After thebox-office success of House of Wax (1953), Warner Bros. was quick to strike again in Natural Vision three-dimensions, this time offering a picture in the great outdoors and switching genres from horror to a western. They even tried to entice director Andre de Toth to helm The Charge at Feather River (1953), hoping for that same magic, but he was already committed to The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953); and so it fell to Gordon Douglas, who was about a year away from unleashing the giant bug movie to end all giant bug movies, THEM! (1954).
And Douglas did a pretty good job with the assignment, too, telling the tale of the Guardhouse Brigade -- sort of an early, proto-version of The Dirty Dozen (1967), where frontier scout Miles Archer (Madison) is recruited by the cavalry to turn a ragtag group of prisoners (-- that's chock full of some notable character actors --) into a feasible fighting unit to rescue the McKeever sisters (Wescott, Miles), who were kidnapped by the Cheyenne almost five years ago but have been recently spotted as the Indians are on the move and on the warpath, having been prodded into conflict by the encroachment of the railroad onto their sacred lands.
From there the film holds a few surprises up its sleeve as the covert action plays out, most notably the fact that one of those sisters, destined to marry the chief, doesn’t want to be rescued and does her best to sabotage all efforts to escape, including dumping all of their water and releasing the horses. The film is also infamous for coining The Wilhelm Scream, a death rattle that has been heard for decades since it was first yelped, again and again and again, whenever someone met an untimely demise. This, of course, has been traced back even further to the film, Distant Drums (1951), and if you still have no idea what I’m talking about click on this handy link and I will gladly clue you all in.
And on top of being some pretty solid cinema sagebrush, along with The Wilhelm Scream, The Charge at Feather River also holds the distinction of including one of my all time favorite uses of 3-D in film -- both for its audaciousness and downright goofiness. To set the stage for this incident, we have to catch up with Sgt. Charlie Baker (Lovejoy) and Pvt. Ryan (Brodie), who’ve set out on foot to try and bring back help for the rest of the group, currently out of water and low on ammo, holed up on a ridge.
Things get a bit dicey when they come upon a war party and must take cover to avoid detection. But as the two men, who have some bad blood brewing over some suspected infidelity with one of their wives, silently watch and wait for them to clear off so they can move on...
A rattlesnake takes that opportunity to slither out of the rocks and gets the drop on them.
And while it rattles menacingly and threatens to strike...
Unable to take any action with their pistols lest they alert the Indians...
Baker is forced to, well, improvise a solution:
That’s right, Baker horks up a big old glob of tobacco juice at the reptile. And not only does he do this once, he does this twice as his aim was a bit off on the first salvo.
Of course, to simulate this, Lovejoy spewed his makeshift mortar fire right into the camera, landing a cud of Virginia’s soggy finest right into the viewing audience's’ lap. Neat. Or gross, I guess, depending on how you close you were sitting I’d wager.
Anyhoo, cinematically speaking, Baker’s gooey gambit paid off and the rattler retreated, allowing them to press on, setting the stage for that final charge the film’s title promised.
Even without the 3-D, The Wilhelm, or the tobacco spit THAT WAS COMING RIGHT FOR US!, TWICE!, The Charge at Feather River is still pretty entertaining. But when you add all those ingredients back in, the film moves from pretty entertaining to downright historical. And no, that is not a typo.
The Charge at Feather River (1953) Warner Bros. Pictures / P: David Weisbart / D: Gordon Douglas / W: James R. Webb / C: J. Peverell Marley / E: Folmar Blangsted / M: Max Steiner / S: Guy Madison, Vera Miles, Frank Lovejoy, Helen Westcott, Steve Brodie, Neville Brand
The Resistance is on the verge of total collapse … Emissaries from Woop, the evil galactic alliance with the most dangerous and expensive special-effects in the known universe, scour the outer rim of the galaxy in search of good Princess Serina, who has stolen their valuable radio transmissions .... Unknown to the evil crew of the starship, however, a navigational error is sending them light years of course. The fate of mankind hangs in the balance...
