Fantoma (US R0 NTSC)

The onslaught of home video pretty much wiped out the use of 16mm classroom films in most major school districts after the early 1990s, but anyone who came of age before the first Bush should be able to relate on some level to Fantoma's pair of entries in The Educational Archives. The scratchy, pandering educational film has recently been transformed by nostalgia into a symbol of naivete and kitsch, rubbing kids' faces in lurid subject matter while wagging a finger and telling how awful, awful it all is. However, while the more notorious of these films took more than a page from the Reefer Madness school of cinema by exaggerating their subjects to the point of absurdity, these offerings from Fantoma are more quaint and grounded in reality, offering education with an entertaining little twist.

Volume One, Sex & Drugs, starts a little misleadingly with the bizarre "LSD: A Case Study," which amounts to swirling colors splashed over a La Jetee-style montage of narrative photos as the female narrator finds her acid trip disrupted by a talking troll hot dog. Really. Things settle down after that with other "Case Study" films devoted to heroin, barbituates, and amphetamines (a.k.a. speed), all attempting to interpret their testimonials in visual terms. Other gems include "Human Growth," in which a sitcom friendly son and daughter on the brink of puberty go to school and learn the very vague facts of life; "Narcotics: Pit of Despair," a goofy anti-beatnik rant in which a man is lured into dope by his dropout friend; "Know for Sure," a black and white cautionary tale about syphilis; "It's Wonderful Being a Girl," in which a mom and daughter have a little heart to heart about tampons (interspersed with an unintentionally hilarious talk about periods around the swimming pool); "Marijuana," the notorious Sonny Bono clip in which the late politician (in bad Sgt. Pepper garb) offers some half-hearted words of advice against the evil weed; "Social-Sex Attitudes in Adolesence," a broad overview of sexual activity during the '50s with straight faced narration by Lorne Green; "LSD: Insight or Insanity," a pretty typical late '60s anti-acid diatribe with Sal Mineo cashing his paycheck; and finally the bizarre, thoroughly unexpected "The ABC of Sex-Ed for Trainables," which kicks off with a female teacher urging a conference room of teachers to rattle off slang terms for the male member, followed by a study of how to broach the subject of the birds and the bees with the mentally impaired. Revealing, bracing stuff, and an appropriate close to a fascinating disc.

Though the title of Social Engineering 101 for Volume Two might sound a bit more bland, have no fear; the fun's just starting. In "Lunchroom Manners," a kid is scared straight from being rude at the lunch table after seeing a puppet show about the pushy, inconsiderate Mr. Bungle. More disturbing is "Soapy the Germ Fighter," in which a dirty young boy's sleep is ruptured by the presence of a giant, creepy talking bar of soap with arms. "Appreciating Our Parents" explains why mom and dad are so dysfunctional, showing that bread winning and housecare can be enough to lead to borderline child neglect. In "Shy Guy," Bewitched's Dick York awkwardly plays an introverted radio geek who tries to ingratiate himself to his classmates by silently observing their behavior and imitating them. And according to the film, this is a good thing. The short "Why Doesn't Cathy Eat Breakfast?" is almost Godardian in its utter refusal to offer any kind of coherence or point, instead focusing on a young girl who just won't eat the most important meal of the day. Turn off the projector and discuss! "Right or Wrong?" promises a stark, black and white hell for those who make the wrong choice in basic ethical decisions, such as returning lost objects or being a tattle tale. The B&W parade continues with "Personality and Emotions," in which friends, brothers, and sisters are shown interacting in all the right and wrong ways. (Interestingly, this one probably holds up the best out of the bunch thanks to its non-reliance on period stereotypes and lingo.) "Why Vandalism?" would make a good companion piece to stuff like The Violent Years and Jacktown as it demonstrates the threat of hooliganism and tries to get to the bottom of this emotionally troubling phenomenon. Surrealism rears its head again with Mr. Chalky teaching fascist "Manners in School" to a pushy kid who really should know better. Finally, "The Outsider" - basically a gender twist on "Shy Guy" - finds a normal looking girl coping with that certain disconnected feeling at school, only to slowly work her way back in as a productive member of society.

