Thursday, August 15, 2019

Buck Rogers: "Escape from Wedded Bliss"

In “Escape from Wedded Bliss,” Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley), Kane (Michael Ansara) and the Draconians return to Earth armed with a fearsome new weapon: an orbiting, glowing pyramid that can destroy whole cities in a heartbeat. The Draconians stole “ultimate weapon” from an alien mining operation and converted it for purposes of mass destruction.  
Now, Princess Ardala ransoms Earth, and the Defense Directorate. She wants to marry the most “genetically sound” man in the universe, Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard), and will destroy New Chicago if he is not sent to her for what Buck terms a “shotgun” wedding.
With the aid of a Draconian defector, Buck gathers intelligence about the Draconia’s lay-out and acquiesces to Ardala’s request. Once aboard her flagship, he must battle Tigerman to the death to prove his worth to marry a Draconian princess. He refuses to kill the hulking bodyguard, however, after defeating him in the arena.
Buck’s real mission, however, is to disarm and destroy the pyramid weapon. He must do so before the marriage ceremony. There, at the wedding, he will be outfitted with a special, constricting collar that will assure his fidelity to Ardala for the duration of their marriage.

When I was ten years old, and first watched “Escape from Wedded Bliss,” it was probably my favorite episode thus far of Buck Rogers in the 25thCentury. It’s easy to see why I felt that way as a kid.  First, it brought back the Draconians, and sexy Princess Ardala, the distinctive and colorful villains from the feature film. Secondly, it presented a visually memorable, and highly destructive weapon of mass destruction as the episode’s McGuffin. 
As an adult watching the episode some forty years later, however, “Escape from Wedded Bliss” loses much of its luster. 
Of course, it is always great to see the return of Pamela Hensley, and also terrific to see Ansara join the series, replacing Henry Silva. These accomplished performers and their characters will return two more times, beyond this episode, in the remainder of the first season (“Ardala Returns,” and “Flight of the War Witch.”)
But the story itself in “Escape from Wedded Bliss,” and well as its execution, leave much to be desired.  The first problem, of course, is the whole narrative set-up. Princess Ardala travels half-the-galaxy, carrying a weapon that could conquer any planet, any race…just to marry Buck Rogers?  After he tranquilized her, destroyed her fleet, and sent her scurrying back to Daddy in “Awakening?” 
And why is Buck even in the running as the “most physically and genetically sound” man in the galaxy? I mean, Buck is handsome and good looking, sure, but physically and genetically remarkable? The episode offers no specifics about this claim on the part of the princess. It likely would have been better if Ardala simply stated that she found Buck to be the most desirable of all her suitors, and therefore would stop at nothing to marry him. But Buck definitely has this tiresome, 007 thing going on in the first season, where every woman he encounters basically drops to her knees in his presence, judging him to be the hottest guy in the known universe (or even other universes, as the case may be.)
But -- as Kane sort of points out -- Ardala’s plan is pretty lame. She could bring the Earth Defense Directorate to its knees with the pyramid weapon, taking out defense installations and Starfighter squadrons to start.  She could then subjugate the planet and, finally, from that position of authority and strength, demand Buck Rogers as one of the terms of the planet’s surrender. 

This tactic would not only get her the man she so abundantly desires, but prove to Draco that she is the ruler/leader he wants and needs to succeed him on the throne  But of course, Ardala manages not to go this route.  Perhaps it is because she possesses some small hope that Buck actually loves her, and that if she were to attack Earth, he would never marry her willingly. Still, her plan is really bad, and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
“Escape from Wedded Bliss” also features a scene that will live in infamy, at least in cult-television circles. At the reception for Princess Ardala in New Chicago, the Earth Directorate Defense provides some live entertainment. That entertainment turns out to be a troupe of scantily clad, male and female roller skaters.  The roller skaters engage in a terribly dated, horrifically embarrassing number to quasi-futuristic music that stops the episode in its tracks. 
To paraphrase a review from the series I once read, if this is the entertainment of the future, count me out.
Also, there’s some weak writing here, as Buck manages to get out of all his scrapes, including the dangerous wedding ceremony, using a “black light” bomb, given to him by Dr. Huer. Basically, Rogers just has to pitch the bomb on the ground, and the whole screen goes black.  When the screen returns to normal, Buck is gone, having escaped.  

In the audience, we don’t see him flee, or get past the guards, or find his way. The screen just goes black and we cut to Buck’s new location as he is miraculously out of danger. I would like to ask the question: why is Buck immune to the effects of the black light bomb? Why can he see, after detonating the bomb, well enough to escape and get where he’s headed  If the bomb lays down an impenetrable veil of blackness how does Buck see through it?
Then, of course, the episode must feature a standard duel between Buck and Tigerman (think “Amok Time,” or “Rules of Luton,” or “Code of Honor,” or…), one that requires Buck to showcase his moral, human superiority by not killing his opponent. This decision proves helpful, as Tigerman helps Buck escape the princess’s clutches in the final act. 
But does anyone really believe that Ardala wouldn’t immediately have Tigerman put to death, following, his defense of Buck? Tigerman strangles the Princess and threatens to kill her, while Buck escapes. Why does Ardala tolerate his presence after that?  Good help isn’t that hard to find.
A commenter here a few weeks ago wrote, based on my review of “Vegas in Space,” that it sounds as though that episode didn’t stand up to much scrutiny. The same observation holds for “Escape from Wedded Bliss.” It’s a silly, inconsequential hour, despite the return of the delightful, Hensley.  I guess all I can say is that it is a fun show, and Buck’s main claim to fame is, finally, its reputation as a fun space romp.  At its best (“Plot to Kill a City”), the series could shatter that ceiling, but “Escape from Wedded Bliss” is more representative of the first season, as a whole. It’s a fun and silly adventure, and that’s it.
Next week. More “genetically perfect” people in “Cruise Ship to the Stars.”

