Saturday, May 14, 2022

40 Years Ago Today: Conan the Barbarian (1982)

“Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this: Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow.  It is I, his chronicler who alone can tell these of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure…”

-Opening Narration, Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Now four decades old, John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1982) commences with imagery of a sturdy sword being forged in fire and snow. And indeed, that forging process is the movie’s central metaphor for Conan himself, and his evolution from child to man.

This hero’s life may be a “tale of sorrow” at points, according to the voice-over narrator, but it’s also a tale of learning, of Conan’s growth and development. This is a process which culminates in a triumphant apotheosis and is revealed -- majestically and mysteriously -- in the film’s valedictory shot. 

From orphaned boy to pensive king in the span of one movie, Conan is shaped and tempered like a sword, until he becomes, himself, the flesh equivalent of that one dependable element in all of human life: steel.

In some ways, however -- and this is where the film proves truly clever -- Conan’s story is also our very own. 

We also face adversity and we also overcome it. We survive.   

Accordingly, one impressive quality of John Milius’s cinematic telling of Conan’s tale is the manner in which the production’s various fantasy set-pieces -- from the Wheel of Pain to Thulsa Doom’s cult -- form a rough analogy for the places life takes us…whether we want to visit those particular places or not.

Sometimes, our life is pure drudgery and unending routine, just like Conan pushing that damned wheel for fifteen or so years. 

And sometimes we go questing for something “outside” ourselves so as to fill an interior, emotional void. That search is reflected in Thulsa Doom’s belief system.

Yet we can’t be healed from the outside in. Instead -- by Crom -- the process of becoming whole must start within us.  Through all life’s trials -- and in keeping with the film’s opening quote from Nietzsche-- “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

To this day, Conan the Barbarian remains the finest iteration of Robert E. Howard’s hero on the silver screen. This is so because as a work of art it concerns explicitly those things that don’t kill Conan, but which nonetheless prepare him to be the man – and king -- he must become.

Conan the Barbarian is also pitched at a far more adult or grown-up level than either Conan: The Destroyer (1984), or the twenty-first-century re-boot, Conan the Barbarian (2011), a fact which renders the film more accurately about the vicissitudes of real life…even though it is a fantasy of the fictitious Hyborian Age.  

This Conan gets drunk, fucks a lot, faces emotional set-backs, and exacts bloody revenge. He hasn’t yet been homogenized for modern popular culture consumption and that fact makes Conan the Barbarian a thrilling, unpredictable, and occasionally quite romantic fantasy film.

“He is Conan, Cimmerian. He won’t cry.  So I cry for him.”

A vicious raiding team attacks the village of Cimmeria, and young boy named Conan watches as his blacksmith father (William Smith) falls in battle. Conan then watches -- up close -- as his mother is decapitated by a warrior, the evil and strangely magnetic Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones).

Conan is sold into slavery, and grows up at the Wheel of Pain. There, he lives a life of drudgery, forever pushing one of the wheel’s heavy spokes.

When he is mature -- and fit -- Conan becomes a champion of the arena, and a favorite of the people.  

Once educated, Conan escapes from his masters and goes out in search of the man who killed his parents all those years earlier.

After battling a witch, and teaming up with a thief, Subotai (Gerry Lopez), Conan pursues the rapidly-spreading “Snake Cults” across the land.  In one town, he meets up with the beautiful warrior Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), who is interested in robbing a snake temple.

Together, the three wanderers steal the expensive jewels inside the temple, and defeat a giant snake.  Afterwards, Conan and Valeria fall in love, realizing that they are…soul-mates.

Soon, King Osric (Max Von Sydow) summons Conan and his friends to his kingdom. The King reveals that his daughter (Valerei Quennessen) has fallen under the sway of Thulsa Doom, and gone to his temple as a priestess and slave.  Osric offers to make Conan rich if he can bring his daughter back.

With Valeria reluctant to undertake the quest, Conan goes on his own. He is promptly captured by Thulsa Doom, crucified, and left to die in the desert.  

Fortunately, Subotai, Valeria and a friendly wizard (Mako) nurse Conan back to health. Valeria even beats back the soul-takers of the Under World by night to prevent them from carrying away Conan.

With his team assembled, Conan prepares to rescue the princess, and exercise his final revenge against Thulsa Doom.  

But the great warrior has one more grievous loss to face…

“Now they will know why there are afraid of the dark. Now they learn why they fear the night.”

