Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Incredible Hulk: "The Antowuk Horror"

In “The Antowuk Horror” by Nicholas Corea, David Banner (Bill Bixby) is hiding out in a small resort town, and has taken a job in a local hardware shop. 

There, he tutors a young girl, Sam (Debbie Lytton), and works for her temperamental and resentful father, Harlan (Bill Luckings). 

When Harlan treats David badly and makes him complete an inventory in a messy and dangeroius storage closet, David injures himself on a propane tank and crow bar, and transforms into the Hulk.

Harlan sees the Hulk, and realizes that a monster like him could revive Antowuk’s  ailing economy. 

He sets out to orchestrate a hoax involving “The Antowuk Horror,” unaware that an old friend of McGee’s (Jack Colvin) -- a hunter looking to make a name for himself again -- is hell-bent on shooting dead the Hulk and any other monster in his sites.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this early Incredible Hulk (1978 – 1981) episode is the strong recession vibe it so dramatically expresses. 

In one early shot in “The Antowuk Horror,” a young girl (Samantha) walks down a small-town street and behind and around here there are signs everywhere for stores going out of business or “fire sales.”  Some buildings are even boarded up.  It looks a lot, in other words, like America circa 1978-1979 (or, actually, 2008…).

Indeed, the central premise of the episode is that the economy of a resort town has failed to such an extent that only a myth like “Bigfoot” (name-checked in “The Antowuk Horror”) can resurrect its fortunes. You almost can’t blame the desperate Harlan for seizing on the inspiration the Hulk provides: his friends (including one played by Lance LeGault) are planning to leave town permanently.  Everyone is giving up.

In some ways, what’s much worse about Harlan than his hoax is his resentful, insecure, anti-intellectual attitude. He’s a bully, and acts abusively towards David.  In fact, he’s an arrogant, entitled redneck, and those qualities go some distance towards making him less-than-sympathetic, whatever his economic woes.  I mean, he basically beats David up, and David – unable to go to the authorities – stands for this behavior.  

In The Incredible Hulk, David is often the very definition of long-suffering.  He always attempts to control his anger, fear and rage, but those limits are severely tested (at a rate of twice per hour-long episode) all the time.  Here, he tolerates being pushed around, and gauging his palm with a crow-bar, but when a heavy gas tank falls on his foot…that’s it.  

The Hulk is in the building.

“The Antowuk Horror’s” other contextual subject (besides the Carter Era recession) is the nation’s fascination -- in the 1970s -- with the Bigfoot legend.  

Here, we see lemming-like news crews, recreational campers, tourists, and other folks storm into the resort town for a glimpse of a Sasquatch-like cryptid.  In the decade of the Bionic Bigfoot, Bigfoot and Wild Boy, and In Search Of, “The Antowuk Horror” is a not-unexpected our out-of-place addition to the Hulk canon.   

Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t feature the kind of final fight it might were the Hulk were actually to battle the real Bigfoot.  Harlan is a paper tiger a man masquerading as a werewolf-like beast.  The Hulk makes short work of him, but when Samantha is endangered, comes to his aid. 

I always loved this aspect of the TV rendition of the Marvel character. David’s goodness shines through, even when he’s mean and green.  Angry or not, if you've good character is good character, I guess you might say.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Incredible Hulk: "Married"

As late as 1978, superhero television was still attempting to escape the gravitational pull of the campy but highly-entertaining 1960s Batman series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. 

That watershed ABC series, undeniably a prime example of colorful, counter-culture pop art, had so shaded the format requirements for superhero and comic book TV initiatives that a new template -- sans "BAM!" "POW!" and "WHAM" -- was required.

Resourceful and literate, writer/producer Kenneth Johnson crafted that new template when adapting Marvel's The Incredible Hulk comic-book for television. Instead of depending on dynamic super criminals, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, and out-of-this-world swashbuckling, Johnson grounded his new hero, David Bruce Banner (Bill Bixby), in a more familiar, less over-the-top world. 