After that opening credit crawl disappears into a vast star-field, we cut away to the pursuing Woop battlecruiser, which is under the command of Lord Buckethead (Bloodworth), whose get-up brings to mind less of a Darth Vader and more of the dismembered Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), and his cadre of Gremloids, who dress like Jawas but sound like Ewoks -- all with the curiosity and temperament of a petulant nine year old who didn’t get to go to the Burger King for a shake, who fail to register this navigational error; and after buzzing a few peckerwoods out dynamite fishing, they land and disembark, terrorizing a family of four, a pest-exterminator named Max (Marx), called in to deal with the alien infestation by said family, and rousting a baker and his wife, mistaking the elderly Chester (Nanney) for Captain Starfighter, some intergalactic freedom-fighter, demanding he reveal the location of the fugitive Princess and those stolen radio transmissions.
Well, turns out this blundering blight of ignorance and misidentity works both ways as the baker misinterprets what the bloviating and modulated Buckethead is raving on about and sends him to the local auto-garage that specializes in transmission repair. And once there, not only does Lord Buckethead mistake cashier Karen (Poundstone) for Princess Serina, he also orders the seizure of a Wet/Dry Shop-Vac, mistaking it for a valuable droid.
(Hey, c’mon now, when I was a kid back in the 1970s I always subbed in my mom’s old Rainbow vacuum cleaner for an R2-unit. No. That is NOT sad. The word you are looking for, there, is ‘awesome’ -- but I’d settle for ‘ingenious’.)
But before the alien invaders can get around to torturing their new prisoner, Max enters the picture again, pursuing one of those Gremloids, who had hidden out in his van. And so, he moves to the front of the line for interrogation -- and when I say interrogation, I mean a battery charger hooked up to his nethers, with Lord Dunderhead and the Flying Untinni Brothers at the switch. Needless to say, Max and Karen are both having some ‘very bad feelings about this’ predicament...
Born the illegitimate son of a moonshiner who died in a fiery crash on a mountain road in Tennessee while fleeing from federal revenuers, from the very beginning, one could say Earl Owensby’s life would’ve made one helluva movie. And the man loved movies, too, which would go on to heavily influence his life and career choices. See, by the age of ten Owensby was already working at his local theater, sweeping up or helping at the concession stand, where he saw at least six films a week. And before he graduated high school, Owensby dropped out and joined the Marines because, as he would claim later, he saw Lewis Seiler’s Guadalcanal Diary (1943) -- other sources, meanwhile, say it was after seeing John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), and wanted to do his part to make the world safe for democracy.
Then, after his hitch was up, Owensby returned to his native North Carolina, where he formed his own company, designing pneumatic tools and selling them out of the trunk of his car. And when this venture took off, the entrepreneur soon had a pile of money burning a hole in his pocket. And then, in 1973, Owensby saw Phil Karlson’s redneck revenge epic, Walking Tall (1973), based on the life and times of Buford Pusser, which was shot on location in McMinnville, Tennessee, and had an epiphany: why not make movies in his neck of the woods? But after sending out feelers to several different producers in Hollywood, seldom getting past the secretary, Owensby decided to just make a movie himself. And when I say make a movie, I mean finance, produce, direct, write, edit, and star in it.
The end result of this was Challenge (1973), the tale of a candidate for U.S. Senate whose family is killed by the mobsters he threatened to bring to justice if elected. And while the film was “violent and tacky, with the production values of a porno”, Owensby managed to complete the film and get it distributed around the southern drive-in circuit, which ran from the Carolinas to Texas, and sometimes even as far north as Chicago, and netted himself over $12 million on his $400,000 investment. And while the filmmaker openly admits the film wasn’t very good, those very same Hollywood producers were suddenly answering his phone calls. And while Owensby would follow up Challenge with The Brass Ring (1975) and Death Driver (1976), his movie ambitions would prove even more grandiose than that with the construction of Earl Owensby Studios.