Conan the Barbarian opens with a montage of a sword being forged, and these images are run in tandem with the main credits. 

Throughout this forging process, there are two sets of hands on this specific sword, and significantly, they belong to Conan’s mother and father.  

We see the sword born in fire and cooled in snow. 

We see the hands of Conan’s father chiseling fine detail onto the hilt.  

We see Conan’s mother tenderly wrapping the sword’s handle with her delicate hands.

These images seem to be about preparing a weapon, a blade, but they actually transmit something else: the love of Conan’s parents for their only child. 

By tending to the sword with such love and devotion, we understand that his parents are not only shaping the blade, they are shepherding and shaping Conan himself. 

The focus of this imagery is not just on the sword itself (the surrogate for young Conan), but specifically on the hands doing such delicate and hard work.  Watching, we understand the message. This is what good parenting often feels like: very hands-on.

The film then cuts to a scene of Conan’s father shaping and tempering the young man, telling him of his belief in God -- Crom -- and of the Cimmerian philosophy of steel.  Conan’s father thus shares his religious faith with his son, and he does it in a kind of spiritual location, atop the most beautiful, snow-capped mountains imaginable. The sky and clouds seem within reach.

These opening scenes thus reveal that Conan may live a harsh life, but that he is loved…protected.

In short order, however, this cocoon of total love is destroyed. Thulsa Doom arrives in the village with his raiding party, and -- as if to visually transmit the horror of the villain’s actions -- Milius cuts to a shot of young Conan and his mother cowering in the snow of Cimmeria… in the very center of the rectangular frame.  

Bracketed on both sides of Mother and son are the armored, merciless warriors of Doom. The positions of the guards here reveal the level of danger. Conan and his Mother’s space in the frame has been abbreviated, cut-off. They have nowhere to run, no recourse.

And then, Milius’s selection of shots transmits the idea of loss.

Conan is grasping his mother’s hand tightly when Thulsa Doom decapitates her. 

But Conan doesn’t see the death blow. Instead, his mother -- who had been holding his hand -- falls away from him, out of frame, and Conan is left holding nothing…only air.  

This shot expresses the sudden emptiness of his life, and the reverse angle reveals the thing that shall replace love in Conan’s life…vengeance.

Specifically, the reverse angle on Conan at this juncture reveals Thulsa Doom standing symbolically in the position Conan’s mother had occupied. 

From this view, Conan’s hand and arm seem curled not around “nothing,” but around the imposing Doom. 

The family has been destroyed. Love has been replaced by hatred in the young boy’s heart. And Milius’s choice of composition perfectly reflects this shift.

The next scene in Conan the Barbarian is among my very favorite from the film. The boy Conan pushes the Wheel of Pain for years -- through sunlight and darkness, through winter and spring -- until he is all grown up. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger is introduced as the adult Conan in this montage, coming around on the final revolution of the wheel. First, we see only his (strong) legs, but then we see his adult countenance, his furrowed brow and cunning eyes.  

A less clever film might have simply faded out on young Conan as a slave, and faded in years later, with him as an adult. There might even have been a chryon stating, flat out “20 years later.”  But the Wheel of Pain sequence not only introduces us to “adult” Conan, it adroitly reveals the essence of the character’s life. It is a life of repetition, routine, hardship, grunt-work, labor, and struggle.  

The years do not pass quickly for Conan. 

Instead, they pass tediously and with back-breaking sweat, and as I noted in my introduction, the Wheel of Pain thus seems like a perfect metaphor for the human existence. 

Some people might say adolescence and high school are wheels of pain.  Others might conclude that a 5-day-a-week job is a candidate for another wheel of pain. 

You can pick your poison, but Conan the Barbarian finds a perfect way to express Conan’s woes, and the fact that his years pass unhappily, without love and, importantly, without adventure. He is trapped in this Hell, doing the same thing over and over again, dreaming patiently of revenge, but never being able to enact it.

The snake cult of Thulsa Doom, I believe, represents another aspect of human life: false wisdom.  

The cult’s wisdom is not the wisdom of parents who love you no matter what, but the wisdom of people whose motives may be less than benevolent.  In this case, individuality is squashed as thousands of men and women dress identically in white and listen rapturously to Doom’s pronouncements and sermons.  

But the landscape around the cult is of special note in terms of the visuals: the trees and the land seem dead, a representative of the very “emptiness” that Doom not only creates, but actually promises for his devoted acolytes. Notice the wretched, gnarled trees that line the path to Thulsa Doom’s temple, specifically.  There is little life, color, or vitality there.