As author Gary Gerani observed in TV Episode Guides Volume 2 (1982, page 64), "he [Johnson] turned to a more intelligent and dramatic approach of a man whose life is upset by the fact that he can become this uncontrollable monster."

Series producer Nick Corea was even more specific about the program's approach: "Any writer who comes in with clones or extraterrestrials, we steer in another direction." (John Abbot, SFX #18, November 1996, page 76).

Today, we happily take costumed and colorful heroes at face value, as part and parcel of the triumphant, 21st century superhero genre. We want to see super villains and super feats. So the superhero stigma once associated with the camp 1960s Batman is finally gone. And in something of a turnaround, some viewers might actually gaze at TV's drama The Incredible Hulk -- which rigorously followed a format similar to The Fugitive -- as a bit of a relic; as a time capsule of a different era.

Times change. Tastes change.

Yet The Incredible Hulk ran for four successful years on CBS because of Johnson's dedication to the "human factor." A latter day Jekyll-Hyde story, The Incredible Hulk explicitly concerned the divide between human emotions and human rationality.

Think about it this way: we exist day-to-day by controlling our emotions; by keeping them firmly in check. 

Yet in the person-hood of the raging Hulk (Lou Ferrigno), our impulses are free...unfettered. For David Banner -- living in the last days of disco -- the struggle was an internal one; to manage that provoked Id; to restrain the instinct-based beast inside all of us who wants to react to every challenge, fear, and pain with raw emotion and brute force. Hulk smash!

One of the best and most touching episodes of The Incredible Hulk remains the second season opener, "Married" (written and directed by Johnson). A two-hour tale, "Married" originally aired on November 22, 1978, and guest-starred Mariette Hartley as Dr. Caroline Fields.

Caroline is a brilliant psychologist facing her own internal struggle: a terminal disease (like Lou Gehrig's Disease) that has reduced her expected life span to just six weeks.

Our protagonist, David Banner, arrives at Caroline's medical practice in Hawaii to seek her assistance in controlling his "monster," unaware of her own debilitating condition. In particular, Caroline is an expert in hypnosis, and David believes that she could hypnotize his conscious mind into trapping the Hulk within. In other words, he hopes to cage the Hulk with his brain.

Over a few weeks, David and Caroline fall in love...and are married. David tries to cure Caroline's disease, and Caroline tries to cure David of his affliction. And impressively, much of the episode's "action" occurs inside the mind-states of these two individuals.

As David is hypnotized, we see him physically encounter the Hulk in a barren, desert landscape. First, David tries to restrain the Hulk in heavy ropes. But the Hulk breaks out. 

Then David tries a cage with steel bars. Again, the Hulk breaks free. 

Finally, David attempts trapping the Hulk inside the mental construct of an impenetrable vault. But even here, the beast within him cannot be contained.

Meanwhile, Caroline attempts to use the mind-over-matter hypnosis technique to cure her defective "mitochondria" of the invading disease lesions. 

She envisions her put-upon cells as an Old West wagon train; and the lesions there as invading Indian raiders surrounding it. When David formulates a new drug (taken from the Hulk's skin sample...) Caroline imagines the drug as the cavalry, coming over the hill. This is all weird and wonderful stuff, and it fits in perfectly with the 1970s obsession with hypnosis.

The Incredible Hulk always concerned the ways in which our mind responds to external stimuli. We can choose to respond with rage; or we can choose to respond calmly. We can choose to respond with violence; or peaceably. "Married" is very much on target in terms of the series' overriding themes then, since virtually every major scene concerns the way our brain faces conflict and interprets challenges.

Today -- 36 years later -- "Married" has indeed dated somewhat. No doubt there. There are two worrisome scenes during which Bill Bixby and Mariette Hartley speak in atrocious Pidgeon English (talking about Chinese food...) and then perform bad John Wayne imitations. This is what seemed like witty and romantic banter in the 1970s, but today's it's just sort of cringe-inducing.