The most familiar genre of educational films is indisputably the driver's ed training film, which can cover anything from learning to obey stop signs to avoiding the evils of drunk driving. Volume Three features some of the more memorable entries while avoiding the more notorious, gore-drenched classics like "Red Asphalt." There are quite a few grim surprises in store, though, so take care. A wonderfully droll James Stewart narrates "Tomorrow's Drivers," a surprisingly fun little B&W short which makes the point that teaching responsible automotive behavior to young kids will result in better future drivers. The real fun lies in watching little kindergarteners smack the daylights out of each other while riding toy cars through playground scale replicas of Main Street USA. Then we switch to color for the more somber "Joy Ride," in which a pair of '70s teens jack a car for some freewheeling fun and pay the consequences in high tragic style. (The music is pretty groovy, though.) The amusing "Alco Beat" proves its pre-MADD point by showing a bunch of Average Joes on a driving course both before and after they've been thoroughly liquored up; a valid point conveyed in fine tongue-in-cheek style. Then cold reality takes over for a similar message in "The Bottle and the Throttle," in which a careless high schooler downs a few two many brewskis and winds up on the nasty end of a manslaughter charge. "The Talking Car," a bizarre color cartoon, features japping automobiles chastising a kid for acting like he owns the neighborhood streets. Then we hit paydirt with "The Last Prom," an incredible 1980 update of the old black and white chestnut about the ultimate bad date. Obviously made in the wake of Carrie and Suspiria, this one outdoes its predecessor in every way and leaves a lingering, creepy feeling long after the final 22nd chilling minute has passed. Pretty young Sandy looks forward to her prom date with Bill, and they decide to double date in his van with two friends, Jim and Judy. Accompanied by a gradually darkening choir score, we follow Sandy's preparations for the big night. After some dancing and laughter, they decide to go for a drive and pop out the beers... The message here may be familiar stuff, but you can't say the same thing for the execution. Though the crash aftermath footage features some grueling gore effects (with that freaky music again), the real highlight is the climactic crash itself, featuring a haunting freeze frame that would do Dario Argento proud. One of the last truly great scare films, this was still terrorizing classrooms well into the late '80s before 16mm projectors were widely retired. Then it's classic time again with "Safety Belt for Susie," an early '60s classic teaching in no uncertain terms the high cost of driving kids around without seatbelts. The more benign "I Like Bikes, But..." preaches tolerance between car and bike operators via montages and cartoons depicting folks of all wheeled persuasions. In "Highball Highway," which bears more than a weird passing resemblance to Scream and Scream Again, a drunk jock smashes up his car (with his best buddy inside) and wakes up in the hospital less complete than he used to be. Finally we hit borderline avant garde territory with "The Crossroads Crash," a government sponsored project in which crash test dummies and test cars careen, collide, and collapse in fetishistic detail. David Cronenberg must love this one.

We move to less violent territory with On the Job, a.k.a. Volume Four, which is thankfully a lot more fun than those soul-deadening training videos so commonplace in fast food joints, temp agencies, sexual harassment seminars, and a certain reactionary video store chain. "Promotion By-Pass" depicts a manager torn over a promotion decision between a promising newer employee and his more seasoned counterpart, and his foibles are meant to illustrate what not to do during that final "big talk" in the office. Then it's slapstick time with "Down and Out!," sort of a workers' comp nightmare reel in which a poor schmo bangs and bruises himself by slipping on everything in sight. Enjoy a look at decidedly non-chic fashion with "Barbers and Beauticians," a tribute to those hardworking folks who wield blowdryers and scissors day by day. The Orwellian "You and Your Work" espouses the virtues of toiling day to day in retail with no hope of advancement; approach as irony, not fact! The interesting pre-Women's Lib artifact, "The Trouble with Women," offers a fairly progressive argument against unfair attitudes towards female employees, with one jerk manager shouldering all of the blame here. The bleak "When You Grow Up" is more or less a kiddie sized, updated version of "You and Your Work," offering a not terribly persuasive argument for becoming a worker ant and riding along with the status quo. "The Grapevine," a '50s artifact if ever there was one, rails against gossiping at work without pointing out that it's one of the few things that makes a long day at a desk tolerable. That familiar "ephemeral films" gruesome edge creeps in a bit during "Shake Hands with Danger," a workers' safety film cautioning the perils of dealing with farm equipment. It's bracing stuff and will certainly make you think twice before approaching a large piece of machinery. It's back to brainwashing again with "How to Keep a Job," a quaint black and white collection of homilies blaming disgruntled, irresponsible employees for problems in the post-WWII workforce. Told as a moral fable to a potential slack-off employee, it's short, concise, and rather creepy. The most interesting narrative of the bunch, "Purely Coincidental" offers an O. Henry style examination of two employees, one at a pet food factory and the other at a baby food company, whose paths cross in a most unexpected fashion. Things get more political with "Hidden Grievance," about an ingrate worker who goes complaining to the union every time he has a problem despite the best efforts of his bosses. Nice to see things haven't changed much since the '50s. Finally we close with the oddest entry, "All Together," in which crooner Lou Rawls does some Navy recruiting narration for black citizens stuck in dead end jobs who might fulfill their dreams in the military.