There have been those writers and reviewers over the years who suggest a certain right-leaning or tilt to Conan the Barbarian, and I concur with that viewpoint. For example, Thulsa Doom’s cult seems very much like an intentional rejection or critique of the 1960s hippie movement, and counter-culture family units such as the commune.  

In 1982, there would have been a fairly recent example of just such a communal life gone terribly wrong, namely the Jonestown Massacre of November 18, 1978, wherein over 900 people were killed by “guru” Jim Jones.

But if one gazes at Conan the Barbarian in broad terms, the story concerns a man (Thulsa Doom) -- a leader -- who creates useful “emptiness” in his followers by taking them away from their parents, away from the traditional family units.  The shot I noted above -- with Doom stepping metaphorically into the visual space of Conan’s mother -- reflects this very notion.

Specifically, Doom robs Conan of his parents. But importantly, he also takes away King Osric’s daughter, the princess. This act so grieves Osric that wealth and power mean nothing to the king.  “All that’s left,” he tells Conan mournfully, is “a father’s love for his child.”

But Doom replaces the love of parents -- which we saw so vividly expressed in the film’s opening “forging” montage -- with sexual desire, hero worship, group anonymity, and mysticism.  Perversely, he calls his cult “The Children of Doom,” and that very name suggests how he has twisted family values to his own ends.

In fact, Thulsa Doom attempts to create spiritual “emptiness” -- to be filled by the snake cult -- in Conan twice. First by killing his parents, and secondly by murdering the love of his life: Valeria.  

The most affecting moments of Conan the Barbarian involve the dedication and commitment that these soul-mates and lovers show one another. Valeria saves Conan from the under-world and, finally, her spirit saves him in battle.  

The latter act is suggestive of a love that lasts beyond mortality, and again, that act of love very much stands in contrast to the selfish and empty love that Thulsa Doom offers his followers.

In the end, Conan loses Valeria and all he is left with is the thing his father promised him as a legacy all those years earlier, “the discipline of steel.”

He cannot trust men or women to be at his side, as his father indicates. But this is not because other people are bad, but because death takes them.  In realizing this – and in truly knowing love -- Conan becomes a hero who is much deeper than his early, infamous commentary, “crush your enemies, hear the lamentation of their women…” suggests.

Some scholars and reviews have suggested that there is something inherently fascist about Conan the Barbarian, but in truth, it seems far less fascist in design and execution than a saga like Star Wars.  There, for example, only the people with the right kind of blood (Midichlorians…) can harness the power of the Force. 

By contrast, Conan here becomes king not because of any pure blood he possesses, not because of ancestry or heritage, but, according to the dialogue, by “his own hand.”

That description suggests the opposite of fascism, and is an assertion instead of good old-fashioned, self-reliance. Conan takes the (terrible…) hand he was dealt and, in spite of his woes and sorrows, becomes a wise King.

A chronicle of “high adventure” in an “age undreamed of,” Conan the Barbarian succeeds and endures because its visuals so ably express Conan’s story. From the opening sword-forging montage to the visualization of “emptiness” (and thus death) at the heart of Doom’s cult, the film’s meaning is transmitted beautifully by symbolic imagery.

Beyond this, the film is gorgeous to look at in terms of its natural vistas. Today, of course, the lack of CGI is very refreshing. There is something three dimensional and “real” about the landscapes and creatures Conan encounters in this film, and we have a better sense of him as a person and as a hero because we feel he exists in real environs, not merely in front of a green-screen.

Similarly, the film’s final battle represents a dramatic high-point because Milius doesn’t take it for granted that Conan will win merely because he is a great warrior with bulging muscles.

Instead, we witness Conan’s intense preparation of the battle-field before the fight. We see him set up booby traps, and think through all the angles.  We thus get the idea that he wins the battle for two reasons.  

The first is that he assiduously prepared a strategy to defeat the army…meaning that Conan is smart and cunning. 

And secondly, Conan wins, because Valeria intervenes in his affairs, from the Underworld.  He has forged so meaningful a relationship with her -- again, the polar opposite of Doom -- that even death cannot keep his dearest ally from aiding him in a time of need.

It has always been fashionable to bash Arnold Schwarzenegger as an actor, and Conan the Barbarian is no exception. 

But unlike many other athletes/fighters turned actors (like Steven Seagal, for example), Schwarzenegger always showcases a sense of humor, a self-deprecating side of himself. There’s a grace and humanity in his best performances that make audiences love him. 