And also, "Married" evidences a big flaw common in many Incredible Hulk scenarios That flaw: the Hulk's presence isn't entirely warranted given the less-than-threatening circumstances. 

For example, in "Married" two on-the-make "groovy" swingers wearing polyester pants two-sizes too small pick-up a drunk Caroline and take her back to their bachelor pad (along with a floozy...) for a night of casual sex. David arrives to take Caroline home, and then these two swingers suddenly become violent. They push David around. They pop a champagne cork in his face (!). 

Then -- all kidding aside -- they violently hurl him from their second-story bedroom balcony...into a glass coffee table below, thus precipitating an appearance by the Hulk. The un-jolly green giant then proceeds to tear the bachelor pad to pieces. It's an impressive-enough action scene, but entirely unnecessary. Not to mention unmotivated.

Why would two relatively harmless guys with sex on the brain suddenly turn egregiously violent? (And destroy their own apartment in the process?) This sort of thing happened a lot on the CBS series: people who you wouldn't expect to immediately turn to violence suddenly become a HUGE threat so that the Hulk can appear and save the day.

But leaving aside these dated elements, "Married" remain an outstanding episode of the CBS series. Perhaps because of the two-hour running time, Caroline feels like a "real" person and not just the guest-star/love-interest-of-the-week. And the relationship she shares with David doesn't feel forced or silly. It's clear that Caroline and Bruce are both suffering terribly, and sharing what little time they have left together eases that pain. That's as good a reason for marriage as any, isn't it?

There's also one incredibly dark moment in "Married." With only two weeks to live, Caroline plays frisbee with a little boy (Meeno Peluce of Voyagers!) on the beach. The scene is much longer than it need be; and focuses a great deal on Hartley in close-shot. There's almost no dialogue. The scene is mostly silent.

But inscribed on her expression is the agony and regret of the life Caroline will never experience. She will never be a mother; never have children, as she once dreamed of. This is an issue "Married" raised early on, but then returns to with this unexpectedly sad and restrained moment. I can't deny "Married" is a tear-jerker, either, but then that was a perpetual quality of The Incredible Hulk too: it was, overall, a pretty melancholy show.

What I admire most about "Married," however, are those "dream state" sequences occurring in the desert of Banner's mind; as David and The Hulk face each other down. It may not seem like much of a comic-book-style adventure -- there's no Marvel-style mythology or continuity in place -- but the human drama is nonetheless fascinating.

We don't like ourselves when we're angry. 

We don't like ourselves when we're bad tampered; when we let our "Hulks" out to roam. 

The Incredible Hulk's impressive "Married" externalizes and literalizes the idea of the emotional battle raging within each of us, the battle for control with our barely concealed monsters.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Incredible Hulk: Introductory Montage

The Incredible Hulk (1978 - 1981) is a real rarity in cult-tv history. 

It is a comic-book adaptation that is completely unfaithful to the details of its literary source material, and yet remains beloved by fans. For example, the series presents a different origin for the Hulk, omits the comic's supporting characters, and features no comic-book villains whatsoever. 

Worse, the series adopts the tired, oft-recycled format of The Fugitive (1963 - 1967), about a man on the run from the law, with a hapless pursuer forever on his trail but never catching him.

Despite such obvious creative deficits, the stories on The Incredible Hulk, such as "Married" with Mariette Hartley, are enormously affecting and well-written. Similarly, the late Bill Bixby is remarkably good as David (Bruce) Banner, and Lou Ferrigno is the perfect living embodiment of the Hulk, no CGI required, thank you very much.

The carefully-crafted opening or introductory montage for The Incredible Hulk nicely reflects the series' virtues. At first blush, it may seem like an outright copy of the intro for its contemporary, The Six Million Dollar Man (1974 - 1978), since it features a voice-over narration explaining the main character's "accident" and then new predicament. 

