needs to get shit done. The end of the film really drives the 'authority is good' home as well. But despite the pro-authoritarian subtext and some unintentionally campy dialogue, e.g. at one point when referring to the nuclear attack that's just taken place, the daughter whines, "This whole thing is a bore, such a drag!" - the movie is actually quite enjoyable and fast paced with plenty of action and suspense. Although Milland, as director, had very little to work with budget-wise, he made the most of it and the movie is also helped immeasurably by the jazzy Les Baxter score.  The music would seem very out of place considering the subject matter, but is an integral component in the movie and really gets the fingers popping. The B & W cinematography from work-horse Gilbert Warrenton is also quite good and I particularly liked the opening shot of the car radio. The acting was just average with Milland carrying the majority of the burden and chewing it up in full cranky mode (doesn't this guy ever smile?). Avalon did not do any damage in a role that was fortunately limited, and the other characters were serviceable but there were no real standouts.
On the downside, sometimes the low budget seams showed, such as in the use of stock footage and tight shots of supposed outdoor locations that were obviously shot in a studio. Also, the female characters don't get developed a great deal and were basically delicate baggage to be hauled around. I found it telling that Avalon's teen character kept referring to his mom and sister as "the women". Also, when Hagen's wife character raised objections to morally questionable behavior, she got growled at by grumpy Milland. I found this an interesting contrast to Empty, where the female character would go off and do something productive like gather firewood or fish when her man began acting possessive or douche-y. The female characters, in general, are the moral conscience of all three of these films and yet they all get ignored or stifled (note to self - listen to women during an apocalypse).
Of the three films I (re)watched, Panic in the Year Zero! is easily the most entertaining and the most well-crafted. For post-apocalyptic fans, it's an essential, for others, an entertaining, if paranoid, ride.

Score 7.5/10

I have very mixed feelings about No Blade of Grass. On the one hand, I can smell the pretentious, preachy, early 70's stank all over it. From the nauseatingly cloying, acoustic title song, to the echo-y, cringe-inducing, Cornel Wilde voiceover, to the numerous shots of billowing factory smokestacks and polluted rivers, this movie reeks of patchouli hippies singing Kumbaya in a forest meadow. On the other hand, the actual story of an upper class family fleeing London during the chaos brought on by a world-wide grain virus and the attendant apocalyptic rumors is pretty darn fun. Nigel Davenport plays the cool-as-the-other-side-of-the pillow, eye-patched father in this one and just like Milland...

...yep, he turns into a murdering dick as well. Much like in Panic in the Year Zero!, the mayhem starts when the lead characters are acquiring guns. Morals are again thoughtlessly abandoned as the family bulldozes through anyone who gets in their way to their woodland sanctuary. No Blade of Grass is a much more brutal, cold blooded film than the other two which is not necessarily a bad thing on the entertainment level. It is a bit more believable in terms of character interaction as well in that Davenport's John Custance makes a deal with the devil by enlisting the aid of a young tough named Pirrie (played wonderfully by Anthony May) who provides the muscle and firearms skills for the group. Pirrie understands the need for a savvy, quick thinking leader in Custance who in turn understands the need for Pirrie's fast instincts and ruthless violent streak. The relationship between the two is a far more interesting aspect to the film than all the pollution hugga-mugga and really creates some nice tension along the way. There is a voice of reason, again coming from a female, in this instance, Custance's wife Ann (played by Jean Wallace) who questions the morality of just killing everyone willy-nilly. Happily, she's ignored and it's back to the mayhem.

As a post-apocalyptic thrill ride, No Blade of Grass works well and delivers the action and suspense even better than Panic in the Year Zero! There's even a couple of big shoot-outs toward the end. On the thematic level, however, the film is incredibly heavy-handed. Cornel Wilde both directed and produced which likely meant he had no one to step in and tell him to stop the madness. The cut-in pollution and starving kid scenes are particularly appalling and distracting, as are the foreshadowing scenes which are shown in blinking red no less. All this stuff should have been left on the cutting room floor because it really detracts from an otherwise decently made action thriller. Where I thought Empty should have addressed the fuel shortage a bit more,  No Blade of Grass goes wildly round the bin thematically to the detriment of the story and its pacing especially in the early going. The music is late 60's psychedelic at its worst and most generic but somehow doesn't annoy as much as the cut-ins. However, even with these major flaws, the film still manages to hold one's attention. It's not quite as smoothly or as fast-paced as PitYZ! but it still moves along especially when the family starts to flee the city. If you can make it past the first 15 minutes of the film's preachiness, it's a trip worth taking.

Score 6.5/10

I found it interesting that the two earlier films made in '62 and '70 had a distinct 'us or them' and 'trust no one' mentality. Whereas in 2011's Empty the characters were extending a cautious hand, and at least to a degree, attempting to help each other. Not that it always worked out for everyone in the film, but I did find Empty to be the most believable of the three films even though it wasn't as entertaining or well made as the other two. Empty also benefited from being timely. The nuclear bomb threat of PitYZ! is not what it once was, and neither is the pollution shown in NBoG (although the movie was wildly ahead of its time in discussing global warming!). Both films have an anachronistic, slightly moldy taint to them as a result. Nevertheless, the three films together did make for a pretty entertaining and interesting cinematic end of the world hat trick.


  1. I have to tell you, this is one of my favorite blogs on the net. I just dig your emphasis on the movies which fall through the cracks unjustly. This is my first time hearing of any of these.

    As far as men acting like dicks as the world ends...yeah, I think that is what would happen in real life. Either to prove their masculinity or a reaction to protection instincts (for mates and family) kicking in.

    I love Wilde's The Naked Prey...but haven't seen any of his other stuff. I'll look for this one if I can find it.

  2. Thanks much Dusty. The post-apocalyptic genre is my favorite, but I think the character behavior, especially among men, is wildly exaggerated for dramatic purposes. Even though Empty was the weakest of the three films, I still appreciated that it explained its male character's motivations. Although I do dig films like these, I like the more realistic portrayals of films like Testament and Ever Since the World Ended.