Arnold may look super-human and perfect, but he’s also got that kooky accent, those bulging eyes, and a goofy grin.  He’s actually pretty good as Conan because he projects a distinctive personality and sense of humor as the hero. You sense that his Conan possesses an inner life, and isn’t just a dumb hulk.  

Sandahl Bergman is also perfect as Valeria, making the no-nonsense role her own. She plays a strong woman, and Conan's equal on the battlefield (and presumably elsewhere...). Bergman projects toughness and tenderness in equal measure, and has no stereotypical "damsel in distress" moments whatsoever. 

Bergman's best moment, in my opinion, involves her decimation of Thulsa Doom's forces, while Conan is carrying away the princess. Valeria ruthlessly, efficiently -- and magnificently -- eliminates what seems like an army of warriors, and Bergman is poetry in motion.  Also impressive here is the fact that without much dialogue, Bergman is able to powerfully express Valeria's devotion to Conan.

Conan the Barbarian captures the spirit of Robert E. Howard's stories, if not always the exact details, and that is simply the best that a fan can usually hope for, since movies and books are such different art forms. Yet at the time of its release, Conan the Barbarian was also bashed as being too violent, too sexual, and too politically incorrect, despite its fidelity to the source material.  Today, such qualities actually grant the film a sense of verisimilitude that many other fantasy epics decidedly lack. It’s so refreshing to see an R-rated fantasy. 

This version of Conan has a lot of heart, a lot of verve, and enough steel to kick-start a franchise. And that’s exactly what happened.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Happy Friday the 13th!

Happy Friday the 13th!

Surveying the eleven-strong Friday the 13th saga (twelve if you count Freddy vs. Jason…) the weight of several really bad entries in this slasher-styled film cycle is a difficult cross to bear.  This is especially true for the occasionally-inspired franchise entry, such as this sturdy and even visually-accomplished 1980 originator from director Sean S. Cunningham and writer Victor Miller.

There’s no doubt that the original Friday the 13th is an exploitation film designed to capitalize on the success and popularity of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).  But there’s also little doubt that this first entry in the long-lived series is a much stronger film than most people likely remember, at least in visual and symbolic senses.

Although Friday the 13th doesn’t always succeed, particularly because it overuses the stalker P.O.V. shot, other visual flourishes remain impressive, or at least laudable.  In other words, the exploitation here is -- at the very least -- grounded in some solid craft.  And the narrative details and structure as crafted by Miller are both sturdy and simple, thus permitting director Cunningham to shape the visuals in a unique direction.

Today, I want to shine a light on some of the film's more unique and intriguing visual touches, and point out a few reasons Friday the 13th boasts social and cultural value as a work of pop art, and as a product of its time period.

“We ain’t gonna stand for no weirdness out here.”

A group of camp counselors, led by Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), prepare for the grand re-opening of Camp Crystal Lake, even over the objections of locals like Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney).

These objections stem from Camp Crystal Lake’s checkered history.  In 1957, camp counselors failed to pay attention when a young boy, Jason (Ari Lehman) drowned in the lake.  Soon afterwards, two counselors were murdered.  Then, some years later, the water in Crystal Lake inexplicably “went bad,” scuttling an attempt to re-open the camp.

But Steve is committed to the cause, and with the help of a sensitive artist and fellow counselor, Alice (Adrienne King) gathers the troops for the big day of the camp’s re-opening.

In short order, however, the curse of “Camp Blood” resumes as a secret assailant begins killing the camp’s new denizens.  The crisis comes to a head during a powerful thunderstorm, and the murderer is revealed as someone who was very close to young Jason…

“God sent me.  You’re doomed if you stay…”

One quality most people forget about the original Friday the 13th is the film’s strong sense of place.  In particular, Crystal Lake is visualized as an idyllic American town, one filled with abundant pastoral and natural beauty.  Early scenes in the film document this beauty, creating an almost Rockwell-ian vision of the surrounding area (actually Blairstown, New Jersey). 

This is Friday the 13th?

And this?

And this?

These visualizations serve a crucial purpose, because Friday the 13th largely concerns innocence lost or destroyed. Two camp counselors, while making love, allow an innocent child to die.  Thus while they sacrifice their (Biblical) innocence, Jason loses his innocence…his very life.  At the same time, Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) loses her son and therefore her innocence, along with her mind.