Yet on close examination, one can see how adroitly and artistically The Incredible Hulk montage introduces the artistic and dramatic parameters of this revered superhero series.

The first shot is among the best and most critical of the entire montage. It is a close-up view of an indicator flashing red, reading in all-caps "DANGER." 

But, intriguingly, the framing of the word "DANGER" largely omits the "D" at the front of that word.  So, the first image we see is a red flashing indicator that says, basically "ANGER."  

And "ANGER," of course, remains a key concept for this interpretation of the Hulk mythos.  It is extreme anger, after all, that precipitates the transformation from mild-mannered scientist David Banner to gamma-ray-infused juggernaut, the Incredible Hulk.

Following a zoom back from the word "ANGER, we get a view of the high-tech scientific equipment being used in an experiment by Dr. David Banner.  The next several shots focus on the nature of the danger (an increase in "Gamma Units," and reveal that David is, himself, the test subject.

Two additional things to note in the following shots:  First, there is a frequent focus on hands throughout the montage.  

In this case, framing or featuring two hands in the shot represents or symbolizes "balance."  At this point, David's psyche is ordered and balanced, and so when we see both hands positioned are they are, we are to understand that this is, literally, Ground Zero, of the experiment.  David is starting from stability, and moving towards, alas, grave instability.

The second visual we see here is one of equipment being prepared for the dangerous experiment.

Several of the shots featured above generate suspense as they feature the "ticking clock," counting down towards the moment in which David will be rendered unstable, and changed forever.  

The next shot puts David in visual jeopardy, literally putting his brain in the cross-hairs of the experiment. Once again, we get an explicit shot reminding us of DANGER.

At this point, David is suffused with gamma rays during his experiment to "tap" the hidden strength he believes all humans possess, and the X-ray shot of a human skull suggests that his very body chemistry is altered.

In the next series of shots, we understand that the experiment has been carried out, and that David has been altered by the gamma rays.  We understand this from a view of his cells, which undergo transformation and change.

Next, we get a shot of lightning in the sky at night, an indication that David's experiment is unnatural. It has made God angry. 

Together, the following shots juxtapose inner nature (David's changed psyche and physiology) and Outer Nature, or Mother Nature.

Next, the narrator reveals that, post-experiment, when David grows angry or outraged, the change to the Incredible Hulk involuntarily occurs.  

We see one example of this happening. David attempts to fix his car on a rainy night, and again, we see two hands, representing balance, undertaking repairs.

Then, we see just one hand, as David is injured during his attempt to change a tire. The focus on one hand at this juncture suggests his imbalance, and we get a close-up of him screaming in pain and rage. Once more we see the x-ray skull and his altered cells, to remind us of Banner's transformed nature.

Next, as the change from David Banner to The Hulk commences, we move into our first opening title card, indicating performer credits: "Bill Bixby in...."

As we wait for the title of the series (and are left hanging by the word "in..."), we get our first view of the titular character, the Incredible Hulk. Not surprisingly, it is an asymmetrical view: a view of one arm -- much like one hand -- indicating imbalance.  

Thus we understand, psychological and physical balance is lost as Banner's muscles grow, clothing rips, and the Hulk erupts.  The creature is revealed in all his glory, but not before demonstrating his strength by over-turning the damaged vehicle.

After the dramatic title card (above), it's onto the dramatic business of establishing The Hulk's back-story, and his hapless pursuer, reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin).

The following frames feature an intense conversation between prey and pursuer, McGee and Banner, that has become iconic, even a trademark of the series.  

David tells McGee not to make him angry, and, furthermore, that the reporter would not like him when he is angry.  

The word "angry" very clearly ties into the opening shot of the montage, which flashed "ANGER" at the audience.

In the next series of shots in the intro, we see fire and explosions, an indication that David has faked his own death, so he can look for a cure to his condition without being hounded by the police, or anyone else.  