"I'm not an actor,” said Owensby, who would go on to play a werewolf and a faux Elvis Presley. “But you know what I am? A salesman” -- a salesman with the ambition and the stones to build the largest U.S. movie studio outside of Hollywood. Located on the outskirts of Shelby, North Carolina (-- about 45 miles west of Charlotte), carved out of a pine forest, you will find 67 acres filled with six sound stages, offices with full editing and production facilities, warehouses, a 15,000-square-foot cyclorama stage, a private runway, a 16-unit motel that houses casts and crews, and a 7,200-square-foot A-framed house where the boss lives and surveys his kingdom. And over the years since it opened, Owensby was able to entice several productions to North Carolina (-- a right to work state), including the hicksploitation classic, Hooch (1977), and a couple of regional slasher movies -- Final Exam (1981) and House of Death (1983).
But the biggest production he ever landed was in 1988, when he convinced James Cameron to film The Abyss (1989) at an unfinished and abandoned nuclear power plant in South Carolina he had recently bought with the intention of repurposing it for filmmaking, turning it into the world’s largest underwater sound-stage, as part of his ever-expanding film empire.
But even before Cameron took the plunge, Owensby had earned himself a solid reputation as the ‘Dixie DeMille’ and the ‘Redneck Roger Corman’ by producing his own films -- most of them vehicles for himself to star in. And in 1983, when 3-D films suddenly came back into vogue, Owensby was all in, producing not one, or two, or three, but six films in three dimensions between ‘83 and 1985, including Rottweiler: Dogs of Hell (1983), Hit The Road Running (1983), Tales of the Third Dimension (1984), Chain Gang (1984), Hot Heir (1984), and Hyperspace (1984).
Apparently, Owensby had high hopes for Hyperspace-- a/k/a Gremloids, his cash in on Star Wars (1977), whose saga had just wrapped up (prematurely) with Return of the Jedi (1983). Seems the mini-movie mogul was still searching for that big breakout hit and a national distribution payday as nearly all of his films thus far had been self-distributed and almost exclusively played in those southern drive-in circuits, which were quickly drying up. Teaming up with Regency Productions, who had produced Lucio Fulci’s The New Gladiators (1984) and Ruggero Deodato’s completely bonkers Raiders of Atlantis (1983), and co-produced several of those mentioned 3-D films, including Hyperspace / Gremloids, Owensby even broke one of his cardinal rules, by spending more than $1 million on the production. Did this gamble pay off? Well, yes and no. But mostly no -- at least for Owensby.
For you see, while Owensby and first (and only) time director Todd Durham were shooting for that galaxy far, far away, their end result was a spoof that kinda comes off as a nine months later end-result of a drunken prom date between Hardware Wars (1978) -- wait, no, make that Closet Cases of the Nerd Kind (1980) and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) as Karen manages to engineer an escape, taking Max and that Shop-Vac with her. Alas, fleeing from a repair shop means the convenient car stolen to make that escape is barely operable, but neither is the VW Bug commandeered by Lord Buckethead, leading to one of the saddest -- and yet, kinda hilarious, chase scenes in cinema history.
From there, the couple spend the rest of the day being captured and escaping, only to be recaptured again -- first taking refuge in an abandoned house that yields no food but Karen does find a bottle of liquor, which they quickly consume before being caught and hauled off to the alien ship, where their highly inebriated state keeps derailing Lord Buckethead’s attempts to interrogate them. It’s also around this time when the chief navigator finally deduces they’re not where they’re supposed to be. But once Buckethead is informed they are not on the planet Plestaron, he instantly vaporizes the messenger, declaring there is no error because he plotted the course himself.
Meanwhile, the local authorities are stumped by the rash of UFO sightings and the discovery of a dead cow, killed in the crossfire during Karen and Max’s first escape for having the temerity to poop where Lord Buckethead was walking (-- interpret the rest of the joke from there, folks), which is being treated like a homicide. (Bovineicide?) And so, a government expert on extraterrestrials named Hopper (Elliot) arrives and takes over the interrogation of witnesses that quickly goes nowhere fast due to some ‘lingering’ culture shock and a hunting season fixation.
Meantime, back in the spaceship, as Max is hooked up to a brain-draining machine, once more, Karen manages to engineer another daring rescue and escape (-- alas, the Shop-Vac didn't make it), stealing what looks like two giant D-cell batteries in the process, which apparently power the ship.