Volumes five and six dispense with the numbering system altogether, though the graphic design still dovetails with other entries in the series. For the most part, Religion plays it safer than one might expect; the films on view are mostly clean-scrubbed, sincere, but ultimately dubious attempts to link God and apple pie with modern progress. "The Door to Heaven" takes a live storybook approach as it depicts actors on cardboard sets representing all of the virtues necessary to get into heaven, not to mention the nasty baggage sure to keep unlucky souls out. The twinkly star sets must have been a huge influence on Rogers & Hammerstein's Carousel, too. Next up is "Carnivorous Plants," a bizarre, colorfully illustrated analogy between vicious Venus flytraps and the perils of man forgetting who put him here in the first place. Somehow a circa-Disney Fred MacMurray got roped into popping by for a few minutes in "Atomic Energy Can Be a Blessing," which features gray-haired Father James Keller extolling the virtues of atomic experimentation (the non-bomb kind, of course) as a necessity for advancing the lives of good Christians everywhere. The bizarre, Euro-'60s curio "Stalked" features a Dutch man going face to face with Jesus when he decides to bail out of the wax museum biz. In "Turn the Other Cheek," witness the bizarre collision of homespun '50s suburbia and pacifism as a young girl tries to cope with life's nasty problems. The Mormons go up to bat with "Of Heaven and Home," a guide to friendly behavior and social conduct, Utah-style. "Getting Ready Morally" is a prep film for soldiers about to encounter a host of nasty temptations and bad influences, often in the form of their fellow troops! "New Doorways to Learning" features elaborate recreations of Biblical scenes to illustrate the power of actors to convey religious lessons; one recreation of the Three Wise Men's journey is especially vivid. "Teenage Challenge" follows a youth overcoming his peers' skeptical attitude towards his faith, with everyone turning out just fine in the end. For Gen-X viewers, the real gold here will be "Youth Suicide Fantasy," a perfect encapsulation of the logic-free heavy metal hysteria that shook parents in the 1980s. Shot on video, this half-hour jawdropper presents two brothers plugging their book, Why Knock Rock, while bashing such acts as Motley Crue, Prince, KISS (whose name gets a funny explanation here countering the usual Knights in Satan's Service myth), AC/DC, the Rolling Stones (with a young, crotch-grabbing shot of Jagger offered as proof of his decadence), and several no-name bands. Of course, it's all really a platform to attack such diverse targets as bondage, homosexuality, and pornography; the last of these gets the silliest attacks, with these guys claiming the most popular commercial erotica these days involves abused children and animals. The mind reels.

