December 2023 Mini-Reviews – For All Mankind (S1) to Quatermass & the Pit

Here we are, finally, at the Last Month of the Year (to entitle a favorite Christmastime song) of 2023 — in reviews, that is.  And what a year it’s been!

I finally, after many years, dived back into the PRIMEVAL series, after getting really pissed off at some stuff that happened in S3 (originally) and started seeing episodes I’d never seen before.  Plus, my wife and I started finishing off some series on our newly acquired Apple TV account, which turned out a great thing to have free for 3 months. And perhaps most amazingly, while writing my annual Christmastime story, “Night of the Yule Cat,” I also got so much into the spirit that I decided I would try to watch ALL of the RANKIN-BASS Christmas specials — some of which I’ve had on DVD for decades but never watched.

Additionally, I found myself sucked into a 24/7 Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) marathon on YouTube.  That proved so popular, they’ve continued it into the new year.  It also certainly bumped up my total for the month. How did I do on that stuff?  Read on and find out!

Ratings are out of five stars. Here’s what those stars mean to me…

* – This film is not good. Avoid it unless you tolerate dreck well.
** – A flawed film. You may enjoy it if you like this genre or the folks in it.
*** – A good solid film. If you like this genre, you’ll probably like this film.
**** – A superior film within its genre. Thoroughly enjoyable.
***** – An outstanding film on many levels. A great example of its genre.

Note that some shows I’ve given a parenthetical star rating, either adding or subtracting stars, depending on how your amusement may differ from mine. I’ve explained the meaning in the reviews themselves.  Usually.  Though in the case of Mystery Science Theater 3000 reviews, usually the parenthetical is the stars to add when watching the riffed versions.