This all leads to the most baffling and boggling segment of the film when the fugitives flee into an Ingles grocery store, where, after a lengthy chase and laser shoot-out in the produce aisle, and the cereal aisle, and the dairy aisle, one of those stolen batteries transmogrifies an ordinary shopping cart and turns it into an ersatz speeder bike.
And so now the chase is really on, as two pursuing Gremloids power up another shopping cart and keep after them as they rocket around the store. And while all of this appears to lead to the death of Lord Buckethead when the Gremloids' errant cart crashes into him, resulting in a huge explosion, allowing Karen to get Max to a mandatory test for a promotion at the company he works for, turns out he was only severely dented and dinged, allowing him to once more capture Karen. And with her as a hostage, he gives Max just 24-hours to surrender those transmissions or he will kill the girl and nuke the town from orbit.
Okay, then, as the old axiom goes when making a low-budget film, save your money for the climax and the big pay-off. And, oh, holy crap, did Gremloids ever manage to do that. See, Hopper has called in the National Guard, who is currently entrenched around the Woop battlecruiser and engaged in one helluva firefight.
And while Max begs the overzealous Colonel (Stevenson) in charge to not blow up the ship because there’s an innocent girl trapped inside, Karen has been stripped down to her unmentionables, is currently strapped down to a table, and being, well, uh, ‘invasively probed’ by the Gremloids.
Back outside, Max manages to convince Hopper to give him a chance to rescue Karen, who makes it inside, procures himself a disguise, and finally manages to return the favor and saves the girl. (Hey, at least they didn’t fall into a garbage chute.) Hopper, meanwhile, manages to negotiate a palaver with Lord Buckethead that seemingly ends in disaster when a jumpy soldier accidentally shoots the alien under a flag of truce. I say seemingly because just as Buckethead gives the order to engage a pretty impressive looking Death-Ray, the giant laser throws a rod and fizzles instead of firing.
With that, the tide of battle turns in terrestrial favor. Alas, when Hopper moves to accept Buckethead’s surrender, his gloating gets so out of hand it gives the Gremloid engineers enough time to fix the Death Ray, which quickly sends the routed National Guard retreating into the surrounding hills and Hopper out of the film altogether.
And so a victorious Buckethead gives the order to blast-off and nuke the area once they achieve a safe orbit. When informed his prisoner has escaped, he once more berates and beats his underlings, who have finally had enough of this cosmic-jerkola, kick him off the ship, and leave him stranded on Earth. (I gotta tell ya, there is nothing more hilarious than a faux Jawa blowing a raspberry on helium.) Which is great for them, but not so much for Karen and Max, whom he pursues into that same family's house from the beginning of the movie. And as the film wraps up with one last hair-brained twist, Lord Buckethead is finally vanquished and the fate of mankind is resolved.
I honestly don’t know what kind of release Hyperspace / Gremloids eventually got once it was completed but I do know it failed to garner any kind of national distribution. There is a movie poster for it, so I will assume there was at least some kind of minimal regional roll-out for the film in southern theaters.
From there, the film was never released on home video in the United States but did wind up in video stores in Great Britain and Germany under the title Gremloids -- or in some cases, Gremlords, with some kick-ass, though slightly derivative, box-art that looks like the Hildebrandts by way of an old Atari 2600 video game cartridge. And so, the film kinda teetered on the brink of oblivion until it was “rediscovered” in 1990 when it was featured in a 3-D festival at the Vagabond movie theater in Los Angeles, where it played on the same bill as Dial ‘M’ For Murder (1954) and the softcore staple, The Stewardesses (1969). Still, this dry-fart of exposure did little to garner any real attention to the film as far as I can tell. And so, it was the very same impressive video box art that eventually led me to this film -- posted on a friend’s wall on Facebook. Before that, I had never even heard of it before. Curiosity aroused, I started poking around the web totry and find some history on the film but found most entries went little further than pontificating that this was the movie where you can see comedian Paula Poundstone in her underwear and not much else.
