Many is the monster with an insatiable lust for power. But in "Not of This World," the CBS movie at 9 tonight on Channel 9, the monster is literally a monster and the power it insatiably lusts for is the electrical kind.
That doesn't mean it only attacks the new generating station being set up in the small town where the monster-hatching meteor lands; it also sucks the very life out of a few townsfolk before the heroine and the creature face each other for an electrifying finale.
"Not of This World" is one of the better '50s sci-fi movies to be made since the '50s, a very adroit, politely scary thriller with splashy special effects and a likable cast led by plucky Lisa Hartman as an electrical engineer who has returned to her home town of Liberty to supervise installation of the plant.
She's another of TV's matter-of-fact superwomen, having graduated magna cum laude from MIT, and if she doesn't quite do battle with the creature in Sigourney Weaver-"Alien" style, she never panics or screams or runs around waving her hands in the air either. Her leading man is the personably handsome A Martinez, overqualified costar of NBC's "Santa Barbara" soap, as the local sheriff.
They were an item in high school and now that she's back in town -- well, that will have to wait; there's a MONSTER fer the killin'! And it's a very ornery, cranky, ugly sort of a beast, who starts out sampling pigs and then graduates to a human male right in the middle of a softball game.
Many '50s monsters are now said to have been metaphors for other things, such as Cold War fears or atomic-age paranoia or for the frustrated libido of the hero. That the electric company in this film is owned by a Japanese firm may lead one to speculate that the alien monster and the foreign presence are somehow linked. But thankfully, no, that is not the case.
Instead, the film presents a wholesome picture of Japanese and American workers peacefully coexisting, with none of that nasty friction seen in the movie "Gung Ho." Who has time for nasty friction when there's a MONSTER on the loose!
Also on the loose is reliable Pat Hingle, returning to his crunkly avuncular self after that unsavory sadistic turn in the current movie "The Grifters." He's Hartman's doctor father and bighearted ally of the son she has from a broken marriage. The grandpa-grandson stuff is nicely handled by writer Robert Glass and director Jon Daniel Hess, and this marks the 1,012th solid performance by Hingle, or thereabouts. We've lost count.
Refreshingly, most of the characters behave intelligently even when threatened. There's one bad apple in the barrel but he gets his when the monster, still poodle-sized at this point, sneaks into bed with him, creating the kind of telltale lump under the covers that has been unnerving movie audiences for decades.
The only time the folks act dumb is when gramps and the boy, having run into a traffic jam on the way to the power plant, decide to take a shortcut on foot across a spooky, foggy meadow; and when Martinez orders his posse to split up during a search-and-destroy mission that searches but fails to destroy.
You'd think they would be a tad more careful when there's a MONSTER running wild!
Hartman is of just the right dramatic weight for this particular aerobic exercise, and Martinez is a complementing figure of vulnerable resolve. The creature was imaginatively designed by Alex Rambaldi. While none of the violence could be considered R-rated, one poor chap's head does explode through the windshield of his car.
So be warned. Be very, very warned.
'Doing Time' Home Box Office can put on all the junky garbage it wants as long as it continues to fund and circulate the work of gifted documentary filmmakers such as Alan and Susan Raymond, whose latest film, "Doing Time: Life Inside the Big House," premieres on HBO at 10 tonight.
The Raymonds were given unusual access to Lewisburg prison in rural Pennsylvania, one of three maximum-security federal prisons in the country. Here the most hardened of criminals, including dope lords and murderers, kill time, make office furniture, lift weights, flex tattoos, shout rap songs and settle arguments with long sharp knives.
A little less focused than the Raymonds' best work, "Doing Time" nevertheless contains trenchant chills, as when a Bible-quoting prisoner declares, calmly and without emotion, that no, he does not recall having stabbed his sister 30 times.
"I remember distinctly I just cut her throat once, that is all," he says.
As a kind of dark-comic relief, one man insists, from inside his cell, that he only threatened the life of President Ronald Reagan "so as to get in prison to further my investigating" of the prison system. The mood takes a sharp turn downward when he holds out his hands to reveal deep scars where he bit himself. A court, says the narrator, has ruled the man sane.
The film does not aspire to be an indictment of the criminal-justice system, probably because that's redundant at this point, but it finds indictable offenses -- examples of inhumane treatment and callous disregard, inmates kept in tight airless cells, one with a stuffed-up toilet. No one pretends any of the criminals is going to be rehabilitated by his incarceration. The phrase "correctional facility" is a joke, since nothing is likely to be corrected.
Perhaps the most shocking footage was shot not by the Raymonds but by the Justice Department, which records on tape the SWAT-like missions of its Special Operations Response Team, called in when an inmate becomes threatening or rebellious. In one great burst they swoop down like giant crows, overpowering the offender, carrying him off in shackles, strapping him naked to a cot.
There is some incidental nudity and bad language in the film. Alan Raymond does the narrating, which was a bad idea, since he has a lulling voice. What one sees on the screen is the opposite of lulling, however. It's the proverbial cold, hard look, and it hurts.