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Cult-TV Flashback: Freddy's Nightmares (1988)

In the late eighties -- due in large part to the success of Tales from the Darkside (1984-1988) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) -- genre television took off in syndication.  Syndicated series such as War of the Worlds (1987-1989), Friday the 13th: The Series (1987 – 1990), and Monsters (1988 – 1990) all drew substantial attention and drew large fan bases.

Another TV series that arose in this era was a spin-off from the Nightmare on Elm Street movie franchise.  In 1988, New Line -- “The House that Freddy Built” -- produced two-seasons of a low-budget horror anthology fronted by none other than Freddy Krueger himself.  

That’s right: Robert Englund hosted Freddy’s Nightmares: A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series (1988-1990) and the program ran for 44 hour-long episodes. Freddy’s Nightmares featured guest stars such as a pre-stardom Brad Pitt (“Black Tickets,”) Lar Park Lincoln, John Cameron Mitchell, Mariska Hargitay, Tim Russ, Sandahl Bergman, Dick Miller, George Lazenby, and Mary Crosby.

Series directors included horror movie luminaries including Tobe Hooper (“No More Mr. Nice Guy,”) Tom McLoughlin (“It’s a Miserable Life,”) Mick Garris (“Killer Instinct”), Dwight Little (“Do Dreams Bleed), William Malone (“Lucky Stiff,”) and Englund himself (“Cabin Fever,” “Monkey Dreams.”)

On paper, it certainly looked promising, and the series aired in 106 local markets. But the series experienced some growing pains over its first season. 

Freddy’s Nightmares’ changing cast of young actors looked inexperienced and diffident, the budget was so low that no good locations could be used (and one episode appears to have been shot in a hotel meeting room…), and the program was shot, badly, on ugly videotape.  The writing seemed rushed too, and lacked nuance.  The series had a lot of gore and a lot of sex in it, but very little in terms of ideas.

And Freddy -- who has continuing a long decline from being terrifying boogeyman to ringleader of a three ring circus – wasn’t well-served by the anthology, either.  He became overly-familiar, and familiarity is the enemy of good horror.

The pilot episode of the series, “No More Mr. Nice Guy” exemplifies the two-dimensional approach to Freddy’s world. 

Here, Freddy is portrayed not as a man who hides in shadows and hurts in children in dark corners, out of society’s view, but as Evil Incarnate.  

In other words, before his burning and resurrection as a spectral monster, Freddy is already monster, a fearsome immortal not afraid of anyone or anything.  As he is burned alive, Krueger quips” You missed a spot” and makes other ludicrous remarks that suggest he is not afraid of death, and in fact, mocking of those who kill him.

Although we know from the feature films that Don Thompson (John Saxon) captured Freddy (and ultimately had to release him), neither Saxon nor the character appear in this episode. Instead, Lt. Blocker (Ian Patrick Williams) is the arresting officer. 

That’s a change in continuity. 

As is the fact that several police officers speak openly of Freddy’s final resting place, even though in Dream Warriors, Thompson is the only person who possesses the knowledge that Freddy’s bones rest (though not in peace…) in an auto junkyard.

Worse than any of this, Freddy’s Nightmares is a disaster from a visual standpoint.  Freddy’s house is supposed to look menacing, but looks more like a red-and-green disco where someone’s smoke machine has malfunctioned. Another cost-saving measure: the two-half hour stories in each program often use the same two sets.

One of the key reasons why the Elm Street films proved so popular in the late 1980's involved the dazzling fusion of inventive dream ideas with amazing special effects.  Freddy’s dream world was always imagined with fantastic results in even the worst of the feature films.  The TV series completely betrays that legacy, and looks like an amateur production by comparison.

I wrote in Terror Television (1999) that Freddy’s Nightmares is my choice for the all-time worst horror TV series, and I stand by that assessment. The series had a duty to respect the King of Horror, Freddy Krueger, and it completely failed him (and Englund) at every turn.  I have never believed it was a coincidence that the movie series began to fare poorly at the box office starting in 1989…the era that Freddy’s Nightmares aired. I think the dumb, cheaply-produced syndicated series killed a lot of good will towards the gloved one.

