Monday, August 27, 2012

Slight hiatus

I've been asked to step in as program director for Albacon 2012. As such, it will be difficult for me to do a new post every week until after the con.  Please bear with me.

And if you're in upstate New York, consider attending.  We're putting together an excellent weekend.  Great, but not to be forgotten!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Nok Hockey (game)

(1942 – )

Before computers, there were many attempts to turn sports into games.  Some were ridiculous (e.g., Electric Football), some were successful (Strat-O-Matic Baseball), and some became standards in game playing in the schools – Nok Hockey.

Nok Hockey was introduced by Carrom, which was a maker of games played on wood boards.  They started out in 1889 and by 1942,  when Nok Hockey was introduced.  Carrom is still around today, but doesn’t seem to mention the game on its pages, even though it’s still available (with plastic hockey sticks instead of wooden ones).

The game was successful because it simplified the sport.  Whereas the usual table hockey sets had a full team of six players per side, all run by rods controlled by each participant, Nok Hockey didn’t bother with players and realism.  It was just a puck, two game-sized hockey sticks, and a goal.  It was played on a wooden playing surface divided into thirds.  The sides had wooden walls to keep the puck from flying out of the playing area.

Nok Hockey

There was a face-off at the beginning, then the players would shoot the puck.  You could not shoot a puck that was in the other team’s defensive area. The official rules let you fight for the puck in the “center ice” section of the board, but this rarely happened after you played for a while. Players quickly learned how to shoot so that the puck would be in their opponent’s zone, so it became a case of the two of you taking turns.*

There was a small cut-out about twice the size of the puck that was the goal.  And there was one more thing to make it difficult:  a square wooden block that acted as “goaltender,” making it very difficult to score a goal without banking it off one of the walls.

But there was also a trick – a shot that looked amazing to beginners, but was surprisingly easy to make.  You see, in the four corners of the board, there was a piece of wood at 45-degree angle. And the “goalie” also was tilted at a 45-degree angle.  Players quickly learned that if the puck was touching one of the walls, you could slap it down the side to the corner, where it would bounce, hit the “goalie” and slip into the goal.

Despite how impressive that shot looked, to win the game you had to master all angles to find the spot on the side that allowed the puck to slip into the goal.  Indeed, a game between two good players would have each of them shooting with the puck in their goal area much of the time. The ability to shoot the puck even when it was guarded by the “goalie” block was essential to be successful.

I first encountered in at summer camp in the early 60s.  It was a perfect game for rainy days:  action, competition, easy to learn.  I would guess that most sets were purchased by schools, camps, and other institutions where they had to give kids something to do.

It looks like the game is still being made, though Carrom makes very little mention of it on their web page. It may have trouble competing with the flash of modern video games, but it’s nice to know that someone somewhere is hitting the double bank shot and making a goal.

*I’m describing how I learned it.  People had many variations of the rules, though the general game was the same.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Colossus: the Forbin Project

Directed by
Joseph Sargent
Written by James Bridges, from a novel by D. F. Jones
Starring Eric Braeden, Susan Clark, Gordon Pinsent, William Schallart
IMDB Entry

It’s highly unusual for Hollywood to turn to written science fiction for its science fiction films* and its rare indeed when both the book and the movie are good ones.  There’s A Boy and His Dog, of course, but not many others.  D. F. Jones wrote Colossus in 1966, a good but minor SF novel that was eventually filmed as Colossus:  The Forbin Project.**

The story is an old one:  Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) is developing a supercomputer, Colossus, to manage all US nuclear weapons system.  But, as soon as its turned on, Colossus comes up with a frightening message:  “There is another.”

The other is Guardian, the Soviet counterpart to Colossus, which has also gone live.  The two computers link to each other, and the worst happens:  the combine and try to run things.  Forbin is the only one who has a chance to stop it, since he’s the only human Colossus will communicate with.

Forbin & friendOne of the nice things about the movie is the way it avoids our expectations.  In nearly all movies with this setup, the hero finds a way to defeat the computer.***  But this isn’t an ordinary computer, and there are some nice subversion of expectations along the way.  One nice touch is how Forbin manages to get a chance to communicate with others without Colossus watching by pretending to have sex and insisting that Colossus doesn’t watch.

The cast is generally made up of TV actors, and director Joseph Sargent has primarily worked in TV.  His best known film is The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.  Eric Braeden as Forbin is still working regularly, but rarely as a star.

The movie got good reviews and did well enough for Jones to write two sequel novels:  The Fall of Colossus and Colossus and the Crab. But the movie was quickly forgotten to anyone now a big fan of SF films. 

*Especially nowadays.  Has any author other than Philip K. Dick have a movie made of his books lately?

**The movie was was originally billed just as The Forbin Project (that’s the title in Vincent Canby’s New York Times review of it), but somehow – perhaps when it came out on video, “Colossus” was added on.

**“I Always Lie®.”

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Directed by
Jack Arnold
Screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross ; story by Maurice Zimm, from an idea from William Alland*
Starring Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning, Ricou Browning, Ben Chapman, Whit Bissell
IMDB Entry

The most recent of the classic Universal movie monsters, the Creature has gotten short shrift.  Unlike the big four – Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Mummy – the Creature hasn’t had endless sequels and variations, and, though he is know, and even something of a catchphrase, the movies that gave him life rarely show up any more.  The Creature is not forgotten, of course, though it’s as a phrase, but the movie that spawned him is rarely seen or talked about.

The Creature (often referred to as “the Gill Man”) was one of the many creations of film great Jack Arnold.**  It is far more science fiction based than most monsters, and gives the Creature some depth to make him interesting.

The story begins with the discovery of a mysterious fossil hand with webbed fingers in the depths of the Amazon.***  He shows it to Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), a marine biologist, who persuades Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) to bankroll an expedition to look into it.  And, of course. Reed takes his girlfriend Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) along.  The creature, of course, does not want to be disturbed, and attacks anyone who comes near – except for Kay, who he develops a Kong-like crush on.

The movie is effective because of the look of the gill man (played by Ricou Browning in the water and Ben Chapman on land).   But as a movie, it works because of the Beauty and the Beast angle.  The Creature is fascinated by Kay, and one of the most cited sequences is when he swims beneath her, watching her in the water.  It’s sinister, but also a bit sexual (and may have influenced Jaws). 

The Creature and the woman

The movie was shot in 3D, in time to cash in on the first 3D boomlet. 
Like Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space, the effects are not overdone, with enough to make it clear that 3D is involved, but not shouting at you “Hey!  This is Threeeee-Deeeeee!”

It was successful enough to spawn two sequels:  Revenge of the Creature (directed by Arnold) and The Creature Walks Among Us. The Creature took his place as an iconic monster and it influenced all sorts of movies that used sea creatures as monsters.

But there was no revival (though new versions were planned and fell through) and the monster to most people is just a name from the past, more funny that frightening.  The movie, however, is a fine specimen of 50s science fiction horror, a genre that faded out too soon and is dead these days.

* Alland heard the legend when he was working on Citizen Kane.

**See my entries on Tarantula  and It Came From Outer Space.

*** After discovering the fossil, the leader of the expedition snaps it right off to bring it to the US.