IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)

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beast from 20,000 fathoms poster

Return with me now to 1953, when the giant monster movie genre was still in its infancy, the year that saw the release of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953).

Prior to THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS,  the world had seen KING KONG (1933), filled with eye-popping special effects by Willis O’Brien, who would go on to make Kong’s quickie (and inferior) sequel SON OF KONG (1933) and later MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), the latter being significant because it introduced O’Brien’s young protegé, Ray Harryhausen, to the world.

Soon after MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, Harryhausen was ready to strike out on his own, and he would provide the special effects for today’s movie, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, released a full twenty years after KING KONG, and so for two decades, the giant monster movie lay dormant.  That would change with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, which pre-dated perhaps the most famous giant monster, Godzilla, by one year.  Of course, once GODZILLA (1954) stomped onto the world, and Toho Studios opened up the door to their Kaiju universe, giant monsters would never look back.

But it’s quite possible that Toho’s incredible world of monsters may not have happened without the success and influence of Ray Harryhausen’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. And when I put Harryhausen’s name in front of the title, I realize he didn’t direct the movie— that job was handled by Eugene Lourie, who actually would go on to direct two other very significant giant monster movies, THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959), which featured special effects by Willis O’Brien, and GORGO (1961)— but when you watch a movie with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, it’s his work that you remember, work that is always top-notch and phenomenal; in short, his name belongs in front of the movies he worked on.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is based on the short story “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury, who was good friends with Harryhausen.

The movie opens with atomic bomb tests being conducted in the Arctic.  When two scientists visit the scene after the blast to conduct tests, they are shocked to see a giant prehistoric beast roaming through the snow, causing an avalanche which kills one of the scientists.  This plot point, an atomic blast awaking a giant monster, which would become commonplace in the 1950s, was first introduced here in this movie, making THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS the first movie about a giant creature awakened by an atomic blast.

The surviving scientist, Professor Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) tries in vain to convince people that he saw a live dinosaur.  Nesbitt eventually makes his way to Professor Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), a prominent paleontologist, and his assistant Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) and tries to convince them as well, eventually producing enough evidence to get them on board.  However, his contact in the military, Colonel Jack Evans (Kenneth Tobey)  isn’t so easily convinced.

But when the beast— identified by Professor Elson as a rhedosaurus—  attacks a lighthouse and eventually surfaces in the waters outside New York City, there’s no ignoring the situation.  The beast is very real.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is not only historically significant in that it’s the first of the 1950s giant monster movies, but it’s also an outstanding movie, one of the best giant monster movies ever made.

And the conversation about BEAST begins and ends with the work of Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen brought his “A” game to every movie that he worked on.  His stop-motion special effects are always top-notch.  A movie with inferior special effects by Ray Harryhausen does not exist.  The major reason for this of course is Harryhausen’s talent, but another reason is the time he spent on each movie.  Harryhausen never rushed his work, which is why, sadly, there weren’t more movies made with his stop-motion effects.  It often took him years to work on one movie.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is no exception.  It features superior special effects by Ray Harryhausen.  It also features one of the scariest and most memorable scenes from any giant monster movie period— the lighthouse scene.  Which comes as no surprise since this is the scene directly connected to Ray Bradbury’s short story, which was about a dinosaur attacking a lighthouse.

I first saw THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS on TV when I was probably eight years old or so, and the lighthouse scene gave me nightmares and stayed with me long afterwards. In this scene, there are two men in the closed-in confines of the lighthouse, and outside the protective walls, the beast emerges from the ocean, drawn by the light perhaps.  The men inside hear a noise, and look up to see the enormous face of the creature peering through the glass.  The beast then destroys the lighthouse before the men can escape, and as we learn later, eats them.  It’s a terrifying scene.

beast lighthouse

It’s also perfectly shot by director Lourie and Harryhausen.  The matting effect is near perfect, and without a DVD/Blu-ray to freeze fame, it would be very difficult for the naked eye in real-time to see where the real shots of the ocean and the matte shots of Harryhausen’s animation meet.  The chilling black and white photography helps here, and the whole scene is so well done it’s nearly seamless.  The lighthouse itself is also animated, as is the immediate island onto which the rhedosaurus climbs, but the surrounding ocean is not, as it’s the real thing.

There are a lot of other memorable scenes as well.  The rhedosaurus’ first appearance in the snowy Arctic is also quite chilling, and the ending of the film, which takes place by the rollercoaster on Coney Island is also noteworthy.