Still, I’m a completist, and thirty years after it aired, I’d be very happy for an official DVD release of the series, and the opportunity to re-evaluate its merits.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Evil Touch: "Heart to Heart"

In “Heart to Heart,” The Evil Touch(1973) host Anthony Quayle introduces a story he calls a “meal of suspense” and “ghastly echoing of fear.”  In particular, a serial killer is roaming the countryside, a “monster who was born with a seed of evil.”
Meanwhile, a callow playboy, Richard (Peter Sumner), stands to inherit the fortune of his wealthy aunt (Mildred Natwick) if he can only get his act together. But he is cruel, abusive, and ungrateful, and is disinherited from the will. Realizing he will lose the estate, he turns over a new leaf, and attempts to mend his ways, though his aunt is suspicious. He secretly has another plan, however, one that takes into account his elderly aunt’s weak heart.
One night, Richard arranges to drive his aunt to her weekly bridge game. But his car breaks down on the way, even as the radio tells tales of “the monster,” believed responsible for eight murders in as many days. Richard’s aunt appears terrified, but has turned the tables on Richard. Conspiring with her butler, she arranges for Richard to be killed, apparently by the local serial killer.
With Richard dead, the aunt and the butler return home for the note, only to be paid a visit by “The Monster…”

The first episode of The Evil Touch,“The Lake,” was, truth-be-told, pretty underwhelming. Nothing much happened, and the episode struggled to achieve its intermittently creepy vibe. On top of that, the narrative was very straightforward, and familiar.  
“Heart to Heart” similarly begins with a familiar or tired premise, but then moves in some exciting and suspenseful directions. The idea of a young man attempting to scare an old female relative to death, for her money, is one that has been explored far too many times in horror fiction and film. Yet “Heart to Heart” adds an element of the unexpected into the proceedings with the presence of the serial killer, “The Monster.”  
This unseen killer could be anyone in the cast, or someone all together outside the dramatis personae. And he operates according to his own agenda and rules. So while the old aunt, and her ungrateful nephew separately hatch murderous plans, the killer is making plans too. There’s an old saying that man proposes, and God disposes. “Heart to Heart” embodies that concept as the aunt and Richard each plot and scheme, playing at being a murderer, while a far more experienced murderer stands to upset their respective apple carts.
“Heart to Heart” is smart enough to play lightly with its twists. Everyone watching the episode realizes that Richard hasn’t suddenly reformed. He’s just out to get his aunt’s money before she can officially disinherit him, and is not afraid to stoop to murder. The aunt’s plan is a shocking twist, but the best twist is last: that the killer chooses the aunt’s estate for his nightly murderous visit. This is more than enough authorial gamesmanship to carry the 25-minute episode’s duration, and make it an entertaining span. 
It’s true that this episode is not one of the best of the series, but it finds the fledgling series on some solid ground after a weak start.  You may not agree with the aunt that the tale is a cause to be “chilled to death,” but if entertainment and suspense is the name of the game, the episode delivers.
Next week, The Evil Touch explores a different genre of horror with “The Obituary.”

Sunday, August 11, 2019

30 Years Ago Today: A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)

In many ways, the Elm Street movies are a lot like the James Bond films. Consider: there is one larger-than-life figure at the center of each film (Freddy or 007), and much of the action and plotting seems to be determined by the need to feature spectacular set-pieces. 

But also like James Bond, the Freddy films seem to need occasional re-grounding in reality. 

This re-grounding has happened on a few occasions in Bond history.  The out-of-balance nuttiness of Moonraker (1979) was deliberately redressed by the back-to-reality For Your Eyes Only (1981). Recently, Casino Royale (2006) re-imagined the 007 series after the surfing-tsunami, ice castles, and invisible car excesses of Die Another Day (2002).

The Dream Child (1989) is, in many ways, a similar kind of effort.  

A Dream Master is a pop-music laden, slick Freddy film (that I like a great deal…), but which takes the series quite far from its original horror roots. Freddy the Ringmaster has replaced Freddy the sicko.  

Stephen Hopkins’ film, the fifth entry, adopts a new approach. It continues the rules and formula of Dream Warriors and The Dream Master, but attempts to inject more horror -- specifically body horror -- into the proceedings.  

Freddy is also on screen less frequently, and his make-up has changed some to make him look more malevolent.  

The movie doesn’t even begin with a light pop song.  Instead, The Dream Child commences with a creepy musical composition that accompanies disturbing views of Dan and Alice having sex. We don’t actually see them in their entirety, only shots of their bodies -- their flesh -- moving up and down in unsettling blue light.  This is the beginning of the movie's thesis about body horror, but our the unsettling nature of evil that can grow inside.

This disturbing first scene is an indicator that the Freddy movies are attempting here to move into adulthood alongside their original audience, instead of staying permanently arrested in teenage concerns. 

In keeping with that approach, the film meaningfully discusses hot-button issues in the culture, including abortion and eating disorders.  The focus is still on young people, but The Dream Child isn't afraid to explore deep problems in that milieu. Like Nancy Thompson, this film isn't afraid to dig beneath the surface.

The Dream Child is not as light, not as slick, as The Dream Master, but I appreciate its dedicated attempts to move the franchise forward, while simultaneously returning some element of fear or terror to the Freddy character.  

On the down-side, the film definitely showcases some artistic exhaustion in terms of the retread supporting characters -- who come across as replacement friends, and bad copies -- and there are some continuity issues that the film must contend with as well.

But as a Freddy Krueger body horror show, The Dream Child impresses, and distinguishes itself from the Elm Street pack.

“This is one of God’s creations.”

High school graduation nears for Alice (Lisa Wilcox) and Dan (Danny Hassel), but Alice feels increasing anxiety about Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund); about the possibility that he might manage to return from the grave.