For All Mankind (S1) ***** Alternate history of the Space Race series gets to a surprising & compelling start with great actors & story twists. No spoilers.
Death in Paradise (S1) *** Ben Miller is charming as a Brit out of water police detective assigned to an idyllic Caribbean island. Nice mix of comedy & mystery.
Godzilla 2000 *** Start of the Millennium series has Godzilla stomping out of the ocean & battling a UFO-monster, Orga. Nice SPFX, but the least of the series..
Shetland (S1) **** Douglas Henshall (Primeval) as a detective in the remote Shetlands, trying to co-parent his daughter with another man & solve murders.
Aladdin’s Lantern (Our Gang short) **** Spanky & the gang try to put on a show based on Aladdin & naturally, things get fouled up in amusing ways. A good family fun short.
Man Who Lived Twice, The (1936) **** Ralph Bellamy gives a fine Hyde-Jekyll performance as a ruthless criminal whose personality & identity are changed by brain surgery.
Fast & the Furious, The: Tokyo Drift (3) *** No characters from the first 2 Fast/Furious appear in this film (not counting a cameo), but characters from future films do. A bratty US teen is sent to Japan to live with his dad, gets involved in Tokyo street racing, which includes driving, & must battle criminals (Sony Chiba).
Blood Lake **(*) Low budget movie with a naturalist & his family plagued by (mostly CGI) killer lampreys murdering everything the come in contact with.
Gamera the Brave **** The end of the Gamera Millennium series (though not connected). When old Gamera is destroyed, a boy raises a new one to protect earth.
Q Planes (1939) *** A stellar British cast (Olivier, Richardson) try to figure out who is making experimental planes vanish. Interesting, but not too compelling.
Primeval (S4) **** After a bit of a train wreck of actors leaving in S3, S4 does an amazing job of turning around with a compelling new cast, a good new “secret” storyline & backstory, & a return to the “dinosaur chasing” of the original premise. Well done, despite lower budget.
Raven, The (1963) **** Karloff, Price, & Lorre are hilarious in this horror-comedy about dueling sorcerers. Early Jack Nicholson, too. A fine Corman-directed romp.
Mr. Monk’s Last Case ***** Monk is back for one “last” case against an evil spacefaring corporate exec. His crew is back, too, for a heartfelt investigation. Great stuff.
Year Without A Santa Clause, The (1974) *** Rankin-Bass stop-motion special with Mrs. Claus & some elves in for an ailing Santa, but it’s the Heat Miser & Cold Miser that people remember. I decided to watch a bunch of R-B Specials I had on DVD & ended up diving through every one I could find. I’d seen this one before, but some of the other ones were first-time viewing for me. And this is good. Not great, like some of the classics, but good.
Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976) *** Rudolph & other assorted misfits try to track down the missing New Year baby, who has freakish large ears. Better than you’d expect.
All the Creatures Were Stirring (2018) *** Low-budget horror anthology set during Christmastime has some misses but also a number of cool ideas, too. Worth seeing.
Midsomer Murders 15-3 Written in the Stars **** Astronomers start dying in freakish ways during an eclipse, so naturally John Barnaby & co. venture forth to solve them. Good as usual.
Cricket on the Hearth (1967) *** Roddy McDowell voices the title character in this O’Henry like tale of a toymaker, his bind daughter, & her beau lost at sea. Good.
Little Drummer Boy, The (1968) **** Least-well remembered of the R-B stop-motions that I’d seen turns out to be edgier & better than expected. Misanthropic savant drummer boy survives a difficult childhood to find his way to the birth of Jesus, as in the song.
Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold, The (1981) *** More Irish myth than Christmas tale, sailors get wrapped up in search for gold & battle between Leprechauns & ancient evil banshee.
Pinocchio’s Christmas (1980) **** The tale of the Puppet who wants to be a boy with a Christmas twist thrown in is full of good adventures & Rankin-Bass charm.
Sister Boniface Mysteries Christmas Special (2023) ***** Both a Christmas special & a tip of the hat to Murder on the Orient express as the sister & her cop friend find themselves on a stranded train in the middle of a snowstorm… And then murder happens. Of course it does. Both true to the show, the spirit of the season, & fun in its own right, this fine production in the tradition of British “Christmas Specials” might be one to enjoy every year.
Godzilla Minus One (2023) ***** One of the best films of 2023, Godzilla Minus One features a fine cast, compelling background, interesting storylines, & enough scary Godzilla action to satisfy anyone interested in the Big G. At a budget of “only” 15 Million (or less), it puts to shame many blockbusters costing 20x as much. I don’t want to give to much of the story away, because really, you should try to see this & if you can, on the big screen. Highest recommendation.
Marlowe (2022) *** I can buy towering Liam Neeson as Marlow, barely, & the storyline is properly period & convoluted, but somehow it’s not really compelling.
Death in Paradise (S2) *** The second season of this light-hearted mystery series carries on admirably & seems to have some character development. S3 betrays it.
Fast & Furious (4) *** Walker & Diesel are finally back together as they try to root out the drug dealers who killed a friend. As usual, car stunts abound.
Six Days, Seven Nights (1998) **** Harrison Ford’s charming pilot stranded with prickly Anne Heche on a deserted island while their significant others pine. Funny adventure.
Doctor Who 2023, 3 Specials ***** The return of showrunner Moffat, Tennant’s Doctor, & Donna Noble bring back life to the classic SF series & launch a new era. Good stuff!