Beast - snow

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS also has an interesting cast.  I could take or leave Paul Christian, whose real name was Paul Hubschmid, as lead hero Tom Nesbitt.  Likewise, Paula Raymond  is just OK as lead love interest Lee Hunter.

It’s the supporting cast that stands out in this one.  Cecil Kellaway does a fine job as the amiable Professor Elson.  Kellaway was a famous character actor with a ton of credits in a career that spanned from the 1930s through the 1970s, appearing in such movies as Disney’s THE SHAGGY DOG (1959) and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967).  Kellaway also appeared in two Universal monster movies and was memorable in both of them.  He played Inspector Sampson in the first Invisible Man sequel, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940) in which he doggedly pursues Vincent Price’s Invisible Man, and he played the flamboyant magician Solvani in THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940).

Kenneth Tobey plays Colonel Jack Evans.  Tobey of course played the lead hero Captain Patrick Hendry in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) and he would play the lead again in Ray Harryhausen’s IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), which tells the tale of a giant monstrous octopus.  Tobey is excellent here in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS in a supporting role.

And yes, that’s Lee Van Cleef as Corporal Stone, the marksman given the daunting task of shooting the fatal radioactive isotope into the wound of the rhedosaurus.

Lou Morheim and Fred Freiberger wrote the screenplay, based on the Bradbury short story.  It’s a decent screenplay as it tells a solid story, contains realistic dialogue, and creates sympathetic characters.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS also features a compelling music score by David Buttolph.

So, the next time you’re enjoying a giant monster movie, especially one in the Godzilla/Toho/Kaiju universe, remember it might not have happened without the success of Ray Harryhausen’s rhedosaurus, aka THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.

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SHOCK SCENES: KING KONG APPEARS! (2017)

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I wrote the following column in 2015, in which we looked at King Kong’s entrance scenes in the various King Kong movies.  Well, here in 2017, we’ve just had another Kong movie, KONG:  SKULL ISLAND (2017).  And so, here’s an updated version of this column to include KONG:  SKULL ISLAND.

—Michael

 

SHOCK SCENES:  KING KONG APPEARS!king kong 1933 poster

By Michael Arruda

Welcome back to SHOCK SCENES, the column where we look at memorable scenes in horror movie history.

Up today is the big guy himself, King Kong.  With apologies to Godzilla, King Kong is the baddest monster on the planet.  Sure, Godzilla is known as the King of the Monsters, and he’s been in more movies than Kong, but Kong is King as well, and the one time they squared off in a movie, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), it was Kong who emerged victorious.

Today we’ll be focusing on King Kong’s entrance scenes, the scenes in his movies where he first makes his dramatic appearance.  We will concentrate mostly on the original KING KONG (1933) and its two remakes, but we will also look at the Japanese films and the awful KING KONG LIVES (1986).

KING KONG (1933) is the classic giant monster movie, one of the most exciting and well-made monster movies of all time.  It has aged remarkably well and still appeals to modern audiences.  The film is chock full of classic scenes, and Kong’s first entrance is no exception.

It starts when the Natives on Skull Island abduct Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and bring her back to the island where they plan to offer her as a bride for Kong.  With Max Steiner’s memorable music blaring, the Natives lead Ann beyond the great wall where they tie her up so she can await the arrival of Kong.

With the beats of a gong, the Natives summon their king, and moments later, he arrives.  First we hear his roar— the special effects department used a lion’s roar played backwards and at a lower speed for this effect— and then as he knocks a tree over, Kong makes his appearance, and we see Willis O’Brien’s remarkable stop-motion animation effects as Kong breaks through the trees and descends upon Ann.

King Kong discovers Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in KING KONG (1933)

King Kong discovers Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in KING KONG (1933)

We then see a close-up of his monstrous face, which was in reality a huge model of his head built by O’Brien’s special effects team.

As first entrances go, it’s a classic.  It’s fun to imagine what it must have been like for movie audiences back in 1933 seeing Kong for the first time.  It must have been awesome and frightening.

The special effects here work so well.  To see Kong standing there, with Ann Darrow, with the great wall behind her and the Natives standing on top of the wall, and it all looking so real, is truly astonishing.

KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) is a silly movie that is only notable for pitting these two legendary monsters together in one film.  Since Kong died at the end of the original KING KONG (1933) falling from the Empire State Building in probably the movie’s most enduring image, there really couldn’t be any sequels.  There was SON OF KONG (1933) which featured a younger cute and cuddly Kong Jr., but that was it.  There were plans for a Kong prequel of sorts, a story which would have taken place in the middle of the action in KING KONG, which would have been built around a storyline of the adventures of Carl Denham and the crew of the Venture on their way back to New York City with King Kong in tow on a raft, an adventure that would have seen Denham and company and Kong face off against a new threat, but that project never got off the ground.

Perhaps the worst looking Kong in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

Perhaps the worst looking Kong in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

So decades passed before Toho, the Japanese movie studio which brought Godzilla to the world, secured the rights for the Kong character and made KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

Kong’s first entrance in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA isn’t memorable at all.  We hear his roar first, and then suddenly he’s there, showing up at the Natives’ village to fight off a giant octopus.  Toho always used the man-in-suit method to create their giant monsters, and their Kong suit in this movie has to be the worst looking King Kong of all time.

KING KONG ESCAPES (1967) is yet another silly Toho movie, supposedly made to tie-in with the 1960s animated TV series KING KONG.  It certainly plays like a Saturday morning cartoon, which is the complete opposite of the original KING KONG which was much more akin to the relentless ferocity of JAWS (1975).  That being said, I have to confess, I like both Toho King Kong movies.

Kong to the rescue in KING KONG ESCAPES.

Kong to the rescue in KING KONG ESCAPES.

Still, KING KONG ESCAPES has nothing to offer in terms of Kong’s first appearance.  On Kong’s island a dinosaur shows up and scares young Susan (Linda Miller).  When she screams, the camera cuts away to a close-up of Kong’s face.  His eyes are closed.  He opens them to reveal eyes that look like they belong on a Sesame Street Muppet.  We then see him sitting in a cave.  He quickly gets up and races to the scene to protect the young woman from the dinosaur.  What a gentleman!

KING KONG (1976) the incredibly hyped remake by producer Dino De Laurentiis was a box office bomb and panned by both fans and critics alike.  It’s a pretty bad movie, but in spite of this, surprisingly, it does enjoy a few fine moments.  Kong’s initial entrance is one of them.  In fact, it’s so good that I’d argue that of all Kong’s entrances, it might be the best!  It’s certainly the only part of this 1976 film that even comes close to equaling anything done in the 1933 original.

This time, it’s Jessica Lange who’s captured and tied up as the Natives summon Kong.  I actually love the way director John Guillermin conceived this sequence.  We see trees being knocked over from Kong’s point of view, and we first see Kong through close-ups of his face, and it’s the best most authentic looking face to date, thanks to the incredible make-up of Rick Baker.  We see Kong’s eyes as he marches through the trees towards Jessica Lange.  Close-up, Kong looks as menacing as he’s ever looked on film.  It’s a thrilling sequence, probably the most original and thrilling part of this 1976 flick.

Kong's looking mighty ferocious in the 1976 KING KONG.

Kong’s looking mighty ferocious in the 1976 KING KONG.

It’s also helped along by John Barry’s music score, which as a whole, I don’t like at all.  But in this scene, it’s probably Barry’s best moment.

At this moment in the movie, the film truly captures the awe of King Kong.  The build-up—audiences hadn’t seen a serious Kong since the 1933 original, the anticipation, is wonderfully captured in this sequence.  And when the camera pulls back, and we see Kong’s entire body for the first time, Rick Baker in his ape suit, he’s awesome to behold, and when he roars, the film nails King Kong at this moment perhaps more effectively than any other moment in any other King Kong movie.

And then— it’s all downhill from there.

It’s amazing how quickly and how far this movie falls after this scene, which is the story for another article.   A lot of it is the silly script, but most of it is the special effects which to me has always been the main reason this 1976 film failed.  Rick Baker’s ape suit looks fine, and in terms of how he looks, he blows the Toho Kongs out of the water, but at the end of the day, it’s still a man-in-a-suit which has never ever been a completely satisfying way to make a giant monster.  The hype for the 1976 KING KONG was all about the giant mechanical robot of Kong that was built and was supposed to be the main special effect in this film, but a not-so-funny thing happened:  it never worked. It appears in two brief scenes in this film for a mere few seconds.

But Kong’s first entrance in this 1976 film— priceless.

 

KING KONG LIVES! (1986) is the horrible sequel to KING KONG (1976) that is believe it or not even worse than the 1976 film.  In this one, scientists bring Kong back to life after his fall from the World Trade Center so the first time we see Kong in this one he’s a patient in a laboratory.  Not very exciting.  Neither is this movie.

