Friday, September 7, 2018

The Battle of Billy’s Pond (1976, Children’s Film Foundation)

Dead fish are popping up at the local fishing hole and grade schoolers Billy and Gobby are determined to find out why in “The Battle of Billy’s Pond” (1976), a Children’s Film Foundation (CFF) production I happened upon during “TV time” at my pre-school daycare in 1977.

The non-profit CFF produced hour-long children’s films for British television that would turn up on American PBS to fill time slots between regularly scheduled programs like Big Blue Marble, Powerhouse, Villa Alegre or Gettin' To Know Me (how’s that for name-dropping?)

Some of the more fantastic CFF films, such as “The Boy Who Turned Yellow” (1972), “The Glitterball” (1977) and “Sammy’s Super T-Shirt” (1978) have gone on to become cult favorites.

But “The Battle of Billy’s Pond”, based on an original story by Michael Abrams (hey, Battletruck!) and later adapted for novelization by Howard Thompson, is grounded in reality, presenting a still topical ecological message wrapped in an entertaining children’s mystery-adventure.

One element that really impressed me upon first viewing was that protagonists Billy and Gobby (a few years older than me at the time) enjoyed a freedom of movement I could only envy, roaming suburbia and its wooded rural surroundings (the film was shot entirely on location in Hertfordshire, England) on their bikes, completely unsupervised.

They were smart kids too, devising intelligent methods informed by science to solve their mystery, which begins when Billy (Ben Buckton), peering through the periscope of his gadget-loving friend Gobby (Andrew Ashby) discovers one dead fish floating below the surface of the pond he’s named after himself.

They bring the specimen home for dissection (because science!) but Billy’s cat has other ideas, snatching the fish away in its jaws. The cat is later found sick. Veterinarian’s diagnosis: chemical poisoning (don’t worry, it’s not that kind of movie… kitty makes a full recovery).

Suspecting someone is dumping chemicals at Billy’s Pond, they set up a network of cameras on trip-wires to capture the polluters at the scene.

Meanwhile, a mysterious tanker truck has been seen rolling through town, threatening to run the kids off the road on several occasions. The truck is filmed at angles obscuring the driver, emphasizing the size and noise of the mechanical monster in a way that reminds me of Spielberg’s “Duel”.

When the boys’ tripwire cameras fail to capture anything useful even though the number of dead fish are increasing, they wonder if the chemicals are being dumped somewhere upstream. But where? I’ve mentioned before, most mysteries are solved through diligent research, not traipsing around haunted houses, and this one is no different. To the library!

A geologic map of the area leads them to an underground stream passing through a nearby abandoned quarry, where they find the menacing tanker parked and being drained by men in protective biohazard suits. Case closed? Not quite. They still need to connect the quarry to the pond.

Gobby’s clever solution is to pour colored dye into the underground stream. Searching for the connecting pipeline, the kids explore a spooky maze of decrepit tunnels that evokes a haunted house (okay, so there is a little traipsing!) The scene becomes an action sequence when the chamber they are in suddenly floods with black polluted water and they must scramble to safety.

Days later, a cloud of Gobby’s green dye appears in the pond, proving connection to the quarry. But until the tanker can be positively identified, the police are reluctant to launch an investigation, especially one that might implicate prominent local chemical factory Con-Chem, manufacturer of “organic” Brezee laundry soap, whose utopian ads of children in white pajamas skipping through green pastures have been playing endlessly on television.

Armed with the latest in portable video technology (it only takes two people to carry!) and posing as student journalists, they blend in with a Con-Chem tour group. The sight of these kids bluffing entry right into Con-Chem headquarters inspired me to hatch a similar plan to con my way into the nearby movie theater, posing as a newspaper reporter or the like, to sneak a free showing of Pete’s Dragon (that plan, unfortunately, fizzled when I couldn’t find a convincing disguise, and also because I was too chicken to ever actually go through with it.)

On the tour, they spot the tanker-men and capture video of them arguing about money, but nothing incriminating enough to take to the police.

Determined to get hard evidence once and for all, they follow the tanker back to the quarry, only to be recognized by the men. One attempted kidnapping-turned-nail-biting foot-chase later, the police finally arrive just in time (the 49-minute mark!) to wrap everything up.

It’s never made clear just how deep the Con-Chem dumping scheme goes (were the tanker-men acting alone or just following orders?) but we won’t let that spoil our happy ending. A montage over the end credits shows local heroes Billy and Gobby posing for media photographers while the pond is dredged and restocked with healthy fishes.