Her intuitions prove correct.  Freddy is alive, though weak, living in the dreams of her unborn baby. As Alice soon learns, she is pregnant.  And babies dream most of the day, which means that Freddy has access to a universe of nightmares, even when she is wide awake.

Freddy uses his new power base -- Alice's womb -- to reach out and grab others, including Dan, whom he murders.  

While Alice grapples with what to do about a baby that could be born evil, she must also protect her friends, including Greta (Erika Anderson), who has an eating disorder.

“Your birth was a curse on the whole of humanity.”

The Dream Child -- the fifth entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street film series -- suffers a bit from its placement in the series.  It has not been long since the events of the fourth film, for instance, and yet Alice is fully ensconced at Springwood High with a new set of friends: Yvonne, Greta and Mark.  

Nobody talks about the friends who died last year, and certainly these friends would have gone to high school with them, right?  It's like Alice just opened a six pack of new friends, and there they are!

The film features some baffling continuity errors with the rest of the series too. 

Westin Hills -- which audiences saw up and running in Dream Warriors, and which could not have occurred more than two or three years earlier -- is described in the film's dialogue as as having been abandoned for years.  

Also, it is now located across from a park and is a huge, Gothic construction (represented by inadequate matte painting).  This is a dramatic rewrite of series history, since Kristen, Kincaid and Joey -- all classmates of Alice’s -- were warehoused there for a time.

And now we also learn that Sister Krueger’s body was never found, and has been hidden in the walls of the hospital for forty-something years? 

That’s new information too, and information that doesn’t really line up perfectly with the events of Dream Warriors either.  In fact, we saw the Sister’s grave in that film.

Also, when we witness Freddy’s birth (or is it rebirth?) in the film, why is he physically-deformed, a physical terror from birth?  

The real Freddy was a normal person, in terms of appearance, before his burning in the boiler room, right?  

So is Freddy re-born as a monster in this case, because we  are witnessing his rebirth, not a flashback of his original birth, in the movie?  It would be nice to have a bit more clarity about this, but the movie provides none.

These changes are vexing -- and continuity is not at all a strong-point of the Elm Street franchise -- but I admire Dream Child for attempting to be more psychologically adroit and thematically interesting than some of its predecessors.

In particular, I admire the film’s courage in dealing with two important issues involving young adults.  

The first involves Greta.  She feels tremendous pressure from her mother to be “Polly Perfect,” in her own words. This means that she is constantly being monitored in terms of what she eats and what she wars. 

Greta is not seen for who she is, but what kind of fame -- vicarious or direct -- she can bring her to her mother. Greta’s mom is thus an Elm Street Parent in keeping with others we see in the films: one who is corrupt and sinful, and unable to legitimately love her child for who she is. The message, voiced in the film, goes beyond even “pushy parents can drive you nuts.” Rather, parents can create pathology in their children.  And Greta, obsessed with her weight, and eating the right foods (“you are what you eat”) is sick.  She may be bulimic, or even anorexic.

Freddy, of course, attacks this pathology, and force feeds Greta until she dies. 

This is one of my favorite kills in the Elm Street series because it expresses something vital about the teen-centric “body image” crisis that is on-going, wherein teens are encouraged by media, parents and society to be of a certain weight, of a certain appearance. It’s a pressure that people still feel, and if anything it has gotten worse, since now men and women both are urged to conform to social norms in terms of their bodies.

Similarly, The Dream Child doesn’t shy away from examining unwed mothers and their problems. 

For a time, Alice contemplates abortion, because she simply doesn’t feel equipped to be a mother at this point.  Ultimately, she chooses to keep the child, Jacob, yet then faces scrutiny from Dan’s parents, who want to raise the child themselves.  

The upshot?  Alice lives under judgment, no matter what she does.  

She is judged for being pregnant, judged for contemplating her choices regarding having the baby, and judged for her fitness in being a parent.  

It’s not an easy situation she’s in, and it’s rewarding that The Dream Child goes to these places, and doesn’t give any of the issues it raises short-shrift.  The on-going subtext of the Elm Street films is that the sins of the parents are delivered upon the children.  Alcoholic, demanding, corrupt and pathological parents of the Reagan Era don’t pay attention to their children, and allow a monster to slip into a place that should be safe: the family hearth.

The Dream Child goes further than any other film, excepting perhaps the original, in diagramming this equation.  Alice and Greta deal with some major problems in the film; problems that arise not just from Freddy’s presence, but the behavior of the adults in their lives.

Some folks won’t like the presence of the abortion debate in the film, I know. Yet The Dream Child is very even-handed in discussing abortion, and doesn’t adopt either a hard pro-life or a hard pro-choice stance.  Instead, Alice just contends with the situation in front of her, trying to make the best decision he can. 

There’s something very realistic about the debate in the film.  In real life, choices about abortion are not an abstract, binary, either-or decision. For those involved, the choice is not a political hot potato, nor an opportunity to grand stand.  There are shades of grays, there are personal considerations, and there are repercussions, no matter what path is selected. 