Kong the patient in KING KONG LIVES.

Kong the patient in KING KONG LIVES.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KING KONG (2005) is Peter Jackson’s homage to the 1933 original.  Jackson’s obviously a fan of the original Kong, and this was clearly a labor of love, but strangely, it’s a very uneven movie.  The scenes on Skull Island are exceptional and make this one worth watching for these scenes alone, but surrounding these scenes is a dull opening in New York City, and the climax which also takes place in New York also doesn’t really work.  Kong and Ann share a romantic moment in Central Park?  Seriously?

Now while I love the Skull Island scenes, I’m not so hot on Kong’s first entrance.  Why?  Because it’s oddly all very undramatic!  It’s Naomi Watts who’s abducted for Kong this time, and when Kong appears, he just sort of shows up, coming out of the jungle swinging his arms and roaring.  It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and it plays much closer to the mundane first appearances in the Toho movies than the well-crafted and dramatic entrances in the 1933 and 1976 versions, making it yet another contribution to the reasons why the 2005 version is an uneven movie.

Kong looks impressive in the 2005 Peter Jackson KING KONG, but film is uneven.

Kong looks impressive in the 2005 Peter Jackson KING KONG, but film is uneven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KONG:  SKULL ISLAND (2017) was just released a week ago, and while many fans are instantly calling this the best Kong flm since the 1933 original, I was only lukewarm on it.  I found the script rather stupid, the characters dull and not developed to any degree of satisfaction, and Kong himself, while looking fine, rather boring.

Kong in this movie is probably the least satisfying Kong in any of the movies for the simple reason he has zero personality.  In the other movies, Kong showed a wide range of emotions, from anger to rage to ferocity to even tenderness, but here, he’s just a slow moving enormous creature who fights monsters and humans.  Blah.

There are actually two entrance scenes here for Kong.  The first is a teaser, in the opening moments of the film, which takes place during World War II.  Both an American and Japanese pilot crash land on Skull Island, and they quickly become involved in hand to hand combat, when suddenly King Kong appears.  We see his giant hand, and they see him.

Kong’s official first appearance comes later in the movie, which now takes place in 1973, as military helicopters carrying the scientific expedition to Skull Island suddenly encounter Kong who introduces himself to the copters by hurling trees at them.

Kong-Skull-Island-Kong

Kong battles helicopters in KONG:  SKULL ISLAND (2017)

This scene had the potential to be awesome, but the full effect of this first entrance is never as cinematic as it should have been.  Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts seemed satisfied to film this as a routine war scene as opposed to a larger-than-life Kong-makes-his-first-appearance scene.  Too bad.

Like the entire movie, Kong’s first entrance in KONG: SKULL ISLAND falls short of expectations and never rises above standard giant monster fare.

 

You can’t really argue that any other Kong movie is actually better than the 1933 original KING KONG.  It simply hasn’t been surpassed yet.

However, I can and will argue that in terms of first appearances, if any other film challenges Kong’s first entrance, surprisingly, it’s the 1976 version of KING KONG that does this.  Director John Guillermin pulls out all stops and creates an impressive and thrilling first Kong scene, combined with John Barry’s effective music—the only moment in the film where his music works—, as well as Rick Baker’s amazing make-up, makes this moment as good as Kong’s opening moment in the 1933 film, and way better than similar scenes in any of the other Kong movies, which is saying something, since the rest of the 1976 film is so bad.

So there you have it.  A look at King Kong’s first entrances in the KING KONG movies.

Hope you enjoyed today’s SHOCK SCENES.  I’ll see you again next time when I look at more classic scenes from other classic horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE LAND UNKNOWN (1957)

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the land unknown posterThis column on the Universal dinosaur adventure, THE LAND UNKNOWN (1957) originally ran in the pages of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter in July 2007 and is currently being reprinted in the July 2014 edition of the HWA Newsletter.

And just a friendly reminder, if you like this column, my book IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a collection of 115 horror movie columns, is available from NECON EBooks as an EBook at http://www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.

—Michael

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
BY
MICHAEL ARRUDA

Dinosaurs have been with us in the movies since the silent era.

Go back to 1925, and you have the remarkable version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s THE LOST WORLD. Continue to the original KING KONG (1933), through the Ray Harryhausen years with such films as THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), to JURASSIC PARK (1993) and its sequels, all the way up to present day where we come full circle with Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005). Dinosaurs have both fascinated and terrified us. We’re always happy to see them— at least, in the movies.