The beauty of the natural environs subtly reinforces the film-long conceit of a Garden of Eden-type setting, but one that is now corrupted.  For example, one short scene relatively early in the film reveals a snake inside one of the counselor’s cabins, a snake in the garden, as it were.  The snake is promptly decapitated by a counselor’s machete, putting an end to the threat and thus restoring order.

Symbolically speaking, that moment is intentionally reiterated in the film’s bloody denouement as our final girl, Alice, lops off the head of a more dangerous snake in the garden – the killer -- also utilizing a machete.  The two images connect meaningfully.

In both cases, we get the idea of natural order overturned by the presence of evil (a serpent, specifically...), and then order is restored, even if the respite is brief.

A snake in the garden gets decapitated by machete.

And then a second snake in the garden gets decapitated by machete.

The Serpent -- the dangerous and murderous invader in the Garden of Eden -- spends much of the film watching and stalking prey, and thus the film frequently repeats one specific composition.  In particular, the camera takes up a position outside while it gazes inside a building (a cabin or a bath house), through a window-glass.  Outside the window is only darkness since the setting is mostly nighttime. But inside the buildings, the characters are brightly lit and attending blithely to their mundane business, unaware of danger.

I wrote about this intriguing composition some in Horror Films of the 1980s, but it’s a significant element of the film’s tapestry.  It reveals not merely the voyeurism of the killer as she stalks her prey.  It also visually constricts the space of the protagonists within the rectangular frame, literally boxing them inside a series of smaller and smaller boxes.  In the tightest, most claustrophobic of those boxes, our heroes go about their business without realizing their world has become limited and closed off by the (invisible) presence of the slasher nearby.

Tight-framing is a regular and de rigueur feature of horror films, but Friday the 13th goes a step further with its relatively ingenious framing technique. Here, characters blindly walk into bloody death, a fact which we, the audience, can recognize and anticipate, but they cannot.  The result of this near ubiquitous staging is that the film becomes more genuinely suspenseful.   We wait, and wait, wondering when the terror will strike, and how it will strike.

Victim in a box #1

Victim in a box #2

Victim in a box # 3

Victim in a box #4
At the same time that the film "boxes in" its victims, the original Friday the 13th also offers wicked sub-textual commentary on the teenagers’ fates because stenciled and stickered camp legends reading “danger” and the like punctuate the Camp Blood's landscape.   Just as the characters are unaware of how their lives have become limited and finite by the presence of the unseen killer, they similarly take no notice of signage which constantly warns them of a threat.  They literally can't see the forest for the trees.

Well, the sign (on right) does say "DANGER."

Well, the sign (upper right) warns "KEEP OUT."

On a basic level, these visual touches make Friday the 13th more intellectually adroit than your average example of the slasher film.  Although the film wants to ape the energy of Halloween, it clearly boasts its own, frequently clever life force as well.

Where Friday the 13th treads even deeper into sub-text, however, is in the explicit connection between man and nature.  The film’s full-on bloody assault occurs under cover of thunderstorm, pounding rain and lightning.  If you watch every Friday the 13th film, you’ll find that this idea recurs more frequently even than the presence of Jason Voorhees.  The “invader” arrives with natural cover, thus with the implicit help, perhaps, of a force beyond the human world.  Is God on Jason (or Mrs. Voorhee's) side in this battle?

Going back to the Jean Renoir short film A Day in the Country (1936) -- an effort based on a story by Guy de Maupassant -- film has frequently connected human nature with Mother Nature.  The Renoir film depicts the tale of a family that vacations near a beautiful lake.  Two women in the family are seduced by burly farm hands that live nearby, and the romantic assignation culminates in an unexpected thunderstorm. 

Have they affected nature with their wanton acts?  Or contrarily, has nature affected them and thus spawned these very acts? 

The equation in Friday the 13th is not that different, at least on a basic level. A storm rolls in and it is one that metaphorically "rains blood," according to one character’s dream, recounted explicitly in the dialogue.  

Accordingly, this storm brings with it a vengeful murderer.  

Is the storm thus a manifestation of the killer’s undying rage?   Is it a protest against the unnecessary death of an innocent child?  Or does the storm represent the tears of God, as it were, the fact that a mother’s love has turned to cold-blooded murder?

I’ve often noted that 1980s watchdog groups like the Moral Majority were foolish to protest the Friday the 13th films because, by one interpretation, these slasher films certainly tow the conservative line about human vices and bad behavior.  