Midsomer Murders 22-5 For Death Prepare **** A body found in a prop trunk bring Barnaby & Winter in to a local “Pirates of Penzance” production & of course more murders commence.
Saturn 3 *** Kirk Douglass & Farrah Faucett man a remote space base under threat from “inspector” Harvey Keitel & his robot. Just okay SF. Almost.
Starcrash *** Does this have too much plot or too little? Hard to tell, but easy to spot the homages. Caroline Munro is easy on the eyes. Goofy fun.
Alien vs. Predator (2004) **** A team goes to Antarctica & discovers an ancient pyramid in the ice, not knowing it is a Predator training ground full of Aliens. First team up of the classic SF monsters is an action-packed winner with good SPFX & performances. A personal fave.
Guardians of Time (2022) *** Three children find a door to a fantasy world where they are prophesied saviors. Fairly standard kid fantasy on a budget. Not bad.
Primeval (S5) **** Final season of Primeval carries through on the plots from S4 as the anomalies may save the world or doom it. A fine finish to the series. After becoming disillusioned with the cast changes in S3, I’m glad I returned to this series & the remaining crew. A series redeemed.
Stingiest Man in Town, The (1978) *** Rankin-Bass hand drawn animated take on A Christmas Carol is fairly standard, but not as good as Magoo or the Sim animated version.
Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977) *** Another misfit Christmas tale from Rankin-Bass, the titular donkey overcomes his “problem” & villains to end up at the manger of Jesus.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1968) ***** One of the all-time greats on every level, the original animated version of the Grinch never gets old, though many version (including the 4K stream I watched) lack the original choral music that leads from the final scene into the credits. Why? I don’t know. History of TV cuts?
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) ***** If I could watch only 3 Christmas specials every year, this would be one. (The others surround it in this review.) Misfits Hermie & Rudolph wander the wilderness, meet other misfits, & find their own worth, even as Christmas town realizes not everybody needs to fit in. Of course, it ends with the famous song, but the other songs in this classic special are gems as well. Beloved by misfits everywhere including me.
Charlie Brown Christmas, A (1965) ***** Some critics don’t seem to realize that part of what makes this so special is that it acknowledges that Christmas stresses people out & many folks buy into commercialism & many lack the Christmas spirit. But that doesn’t have to ruin things, & love can still win out. One of the first TV Christmas specials & still one of the best. The animation is crude but charming, & the music is also brilliant. A family fave..
Frosty the Snowman (1968) *** Not as bad as I remembered, pretty good, in fact, with a lot of charm as well as a Snidely Whiplash-type villain & familiar song.
Frosty Returns (1993) *** Weirdly, this “sequel” was animated by the crew from Charlie Brown & with a weird story about a man wiping out snow. Has its own charm.
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) **** I prefer the 1950s version, but there’s a lot to recommend this version of the tale of a Jew & a Roman, once friends, who become bitter enemies during the time of Jesus. HIghlights include early technicolor sequences, Jesus’ legendary birth with star, immense sea battle with galleys, & of course the famous, climactic horse race that’s pretty much as spectacular as the Charlton Heston version.
Foundation (S1) **** Adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s classic SF book series starts with “hard-science” SF but veers toward Dune-like mysticism. Still, well done.
Poirot 12-2 Hallowe’en Party **** Poirot must solve the murder of a teenager drowned in an apple bobbing tub during a Halloween party. Some classic Christie ideas & fun.
Triumph of Sherlock Holmes, The (1935) *** Holmes vs. Moriarty for the “final” time in this non-Rathbone tale that spends as much time on backstory as on the detective. Merely okay.
Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (1976) *** First sequel to the Frosty show, this R-B animation has Frosty longing for a Mrs. Frosty & battling Jack frost, who wants his hat.
Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974) *** Hated this when it first came out. Didn’t like the drawings, didn’t like the story adaptation, but like all of these R-B specials, it’s okay for kids.
Tombstone (1993) **** Kurt Russell (Wyatt Earp) & Val Kilmer (Doc Holliday) bring life to this action-packed western about the OK Coral gunfight & it’s aftermath.
A Christmas Horror Story (2015) ***** William Shatner is a nighttime DJ whose show helps weave an anthology of creepy Christmas tales together. Some real horror treats here.
Rudolph & Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979) *** Rudolph & Frosty (& family) team up in this stop-motion special about our heroes trying to save a down-on-its-luck circus. Includes cameos of characters from other R-B specials, but at reature length really feels too long & the circus not that compelling
Life & Adventures of Santa Claus, The (1985) ***(*) A sharp turn from their own mythology as R-B adapt L. Frank (Oz) Baum’s origin of Santa which feels very pagan & involves immortals, a lioness, & a battle against evil troll-like creatures. Give it that 4th star if you like High Fantasy adventures.
Jack Frost (1979) *** Another R-B I hadn’t seen. Jack Frost falls in love with a mortal & tries to become human, but the odds are stacked against him.
Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962) ***** The earliest of the TV Christmas specials, Magoo is a winner despite its seeming oddball marriage of the near-sighted comedy character, a theater production & Dickens’ classic tale. The voice talent & Broadway-quality songs make this surprisingly compelling. Personal fave.
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (1970) ***** One of the best of the R-B specials (despite one musical number seeming odd today), this sincere tale of the origin of Santa Clause has memorable characters, good character design, & stop-motion animation that may be the best of the R-B set. Great sequel to Rudolph.
Black Cat, The (1941) *** Bela Lugosi is only the gardener, sadly, in this suspense-comedy about 2 bumblers in a standard Old Dark House mystery — with cats.
Midsomer Murders 22-6 The Witches of Angel’s Rise **** Barnaby & Winter must solve a series of murders connected with a local Psychic Fayre, starting with the death of a young local witch.
Die Hard (1988) ***** The high-action Christmastime classic. A cop goes to LA to wound his estranged wife & ends up trapped in a skyscraper full of criminals.
Christmas Carol, A (1972) ***** Amazing animated version of the classic story with Alistair Sim as Scrooge (again) fits the entire story into a beautifully drawn half hour.
Muppet Christmas Carol, The (1992) **** Michael Caine is great as Scrooge as is Gonzo as Dickens & of course the other Muppets are charming, especially Christmas Present.
Robot Wars (1993 – MST3K) **(*) Animated machines are highlight of this low-budget dystopian film of powers vying for robotic supremacy. MST3K makes it palatable.
Beyond Atlantis (1973 – MST3K) **(**) Muddled treasure-hunting story meets weird islanders. TV-standard cast w/Patrick Wayne doesn’t help, but MST3K ups the fun a lot.
Final Justice (1984 – MST3K) *(**) Joe Don Baker is a cop escorting a criminal for trial in Italy when things go wrong. Without MST3K, this movie is the wrong thing to watch.
Day the Earth Froze (1959 – MST3K) ***(**) Personally, I like this Finnish fantasy tale of a hero creating a magic “sampo” & battling an evil witch & other sinister forces, but the MST3K riffing comes close to making it a classic. A good one to introduce people to the show.
Master Ninja II (1984 – MST3K) **(**) Lee Van Cleef can’t save this TV role as Master Ninja or the shows cobbled together into this “movie,” but MST3K can!
Project Moonbase (1953 – MST3K) ***(*) Heinlein’s story of the struggles of male & female astronaut pairing is dated, but still amusing. MST3K makes it even more amusing.
Poirot 12-3 Murder on the Orient Express ***** Different & in a way more intense than the 1970s movie, David Suchet plays Poirot with grim intensity in this famous mystery where a rich man is murdered aboard the train while the Orient Express is stranded in the snow. Great every time.
Invisible Boy, The (1957) *** Strange combination of cold-war SF & comedy. A boy becomes a genius & builds a robot while a computer plots to take over the world.
National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) **** Some bits haven’t dated well, but the tale of the Griswolds still has plenty of fun & funny in it. Great tour of the country to Wally World, too!
Invisible Invader (1959) *** Aliens come to Earth & take over the bodies of dead people to conquer the planet. Low budget but still somehow charming. John Agar.
What’s New Pussycat (1965) *** This story about Peter O’Toole, who can’t resist any woman, & Peter Sellers, his lusty psychiatrist, was sexually daring when it came out in 1965 but hasn’t aged well. Pure Madman Generation stuff. Plus, there’s a lot of improv, not much of a plot. Yet, the crazy hotel scene at the end, where all of O’Toole’s past, present, & future conquests all show up like a mad Marx Brothers stateroom scene, & the frenetic chase that follows lift it into enjoyment for me. Plus, there’s the great Tom Jones theme song.
Eegah! (MST3K) **(***) Caveman kidnaps 1960s girl to be his bride. One of the worst, yet charming, films of all ensues. MST3K makes it very funny.
Bride of the Monster (MST3K) **(***) Possibly my Ed Wood fave, with Lugosi’s mad doctor, Tor Johnson, & “giant” octopus. MST3K adds to the fun. 5 stars either way for me.
Laser Blast (MST3K) *(***) There are some cool stop-mo creatures in this, but only MST3K’s riffing makes it good. Teen finds alien weapon that makes him a monster.
Violent NIght (2022) ***** A disillusioned Santa winds up trapped in a rich woman’s house that’s been invaded by terrorists. Funny, ultra-violent, Die Hard-like hoot.
Santa’s Slay (2004) *** Santa is really an ancient demon cursed to be nice, but the curse has expired in this gory Christmas comedy. Runs out of steam eventually.
Vera 1-2 Telling Tales **** A young woman prisoner escapes, only to step in front of a bus after her father rejects her. Vera must discover if she was guilty originally.
Moon Zero Two (RiffTrax) **(**) Hammer’s moon epic has pretty sets but un-involving characters & a story I can never remember. But with RiffTrax, it’s fun.
Midsomer Murders 22-1 The Wolf Hunter of Little Worthy ***** People start turning up dead, the apparent victims of a supposedly fictional monster, the Wolf Hunter. Spooky fun for our detective heroes.
Phantom Planet, The (MST3K) ***(*) Astronaut gets stranded on a planet where he’s reduced to a few inches high, must face aliens & monsters. I like it even without MST3K.
Poirot 12-4 The Clocks **** Poirot investigates the case of a secretary who comes to work and finds her prospective boss dead in a room full of mostly stopped clocks.
Bishop’s Wife, The (1947) ***** Classic Christmas romance. Angel Cary Grant comes to earth to help the bishop & becomes attached to the titular wife. Heartwarming.
Quatermass & the Pit ***** Best of Hammer’s science fiction tales, this classic Nigel Kneale serial about a spaceship crashed in London ages ago. Great cast.