Today’s film, THE LAND UNKNOWN (1957) is— what’s that? Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. See, THE LAND UNKNOWN is— well, rather unknown.

Released by Universal Pictures and produced by William Alland, the same man who produced the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON movies for Universal in the 1950s, THE LAND UNKNOWN tells the story of four crew members on a naval expedition to explore Antarctica. When their helicopter crashes into a mysterious valley hidden from the skies by a strange, dense fog, they find themselves trapped in a prehistoric world full of dinosaurs.

Jock Mahoney plays Commander Harold Roberts, the leader of the expedition. Mahoney, a former stunt man who would go on to play Tarzan in the movies, is actually quite good, and you don’t find yourself thinking he’s a former stunt man turned actor.

He does his own stunts in the film, which is really cool, because it helps the action flow very smoothly. Absent are the traditional cuts to the stunt man. Nope, he just leaps here and dives there, and the camera keeps rolling. It really adds authenticity to the film. The best of these sequences is when Mahoney dives from the helicopter into a river.

The rest of the acting is also very good, including Shawn Smith who represents the lone female presence in the movie.

But of course you don’t watch a dinosaur movie for the acting- you watch it for the dinosaurs.
To create the illusion of giant prehistoric creatures, the special effects team of Fred Knoth, Orien Ernest, and Jack Kevan used a combination of real lizards, man in suit, and mechanical models.
The least effective method of portraying dinosaurs in the movies is the old trick of using real lizards. With the help of trick photography and thunderous sound effects, these real life reptiles are made to look humongous. This method was probably best used in JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959). In most other genre films, this particular effect comes off as cheap and fake. Luckily, it’s used sparingly in THE LAND UNKNOWN.

While models were used to portray a sea monster and a pterodactyl, for the film’s main monster, the T-Rex, it was time for the old “man in suit” routine, and nobody seems to do this as well as the folks who give life to Godzilla and friends. Sadly, the T-Rex here is quite laughable, looking like a prehistoric couch potato after a weekend of sucking down beer. He’s slow, lumbering, and oh that pot belly!

THE LAND UNKNOWN was directed by Virgil Vogel, while Laszlo Gorog wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Charles Palmer. Joseph Gershenson wrote the music score, and it’s OK, though nowhere near as good as his now classic score for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.

THE LAND UNKNOWN is fun and entertaining, as long as you can look past the average special effects. And, no, it won’t give you any nightmares, unless, of course, you suffer from a fear of prehistoric couch potatoes.

(July 2007)
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PICTURE OF THE DAY: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)

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The Beast comes ashore looking for a tasty midnight snack inside the lighthouse.

To the folks inside the lighthouse:  now might not be the best time to look out the window.  You might not like what you see.  It’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, coming ashore for a tasty midnight snack.

PICTURE OF THE DAY:  THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)

 

This image is from the lighthouse scene in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), the classic giant monster movie with special effects by Ray Harryhausen.  For my money, this is one of the scarier giant monster movies from the 1950s, and this scene is particularly frightening.

It’s nighttime, and the beast crawls out of the ocean and approaches the lighthouse.  The folks inside hear a strange noise— I remember as kid watching this on TV thinking, Get out of there!  Get out of there now!  They look out the window and see the massive beast staring at them.  It then proceeds to attack the lighthouse.

I grew up close to the ocean, so this scene has always creeped me out, as I used to imagine the Beast crawling out of the ocean at night.  Shivers!

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) is significant because it was Ray Harryhausen’s first solo feature film effort, the first film where the special animation effects were created solely by Harryhausen.  Previously, in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), he had worked under the guidance of his mentor, KING KONG creator Willis O’Brien.

 

It was also the first major “giant monster” movie since KING KONG (1933), as it pre-dated GODZILLA (1954) by a year, and it’s said to have been one of the major influences behind the making of GODZILLA, released in the United States in 1956 as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS!

 

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) is one of my favorite Ray Harryhausen films, and features many memorable images, including the beast’s first appearance in the snowy Arctic, the devouring of the police officer on the streets of New York City, the exciting climax at the Coney Island roller coaster, and this frightening image of the beast about to attack the lighthouse.

 

It’s based on the story “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury, who was a close friend of Harryhausen’s.

 

Enjoy!

 

—-Michael