In terms of set-pieces, I’ll be the first to admit that The Dream Child doesn’t rate positively beside some of the other films in the saga.  The Phantom Prowler comic-book scene is a travesty, with Freddy comically aping a graphic novel superhero with bulging muscles.  The Dream Child's purpose is clearly to re-establish Krueger as a serious threat, lurking in the shadows before striking his enemies.  This set-piece is so silly it undercuts, largely, the film’s attempts at re-grounding.

Much more fascinating and on-point is Dan’s death scene. Freddy becomes a motorcycle, and sort of “grows” into Dan, shearing off his flesh and perforating him with tubes, coils, and other mechanical devices.  

It’s incredibly grotesque, and almost David Cronenberg-like in both conception and execution (think: Crash).  When you couple this scene with those shots of Jacob in the womb, and Greta’s over-stuffing, there is a fleshy, tactile nature to the death scenes in this film.  They feel more organic, and less fantastic, and, frankly, I prefer this approach.  

But the organic nature of these scenes also make the comic scene stand out like a sore thumb.

Many critics and Freddy fans don’t like The Dream Child very much, and I suspect this is because the film is the only one of the sequels that really succeeds in making folks feel...uncomfortable.  The organic nature of the deaths, and the questions raised about body image issues and reproduction are not easily digested as mere entertainment. There’s a queasy, discomforting aspect of the film. It’s painfully aware of the fragile nature of our bodies, from birth onward.  The movie begins in a dank, squalid insane asylum, where a group rape occurs, follows on to the birth of a monstrosity, and then features many scenes that showcase how vulnerable and pliable our flesh really is.  There's nothing light about The Dream Child.

In other words, The Dream Child is a legitimate horror movie, not just another roller-coaster Freddy sequel, not just a lark with Freddy as circus ringleader. 

I rather like it, and appreciate what it was trying to achieve, though I readily admit it has flaws. I remain disappointed that Freddy’s Dead (1991) dropped Alice’s story, and went in a less satisfying, less human direction.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Cosmic Whiz Kid"

A young man from the 20th century, Hieronymous Fox (Gary Coleman) now serves as the President of the planet Genesia, where he utilizes his genius to help the planet develop. A notorious gangster, Roderick Zale (Ray Walston), however, captures the boy and takes him to Aldebaron 2, where he is held for ransom.

Fox's bodyguard, Did Cyrton (Melody Rogers) abducts Buck (Gil Gerard), who is about to go on two weeks of vacation, to help recover the boy, Genesia's "technological miracle worker." At first Buck doesn't want to help, until he learns that Hieronymous is from the 20th century, just as he is.

Buck, Cyrton and Wilma (Erin Gray) head to Aldebaron II, the "Barbary Coast of Space" and must deal with a telephonic information broker (Earl Boen) and a deadly assassin from a heavy gravity planet, if they hope to save the president from Roderick Zale.

The stunt casting of seventies sitcom star Gary Coleman in Buck Rogers may, on first blush, seem pretty risible in "Cosmic Whiz Kid." Does a sassy little kid spouting zippy catch-phrases really belong on a prime time space opera based on a beloved pop culture, sci-fi figure? 

However -- give the devil his due -- "Cosmic Whiz Kid" is actually a pretty fun episode of Buck Rogers, and Coleman is a welcome and leavening presence, showcasing some of the lightness and joie de vivre that the more dour Gerard seems reluctant to showcase on a weekly basis. Coleman's Hieronymous Fox proves to be resourceful, funny, and talented at both getting into scrapes and getting out of them. He also makes, likely, the best foil for Twiki, seen on the series.

Beyond the presence of Coleman, the episode is delightful in large part due to Wilma's subplot. She goes undercover to work in a communications center on Aldebaron 2, and is saddled with an obnoxious, robot servant who looks down his mechanical nose at all organic life-forms. The robot is nasty and condescending to her, and there's nothing Wilma can do about it. Gray's reactions to the robotic put-downs are well-played, and again, a lot of fun.

The episode also continues the leitmotif of season one Buck Rogers, creating a cosmic "underworld" of thugs and characters that take our earthbound "criminal" world to a galaxy of new possibilities. Earl Boen plays the telepathic "information broker" who must be near his marks to read their minds. The character can read minds, and therefore he also finish the sentences for people he is talking annoying (but memorable) habit.  

Also, the heavy gravity assassin, Toman (Lester Fletcher) is a fascinating a character, a weakling on his own world, but a physical powerhouse on worlds with different gravity, like Aldebaron, or Earth. Now, these aren't deep touches, but they are inventive ones.

On the 25th century tech side of the issue, the episode shows us security fences made of forcefields, and, on Wilma's job at the comm station, the support that goes into comfortable living in this particular future.  We see house-keeping robots, and more.  

Again, it's not that this material it is particularly powerful or thoughtful in terms of science fiction, just that the episode is a lot of fun, and often clever in its depiction of Buck's world.

Ray Walston is another great presence in the episode, shading the two-dimensional villain, Roderick Zale, with human, recognizable qualities like irritation, bemusement, and arrogance. He comes across as dangerous, but also relatable. He is less cartoony than many of the villains featured on the series.

Taken all together, "Cosmic Whiz Kid" is a marked improvement from some of the previous installments, despite the fact that the producers felt it necessary to add a sitcom star to make the world of Buck Rogers more appealing, and more popular.

Next week, Princess Ardala returns in "Escape from Wedded Bliss."