And that’s the last of 2023! It already seems like ages ago and also no time at all.  And I met my goal of watching every Rankin-Bass Christmas special, even the ones I’d already seen! The DECEMBER TOTAL is 81 movies, TV series, and significant other shows.  Which might be the most I’ve ever had in one month.  (Check if you want, ’cause I’m not gonna.)  That brings the GRAND TOTAL for 2023 to an AMAZING: 681!  Ever since I started doing this, something like 7 years ago, I’ve always been surprised by how much stuff I watch.  Of course, I love movies, but I sometimes wonder if I should cut back some and read more books — which I also love.

It’s the old battle between the artist/visual and writer/reader sides of my brain.  And sometimes, neither the movies nor the books win, and I just mess around with making art for a while.  Should I cut back on these reviews in favor of reading more books?  What do YOU think?  Let me know!

NEXT MONTH: The first reviews of  2024 — and as I’m writing this, we’re almost to the start of February already!  But in January, I did more MST3K, more of my usual stuff, and I got wrapped up in watching Arabian Nights adventures, including many I haven’t seen or didn’t remember. Maybe you’ll find some new ones, too.  Stay tuned!

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About Steve Sullivan 421 Articles
Stephen D. Sullivan is an award-winning author, artist, and editor. Since 1980, he has worked on a wide variety of properties, including well-known licenses and original work. Some of his best know projects include Dungeons & Dragons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dragonlance, Iron Man, Legend of the Five Rings, Speed Racer, the Tolkien RPG, Disney Afternoons, Star Wars, The Twilight Empire (Robinson's War), Uncanny Radio, Martian Knights, Tournament of Death, and The Blue Kingdoms (with his friend Jean Rabe).