One way of  gazing at the film is to consider that those who are negligent -- those who smoke weed, and those who indulge in pre-marital sex -- are punished by a supernatural avenger, the Hand of God, for their transgressions.  Mrs. Voorhees does the actual punishing via machete, but it is God himself – in the form of the rolling thunderstorm – that grants her murderous campaign the cover it needs to succeed.  You can take or leave that interpretation, but it represents one valid reading of the film's text.  As I like to say, in Friday the 13th and it sequels, vice precedes slice-and-dice.

There are other elements of this exploitation film that audiences now tend to forget about because of all the water and bad sequels under the bridge, yet which probably bear mentioning.  For one thing, the film is dominated by imagery which portends doom.  

One such moment involves Moravian Cemetery, the last turn-off on the road to Camp Blood.  In essence, the shot of the graveyard reminds the audience it’s a short commute from the camp to death.  

Secondly, one of the camp counselors -- the Practical Joker stereotype, Ned -- pretends to drown in the lake early on.  His cruel and thoughtless act foreshadows, of course, the motivation behind the murders at Crystal Lake.  He is re-enacting (unknowingly) the moment that killed Jason, and the moment that actually brings about his end.  Thus even his "joke" is portending of doom.

And then there’s Crazy Ralph.  He’s not a subtle guy, even in terms of his wacko, almost cartoon appearance.  But Ralph is undeniably the “Cassandra” of the film: the old man warning the young people about their impending doom. Like the mythical Cassandra of Ancient Greece, he is doomed to know the future and not to be believed.   Within the context of Friday the 13th, he is also, however, a conservative symbol of tradition.  He is the herald (or historian) who warns of danger, and who is ignored by irresponsible, unworried, callow youth.  They believe that tradition and history don’t apply to them; that they are free of those restraints.  Ralph knows this is not the case, but is dismissed as crazy.  

Again, many of these elements have been repeated so often in the formulaic slasher film sub-genre that it’s difficult to look the original Friday the 13th in its original context, before all this stuff – the Cassandra, the storm, the P.O.V. shot – became reflexive and de-rigueur ingredients.  But all these elements exist for a valid reason in Friday the 13th, and generally enhance the film’s sense of anxiety and danger. 

Camp Blood?  Take a left at the grave yard. 

Crazy Ralph: The Cassandra Complex.

Did somebody drown here?
Slasher movies still get a lot of guff, even today, for lacking “socially redeeming features,” and many critics treat Friday the 13th as Exhibit A in that argument. The late Roger Ebert wrote, for instance, that the “primary function” of the teenagers in the F13 films is to “be hacked to death.”

On the contrary, I would argue the primary function of the teenager in films like Friday the 13th is to survive.   

While Mr. Ebert -- a personal and professional hero of mine, by the way -- reflects fondly in his review of Friday the 13th Part II on the innocence of his youth (and the cinema of his teenage years in the 1950s), he fails to acknowledge something important.  The cultural context that gave rise to the slasher format is entirely different from the one he nostalgically describes.  

Friday the 13th and its ilk arise from a teen culture that witnessed the Vietnam War played out bloodily on television news. It arises from a generation that witnessed a U.S. President toppled in the Watergate Scandal. It arises from a generation that saw the Energy Crisis, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, America held hostage by an Islamic regime in Iran, and the brutal madness of Charles Manson and his cult.  

The self-same teen generation saw a U.S. President’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt testify -- straight-faced -- before Congress that America’s natural resources need not be preserved for future generations, since Judgment Day would arrive in this one.  If you also recall some some of the pervasive cultural fears of nuclear apocalypse in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, you can see how America by 1980 had traveled a significant distance from Annette Funicello and The Mickey Mouse Club (1955).  

So why would discerning film critics expect the entertainment of 1980–1985 to be identical to the entertainment of 1950–1955?  The world had changed, and entertainment -- as it always does – changed with it.

The important question to ask, instead, is what kind of entertainment arises out of such a roiling, turbulent cultural context?   At the heart of Friday the 13th...what is it really about?

Consider that in these slasher films, the best and brightest teenagers battle for survival.  Many teenagers die, it’s true, but a handful of the smartest triumph over seemingly insurmountable, nay supernatural, odds.  

Even better, the slasher format -- Friday the 13th films included -- universally champion a very specific brand of hero: the final girl.  