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

20 Years Ago Today: The Sixth Sense (1999)

One thread that weaves consistently through the films of director M. Night Shyamalan is very simple, but simultaneously spiritually and morally uplifting. In the vast majority of his cinematic works, audiences encounter characters who, after seeing the world in a new way, finally understand their place in it. 

The clouds -- their previous assumptions about life -- suddenly part, and the sunshine of understanding, of destiny, shines through.

Shyamalan’s protagonists, whether Dr. Malcolm Crowe (The Sixth Sense) David Dunn (Unbreakable), Father Graham (Signs), or Cleveland Heep (Lady in the Water) all conform to this particular pattern.

Throughout their respective narratives, these men are depicted as carrying around sadness or discontent because their destinies -- their very purpose in life -- is unclear to them.  Through the (often harrowing…) events in their narratives, however, these characters come to discern their place, and their role, and thus achieve their rightful destiny.   

In short, the films of M. Night Shyamalan are all about discovering yourself, and your purpose here on this mortal coil.

Not knowing your purpose is a source of not merely unhappiness, but the greatest soul-sucking pain. These men feel empty, alone and isolated because they no longer believe in themselves. They no longer know who they are, or where they fit in.

Sometimes, in Shyamalan’s films, we actually meet two characters who achieve this critical understanding about destiny. And sometimes, those characters take parallel or opposite-styled journeys. They act as mirrors for one another.

Certainly, that’s the case with the director’s first feature film, the Academy-Award nominated The Sixth Sense (1999), which first premiered 20 years ago today.

The film involves a psychologist, Crowe, and his patient, Cole Sear, coming to terms with their respective trajectories and destinies in this life. Crowe learns that he can correct two great wrongs in his life (one personal; one professional), but that this is his last opportunity to do so. 

Meanwhile, Cole learns that he needn’t be scared of what he sees, and that his strange vision is a mechanism not for inspiring terror, but for him to help people; spirits who still have something significant to tell the living.

It is not revealing anything, at this late date, to report on the 1999’s film’s final revelation, that Malcolm himself is one of those spirits that Cole can see and help. 

Cole “sees dead people,” and so Crowe, we learn, is dead himself. This is the nature of the film’s twist ending, but as is often the case in the works of Shyamalan, there are various and numerous bread crumbs leading viewers to this conclusion, from the very start of the film; following Crowe’s tragic shooting.

Of course, we can question if this ending is actually a surprise at all given the assiduous preparation for it. After all, another common factor in many of M. Night Shyamalan’s films is that they don’t merely tell stories; they comment on storytelling, on writing in general.  For example, Unbreakable muses about comic books as a kind of sacred text, one that reveals man’s true nature and history.  Similarly, Lady in the Water features an acerbic movie critic (Bob Balaban), and the various ways that people read or analyze stories. 

And The Sixth Sense involves, quite explicitly, how stories are structured or organized so as to galvanize the audience’s attention. 

Specifically, stories can’t play all their cards at once.  As Cole informs Crow, “you have to add some twists and stuff,” or they are boring. 

This is Shyamalan’s tell, another breadcrumb, so-to-speak, that prepares us for the denouement. From the film’s dialogue about “twists and stuff,” we understand we should expect something that will shift our perception of what might be seen as a linear or straight-forward story.  And that’s precisely what Shyamalan delivers in the movie’s climactic scenes.

What is the story we think we are experiencing in The Sixth Sense? It goes something like this: Traumatized adult psychologist helps disturbed, possibly psychic kid.

But in fact, the story is not that.  Rather, it is this: Psychic kids helps a disturbed ghost make peace with his life, and his mistakes in life.

Cole and Crowe (like Elijah and David Dunn in Unbreakable) switch places; switch roles in terms of our understanding of them, as the film ends.  Actually “switch roles” may not be the right choice of phrases here.  They are who they have always been, we simply begin to perceive their roles differently in light of the revelation that Crowe is dead.

The Sixth Sense thrives as a brilliant work of art because Shyamalan knows precisely where best to place the camera, and when to move it so that -- on first viewing -- the audience can reasonably fail to notice or observe some important things. But on the second viewing, finally, we understand clearly the significance of things we ignored, or overlooked, the first time.  Ambiguity gives way to clarity; uncertainty to order.  To create this kind of “dawning” truth, Shyamalan himself made be said to possess a sixth sense about understanding how our eyes and minds process information.

What things to our eyes gloss over?  What things do they focus on? 

Shymalan’s approach encompasses both guileless and guileful misdirection, one might conclude.

And he makes the switch over in perception seem as clear as day.  On second viewing of The Sixth Sense, we can’t understand how we failed to miss the importance or relevance of the bread crumbs at all.

In this way, The Sixth Sense is actually two distinct experiences.

In the first, we proceed upon mistaken assumptions, until we learn the truth.  Importantly, this way of “seeing” (a view consisting of mistaken assumptions) is a deliberate reflection of how Malcolm proceeds through life and the narrative.  His eyes are only half-open. He misses important details. He is trapped in his belief about that world, namely that he has gone on living as a mortal human being.

On the second-go through, however, we see the story as Cole might, with a clear of understanding of who Malcolm is, and who/what he signifies in Cole’s learning. He’s not a trouble kid that’s deluded or hallucinating. He’s the one individual who sees the whole world as it is.  And “Sear,” of course, is our bread-crumb or signifier. Sear = Seer.