I just love “The Battle of Billy’s Pond”.

Some CFF films from that era have been released to DVD (in PAL formatted discs that won’t work in American players), with “...Billy’s Pond” appearing on a 9-film, 3-disc set.

These screen caps came from YouTube.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Monticello Clown Puppet Murders of 1980 (The Edge of Night)

The year I began fourth grade, I found myself unwittingly entangled in the horrific drama of the Monticello Clown Puppet Murders of 1980. This was a side-effect of two big changes happening to me that year.

The first was my parents deciding I was old enough to stop attending daycare before and after school (Mom and Dad both worked, I'd been in daycare since kindergarten). Now I would carry a house key and walk to and from school on my own, hopefully avoiding Stranger Danger on my way home to an empty house.

I had officially become a latch-key kid.

Second, my grade school switched to "double-sessions". The neighborhood was growing and there were too many kids for our one school to handle. So as a temporary measure while a new school was being built, they split the day into two sessions, with half the student body attending 7:00-11:30 and the other half 11:30-3:00.

I landed the much coveted 2nd session, which meant I got to sleep in every day, rolling into school just in time for lunch.

It also meant I was home alone for several hours each morning before school started. For the first time, I had unsupervised access to the TV, and a whole new realm of programming became available for me to explore: day-time television!

It was only a couple months into the school year when my exploratory channel flipping landed me on something I hadn't seen before: The Edge of Night. The title caught my attention, sounding vaguely suspenseful, possibly supernatural.

Looks edgy!

The reality is, The Edge of Night was just one of a dozen daily soap-operas with their doctors and lawyers and courtrooms and romances and convoluted plots that seemed to drag on forever without ever actually resolving.

But that October, 1980, I wandered into the beginning of an unusual, chilling plot-line.... the Monticello Clown Puppet Murders (Monticello is the fictional mid-western town where The Edge of Night is set).

Jody Travis (Lori Loughlin, Amityville 3D, The New Kids) is waitressing at a hip disco, The Unicorn, working for tips while avoiding the fingertips of her grabby, lecherous boss, Eliot Dorn (Lee Godart, Boardwalk Empire).

Also working at the club is Kelly Mcgrath (Allan Fawcett, Puttin' On The Hits, House of Cards), a puppeteer(!) who performs in a window near the dance floor. Kelly and Jody are friends who bond over mutual dislike for the boss.

Kelly is a nice enough guy, but there's something about his puppets that is vaguely off-putting in that Uncanny Valley-meets-Candle-Cove kind of way. This piano-player puppet isn't quite the stuff of nightmares, but it lives in the same neighborhood.

Later, after the club has closed and Jody is alone cleaning tables, a fox puppet appears in the window, seeming to watch her while she works.

Assuming Kelly is operating the puppet, Jody engages in some friendly banter, which takes a sudden lurid turn when the fox inappropriately suggests he'd like to join her in bed, and then offers to share a bottle of champagne in the office. The storybook scenario of a sinister woodland creature trying to lure a young girl into temptation lends a Grimm's fairy tale motif to the scene.

Offended by the offer, Jody tries to leave, and we discover the puppeteer is actually the loathsome Eliot Dorn, who proceeds to force himself on her.

Later that evening, Eliot is at the bar alone when a small clown doll quietly rises into the stage window, appearing to watch him.

The clown then grasps a knife between its little puppet hands, brandishing it in the light while Eliot is completely oblivious.

A few skin-crawling moments later, Eliot falls to the ground, a knife protruding from his back.

Later we'll see the bloodied clown puppet being hidden in a drawer, placed there by unknown hands.

To a kid home alone for the first time, this was terrifying stuff!

There was at least one other victim in the Clown Puppet Murders plot-line, which ran from roughly October 1980 to early January 1981. Of course Kelly, the club puppeteer who hated Eliot, was the most obvious suspect (and equally obvious, he's being framed by the real killer, although I can't recall who this was eventually revealed to be.)

The puppets were operated by Larry Engler, a professional puppeteer who still performs as Poko Puppets, and authored the kids book Making Puppets Come Alive (1973), which earned mention on the Awful Library Books site (or should that be... Awfully Cool Library Books?)

Clips from some of the Clown Puppet episodes have found their way to YouTube, and I've queued up a few choice scenes at the links below:

(The Piano Player Puppet)
(The Fox Puppet)
(Clown Puppet Murder)