This character archetype is female, obviously, but also smarter, more insightful, and more courageous than her peers of both sexes.  While those peers smoke weed or indulge in pre-marital sex, the Final Girl has instead detected that something in the world is not quite right; that something is off-kilter. While her friends waste time on momentary pleasures, she becomes clued-in to the fact that the world is a dangerous and troublesome place. She starts to "see" the world's dangers (as I enumerated them in above paragraphs...), and devises a life-saving response.

So where critics such as Zina Klapper argue that slasher films champion and actually “induce” violence against women, I’d again argue the contrary point.   Based on the cast dynamics of the Friday the 13th films alone, these movies are equal opportunity offenders in terms of murders, yet pro-woman in terms of survival.  

In other words, the slasher films kill a whole lot of teens of both sexes, but offer, almost universally, one type of survivor: the smart and resourceful female.

This is certainly the case with Alice in Friday the 13th.  She has no recourse but to trust herself -- and her instincts -- on the night of the attack.  No man comes to rescue her, or to sweep her off her feet.  She can rely on nothing beyond her own personal qualities.  Not government (Watergate), not the military (Vietnam), and not corporate interests (Three Mile Island).  

In the end, Alice gets locked in mortal combat with another woman, Mrs. Voorhees, and that's significant too.  How many times in horror movie history have women been afforded the role of primary hero and primary villain in a single work of art?  Sure Mrs. Voorhees is certifiably bonkers, but she is an example of a person who saw something in the world she didn't like and sought to change it.  She is thus the dark reflection of an assertive final girl like Alice.  Accordingly, I can’t see how this movie fits the established party line about misogyny and horror flicks.

Final Girl

Final Monster

When I look back at Friday the 13th, I do see a cheap exploitation film, to be certain.  It's a step down from the artistry and vision of Halloween, for instance.  Yet Friday the 13th undeniably speaks to a specific historical context. Given that historical context I described above, is it so surprising, so morally corrupt that one generation’s entertainment of choice concerns a crucible of survival in which only the clever, the moral, the resolute and the resourceful manage to survive an apocalyptic world that seems stacked against them?  Where evil always resurfaces, even if in a new form? 

Slasher movies don’t make audiences meaner, as Janet Maslin asserted in a column in The New York Times.  They simply take the real world of the 1980s as it already was and demonstrate to teens that they can survive it, given the right skill set. 

Impressively, that skill set is associated not with stereotypical male qualities or even with men at all, but with young, intelligent women.

I can’t legitimately argue that all slasher movies are well-done or social valuable.  Some are dreck.  

But I’ve always felt it was wrong to lump in the first Friday the 13th with the mountains of dreck because it features some visually accomplished moments, a smattering of interesting symbolism, and -- not the least of all -- it conforms to the slasher format’s most noble conceit by reminding kids (and particularly girls) that even if the Boogeyman is at the door (in the form of the Cold War or anything else), they can survive.  

And they can do so with the qualities they already possess in spades, namely intelligence and insight.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Twilight Zone Day: "Nick of Time"

"Nick of Time" is a Richard Matheson story, and one of my all-time favorite installments of the 1959-1964 Rod Serling series, The Twilight Zone. There are flashier shows, there are scarier shows, but I really enjoy how ambiguous this story is.

"Nick of Time" is the story of Don S. Carter (William Shatner) and his new wife, Pam (Patricia Breslin). Their car has broken down on their honeymoon trip to New York, and the couple is forced to make a pit stop for repairs in the sleepy little town of Ridgeview, Ohio. 

It is there, in the Busy Bee Diner, that this couple will -- according to narrator Serling -- find "a gift most humans will never receive," the ability to "learn the future." 

Why? Well, because this town and this diner rests on "the outskirts" of The Twilight Zone.

Our central character Don is an interesting guy, and Shatner's performance here is one of his best. Don's the superstitious type, with a rabbits foot on his key chain right beside a four-leaf clover. He is given to expressing himself in phrases such as "keep your fingers crossed." 

"It's like you married an alcoholic" he admits to Pam in one of his more lucid moments, aware of how superstitious he really is.

But on now to Don's unusual nemesis. It's a rinky-dink napkin dispenser with a Devil Bobblehead perched on top. It's the "one cent" "Mystic Seer," a fortune telling-device that for one penny will read you your future. It does so by ejecting little cards that cryptically answer yes or no questions.

Sounds harmless enough, right?

Not so fast...

First, the machine accurately predicts that Don will get the promotion he's been waiting for. 

Then it reports that the couple's car will not take four hours to be repaired, as was told the couple.

 Don grows ever more convinced that the "gizmo" is actually telling him his future. "Why was it so specific?" He asks Pam. "Every answer seems to fit," he insists. 