Again, the visual of fire seems to symbolize the Hulk's nature too, the anger and rage burning inside. The creature represents a form of anger that burns out of control. 

Similarly, the scenes of fire seem to validate Banner's warning to the reporter.  Don't get too close to him -- or the flame -- or you''ll get burned.

Next we get our supporting performers credited...

The story continues below, as we see David visiting his own grave. 

His defiance of Mother Nature for the advancement of science and medicine has led not to glory or hope, but to the death of his life as it was, a death symbolized by the headstone and the locale.  

The inference? David cannot live a normal life so long as the monster boils and burns inside of him.  The man who he was is now dead.

Finally, a great split-screen shot that I absolutely love.  

In the graveyard, David looks up sadly from his own casket, and we see his face juxtaposed -- split in half, actually -- with the Hulk's face.  

This shot represents a different kind of balance than any we have seen in the montage thus far.  David has split himself, Jekyll-Hyde style, and he will know no peace until he is restored.

The Incredible Hulk opening montage does a terrific job, in 90 seconds or so, of establishing David's back-story, and the nature of the experiment that ruined his life.  

More than that, it highlights ANGER as the thing that he cannot contain, the quality that brings out the monster within. And again, that is a key concept of the series, going forward.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Saturday Morning Flashback: Land of the Lost: "Medusa"

The fifth episode of the third (and final) season of the NBC Saturday morning series highlights the mythological Medusa -- snake-haired Gorgon (sister in myth to Euryale and Stheno) -- as the villain of the week.

And indeed, if you are familiar with this bicentennial-era series, it may sound like a real stretch that the Gorgon Medusa would appear in the "closed" pocket-universe of the Land of the Lost. But 1976 was a year of significant format alterations for this series, as we've seen in the preceding weeks.

Specifically, star Spencer Milligan -- playing Dad, Rick Marshall -- left the program. On screen, Ron Harper (Planet of the Apes) took the lead as Uncle Jack, and behind the scenes, Sam Roeca, a veteran of CBS's animated Valley of the Dinosaurs, came aboard as writer and story editor. Also, writer/producer Jon Kubichan joined up.

"The first thing that Sam and I did was watch all the episodes," Kubichan reported when I interviewed him for Filmfax. "I wanted the series to be more fun, and to do something in every episode that was instructive in terms of science."

Roeca was on the same page in these desires and shared a mutual enthusiasm for mythology with Kubichan. 

Together, the new team sought to present in each third season installment "something from the past, from some literature or children's narrative."

This shift in narrative/imaginative focus resulted in a controversial third season that saw the Marshalls grapple with mythological creatures and beings such as The Flying Dutchman, a unicorn, a fire-breathing dragon, the Yeti...and Medusa.

"Medusa wound her way into the Land of the Lost because that actress is my wife," Kubichan joked with me.

"A writer that I knew came in, Greg Strangis, and came up with his story. He said, 'How'd you like to do a Medusa story?' and I thought it was a good idea. He went home, worked out a story, and I made some changes. He re-wrote a little, and that was that."

One reason that humanoid mythological creations like Medusa appeared on the show so frequently in the third season involved matters of schedule and budget. "It was very difficult to do anything with the dinosaurs," Kubichan informed me. "It took a long time to shoot that stuff, so you can't have it done in a couple of days. It takes weeks..."

In "Medusa," Holly (Kathy Coleman), Will (Wesley Eure) and Cha-Ka (Philip Paley) are busy preparing a sort of emergency canoe on the river that the Marshalls explored in first season's "Downstream." Holly boards the craft, and when a dam down-river breaks, she end ups hurtling away from the others. She is rescued by a mysterious woman named "Meddie" (Marion Thompson), and escorted to Meddie's "Garden of Eternity."

There, in the Garden, Holly sees several very life-like statues, including a statue of one Jefferson Davis Collies, the Civil War soldier that Holly encountered with her Dad and Will in the aforementioned "Downstream."