The mirroring of protagonist roles as well as the parting-of-the-clouds, ambiguity-into-clarity visual symbolism together represent a complex and cerebral way to tell a story -- with more than the requisite “twists and stuff” -- and yet even his haters should acknowledge the truth. 
Shyamalan makes it look virtually effortless.

There are only a few “cheats” in The Sixth Sense, and these moments don’t subtract from the picture’s overall success, or the sheer emotional resonance of the tale.

In short, The Sixth Sense is a beautiful and complex genre film that holds up to scrutiny, and has something ital. and true to tell us about humanity or at least the way humanity perceives itself.

We must have a purpose, and we must understand that purpose, or we are but lost souls.

“I’m ready to communicate with you now.”

On the very evening that night he receives an award from the City of Philadelphia for his long, dedicated service to the community, married psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is gunned down in his home by an old client whom he failed to help, Vincent Gray (Donnie Wahlberg). 

The following autumn, Crowe is estranged from his wife, Abby (Olivia Williams) and devotes himself to a case involving a troubled little boy like Vincent, this one named Cole (Haley Joel Osment).

Cole claims to see and communicate with “dead people.” 

Crowe must first confirm this boy’s “gift” and then help Cole learn how to live with it, and utilize it to help others, and himself.

“I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. I don’t want it to slip away.”

They don’t see each other,” Cole Sear declares of the dead in The Sixth Sense.They just see what they want to see.  They don’t know that they’re dead. They’re everywhere.”

This dialogue excerpt, however, is also very much about the movie’s audience; you and me. 

Remember, Shyamalan’s film works on two tracks simultaneously, as a literal narrative about its characters and their journey but also as a reflexive narrative about the nature of storytelling, and the things that audiences require from storytellers (“twists and stuff,” again.)

The most significant thing one must understand about the film is that, structurally, it plays delicately on character and audience assumptions.  And assumptions are often wrong.  The entirety of The Sixth Sense rests on the writer/director’s capability to make audiences feel a certain way in certain scenes, without getting at what is truly happening in those scenes, until the final revelation lands like a hammer. 

In other words, the film visually implies certain assumptions and perceptions, and then, in the last scenes, reveal a different perspective.  Like Cole’s ghosts, the audience, going in, largely sees what it wants to see, not what actually exists.

Apart from some notable but relatively slight inconsistencies in this approach, The Sixth Sense largely accomplishes the goal of playing on audience assumptions, of encouraging perceptions and then pulling the carpet out from under them. 

For instance, we see Crowe’s wife, Abby, crying on a bed early in the film, surrounded by crumpled Kleenex. We assume she is crying because something bad has happened involving her relationship with Crowe.

On the contrary, however, she is crying because she is still in mourning over his untimely and tragic death (or, more accurately, murder).  But we think their marriage is in trouble in a conventional sense.  He’s spending too much time at work.  He’s ignoring her.  So she’s sad.

On the contrary, he’s a corpse. She can’t move on.

Similarly, it’s noteworthy that Malcolm never meets with Cole in a professional office setting. Instead, Cole goes to the hospital to see him, or sits in an apartment foyer, or meets Cole on the street while he is walking to school. 


Doesn’t it strike anyone as weird that this psychologist is just hanging around?  It might, but as movie-goers we brush off these feelings on first viewing.  That said, not many psychologists I know make house calls.  But given the severity of Cole’s case, and his young age (plus Crowe’s drive to make up for the mistake of Vincent Gray), we assume the psychologist is making an exception. We assume he has taken a special interest in this troubled boy.

In fact, Crowe is a ghost, seen only by Cole, but this example (no office visits) should allow you to detect fully how the movie lets us run with our own ideas and thoughts, and doesn’t attempt to correct us or our perceptions.

In another scene, set at a restaurant, Malcolm meets with his estranged wife, Abby for their wedding anniversary.  She doesn’t speak to him, and the audience assumes -- again -- that, since the shooting at the beginning of the film, they’ve become estranged.  She exits the restaurant in a flurry of emotion, and leaves Malcolm behind, and the audience assumes she’s mad.  She isn’t.  She doesn’t know he’s present at all.  She can’t see him.  Even though she says aloud, “happy anniversary” she is talking to herself; not to the ghost she has no concrete awareness of.

Commendably, The Sixth Sense does not go out of its way to unduly deceive us. It never states, for instance, that Crowe’s office is being repainted, or some such thing to lead us off the track.  I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t always the case in a Shyamalan film.  Sometimes, he tips the scales against us (like the grave stone with the erroneous dates in The Village).  But more often than not, he plays fair. He just leaves a gap in the story and lets individual imagination fill it in.

For me, this relates to one useful definition of great art, and one I learned from director Nicholas Meyer, in his discussion of the Star Trek franchise. For him, art is the act of not telling the audience everything up front; of leaving holes that allow audience imagination to supply the rest.  I find that this is the case with The Sixth Sense, and much of Shyamalan’s work.  He gives the audience enough information to rope it in, but not enough information to squelch imagination, or importantly, speculation and assumption.