Pam isn't so sure.

And then things get really spooky. Don asks the machine if something will happen to the couple if they leave town. The answer: "if you move soon." 

He then asks, "should we stay here?" 

The answer: "that makes a good deal of sense." 

Finally, Bob interprets a message from the Devil Bobblehead to mean that he and Pam shouldn't leave the diner until after 3:00 pm that afternoon.

Pam objects and forces Don to leave the diner. At one minute to three, on the street outside, they are nearly run over by a speeding car...

Convinced and stubborn, Don returns to the diner and begins asking the Mystic Seer more questions, even though Pam begs him not to. "You made up all the details, and all that thing did is give back generalities," she tells him. 

He still won't leave. Not until his new wife tells him that the machine is running his life, and that she can't be married to a man who "believes more in luck and fortune" than in himself.

Don and Pam escape this trap, what Serling terms "the tyranny of fear and superstition," but in the episode's final shot, we see that another couple isn't so lucky. "Can we ask some more questions today?" They ask the machine.

"Do you think we might leave Ridgeview today?"

"Is there any way out?"

So again, in the most wonderful and entertaining terms imaginable, The Twilight Zone has presented us with a morality play of sorts, one about human nature.

Yet what's so enjoyable about "Nick of Time" is that we don't know whether Don is right (and the Devil machine is predicting the future), or if, in fact, he's merely superstitious and all the right answers are mere "coincidence" as Pam suggests. 

The ultimate point is, I suppose, what you choose to believe in: fear or hope. You can choose to believe that you are small and in danger; or you can take control of your life and face the hardships with strength,  and with the ones you love at your side.

Beyond a fortune telling device that may or may not be supernatural, there is no overt fantastical element in this installment of the Twilight Zone and yet it is oddly effective, and affecting despite this fact. 

Visually, it's assembled in clever fashion by director Richard Bare. The first shot of the episode is a wobbly view from a tow truck bed, looking down from a high angle at the car being towed, with Don and Pam inside. This is an important view, because it establishes right from the beginning of the episode that Don is not "driving" his life (nor his car). He's simply being pulled in one direction or another, towed by his fear and superstition.

Later, when the couple first enters the Busy Bee Diner with the Devil Bobblehead/Mystic Seer, the camera views Don and Pat from the far side of a lattice-work room separator/divider, a sort of visual frame-within-a-frame signifying entrapment or doom. 

This same camera set-up recurs at several important moments in the show. 

The first time, we view two other local residents in thrall to the Mystic Seer at the dining booth, also through this "entrapment" lens (the criss-cross frame of the lattice).

Finally, when Pam encourages Don to summon his inner courage, the shot has changed to reflect their strength. The lattice wall is no longer between camera and character -- a visual obstacle and blockade -- but rather behind the characters. They have escaped the trap. They have moved literally past it.

I also get a kick out of the extreme (and I mean, EXTREME) close-up shots of the Devil Bobblehead, always jittering ever so slightly but nonetheless playing his Satanic cards close to the vest. He's an interesting villain because he's inanimate and yet we "impose" some sense of fear or personality on him.

If it were just a napkin dispenser, minus the Bobblehead, this episode wouldn't work nearly so well.

Shatner's performance is so good because he plays a character suffering from a lack of confidence. That's funny, given that he's the guy who plays Captain Kirk, but I would argue that even there, in Star Trek, that's the quality that makes the character work so well. Kirk is a human being, a leader of men, but he still second guesses himself ("Balance of Terror") or fears losing his job ("The Ultimate Computer"). 

Watching early Shatner performances you get a sense at how deft the actor is in playing a likable yet vulnerable character. He doesn't quite reach the heights of hysteria in "Nick of Time" that he would achieve later in "A Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," but the script calls for different things. I really like Shatner in this kind of every man persona. To me, he represents the perfect 1960s young male: a self-aware, intelligent, resourceful, JFK-type with just enough self doubt and neurosis to make him thoroughly disarming.

I find it fascinating that Shatner's two Twilight Zones and one Outer Limits ("Cold Hands, Warm Heart") place the actor in the thick of a couple relationship in crisis. He's always playing a husband dealing with something terrible, and trying to convince his wife that he isn't insane. Gremlins on planes, Venusians on "Project Vulcan," or a fortune telling machine that may be the Devil Himself. 

40 Years Ago Today: Conan the Barbarian (1982)

“Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this: Conan, des...