Now, this is a really splendid and entirely unexpected bit of continuity in the series; a direct reference to a program two years previous. The statue of Collies is even seen with his beloved cannon, Sarah.

After Holly learns that "Meddie" has also turned the land's resident triceratops, Spike, to stone, she begins to suspect that she's in some real trouble. Meddie attempts to entice Holly to stay in the Garden by offering her a new, beautiful dress..

Elsewhere, Uncle Jack, Will and Cha-Ka, attempt to rescue Holly from Meddie -- Medusa -- but most grapple with the Gorgon's sentient mirror (!) and the ambulatory, crushing vines that crawl all over the Garden of Eternity. In the end, Jack defeats Medusa by forcing the monster to gaze upon her own horrifying reflection...

Today, Land of the Lost's dedicated sense of creative imagination and fantasy far outstrips the production's prehistoric special effects, which have not aged gracefully. The series is still incredibly enjoyable (the effects are no worse than Dr. Who's; or Blake's 7, for instance...), but "Medusa" is nonetheless hampered by some poor visualizations. 

For instance, when "Meddie" turns into the Gorgon, it's clear that the snakes in her hair are just rubbery, inanimate, life-less things. And her gray, monstrous face make-up doesn't extend fully down her neck. In other words, you can see clearly where the make-up stops and real flesh color begin.

But again, Land of the Lost remains a really terrific Saturday morning's kid show because it is so endlessly imaginative, and because many episodes tend to concern great concepts, whether from science fiction (like time-loops, for instance) or from mythology. Greg Strangis's fantasy story is actually grounded in reality too, and has two very notable themes.

In a very real way -- and this is probably why this episode was so frightening to children at the time -- the episode concerns our childhood fear of strangers. 

Here, Holly is alone and taken in by an apparently kind adult, but one with secret motives. She tries and tries to get away, but the adult is both demanding and apparently friendly simultaneously, and, well, it's hard for kids to go against the wishes of an adult. Here, the stranger is indeed a monster, and Holly must plot her escape carefully. So the story here, in veiled terms, is -- watch out for strangers.

The other sub-text in "Medusa" surely concerns vanity. "Meddie" is ultimately undone by her narcissistic obsession with her physical beauty. According to the teleplay, it is actually "ugly" to be too concerned with one's self. As Holly notes at the end, the problem with vanity is that you might -- like Medusa -- get "trapped" by it.

As a six-year old kid, Land of the Lost's "Medusa" terrified me to my core, but it wasn't just the Gorgon's appearance and frightening ability to turn people to stone that was so powerful; it was the idea that she was a dishonest, untrustworthy adult who was planning to do monstrous things to an innocent child. that's disturbing in a real life way; a way that, well, dinosaurs or Sleestak are not.

Today, it's probably hard to conceive that an innocuous Land of the Lost from the disco decade was ever something that was legitimately "scary." But even today, you can detect how the series always attempted to ambitiously present a lot on a very small budget. 

For instance, "Medusa" features one or two very impressive high angle shots of Medusa's lair. These difficult-to-stage angles get across the atmosphere of danger and dread in a powerful way. A kid's show in a hurry likely wouldn't have found the time to pick out the right angle in moments like these, but Land of the Lost remains powerful (especially to the young-at-heart...) because its stories were conveyed with care both on the page and on the stage.

"Medusa" is a strong entry for the third season, which has been some rough sailing thus far.  It's imaginative and scary, even if certain questions about it persist.  Like, for instance how did Medusa get into the Land of the Lost, and how has she so long eluded the notice of the Marshalls (or the Sleestak, for that matter?)

The Incredible Hulk: "The Antowuk Horror"

In “The Antowuk Horror” by Nicholas Corea, David Banner (Bill Bixby) is hiding out in a small resort town, and has taken a job in a local ha...