Patriotism charts flag-waving education from the '40s through the '70s, beginning with a fairly innocuous black and white short, "Despotism," that lays out some basic political science definitions in easy to understand terms. The very scratchy "Great Rights" is sort of a dry run for the Schoolhouse Rock template, with animation depicting the words of the Bill of Rights. "A Day of Thanksgiving" (which also appears in a more perverse context on Something Weird's Blood Freak disc) lays out all the reasons Americans should commune once a year around a big roasted turkey, without all those pesky political issues to get in the way; courtesy of the folks who brought you Carnival of Souls. In "Patriotism," a soon-to-be-late Bob Crane teaches a classroom the meaning of pride in one's country. Of course, almost everyone has at least seen snippets of "Duck & Cover," presented here in all its lunatic glory as cartoons and live action demonstrations prove you can avoid nuclear annihilation by getting close to the ground, just like a turtle. A host of Hollywood stars clutters up "You Can Change the World," an early '50s look at social activism with Irene Dunne, a fleeting Bob Hope, Loretta Young, William Holden, and a reprise from Father Keller. Of course, things weren't so cut and dry when teens took this film at its word in the next decade. And speaking of counterculture, "200" offers a trippy look at animated American pride. "Getting Ready Emotionally" is something of a companion piece to the Religion disc's "Getting Ready Morally," laying out the reasons grown-ups are always right and know what's best for your emotional welfare, even when it involves being sent off to war. "In Our Hands" reveals the necessity of industry and commercialization for an efficient society, with the old pre-technology days held up as a horrific example of where we'd all be otherwise. The unsettling "Freedom Comes High" is a WWII-era short explaining why a few deaths in the family are all really for the good of the country, so don't question it. It's doubtful this was shown much twenty years later. Things get a bit lighter again with "Mission Sonic Boom," in which the necessity for sonic reverberations during military tests is explained as a natural part of the order of things. Just take care of those eardrums, okay? Then things escalate considerably with the all-time champ of paranoid propaganda films, "Red Nightmare" (later expanded to a terribly padded one-hour version hawked on VHS as The Commies Are Coming! The Commies Are Coming!). Like the priceless Invasion U.S.A., this pre-Red Dawn vision of America under Red control comes off like an amusing relic now, with Dragnet's Jack Webb thrown in for further weirdness value. And it's from the director of The Wolf Man, too! The disc closes off with a little cool-down, "Pledge of Allegiance," which is a fairly self-explanatory look at the obligatory recitation and what it all really means.

Next in the line we hit a direct sequel, More Sex & Drugs, which picks up on the previous entry with a few surprising new flourishes. The disc kicks off with its most innocent shorts, such as "Drugs Are Like That," in which two children sit around playing with Legos and talking about drugs before a narrator takes over. The analogies here are a little odd (essentially the lure of drugs compared to swinging on a rope into a lake, in that the rope might break and you could die!), while nostalgia buffs will dig the peppy theme song (""You pick it up and it's hard to drop, like a baby goin' through a phase, like a player goin' through a maze..."). Cue the black and white footage next with "The Innocent Party," a high school VD film from Centron in which a young boy insists he caught something nasty from "a girl in the city" and hasn't been with anyone else... before he finally cracks and ushers in his school sweetie, who's less than pleased with being told she's contracted an unwelcome virus. Some choice dialogue: Boy: "I heard you could get this from a toilet seat or something." Health expert: "About as much chance as getting hit by a meteor!" Then we move to the cleverly titled "Keep Off the Grass," in which a clean freak mom vacuuming her heart out discovers her son's hidden pot stash. After a few woeful "Oh, Tom!"s, we see how her suspiciously old-looking offspring was lured into the land of joints and jukeboxes by... staring at groovy paintings in an art gallery. The obvious "Red Light, Green Light" is a short, cautionary "don't talk to strangers" short urging kids not to speak to strangers or hop in their cars. No idea whether this falls under the sex or drugs category since we're never told what the strangers have in mind, so let's move on. The black and white "Alcohol Is Dynamite" reels off a string of facts about how bad alcohol is and actually makes some pretty solid points, making it seem like a far more dangerous substance than most illegal drugs. The most interesting short of the bunch is "Parent to Child about Sex," which covers how children should be informed about the birds and the bees from early childhood through teenage years, culminating in a sermon from the scariest-looking sex educator ever filmed. The oddest moment comes when two boys in a lockeroom casually talk about being embarrassed by the size of their penises, an exchange highly unlikely to reoccur in real life. The animated "Drug Effects" is a quick cartoon explaining that pot smoking makes one hallucinate about bananas and insects... and that's about it. The surprisingly poignant and well-acted "Sally" presents two girls, Sally and Beth, making sexually suggestive prank phone calls before confronting their own pubescent bodies in an unexpected fashion. "Focus on LSD" features a shaggy-haired narrator bearing an odd resemblance to Jack Black offering a not terribly committed sermon about the evils of dropping acid, all while standing against optical illusion wallpaper. The very '70s "Girls Beware" is a cautionary tale about single women taking jobs for strange, suspicious employers, who could... well, we're not shown precisely, but it must be bad. After these most innocuous shorts, the disc packs a wallop with its one indisputable trump card, "Sudden Birth," a dramatic story in which a woman finds herself unable to get to the hospital and forced to give birth in the back of a car with police aid. Now, many viewers have seen real live birth on film in educational shorts, but in this one, the actress playing the mother actually leans back and gives graphic, onscreen birth in full long shot while the other participants deliver the baby, all on-camera without any cheating inserts or cutaways. It's a highly disorienting experience to say the least, as the camera continues to linger on the spread-eagled mom while she cradles her newborn in her arms. Definitely one of a kind.