Are there exceptions, or moments that might have been handled more deftly in The Sixth Sense?  Well, on this re-watch (probably my fourth or fifth viewing), I noticed that a shadow (presumably Crowe’s) passes over Cole in a meeting at a church.  A ghost wouldn’t cast a shadow, would it?  But perhaps there was another person in the church, passing by, behind Crowe, at the same time.

Similarly, we see Crowe -- a ghost, remember -- manipulate pens, tape recorders, notebooks and other elements of our reality “here” on the mortal coil.  How does that work exactly?  The Sixth Sense avoids explanation, perhaps to its detriment. As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1990s, Ghost (1990), at least, attempted to explain how ghosts move between and manipulate earthly objects.

Yet over and over again, given these few exceptions, The Sixth Sense knowingly and deftly stages scenes in a way that encourage assumptions, but can track in the opposite direction too.  When the big reveal comes, we realize our beliefs were wrong and that the movie (and movie-maker too) is still an honest, and reliable narrator. All of this is extremely clever, and it’s clear that M. Night Shyamalan is a canny student and observer of human nature, not to mention mainstream movie-going habits, since by and large, audiences do react exactly as he expects them to. He rarely loses his balance.

Has any other director, other than Alfred Hitchcock so cleverly, and for such a sustained duration manipulated the audience so expertly?  Have many movie talents so assiduously crafted a story that successfully operates in two realities, until the final fork in the road, when only one reality can be dominant?

I think you would be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of other talents, and that fact certainly, is one reason why Shyamalan is worth lauding or studying.  Consider that most movie lovers you encounter will concur that The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs all achieve what they set out to.  That’s three times (in a row) up at bat in which he pulled off this feat with consistent audience appreciation and buy-in.

I think it is also fair to state that Shyamalan accomplishes a great deal by focusing on small, seemingly ordinary things.  

The film possesses a strong sense of disorder, as though the world is out of whack.  If you gaze intently at some of the visuals, such as a kitchen in which all the drawers and cabinet doors are open, or a girl hiding under a bed, or even a shot of a lone character standing in the dark, shadowed in a dark basement, one begins to see how the visuals themselves seem to symbolize nature's imbalance. 

No expensive visual effects are needed to make the film frightening.  These off-kilter touches do the job magnificently. Shyamalan is one of the few directors still working in this decade who -- like Robert Wise once did --- can make a door-knob seem terrifying.

The performances in The Sixth Sense are also stellar, and add immeasurably to the success of the film.  Bruce Willis has never been better, I would assess, except perhaps in Unbreakable.  He adopts the passive, professional detachment of a clinician here, and that very-internal, very-buttoned approach explains his passivity (why few others seem to take note of him), and also raise alarm bells about his true nature…as a ghost. When Crowe learns this story has been about him needing help, not Cole, Willis opens up, and the film reaches a fever pitch of emotion. He realizes that he has been given an opportunity to fix two mistakes, and makes the most of it. Our final views of Crowe show us his separation from his wife and his sadness at leaving her, while he heads...beyond.

Osment, meanwhile, is the emotional anchor of The Sixth Sense, and expresses terror, sadness, isolation and love in an unpracticed, innocent fashion. Cole achieves the ending or destiny he deserves: a recognition of his gift and purpose in this life.  Crowe gets that too, understanding that he has made up for two failures, both in putting his wife second to his career, and correcting the mistake he made with another sensitive, Vincent.

The most difficult thing for me in terms of all the Shyamalan bashing one finds on the Net is that people seem to think that Shyamalan is trying, in films like The Sixth Sense, to prove he is better than the rest of us. 

You know, who does he think he is always trying to outsmart the rest of us paeans all the time?

Well, there’s an answer encoded right into the fabric of The Sixth Sense.  Shyamalan is not working against us, he is working for the audience.  What’s my proof?  When he has Cole say that stories need twists and stuff or they will be boring, he is specifically looking out for audiences; making certain that his story doesn’t fail to please.  Shyamalan has made the audience’s desire for a good story, well-told, paramount in his efforts. 

We all know the old saying that there are no new stories, only new ways of telling them, right?  Well, that’s sort of what Shyamalan seems to be saying in this story, too: I have a new way of telling a story, and I don’t think you’ll see it coming. 

I’m not certain why that must be perceived as vanity or ego. Aren’t we in the market for strong stories, told in ways that are fresh and innovative?  I know that’s why I’m here. That’s why I write books.  That’s why I blog. That's why I go to the movies.

But then a lot of people are like The Sixth Sense’s ghosts, aren’t they?  They don’t see the truth, they see only what they want to see. One has to wonder if in some way, Shyamalan was answering his prospective critics in the very body of his film, in the very text of The Sixth Sense.

Because what I see in The Sixth Sense is an emotional, horrific and meticulously constructed film that surprises by unexpectedly inverting the roles of its main characters. 

What I see is a film that recognizes a basic truth that stories just don’t happen magically or spontaneously, they must be constructed in such a way so that the audience remains engaged from start to finish. 

What I see is a film that recognizes the fact that our eyes don’t always tell us the whole story on first look.   Sometimes, to truly see, we need to look closer.

And what I see, finally, and perhaps most importantly, is a film that reminds us that the greatest evil in the world is not death, but the inability to know one’s self, and one’s purpose.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Boxing

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