Both Poundstone and Chris Elliot’s presence in the film is a bit of a puzzler. Poundstone was born in the south but began her stand-up career in Boston in 1979 and had moved to Los Angeles by 1984. And speaking frankly, she is actually pretty great in this, endearing and genuinely funny. And the most surprising thing about her performance is how much of a reasonable facsimile of Geena Davis she becomes during the gung-ho action sequences. She appeared to be all in, and the film is better for her efforts.
Elliot, on the other hand, got involved because director Durham was a huge fan of his myriad running characters on Late Night with David Letterman and personally asked him to be in it. (This is back when he was living under the seats, or openly attacking the host.) Elliot was also a fan of Poundstone, and since she was going to be in it, he agreed to be in it as well. (The two never have a scene together though.) Alan Marx is serviceable enough as the hero, even though his character is a bit of a drip. And the only other familiar face I noticed in the cast was Leon Rippy, who played Karen’s boss. Also, special shout-out to Robert Bloodworth as Lord Buckethead. Don’t know if that was him providing the voice, too, but that pompous doof was a scream. (I liked how he kept hitting his head with that ridiculously tall helmet.) And a second special shout-out to his group of evil minions, who seemed to be game for just about anything.
On the technical side, for being such a low-budget film, aside from that poorly matted shopping-cart chase, the practical F/X, stunts, and pyrotechnics were really well executed -- and dare I say, kinda impressive. Kudos to special effects coordinator Greg Hull, model builder Jerry McGinnis, and SPFX artist Dave Osborne, who, to my ear, had access to the Lucasfilm audio library as all those laser blasts sounded awful familiar -- and I am positive the Gremloid banter definitely began life as Ewokese. Both Hull and editor Bruce Stubblefield went on to fairly successful careers in their chosen fields in Hollywood. And their efforts along with Durham and cinematographer Irl Dixon, who shot all six of Owensby’s 3-D films, results in a pretty good spoof that doesn’t force or slow down for the comedy but just lets it happen, making the audience keep up, and thus, making their film more hit than miss in my book.
As for Owensby, well, after his 3-D gamble didn’t pan out when Hyperspace failed to launch properly, and then surviving the mental strain and financial hardships of prepping his property for the shooting of The Abyss, he appeared to be burnt out a bit as he only produced one more film after that: The Rutherford County Line (1987). And after that, he apparently got religion and tried to open a series of pious theater chains and theme parks. All of which went nowhere. As far as I can tell, despite some back-taxes trouble, E.O. Studios is still open for business but it’s been nearly fifteen years since Owensby proposed any new films. Sad, really.
Anyhoo, after watching Hyperspace / Gremloids for the first time last week my overall impression of it was fairly positive, feeling it was genuinely funny when it was trying to be, finding all the oddball characters oddly endearing, and ultimately found myself in a very forgiving mood over its potholes and shortcomings due to the budget constraints and an apparently non-existent script. (No screenwriting credit is even given.) Again, as I poked around the web, what little I found showed I was definitely in the minority on that front. That’s me shrugging right now. Heathens, the lot of you. This thing overcompensates and achieves quite a bit of inspired, self-aware lunacy if you give it half a chance. (See the egg-carton room joke.)
If nothing else, Hyperspace / Gremloids beat Spaceballs (1987) to the Star Wars spoof-punch, and in some ways it actually pulled it off better than Mel Brooks did. Color me pleasantly surprised. Then again, my favorable movie recommendations on questionable cinema have been known to get people killed. (It’s true. There are documented cases. No witnesses though. They’re all dead, you see.) And so, I guess, for those of you out there foolish enough to follow, I will offer that Hyperspace / Gremloids finds a whole ‘nother gear once Poundstone shows up and things get to rolling proper. And the last third is kinda amazing. And so, if you can survive the first twenty minutes or so, you should be gold. As for me, hell, the film was worth it for the ‘Death-Ray’s fizzled and fixed’ gag alone.
Hyperspace a/k/a Gremloids(1984) Regency Productions / EP: John Brock / P: Charles Heath, Earl Owensby / D: Todd Durham / W: ???? / C: Irl Dixon / E: Bruce Stubblefield / M: Don Davis / S: Paula Poundstone, Alan Marx, Chris Elliott, Robert Bloodworth, R.C. Nanney, Leon Rippy, Fred Stevenson