Sequelitis continues with Social Engineering 201, another instruction manual on how to cope with all those other pesky human beings around you. In "Skipper Learns a Lesson," a nasty, antisocial dog loaded with prejudices snarls at any new canines who venture near his territory, but eventually he learns the error of his ways and goes off to play. The lesson here should be obvious. Less obvious is the black and white "What to Do on a Date," in which a boy musters up the courage to ask a girl out on a date, only for his best friend to chide him for not having the slightest idea what to do. Eventually they figure out that they should just take her to a dance and give her some potato chips at a dance. Then prepare to plunge into the bizarre with "The Self-Image Film (If Mirrors Could Speak)," a cute, clever, and utterly surreal morality tale in which a narrator (who sounds suspiciously like the voice of Charlie Brown) explains that children often fall into the trap of playing to stereotypical "types," represented here by clown faces. So we're treated to the sight of a bustling schoolful of kids with three children in full clown make-up representing a class clown, a sad clown, and a sneaky clown (who cheats on tests and swipes cafeteria food). It's like Joe Sarno for preschoolers! Go back to B&W with "Social Acceptability," a piece of soda shop psychology in which teens learn how to behave together after school. Two more children exhibit "Good Health Practices" as they demonstrate how to bathe, clean their incredibly dirty nails, and eat in a civil fashion. "Understanding Others" uses voiceovers to show what teens in a classroom think of each other and how these perceptions are used to affect behavior, while more cleaning tips are shown in the quick "Kitty Cleans Up" (sadly, no cat analogies here). The token cartoon installment comes with "The Cautious Twins," in which two kids sent on an errand to the store must be careful not to fall prey to the thousands of dangers just waiting around the corner. The highly irrelevant '40s short "Junior High Days" explains that all you need to do to survie the most turbulent phase of adolescence is a little time to sit down and study your student handbook, especially the classroom map. Yep, that'll do it. Home ec turns up in "Buying Food," a still useful thumbnail sketch of the various factors to think about visiting the grocery store, looking for such things as freshness, value, and quality ratings. "Each Child Is Different" points out that all kids have their own special qualities, and even siblings can be quite different from each other. Finally, the '60s short "It Must Be the Neighbors" shows the damage that can be done by having a slob living next door who refuses to clean up his yard.

Lovingly compiled and presented, these are all above average examples of the educational film format and rarely offer the tedious stretches of banal lecturing which marred the worst examples. Don't expect to relive that feeling of eyelids drooping down onto your desk while watching these programs, thank God. The time periods range from the early '50s to the '70s, but the tone and approach stays about the same regardless. How effective these films were in the end is subject to debate, but at least they gave several generations of kids fond memories and a certain favorite film they no doubt carry around with them to this day. Hopefully Fantoma will continue this line, as hundreds and hundreds of potential digital jewels are still out there to be mined.

As expected, image quality depends entirely on the source material from one film to the next. Some feature jumps, scratches, blotches, or faded color, but all are watchable and look at least a step or two above your standard 16mm print that's been circulating through dozens of classrooms. Since the entire disc could be considered a huge batch of extras, the only real ancillary materials are a pair of amusing classroom filmstrips and informative, brochure-style liner notes by avgeeks.com's Skip Elsheimer. Volumes Three through Six come with a nifty audio bonus, "The Classroom Experience," which is essentially a secondary audio track containing a 5.0 audio track filtering the movie's audio through the echoey sound of a rattling projector. Let the 16mm madness begin!

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